The other day I was walking around the tea market with eyes peeled for perspective additions to Daoli. There’s a shop located right in the middle between the two tea houses that I visit very often. Whenever I pass by that place I notice a neat layout of about a dozen different types of black tea and make a mental note that I should check it out someday. But I never did… not until last Sunday.
I was with a couple of friends who came along to stock up on some tea and ware for gifts and personal use. The lady who owned the shop ushered us inside cheerfully and asked what tea we’d like to drink. The shop’s wicker chairs felt very comfortable and so did the massive carved table – the kind of furniture that makes you want to stay and drink until you burst. My friends sat down, but I lingered, taking a better look at the teas in the boxes stacked here and there.
Getting a bunch of samples
As my buddies sipped on their first cups, I called up the shop assistant and asked him to give me about 30-50 grams of each one of those black teas. The lady quickly told the boy to get me some yangpin (free samples in Chinese). I said that I needed a lot and wanted to pay, but she insisted. It turned out that many of those teas were actually very similar, so I only picked seven or eight kinds, which still amounted to at least half a kilo.
As I joined my friends, I noticed that there was a freshly brewed cup of black tea waiting for me. The tea was good, probably one of those that I’d just picked for sampling. After a brief exchange of a few polite words of introduction and general observations about Kunming weather, I asked the owner my standard question: “What special teas do you have?” She smiled and asked her assistant to fetch some tea from the two nearby boxes. One, she said, was the Yunnan variety of dahongpao, and the other was heisonglu, an upscale kind of black.
Red robes and pine trees
She made both and we started tasting. By that time I’d already had at least 10 cups of puer at a previous place, so I had to make every cup count. Fortunately, both teas had some very distinctive features that I was able to pick right away. Just as its name suggested, the Yunnan version of the Big Red Robe did taste and smell somewhat like its average counterparts from Fujian and Taiwan. Its greatest advantage was definitely the price tag: it cost 4-5 times less than the cheapest drinkable “authentic” red robes.
Heisonglu was interesting because even though its leaves were mostly pitch black, it produced a rather light infusion. I asked the owner to write down the name of the tea in Chinese, and it turned out that it’s made up of characters “black”, “pine tree”, and “dew”. Indeed, it was very good black tea with a hue of fresh resin far in the background. The price was quite high for a dianhong, but I bought a couple hundred grams anyway. It was a good call too. When I brewed it again at home, the taste seemed even better, and a standard portion of about 5 grams yielded ten 350 ml cups. I looked up the word heisonglu in my dictionary and found out that it means “truffle”, but there was no way I could connect it with what I had in my cup, so I decided to stick with the “dew from a black pine tree” idea.
The other samples I brought home that day made a good impression too. The two black teas with a base of dark green leaves and golden buds were quite nice. They even had a “smoky” touch to them – something that I usually only see in puers that get a lot of exposure to smoke when dried by fire.
What’s your favourite shape of tea?
Finally, there were four teas that I picked solely for their unconventional looks: Dong Fang Mei Ren tightly pressed into eight-gram rectangles and two black teas shaped like flowers and cones.
That Dong Fang Mei Ren is one of my long-time favourites. I know that the name of this tea can be translated as “eastern beauty”, but, to this day, I can’t say with any degree of certainty what kind of tea it is. So far, I’ve heard four different versions: wulong, yellow, black (aka red), and puer. I guess it depends on each particular tea, since production process can vary quite a bit.
The funnily shaped black teas are a good example of the ever present tendency of tea traders to think of new ways of marketing their products. I’ve seen puer tea pressed into chocolate bars, dianhong shaped into spirals that imitate biluochun green teas, and high-quality tieguanyin stuffed into the paper filter on the bottom of disposable paper cups.
I’m not complaining; it’s actually kind of cute. If anything, I’m the last person who should voice concerns about the inconsistencies in Chinese tea industry. And yet, with all humility in the world, I have to admit that treating black tea like gongyicha (artistic tea in Chinese) is kind of silly. The whole purpose of sewing a bunch of tea leaves and flowers together is to see them open up and admire the resulting bouquet through nearly transparent white tea. Using dianhong as a base tea for blooms poses at least two problems. First of all, soaking black tea for an extended period of time can render it undrinkable. Second, it’s very hard to see anything through the ever-darkening liquid. But then again, who am I to judge…