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First Anhua Trip

First Anhua Trip

 

Anhua is definitively one of the most exciting places in China we have visited. These last few days I have experienced a kind of euphoria and confusion that I think would be comparable only to a prolonged religious experience. We saw dark tea mostly, but much less than one would expect to find in the heicha capital of the universe. We got to check out obscure brewing and production methods that are completely unique to this branch of the Wuling Mountains; we also got a much fuller picture of the local heicha than we did coming in. I hope I can convey a fraction of the excitement we have experienced in the coming pages.

 

Anhua Heicha: A Brief Introduction

Heicha production has been going on in China for well over 1000 years. Dark tea paraphernalia found in late Han era tombs at the Mawangdui Site kindled new interest in a tea that had long been treated as having little more cultural content than the salt or toasted millet that joined it in Mongolian herders’ morning tea cups. In the 1970’s and 80’s, at the time of these initial archaeological discoveries, dark tea was only consumed in the borderland communities of Qinghai, Tibet, Xinjiang, and Mongolia, and almost always as a milk tea.

 

The well known varieties of Anhua pressed tea, Fuzhuan, Heizhuan, Huazhuan and Qianliang were all extent before the 1970s, with Fuzhuan being the best seller, as it remains today. All of these styles were made from local leaves of the Daquntizhong varietal, and followed the basic process of pan frying or boiling in a farmers’ home, prolonged piling on a concrete floor, and then pressing at a factory, either at the Commune or County level. How the Hei Maocha was then processed at these factories determined the final product. Leaves needed to be finely cut and tightly pressed if the final product was intended to be Heizhuan or loosely pressed for Fuzhuan; Heizhuan and Huazhuan needed to be dried first then packaged, while Fuzhuan was slowly dried in its final packaging to encourage the growth of the famous Jinhua “golden flower” fungus. Almost all of this remains true today. Now, also there is more attention given in differentiating the material sourced for each of these products, more lightly packed and completely loose Tianjian being produced, and far less of the stems that were once thought to be essential in maintaining oxygen flow, sweetness, and fungus growth.

 

Who and how these different teas are consumed have changed a lot since the 1970s. In the twentieth century, if an Anhua resident drank dark tea at all, it would a single infusion done in a ceramic or metal mug. Such infusions were more for quality control than for personal enjoyment, and were undertaken only by a handful of specialized dark tea producers. The vast majority of Anhua residents, like most Han Chinese, did not drink dark tea until only the last twenty years. In these years, dark tea has made its way onto the shelves of high-end tea houses, weight loss centers, beauty parlors, and even some pharmacies. Dark tea’s ability, real or not, to improve digestion, immunity to infection and cancer, and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease has been heavily promoted. Dark Tea Fever, Heicha Re, fully infected the Chinese tea and health markets in the first half of the 2010’s. These new dark tea believers, largely middle-aged and elderly Han Chinese women, came to prefer either boiling the dark tea in kyusu-style kettle or gongfu-style in gaiwans. The OG Mongolian or Tibetan styles of consumption are scarcely enjoyed outside the respective ethnic minority regions.

 

What then have normal people and tea farmers in Anhua been drinking all this years? Anhua produces a significant quantity of standard Chinese green tea called Songzhen and the ever ill-defined Hunnanese Huhong red tea. Zhang Wanfang’s 1979 Classic Teas of China, records the following: “Since the Opium Wars, a significant amount of red tea has been exported from Guangzhou from comprador merchants to American and British corporations. Many of these compradors turned inland to Anhua for cheap source materials and big profits. Anhua [Maocha] was processed into “Huhong” and sold as a Gongfu red tea. At one point it came to represent 1/4th of all Chinese red tea exports, and led to the commercial slogan “tea across the Pacific Ocean seldom doesn’t bear the name Anhua. ” Neither Songzhen or Huhong are what many tea farmers themselves in Anhua traditionally consumed, but the former now has a place at the table of some local restaurants. 

As we were brewing up the gazillonth cup of bricked dark tea at the Liaoxian workshop in Dafu Township, I asked the owner what kind of tea they grew up drinking. According to her, they drink a very light “green” tea that breaks all the rules: 农家茶, literally farmer (house) tea.After dinner, we got to meet this tea. It is made by taking raw tea leafs, flash boiling them, hand kneading them while still hot, and then either drying them under the sun or over a gentle fire of "maple" seedpods (see picture two). That’s it. As you might expect, drying it over a fire makes the final product kinda smoky, but both methods make an incredibly light tea. This lightness is compensated by its unique brewing style, in a bowl with sesame, peanuts, or toasted rice. With each sip, one needs to blow down on the bowl and kick up the tea leaves and other ingredients up to the surface so some can be sucked down with the broth. When tea time is over, everyone’s bowls are empty. Chewing on the tender tea leaves certainly gives the kick that the broth lacks. This is what the growers picked for themselves in the weeks between the first flush and Guyu, and it is quite different from anything we have experienced on the Chinese, let alone international tea market today.

 

As for the Heicha made still made in Anhua on a massive scale, we heard two very different narratives from two very different sellers on what makes a good Heicha. The Liaoxian sisters, who broadcast nightly over Tiktok from their workspace near their childhood home in Dafu Township, say the most decisive factor in dark tea production is raw leaves. Their audience is relatively small, usually numbering just in the teens or dozens, but the million RMB in sales they have generated is testament to their position in the dark tea retail market. The daughters of tea pickers who never produced dark tea themselves, they emphasize that only leaves picked around Guyu (the second half of April), with minimal stems, within the Anhua growing region and using the local Daqunti varietal should be made into dark tea. The 100 mu of tea fields they have “bought” from the village produces tea that meets all these requirements. They do not have their own processing facility, but they do collaborate with different factories and oversee the piling and pressing processes. Most of what they sell however comes from other high-end producers in the area, and almost all of it is pressed. Aged loose Heicha has been a market force for well over a decade, but the Liaoxian sisters strictly advocate for pressed teas. They hold that only dry storage following the established pressing processes for Tianjian, Heizhuan, Fuzhuan, and Huazhuan can make the “new” dark tea that they sell.

Master Xiang, the proprietor and lead processor at the Qiwanshun factory located near Jiulongchi, had a very different perspective on dark tea. He started making dark tea in 2008, about a decade before Liaoxian and the newest wave of online retail sellers took off. We met him at his storefront in Dongping, Anhua’s County Seat, after visiting shop after shop that had already shuttered there doors, some for the season, some forever. He had tried to make dark tea in every shape and size, pressed or loose, early picks and late picks. His shop was in that sense a sort of museum of recent dark tea history, ranging from massive Qianliangs and 50 pound chests of Tianjian to kitschy little single-infusion packets and mini-cakes. His second storefront down the street had been converted into a Mahjong parlor following the decline of tea tourism that he says started as early as 2016.

 

Xiang, like many, initially got into dark tea for its alleged health benefits, and puts the greatest emphasis on tea’s aging. Although he did not have any left to sell, he personally enjoys 10+ year aged Tianjian and loose leaf dark tea. The samples of such tea I enjoyed with him were, literally and figuratively speaking, some of the dankest tea I have ever had. Every sip was smooth mossy damp goodness. Knowing his preferences, it is not surprising that his perspective is that the looser packed the leaf and the moister the environment (within limits), the faster (and better) a tea will develop the 陈味 (old flavor) that he loves in Anhua dark tea. “You age Shengpu for ten years, twenty years, or thirty years and all you will have is Old Sheng, it will never be ripe. Because of how Anhua Heicha is processed and piled, a single tea will go through a much wider range of change in flavor profile over a decade.”

 It is worth mentioning that our two informants on the Anhua Heicha scene here have very different takes on new tea and heizhuan. The Liaoxian Sisters are happy to share their fresh 2022 dark tea. I found their Fuzhuan-style new tea was indeed remarkably fruity despite some sharpness, although the Tianjian variant was peppery and a bit undrinkable to someone like me that usually steers clear of rougher shengpu. The sisters also shared a 2017 Heizhuan they bought from another local friend. They explained to us that Heizhuan is dark tea for people who don’t want to drink dark tea: it is simple, sweet, and totally consistent across infusions. Master Xiang frowned when we suggested we press up some fresh 2023 tea. He looked even more perplexed when we called Heizhuan flat and sweet. In his mind, any Heizhuan ought to be varied across infusions, peaking between the 3rd and 5th round when the astringency drops off and the widest range of other flavors and aromas are still present. To both sides credit, their respective Heizhuans tasted exactly like each seller thought this processing style ought to taste like.   

What heicha then should you invest in, if any? The usual reason someone in China today drinks dark tea is for the alleged health benefits. According to a meta-analysis just published in China Tea, there is solid reason to believe that dark tea does in fact help with gut health, immune system responses to infections, and indeed even cancer[2]. If you too are buying for related health reasons, then Fuzhuan seems to be the the processing style whose health benefits are most strongly attested to in existing literature. If however you are buying heicha purely for the pleasure of heicha, then you should probably go off the well-trodden Fuzhuan path. Older loose leaf and Tianjian samples we tried tasted close to Ripe Puer and have made excellent bedtime teas these last few days. If you want a zesty gongfu session, by all means try a high end new dark tea in any style.

Sources Cited

1. Zhang Wanfang et al. 1979. The Teas of China. Hangzhou: Zhejiang People's Press. [Chinese]

2. Guo Qing, Xie Mingwei, Cai Shuxian, and Liu Zhonghua. 2023. Anhua Heicha de Tiaojie Mianyi Zuoyong. China Tea. 1-13 [Chinese]