Heicha Deep Dive
Heicha, often translated as dark tea, is category of tea production that began in the Ming Dynasty and matured into its modern form during the late Qing Dynasty. It is typified as tea which has undergone prolonged microbial fermentation. By the late Qing Dynasty, heicha was widely produced in Sichuan, Yunnan, Anhui, Hubei, Hunan, Shaanxi, and Guangxi for sale on China’s Western and Northern Frontiers. To this day, savory milk tea brewed from heicha bricks remains an important beverage and source of vitamins in Tibet and Mongolia. Heicha, milky or not, was rarely consumed by Han Chinese in China Proper, even in core growing regions such as Chibi or Anhua. In recent decades, as living standards on Mainland China and Taiwan have improved, interest in heicha has grown. There was especially an explosion of interest in Puer at the end of the 1990s, followed by a similar “fever” for Anhua Heicha in the 2000s and early 2010s. As total yields have all more than tripled in Yunnan, Hunan, and Sichuan, key heicha producing provinces, dark tea production nationally has kept pace with oolong and red tea. According to the 2018 “Blue Book of Tea Industry,” heicha as category of production represented 12.75% of all tea grown in China, second only to green tea.
Despite the proliferation of dark tea kiosks and a fair amount of associated weight-loss marketing throughout China, Western tea drinkers have largely not had access to dark teas besides Puer, Anhua Fuzhuan, and Anhua Qianlong. Some English language discussions can already be found on Puer terroir or Anhua’s labor intensive processing. Below we will introduce two processing styles and regions equally deserving of exposition: Yaan Zangcha and Chibi Heicha.
Yaan has a disputed claim on being the first place in China where dark tea processing matured. Today located in Sichuan Province, Yaan City was once part of the same administrative region as much of Tibet and the dark tea there has traditionally been produced for consumption in Tibetan communities throughout inland China. There is record of Zangcha, or Tibetan tea, being produced in this region as early as the Tang Dynasty. Initially, dark tea was an accidental result of the long duration of shipping between Yaan and the hinterlands. Green and Yellow tea picked on the outer rim of the Sichuan Basin would undergo microbial fermentation as repeated exposure to wind, rain, and sun assaulted the tea packed on horse-drawn carts or porters’ backs. When the tea arrived at its destination, it was already black. This fact was first attested to in written record during the 16th Century, at which time there were already large-scale state efforts at developing Yaan dark tea, including a local ban on the private selling of then just emerging Hunanese dark tea.
By the end of the Qing Dynasty, around 200 different factories were making the tea that would now be recognized as Yaan Zangcha. Depending on the final quality required, tea would be picked any time between Qingming (early April) and Bailu (Mid-September). Just as with all other Chinese teas, the earliest picks were most prized and priced accordingly. The picked tea was then piled and allowed to ferment at temperatures between 50 and 75 degrees Celcius. It was then sorted, removing as many of the stems and non-tea elements as possible before being dried and ultimately pressed in a cake, brick, or tuocha mold. Mechanization later assisted this basic process, allowing for more rigorous temperature control and faster sorting.
Since the 1950’s, Yaan Zangcha has been largely centralized in state-owned, and now partially stated owned factories within Yaan City. Maocha is however now shipped in from across Sichuan and even Hunan. In 2007, as the Anhua Fever was just getting started, Yaan Zangcha made up more than 40% of all the “border tea” in China, with more than 60% of it going to Tibet. In Tibet, the tea’s superior ability to mix with the butter and milk (when compared to Puer and Green tea samples) has been documented in one CCTV documentary. That documentary was just one example of how official promotion in terms of certifications, tea competitions, media programs, and tourist events has helped to maintain Yaan Zangcha’s market position in the face of new competition. To this day, the savory milk tea consumed in Tibet that is made from this tea is boiled in a pot and consumed throughout the day. It is seldom enjoyed grandpa style or in a gaiwan. Some drinkers mix in dates, toasted grains, goji berries, flowers, and of course salt.
Heicha in Hubei started later than it did in Sichuan, yet it was at once one of the most recognizable teas exported to Mongolia, Russia, and later the New World. Initially, this heicha took the form of Brick tea bearing the (川) “chuan” label, which was sold at the Hankou tea market in what is now Wuhan. 60% of Chinese produced tea was exported from Hankou in the second half of the 1800’s. Heicha alongside red tea from Hunan, Jiangxi, and Yichang was much of what was exported. Chibi, also known as Red Cliff, was the place where Hubei’s heicha production began.
In 1736, Lei Zhongwan was the merchant credited with opening the first heicha tea factory in Chibi. A chronicle of his life, the Biography of Duke Zhongwan, records that brick tea was already being produced at Yangloudong, the Chibi township where he established his factory. This brick tea became known as Laoqingzhuang, made from large leaves that were unsuitable for green tea production. These leaves were dried in the sun, fried until soft, kneaded, and piled until those on the top of the pile turned orange and those in the middle darkened to the color of ‘pig liver.’ The tea pile was then turned inside out, until color and fermentation was relatively even. Finally, the tea would be spread outdoors for another round of sun-drying, at which point the leaves would be considered finished maocha. At this point the tea could be sold loose, or pressed into its usual final product, Laoqingzhuan. These bricks were sometimes only finally pressed in Hankou, and were anywhere from 1.5 to 2.5 kilograms in weight.
Firmly pressed in wooden molds and wrapped in thick kraft paper, these bricks were ideal for low-tech transport and long term single purchases by Mongolian herdsmen, caravan traders, or deep sea sailors. Just like with Yaan Zangcha, this tea was boiled and usually consumed with dairy and topped with cooked grains and sometimes fruit. At the turn of the 20th Century, Laoqingzhuan’s relative lack of caffeine and the inherent difficulty in sawing off brewable chunks meant that most Western consumers either bought it pre-ground from middlemen or opted for the cheap blended red tea that was also flowing from Hankou as well as Indian and Kenyan ports. Traditional Laoqingzhuan was still produced for export throughout the 20th Century through a re-organized state enterprise called Zhaoliqiao. Locals in neither Chibi or Hankou seldom ever drank the tea, but many stashed away piles of bricks as an investment, as bricks that aged for a decade or more have a mellower flavor and fetch a higher price.
In recent decades, Chibi Heicha production has remained centralized in the hands of Zhaoliqiao and a handful of other producers, but 90% privatization and a rising Chinese wages has given birth to a new domestic market and a new product line up for the first time. Since the 2000s, aged dark tea was marketed as a health product promising to help one lose weight, improve digestive health, lower blood pressure, and maybe even prevent cancer. New Han Chinese customers were drinking Chibi Heicha in gaiwans or special made glass pots. To the extent that anyone drinks OG Laoqingzhuan, it is usually in pre-seperated chunks or specially designed mini bricks called Chibi Chocolates. The chocolates are often low-cost, younger, and more astringent. They are Chibi’s answer to Yunnan’s Sheng Puer. Aside from the chocolates, Mizhuan, another new domestic product, is an even lower cost red tea brick made from excess Maocha. This new product line up has put Chibi back on the map of Central China’s tea production, and center stage in China’s new wave of tea consumption.