ORT - Red Tea Processing Deep Dive

 

 Basic Definition

Red tea is the category of tea processing which has been dominant in the world since the 19th Century, yet has been a major facet of the domestic Chinese market only for the last thirty years. Chemically speaking, red tea, unlike green tea, is the result of more full oxidization. According to contemporary understanding, the polyphenol oxidases in the tea leaf are not quickly neutralized by heat during red tea production. As they become activated, these compounds lead to the browning of the leaf and a series of chemical reactions augmenting caffeine content and flavonoid expression. All red tea processing by definition allows for such oxidization to occur. This usually starts with with artificial bruising/crushing, is followed by an extended period of open air oxidization (called fermentation in some literature), and then finishes with drying/baking to finalize the product before sorting and packaging.

 

General History of Chinese Red Tea Processing

Unlike green tea, yellow tea, and white tea, the history of black tea production is relatively short and the origin point is not a matter of controversy. It is generally agreed that the first red tea was Lapsang Souchong (Zhengshan Xiaozhong), forming as a distinct production style sometime around 1610 in Wuyishan’s Tongmuguan. An origin story later attributed to Lapsang  says that a group of wandering soldiers may have accidentally played a role in the first batch of red tea. The legend goes that the soldiers stomped or even sleep on tea leaves laid out to cool in a tea farmer’s home. When the soldiers had left and the tea farmer came out from hiding, the farmer found the ruined leaves. Looking to cut his losses, the poor man dried the tea and took it all to market. The crushed tea turned out to be an instant hit and Lapsang Souchong was thus born. This red tea was first referred to as “Oo tea,” meaning black tea. Regardless of whether or not this legend is true, someone in Tongmuguan did invent Lapsang Souchong and by the end of the 1600’s red tea was recognized as a distinct processing style produced exclusively in Fujian Province.

Red tea was an export commodity from even its earliest years. By the middle of the 18th Century, traders in Foochow(Fuzhou) and Amoy(Xiamen) were already shipping off Lapsang Souchong to Dutch and British traders. By then, consumer access was already widespread. Historical research has indicated that access to Fujian’s red tea was already affordable enough that even Dutch orphanages at that time were counting teapots and teaware among the possessions of even the country’s most destitute. This was possible thanks to the mass imitation of red tea processing that spread from Wuyishan all the way down to the Fujianese coast. Back when a journey up the Min River was still perilous and long for Amoynese traders, there was good incentive to bring production closer to the ports. Competition began between the original Tongmuguan producers of red tea and the imitators that were outside of the initial growing area. The market name that the former used to distinguish their product from the latter was “True Mountain Xiaozhong,” the name that is still carries in Mandarin Chinese today.

By the Middle of 19th Century, as Indian tea production was still finding its footing, established tea growers outside of Fujian were eager to meet the seemingly endless foreign demand for red tea. These were to be variously called “Gongfu teas,” ostensibly a denoting the more labor-intensive processing methods that were developed at tea factories in places like Huizhou and Anhua. Regardless of what actual differences may have existed in processing technique, these were regionally distinct products using local tea tree varietals and branding. The pioneering factories that first marketed Ninghong(Xiushui, Jiangxi), Huhong (Anhua, Hunan), Yihong (Yichang, Hubei), and Qimen (Huizhou, Anhui) did not want to be seen as merely a new wave of Lapsang imitators. There is no hard list of first wave Gongfu red teas, although the four mentioned above were already being marketing before the end of the 19th Century. 1979’s “Famous Teas of China names Qimen as “the most outstanding” of these Gongfu teas. Other historic Gongfu styles include: Taihong (Taiwan), Yuehong (Shaoxing, Zhejiang), Bailin (Fuding, Fujian), and Tanyang (Fuan, Fujian). All of these styles in name at least can still be found in the domestic market today.

By the 1920’s, Chinese red tea, while still overwhelmingly produced for export, was being thoroughly out-competed by the product that came from tea estates in colonial India and Kenya. Mechanized methods of bruising and shredding were patented in England and disseminated throughout the British Empire, allowing for increased labor efficiency and quality standardization. British colonial producers also benefited from the large scale of production and unified form of management inherent in estate ownership. Chinese producers were not ignorant of their relative backwardness. Tea experts like Wu Juenong went abroad to learn about new processing techniques. When he came back, the republican government supported his efforts to develop new quality standards for export in places like Shanghai and new technical training for producers in Jiangxi and Anhui. Internal civil war and corrupt administration hindered these efforts, but the Republican Era (1911-1949) did still see some critical innovations. Tea cooperatives in Fuding, producing both white and red tea for export, showed a new way to scale up production without dispossessing tea farmers of their land. Dianhong, originally called Yunhong, was first developed in the late 1930’s, just as Japan came to occupy many of China’s major tea ports. The red tea-oriented research stations set up in Guizhou and Fujian would also become major centers of varietal development and technical extension after the end of the Civil War.

 

Between 1949 and 1959, existing tea factories were all gradually nationalized and smaller workshops were launched by new collective organizations. The resulting expansion of domestic production and consumption was largely limited to green tea. The new city, county, commune, and even college-operated tea farms made green tea, whereas red tea was in general only produced by the largest nationalized factories, especially those that had preexisting experience. Red tea was nonetheless “modernized.”Soviet technicians and a new generation of Chinese agronomists were set to work in optimizing the production of blended black tea for export. The changes were immense. Lapsang Souchong lost its distinctive smokey taste as electric ovens replaced fireside drying; handmade bruising and shredding became fully mechanical affairs. Although oldstyle Lapsang and the Gongfu teas never completely disappeared, new tea regions took center stage. In 1979, at the end of the collective era, Zhuang Wanfang made this appraisal: “The best quality red teas are Yunnanese Dianhong, Sichuan red tea, and the tea of Yingde County Guangdong.” Although brand names have changed, these blended and bagged teas are still available for export.

 

With rising incomes and the end of state tea distribution system, Chinese red tea has experienced a radical transformation in the past thirty years. A new boutique domestic market for black tea opened up. These new Chinese consumers tended to prefer full-leaf teas, lower oxidization, minimal bitterness, a good story. The now privatized tea factories developed new products to meet these tastes. Lichuanhong and Jinjunmei are excellent examples of the new generation of boutique red teas. Both only came into final form in the past twenty years, but both these teas are associated with a famous historical production area, have a long list of official government endorsements, and are made according to a very specific set of production standards. Genuine, early picks of both these teas can easily go for several thousand RMB per pound. Teas like these remain far too expensive for the international tea market, with the exception of a very small handful of boutique consumers. What gets exported instead is still blended and bagged bits and ends of the Lipton variety. There is however also now a considerable volume of middle-grade red tea produced by smaller cooperatives and household farms that is affordable but still relatively boutique. Red teas like this are now being produced in virtually ever tea growing region and serve as an important secondary product from green, oolong, and dark tea producers.

 

The Tea Box 

Our goal with this box is to connect boutique consumers abroad with a rich variety of middle grade red teas from across China. The Osmanthus black tea in this set is perhaps the least unchanged from its historical antecedents. The complete leaves of this sample do however set it above some of the product on the international market. The Qimen in this set is nontraditional in its spiral shape; the Lichuanhong is processed from a mix of non-standard varietals and is thus unable to produce its characteristic clouding effect when cooled. The Dianhong and Jinjunmei in this sample are unusual for their respective origin points. The former was produced from ancient trees in Northern Laos, a new frontier in Dianhong production; and the latter was made in Enshi, hundreds of miles from the officially designated growing area. Neither technically satisfy the government definitions of these teas, but they are both nonetheless delicious and unique. Almost as tasty is the Lapsang Souchong in this sampler. It is an excellent example of  contemporary Lapsang’s new neutral flavor. This tea is neither especially bitter nor especially sweet, nor does it taste anything remotely like the smokey tea of questionable provenance that can still be purchased in grocery stores abroad. We think at least some of these teas will find a place in the heart of international boutique consumers.

 

Alexs Nots So Scientific Tasting Notes

Tea

Aroma

Taste

Leaves

Misc.

Lapsang

Souchong

Citrus; bubblegum

Neutral; unsweet: not bitter.

Dark “narly” curls.

-Balls of Hao(down) present in the bag.

Osmanthus

Overwhelming

floral smell.

Overwhelming;

floral taste

Visible flowers.

-Pleasant throat sensation

Qimen

Wet hay;

sweet potato.

Earthy; mild bitterness

Spiral-curls;

visible Hao.

 

Laos Dianhong

Wood

Chalky; thick mouthfeel.

Thick stems;

larger leaves.

 

Lichuanhong

Not much

Slightly too green

Very small;

visible Hao.

-No characterstic Lenghouhun

Jinjunmei

Sweet potato

Sweet potato; fantastic Huigan.

Very small;

golden.

-Not grown is historic growing area.

 

 


1 comment

  • Excellent overview of the history of red tea in China!

    David Poskin

Leave a comment