Going into Qimen I had a mission. I had once had a hong so rich, sweet and smooth, that I never forgot it and never found anything as good. This was my white whale.
For this section of my travel I was joined by Jelmer van der Dussen. You can visit his blog for great videos and photos.
We met up in the Huangshan train station and headed to Qimen. Being two tea drinking foreigners in China we had a lot to talk about right away. This is his forth time in China and has a deeper understanding of the language which made some conversations a lot easier. (Though I will say when it came to using translating apps, I had a thing or two to teach him).
We went to arrived in Qimen and found our way into a teahouse. What followed was a series of red tea drinking and bilingual, sometimes confusing, conversation with the lady pouring tea. Somewhere in the conversation we were invited to visit their factory. An invitation we happily accepted. We met them the next afternoon in front of their tea shop and the husband drove us to his factory.
Qimen red tea, for those who don’t know, is a relatively new tea. Only invented in the 1700’s it was a factory produced tea from the beginning, unlike most teas which were originally handmade and then fit for factories in order to be mass produced. The tea, which uses the chu ye cultivar, was originally made for export but soon gained popularity within the country.
Being a factory tea, it is often not made by villagers. Instead, the villagers pick the tea then bring it to the factory to sell. When the fresh leaves are brought in they are evalutated and wieght, with a price given on the amount of tea and quality. We witnessed one woman try to argue that her tea was worth more then they were giving her. Her shouting fits were often broken up by laugher suggesting this is a regular part of the business.
The tea is then wilted to remove initial moisture, rolled to break the cell membrane, and then put into baskets to ferment. For this step it is important for the tea maker to control the environment as much as possible. A tarp is thrown over the baskets to keep some moisture in, the humidity of the surrounding environment is controlled as well.
After the tea is fermented it is baked. They use the same sort of machine used for mao feng kill green step to bake the tea, a giant swirling washing machine like machine, which makes sense seeing how Qimen is located near Huangshan; and before this produced red tea, it produced green tea.
Once the tea leaves are sufficiently dried they go under a shape making step. For this factory this step is done by hand. We were witnessing the making of Hong Song Luo, a red tea with a sprial shape based off of Bi Luo Chun. A few ladies sat at woks and rolled the leaves in a style that was clearly borrowed from Bi Luo Chun. The tea is then baked again to remove any last moisture. After the factory we visited the fields.
The fields were a short drive away near the village where the pickers lived. Unlike other regions where the fields were in one area, these fields seamed to be spread out more. Small gardens were scattered among miles of mountain woods. We only saw the lower ones, but pointing at the mountain side the factory owner said there were more in higher elevations.
After a trip to the fields we returned to the shop. We had tried many teas by now and while they were becoming more and more delicious, none of them were hitting the mark of what I was looking for. Then my friend noticed a small clear tin with some leaves in it. “Hmm, that one is broken up” I nodded for a second and then a light bulb went off in my head. The owner of the shop went into a fridge looking shelf I had noticed earlier and took out a small bag. He said this was an award winning kung fu hong cha from a few years ago. I began tapping with excitement, this was the tea.
It is first important to understand that there are a few different types of hong cha. I will link to Tea Drunk’s red tea education page for the full list, but one of the most notible ones in kung fu red tea. This tea is broken up into small bits. Anyone who has followed my work must now begin to understand the importance of shape, this case is no different. The second J mentioned the leaves being broken up I realized why I hadnt found what I was looking for, I wasnt looking at the right tea. Kung fu red tea is broken up into small peices, which makes the flavor stronger. Unlike full leaf teas that provide a smoother and sometimes more complex flavor, broken up teas are bolder and a lot stronger. When a tea is too broken up it can be too strong and too bitter, but in the case of kung fu red tea they are broken to a size that makes the flavor bold but keep the smooth sweetness of red tea. While this particular one wasnt as good as the one I was thinking, it was very deep and rich and I had deffiently had my final prize in sight.
The shop owners only had a few hundred grams of this tea and they loved it as much as I did so it wasnt for sale, but they were generous enough to give us both one pao. When I asked they said this tea was hard to make and expensive, so they did not make it casually. If all goes well I will commission a batch next year.