The Production of Black Tea
The evolution of the tea making process of black tea is not clear, but there are some similarities to the oolong making process that was evolving in the lower mountain areas of Wu Yi Shan. It is likely in the beginning Tong Mu tea was closer to oolong, evolving from botched attempts at making green tea. However, the distinct qualities of each region brought about divergent styles of tea making.
The tea undergoes extensive processing, which includes withering, rolling, oxidizing and drying, to create its deep color, satisfying fragrance and full-bodied taste.
Weather conditions are very different between Tong Mu and Wu Yi Shan. At a relatively higher elevation, Tong Mu’s winter is colder and longer. Tea leaves grown here are smaller, but still can stand up to a lot of processing without crumbling. Additionally, the long winter encourages a concentration of amino acids in Tong Mu’s tea, which in combination with the regions mineral rich soil, is responsible for a characteristic sweetness. Even after surviving a lot of exposure to smoke, one can still taste the sweet, fruity character of tea from Tong Mu – a quality that is lost with other leaves that come from other places.
The seasoning of tea by smoke is in its self, a practice brought about by the special circumstances of Tong Mu village. Tong Mu differs from lower Wu Yi Shan not only in ecosystem, but also in economics. Being much poorer and growing more pine than bamboo, tea makers in Tong Mu burned raw timber as a heat source, rather than using the more expensive bamboo charcoal that was commonly used by other tea producing regions.
The production of black tea, like oolong, begins with the withering of fresh leaves. After withering, the tea is manipulated in some way to cause oxidation of the leaf from bruising. In the case of Zhen Shan Xiao Zhong or Lapsang Souchong, this is done by heating the leaves to 60 C to 70 C, stirring them every twenty minutes, and when the leaves are pliable, they are rolled and shaped and then put into wooden boxes to oxidize. When the leaves have changed to a copper color and the veins are red, they are fried in a very hot flat pan at about 200 C for 2 or 3 minutes, and then rolled and shaped again for 5 to 7 minutes until they are tightened. The tea is then put on bamboo baskets and slow roasted over the pine fire heated earthen ovens for 8 to 10 hours.
It is not correct to think the first black tea, the smokey Zhen Shan Xiao Zhong, is dried over an open fire. Their smokey quality is derived from the earthen ovens of Tong Mu village. The oven’s design warms the ground of an enclosed space that is floored with rocks to provide radiant heat. These ovens leak a certain amount of smoke, the best of these ovens leaking the least amount of smoke. But even the really well made ovens cannot contain the smell from the pine fires heating them. Inside the ovens, the racks made to hold the trays of tea have turned black with smoke. The smell of the building is enough to make the tea stored their smoky tasting, but when a stronger smoke flavor is sought, ovens are adjusted to leak more smoke. The ovens are large compared to the small bamboo charcoal roasting baskets used for making oolong, so much so that three-story tea making houses have been built upon these ovens.
Other Black Tea Producing Regions
There is a direct chain of inheritance of black tea making culture, starting with the Zhen Shan Xiao Zhong of Tong Mu Village in Wu Yi Shan in Northern Fujian, to Qimen in Anhui, and Dian Hong in Yunnan.
The origins of Qimen (Keemun) is also controversial. The popular story is that Yu Gan Cheng started Qimen production in 1875 or 1876. He had been an official in Fujian, perhaps had spent time in Wu Yi Shan, and moved to the Qimen area to try his hand at black tea making. In 1916, however, a Department of Agriculture magazine gave the credit to Hu Yuan Long from Qimen. Which ever is true, the date is not questioned.
The Huang Shan area already well-known for green tea and tea making techniques that emerged into the roots of modern tea making after the radical change in the Ming Dynasty when cakes were banned, produced a flavorful bush called Zhu Ye Zhang. This was the bush used to become the source of Qimen tea, the only black tea to become a famous Chinese tea. Sweet and spicy quality led it to become a favorite of Queen Victoria.
Finally in 1938, Feng Shao Qiu came from Qimen to work for the newly formed Yunnan China Tea Trading Company and along with Fan He Jun, he evaluated Menhai and Feng Qing for the source of tea leaves to make black tea from. They settled on the Feng Qing area and in 1939 opened the Yun Hong factory there. In 1940 they changed the name to Dian Hong. The sweetness and beautiful color of this tea is renowned and still provides the key tea in the Asian Lipton blend. In 1989 the English provided the factory with it’s CTC machinery, prior to that the tea was made in the traditional way.
It should be noted that Robert Fortune, the famous Scottish tea spy for the English, that penetrated China dressed as Chinese, traveled to Wu Yi Shan in a sedan chair. He brought tea seeds and cuttings which were planned in the Darjeeling area, but he did not learn the deepest secrets of tea making. It took the English 20 years to get a drinkable crop.
Still today the Chinese black teas are very different from the international black teas. Chinese black tea has a remarkable sweetness, and are very unlikely to become bitter. Black tea drinking, in the last few years, has increased in China as modernity exposes the Chinese population to a group of its own teas that had only recently seen appreciation on the international market.