October 17, 2012 by bethanjthomas
Last week, I was invited by a local tea magazine to visit the International Anxi Tea Fair as an ‘honoured foreign guest’.
Anxi is a small county directly north of Xiamen, famed as the hometown of tieguanyin (Goddess of the Iron Buddah) oolong tea, which can sell for thousands of pounds per kilo. The town itself has a small (in Chinese terms) population of a million people. Very few of these people are from outside of Fujian, let alone China. Therefore, their ‘international’ tea fair has a distinctly Chinese flavour, with limited numbers of foreigners being able to make the trip into the mountains for the expo.
It was therefore with great surprise that the aforementioned tea magazine unceremoniously dropped me and the one other tea expat in Fuzhou the night before the expo, telling us that they had been unable to arrange transport to take us to the fair.
Undeterred, I dragged my boyfriend (luckily a tieguanyin lover) onto a 7am bus to get us to the town. Since arriving in Fuzhou I’ve been lucky enough to meet many wonderful tea producers from Anxi, and a few phone calls and a 3 hour bus drive later we were set up for lunch, dinner and a tour of some tea gardens and factories.
I was blown away by the sites, smells and sounds of Anxi which is a truly wonderful town. Surrounded by mountains and water, it’s rather uninspiring architecture is easily forgiven. Taxi’s are limited but men with motorbikes will speed you along the streets, zig-zagging in and out of traffic with terrifying ease.
Like Fuzhou, every other shop on the street seems to be a tea shop where families line the streets ‘refining’ (ie. removing the processed leaves from the stalk) tieguanyin. You can find organic, non-organic, floral or heavily roasted oolong. There’s a tea for all budgets, ranging from 50 RMB per 500g up to several thousand RMB for the same quantity.
We were lucky enough to sample some incredible organic floral tieguanyin at an organic tea farm that we visited. The tea had been made on site the day before we arrived. It will sell as ‘mao cha’ (un-refined tea) for 3 thousand RMB to the Chinese government. It’s rich, creamy flavour stayed with us for atleast 30 minutes after drinking. After sneezing whilst we climbed the tea hills, Jake noted that the sneeze had bought the flavour of tieguanyin back to his mouth!
The farm uses incredible methods to ensure its organic status, using goats to eat the weeds around the tea bushes (they won’t eat the tea as the compounds in the leaf are repugnant even to goats), pumping spring water up the hillsides into small cannisters and installing solar panels amongst the bushes to power insect catchers/killers.
The tea trees themselves are not allowed to grow over 30cm tall as the flavour of the leaf will deteriorate if they get taller than this. They are also kept in small ‘clumps’ of bushes rather than in a long continuous terrace, so that if any of the bushes have a problem, they can treat each individually rather than have an entire terrace ruined. The effort put into the farm planning is incredible.
Almost as impressive was the ability of our guide, Wubaolian, to walk up the tea terraces wearing 4 inch stiletto heels. An Anxi native she claims to be unable to wear flat shoes, and effortlessly jumped up the make shift steps that tea pickers have carved into the soil in her Louboutin rip offs. She was outrageously graceful as I clumped up the steps behind her in practical sandals.
The processing of the tea leaves is equally well planned and executed with numerous stages. The leaves are picked in the afternoon when the heat of the sun is not too strong – beginning at any time from 12, until 5pm. After picking the leaves are withered in the sun for 15 minutes or so, before being transferred indoors to continue to wither for another 15 – 20 minutes. The leaves are then rotated in drums and then laid on trays, and this process is repeated over and over for between 1 and 2 hours in the cool evening heat. The leaves are then fired, before they are tightly wrapped in muslin and rolled to give them their unique shape. They are taken out and allowed to dry a little after a short initial rolling, and are then re-rolled and dried 2-3 times depending on the judgement of the producer.
It’s easy to understand how this tea develops such a unique flavour and high price given these exceptional processing methods.
All in all, the 3 days that we spent in Anxi were eye opening. Not only to the technical processing of the leaves that I’ve only read about in books before, but also because of the passion that Anxi people have for their local tea. Not one of the producers that we met would even consider drinking a tea other than tieguanyin – they exclusively drink their hometown’s tea every day, of every year of their lives. That’s brand loyalty that most people would kill for…