Fujian Province of China

On the southeast cost of China lies Fujian Province.

Fujian Province China

The Fujian Province of China is an ecologically diverse region of China that makes the perfect home for tea to grow. Located on the southeastern coast of China, Fujian is approximately 46,000 square miles, about the same size as Mississippi. It currently has a population of 38 million, 1 million higher than the state of California (the most populated state in the US). Fujian is home to many Chinese ethnic minorities including the Hui, Miao and Manchu to name just a few. The Silk Road turned Fujian into one of the most culturally diverse regions of China and the mountainous topography allowed the different cultures to settle and remain distinct over the centuries of migration through this area. This amazing mix of diversity in both people and land forms has created a region with diverse tea production and culture.

Terroir of Fujian Province

Fujian has a humid and mild climate, even up in its mountains. The average low temperature is 41°F and the high will get to around 85°F and averages around 40 inches of rain a year. Most of the tea in the Fujian province is grown in the mountains. Mount Wuyi is the most famous mountain in Fujian province and is part of a jagged mountain range that is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Most of the tea are planted on the eastern and northern slopes of this range to get the right mix of fog and sun.

The mild climate also makes this province home to a wide variety of fruits and flowers like bananas, lychee, olives, and jasmine.

History & Culture of Fujian Province

There is a saying in China that says if you travel 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) in Fujian, the culture changes, and if you travel 10 kilometers (6.21 miles) the language changes. This cultural diversity is attributed to the Silk Road, that travels through the entire province. Fujian is one of the oldest provinces, established during the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty (220BCE-206BCE) that has survived many dynasties intact. Its large coast lines created even larger trading ports along the coast and the Silk Road created large trading cities inland and brought in many different cultures.

To give you just a glimpse into the cultural diversity, the Hui are decedents of Arabic and Persian merchants and are one of the largest Muslim communities in China. Their dialect is a mix of Chinese and Persian. The Manchus are descendants of the Jurchen people, who were farming tribes in northern China and Siberia that came south bringing their farming and animal husbandry skills to the rest of China, including goat and cow milk production. While the traditions and dialects are different, generally all the cuisines focus on the the abundant seafood found on the coast along with the wide varieties of fruit and vegetable that grow in the region. The spicing on the dishes reflect the culture and heritage of the chef that produces them.

Famous Teas of Fujian Province

Jasmine Tea - Scented Green Tea and Liquor

Jasmine Dragon Tears – Scented Green Tea

Fujian Province is considered the birthplace of Jasmine Dragon Tears Tea, with its creation beginning during the Song dynasty (960 CE-1127CE). It is from Fujian that we get the pine smoked Lapsang Souchong, and where we can find great oolongs like Ti Kuan Yin as well assubtle black teas like Da Hong Pao.

The tea culture has been here since its beginning and has been influenced by the Silk Road. The oolong technique started here traveled the short distance across the Taiwan straight to Taiwan. The techniques for Jasmine tea traveled to other provinces like Huebi. For tea drinkers, Fujian is an important part of tea history and still plays a key role in the industry today.

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White Tea: Bai Hao vs Bai Mu Dan

In the middle of a cold snap, there  is nothing better than enjoying a warm drink that reminds me of spring. White tea fits that bill beautifully. There are not that many pure white teas on the market, there are plenty of flavored white teas, but a pure white tea from Fuding in the Province of Fujian China number less than five. The two most commonly found here in the states are Bai Hao (Silver Needle) or Bai Mu Dan (White Peony) also known as Bai Mudan. These two teas couldn’t be more different in appearance or taste.

Bai Hao (Silver Needle Tea) White Tea

Bai Hao Silver Needle White Tea

Bai Hao Silver Needle

Bai Hao, or Silver Needle White Tea, is the grandfather of white tea. This bud-only tea is believed to have been around since the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE) but only appeared in the late 1800’s in European publications. The cultivar Da Bai of Camellia Sinensis is the plant typically used to make Bai Hao as it produces the longest and largest buds. Bai Hao is only picked in early spring, usually in April and consists of the buds from the first flush (first growth) of the season. These buds produce the longest of the silver hairs that appear on the outside of the leaf. The name Silver Needle comes from the appearance of needle shaped buds covered with downy hairs. The buds are typically dried in the sun, some may be dried in a drying room if it is large production or weather prevents drying outside. The tea is usually only 5% oxidized. Brewing this tea requires care as you do not want to put boiling water on it as it will burn the tea. If brought to a boil, the water should be cooled down to 170° Fahrenheit before adding the tea. It only needs to be steeped for 2-3 minutes and will produce a pale yellow drink with a smooth sweet flavor.

Bai Mu Dan (White Peony) White Tea

Bai Mu Dan White Tea

Bai Mu Dan White Peony

Bai Mu Dan was developed in the 1920s in Fujian as China worked to meet the demand for unique teas from the United States and Europe. Bai Mu Dan is usually a bud and either one or two small open leaves. When you look at the dried leaves they resemble small peony flowers; hence the name White Peony. The bud in Bai Mu Dan is shorter than Bai Hao typically as it is made from different cultivars of Camellia Sinensis. Bai Mu Dan is also dried in the sun. However,it is typically baked after drying resulting in a wide array of colors in the leaves from silver to the dark brown you would expect from a black tea. Still,the tea is only around 5-7% oxidized. This white tea can be brewed just like Bai Hao, however you should experiment with brewing it like an oolong, with a water temperature up to 190° Fahrenheit and 3-5 minutes of steeping. It produces a very different flavor  depending on how it is prepared. Brewed as you would a white tea you get a smooth floral tea. Brewed as you would an oolong (closer to 190°) and you will get strong muscatel flavors with a hint of nuttiness from the very pale yellow liquor. Unlike Bai Hao, this tea is used as the base for most flavored white teas, as it is produced in much larger quantities making it a more cost efficient.

Whether Bai Mu Dan (White Peony) or Bai Hao (Silver Needle), white teas are a smooth and refreshing addition to your tea collection.

 

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Oolong, White and Yellow: Understanding the Broader Types of Tea

Unlike most other beverages one simply can’t ask for tea and know what to expect, making tea both a bit more common but also captivating for those looking to expand their palate.  There are six main types of tea, however within those types are thousands of varieties.  It is truly amazing that camellia sinensis, combined with terroir, a dash of human intervention and some creativity yields a liquor with so many different flavors.

Graphic scale of types of tea by oxidation.
Tea Oxidation Chart

Oxidation starts in tea leaves as soon as they are plucked from the plant, just like how an apple starts to turn brown as soon as it is cut.  The oxidation helps to create the flavor in the tea.  Tea leaves are allowed to wither in the sun to both dehydrate the leaves and allow oxidation to continue.  The point in the manufacturing process at which oxidation is stopped, via application of heat, largely dictates the classification of the finished product.

White Tea

White tea is made primarily from the bud of the tea plant (downy buds) but may include the first two leaves on the branch.  The name comes from the white hairs that are present on the outside of the buds.  Typically this type of tea is allowed to whither outside in the sun to dry before being heated to stop oxidation.  White tea is not rolled or panned and is lightly handled.  Often, white tea is made from the first buds of the growing season, called the first flush.

Green Tea

Green tea is a type of tea where oxidation is stopped very early in the manufacturing process.  The oxidation is stopped either through steaming, as is common practice in Japan, or through heating over a fire or in a stove.  By stopping the oxidation early, the leaves remain green.  Typically this is less than 10% oxidation.

Yellow Tea

Yellow teas are a lightly oxidized version of tea where, after withering, the leaves are lightly steamed allowing for enzymatic oxidation, the chemical process where flavonoids breakdown resulting in the browning of the leaves and the development of the flavor.  This is a rather labor intensive process that requires special training, which limits the production capacity for this type of tea.  Also, this tea comes in and out of favor with the Chinese public, the primary country producing yellow tea, so getting this in the US is often challenging if Chinese consumers are not demanding it.

Picture of dry leaf, wet leaf and liquor of Big Red Robe Supreme Oolong tea.

Dry leaf, wet leaf and liquor of Big Red Robe Supreme Oolong tea.

Oolong Tea

Providing some of the greatest variety in style, taste, and appearance, oolong teas are partially oxidized, anywhere from 10-80%, before being heated to stop oxidation.  Oolong, also known as wulong or black dragon teas, feature twisted tea leaves that are said to resemble the shape of a dragon.  They have their origin in the Fujian province of China though are now produced in other countries, notably Taiwan.  These teas are hand twisted or rolled after oxidation and were traditionally the Emperor’s tea.  These teas are the Bordeaux of the tea world, amazingly complex in taste, highly prized, and can be quite expensive when compared to other teas.  However, for the true tea enthusiasts there is nothing like them.

Black Tea

Known as red tea by the Chinese for the color of the brewed liquor, black tea is the most common type of tea consumed in the United States as it is typically the base for iced tea.  Black tea is a more fully oxidized version of the tea leaves, ranging anywhere from 50-100% oxidized.  Some of the teas best known in the west are black tea based blends including English Breakfast and Earl Grey.

Pu-erh (Dark Teas)

The only type of teas that are actually fermented are pu-erh.  This is green tea that has fermented after completing the manufacturing process.  This is truly a unique tea that reflects the history of where it was founded.  Pu-erh was historically made in the Yunnan province of China and traded with Tibet and Mongolia for horses.  To make the trip, the tea was compressed into narrow circular disks which traveled as long as six months before being traded.  Due to the organisms that grew in the trees in the Yunnan province the tea would naturally ferment.  Aged pu-erh is rare, highly sought after, and often comes at a high price.  To satisfy demand and sell a more profitable product two Chinese tea manufacturers got together in the 1960’s and created an accelerated fermenting process, which is not looked upon favorably by traditionalists, but allows for wider circulation of this tea.

Exploration Beyond the Six Main Types of Tea

Each of these large types of tea have many more subcategories that are worthy of their own investigation and offer more options than I can list.  Learning about all of them makes exploring tea a fun life long journey.

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