Take A Tea Tour of China for Lunar New Year
Chinese New Year begins tomorrow. We bid goodbye to the Year of the Rat, and welcome the Year of the Ox. The festivities actually begin tonight — New Year’s Eve. The celebration lasts for 15 days this year, concluding on February 26.
Ku Cha House of Tea and its international diaspora will be cooking, feasting, exchanging gifts and more across the two weeks. All along, we will complement our Lunar New Year activities with tea.
We write quite a bit about teas from China. We always refer to the places where the tea is grown and try to offer a little geographical and cultural context to our suggestions.
You will find plenty of context in this week’s spectacle of storytelling.
Let’s begin with the country itself.
The China 101
China and the United States occupy roughly the same geographic footprint; the United States is just 2% larger.
But China’s population of 1.4 billion dwarf that of the United States, which holds 328 million. It may seem awfully crowded in many parts of the United States. But the situation is more pronounced across China.
Where the United States has 50 states, China has 22 provinces (similar to states), 5 autonomous regions (Inner Mongolia, Guangxi, Tibet, Ningxia and Xinjiang), 4 municipalities (Chongqing, Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin) and 2 special administrative regions (Hong Kong and Macau).
At more than 3,500 years old, China has the longest continuous history of any country in the world. Culture runs deep. Traditions go back many centuries. It represents one of the world’s four ancient civilizations.
Most tea clustered in south
People in every corner of the country drink tea. But while there is evidence of tea cultivation in all of the country’s provinces, most tea production happens in southern regions, with higher humidity and warmer temperatures.
The four main regions are:
- Southwest China (Xinan), the place where tea production got started. It includes Yunnan and Sichuan provinces
- South China (Huanan), with Guangdong, Guangxi, Hainan, Fujian and Taiwan
- South of Yangtze River (Jiangnan), including Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Jiangsu and Hunan
- North of Yangtze River (Jiangbei), which includes Henan, Shaanxi, Gansu and Shandong.
For the Chinese New Year celebration, consider taking a tour of the country through tea.
Ku Cha House of Tea’s Lunar New Year Tea Tour
Bi Luo Chun (Jiangsu Province, South of Yangtze River tea region)
The southern part of the Jiangsu Province dips into the South of Yangtze River region, and produces select teas including Bi Luo Chun, for which it is most famous.
Jiangsu is heavily developed, and supports myriad international industries, including electronic equipment, chemicals and textiles. Despite the development, Jiangsu is beautiful, with classical gardens, and supports artisans who create refined silks and other handmade crafts.
Chinese people revere this delicate, floral green tea. The tea shrubs thrive on Xishan Island in Dongting Lake alongside plum and bayberry trees. The tea and trees blossom at roughly the same time; the beauty is both visual and aromatic.
In Chinese the name means “Jade Curly Spring Tea,” reflecting its harvest in early spring and its appearance — it is rolled into a tight spiral, somewhat akin to a snail shell.
Dragon Well (Zhejiang Province, South of Yangtze River tea region)
Hills and water — both of them describe the Zhejiang Province. More than 70% of the province is hills. Its coastline is the longest in China. Beyond that long coast sit 3,000 islands, making Zhejiang the island capital of the country.
Zhejiang is a fascinating province, with deep history and traditions. The interior is fairly rural, and focused on farming. The bustling city of Hangzhou, a major port, sits on the coast. The interior contains a wealth of farms and farmers; it is one of China’s agricultural hubs.
It’s also known for Dragon Well, also known as Long Jing. It may be the most famous tea in China. Once brewed, it produces a golden liquor with a distinct nutty aroma and a full, round flavor. In addition, Dragon Well contains the highest concentration of catechins, which are healthy antioxidants, among Chinese green teas.
An Ji White (Zhejiang Province, South of Yangtze River tea region)
Another Zhejiang tea, An Ji White, which is harvested in early spring, is sipped across the province. The tender leaves are silvery-white in appearance upon harvest, which gives this green tea its name of a different color.
As the leaves are quite young in An Jui White, the tea delivers high levels of theanine, which is a calming amino acid. The theanine also chips away at the tea’s natural bitterness. It’s one smooth brew.
Organic Keemun Monkey (Anhui Province, South of Yangtze River tea region)
Anhui is dense (8th most populous province, but one of China’s smallest) and well-known for traditional products related to calligraphy. Regional artisans create Xuan paper and Hui ink, considered to the be the finest paper and ink for calligraphy in China.
In addition to its density and famous calligraphy paper and ink, Anhui is especially ancient. Researchers have discovered cave markings that show our human relatives, Homo erectus, lived in this part of China nearly 2.5 million years ago.
This outstanding black tea’s leaves are rolled tightly and visually arresting. Once brewed, our Organic Keemun Monkey takes on fall colors of rust and crimson, and blooms smooth and rich, with nutty and malty undertones. The aftertaste is noted for its sweetness, even though no sweetener is added.
Tie Guan Yin Superior (Fujian Province, South China tea region)
With 55 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, China it tied with Italy for having the most of these sites in the world. Among them are four in Fujian, including Fujian tulou, which are rural dwellings found in Fujian’s mountainous regions; and Kulangsu, a pedestrian-only island off the coast that is renowned for its beaches, historic architecture and winding streets.
More broadly, Fujian is known for it mountains, coastal cities and more. Most pertinent to tea, Fujian is home to the famous WuYi Mountains. Tea farmers nurture some of China’s finest teas along the mountains’ slopes.
Tie Guan Yin, which means Iron Goddess of Mercy, is the most famous of Fujian teas. The oolong brews sweet and floral, with a smooth finish. Like the best oolongs, its flavors evolve during multiple steepings. This is tea to treasure.
Da Hong Pao (Fujian Province, South China tea region)
The Wuyi Mountains stand as another UNESCO World Heritage Site in Fujian. The mountains include especially beautiful natural scenery, and the Wuyishan Nature Reserve contains deep canyons, waterfalls, a bounty of animals, dense forests and loads of flora and fauna.
The mountains don’t rival our Colorado peaks, with its 58 peaks 14,000 feet high or more. The tallest peak in the Wuyis is 7,080. But the region is absolutely packed with mountains and canyons. It is spectacular.
This superb rock oolong from the Wuyi Mountains means “Big Red Robe” in Chinese, and is the region’s most famous rock oolong. People have been sipping it since at least the early 18th century, savoring the potent fragrance, roasted taste and lingering sweetness.
Pinglin Pouchong (Taiwan, South China tea region)
Taiwan is famous for its busy night markets, full of seafood dishes and Taiwanese favorites like beef noodles. The island is home to Acer and Asus, two enormous laptop brands. Bicycles are everywhere (Merida and Giant bikes are manufactured in Taiwan), the National Palace Museum contains an immense collection of imperial Chinese artifacts, and there’s Taroko National Park, one of nine national parks in Taiwan. This one is famous for its rock formations, caves and hiking trails.
Taiwan grows a lot of tea, too. The island’s oolongs account for 20 percent of oolong production worldwide. It’s also the birthplace of pearl milk tea, also known as bubble or boba tea. Taiwanese are mad for the style of tea, which contains tapioca pearls in the liquid.
Our Pinglin Pouchong, also called “flower oolong,” involves a process in which artisans wrap tea leaves in paper. Pouchong means “the wrapped kind” in Chinese. Tea connoisseurs around the world clamor for Taiwanese tea, and Pinglin Pouchong is among the island’s tea treasures. This winter-harvested tea is from the Pinglin District in New Taipei City, in northern Taiwan. Most of Taiwan’s premium pouchong oolongs come from this region.
Oriental Beauty (Taiwan, South China tea region)
In addition to bubble tea and night markets, Taiwan also is the source of the world’s Formosa oolongs. Formosas (Portuguese explorers called the tea formosa, which means “beautiful” in Portuguese) are darker than most oolongs, with autumnal leafy notes and hints of raisin and ripe fruit.
Our famous Oriental Beauty, also known as Bai Hao, comes from Mount Ali in the northern part of the island. Once the summer-harvested leaves are picked, tea artisans oxidize the tea more than most Taiwanese oolongs. Insects nibble on Oriental Beauty tea leaves while they are on the plants. Instead of ruining the tea, the insect activity enhances the flavor. Oriental Beauty is smooth and sweet, with a unique aroma of ripe peaches and honey.
Bi Tan Piao Xue (Sichuan Province, Southwest China tea region)
People around the world associate China’s Sichuan Province with Sichuan food: spicy, garlicky and often punched with the unique flavor of Sichuan peppercorn. The peppercorns, which numb mouths and in fact are not peppercorns (they are berries from a plant in the same family as citrus plants and rue), make Sichuan food instantly recognizable.
Sichuan also is huge, the second-largest of all Chinese provinces. The name translates as “four rivers,” referring to the Jialing, Jinsha, Min and Tuo.
Another Sichuan fact: it is home to the famous, and endangered, giant panda.
We adore jasmine green tea. The jasmine blossoms add such finesse and elegance to the teas that incorporate them. Our Bi Tan Piao Xue, which means “snowflakes falling upon a jade pond,” is the most exquisite jasmine green tea on the market, in our opinion.
Suffused with delicate aromas and flavors from the real, and fresh, jasmine blossoms used to perfume the tea, this tea transports us.
Tiger Mountain Raw Puerh Tea (Yunnan Province, Southwest China tea region)
This is where it all began for tea: Yunnan. This beautiful assortment of tropical paradises and mountains reaching above 20,000 feet is the birthplace of tea. The tea plants thrived in temperate parts of the province, where it wasn’t punishingly cold and high, nor sweltering.
One of the most interesting things about Yunnan is its ethnic diversity. Of China’s 55 ethnic minorities, 25 of them live in Yunnan. The region has China’s highest concentration of ethnic minorities. More than sixty languages and dialects are spoken.
It also supports another kind of diversity: mushrooms. The province boasts more than 800 varieties of the fungi, with the most popular being matsutake, jizong and penny buns (porcinis).
Naturally, as the birthplace of tea, Yunnan also grows a wide range of teas. Among others, it is famous for the style of tea called pu-erh, which is fermented tea normally sold in cakes.
We carry a variety of pu-erhs, including Tiger Mountain. This special tea, crafted out of the leaves of wild tea trees, offers strong Cha Qi (tea energy) and a certain pear fruitiness.
The tea gets its name from Tiger Mountain, where it is grown. Once brewed the flavors are complex and bright, with a pleasing balance of bitter and sweet.
People frequently age pu-erhs, just as they age ine. This young pu-erh, fro 2017, is delicious now, but is also a great candidate for further aging.