Tea master with the nose and us to make a good cup of tea
Liu Tongyi’s life is closely linked to tea. Having selected, sifted, processed and tasted Qimen black tea for nearly 40 years, the 60-year-old native of Anhui Province is a recognized tea master and the ultimate authority in the industry.
He pours a small amount of Qimen black tea leaves into a glass, then adds boiling water as the leaves sway up and down.
“Sniff first and smell the fragrance,” Liu said. “Then taste the tea and you will feel a hint of sweetness.”
Without its famous black tea, Qimen – a quiet little county at the southeastern tip of Anhui province – would likely have remained obscure forever, overshadowed by the iconic Huangshan, or Yellow Mountain, nearby.
But luckily for tea drinkers, a young official named Hu Yuanlong in the late 1800s traveled to Fujian Province to learn the art of black tea. He returned to Anhui, where only green tea was grown, and opened three factories in Qimen to produce black tea.
The result was a huge success. The tea, with a fruity scent and notes of pine, orchid, dried plum, honey, wine and sweet, smoky rose became a hit. Its flavor is subtle, sometimes a little toasty and nutty. The complex mellowness is due to the region’s mild, rainy climate and sandy, well-drained soil.
Black tea put Qimen on the map. It became the daily drink of English royalty and remains a key ingredient in English breakfast tea to this day. It is considered one of China’s greatest teas and is often presented as a state gift to visiting dignitaries.
Qimen produces one of the top three black teas in the world with a powerful fragrance. The other two are Darjeeling from India and Ceylon from Sri Lanka, but Qimen is more fruity.
Today, the ancient traditions are still carried on by Liu, an heir to the skill of making Qimen black tea, which has been listed as an intangible cultural heritage in China. It is an art of selecting, sorting, sifting, processing and blending tea, a strictly observed process that involves 16 steps and the senses of sight, smell, touch and taste.
Liu knows every step of the process by heart.
After being picked, fresh tea leaves are first processed at high temperatures, carefully controlled to break down chlorophyll. If the temperature is too low, some chlorophyll remains; too high and the leaves will be charred.
“The appropriate temperature varies between 180 and 240 degrees Celsius, depending on the time of day and the weather on the days the leaves are picked,” Liu explains. “It’s all about experience.”
After being skillfully rolled, dried and cooked, the tree leaves are fermented, annealed, sifted, blended and packaged to become certified Qimen tea.
It usually takes at least three years to learn all of the manual skills needed to process tea and probably another five years to fully master the skills.
“I can’t live without tea,” Liu said. “It’s deeply ingrained in my life.”
At the age of 20, Liu became a clerk in a local supply and sales cooperative that bought tea leaves from farmers. He visited the vast tea gardens of Qimen and learned to differentiate between different tea bushes, to pick the leaves and to process the tea, under the guidance of his first teacher Wang Zugui.
Later, he studied under several masters, honing his skills in brewing and tasting tea. Her mentors included senior technicians Song Jiazu and Min Xuanwen, who brewed black tea for Margaret Thatcher during her visit to China in 1982.
Liu still vividly remembers the time when he had to practice sieving, which required him to stand for hours holding a giant round bamboo sieve heavily laden with rice.
“Because tree leaves were so valuable back then, I had to train with a substitute,” he recalls.
Today, at Liu’s teahouse in Shanghai, he still keeps the sieve and demonstrates the skill of using it as daily physical exercise. The tea leaves swirl rapidly through the sieve under Liu’s controlled movements. They cluster and scatter, which separates good and bad leaves in minutes, weeding out the unsuccessful ones.
A good cup of Qimen tea is judged by many criteria and graded up to 10 levels, depending on the size and shape of the tea leaf, integrity of flavor, color, presence of buds, consistency, the aroma, taste, color of the tea water, and the color and appearance of the brewed leaves.
The best tea leaves have only one bud, one leaf, and a second leaf about to open. These are the freshest and most tender, picked at the end of a branch. The highest quality tea can sell for more than 10,000 yuan ($1,490) for 50 grams. The best of the best is “two buds with one leaf”, but that’s extremely rare.
In general, the more golden the sprouts, the better the tea. However, if there are too few leaves, the tea loses its fruity fragrance, mellow taste and dark colored tea water.
“It’s the wisdom of balance. The balance of different flavors from different tea production centers in Qimen,” says Liu. “It is also essential for Qimen’s tea makers to guarantee yield while ensuring good quality.
In the remote, misty mountains of Qimen County, several hundred tea factories with more than 150 registered brands produce more than 5,000 tons of semi-finished or dried Qimen black tea leaves per year. Annual sales exceed 1 billion yuan.