Tag Archives: hongcha

Cacao and Berries: A comparison of Yunnan Hong Cha

Ever since I was fortunate enough to spend two weeks wandering around Yúnnán Province in the South-West of China, I’ve been in love with that region’s unique black tea (or more specifically 红茶 – Hōng Chá). When I came back from that trip I brought with me several hundred grams of tea made in the Lincang region (specifically Fengqing) which sated my thirst for a good two years before the last leaves were spent. And then: such sadness!

yunnan2-bridgeIn the time since I’ve naturally been trying to replenish my supply, and fortunately during my last visit to Camellia Sinensis tea house in Montréal I picked up two examples of this lovely style. I was planning to only buy one, of course, but it was difficult to tell from the descriptions which one I would like more. What’s a tea lover to do in that situation? Get one of each and hold a tasting, of course!

So today I’m comparing the Jin Die Organic and the Yunnan Da Ye, both from Camellia Sinensis’s vast catalogue, and both harvested this year!

First off, I have to say that these teas are really very similar. If I had to try them blindfolded, I might not be able to tell them apart. Especially after the second steeping, the differences in flavor and mouthfeel nearly vanished. They are both excellent examples of a Yunnan Hong Cha.

yunnan2-cupsThat said, after four infusions, I think I have a slight preference for the Jin Die. Very slight. While both teas have the characteristic Yunnan woodiness and cacao sweetness, the Jin Die consistently had a thicker mouthfeel and a more milk-chocolate taste. The Da Ye, in comparison, was somewhat thinner and dry in the mouth with something of a blackberry sweetness.

The cacao and berry flavors are what really draw me to these teas. Compared to other Chinese black tea, those from Yunnan have a special characteristic of dry grass and earth that is usually very distinguisable. In many ways this makes sense, as the leaves used to produce these teas are from the same regions (and maybe even the same plants) as the world’s Puer supply. Drinking a young Sheng Puer from Menghai I notice the same sorts of flavors and textures. Even closer is the taste of Mao Cha, the raw leaf used to make Puer, so I think the character is just inherent in the leaves of that particular province.

While my preference for the Jin Die was pretty much by taste and not strength of infusion, it’s probably worth noting that its leaves were almost entirely whole and unbroken while those of the Da Ye included quite a few broken pieces. This made the Da Ye infuse ever so slightly stronger and faster than its competitor. Storage and transportation aside (the broken leaves could have easily been the result of the bag I stuffed them in), probably the main reason for the wholeness of the Jin Die is that the dry leaves are rolled into beautiful tight curls. I suspect this small detail protected the leaves from the more destructive parts of their journey from China to my tea table.

For the first two infusions I used 95°C water for 45 seconds and at the third I increased that to 1 minute for both teas. I easily managed four infusions this way and I suspect I could have continued for another three without losing the flavor. By the fourth infusion, however, the teas started to taste very much the same, and so the comparison became less important.

This may be the first time I’ve had a preference for a certified organic tea when tasted side-by-side with a non-certified cousin, which was pleasing in itself. Organic certification is an ongoing (and expensive) struggle for many small farmers in China and I believe that it’s only thanks to the support given by big Western importers that has enabled tea like this Jin Die to be produced and sold at a reasonable rate with that certification intact.

yunnan2-sunsetAltogether I can easily recommend both of these Hong Cha for the lover of Chinese tea. I know that I’ll be drinking them frequently and reminiscing of the beautiful Yunnan sunset with every cup.

Keemun from the UK

Keemun Mao Feng

Darkly sweet, like a deeply ripe blood orange. An aroma of very dark chocolate with a touch of cinnamon. There’s a subtle dryness and roughness at the end that is typical of some Qi Men teas.

Qi Men (aka: “Keemun”) tea (祁門红茶) is a black tea (“red tea” in China) made in Anhui province in Eastern China. It is a style that has been relatively famous in the West for quite a while and is often blended with other, stronger leaves to produce concoctions like the English Breakfast tea. As with any harvest, though, there’s a spectrum of quality that can be had and most of the leaves exported for teabags are literally the bottom of the barrel. A Mao Feng (毛峰) pick is considered a pretty high grade and should have entirely full leaves, gently twisted into spirals.

This tea I purchased from an artisan tea and coffee shop in Brighton in the UK. While the staff didn’t know a tremendous amount of tea information, I appreciated that their tea was well sourced and well served.

At the shop they used a kind of plastic mug with a drain on the bottom for serving, so the leaves went right in with the water and then the infusion was strained out of the bottom into a ceramic mug when ready. I’m not a big fan of plastic for anything tea-related, but this method did have several advantages which I think many methods of tea infusing lack.

Firstly, the leaves were not separate from the water during steeping. Probably the most common way to infuse tea of any sort in the West is to use some sort of separation tool, such as a teabag, tea ball, or strainer. While there is quite a bit of experimentation ongoing with these methods in the form of different fabrics and materials, shape and size, ultimately there is always part of the water which is not coming into direct contact with the leaves. In my experience this never produces quite the same effect as having loose tea leaves swirling around in your pot or mug.

The second advantage of these draining mugs was that after the infusion time was up, it’s easy to quickly drain the whole thing into your cup. This means that no tea remains steeping in water while you drink your first cup, which would otherwise almost invariably produce a bitter second pour. The speed was also important since a slow-pouring teapot can make timing your infusion much more challenging than it needs to be.

Due to the plastic, I find it hard to recommend these devices in general, but you could do a lot worse, and the above points are definitely worth keeping in mind for your own infusion experiments.

Overall I’m very happy with this tea and pleased that there are more shops taking unflavored tea seriously. Thank you, Naked Tea!