Grown in the mineral-rich soil beneath the towering cliffs of the Wuyi Mountains, Wuyi oolong has earned the nickname ‘Yancha’, meaning Rock Tea. Wuyi oolong bears little resemblance to the well-known green oolongs from southern Fujian and Taiwan, such as Tie Guan Yin. While green oolongs are light and fragrant, Wuyi oolongs have an intensely rich and complex flavour. Shui Xian and Da Hong Pao are two excellent examples of this.
The Wuyishan National Park is one of China’s World Heritage Sites, and an ideal environment for growing tea. The area is protected from the forces of nature by the vast wall of mountains, while strict laws limit the effects of civilisation. The climate is humid and misty, with high rainfall. Pollution is kept very low by means of an air quality monitoring system and controlled access to certain areas. The result is a sanctuary of rich biodiversity, supporting thousands of plant and animal species. Tea has been grown in the Wuyi Mountains since the 11th century. Since then, the production of Wuyi tea has evolved, becoming increasingly complicated and meticulous. These days Wuyi oolongs are extremely highly regarded in China, where the Wuyi Mountains are referred to as the ‘Kingdom of Tea Leaves’, however, rock tea is relatively unknown in the West.
The characters of Shui Xian mean ‘water’ and ‘immortal’ respectively, and this is usually translated as ‘Water Sprite’; the tea comes from a cultivar of the same name. All the Tea in China (Chow and Kramer, 1990) explains how Shui Xian revolutionised the production of tea. “Around the turn of the eighteenth century a large tea tree was found growing lying on the ground, passed under the fallen wall of a run-down temple. From beneath it several small shoots had developed and taken root. A tea grower from southern Fujian who had migrated to the Dahu area took an interest in them and transplanted some to his garden. They produced a fine tea, and also taught him that tea plants could be reproduced by layering. Both the strain and the method quickly spread to the nearby Wuyi Mountains and other areas” (Chow and Kramer, 1990).
The legend of Da Hong Pao describes an ailing Ming dynasty emperor. While travelling through the area, he became ill and seemed on the verge of death. No remedy was able to improve his condition, until monks from a nearby monastery offered him a cup of tea made with leaves from a nearby bush. The emperor made a miraculous recovery, and was so grateful that he offered his Da Hong Pao (his Big Red Robe) to protect the bush from the cold winter. Since then it has become known as the “Tea of the Immortals”. 20 grams of tea were harvested from what are believed to be the original bushes in 2002, and fetched a price of about £16,000, making Da Hong Pao the most expensive tea in the world. Luckily for us mortals, genetically identical bushes have been produced through clippings and are grown throughout the Wuyi area.
When brewing Wuyi oolong, it’s worth using a fairly large amount of tea and enjoying many short infusions.
To brew rock tea in a regular teapot, use 5 grams of tea (about 3 teaspoons) per 150ml of near-boiling water. The first step is the rinse, which is used to clean any dust from the leaves and preheat the teaware. Just add hot water to your pot, pour it straight out into your cups, then discard it. The rinse will release the aroma from the tea leaves, which should be enjoyed before continuing. Shui Xian smells pungent and sweet, with hints of liquorice and charcoal. Da Hong Pao is also slightly smoky and smells distinctly of baked cherries.
Next, refill your teapot and infuse for about one minute. Both teas have bright orange liquor with a thick, syrupy texture.The first infusion of Shui Xian is rich, fruity and smoky with a nice balance of sweet and ever so slightly tangy. There is very little astringency and a strong, peach-flavoured aftertaste. Da Hong Pao begins earthy and smoky, with wood, charcoal and coffee flavours that quickly develop into a sweet, malty aftertaste.
With each subsequent infusion, increase the length by about ten seconds. Shui Xian gradually mellows, losing its tanginess but remaining rich and toasty. Da Hong Pao loses some of its smokiness but sweetens and picks up hints of toasted sesame. Each tea can be infused up to ten times.
Wuyi oolong is an old favourite for gongfu tea. If you have a small yixing teapot or a gaiwan, now is the time to use it. Use about 7 grams of tea (about 4 teaspoons) per 100ml. Follow the steps above, but reduce the brewing time to 10 or 20 seconds, adding a few seconds for each additional infusion. Gongfu brewing really brings out the best in rock tea. Shui Xian’s flavour is intensified, incorporating toasted barley and tangy orange, and the peach aftertaste lasts for hours. Da Hong Pao becomes a delightfully unusual combination of sweet, smoky and earthy. Coffee, roasted hazelnut and peat flavours combine with cocoa and then develop into a syrupy jam aftertaste.
Shui Xian is instantly enjoyable and very affordable, making it an ideal starting point for anyone new to Wuyi oolong. It’s also great with food.
- Matthew Coady February 2013
Chow, K. and Kramer, I., 1990. All the Tea in China.San Francisco: China Books and Periodicals.