I recently received a package from a farmer in Fujian, China. Filled with individually-wrapped samples of various 岩茶 yánchá (“cliff tea”) from the ancient tea producing region of Wuyishan. Wanting to test each tea and assess their flavors without distraction, I set about creating a minimal tea space in the center of my brightly-lit apartment in New York City.
In the clear, bright light of the mid-Summer’s day, I could easily discern the various qualities of each teas’ leaves. Opting to do a “focused tasting”, where I would methodically work through teas based on variety, I decided to first test several 肉桂 Ròuguì (lit. “cinnamon”, referring to the characteristic flavor of the tea).
Opening up the first package of tea, I carefully set the long, twisted leaves atop an old 白銅 báitóng (lit. “white copper”) tea scoop in the shape of a banana leaf. In the bright light of the day, I could instantly note aspects of the tea’s overall health, care taken during production, oxidation level, and degree of subsequent final roasting done by the tea master in Wuyishan. Pockets of red intermixed with darker shades hinted at mid-level roasting, one meant to preserve complexity of the tea’s original flavor, supported by layers of roasted flavors.
Placed within a warm and wetted white porcelain 蓋碗 gàiwǎn (“lidded bowl”), the rich aroma of the tea began to lift upward, foreshadowing flavors to come.
As the mid-afternoon began, I sat before my tools for tasting: the white gàiwǎn, a matching white porcelain 潮州茶船 Cháozhōu chá chuán (lit. “Chaozhou tea boat”) and white porcelain tasting cup. These, plus a kettle of boiling water, were all I needed to assess the qualities this tea had to offer.
Pouring the first round of hot water over the leaves, a light foam arose from the coiled bundle of tea that sat submerged in the tiny porcelain vessel. From this, I could determine how oily the tea would be (something I often look for in a high quality yánchá).
Placing the lid atop the gàiwǎn, I waited for the tea to steep, using the small space between the lid and the bowl to see the color of the tea liqueur darken with time.
Once ready, I fully decanted the tea, letting the now unfurled leaves rest in the gàiwǎn for the next brew, an opportunity for me to further investigate their physical attributes.
Finally, tea in cup, I admired its color; a deep reddish brown, akin to a burnt umber. Next, lifting the cup to my nose, I assessed it fragrance. Sweet aromas of chestnut and spices intermingled with notes of peppercorn, roasted barley, and the haunting scent of incense.
Lastly, I sipped the tea, slurping as I aerated the tea liqueur across my soft palete to enhance my ability to taste the tea’s flavor. Layers upon layers of spice notes, cacao, wet limestone, bittersweet chocolate, caramelized sugar, and cinnamon bark flooded my senses. Even after the tea had been fully consumed, the flavor lingered on.
Breathing out again produced a residual sensation, a cool, slick finish and the characteristic 岩韻 yányùn (lit. “rock/cliff rhyme”). This, classically, is defined through five distinctive points found in all great yánchá of Wuyishan: 活 huó (liveliness), 甘 gān (sweetness), 清 qīng (clarity, pertaining to the liqueur and taste), 香 xiāng (fragrance), and 岩骨 yángǔ (lit. “rock bones”, as if the tea has substance or the heartiness of eating meat).
Not content with drinking just the first steeping, I continued long through the remainder of the afternoon brewing cup after cup of this tea. Even as the day wore on and my partner returned home from work, I invited her to join in on the appreciation of this fine tea. Brewed in a simple white porcelain gàiwǎn, enjoyed with small white porcelain cups, each acted as a mirror upon tea, reflecting back to us the complex and shifting flavors of this superb Ròuguì yánchá in the bright light of the mid-Summer’s day.
If you would like to learn more about Wuyishan’s many varieties of classically-crafted yánchá by experiences them directly, I hope to soon offer some of my favorites through connections I’ve collected throughout my years in tea. If you are interested to learn more, and perhaps would like to purchase some of these select teas, please do not hesitate to reach out to me.
Additionally, I cannot help but to give credit where credit is due to Austin Hodge of Seven Cups Tea. His eloquent definition of 岩韻 yányùn, as well as his detailed information about yánchá was a great help to my developing of this article. You can find his full write up on yánchá here on his website.