With one of the highest elevation, most pristine perfectly-situated plots for Tieguanyin in the world, it would make perfect sense for Master Zhang to devote every inch of land to this famous and in-demand varietal. Yet, Master Zhang does the opposite. Over the last decade, he has reclaimed the majority of his Daping mountainside for bamboo, evergreens and wildflowers. The precious rocky terraces he has left, carved into steep hills, he devotes not just to the famous Tieguanyin, but to dozens of rare, unknown varietals.
Master Zhang fosters these tiny groves of rare tea to preserve biodiversity and have a local “seed bank” of sorts, allowing hearty individual tea bushes to grow and thrive in Daping so that other farmers and colleagues could grow new plants from cuttings, and study the way their famous terroir changes with each varietal.
The benefit for all of us is getting to dive deep and experience rare out there flavors, textures and aromas- all unique expressions of Master Zhang’s craft and terroir. Every tea in this kit expresses the "core" sweet minerality of Daping, but from unique and incredible perspectives not often tasted in a region so dedicated to Tieguanyin.
This is arguably Daping Village’s most “classic” tea. Mao Xie varietal is native to the area and grew on the mountains above Daping long before Tieguanyin was planted. Master Zhang’s labor-intensive traditional finish hearkens back to the style before the modern green oolong trend became popular and all Anxi teas were finished with at least a light roast and oxidation. Mao Xie translates to “hairy crab,” a reference to the appearance of the leaves. A classic traditional finish on Mao Xie brings out the iconic savory notes in the varietal and makes it taste almost pastry-like.
Master Zhang brings a new perspective to this beloved varietal with his meticulous and delicate multi-day dark roast process. Ruan Zhi or “Soft Stem” is sometimes better known as "Qing Xin" varietal, used in Taiwan to produce Dong Ding and Baozhong and in Thailand for Doi Mai Salong. While Taiwanese Ruan Zhi tends towards creamy or nutty, Master Zhang’s Daping Village Ruan Zhi is taut and almost crystalline with deep cooling yun sensation, smoldering spice in the aftertaste and beautiful Anxi florals. The dark roast keeps every element in perfect balance.
Master Zhang is a true innovator. He doesn’t make tea to follow trends. He experiments and takes risks to make tea better for the generations to come. This autumn harvest of Original Wulong Revival uses the older Ben Shan varietal leaf and undergoes three times more careful hand turning and fluffing than modern Anxi oolong. For finishing, it is loosely rolled in the oldest style of oolong making that is half strip style and half ball, with many of the leaves more strip-style than rolled. Master Zhang describes the shape as a dragonfly. This hand processing and shaping yields a different tea- a genre of its own outside of Wuyi style, Guangdong style or Anxi style. The light roast is rewarding and brings out a unique savory sweet complexity we don’t see in other teas from Master Zhang over the years, this tea has grown to be one of our very favorites!
Master Zhang’s reserve designation is an almost impossible standard, requiring the perfect combination of high elevation rocky soil, cool stand-out weather during the growing season and on the picking and finishing days. Some years Master Zhang doesn’t designate a reserve or special grade for certain teas. It all depends on the final tea, which needs to satisfy a certain level of sweetness, a long lingering aftertaste, and thick balanced texture and evocative aroma. This reserve designation Rou Gui was hand finished using a very old, traditional technique that Master Zhang has been researching that involves three times the usual turning and fluffing and a difficult half-rolled half-twisted shape. The result is a textural sensation with a deep intensity..
Qilan is a luscious and floral varietal famous in Wuyi as a strip style oolong. This Anxi dark roast Qilan is just as intoxicating as its Wuyi cousin with aromatic wood and orchid similarities, but also a unique bright and juicy complexity and luscious honey sweetness that reflects Anxi's unique terroir and Master Zhang's choices in roast and processing.
Rou Gui is better known as a roasted oolong from Wuyi, famous in Wuyi for its intense and aromatic cinnamon flavor. Master Zhang's Rou Gui varietal bushes grow among Tieguanyin fields and wildflowers, and benefit from sweet mountain spring water. Master Zhang's dark roast on this unique rolled Anxi Rou Gui brings out not just rich cinnamon spice, but also dessert-like complexity and aftertaste.
Ba Xian is a rare cultivar pioneered from old rootstock in Fenghuang, Guangdong that yields beautiful textural depth, lingering sparkling complexity and rich aromatics given the right soil conditions and expert craftsmanship. Master Zhang is a colleague of famous Dancong pioneer Huang Ruiguang, and was able to transplant several old Ba Xian plants from Wudongshan to his own fields above Daping in Anxi. These plants have been left mostly unpicked and untrimmed for years, giving them a wild appearance. Master Zhang has picked a limited quantity of his Ba Xian to share. The result is packed with deep minerality, “yun” and creamy florals - a powerful and commanding tea.
It is my responsibility to listen and not tell. I cannot force a tea into a certain flavor or aroma with craft. This is because true craft starts in the field, not the workshop. Good agricultural craft requires biodiversity, preserving the wildlife and natural forest cover, respecting the natural mountain springs, and keeping chemicals off of my tea and off of my neighbors’ teas.
If craft in the field is done right, craft in the workshop is about listening. It is about helping a tea become what it wants to be.
I have spent my life helping my village of Daping bring honesty and integrity to tea farming and oolong craft. We stand together against the factory farming that weighs so heavily on the Anxi lowlands ecosystems.
We are making Tieguanyin and countless other cultivars the way that they want to be made, in the environment where they want to grow. I invite you to taste our work for yourself and see."
Zhang Rongde was one of the first in Daping village to go to university.
He returned with an advanced degree in agricultural science and helped his community establish responsible chemical-free farming during the commune era. He comes from a long line of tea farmers, picking today plants established by his parents and grandparents.
After the communes were disbanded, Master Zhang was awarded the highest elevation plots in the region for his leadership role in pioneering sustainable, biodiversity-focused agriculture. He has won countless awards for his family’s teas, and still spends every day not only finishing his own teas but helping his neighbors improve their craft by visiting their workshops.
He is most proud not of his awards for quality, but his award for integrity, bestowed by his peers in recognition of his community leadership in transparency and for his work to tie pricing to a set of agreed upon standards of flavor, texture, aroma and aftertaste.
As a pioneer and community leader, Master Zhang is often travelling to far off regions to study other traditions. He has spent time studying and researching in Yiwu, Yunnan learning about old tree management and sun drying techniques, travelling to Japan and Taiwan, and studying in Fenghuang with Master Huang Ruiguang - exchanging Anxi oolong and Fenghuang oolong techniques and continuing to develop his ability to taste and evaluate.
You cannot follow a simple protocol and expect to make great tea. You have to be willing to put aside everything to see a batch through to the end.
Often a single batch of oolong means over 40 hours in the workshop without sleep to get it just right, and that does not count the time in the fields.
My job really starts in the field, working actively to strengthen the natural ecosystem through my farming choices and also working to research, revive and propagate rare, new or nearly lost cultivars, all to increase biodiversity and secure a better future for oolong.
I grow dozens of different cultivars, some planted by my grandparents with old, deep rootstock. Each varietal has different picking times and different “ideals” in the field and in the workshop.
Every weather condition not only changes picking times but changes the way I fluff and turn the leaves to bring out their aroma, the way I roast them, the moisture levels I aim for; this all requires flexibility, determination, and humility in the face of nature.
Despite the hardship, I love what I do.
Tea is a collaboration between the skies, the earth and us, the people, that can create humbling beauty and complexity.
Seeking this complexity has inspired me to go beyond current styles in oolong and research lost styles like Original Wulong Revival.
Too much of the world’s “Tieguanyin” comes from big factory farms that have bought up most of lowland Anxi. These teas are passed off as the real thing because many retailers and importers do not know better.
I want to give anyone who loves tea the education and tools necessary to tell the difference. That is why I work with importer Verdant Teato tell my story. I hope you’ll take the time to learn about the place I call home and the way I work to craft my teas.