Throughout the past month, we’ve been exploring nine different growing regions across China with nine different partners. As we’ve explored, we’ve been working to understand what it is about each region that makes each unique, teasing apart how regional differences influence the values of growers and craftspeople, and why our partners’ particular combination of weather, soil, varietal and craft brings them awards, national recognition and inspiring tea.
Part seven of this series visits the Zhang Family in Daping Village. Daping itself may be small, but it is an internationally-recognized region of Anxi county in Fujian known for its native Mao Xie cultivar and for excellent Tieguanyin oolong tea.
PART SEVEN: Master Zhang
Daping, Anxi, Fujian
Driving from coastal Xiamen and Tongan to Daping Village is a transformative trip.
In the flatlands of the coast, you couldn’t imagine being close to a tea growing region as you pass the cars, buildings and smog. After Tongan, you start winding up the foothills of the mountains and after several hours of twists and turns you enter the town of Anxi, the “capitol” of Tieguanyin tea.
Anxi has the look of a small town that became rich and populous quickly – old farmhouses have been transformed into storefronts, and warehouses have become Tieguanyin auction houses. For almost a decade, Tieguanyin was the top tea for gifting and enjoyed a meteoric rise in price. All across Anxi, you see huge billboards from the big plantations rich with investors advertising their tea as the absolute best. This Tieguanyin craze defines the lowland foothill regions of Anxi county. The flatland and anywhere close to the commercial capital of Anxi town has been bought up by the highest bidders, meaning lots of big plantations and mechanized production.
From Anxi, Daping Village is still several hours of winding steep mountain roads. Every turn and bend feels like it is as high as you could get, when another mountain appears even higher. Eventually, you drive so high up that you go into the clouds, and emerge above them. Nestled above the clouds is Daping Village, a tea growing region whose extreme steep landscapes and distance has protected it from predatory consolidation by the name brand plantations far below.
Daping is famous for producing excellent Anxi oolong teas, in no small part due to its unique landscape. Our partners, the Zhang Family have the highest and last house on the road before it turns into a gravel switchback up to the tea fields. When you crest the highest hill, you come upon a beautiful valley full of wildflowers with mative trees and wild grasses scattered between terraced mountainsides planted with tea.
The valley basin is a reservoir fed by sweet high mountain springs and used exclusively to water tea plants and other village crops. The soil is a unique mix of rock and sand that Master Zhang loves for the minerality it imparts to the tea and for the ideal water drainage it provides, encouraging deep roots compared to the more clay rich lowland soil.
Master Zhang has the largest plot in Daping Village because he has several brothers and five sons; when land was divided out after the days of commune-farming, his family was alotted a generous high-elevation terraced tea garden.
He was also given deferential pick because he was one of the first in Daping Village to be sent to university for a degree in agricultural science. He has worked to share his knowledge since he returned as a young man to improve farming techniques in the region.
Master Zhang is now working to convert much of his farmland back to the original habitat before agriculture to gain an intensive certification for “Original Ecological Preserve,” where the goal is to have a net zero effect on wildlife and natural plantlife while carrying out any agriculture. He believes that tea growing in harmony with the natural wildlife yields the best flavor and most complex aroma.
The very earliest tea plants of Daping were Mao Xie or Hairy Crab varieties, whose distinctively creamy flavor is perfectly suited to the minerality of the soil. Master Zhang still has many Mao Xie bushes planted by his great great grandparents.
Tieguanyin has been growing in the region for several generations as well. The cool weather and rocky soil encourage Tieguanyin to develop more thick rich texture and a more subtle aroma that develops over many steepings. In sunnier regions, Tieguanyin might be more immediately aromatic but brews are somewhat more thin and short-lived.
In addition to the old varietals, Master Zhang loves experimenting and seeing how all kinds of oolongs react to the Daping micro-climate. He keeps Ruan Zhi, Jin Guanyin, Ben Shan, Zi Mudan, Rou Gui, Qilan and dozens more cultivars on his land, picking them all separately and finishing them according to their unique aromas.
Within different varietals Master Zhang experiments with planting from seed, versus grafting to see identical stock versus genetic variation within a varietal and hones his growing techniques based on his findings.
Because Daping is so high up in the mountains, the climate is cool enough to keep insects in check.
Master Zhang grows canola and yellow beans, spreading these as natural fertilizer for his younger plants to help them establish deeper root stock. No watering is needed because of the abundance of natural springs running beneath the soil and because of morning mist and dew.
Every time we taste tea together, he pulls out a new processing technique or a revival style researched from the old records and oral tradition. His constant curiosity and open-minded attitude has him 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, and studied in Fenghuang with Master Huang Ruiguang exchanging Anxi oolong and Fenghuang oolong techniques and continuing to develop his ability to taste and evaluate.
Master Zhang approaches tea with unbridled energy. While many farmers in similarly famous regions with such successful workshops would stick to tradition and what has work in the past, Master Zhang is always curious about new techniques and lost old styles.
He loves to hike with us in his fields, and often wanders off tasting leaves, digging in the dirt, or just looking out into the distance. Ask him about technique and craft though, and he jumps into animated discussion, excited to share his passion.
select awards for Zhang family tea
Rolled oolong in Daping is still processed almost entirely by hand, with machines being used more as basic tools rather than ways to automate the process.
First, the tea has to wither in bamboo baskets. The withering process is dependent on sunlight and humidity. After initial withering, the yao qing process to shake the leaves begins. This process takes an entire night, from about seven in the evening to noon the next day. The goal is to coax the moisture slowly out of the leaf stems without overly bruising the leaves. This process defines the tea as oolong and brings out all the distinctive florals. A minute too long, or one grasp too hard during shaking, and the batch can be ruined.
After this extremely difficult process, the tea is heat-fixed, and then slowly and carefully curled. When the tea begins to curl, Master Zhang packs it into cloth bags and rolls the bags to lock in the pearl shape of Tieguanyin. Over 40 hours is necessary to finish a single batch, and because of how demanding the yao qing process is, batches cannot be much over a few dozen pounds at a time.
Despite the incredible challenges of craft, Master Zhang embraces this hardship, and is willing to take risks trying different processing styles such as his recently revived technique to make oolong in the older partly rolled and partly twisted style, which gives a completely different flavor.
Beyond even the initial crafting of Tieguanyin, Master Zhang experiments with his finished tea on dark roasts and aging, including teas he has been aging since the 1980’s.
Master Zhang’s devotion to honing the craft of Tieguanyin stands in contrast to big brands satisfied with monoculture farming. His work and the work of his colleagues is what makes Anxi oolong tea stand out as one of the most nuanced and beloved teas in China.