Recently I have welcomed a new purple clay teapot into my family, one that I have seasoned for and been using to brew Liu Bao Cha (六堡茶). Liu Bao Cha means Six Castles Tea in English. Six Castles refers to an area of Guangxi Province’s Wuzhou County that became famous for producing this kind of black tea (黑茶 or hei cha in Mandarin). This isn’t the normal idea of black tea we have in the west, however. In the world of Chinese tea, black tea refers to a tea that has been fermented.
Liu Bao Cha has an interesting history, and its production methods have changed over time in response to industry production standards and increasing levels of demand from tea drinkers worldwide. For today’s blog post I sampled two different Liu Bao teas, each with a different method of production and degree of fermentation. I’ll briefly discuss different production methods of Liu Bao, and then offer some tasting notes from my session with each tea.
History of Liu Bao
Historically a large quantity of Liu Bao tea was exported to Malaysia. There was a large Chinese population in Malaysia that would drink the tea. Malaysia also had a large tin mining industry, and the Chinese workers in the mines would be offered Liu Bao tea as a dietary supplement that would help refresh them, energize them, and alleviate sicknesses caused by the tough conditions in the mines. This led to the managers of the mines ordering Liu Bao in wholesale quantities to keep costs down. For this reason older Liu Bao tea was usually pressed into 40 – 50 kg baskets. The lower grades would be given to the workers, and the higher grades would be reserved for the owners and managers of the mines. Here are some generalizations of Liu Bao production in different time periods.
Antique Liu Bao – Pre 1958: Before 1958 the production of Liu Bao was unique compared to other styles of Chinese tea. Tea from this era was steamed (somewhat like Japanese teas are now) rather than pan fired in order to halt the enzymes from continuing to react with the air. The tea leaves would then undergo another steaming to be piled for fermentation, some rolling, pine wood roasting, and then a final steaming to be compressed into the large baskets for aging. Once compressed into baskets, the aging phase of Liu Bao tea would begin. This involved occasionally moving the tea from humid to dry environments, then back again in order to promote a slow post production fermentation. Some people say that these teas would be left to age for at least 3 to 5 years before they were considered acceptable for being sold to the market.
Post 1958 Liu Bao: After this point the production of Liu Bao changed in a couple of ways that made it more similar to the production of pu’er tea. The first way is that the leaves started to be pan fired for halting the enzymes rather than steamed. Steaming also was no longer used to pile and ferment the tea, but rather a wet piling (渥堆 or wo dui in Chinese) with water was used for fermentation. Steaming was still used to compress the tea leaves into baskets at this point in time. The pine wood roasting was also still included in production, because some say this is one of the steps that give Liu Bao its distinct flavor.
More Recent Liu Bao – 1980 Onwards: At this point the success of shou pu’er really influenced the production methods of Liu Bao. Heavier and longer wet piles were used to achieve a quicker fermentation, which gives some teas produced a stronger wet piling taste similar to that of shou pu’er. The tea industry also had greater demand, which influenced the speed of production. While older teas were said to age 3 – 5 years before being brought to market, Liu Bao teas produced now are sometimes sold when they’re only a year old or younger. At this point there was also a greater demand from individuals and retailers wanting to drink Liu Bao rather than just mining managers and others wanting to buy wholesale. For this reason the tea is now also sold loose or pressed into 1 kilogram baskets, a practice that wasn’t as common before.
Two Different Teas
For today’s blog post I’ve tasted two very different teas. The first tea is called 3 Leaf Liu Bao. The tea is roughly 5 – 10 years old, but according to the vendor this tea “appears to have been processed in the very traditional (pre-1958) method of repeated steaming, rolling and frying before being fermented in the basket.”
The second tea was produced in 2005 by a Hong Kong tea trading company called Four Gold Coins (四金钱 or Si Jin Qian in Mandarin). This tea has been fermented and produced in the modern style that most Liu Bao teas undergo today.
3 Leaf Liu Bao
The dry leaves of the 3 Leaf Liu Bao are mostly a light brown color, although some have a greenish hue. Some of the leaves are loose, while others remain in little chunks from the basket compression. This happens because the heat and steam from this stage will often cause the tea to congeal into little chunks after compression. There are also a few twigs / stems scattered throughout the tea.
The aroma of these leaves was woody, nutty, and slightly sweet. I was actually surprised at how clean and sweet the smell was for a fermented tea. I think this might be due to the slower natural fermentation of this teas processing method. None of the common wet piling aromas (usually a distinct kind of earthiness or mustiness, poorly fermented teas may even smell fishy) that are present in many ripe teas were present.
The tea brewed up a clear golden / red color. Although the flavor was complex, it was also very mellow and was a very agreeable tea to drink. The flavor had a unique woody and somewhat nutty flavor, which seem to be somewhat common in most of the Liu Bao teas that I’ve tried. There were also components of the flavor that reminded me of the grassy yet somewhat malty qualities that Liu An tea can have. Trying to describe the flavor aside the tea was smooth, clean, and had a good aftertaste.
2005 Si Jin Qian
The dry leaves of the Si Jin Qian were darker than those of the 3 Leaf Liu Bao, being mostly brown with little variation. The shape of these leaves was mostly twisted, and the overall the appearance reminded me somewhat of more lightly fermented loose shou pu’er. These leaves had a darker smell with woody and earthy notes. The aroma also had a fairly strong musty smell, which I believe to be from the tea undergoing a quicker fermentation.
Once I brewed the first infusion of the tea, I could immediately tell that the degree of fermentation was much greater than that of the 3 Leaf Liu Bao. This is because the brewed tea had a very dark red / black color.
This brewed tea tasted surprisingly clean given the musty smell that the dry leaves had. The flavor was woody with a slightly malty component. In this way it reminded me of the blend of woody, malty, and wet piling flavors that some shou pu’er can have. That being said the texture of the tea was much smoother and lighter than shou pu’er, feeling wetter and juicier rather than having the thick creaminess that some shou pu’ers have. Despite being much heavier than the 3 Leaf Liu Bao, this tea was lighter than an average shou pu’er.
In these tasting notes for the Si Jin Qian I noticed that I’ve mentioned shou pu’er a fair amount, because this tea does share some commonalities. With this in mind there was a clean, woody, and somewhat nutty quality present in the tea that was recognizable as distinctly Liu Bao, which set it apart from the category of shou pu’er. I think this comparative tasting was useful for me because shou pu’er represents most of the basis I have for drinking Chinese black tea (hei cha), as it was the first category I’ve tried before branching out into Liu Bao, Liu An, and other fermented teas.
Just like pu’er tea, there is an unimaginably vast variety in the Liu Bao tea that is produced. For this reason there aren’t any definitive conclusions that can be drawn from sampling two teas. It was fun however to do a comparative tasting of teas produced using different fermentation methods. I think with tastings like this it is possible to become a little more familiar with how these different methods of production might translate into the final flavor in the cup. I can’t afford to sample true vintage Liu Bao teas (1980s and earlier) because most of these productions are now very expensive. For this reason I was glad to come across a more modern tea that may have been produced using the traditional production methods. I don’t think that one fermentation method is better than the other. If someone wanted to drink a stronger and more pungent tea, they might like something with deeper fermentation like the Si Jin Qian. Likewise if someone wanted a mellower and somewhat more complex brew, a more traditionally produced tea such as the 3 Leaf Liu Bao might be a good choice. Like with most tea, I think the pleasure comes with the ability to experience and learn about the variety that is in existence, rather than just choosing one over the other.