When I first became interested in tea drinking I started learning about green teas, black teas, and wulong teas. These teas were easy to find at the local tea shop, and were also easy for my palate to get accustomed to. Once I was familiar with the general categories of tea, I became more interested in fermented teas. I was surprised to learn that the fermentation of tea is different from that of alcohol. In the production of alcohol an absence of oxygen causes sugars to be broken down, leaving alcohol as a product. Tea has access to oxygen during production, however. This means that the forces at play are oxidation and microbial enzymatic reactions, rather than anaerobic reactions. Teas that have this final step in their processing after regular oxidation are known as post-fermented teas.
The first kind of fermented tea I learned about is called Pu’er tea. It is undoubtedly the most famous post-fermented tea, and is produced in China’s Yunnan Province. Despite being within the category of post-fermented tea, Pu’er has done so well in the marketplace that some demand it be labelled as its own category of tea. There are three main kinds of Pu’er tea today:
- Raw or Sheng Pu’er Tea (生普洱茶) – Sheng Pu’er is made from mao cha (毛茶) or “rough tea” that is pressed for “natural” postfermentation. It has qualities similar to green tea, and can be astringent and bitter when new. The processing is different from green tea however, allowing microbes and enzymes to survive.
- Ripe or Shu Pu’er Tea (熟普洱茶) – Shu Pu’er was officially invented in 1973. It involves a method of processing mao cha (毛茶) at a specific temperature and humidity that can achieve a full post-fermentation in 2 or 3 months.
- Aged Raw or Lao Sheng Pu’er Tea (老生普洱茶) – This is raw Pu’er tea that has been left to age “naturally”. There is no clear rule as to how many years of aging qualify a tea as aged, but another rule of the marketplace is simple – the older the better. Some say that anywhere between 20 – 30 years of age is fully mature, but there are also stories of 70 year old cakes fetching exorbitant prices at auctions. I call the aging of this tea “natural” because some people spend considerable time and effort creating artificial humid environments to promote quicker fermentation.
Although there are more kinds of Pu’er tea than one could ever try in a lifetime, there are also other kinds of fermented tea from outside Yunnan Province. The general processing steps of a post-fermented tea are harvesting, withering, low temperature pan firing (or steaming), rolling, drying, fermenting, and a final drying.
This means that there is a lot of room for variation! The unique terroir of the harvesting region, the microbial environment that the tea is produced in, and the fermentation method used can all greatly impact the final qualities in the brewed tea. In order to expand my concept of what the category of fermented tea can include, I am drinking a kind of tea called Fu brick tea for this blog post. This kind of tea is produced in China’s Hunan province.
2013 Bai Sha Xi Factory Fu Brick Tea
Bai Sha Xi is a factory in Hunan Province’s Anhua County. It was founded in 1940, and has been producing Fu Brick Tea (茯砖茶 Fu Zhuan Cha in Chinese) for many years. The fermentation method used to make the 2013 Fu Zhuan Cha I enjoyed today is proprietary. It is common for tea factories to protect their recipes. The vendor did say that the bricks are pressed with golden flower spores, which are allowed to thrive for 3 days. After the 3 days have passed, the bricks are baked at a low temperature to dry the tea before packaging.
The smell of the dry tea leaves is instantly recognizable as the smell of pipe tobacco. It has a pungent and fruity sweet quality that make it seem as if the tea were aromatized.
The flavor of the tea is much mellower. It brews up a golden orange color, and has a woody flavor with a quality that reminds me of the dry leaves’ pipe tobacco aroma. The texture is smooth, simple, and comfortable.
After a few infusions the tea opened up leaving a somewhat more complex woody and spicy flavor. This quality reminds me of the flavor that some aged raw Pu’er tea can have. This is called aged aroma or 陈香 chen xiang in Chinese. The golden flower spores seem to lend a certain sweetness that reminds me of herbal tea or certain kinds of mushrooms. It is hard to describe what this sweetness tastes like exactly. I’ve enjoyed Liu Bao with golden flower spores, and it shared this same sweet quality.
I thought that it was interesting to enjoy a fermented tea that is different from Pu’er. However, this doesn’t seem like a tea I would enjoy regularly. While it was mellow and relatively easy to drink, the unique blend of flavors are something I would not crave on a regular basis. Although the flavor had components that could be compared to aged sheng Pu’er or Liu Bao, the overall way it made my body feel was not as good as the way some Pu’er or Liu Bao teas do.
There is one final and somewhat random thought I want to share. Hunan Province is where Mao Zedong was born. I find it amusing that this tea comes with a “commemorative Mao coin” and packaging. During his time as chairman, especially during the Cultural Revolution, tea drinking was condemned as excessively luxurious consumption. This led to many tea houses and establishments being shut down while the country was in political turmoil. Only the mid 90’s into early 2000’s when the reform was complete and GDP was rising again was tea consumption permissible, and tea drinking re-packaged as a way of promoting Chinese culture. For this reason I’m not sure if it makes sense to have a “commemorative Mao coin” on a brick of tea – I wouldn’t view him as an advocate of tea culture.