Part 2, China's Southeast Provinces
With over 3000 types of green tea produced in China alone, a better question might be 'what is the best green tea for me?'. For when it comes to finding ‘the best’ tea, it all comes down to personal taste and mood. One way to find your favourite green tea is to try them all, but that may take a while. So we'd like to offer an easier solution. Over three posts we'll look at the main green tea types – where and how they're produced, and what influences their character – to try and help you make an informed choice.
The Golden Triangle
In the previous post we looked at China's 'Golden Triangle', an historic area of green tea production intersecting the eastern provinces of Anhui, Jiangxi, Zhejiang and Jiangsu.This collection of rural, mountainous sub-regions is home to China's most quintessential green teas, from the sweetly delicate spring-harvested Bi Luo Chun of Jiangsu to the nutty and assertive summer-harvested Zu Cha gunpowder teas of Zhejiang. The Golden Triangle is the place to discover the beauty, variety and sophistication of China's classic green tea styles.
Looking further afield
But Chinese green tea doesn't begin and end with the Golden Triangle. In fact, with many of its teas now so famous, its most sought-after names are widely applied to teas of varying quality produced in the same style but from different regions (where the terroir might be significantly different). All of which is good reason to only buy from quality-conscious tea merchants, where you can be sure that what you're getting is either the authentic item, or a high quality example from further afield.
So when seeking out for the best green tea for you, it's also worth looking at China's other tea regions too. In this post, we'll look at the southeast provinces of Fujian, Guangdong and Guangxi. While the mountainous topography and cooler, mistshrouded climate of the Golden Triangle ensures that green tea is the dominant style there, in the warmer coastal southeast provinces, green tea is produced alongside the more dominant classes of oolong, white and black tea.
Fujian is one of China's oldest and most highly prized tea-producing provinces. Not only is it the birthplace of white tea, oolong tea and black tea, it is also home to the revered and labour intensive Jasmine Pearl (aka 'Dragon Pearl') green teas. True jasmine pearl is one of the most delightful green teas, a delicately fruity and exotically fragrant beverage that is perfect served with food. It should be noted that while 'jasmine tea' covers a multitude of quality levels – from the traditionally artisan-produced to the artificially flavoured and mass produced – in this post we're only talking about the former.
Of all the handcrafted Chinese teas, perhaps none rivals the precision and timeconsuming skill involved in making true Fujian Jasmine Dragon Pearl green tea. To make it, the leaves are plucked in the early spring, usually a single leaf-and-bud set, and gently processed to capture all their soft, fruity delicacy. Next, the leaf-and-bud sets are handrolled into pea-size tea 'pearls' as they're dried. While many pearl teas are processed similar to Zu Cha (gunpowder) teas, the finest artisan examples treat the pea-sized orbs as a miniature work of art. The tea maker individually hand-crafts each set into a beautiful jade-green pearl with its silvery bud skilfully wrapped around the leaf orb.
But this is only the first half of the story. To become Jasmine Dragon Pearls, the tea now needs to be scented. And as with many teas, the most traditional method is still the best. Take, for example, this exceptional Jasmine Dragon Pearl . The tea itself is a single-estate Da Bai spring green from Fuding, near Fujian's border with Zhejiang. After the tea leaves are processed, rolled and dried, they are carefully stored until late summer. They're then taken south to Guangxi province to where China's finest Arabian jasmine grows. Here, an award-winning jasmine master infuses the tea in a lengthy process that involves mixing the pearls with freshly harvested jasmine buds and leaving them overnight. As the humidity rises inside the piles, the jasmine flowers open and release their sweet fragrance. In the morning, the tea pearls are spread out to dry, before the process is repeated over the next four-to-six nights with fresh jasmine buds – until the jasmine master feels the perfect level of scenting has been achieved.
So if you're looking for a green tea with a clean, delicately fruity flavour, that exudes the sweetly harmonious scent of exotic jasmine, look no further than this regional delicacy. Another wonderful feature of Jasmine Dragon Peal tea is watching the hand-rolled pearls unfurl into mesmerising dragon-like shapes as the tea steeps, adding another sensory highlight to this highly rewarding tea.
While Guangdong isn't as famous as its neighbouring provinces for producing classic teas, as China's most populated and economically prosperous province, it should be on every green tea-lover's radar. Once known as Canton – a name synonymous with the historic tea trade – Guangdong is home to the largest tea market in China (and probably the world) and has an almost infinite number of tea merchants. This means that a lot of very good quality tea from small rural producers is bought, traded and packaged here, invariably with Guangdong being added to its name.
Guangdong's climate is very humid and ranges from subtropical at higher elevations to almost tropical near the ocean, where it is moderated by the proximity of the ocean. Its most celebrated green tea, Li Zi Xiang (which translates as ‘fragrance of chestnut’), is produced in the south of the province. Its silvery-blue greenish leaves have a wavy curl, steeping to give a soft and herbaceous infusion with a nutty character (as its name suggests). Outside of green tea, Guangdong is on the tea map due to its distinctive oolong teas. Most famous are its Dan Cong (aka 'single-trunk) oolongs, especially Fenghuang or 'Phoenix' Oolong from the beautiful Fenghuang mountains.
The home of China's sweetest smelling Arabian jasmine, Guangxi will always have a special place in the heart of top quality jasmine tea lovers. But that most popular scented tea is not all this mystical southern province has to offer. Guangxi's most famous green tea, Guiping Xi Shan, is produced in its namesake mountains and benefits from the area's warm and humid climate. Dating back to the Tang Dynasty, Guiping Xi Shan is said to have originated with the Xishan Temple monks, who brought tea seeds from their native Jiangsu region and tried to recreate the tea style of their homeland. Famed for it body and fragrance, Guiping Xi Shan is a rustic pan-fired tea with soft blue-green leaves, its best examples known for their clean, lingeringly sweet flavour.
Guangxi's other sought-after green tea is Guilin Mao Jian. Produced at the foot of Yaoshan Mountain in Guilin City (said to be the most beautiful city in the world!), the area is blessed by its warm subtropical climate. For the best examples of Guilin Mao Jian, harvesting is carried out in March and the pickers ensure the leaves are kept shielded from the sun. The leaves are flattened during their processing and drying. The silvery-green leaves could easily be mistaken for a white tea, with their almost cotton-like softness. The tea has a delightful floral character with a smooth texture and a long lasting sweetness. The flavour is surprisingly rich and full-bodied, albeit wonderfully soft.
Finding the best teas in southeast China
As an area characterised by its warmth, high rainfall and mixed clay soils (except in the very north of Fujian), clearly there's a difference between the southeast provinces' tea and those from the Golden Triangle. As mentioned, the tea classes produced here are more mixed, with the indigenous southeast tea bush cultivars producing riper, larger leaves that suit more full-bodied oxidised teas such as oolong and black. And yet, the green teas of southeast China are unique and should be on every tea-lover's radar.
If we had to sum-up the style of green teas from southwest China's provinces, we'd say they are softer and more full-bodied than those from Golden Triangle. They aren't the crisp green teas that refresh and stimulate, but more rounded and luxurious. Sweet, fruit-tinged flavours and delicately floral touches (ripe and exotic rather than the wild, mountain-orchid fragrances of northern provinces) make these green teas a real treat, with soothing, restorative qualities that we love. To be it very simply, if Golden Triangle teas are perfect for getting you going in the mornings, southeast green teas are the choice for soothing you after food and enriching your afternoon. The best introduction to southwest China's green teas would probably be a fine, artisanal Jasmine Dragon Pearl. This not only introduces you to the naturally sweet 'fruit candy' flavours of Fujian green tea, but also the blissfully evocative jasmine of Guangxi. Happy hunting…