Exploring Gongfu Red Tea
The defining feature of Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong is the drying, which is done with pinewood smoke. Most tea scholars agree that this began because the houses in Tongmu Village (桐木村), the area where this tea is produced, were traditionally built alongside small roads in the mountains with little space surrounding them. For this reason, the locals learned to wither the tea in lofts above their living spaces. There are pine forests all around, so of course, these villagers would cook all their food, heat their water for drinking and bathing, and warm their homes with pine fires. The smoke from their daily lives would then drift up through the rafters to the tea that was withering in the lofts above. Tea is very sensitive to aromas, and will absorb whatever is around it. In Yunnan, camphor trees were often planted near tea trees and the tea tastes of camphor as a result. Tea leaves are also scented with flowers in the same way. As a result of this, Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong developed a smoky flavor, which was surprisingly appreciated by the market, including Western tea drinkers. After commercial production began, the tea was processed in a building called a “qing lou (青楼),” a three- or four-story building with a large fireplace for smoking.
A lot of Xiao Zhong is smoked in ovens these days, or very casually, and not made in the traditional way. The highest grades, however, are still processed by hand in the old ways. Our tea comes from an organic farm with seed-propagated trees and was completely processed by hand. Such high grades of Xiao Zhong are amongst the most expensive teas produced in the world. Only aged teas rival it. For that reason, we thought we wouldn’t be able to get a nice version to share in an affordable expansion pack. Very generously, the farmer agreed to donate more than half the cost for this amazing tea so we could all get the chance to drink more gongfu red tea this month.
Red tea production probably came to Yixing from Qimen in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. There were already many kinds of green tea produced in the area, so using bud sets to make red tea was a natural shift. Most local potters drink Yixing gongfu red tea over and over all day, rarely sampling any other tea. Our tea offered here is from a wild, organic farm up in the hills beyond some of the other gardens and plantations. Since it is wild, it is bolder and far less delicate than most Yixing red tea, but also much more unique, offering a depth of forest that the tea you drink in local shops over teapot discussions will never have.
This month’s expansion pack is:
茶 25 grams of fine, superior-grade Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong
茶 25 grams of wild Yixing gongfu red tea