No visit to China would be complete without tea! And tea tasting at a local tea market is a must for all tea lovers. A visit to a Chinese tea market is a delightful experience beyond just sipping and savoring; you become part of a tradition that shaped the history of an entire civilization – and one of the world’s oldest ones! It is at the tea market that you will get to know loose-leaf tea or aged tea like never before.
Imagine yourself walking through rows of stalls filled with jars, bins, or baskets of tea leaves, each offering a unique flavor and story. The sellers are usually friendly and willing to share their knowledge, helping you find the perfect tea that suits your taste. Long-time tea lovers are always on the lookout for the next best thing from their preferred tea type. As for those who are just getting started, they feel like kids in a sweets shop, wanting to taste all in one sip! All in all, a tea tasting in a local market is an authentic, fun experience that connects you with the local culture. Plus, you get to take home some great tea!
While visiting the 22-million megapolis of Shenzhen, we couldn’t miss the chance to do a tea tasting at one of the local tea markets. We picked the Nanshan area. Bordering the city’s business district and the High-tech park, it has the lively, just a bit worn-out atmosphere of a decades-old neighborhood, where modernity meets tradition and the authenticity of everyday people’s lives.
A multi-level tea experience
Our chosen tea market is in a 3-storey building dedicated exclusively to tea and tea commodities. The first floor starts directly at the entrance and is the most frequented. Right now, a company that produces high-quality tea furniture occupies a big part of it. Sets of beautifully decorated tea tables and chairs stand atop a giant platform.
If you look below, there is a lake with live carp in bright red and white! They are swimming around, creating a unique feng shui atmosphere for the visitors!
The ambiance invites you to sit down and have a cup of fragrant loose-leaf tea.
The second floor is all about wholesale tea trade. Interestingly, the booths are just as well arranged and decorated. There are specialized stores that trade with only certain tea types, as well as those that cater to any tea type.
The third floor is reserved for specialty tea places. Most of the area here features tea rooms or special tea spaces for holding tea meetings and tea events. Of course, you can buy tea there too.
What makes an impression is the unique decoration that makes each tea place stand apart from its neighbors. It might be a small garden with living bamboo, a moss-covered rock garden, and even a tiny flowing spring. They usually take a space of not more than two to three square meters, yet seem so realistic they instantly create a calm, serene mood, like you’re in an actual garden.
Other decorations include aged wooden gates or antique window frames. Intricate wood carvings cover the walls and often the entire walls of the interior of the more traditional tea spaces. Others in a modern, minimalistic style that creates a clean Zen ambiance that is nonetheless cozy and inviting.
Savoring Authenticity: Tea Tasting with Raw Puerh Tea Cakes
While walking around, the stalls filled to the brim with loose leaf tea leaves and aged tea cakes, we entered one dedicated to Pu-erh tea. The owner greets us and immediately starts to prepare a fresh tea brew.
The company here trades exclusively in Sheng and Shou Pu-erh tea. They also produce some red and white tea, all hailing from Yunnan. Mr Zhu shares that the company was established in 2011 to make quality tea with attention to detail under their own two brands.
Mr Zhu says they’re using tea leaves exclusively from Bulang Mountain and the tea gardens around YiWu for their tea. Their choice stems from both the cultural tea heritage of the area and the natural surroundings. It is the home of the Bulang minority. According to the local legends, they started growing and processing tea leaves as early as 1800 years ago. Locally, the Bulang people were among the first ones who domesticated the tea plant on the territory of modern-day China. The region is covered with ancient tea trees, some growing above 6 meters and between 100 and 1000 years old. The high quality of the raw tea material, as well as the rich cultural and production traditions of the area, made it a natural choice for the company to set their tea sourcing and production base there.
*one of the tea forest in Bulang Mountain, where Mr Zhu's company sources their tea from
We are drinking a 2020 Bulang mountain Sheng Pu-erh. Its intense and dominating taste is a signature mark of the tea from that area. It is the home of famous villages like Lao Man E and Lao Ban Zhang. Mr Zhu says he remembers about 20 years ago when Lao Ban Zhang was just a sleepy village deep in the mountain, and the tea from there was barely priced at $30 for a kilo. In the early 2000s, there was a boom in interest in Pu-erh, and the price of Lao Ban Zhang tea skyrocketed several hundred times. “It has this special dominating, aggressive taste, with strong bitterness that sharply fills the mouth and then suddenly turns into a full, sweet aftertaste.” In fact, the domineering taste, strong bitterness, and swift, sweet aftertaste are distinctive features of Bulang mountain tea. They’re accompanied by a rich flower aroma, which notes vary according to the tea garden. ”The tea trees in the ancient forests grow in a natural state, surrounded by other plant species, with which they interact to form an entire ecosystem”, says Mr. Zhu. “There are tea gardens where camphor trees grow alongside the tea trees. Tea leaves from there develop different aromas with evident camphor notes. It is the result of the species’ coexistence.”
The interest in high-quality Pu-erh grows by the year, says Mr Zhu. In the last decades, the interest in green, sustainable products has gotten bigger. The tea they produce comes from a clean, ecological area. The ancient trees in Yunnan grow freely in the mountain’s natural surroundings without pesticides or fertilizers. It is relatively easy to store and ages beautifully, in line with the popular saying: “The longer it is stored, the more fragrant it becomes”.
Next, we switch to a Lao Man E Sheng Pu-erh. Lao Man E is best known for its “bitter tea” or “ku cha” (苦茶). It is probably the most bitter tea in all Xishuangbanna. Its bitterness outshines even the more famous – and much more expensive – tea from Lao Ban Zhang and led some people to compare it to pure coffee. However, the bitterness is soon replaced by a strong feeling of sweetness in the mouth and the sensation of salivating. The right amount of bitterness in tea is a sign of rich inner content. Bitterness that stems from caffeine content doesn’t transform and is permanent – once it starts bitter, it remains like this to the very end. It also creates a dry feeling in the mouth that doesn’t go away. Conversely, the bitterness that comes from the polyphenols of the tea leaves is one that transforms with brews and ends up as a sweet aftertaste, preceded by a strong feeling of salivation. That signifies a good quality raw material and a highly sought property of the finished tea.
“There are three essential prerequisites for making high-quality tea”, says Mr. Zhu. “First, you need to select raw material of good quality. Then, you need to adhere to the authentic tea-producing craftsmanship. Finally, you need to ensure a suitable storage environment. Spare one of those, and the tea will never be good enough.”
We leave the tea shop, and Mr. Zhu with a present – a 2017 Pu-erh tea cake featuring raw material from a Tea King. It is the name given to the best ancient trees in the tea garden, usually of very old age. Farmers typically harvest and process their leaves separately for their utmost quality. Every tea garden in Bulang Mountain has at least one Tea king. The locals believe it incarnates the soul of the tea garden, and perform spiritual ceremonies in front of those trees on special occasions throughout the year.
That’s it for today! Stay tuned for our next blog post, where we will continue with our visit to Shenzhen’s tea market and discover the old charm of the aged Liu Bao Hei Cha. We’ll taste four (!) types of this fermented tea from China, aged between 18 and 23 years. The cherry on top will be a 35-year-old Liu Bao with the Golden Flower fungus!