In our previous blog post, we strolled to a local tea market in the bustling 22-million Chinese megapolis Shenzhen. We roamed through heaps and stacks of all types of loose-leaf tea and pressed tea. We immersed ourselves in an ambiance of contemplative serenity. We witnessed the Asian tea aesthetics and entered a small oasis of bamboo groves, wooden houses, and flowing rivers amidst the glass and concrete of the urban jungle. Last but not least, we chatted with tea merchants and tasted different types of tea, from Sheng Pu-erh tea cakes to sweet and comforting Shou Pu-erh in a memorable tea tasting experience.
Today, we continue our tea journey, climbing up to the third floor of the dedicated building. This place is reserved for private tea places. Here, tea owners often invite friends and customers and organize thematic events. We enter a place with a charming atmosphere imbued with old-times charm. A collection of antique tea items, including various Zisha and Nixing teapots, graces the glass window, and the heaps of medicine-flavored tea promise a memorable experience for a tea lover's palate.
Discovering Liubao: A Cozy Nook for an Authentic Tea Tasting Experience
We're greeted by Tiffany, who starts preparing the first type of tea while telling us more about the company and their products. Tiffany and her company are engaged predominantly in Liubao tea. Liubao belongs to the Hei Сha category. It is a type of fermented tea from China, native to the Guangxi province. It is also one of Southeast Asia's most well-known Chinese teas – some claim it's even more well-known abroad than in its own country! – due to its heavy export to countries like Malaysia and Singapore for decades.
After the somewhat commercial boom of interest towards Pu-erh tea settled down (followed by numerous counterfeits and other malpractices), Liu Bao gradually emerged as the next favorite among tea collectors. This type of dark tea is excellent for storage and aging. Its price has increased several times in recent decades, making it a great investment. Liubao has a long-standing reputation for its health benefits, forged out in the humid tin mines of Malaysia. Workers used to consume it to dispel the excessive moisture from their bodies and restore their health.
Recent research draws attention to Liubao's remarkable properties to regulate fat metabolism and the level of cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood*.
Liubao Tea Varieties: Exploring Traditional to Modern Fermentation Techniques
While discussing the traditional usage and health properties of Liubao, Tiffany has prepared the first tea for our Liubao tea tasting experience. It is a heavily fermented one from the year 2000. We marvel at the golden amber tea brew. As Tiffany explains, this tea is fermented in a contemporary style. The process is much like fermenting Ripe Pu-erh: first, farmers stack the tea leaves in heaps in a controlled temperature environment. Then, they sprinkle water and let the naturally occurring microflora transform the leaves. This processing style leads to an advanced fermentation with clearly pronounced earthy character and wooden notes. As our tea has aged a good 20+ years, it also has an evident "aged flavor", or "chen wei" 陈味.
While drinking, we talk about the tea-producing traditions of the Cangwu region in Guangxi – the birthplace of Liubao tea. Tiffany mentions that the fermentation of tea leaves has been a well-known process locally for quite a long time. In fact, people in the area have been fermenting their Liubao tea long before the invention of Ripe Pu-erh. While the Yunnan-based Kunming tea factory is credited with the invention and commercial application of the fermentation process at the beginning of the 1970s, Tiffany says that this is a joint project of a team of tea experts inside and outside of Yunnan who studied the fermentation processing techniques from the Cangwu region and applied them to the locally produced Pu-erh tea. This led to the discovery of "wo dui", or "wet pile". Today, this is the most popular fermentation method in China and beyond.
That said, the fermentation of Liubao tea has also changed with time. Before the contemporary Ripe Pu-erh style fermentation, people in Guangxi used the so-called "traditional fermentation" to produce their Liubao tea. It's characterized by its lightness due to the fact that the tea leaves do not undergo the "wo dui" or "wet piling" phase, as with Shou Pu-erh, for example. The traditional fermentation processing is pretty straightforward, including fixing, rolling and stacking before the final drying. The fermentation here relies not on external moisture, like in wo dui, but on the natural moisture induced by the rolling, as well as on the elevated temperature that forms once the leaves are stacked. As a result, most of the tea enzymes are largely preserved. The tea thus remains more alive than its wet-fermented counterpart.
To illustrate, Tiffany is brewing another type of Liubao, a traditionally fermented tea from 2005. Upon trying it, we can immediately feel the difference. The earthy, wooden notes are much less pronounced. The tea is remarkably fresh, alive, and vigorous, with a clearly expressed floral aftertaste. Much like the heavily fermented Liubao we first tried, this one also lacks astringency. There is no evident bitterness either, due to both processing and sufficient transformation during aging. Still, the fresh character of this tea provides plenty of space for further transformation, and we can't help but wonder what would the result be like in ten or twenty more years ahead? We hope we can meet again by then and check for ourselves!
Meanwhile, we're ready to taste our third tea. This time, Tiffany prepares a Liubao from the year 2000 with a very characteristic fermentation. It turns out that apart from the contemporary and traditional styles, another type of fermentation lies somewhere in the middle. It is the so-called "hot fermentation". It consists of alternating steaming and resting the maocha at least twice before the final drying phase. As a result, part of the enzymes remain active inside the tea leaves. This gives ample room for further transformation. At the same time, the astringency and bitterness are reduced by both thermal processing and fermentation. The end product is a tea with a milder and rounded character but with a "raw" heart. Those who love to drink aged Raw Pu-erh will surely appreciate this one! The relatively long aging period of 20+ years has given this tea a nice mellowness while letting its sweetness unfold. At the same time, the tea has preserved its energy, which we felt in its potent and refreshing taste.
Striking Gold: A Taste of 34-Year-Old Golden Flower Liubao
As we tried Liubao with every type of fermentation, three hours later, we were preparing to leave and digest our impressions from this tea-tasting experience. However, Tiffany has saved the best for last. This time, she has pulled out a real treat from her treasure trove – a Golden Flower Liubao from 1989!
The Golden Flower, or Jin Hua (金花), is a type of fungus that grows on certain types of tea. It is a highly sought-after feature for tea drinkers and collectors for its credited health benefits. Usually, it's found in dark teas like Fu Zhuan from Anhua, Hunan. However, Tiffany told us that it can also occur in Liubao, with tea tree variety and microclimate being crucial for the development of Jin Hua.
Contrary to popular belief, it is not necessary for a tea to age too long to acquire the precious fungus. It usually develops within the first 30 days of the tea aging. If it is not present by them, likely, it will not develop at all.
We take our first sip of the tea. It has a rich, layered taste that changes with the brew. The thick liquor is almost chewy, full of pectin. A faint "medicine flavor" appears after the first couple of brews, as the taste gradually evolves from old wood through notes of skin to aged tobacco. The aroma fills the space, hinting at old cellars with aged barrels, straw bales, and the sign of passing times. A lasting sweetness hangs onto our inner cheeks long after the last sip of this journey through time.
That is a worthy final for our tea tasting experience. We thank Tiffany for her time and expertise and leave the tea market filled with flavors, aromas, and anticipation for our next visit!
*Wen Ji Yu, Li Zong Jun, Wang Yuan Liang, Xu Ai Qing: Advances in Research on Microorganisms in Dark Tea and Their Related Health Care Functions. Food Science, No.9 (2010)