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Liu Bao with Tiffany. Interview with an expert on Hei Cha

Posted by Misha Gulko on

During our last visit to China, while in Shenzhen, we visited Tiffany Lau. Tiffany is Liu Bao tea collector, editor-in-chief of "Liubao Tea Microjournal", national tea evaluator and identification expert of Liu Bao Tea. She served as a judge for Liu Bao Tea Battle Competition sessions. Over the years, Tiffany promoted Liubao Tea Culture to tea enthusiasts both domestically and internationally through many articles, videos, and offline tea gatherings. We had many teas and a long conversation about all things tea. This blog post is a compilation of our friendly talk over numerous cups of Hei Cha, put in the form of an interview for the convenience of reading. We hope you'll find it insightful.


Tiffany Lau. Expert in Hei Cha


Tiffany, how did you come to work with Liu Bao?

My family and I are from Guanxi, the birthplace and the core production area of Liu Bao Tea. Our connection with Liu Bao tea runs deep. In the 50s, my grandpa and grandma started working with Liu Bao, which makes me the third generation working with Hei Cha. At university, I studied computer science, but tea (and family) called me back, and I couldn't refuse. So, now I am using my tech knowledge to promote Liu Bao tea.


What are the main characteristics that Liu Bao should possess? 

Liu Bao should encompass three primary fragrances: floral, betel nut, and earthy, aged aromas. In terms of the inherent qualities and effects that this tea should have, Liu Bao helps to expel excessive liquid and dampness from the body. This is an important quality because, according to TCM, excessive moisture in the body causes inflammation. Also, Hei Cha helps digestion and regulates intestinal tracts. And, of course, like any other Hei Cha that undergoes wet pilling, Liu Bao has a microflora that is beneficial to the body. So, different Hei Cha are being exported to various regions according to the needs of the people. For example, Liu Bao is more prevalent in Malaysia and other highly humid countries. At the same time, Shou Pu-erh, with its fibers and breaking fat qualities, is sought in northern regions where the diet is poor and unbalanced.


What sets Liu Bao apart from Shou Pu-erh in terms of taste? 

Shou Pu-erh is made of Da Ye Zhong (大叶种), a big–leaf variety of Assamica trees. Collected from the same type of trees, from more or less the same area, these leaves can produce only a limited number of different taste notes, making the taste more or less straightforward. Liu Bao, on the other hand, is usually made of Quinti Zhong (当地群体种) – a variety of small-leaf cultivars mixed together, which makes tea more complex, enriching tea with tasting notes from different plants.


Liu Bao Hei Cha (Guangxi Pu-erh Tea), 2015


When brewing Liu Bao, what leaf-to-water ratio do you use? 

It depends on the tea. I choose the ratio depending on the degree of fermentation. The ratio should be higher for older, well-aged, and deeply fermented teas, while it can be lower for younger and lesser fermented teas. For this particular tea we are drinking right now, with a medium fermentation degree, I'm using a 1g:20ml ratio. However, it is important to develop a sensitive palate to be able to feel the subtleties and all the nuances of a tea's taste and aroma.


For Liu Bao, do you prefer using yixing teapots?

I prefer either ZiSha or Nixing clay. Nixing clay comes from Guanxi, just as Liu Bao does, so these two are very compatible with each other.


What role does natural aging play in the development of Hei Cha? Because, from what I understand, in the case of Hei Cha, most of the fermentation happens during the Wo Dui (渥堆) – Wet Pilling processing step.

That is correct, but natural aging is still very important. The length of aging defines the transformation of volatile elements within the tea that have not yet stabilized. Only with time can these unstable components settle down, transform, and present themselves through the aroma and taste. And, besides everything else, aging is one of the main factors that define the price simply because time equates to money.


Conversation with Tiffany about all things tea


You have various brewing vessels on your counter: a silver kettle, a clay kettle, a stainless steel kettle, and a cast iron kettle. How do you choose which one to use?

I use them according to their compatibility with tea. The essential properties of a kettle are heat retention and its effects on water. These properties vary for each material. For example, silver and cast iron make water sweeter, while water from clay makes tea thicker, giving tea more body.

So, would you use a silver kettle for teas with a bolder taste to make them sweeter and a clay kettle with lighter teas to give them more body?  

On the contrary, I pair lighter and sweeter teas with a silver or cast iron kettle and bolder teas with clay. Otherwise, clay may muffle delicate notes of an already delicate tea. But clay may help round teas with harsher notes. So, generally speaking, you want to add lightness to lighter teas and thickness to full-bodied teas.  

By the way, right now, we are drinking the same tea that we started with two hours ago, but before, we were brewing it with water from a stainless steel kettle, and this time we are brewing with water from a silver kettle. Can you feel the difference?


Wait, is it the first tea, freshly brewed, or is it the first tea that we didn't finish, and it cooled off?

It's the first tea that we didn't finish, and it cooled off.

I'm glad you brought it up because Boyka and I disagree on this matter. So, is it okay to let wet leaves cool off and then steep them again? 

It is not advisable for lighter-oxidized teas, such as Green, Yellow, and Low-oxidized Oolongs. But it is okay for more oxidized teas and may even be advisable for aged teas. Some teas can be drunk for up to two or even three days.

My experience shows that some shou pu-erhs only get better after cooling off for a few hours. They develop a better taste.

Aged pu-erh can be compared to someone who has been asleep. So, it needs time to wake up and become its best version.

So, now that we are drinking this first tea two hours later, after a long break in between, we are enjoying it much more than at the beginning. Is it because of the water from a different kettle, or is it because the tea is finally awakened, or is it a combination of all these factors? Or maybe it's something else?

I think it's because our conversation got us into the mood, and now we are able to appreciate more subtle things better :)


Switching to a slightly different subject: I was born in the USSR, and I know that collectivization and intervention of the government in farming had an absolutely devastating effect on agriculture. How things with tea farming were in China in the 50s and 60s? How the tea industry was affected by the party's course?

Actually, for Hei Cha, the effect was rather positive because collectivization allowed the implementation of production standards and made scaling possible. Before, each farmer family did things independently, in their own way. So, it was nearly impossible to have a large production, not to mention to set standards to follow. Proper governance allowed the establishment of tea factories and clear guidelines for evaluating tea.


And to conclude our tea session: what are the most important aspects of tea? Is it taste, or is it aroma? Or maybe it's the aftertaste? Or is it Qi that tea possesses (茶气)? Or is it something else?

The most important thing is whether the tea makes you feel good. If the tea is compatible with your body and constitution, it will manifest itself in a good feeling and enjoyment. So, the enjoyment you get from tea is the best characteristic.


Visit our YouTube channel and watch a video of our conversation.