Secrets of the Black Dragon

Worth More Than Its Weight In Gold?

Mount Wuyi…Fujian Province.  One of two birthplaces of “The Black Dragon:”  oolong tea.  When you look at Wuyi Yan Cha, (Wuyi Cliff Tea) the tea is twisted, many of the leaves appear black before they are steeped, the energy of the brew–powerful…and so these twisted leaves were called “Black Dragon.”  Mount Wuyi…home of three most famous tea bushes, Da Hong Pao, or Big Red Robe, whose modest annual yield is a mere 100grams…100 grams of the most expensive tea on earth, worth far more than its weight in gold.

This tea is so treasured, it rarely is available to the general public. It is usually reserved as a gift to the ruling elite, continuing a tradition since the Ming Dynasty.  But in 2002, 20 grams of it were auctioned to the public for 180,000 Chinese RMB, which translates to well over $650,000 a pound.  Half a million dollars for a pound for tea? What’s the big idea?!! Bragging rights, certainly, but there is more to it than just that…what do the Chinese know that we don’t?

Secrets of the Black Dragon

When most people think of tea, they think Celestial Seasonings, they think a gathering of English ladies…or impotent coffee.  But if you were in China and asked about tea, they might say gong fu cha, or kung fu tea.  “Wait a second, you say,  “Kung Fu Tea?!  Now we went from a gathering of English ladies to the chance of someone getting hurt?”  “Gong fu” in Mandarin means “great skill,” because this kind of tea does not come in a little bag.  Nor is it a ceremony that requires rigid ritual or esoteric energetic skills, but it does have a function:  do what it takes to show off the tea.  Just as wine benefits from being served at the right temperature in the right shaped glass and having had some time to breathe, so are there nuances to showing off a prized oolong.

Tiny Tea?

Oolong is often served in tiny cups that hold a mere ounce or two.  When you take a look at the modest tea vessel and the size of the cups, many people shake their head, mystified, “What have I signed up for?  You’ve got me involved in a Kung Fu game for children!  Now someone is really going to get hurt, because I am thirsty and you gave me a thimble!”  But there is a method to this madness:  the gong fu tea set is actually sophisticated gear for a form of drinkable art.  The small cups are (as I mentioned before in reference to wine), in order to have control over drinking temperature.  There is a perfect temperature that shows off the tea: somewhere between 190 and 200 degrees Fahrenheit.  If I were to give you a huge mug of tea above 205 degrees, it would take a while until you could even touch it.  Gongfu cha also means mindfully steeping the tea–pouring it out so the leaves do not become exhausted right away.  Instead of one flavor, gongfu cha is a long and varied experience of flavors:  each steeping has its unique flavors, and with continuous drinking, the “hui gan,” or aroma, aftertaste, will begin to build in the back of the throat.  This aroma, in a good oolong, will linger for many minutes after the tea is drunk.  The cups are small, but for a distinct purpose:  just as you never can step in the same river twice, gongfu cha is a little like a jazz solo, an unique unrepeatable event.  Rare flavors can sometimes emerge because of various conditions that are the alchemy of preparation, the magic of Kung Fu tea.  And the volume IS there…it just gets meted out over many steepings, cup by cup.  Welcome to the Asian slow food movement.

Timing Is Everything

Timing, temperature, proportion, water quality, even the mineral composition of the glaze or clay, all the tea gear is part of an ongoing exploration of taste, and Black Dragon Tea is all about unique and powerful flavors:  flavors of fruit, flowers, spices.  Most people know black tea: Lipton, PG Tips.  These teas are monitored for uniformity of flavor.  Many people treat tea as simply a “caffeine vehicle:”  milk, sugar, both are added because tea bags are full of tea flakes or bits, which release their flavor quickly along with their bitterness, and with tea bits or fannings, you can’t get strong tea without strong bitterness.  On the other hand, oolong teas are chosen for their unique flavors. Good tea sellers create relationships with farmers directly for the sake of their roasting skills and unique tastes.  Small farms can create outstanding products that deserve to be drunk alone instead of sold and mixed into regional batches.  Back to our wine analogy, those in the know about Black Dragon Tea are aware of not only regional varietals of oolongs, but seek out certain farms for this  reason.  And Black Dragon Teas vary as far as caffeine goes, but the biochemistry is different than coffee or other teas:  it releases more slowly and gradually, and is both invigorating and actually  euphoric without feeling frenetic.  Yes, euphoric…if you ask serious tea drinkers who know about Black Dragon Tea, they can tell you, with a good oolong, you can get “tea drunk.”

Flavor Savor

Until you have tasted the power of a Black Dragon tea, you won’t have any idea how serious I am about flavor.  These flavors arise from the alchemy of the withering and roasting process:  an amazing tradition that rivals any alchemical tradition in the world.  People who are tasting a green oolong for the first time often ask me, “Is this Jasmine tea?”  They are shocked when I tell them that there are no flowers added to the tea leaves at all. This is the amazing art of a century of tradition in China, the magic of an unique preparation that separates oolong tea from both green and black teas:  biochemists call it the process of semi-oxidation.  While green teas are picked as buds and bud leaves in the morning, oolong tea is picked as buds and semi-mature leaves at noon.  The leaves are agitated:  rolled and bruised.  This breaks the cell walls of the leaves, quickening the oxidation or breakdown of the cells, which begins the magic of the withering process.  As the nutrients break down during this and the roasting phase, unique and powerful antioxidants are created rivaling that of green teas.  Often you can see the result of the withering and bruising which turns the normally green leaf flaming red around the edges. Now the length of the withering process and the duration of the roasting determines whether the oolong tea is a “green oolong” or a “dark oolong.”  The complexity of the flavor is created by the variables of terroir, varietal, season picked, the withering and the firing of the tea.  The whole process, from picking to roasting, takes the farmer a whole day and sleepless night; but once the tea is roasted, it is in suspended animation, ready to be revived at any time, anywhere.

 

Hmm…a lot of talk about tea.  This just scratches the surface of the Secrets of the Black Dragon.  Like looking at a picture menu before a meal, I hope all this talk just whetted your appetite for this treasure of the East.  Bye for now, I’m going to pour myself some liquid gold.