Bradley Cahill and Mafalda Moutinho of Casa De Cha explore the teas that forever changed their minds, hearts, and business.
The tea roasters of Wuyi work tirelessly day and night throughout spring. Beads of perspiration and smoky tears pour from their faces as they patiently and skilfully tend to their Yancha oolongs in temperature-controlled roasting rooms that commonly exceed 100°C.
The undulating and sometimes spiky landscape of Wuyi Mountains in the northern Fujian province of China makes phenomenal scenery. This incredible environment is also home to the tea masters of Wuyishan, producers of some of the most famous and most expensive teas in the world.
It’s practically impossible to convey the child-like excitement that filled our hearts the first time we were introduced to the infamous Wuyi Yancha oolongs.
Wuyi Yancha, or rock tea, is charcoal-roasted, semi-oxidised tea, which is the oldest and most famous type of oolong. “Yan”, meaning rock, granite, or stone in this case, refers to the rocky mountain soil where these teas are grown, and “cha” means tea. The combination of the two – Yancha – refers to the way the terroir manifests itself in the dominant flavour characteristics of the tea.
The climate in the Wuyi area is ideal for tea growing. It has four distinct seasons without drastic temperature changes and is consistently humid year-round. Rich and diverse foliage shades the tea plants from direct sun, while providing natural pest control. Additionally, this rocky but lush landscape gives the tea a unique flavour that no other region provides.
There are four main cultivars in the Yancha family. Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe), Tie Luo Han (Iron Arhat), Bai Ji Guan (White Cockscomb), and Shui Jin Gui (Golden Water Turtle).
The different cultivars of Wuyi Yancha vary in flavour and aroma from one to the next, much like wine and coffee. Each cultivar shares trademark notes within these flavour profiles that are unequivocally unique to this type of tea. Without its masculine notes – dry, dark chocolate, cigar tobacco, roasted, granite, mineral – or feminine side – delicate, fragrant, floral and fruity – Wuyi Yancha cannot be considered a top quality rock tea.
To make Wuyi oolongs, there are specific steps to follow: hand-picking the leaf, withering, oxidation, frying, hand rolling, and drying.
These first six steps usually take around 36 hours. Then the Máocha (semi-finished tea) needs to be sorted to pick out the old big leaves and stems before roasting.
Charcoal roasting is used to eliminate the moisture left in the leaves. It is also used to manipulate and correct the flavour of the final product. This step can make or break a tea. The roast caramelises the finished leaves while additionally putting them into a dormant state until they are “woken” by searing boiled water. This tea is one of the most difficult to make, a true indication of the skill and knowledge of the tea master who creates it.
On our own journey, we have been fortunate to connect with Cindy Chen of Wuyi Origin. She has tea running through her veins, initially gaining experience with her family’s tea business, and now through meeting her husband. Together, they have combined generations of knowledge to create their own small operation, producing some of the finest teas from their family-owned plantation, with a strict emphasis on quality over quantity.
Cindy represents a new generation of young entrepreneurial tea producers. She has won Best Black Tea two years running for her “Jin Jun Mei” at the Hobart Fine Food Awards, and in 2018, Danilo “Danny” De Andrade from DiBella Coffee won the World Tea Brewers Championship with her Mi lan Xiang or “Honey Orchid Oolong”.
“It’s really not that easy to make good tea. There are so many external factors affecting it,” Cindy says.
Such factors that can impact the flavour of the final product include the intensity of the sun during outdoor withering, hand processing, the temperature of the tea during frying, the grasp and the strength when rolling leaves.
“I feel that to become a qualified tea maker is not only a matter of time, but you also need to be gifted with very sensitive tasting skills, so you understand flavour,” Cindy says.
“Tea is really too elusive, perhaps because it is an ‘alive drink’ that fascinates us. There is no end to the world of tea and we are never too old to learn new things.”