Two Exquisite Teas from Southeast China

By Evan Howe

Our most recent additions to the tea menu, Mi Lan Xiang and Qi Lan Black Tea Process, offer a delightful representation of two legendary tea producing regions of China. Guangdong and Fujian are neighboring coastal provinces located on the southeast corner of China, facing the island of Taiwan across the South China Sea. Fujian province includes many ancient tea producing areas and is often cited as the birthplace of white, black, and oolong tea styles. Guangdong province is the home of many incredibly rare tea cultivars, making it the source of some of the most sought after oolong teas in the world. 

Mi Lan Xiang comes from the Phoenix Mountain range of Guangdong, where incredibly complex and aromatic dan cong oolongs have been produced for many generations.“Dan Cong”, a term commonly translated as “single grove” or “single bush”, communicates the traditional focus on single cultivar production that these beautiful teas reflect. As with coffee, cultivar means “cultivated variety”, in this case a specific variety of camellia sinensis that has been isolated and propagated by tea producers to highlight particular sensory characteristics. The names of most Phoenix Dan Cong cultivars end with the mandarin word “xiang” which means aroma or perfume. In the present case, “Mi Lan Xiang” translates as “perfume of the honeyed orchid” in reference to the intoxicating floral qualities that this cultivar possesses. As a brief aside: imagine if coffee cultivars were named in this way. Rather than “SL-28”, a favorite Kenyan arabica variety might bear the name “Fragrance of Blackberry”!

At 32 years old, Mr. Chan, the producer of this outstanding Mi Lan Xiang, is younger than many tea producers. His tea garden was founded by his great-grandfather around 1915, and is characterized by a number of ancient tea trees - some nearing 120 years old - that have remained in continual production since that time. Generally speaking, teas produced from older growth trees such as these are highly coveted as they are thought to possess an especially long lasting and pronounced hui gan, a cooling sensation on the aftertaste that is celebrated in teas of this style. Mr. Chan’s brother currently oversees all of the processing at the family tea garden and recently invested in a new electric charcoal roasting unit that enables a highly precise and delicate approach to the roasting of this exceptional oolong. 

The second of these two new releases, Qi Lan Black Tea Process, comes from the Wuyishan region: a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Fujian province. A famous saying regarding Fujian is that it is “one part farmland, one part water, and eight parts mountains”, and Wuyishan, with its incredible biodiversity, clear waters, and steep rocky cliffs certainly an apt embodiment of this description. 

Qi Lan, which can be simply translated as “Rare Orchid”, is perhaps the most renowned of the yancha or “rock tea” cultivars. Top quality yanchas from the Wuyi mountains possess a distinctive “rock taste”, often described as a cooling minerality, that sets them apart among Chinese teas of this style. This unique sensory quality is due to the soil of region which is incredibly iron-rich and causes the tea plants to produce a flavonoid called kaempferol. When we drink teas of this style, the kaempferol triggers the trigeminal nerve, one of the cold receptors in the throat. Thanks to the impact of kaempferol on the palate, we experience a refreshing, even hauntingly aesthetic sensation that is rooted in the unique terroir of Wuyishan. 

This particular offering is rather unique in that it has been processed as a black tea. While the vast majority of Qi Lan undergoes the more traditional charcoal roasted oolong process, this selection is an educational lot produced at the Wuyi Tea Institute as a part of a class introducing 15 local tea producers to a variety of processing techniques and best agricultural practices. 

While the initial steps of picking, withering, and machine rolling are very similar for a charcoal roasted oolong process and a black tea process, the black tea process includes 6 to 8 hours of oxidation following machine rolling. While oxidation is deliberately prevented in other approaches to tea processing, here it is intentionally initiated and controlled to emphasize a different spectrum of sensory qualities. The depth of sweetness that this oxidation step emphasizes in the finished tea is profound.

Two Exquisite Teas from Southeast China