China’s Legendary Green Teas by Mary Lou Heiss

Learn all about the creation and processing of these inspiring teas.


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11 Responses to “China’s Legendary Green Teas by Mary Lou Heiss”

  1. MarshalN Says:

    Hi Mary Lou & Aaron,

    Nice article. I think much of this info is out there, but in very loose form. Always good to see somebody trying to tie it up into something concise.

    There’s one thing though — I think that while it is true for top grade stuff that the harvest season is short, the fact is many low grade green teas (the majority of the stuff out there) are harvested far more frequently than just once or twice a year.

    It might also be worth noting that the way the leaves are fried has a direct impact on the way the tea tastes. Longjing leaves that are finished with the bilochun method of twisting and rolling will not taste like longjing, or at least that’s what my experience has told me? This gives rise to things like “bilochun” from Yunnan… not traditionally a bilochun producing region, and this sort of thing, as far as I can tell, confuse a lot of newcomers who are just starting to learn about tea.

  2. Mary Lou Heiss Says:

    Dear MarshalN,

    Thank you for reading my article and enjoying it.

    Of course you are correct in that there are several times during the course of a tea year that Chinese green teas are plucked, but I chose to focus this article exclusively on spring green teas, which, because of the rapidity at which leaf grows as the season progresses and warms, comprise only a small amount of the yearly crop of China’s green tea. Many tea enthusiasts do not realize that spring teas exist, so I wanted to highlight their attributes.

    To Chinese green tea lovers, spring teas, plucked from tender young leaves and shoots soon after bud-break, offer the freshest and liveliest flavor. Perhaps an interesting article for the future would be a comparison of spring pluck to summer pluck green teas ( what are the taste difference when leaf is small versus larger.) Or a discussion of drinking tea when the leaf is young ( Western notion ) vs. when the leaf has been allowed to age
    ( Asian notion.)

    I am not sure what your concern is regarding your examples of differing leaf style, but let me say a few things and see if I hit upon it. The tea producing regions in eastern China that I mention in my article are the places where these famous and traditional teas – Longjing, BiLoChun, LuAnGuapian, etc – originated and continue to be made. These teas became famous because of their uniqueness, and what accounts for that uniqueness is a series of factors that really cannot be duplicated elsewhere: the weather and soil conditions of location and place ( terroir ); the particular month of year that the fresh leaf is plucked; the way that the fresh leaf is fired (tea firing pan or tea basket); and the requisite shape that the leaf acquires during the firing and shaping steps (to insure that the finished tea will be instantly recognizable by the way that it looks and that the flavor will fulfill the expectation of the knowledgeable drinker.)

    Using your example, I have never seen authentic Longjing tea fired and shaped in a BiLoChun style – this makes no sense, as Longjing needs to have a flattened, sparrows-tongue shape in order to be Longjing and to taste like Longjing. Of course, as with any handmade product, small differences exist in the final appearance of the tea, but I mean small differences. When we visited a wholesale tea market in Shanghai, we were shown an array of Longjing tea ( all authentic and all from Hangzhou ) from various small village factories and tea farmers and were asked to pick out which ones were the best.

    I tell you, it was rather intimidating and I am not sure that there was a specific correct answer. What we saw in the line-up were teas with approximately the same shape, size and color, but on closer look we began to notice the slight variation in tone of color, some leaf was flatter than others ( from more hand pressing etc.) and some had little spots left from the point of contact with the heat of the tea firing pan; all differences that are understandable in a selection of hand-made products. Cupping several of these teas and tasting them side-by-side in a comparative yielded teas with more similarity in flavor than difference, and all were been identifiable as Longjing, albeit with slight nuances of difference.

    Or perhaps your comment reflects concern about the trend of ‘counterfeit’ teas in China, and that is a different topic. Traditionally ( and I support the traditional camp ) Longjing comes from a specific small region of Zhejiang in eastern China, but there are many skilled tea makers in China who would argue that Longjing tea is nothing more than a particular firing style and particular leaf shape.

    Tradition, history and ‘place of origin’ (including tea bush sub-variety) are not considered important to some modern-tea makers, who believe that any tea can be successfully made anywhere in China. Chinese tea makers are amazingly skillful – no other country on earth has the hand-craft abilities of Chinese tea makers. So, in the case of Longjing, this is a very easy tea to duplicate stylistically, but of course the flavor of a Yunnan-made ‘Longjing’ will not be the same.

    There is a move afoot in China to protect the integrity of the famous teas by granting the right to label packages of teas from historic places of origin as such when the tea is authentic and traceable. Packaged teas are now being sold with a seal of guaranteed authenticity, much in the same way that the Tea Board of India allows tea producers to apply 100% Darjeeling Tea or 100% Assam Tea seals of authenticity on packages of their teas.

    Loose leaf teas, however, are harder to control, so tea enthusiasts need to educate themselves on what certain teas should look like, what it should taste like and where is should be from. My experience has been, for example, that counterfeit teas really do not taste or look as they should – they give themselves away because they can never really duplicate the original. Authentic BiLoChun tea from Jiangsu is tiny and very, very green, with a little white tip. I have seen BiLoChun-style tea that has been made in other provinces that was made from leaf that was too big, too fuzzy, not curled right or just too light in color – obvious imposters. That being said, I have no fault with tea that is labeled ‘BiLoChun’-style or ‘BiLoChun’ from Yunnan if there is no intended deception involved.

    Hope this helps !

    Mary Lou

  3. diem Says:

    Legend was only a stereotype implement of publicity through the history. Many of this legendary teas was born by necessity in the second half of the XIX.cent. after China’s tea monopoly was broken. In fact with Mao Feng, Taiping and Guapian one angle of the golden triangle (Anhui) was created with great skill and finesse, and also many other tea areas delve out in lightly different circumstances. The essential difference is dated from the maturity grade of the leaf and the firing style as Marshalln said. When Guapian or Houkui was invented, it was a radically new method to fabricate “like-bud” style teas with young, very soft, tender, but owerblown leaves. In fact Guapian fabricating process consist in picking the whole developed OP leaves. The not open central bud is sold as white tea. (The second grade of this tea is apparently a green tea with scarce Bai Hao!!) The second leave is “developed” but tender and the fyring style bring it in a strong, refreshing green tea state, which is very similar to the best korean green teas! The Taiping Houkui is also a great, tender open bud. At the moment of the picking of this leave two other leaves was been picked of the same plant. One is sold as Bi Luo Chun and one is also white tea.
    So origin is very important, where the age of the plant is decisive (wild puerh trees, kyoto gyokuro farms, Wuyi teas), but for this fresh green teas origin means the place and the firing method. In fact Anhui companies sells exquisite long jing teas and biluochuns, you can’t recognize the diference. Naturally taiwanese or yunnan bi luo chun is another world. I agree with marshaln that newcoming tea customers can be misleaded by the producers of this teas. But this is not our table.

    Slowly the world will know the really good teas and in this wide assortment of green tea areas each producer must identify themselves. We will see born the “slow food” movement of teas all over the world, in Thailand and Malaysia.

    Very interesting furthermore how the “modern” green tea producers are developing new methods. They are redescovering the real white tea of the South Song dynasty and are developing powdered white tea (they call it “mocha” (sic!!!) and are been producing jasmin powdered tea, rose powdered tea.

    Excuse me for the grammatical errors. I am not english speaking person.
    Maybe I must use a bad english-good english translator.

    Congratulations for the great web site!!!! I am promoting it in our far country

    T:D: Hungary

  4. Mary Lou Heiss Says:

    To Diem:

    I think that you are raising some good points, I only with that I could read what you are saying in a proper translation. What is your native language ? If it is Hungarian, I have a Hungarian friend who can translate what you say for me. If you wish, please send your original thoughts about this to me at this E-zine and I will have them translated for everyone to read.

    I am intrigued by some of what you say. You bring up a good point about the leaf configuration that is plucked to manufacture traditional Lu’An Guapian and Tai Ping Hou Kui teas. If you don’t mind, let me expand a little bit about this since your words are a bit muddy.

    As you say, these two teas are not made from tiny leaves or buds but from large, slightly older ( ‘overblown’ ) leaves. Erroneously, many tea vendors on the internet refer to nearly every Chinese green tea as being made from ‘a bud and a leaf’ or ‘a bud and two leaves.’ Indeed, these are the most common pluck configurations ( and a very desirable ones at that ) and are very necessary for making some teas. But they are not the only leaf configuration used.

    When we visited authentic and traditional Lu’An Guapian and Tai Ping Hou Kui tea factories in Anhui ( not the same factories ) all of the tea that we observed being plucked and made into finished tea in each place used flat, broad leaf tea that was derived from fully mature leaves. For Lu’An Guapian, we were told that the leaf used was the 3rd leaf down. The plucked leaf that we were shown at Tai Ping was even larger than this.

    By the time that we arrived Hou Keng village ( Tai Ping ) it was several weeks later in the spring. In thinking about the leaf size at Tai Ping, several possibilities come to mind. Did it mean that the Tai Ping leaf was the 4th leaf down or that it was plucked from the same spot on the bush a few weeks later in the season? Or as the location of Tai Ping village was more protected ( the village is located at the end of a lake ) do the bushes flush faster ? Or is the plant variety such that the leaves simply grow larger faster ?

    Sometimes questions like these cannot be answered easily in China because every tea village in every tea producing region does things the way they do in order to have the tea come out the way that the tea needs to be. They are more concerned about how it is for them as opposed to knowing how it is for everyone else.

    But certainly, leaf plucking vary from place to place in that the exact leaf or leaf structure that the tea pluckers are instructed to pluck on any given day varies with what the tea is that is going to be made. Teas like Tai Ping are made from big leaves; tea like BiLoChun from small, early spring leaves.

    Most tea villages have many different plucks during the course of the year to make a variety of styles of tea. This is true even in villages that make the famous teas. Famous teas, like and Lu’An Guapian and Tai Ping will have a specific time of the season that it is made ( when the right-sized leaf is ready ). The unused bud and leaf – the mao feng ( two leaves and a bud ) and mao jian ( one leaf and a bud ) – is used to make the majority of the glorious green mountain teas that Anhui is famous for.

    You say that some places in Anhui are now using some of this earlier pluck to produce white tea. I have inquired of several of my sources about this and they all tell me NO, no white tea is being produced in Tai Ping, just from other areas around the Yellow Mountains.

    There is bud white tea produced in Anhui – I have seen and tasted several of these yin zhen white teas from Anhui that are very tasty and surprisingly, more expensive than the Fujian originals. In appearance these white buds are smaller and stouter – they are not from the same bush varietal as the Fujian white teas, so their appearance is different. But I
    have not been able to verify that these white teas are made from the early leaf gathered at Tai Ping. Please give us more details if you know for a fact that this so – I for one, would like to know more.

    Let me say two additional things about counterfeit or misleading tea. As for concerned about not recognizing the difference between counterfeit tea and the real thing, one cannot just judge by appearance alone. We were taught by our Chinese colleagues that a tea must pass four tests before an evaluation can be made – color( se), aroma ( xiang ), taste ( wei ) and shape( xing ).

    I have learned that these four items do work in tandem and that it is usually TASTE and AROMA ( the influences of terroir cannot be replaced ) that gives the counterfeit tea away. From experience, I believe that learning about tea comes from tasting, tasting, tasting, looking at the leaf both wet and dry, discussing with others, comparing leaf from different sources, and then tasting some more ( which is what I see going on in all of the active tea blogs ) is the best and only way to learn to differentiate between authentic tea and counterfeit tea.

    Buy from reputable vendors ( beware tea that is too cheap or too expensive) that seem to be knowledgeable about their products. Avoid vendors who sound like they are just repeating cut-and-paste tea information, and shun those that you suspect ( or know ) are selling, for instance, China-made ‘sencha’ or ‘matcha’ rather than authentic Japan-made Sencha and Matcha.

    Remember, the cream always rises to the top and the counterfeit teas really do give themselves away in one way or another – I believe that a little education ( and making good choices in shopping ) does allow one to keep from being fooled.

  5. Aaron Says:

    Great Stuff Mary!

  6. Car Loan Says:

    China’s Legendary Green Teas by Mary Lou Heiss will be exceptional event and you voice on fabulously; thanks for the insight!

  7. diem Says:

    Excuse me for the long silence. Taiping Houkui is allways a spring new tip tea,but it is not too early because one’s need large leaf to process Taiping Houkui. Taiping Houkui is ONE TIP(BUD)+THREE LEAF. The little taiping area not produce white tea. However each tea area try to produce the most convenient and most researched tea. The tendence of nowadays is to produce and present green wulongs, and when you ask in a tea farm of Henan or Abhui, why wulong is produced in a non-nativ area, the answer is they are producing it from ancient times.

    Late 80’s: Cabernet franc, middle 90 ‘s Cabernet savignon, today. everywhere pinot noir.
    So I think we would like to place 1. Origine. (Origine means terroir (geography, plantage and tradition)), 2. market, but the so called ancient tea regions are affected by the challenge of the new markets. There is a clear tendency for the high grade tea, because more convenient. The best thing would be when the young farmer can setup a new plantage producing high quality teas at the price of japanese teas. For this reason they are considering the tradition, but they are readí to produce whatever kind of tea.

  8. Green Tea Says:

    Really great article, love the pictures and style. Was really interested in read about Bi Lun Chun a tea I knew relatively little about. I have quite a bit of it so I have to give it another try! One question though in regards to the huangshan Mao Feng, I was unaware of this criteria and thought that it applied to white peony (bai mu dan), I buy quite a bit of top grade mao feng and it doesn’t appear to meet your criteria of two leaves to one bud. Should I be concerned?

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