black tea: Zhenghe Gongfu & other Minhongs
Historically, there are three major style of Fujian gongfu black teas, namely Tanyang, Bailin and Zhenghe. A newly re-constructed traditional variety, Xiaozhong Gongfu, is also note-worthy. And of course, there is the commercially popular Lapsang Souchong, i.e. Zhengshan Xiaozhong, a smoked tea made with mass produced grades, which is unlike the characters that I just mentioned, and which we may discuss in another article.
It is not clear whether black teas started in Fujian or Jiangxi, but Fujian definitely was a first key production base for black tea for export. The area around Wuyi was one of the first production region. Now all across the north to northeastern provincial border areas are producing black teas, alongside with greens, whites and oolongs, though some farms are specialized in at most two categories.
Fujian blacks was the taste that the West first known what black tea was and that turned England entirely into a tea drinking nation. (more about the history of black teas)
Since the successful production of tea in Assam in the then British colony of India in the latter part of 19th century, allowing the British Empire almost total control of its tea price, black tea production in Fujian dwindled. Some farmers switched to other crops, some to oolongs and green teas, and some continued to produce for the tiny portion of the market.
Yet some others were pushed to raise their quality standard to target the regional Chinese population, in particular those in Hong Kong and other parts of southeast Asia. The oolong drinking tradition in these people naturally see the curly twigs as just yet another oolong and consume the black tea in the gongfu tea making approach. Born was the Gongfu black (aka Gongfu Hongcha) tradition. That is why unlike the black teas produced anywhere else, those from Fujian are tied particularly tightly with the consumption method.
Unluckily, the latter part of the 19th century and a large part of the 20th century had seen China in epic chaos and destructive social unrests. Tea production, in particular a fine and demanding one for finer teas, had been in an overall continued fall.
Gongfu blacks did not make a real come back until the 1980’s when producers’ self-initiative began to take over that of collective governance. Its popularity, and thereby competitiveness for quality and variety, picked up when the dynamics of the market was given an almost total free hand. The selections available now are perhaps unprecedented in history.
Each of the three major styles used to have its own nuances but with the recent dynamic exchange of production techniques, labour, and horticulture, the differences are less staying with the region but rather with each individual production farm. Most farms even produce simultaneously with different styles. The most confusing factor being some wholesalers and even producers would label their products with whatever names seem to be popular at the time when they sell. A Tanyang Gongfu may therefore, be a very different product from one source to another, adding even more complexity to sourcing for the originally not-so-straightforward understanding of the tea variety.
Because of certain marketing efforts, Tanyang Gongfu in particular has seen a hike in price in the recent few years and I think the value is not so justified. For the same price, you may very well be getting a lot more quality in other Fujian black productions.
Fujian black teas are enjoyable as you would with any other black teas. However, because its unique character is not about strength, adding milk or sugar to cover the bitterness as in other teas is not going to give you a same tasting tea drink — there is no excessive bitterness needed to cover up and the milk or sugar will lower the taste character. However, if you choose to stick to the milk and sugar habit, smash some of the leaves before infusion so the liquor will be much stronger.
The variety shows their colour when enjoyed plain with the conventional or gongfu tea infusion approach.
It has been a myth that black teas carry more caffeine than green teas. The fact is, the caffeine content in your cup is related to a lot more elements than just the tea category. In a measuring method study published in Elsevier Science (note), scientists even found that amongst teas that one can get from a Chinatown teashop, their Fujian black sample had less caffeine than 3 other green tea samples.
Unfortunately, black teas have always been seen as one single entity in most researches. It is beyond my comprehension that the difference in the very nature of the leaves and production methods in the varieties of black teas has not been more frequently considered when the scientists produce their datas.
Do click on to the caffeine page to read more about the topic if you are concerned or interested. The bottom line is, so far in our observation and reading, it seems likely that Fujian blacks are on average as a whole the lowest caffeine content in the black tea category. It is an option if you prefer black teas but want to minimize caffeine.
YG Zuo et al, Simultaneous determination of catechins, caffeine and gallic acids in green, Oolong, black and pu-erh teas using HPLC with a photodiode array detector, Talanta 2002 57: 307–316
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