Renaissance of Dianhong Part 2: Competition
I had no idea what quality of Dianhong Queen Elizabeth II received as a souvenir when she visited Yunnan in 1986. It was said that the tea was full of golden tips. However, contrary to what myths you might have read, Dianhong was not a major black tea to export, not even at the end of last century. In those days, people in Yunnan seldom drank black tea. All varieties of tea export, including pu’ers and green teas, from the whole of Yunnan was a mere 10 thousand tons even by 1998, 5% of China tea export in the same year. When I wrote the first article about Dianhong in this site, the impression of it was a sweet and pleasant, but simplistic tea.
When did Dianhong come to life again?
Back track to Mr Feng Shao-qiu ( mentioned in part one of this story ). The location — Lincang — he set up the experimental tea factory was the cradle for Tea the plant. It still is a major leaf supplier for all of Yunnan. Local government figure states that 10% of all leaves for tea production in the whole province comes from this small county alone. That includes leaves for all the pu’er varieties, many of which are prized for leaves from old tall trees. In reality the figure should be even higher. Leaf sellers and collectors are more likely to report down for less duty and tax.
In 1996 a major change took place. Certain powerful people came in to change the sleepy black tea factory that Feng founded into a Communo-capitalistic style big corporation. Dianhong Corporation not only bought the aura of the location, but also the ageing tea forerunner with a new memoir. New cavernous buildings, giant machines, new roads and layers of managers and bosses. New stories in tea history began to spread too.
This happened not only in Lincang, but in all major subregions throughout Yunnan. As a matter of fact, throughout China. A Big Brother company seizing the centre stage in all major commodities.
Three years after the takeover by this corporation of the original Shun-ning Tea Factory, black tea export from China dropped 50%. By 2000, new tea factory companies in Yunnan sprung up “like bamboo shoots after the rain”. One way China deals with laid-offs is to encourage bank loans for small business start-ups. Artisans, technicians and other staff from the old company structure felt that they could do better on the their own. Or they had to in order to survive. The surge in the puer market added fuel.
It is never easy to set up a new production facility. Team building, supplies, hardware, work-flow, cash-flow, marketing and sales… all the muscles and intelligence to compete with Big Brother in the survival game. However, being small means flexibility.
Without access to the large commercial tea fields controlled by the corporation, the smaller companies in Lincang need to buy greens from independent smaller farms and leaf collectors in the tea forests. Leaves from older trees, amongst others, when not taken by the wild craze of puer production, slipped into the wither baskets for making black teas. In the same condition that Feng tried to produce black tea in 1939, these enterprising independent small producers use whatever resources they can access to create products to compete with the Big Brother for their market shares. Some with better value, others with superior quality.
Lincang Gold Needles, King of Red Tea, and Dianhong Classic
I am not sure why few selections impressed me until recently. Perhaps it takes time to improve on quality. Or that better leaves have all gone into the pu’er stream until the two major price crashes in the past decade. Perhaps they have simply eluded my radar.
Lincang Gold Needles ( centre ) is a variety that is made from the leaves of matured trees from the heights in the mountains of Lincang. Slow growth in combination of the rich biodiversity of its environment feeds the native Fengqing Dayezhong cultivar for a biochemistry that allows for the gongfu black tea processing to result in this deep, clear, golden red liquor of silky, substantial tactility and a complexly rich body.
Much like any other tea, not all teas that look alike taste alike. Many cultivars of the “Dayezhong” group abundant throughout Yunnan are capable of producing shoots that can be processed into needles looking like these. The elements of tree age, horticultural environment, harvest time, as well as processing artistry all contribute to the quality of the final product.
“Big Brother” corporation makes this kind of Gold Needle Dianhong too. Only at a higher price and not necessarily similarly good taste.
A tea that has been in the market for much longer and that gave me a very bad impression of Dianhong when I first studied the subcategory at the end of last century is Dianhong King ( left ), or King of Red Tea — Hongcha Wang. On first impression, it looks much better than Lincang Gold Needles. Brighter colours, stronger leaves. Sometimes marketed as Gold Needles too, Dianhong King is made up also almost entirely of the typical big, fat shoots from the “Large Leaf” cultivars.
Not only does it taste uneven and unpleasant, but many from what I have sampled also have the undertone of stale daikon, a sure sign of bad timing in black tea processing.
Look is not everything. Dianhong Classic ( right ), with a relatively more humble appearance, though not unimpressive at all, is a full bodied, chocolatey, flavourful black tea that has managed to convince me Dianhong is a worthwhile black tea for drinking, and for putting quite many hours of my time to study and explore to give you this report.
For pure drinking, Dianhongs perform well in the gongfu style or when using a leaf-water ratio lesser than 1 to 100. To make it very strong for milk or sugar or other condiments, use a lower grade one. Wasting quality, considering the amount of work that goes in to make it, is immoral.