The Large, Beautiful Green Leaves of Taiping Houkui
tài•píng hóu•kuí 太平猴魁
Region: Anhui, China
Some may suspect that this exceedingly large leaf green tea may be produced from some plant other than the tea tree, Camellia sinensis. Its taste, however, is definitely green tea, although free of the seaweedy heaviness of some other low-fired green, nor the warmth of other baked or roasted ones. There is no “beans”, “nuts”, nor “cereal” tones to it either. It is cooling, clean, and yet tasteful. Properly infused, the texture is surprisingly velvety.
This is Taiping Houkui, produced by a specially designated tea cultivar, Shidaye ( 柿大葉 ), a native of what used to be Taiping county, now part of Huangshan city administration. A small shrub in itself, yet with large young leaves that make this particular tea possible.
Tai-ping Hou-kui, meaning literally ( the tea ) by Mr Wang “Kui” Cheng of the “Hou” small valley (Hou Kang Village) in the “Taiping” county. The tea that people here used to produce with Shidaya was Jiancha ( pointy tea, i.e. 尖茶 ), a tea that is still available today, and sometimes sold under the Taiping Houkui label. Early last century Mr Wang felt he could make a better tea of the particularly strong tea bushes in his farm so he selected the best of his plucks and gave it some additional handy work during the processing: instead of just rolling the leaves lightly to keep them straight as in Jiancha, he pressed them between meshes with a roller during the low fire baking process to make them really thin and straight. This amazing looking tea was born.
You can’t escape using a tall glass to make tea with this. One for its sheer size, two for its fresh green look. It would be a waste to hide it. Please do cover the glass during infusion for optimizing the taste and aroma. Note also that because of its paper thinness, thus relatively large surface area for infusion, and very much broken down cellular structure through processing, this tea infuse slightly more readily than most other whole leaf green tea.
One great way to render the best taste profile of this tea is by way of the polarized temperature (ice-fire) technique:
- Put a few ice cubes at the bottom of the glass, and then 3~4 grams of the tea for each 200ml of the capacity.
- Slowly, but steadily pour boiling water into the glass, going round the inner circumference.
- Cover and let steep for 6 minutes.
- Use 80°C water for subsequent infusions if you do not use ice.
(note: this tea is so flat and dry that 3 grams of it seems a lot of tea. Put no less than that, because otherwise the taste can be too light.)
A second grade Taiping Houkui can be half the price of a fine one in the wholesale market. Not to mention even lower quality versions. They can look quite similar. A fine one tastes a lot smoother and not grassy, because the firing of the leaves has to be just right. That is why the liquor is not lemon yellow, but rather a slightly warmer, canary tone. Over firing is the other end of the spectrum and you don’t want.
Other than taste, the right firing is an important point of caution for health as well, which will bring us to the next topic: TCM concerns.
Optimum firing tones down the otherwise TCM chilling property of the tea and makes it enjoyable as a regular cooling drink for most people. Even so, people who are weaker in the stomach and who easily retain too much humid toxin ( otherwise known to the modern people simply as fluids ) under the skin — that makes them look bloated, such as large eye-bags etc — should enjoy this tea only occasionally. Their regular tea should be green teas that are more thoroughly roasted or baked, or better yet, traditional oolongs (either Phoenix or Wuyi).