China’s black teas, called “kung fu” teas, are a labor of love. The term “kung fu” refers to the highest grades of black tea, carefully and skillfully made, with extraordinary care taken in each step of the manufacturing process.
Called black tea in the West, it is called red tea or hongcha in China. China’s black teas are very different from those of India and Sri Lanka. Rather than bold and robust, they are soft, sweet, and fragrant, yet full-bodied and flavorful. This is because the Chinese slowly and carefully coax the flavor and fragrance from the leaf, using a much lighter touch and a lengthier, slower oxidation period.
The longer, slower oxidation helps concentrate a type of flavanoid called thearubigins, and together with lots of plump, sweet tips, a fine pluck, and careful, slow processing draws out the lightly sweet aroma of rock fruits, and hints of bittersweet chocolate (without the bitterness).
There are several different families of black tea, each coming from a different area of China. From Anhui province comes the Keemun family of black teas. This includes Keemun Hao Ya (also called Qimen Hao Ya or Keemun Downy Bud), Keemun Hao Ya B, Keemun Mao Feng (also called Keemun Hairpoint Mao Feng), and Keemun Congou.
Keemun is China’s most famous black tea, named after Qimen in Anhui province where it’s made. Keemun black teas have been favorites in the West for more than a century because of their sweet and intriguing chocolate flavor.
China’s Fujian province is home to the Panyang Congou family of black teas, which include Dan Gui, Golden Crab, Golden Monkey, King of Golden Needles, and Panyang Congou.
One of the last historical teas of its type produced in China during the tea trade days, Panyang Congou is carefully made, as its name implies (Congou is a variation of Kung fu, meaning made with skill and care). Congou is also a tea trade classification for teas with this particular twisted shape.
For centuries Panyang Congou was handmade by skilled masterful tea makers, but today it is made mainly by machine.
From China’s Wuyi Mountains in the northern part of Fujian province, in an area considered to be the birthplace of tea, comes a revered black tea, Lapsang Souchong (or Tarry Lapsang). Even though today Lapsang Souchong is being marketed the world over, the best and original version is only produced in Wuyi Shan.
China’s Sichuan province is a mountainous region with vast areas of wilderness untouched as yet by man. It is home to a single black tea, Zao Bei Jian, also called Imperial Sichuan.
In the far northwestern tip of Yunnan, touching on the Tibetan Himalaya, Yunnan province is rich with history, and home to some of China’s most interesting and flavorful teas, Yunnan Buds of Gold and Yunnan Golden Needles. Both are made from an indigenous variety of large, broad-leaf tea bushes, known to locals as dayeh, found only is this remote area of Yunnan province.
Considered to be some of the highest grades of black tea, Yunnan Buds of Gold and Yunnan Golden Needles are made with lots of long tips, giving them a sweet and creamy, malty flavor with no bitterness.
In the southwestern corner of Yunnan province lies the hot and steamy tropical area of Xishuangbanna, home to earthy black pu-erh teas. These healthy teas are considered to be medicinal by the Chinese. Research has confirmed their beliefs, with studies showing pu-erh teas to aid in weight loss as well as many of the same health benefits attributed to green and white teas, that receive minimal processing.