New Teas Showcased in China

XIAMEN, China

Xiamen, a coastal island port directly across from Taiwan, has been a major trading hub for Chinese tea since the 1600s. Photo by Dan Bolton.

Fujian province has long been a trendsetter in tea, producing several of the artisan-crafted “famous teas” that comprise the costliest segment of the market. The province may trail in tonnage, but leads exports in value per kilo.

As the gateway to Fujian province, Xiamen remains a primary tea export hub. This region is the heart of oolong and white tea production. Fujian growers produced 78 percent of China’s oolong in 2015. The province processed 202,500 metric tons of oolong that year, up 5.5 percent year-over-year. Even more impressive was a 42 percent increase to 20,400 metric tons of white tea (up by 6,480 metric tons).

Tea fairs evolved from market festivals and seasonal gatherings that in China always include tea. Fujian hosts several regional events, but the 300,000 people who filled 15 halls (900 tea vendors reserve 678,000 square feet of space) for the annual Xiamen Tea Fair make it an exceptional showcase.

Founded in 2010 with 211 exhibitors and 100,000 attendees, it was extremely successful from the onset. Hong Kong tea trader and retailer Wing-chi Ip known as “Mr. Leaf” inspired the event, which mixes his love of art and design with his passion for tea. The 8th year was bigger, with 1,200 exhibitors, and better attended that any show to date, up from 260,000 attendees in 2016.

New on the Floor

Fujian’s reputation is anchored in antiquity. This is why merchants focus on the traditional styles of tea such as silver needle and da hong pao. In China, teas for everyday drinking are packaged simply and securely to emphasize the appearance and to seal in the aroma of the tea. At the show, dry leaves are on display for discerning buyers, but everything depends on taste (haggling is common as price is a consideration only after buyers verify the tea meets their personal standard).

Every booth has a kettle on the boil, a gong fu gaiwan and samples made fresh for each prospective customer.

Among the more than 900 vendors displaying classic oolongs (tie guan yin), red robe and Wuyi rock teas, traditional greens (dragonwell), and newer styles (Anji bai cha), it was the black and white teas that stood out.

Aged Whites

Pin Pin Xiang Tea Chocolate Bar, AgedWhiteTea, photo by Dan Bolton

Notable are 137-gram bing cha cakes similar to puer but of compressed white tea. These teas do not undergo a fatal kill stop. Due to the thin surface area of the cake, the leaves continue to breathe, developing a rich flavor and enhanced mouthfeel over time. Pin Pin Tea, one of the more influential brands headquartered in Fuding, sells white teas aged up to 20 years (look for a certificate of authenticity embedded in the cake). Pin Pin teas are also pressed into a patented “chocolate bar” made of 5-gram segments that you break into the gaiwan or teapot.

Preparation is unusual in that the first three steeps are gung fu style and quick, resulting in pale liquor with an aromatic delight. The tea is then poured from the gaiwan into a boiling kettle for a few minutes to fully extract plant sugars, complex polyphenols, and layers of flavor delivered with a heightened umami taste known as “red date.” The aged teas are dark amber and do not taste bitter even after boiling for five minutes.

Keemun Black

Tea artist in traditional Yunnan dress prepares a black tea. About 11 percent of the tea produced in China is black tea, one of the faster growing styles. Photo by Dan Bolton

Sunriver Tea has a reverence for black tea dating to its origin in the late Ming Dynasty (1590). Lapsang (the name of the high mountainous Wuyi region of Fujian) begat souchong (which means small leaf trees). The original red tea, which is not smoked in pine, is making a strong comeback. It is known as “golden eyebrow” for the tippy appearance, its pleasant fragrance, and beautiful color in the cup. Fully oxidized teas were less susceptible to mold on long sea voyages making Keemun (Qimen Maofeng) a popular export dating to the 1600s. This remains the dominate style. Vendors report a strong appeal for black tea in the domestic market among young people. In 2015, Fujian produced 41,600 metric tons of black tea, second only to Yunnan, which produced 64,596 metric tons of Yunnan Black that year.

Production of black tea is up 13 percent in Yunnan. Changinghong Tea is the largest producer of Yunnan Black in the Yunnan region, supplying Twinings and other global tea companies with high-quality CTC (cut, tear, curl) used in blends. Founded in 1958, it operates five divisions in Kunming, Baoshan, Fengquing, Changning, and Yunnan. It also sells gift-quality loose leaf including Ninghong and Lancang River Dragon. Black tea now accounts for 11 percent of all the tea produced in China.

Western Tea

H&F Herbal & Fruit Tea Co. CEO Hu Zeng Qiang supplies western-inspired tea blends to China’s tourist hotels, resorts and restaurants. Photo by Dan Bolton.

H&F Herbal & Fruit Tea Co. had a very large booth at the show with dozens of western-style tea blends on display. The blends are very similar to what German tea firms export.

CEO and founder Hu Zeng Qiang has operated one of the larger herb and spice import companies since 1996, relying on German suppliers until 2006 when he began what has become a very successful business in blending private-label western-style tea. He said that hotels, resorts, and restaurants in China’s tourist segment are his biggest customers. Florals rose, jasmine, and chamomile are the top sellers. Popular fruit blends are apple, mango, longan, and lychee. His line of medicinal blends includes traditional roots, mushrooms, and Chinese herbs such as ginger and ginseng.

Give Me Five Health Elements Tea founder Jones Wang, 46, is the son of a Fujian tea trader. In 2016, he launched a line of blended “deep processed” teas that are soluble in water, cold or hot. The teas are natural with no pesticides and no heavy metals, he said. The Hong Kong company’s teas are purchased in quantity to flavor ice cream and exported to Europe, the U.S., Thailand, the Middle East, Pakistan, Russia, Singapore, and Western Africa.

The island port of Xiamen, with its enormous natural harbor, attracted Portuguese merchants as early as 1541, and by the 1600s, with the arrival of the East India Company, it became one of China’s busiest tea trading centers.

Considered China’s most romantic vacation spot, there are 5 million residents in the vicinity who enjoy a mild climate with tropical beaches, a lively waterfront, fishing, sailing, and spectacular botanical gardens. Xiamen, which has a population of 1.5 million, faces Taiwan across a narrow strait and has the closest commercial and social ties to Taiwan of any city in the People’s Republic of China. Together, Taiwan and Fujian produce virtually all the world’s oolong.

The Xiamen Tea Fair is co-located with the International Tea Packaging & Design event, launched in 2012, and the 11th China Xiamen International Buddhist Items & Crafts Fair (which has more than 2,000 stands). Combined, the two shows occupy 180,000 square meters, more than a million square feet of show space indoors and out. The International Teaware Forum is an annual feature and there are dozens of presentations to introduce professionals and consumers to the teas not only of China, but Malaysia, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and even Russia. This year, the show added a forum on Chinese tea house marketing to a domestic base that exceeds all others in the world.