Four Hours, Three Teas, Myriad Infusions

BEIJING, China

In the fall of 2009, after many months of cutting through red tape, Gong Xiangtao (aka Taozi, aka Ms. Peach) opened her tea house to the public. Descended from a Fujian tea farming family, and a licensed Tea Master, Taozi carefully refurbished a tea house next to the East Gate of the Imperial Farm Palace, Xian Nong Tan, in downtown Beijing.

This raised joy in the hearts of her many tea friends, who until then had to gather informally, knocking gently at the unlit door, and tasting and talking together privately in order to keep up Taozi’s good spirits and trust in a favorable outcome to the administrative complexities.

Chinese journalist Ye Jun is a tea connoisseur who takes every opportunity to write about his preferred beverage in his column for the China Daily newspaper. When he invited me to Beijing for the first time in August 2009 he was most enthusiastic about Taozi. He, his wife and daughter joined me and another tea house owner Chen Ke, who brought along some of his very special leaves.

Taozi Bejing Tea Photo

Chen Ke asked me, “Do foreigners know about our famous teas? Can you buy them in Europe? Are you in a position to appreciate such cups?”

As always, I replied, “Of course, some of us know and can appreciate them, but there should be more information and knowledge shared with us Westerners.” I urged him to compare tea with the many famous wines grown  in France and Italy: They are no higher quality or more special than China’s rare teas, but they have done a huge amount of image building and communication to establish a global reputation  for these wines.

“Maybe the same should be done for your teas,” I suggested.

When Ye Jun invited me for the second time in October, the Imperial Farm Palace Tea House had opened its doors officially, and Taozi was busy with her guests.

I joined a group of Chinese journalists for a private tasting. Taozi had selected some excellent teas for our session:

For a black tea or hong cha, a Yunnan silver tip Dian Hong

For an oolong, a double baked Rou Gui from Fujian and a Huang Feng Dan Cong from Guang Dong

For a dark tea, an old Puer which was then replaced by a gift brought along by one member of the group.

Taozi Tea PhotoThe gift was a small pack acquired at an auction. It contained a black tea, which Taozi identified as a very old Hunan Anhua Tian Jian. Virtually unknown in Europe to date, these dark teas from the Anhua region belong to the post-fermented category. After shaping, fermenting and dry-frying, the leaves are packed in bamboo casings and again submitted to fermentation beneath two layers of reed. This develops special yeasts, which induce a unique flavor. In the younger teas, you can see them; they are called “golden flowers.” Stored for a minimum of two years before going to the market, such teas can be infused approximately 20 times.

Taozi carefully unwrapped the small cake, which was more than 50 years old, and exclaimed, “We will not ask how much your friend has paid for it, but certainly it must be a lot of money!”

She then started to brew the tea. By the time the clock struck midnight, we had shared more than 25 infusions of this tea. Because it was so exceptional, Taozi offered us a further treat: She got a dark clay pot, a little burner and one big chrysanthemum flower, which she carefully heated in some water to prepare the pot before adding the tea leaves yet again.

In order to brew without overheating she turned the pot in a slow rotation over the flame. Time stands still when you watch this motion and wait for your cup. The flavor was more mellow now, but still intense.

After some 10 further infusions, she asked the others to take their turn slowly rotating the clay pot. This soft movement of the hand is beautiful to watch, but requires a lot of practice to be carried out harmoniously. All the men in our group took turns as we continued to drink several more little cups.

It was close to 1 a.m. when Taozi decided to close the tasting session. I was happy to have shared this exceptional experience with those present and impressed by the quiet fascination everybody displayed from one cup to the next.

“People back home will not believe me when I tell them we have been sitting together for more than four hours in the late evening, with no food – except some pumpkin kernels – and no wine, just savoring cups of famous teas.”

They told me to make sure and tell everyone back home that they would be welcome to do the same, any time .