Keemun Black Tea – History, Nomenclature and Types
Keemun black tea (chin. Keemun Hong Cha = Keemun ‘Red’ Tea), at home in the county with the same name, Qimen County, located in the south of the Chinese province of Anhui, has such a young history that the “legend” ranking around its origin is historically documented. In the second half of the 19th century, Yu Quian, a public servant from Qimen, fallen into disgrace because of some irregularities, traveled to Fujian province, located southeast of Anhui, to learn about the secrets of producing black tea there and then use these skills to pursue an honest trade back home. After his return to Qimen in 1875, he produced Anhui’s first black tea on the basis of processes learnt in Fujian, which he adjusted to the local cultivar and conditions. Until that time, only green tea had been produced in Anhui, and in fact, Keemun black tea is based on the same tea cultivar than the famous Mao Feng green tea coming from the same region.
Keemun Black Tea – same cultivar than Mao Feng Green Tea
Yu Quian’s work should soon be crowned by success. He himself became the prosperous and respected operator of three production sites in Qimen, and his black tea should soon conquer the hearts of tea lovers both domestically and abroad and become a permanent presence on the “10 Great Teas of China” list. In England, Keemun black tea has remained a standard ingredient of most English Breakfast Tea blends until today.
The name “Keemun” is derived from an old, colonial times western transcription of the tea’s place of origin, “Qimen”, a tea cultivation region located right between the Yangtze river and the Huangshan mountains (“Yellow Mountains). Typical for this tea is a malty and cocoa-like taste with pronounced (stone) fruit, light floral and a hint of pine and orchid notes. The sweetness of the rather soft and smooth black tea is the same „Chinese black tea sweetness“ that we know from other Chinese black teas, such as a Lapsang tea from the Wuyi mountains or a Dian Hong Cha from Yunnan. Today, a large variety of different types of Keemun teas can be distinguished, based on the picking standard applied and individual processing variations. Characteristic for all of them, however, is a particularly long, special withering and oxidation process, a relatively mild roast and some degree of smoke aroma that varies from producer to producer. The main types are:
- Keemun Gongfu – specifically rolled for use in the Chinese ‘Gong Fu Cha’ tea ceremony
- Keemun Maofeng – slightly twisted, hairy tips
- Keemun Xinya – Early season picking, lighter and sweeter than other Keemun teas
- Keemun Hao Ya – Selection of particularly fine buds with high silver tip ratio, especially with the ‘A’ grade
- Hubei Keemun – “fake” Keemun tea: black teas quite similar to Keemun tea, coming from neighboring Hubei province
Our Spring Keemun Hao Ya ‘A’ – Origin and Picking Standard
Our Spring Keemun Hao Ya ‘A’ Black Tea is – as the name already states – an ‘A’ grade representative of the Hao Ya type, picked in spring with a picking standard of 1+2 (one bud with two adjacent young leaves each). It comes from the town of Qihong, located in Qimen county, with a reputation for high quality Keemun teas due to its nutrient-rich soils, favorable high mountain altitudes and natural biodiversity. There, it is produced by a tea farmer cooperative with many years of experience in the cultivation and processing of Keemun tea.
well-visible ‘pekoes’ in the dry tea leaves
Well visible in the dry, short needle-shaped and otherwise dark-colored leaf material is the high ratio of golden ‘pekoes’ (tips), witnesses of this tea’s superior picking standard. The bright golden-red tea liquor is crystal clear. The fruity-sweet, complex orchid scent of the dry tea leaves is reflected in more vivid form in the actual liquor’s fragrance, providing an anticipation of the tea’s taste: soft, smooth and fruity-sweet, full-bodied, without any bitterness or astringency, with a hint of floral, pine and orchid notes.
The processing of Keemun tea in principle resembles that of other Chinese black teas. The freshly picked tea leaves are initially spread in the half-shadow of the tea factory hall. They are left to cool down and release an initial part of their moisture. Then, the already much softer and sleeker tea leaves are moved into so-called “withering troughs”, where they are further withered for 3-4 hours at constant temperature of 28°C provided through wood fire heat feed. After that, the leaf surfaces are broken up and oxidation processes initiated and/or accelerated by a mechanical rolling process for about 1-1.5 hours.
Another particularity of Keemun tea processing is the following oxidation process itself, taking place in special square-shaped wood panel casings, in which the tea leaves are heaped and covered by wet cloths for a period of 2-3 hours. At this, the reached degreed of oxidation must constantly be monitored by an experienced tea master through repeated visual, haptic and olfactory testing. Once the desired degree of oxidation is reached, the leaves are subjected to 2 subsequent roasting runs, where the remaining moisture is reduced to less than 5%. The resulting “Keemun Maocha” will later undergo a thorough quality sorting procedure in order to yield the final Spring Keemun Hao Ya ‘A’.
When prepared according to western tea preparation standards, we recommend pouring 200ml water of a temperature of 90+°C (boiling hot) over 4g of tea leaves and leave for 2-3 minutes for a first infusion. A second infusion, steeped only little longer, shows virtually no loss compared to the first, and even a third infusion, with a steeping period of 5 minutes, is still very enjoyable, despite some loss in flavor and aroma.