So many of the artisans that we buy teas from are unique and deserve the utmost attention and respect. It’s difficult to choose just one to highlight. Mr. Zhang, of Wuyi Mountain, China, however, would definitely be the first.
Wuyi ‘Rock’ teas were often State gifts from the Central Chinese government to other dignitaries, such as the President of the United States. As a result, the requirements of being an acknowledged artisan in a fabled tea producing region is quite high. Wuyi Mountain is a legendary scenic area of some of the most pristine waters and cliffs, with a unique terroir that commands some extreme requisites for growth. Mr. Zhang has tackled the job of mastering what is traditional farming and processing techniques. He has also created personalized equipment to make exceptional versions of Wuyi teas.
Wuyi teas are arbor type Camellia Shuixian varietals that grow on just 10cm of soil, and their roots then dig deep and grasp into the white sedimentary rocks. They are, by nature, gnarly and mineral rich. This is a character that is particular to the region, that imitators from other areas can not achieve.
Mr. Zhang looks to accentuate this characteristic. He showcases the most poignant aspects of the region, rather than, like many producers more concerned about commerce, making ‘friendlier’ teas to the uninitiated palate. Not Mr. Zhang, whose aim was to make the strongest, most complex tasting tea in the universe.
Like many of his colleagues in the tea world, Mr. Zhang is taciturn by nature. He loves to share but hates to talk. Tea was more than a livelihood or merely a passion. His life is dedicated to studying, evaluating, innovating, and magnifying the majesty of his teas.
For example, he would not allow tea university interns to study and practice with him any more. ‘They would break the spines of my tea leaves,’ he said, in the same tone a surgeon would say a medical intern has callously killed a patient.
Such minute attention to detail, like making sure that the spine part of each and every tea leaf was not accidentally broken during processing, something that even tea researchers and professors do not understand, is what sets Mr. Zhang apart.
The breaking of the spine of the tea leaf will prevent proper water channelling all the way through to the outer veins, which serves as a conduit through the canals of waterways in the leaf. The intense and myriad aromatic oil compounds rely on this throughway to reach the surface of the leaf, and then, to your cup. This is a far cry from machine made, cut leaf teas!
Mr. Zhang would not look sidelong at professionals who do not understand this fact, let alone succumb to using machines to expedite the process via breaking and cutting the tea leaves. Rather, he customizes machinery to accentuate his laborious traditional processing methods. For example, he invented some extremely fiery charcoal burners that blow very hot air into his tumblers to dry his leaves. He then would charcoal roast the teas for 1 month at a time, and for select batches, for 6 whole months!
As for integrity and extremism, Mr. Zhang is the challenger of the connoisseur palate. No floral, upfront notes. The complex cinnamon and cooked fruit notes are buried within minerally, high fired textures. One might need to be a consummate professional and connoisseur to appreciate his teas. Wuyi tea was never for the faint of heart, and in Mr. Zhang’s hands, whose goal was the strongest, most complex, longest finish tea in the world, the consumer must rise to the occasion just to deserve to taste them!