Qimen Hongcha (祁门红茶)

Name Qí mén hóngchá / 祁门红茶
English Black Tea, English Breakfast Tea
Region Qimen, Anhui
Manufacture Fully oxidized black tea
Style Wiry, very small, neat
Flavor Brisk, full-bodied
Aroma Floral, but clean
Liquor Golden-red tinged with copper
Brewing Brew three to five minutes at 90°C

Black tea is the most popular tea outside of China (accounting for more than 90% of tea sold in the West), but only makes up 13% of all the tea manufactured in China. This fully oxidized tea is known by the Chinese as 紅茶, or crimson tea, because of the color of its liquid as opposed to the color of the oxidized leaves which is how it has been labeled in English (this is also why from the Chinese point-of-view, black tea is actually Puer Tea). Black tea is popular in the West because it has been traditionally more common in markets. Green tea usually loses its flavor within a year, while black tea retains its flavor for several years making it much easier to transport. Quite simply, black tea was more likely to survive the months long trip from China to Europe in the 17th-19th centuries.

Fortunately, I am using Taobao to deal with my tea logistics and it only took 2 days for my Qimen Black tea to arrive.

Yet another misunderstanding the West made was adding milk to their tea. They witnessed a Manchu emperor (a non-Han Chinese) do this and assumed that was how it was supposed to be done. Then consider the influx of sugar imports to Britain from their Caribbean colonies at the time and the next thing you have is black tea with milk and sugar – something you will only find in hotels in China today.

Tea Tip – How the British Took Tea to India

For an interesting and fun read I would recommend “For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History” by Sarah Rose. It chronicles the story of one of greatest acts of corporate espionage describing how Robert Fortune stole tens of thousands of tea plants and seeds (as well as Chinese people trained in the manufacture of tea) and transported them to the
Assam region in India. After the Opium War, the British supposedly believed the Chinese would legalize and start growing opium themselves thereby putting the British at a trade advantage. Of course, no country could have that power over the British empire so something had to be done.

Of the many things I learned in this book two stand out. First, until the 19th century it was incredibly difficult to transport plant life because it would often die while being transported over long distances. It wasn’t until the invention of the Wardian Case (essentially a mini greenhouse) that this became much easier. From “For All the Tea in China”:

Ward was the first to recognize a fact that had been previously unimagined: Plants can survive for years kept in a sealed, well-lit environment with water….Ward witnessed and documented a process that was simple and self-sustaining: During sunlight hours, plants use moisture from the soil in combination with carbon dioxide to photosynthesize. At night they emit the oxygen and release water vapor, which condenses in the cool night air against the glass and rips back down to moisten the soil. The moisture is almost indefinitely retained, so plant life in such containers is effectively self-perpetuating.

The second thing that stood out for me (and something that I believe could easily happen again today!) was this incredible story of when Robert Fortune visited a tea factory in Anhui:

As he made his way through the green tea factory, Fortune took note of something both peculiar and more than a little alarming on the hands of the tea manufacturers. It was the kind of observation that, once reported, would be an invaluable boon to the burgeoning Indian tea experiment, with the power to boost the sales of Indian tea over Chinese. While staring at the workers busy in the final stages of processing, he noticed that their fingers were “quite blue.”

Among the blenders and tasters of the London auction it was generally assumed that the Chinese engaged in all manner of duplicity, inserting twigs and sawdust into their teas to bulk up the loose leaves. It was said that the Chinese were brewing their own breakfast tea, saving the soggy leaves to dry in the sun, and then reselling the recycled product as fresh tea for the gullible “white devils.”

There was no trust in the trade, no faith in the goodwill of the Chinese manufacturers.

But the blue substance on the fingers of the Chinese workmen seemed to Fortune a matter of legitimate concern. What could be the source of this? He and others had long suspected that the Chinese were chemically dyeing tea for the benefit of the foreign market. He was now in a position to prove or disprove the charge.

He watched each step of the processing carefully, saying nothing, making notes, and occasionally asking Wang to put a question to a manager or worker. At one end of the factory the supervisor stood over a white porcelain mortar. In the bowl was a deep blue powder, made finer and finer with each grind of the pestle. The superintendent was in fact preparing iron ferrocyanide, a substance also known as Prussian blue, a pigment used in paints.

When cyanide is ingested, it binds to iron inside cells, interfering with the absorption of certain enzymes and compromising a cell’s ability to produce energy. Cyanide affects the tissues most needed for aerobic respiration, the heart and lungs. In high doses cyanide can bring on seizures, coma, and then cardiac arrest, killing quickly. At lower doses cyanide leads to weakness, giddiness, confusion, and light-headedness. Exposure to even low levels of cyanide over long periods of time can lead to permanent paralysis. Fortunately for the tea drinkers of Britain, Prussian blue is a complex molecule, so it is almost impossible to release the cyanide ion from it and the poison passes harmlessly through the body.

Elsewhere in the factory, however, over the charcoal fires where the tea was roasted, Fortune discovered a man cooking a bright yellow powder into a paste. The smell was terrible, like that of rotten eggs. The yellow substance was gypsum, or calcium sulfate dehydrate, a common component of plaster. Gypsum produces hydrogen sulfide gas as it breaks down. While the gas is produced naturally by the body in low doses, in high doses it acts as a broad-spectrum poison, affecting many of the body’s systems simultaneously, particularly the nervous system. At lower concentrations gypsum acts as an irritant; it reddens the eyes, inflames the throat, and causes nausea, shortness of breath, and fluid in the lungs. Consumed over the long term it might produce fatigue, memory loss, headaches, irritability, and dizziness. It can even induce miscarriage in women, and failure to thrive in infants and children.

Fortune estimated that more than half a pound of plaster and Prussian blue was included in every hundred pounds of tea being prepared. The average Londoner was believed to consume as much as one pound of tea per year, which meant that Chinese tea was effectively poisoning British consumers. The additives were not included maliciously, however, for the Chinese simply believed that foreigners wanted their green tea to look green.

“No wonder the Chinese consider the natives of the West to be a race of barbarians,” Fortune remarked. But why, he asked, were they making green tea so extremely green, since it looked so much better without the addition of poison and since the Chinese themselves would never dream of drinking it colored?

“Foreigners seemed to prefer having a mixture of Prussian blue and gypsum with their tea, to make it look uniform and pretty, and as these ingredients were cheap enough, the Chinese [have] no objection to [supplying] them as such teas always fetch . . . a higher price!”

Fortune surreptitiously collected some of the poisonous dyes from the factory, bundling them up in his wax-dipped cloth sacks and stowing them away in the generous folds of his mandarin costume. As a scientist he wanted samples to analyze, but most of all he wanted to send additional ones back to England.

These substances would be prominently displayed in London’s Great Exhibition of 1851. In the glittering Crystal Palace, Britain displayed to the world all its industrial, scientific, and economic might, including the green tea dyes. This public exhibition marked the moment when tea, the national drink of Britain, came out of the shadows of myth and mystery and into the light of Western science and understanding. Fortune unmasked unwitting Chinese criminality and provided an irrefutable argument for British-manufactured tea.

It is no wonder that black tea became more popular than green tea by the end of the nineteenth century in England.

I tried sampling 2 grades of Qimen black tea and also a Darjeeling black tea for comparison purposes. The middle tea was purchased on Taobao, the tea on the right at the new Xizang Lu / Fuxing Lu tea market in Shanghai, and the Darjeeling tea on the left.

Personally, I very much enjoyed all three of these black teas. I have been told that typically only Grade 5 or lower black tea is exported abroad since most non-Chinese cannot discern the difference with higher grade tea (I think this is also why many non-Chinese have a sub-par, first experience with tea). Compared to my experience with black tea outside of China, these teas were significantly more fragrant and refreshing. I wanted to dislike the Darjeeling tea (as a stolen child of the Chinese tea plant!), but found it had a very clean taste compared to the Qimen teas which all seem to have a slight taste of longan fruit (龙眼).

More Information (from Baidu Baike):

Qimen black tea is an iconic black tea from China, hailing from Qimen county in Anhui Province. The small village is blessed by nature: nestled in mountains, mild weather with sufficient rainfall and sunlight and fertile soil, making it the perfect place to grow tea.

Although synonymous with black tea now, Qimen did not have any black tea plantation until the mid 19th century. Like most tea producing regions of China, it was dedicated to green tea. It was not until a well-traveled local merchant who had been inspired by the growing popularity of black tea in Britain did he decide to pioneer producing black tea in Qimen. After years of tireless studying and experimentation, he finally mastered the making of black tea which involved a complicated process of fermentation.

The unique taste of Qimen black tea helped distinguish it to become one of the most prominent black teas in China (along with Lapsang Souchong and Yunnan Black Tea). Speaking of the taste, Qimen black tea has an aroma evoking dried longan as well as a floral scent reminiscent of orchids. The dried tea leaves are very small and thin. They have an intense black color with a tinge of maroon. Good Qimen should contain many yellow young buds among the black leaves, giving the tea a more delicate flavor. The brewed liquor transforms into a beautiful maroon orange color. After brewing, one can immediately smell the unique longan and orchid aroma. Taking a small sip, the aroma envelops one’s mouth and lingers on for a long time.

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2 thoughts on “Qimen Hongcha (祁门红茶)

  1. Pingback: Taiping Houkui (太平猴魁) » The Network Sense

  2. Pingback: Sarah Rose · The World Loves Tea

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