While some sources allege that Liu An Gua Pian green tea was designed for political elite, and once a favorite of PRC premiere Zhou Enlai, I can’t help but feel there is something seriously anti-establishment about this tea – both in terms of its flavor and the processes that make it.
The conventional template for making a fine Chinese green tea is as follows: wait for the young growth of early spring; pluck these sprigs when their buds have opened two leaves, one leaf, or even before they open and then wither, fire, and dry these leaves into a stable product. If one does it right, the result is a smooth and delicate cup of green leaves. If you’re to take Liu An Gua Pian’s plucking and processing into comparison with this conventional work order for a fine Chinese tea, Gua Pian’s approach looks like pure punk rock. Instead of plucking the earliest buds of spring, Gua Pian makers wait until these first buds mature and unfold into thumb sized leaves and only then pick them individually. The source material is pure leaf — no stems, no buds. This singular approach to picking gathers fresh leaf material with two qualities:
1.) As the first growth after Winter, the leaves have the concentrated nutrition the plant has stored up in its dormancy.
2.) As mature leaves, their flavor has strengthened.
Both characteristics compound to make for some seriously complex green tea.
Once these unusual tea leaves are withered a bit to make them pliable, they are then fired in angled woks that are built into the wall of a furnace. An initial firing serves to de-enzyme the leaf, preventing its oxidation, while a secondary trip through the wok is used to shape the leaf. Straw hand-brooms are used to stir the tea through its secondary firing, rolling the leaves in to their distinctive shape. This part of the process is a little unusual for its use of a tool to shape the leaf, as many fine chinese teas are shaped by the maker’s bare hands, but the real strangeness of Liu An Gua Pian processing is what comes next.
In the final step, the fire drying, leaves are directly roasted over a wood charcoal fire. The use of an open flame is a uniquely aggressive step, unlike anything else I’ve heard of in green tea manufacture. It is also physically demanding for the tea makers, who must take utmost care in moving the tea, now piled into a barrel-shaped basket, over a wood fire for only seconds at a time. After the tea roasts for a few seconds, it is lifted off to cool for a moment and before the process is repeated. Altogether, this on-and-off drying requires about sixty repetitions. As the process goes on, the fire is built higher and higher with more wood (peach or plum tree roots are said to be ideal, because they are thought to burn especially clean.)
How this unconventional process came to be is anyone’s guess. According to Gua Pian’s entry in the encyclopedic reference on famous Chinese tea,《中国名茶志》, there are no contemporary written documents supporting any one origin story. However, local histories do agree that the tea (in its modern form, or something close to it) first emerged in 1905. At this time, in the violent waning years of the Qing Dynasty, revolution was swinging into vogue. I’ll confess here that I wish I could make the fantastic connection to say that the radical intellectual spirit of the era somehow made its way into rual Anhui province’s tea agriculture and birthed an iconoclastic take on high-end tea that we now know as Liu An Gua Pian. Far more likely though, as the same source goes on to speculate, Gua Pian is born from much older styles of local tea production that had been in development for centuries.
Still, whatever its origins, we are blessed with something that at least tastes like an aggressive outsider among the ever greener, ever sweeter, offerings in high-market green tea. Those sorts of tea are great, yes, but sometimes you want to turn off the Bach and turn up The Clash.