Guangzhou, 25 April 2018
So far, the journey has all gone according to plan; perfect, too perfect... Usually, after a couple days in China, I am forced to reschedule everything to avoid inconveniences and make the best of unexpected circumstances. This year, however, everything has gone perfectly; but not today.
For months, I have been looking for acquaintances, suppliers, friends, and friends of friends, anybody who knew a producer of organic Yingde Hong Cha, a Guangdong black tea I would like to add to our selection. Just before leaving for China, finally, the search paid off: Spencer and I ought to have met the producer this morning, however...
One unexpected bureaucratic engagement, and the only producer of organic Yingde black tea that I could find wasn't able to meet. It helps to have a plan B.
After a night in Shenzhen, we take a train for Guangzhou and, in the early afternoon, arrive sweaty and hungry at Fangcun, the name of the quarter where the largest tea market in the world is found.
On foot, making our way towards Fangcun (Guangzhou), where the largest tea market in the world is located. Our backpacks become increasingly full of tea, mostly samples and a few personal whims. In my hand, 5 kg of Tieguanyin, to be sent by post.
Spencer is exhausted, and stays at the hotel to sleep. I venture into the street. A dozen streets crisscross; each full of tea shops; there are thousands. The market extends for several kilometres, and almost all of the shops sell Pu'er. The choices are endless. In a shopping centre (with only tea shops!), I drink a first Pu'er with the proprietress of the shop; it is delicious, and curiously sweet; it restores me.
I decide to walk around as much as possible to get a superficial but complete picture of the market. From time to time, I recognise the characters 英德 (Yingde) on a sign, enter the shop, introduce myself, and politely ask for a sample of Hong Cha (black tea). I collect several with the intention of comparing them to the organic one, samples of which I had had sent to Shanghai.
I don't miss the chance to also visit a couple Hei Cha shops, specialising in post-fermented teas other than Pu'er.
Above: different types of Yingde Hong Cha, a traditional black tea, full-bodied and intense.
Below: two Fu Zhuan from Hunan (pressed post-fermented teas). One of the two is studded with Jinhua (lit. golden flowers), a fungus used in traditional Chinese medicine that grows in the wild on the roots of conifers.
The Pu'er shops don't much attract me; perhaps because there are too many. I find cakes at affordable prices, and try a couple: mediocre. I am much more interested by the other Hei Cha, which are much more difficult to find elsewhere. But here, there are entire shops dedicated solely to a single type of Hei Cha, such as those from Hunan.
In one of these shops, while I compare some aged Fu Zhuan (see photo above), a talkative gentleman in his fifties from Singapore enters. He tastes three teas, and, without knowing the year, immediately identifies the youngest one, calling it immature, and the more refined of the two remaining twenty-year-old teas. He is a tea enthusiast with experience, and speaks a lot, in perfect English. "Now here's a chance I can't miss", I think to myself.
Soon, all three of us are having dinner at a restaurant on the street. Dave, the gentleman from Singapore, does not stop talking. For more than ten years, he has come once or twice a year to Fangcun to buy tea. On some subjects, we don't see eye to eye: for example, he buys many 'branded' teas, that is, expensive teas produced in industrial quantities by companies renowned throughout China; I prefer solo farmers and small, artisanal, family-run businesses. But after having tasted a couple teas together, I realise that, in terms of taste, we are on the same wavelength. He is neither a know-all, nor does he think in black and white. I ask him for advice on where to buy Pu'er and other Hei Cha. We end the evening in one of his favourite shops, where we taste a Bingdao from 2000. I don't know, nor does anyone else, whether it is an original Bingdao, but the taste is convincing: very soft on the palate, gently spicy and complex. The price is high, but acceptable. I'll think about it.
Written by Gabriele