Last time I was here in Wuyishan was about twenty years ago. I had only just started drinking tea more seriously back then, and it was also a much calmer place than now. This time, I know a little more about tea, and the place is a lot busier – it’s like a giant tea mall now, with almost every single shop in town selling yancha of some kind.
On some level, most tea producing regions are the same in East Asia. They mostly work on a small farmer model, where individual farmer has a smallish holding of land with a limited production capacity. Calling them “plantation” would, for the most part, be a misnomer. These are family held farms, and most people here produce tea for their own sales.
This is, however, also a big tourist attraction because of its nature, so there are a fair number of stores in town that have nothing to do with any farm – their trade is the tourist one, and they’re here to make some money selling people tea. Well, everyone’s here to make money selling tea, but in these cases they’re traders. Nothing wrong with that, although, as per the Longjing rule, one ought to remember that just because someone’s in the production area, it doesn’t mean they’re here making tea or have direct access to teas.
I’m here to do research for my project. Thankfully, I have some contacts here through friends, and I’ve been to some tea farms and factories. Like I said, some things are about the same no matter what area you’re in. The Wuyishan area though has some unique properties.
The thing is, Wuyi tea is divided roughly into three areas – zhengyan (proper rock, literally), banyan (half rock), and zhoucha (island tea). The names don’t make a lot of sense in translation. Zhengyan means teas in the proper Wuyi areas – inside the valleys and hills of the Wuyi mountains national park area. Banyan are the stuff right around the area – like the photo above, basically on the outskirts of the national park. Then you have zhoucha, which is now a term generally meaning stuff all around even further away. Zhoucha is regional stuff made in the style of Wuyi teas, whereas zhengyan stuff is the “real deal”. Prices, of course, are according to these regions. Run of the mill zhengyan stuff will easily run over a couple thousand RMB for 500g, more of course if you’re buying from someone who sourced it and is selling to the Western market. Better stuff would be multiples of that.
Then there are these so called “special” areas – Niulan keng, Huiyuan keng, etc. There’s a lot of hype here, typical of the Chinese tea market these days. Prices can be sky high for some of these teas – like 20k USD a jin (500g) for some really special ones, even though these are sort of one of a kind trades. The more “regular” stuff can still run above ten thousand RMB a jin. It’s frankly pretty silly. Can the difference really be that great? Yes, I suppose, but in general, once you go above a certain price point… the incremental improvement in your experience is going to be marginal.
Then of course there are the fakes – cheaper stuff faking to be better ones, usually. Nobody would believe you if you sell a non Wuyi tea as a top grade one, but a banyan being sold as zhengyan? If you’ve never had a bunch of both, you probably can’t tell the difference. Banyan is still good tea, but you’ll pretty much never see people advertise it as that, unfortunately. As always, tea is pretty anonymous, and it’s quite easy to try to dress up a tea as something else.
It’s raining cats and dogs outside, and it’s 2:40am. Time for bed. Hopefully the rain stops and so I can go see some more teas tomorrow deeper into the park.