Dialog꞉ Understanding Hei Cha, or Dark Tea

By Tea Lover

“Red” tea. “Black” tea. “Dark” tea. “Pu’er.” Many names, and not all the same. The terms get tossed around without much thought to the larger tea context. I have seen “red tea” used to label rooibos, but that fails to consider the older Chinese usage. “Black tea” is familiar in English, but that can lead to confusion when there is an attempt to explain “dark tea”. To further complicate, pu’er often gets categorized with other “black teas,” according to the traditional English usage of the term.

Chinese classification for teas: green, red, wulong, white, yellow, black

Categories of Chinese tea

To talk about hei cha, or dark tea, these definitions need to be kept in mind:

– In Chinese usage, red tea means those fully oxidized teas like keemun or Yunnan dian hongs.

– Black, or dark teas refers to those teas that undergo a “post-fermentation,” a bacterial process beyond the realm of processing most green, wulong, and red teas.

– Pu’er is a class/category of dark teas (hei cha), but only one of several.

– Hei cha has been around for centuries. It was commonly traded with other countries/regions. But today you could ask the average Chinese person under the age of 45 in Beijing or Shanghai, and 7 out of 10 could tell you almost nothing about hei cha.

For more on categories or classes of Chinese tea, see my July post.

So I went to my tea colleagues to hear what they had learned about hei cha.

Bill Waddington (a.k.a. BW) is founder of Tea Source. He has been travelling to Hunan to do detective work on and source hei cha for several years now.

Gingko Seto (a.k.a. GS) owns and operates Life In Teacup store and blog.

I look to Bill and Gingko as reliable info sources who have done their homework.

1. How does one determine quality of a hei cha?

BW: I think the answer to this is the same, whether you are talking about hei cha or dong ding or Darjeeling. Typically as the quality of the tea rises, one of two (or both) things happen: either particular characteristics become even more pronounced, or the multiplicity of different, but very distinct and discernible sensations (whether taste, aroma, or tactile) increases, sometimes dramatically. When a tea becomes “complex” — without becoming muddled, muddied, or just a hodgepodge. That’s a higher quality tea.

GS: I think the question of “how to determine quality” is more interesting in Hei Cha than among any other type of tea. Unlike many other teas, Hei Cha is not usually evaluated by its leaf grade (how young the leaves are or the shape of them) or tea tree types. Most Hei Chas are made with leaves significantly larger and older than other types of teas, and most Hei Chas are from tea trees with minimum human care (because the tea has been very inexpensive and little cost of maintenance would be invested into it). So in general, I would say legitimate products and products that fit a drinker’s taste are good products.

Some Hei Cha products do use certain common criteria for quality evaluation. For example, for Fu Brick (my personal favorite type of Hei Cha), the traditional “gold standard” is abundance of “golden flowers” (yellow fungal colonies inside the brick). The more yellow fungal colonies, the better.

Hei Cha produced in Hunan province (traditionally supplying to Northwestern Muslim regions) and Hei Cha produced in Sichuan province (traditionally supplying to Tibetan regions) both have grading systems categorizing products from higher grades loose leaf teas to various tea bricks. But even with such grading systems, not all drinkers prefer the higher grades. This is similar to the situation of pu’er, where the younger leaves are not always favored.

2. Of the many kinds of hei cha (besides pu’er), what are some of the major differences in taste and character?

BW: My experience with hei cha, is that most often in China when this term is used, people are referring to Hunan (or Sichuan) produced “dark tea” often from the Anhua region. To me, a classic Hunan hei cha will have a meadowy aroma and taste (as opposed to earthy). Think of fresh, green things after a rain, often with a decided sweet note. The “log” teas, (eg. bai liang 百两 etc.) often have a hint of a darker note; think molasses more than earthy. And I have tasted (and sell) some high-end tian jian 天尖 hei cha, with a decidedly piney aroma and flavor. I know there are hei chas from other regions of China, eg. Anhui, but they are so rarely seen outside their immediate locale my knowledge of them is limited. It seems that the Hunan (and to a lesser extent Sichuan) hei chas are the ones getting exported and reaching a larger audience, in China and elsewhere.

Having said that, I am going to seemingly contradict myself immediately—just this week I was given samples of 2 different hei chas, from southern Japan (this shocked the heck out of me, I had no idea they existed—this is one of the reasons I love the world of tea). They were wonderful, they were both very Japanesey, one had almost a fish sauce taste to it. And apparently they have been making these teas in these villages for hundreds of years (although they readily acknowledge the idea came from China). And if your definition of hei cha incorporates the idea of a secondary manufacturing process/step, that somehow involves additional microbial activity (and some degree of aging), they are definitely hei cha.

GS: I have difficulty describing the tastes. Chinese people often say Liu Bao (六堡) has “betel nut aroma". But since I’ve never tasted betel nut, I have no idea what the aroma is. Liu Bao is tasteless to me, but I think it’s just because my taste buds are numb to it, and Liu Bao is liked by a lot of other people.

Liu An Tea seems the “least black” Hei Cha to me in terms of taste, physical appearance and processing method. I feel its taste is somewhat between other Hei Cha and aged sheng puerh.

My favorite type of Hei Cha is Fu Brick, the tea with yellow fungal colonies. People often say the tea has “fungal aroma”, and my understanding of this is a malty aroma with a hint of mushroom taste.

Although most Hei Cha products supplying to ethnic regions are in compressed forms (such as bricks, cakes or columns), some of the higher grades are in loose tea forms. These include Tian Jian (天尖, Heaven Tips), Gong Jian (贡尖, Tribute Tips) in Hunan Hei Cha, as well as Mao Jian (毛尖, Silver Tips) and Ya Xi (牙细, Fine Buds) in Tibetan Hei Cha. In spite of all their names, these “higher grade” Hei Chas are all composed of larger and older leaves than those found in most other tea varieties, but their leaves are usually of higher grade than those used for compressed Hei Cha. These loose tea Hei Cha usually have more abundant layers of flavors. It seems to me they often have a rich “marine” flavor that’s not found in any other tea and is different from the “marine” flavor people may find in some Japanese green tea.

3. What advice do you give to those who want to start exploring and learning about hei cha?

BW: First I would consider puerh and “other” dark teas as distinct, at least in terms of tasting, even though they are all hei cha. Also I would distinguish between varying places of origin, that always has a huge influence on the character of any tea. Next, it seems dark teas do have some similarities based on their form: looseleaf, bricks, cakes, logs etc. (although I don’t think this is necessarily a hard and fast rule), so I would be inclined to distinguish between these.

So now you’ve broken dark teas down to sub-sub-sub categories: I would get an inexpensive dark tea from each sub-sub-sub category, and see if you like it. And then in those sub categories you like, I would experiment upwards in terms of quality (and sometimes price).

One additional note- higher price does not necessarily mean higher quality. Hei cha tea from Hunan and Sichuan were both originally developed as “everyman” teas, they deliberately weren’t meant to be expensive—but there are some really, really nice and very different, inexpensive ones. And in the last few years companies have been producing some “fancier” hei chas from these areas, which are commanding higher prices (see my first answer).

GS: (1) Start from inexpensive products. Traditionally some of the best Hei Cha products are least expensive in price. Nowadays there are some expensive Hei Cha products. Some are very well made, while some are probably just products of market hype. So I think those inexpensive traditional products are good start points. For example, Fu Bricks from An Hua (安化) Tea Factory or Yi Yang (益阳) Tea Factory; Liu Bao from Guangxi Wu Zhou (梧州) Tea Factory (three-crane brand).

(2) Sample broadly. Hei Cha has many vastly different varieties that may share barely any similarity in tastes. If you don’t like one Hei Cha, don’t rule out the possibility that you may love some other Hei Cha. Personally I never like any Liu Bao, but love some other Hei Cha.

(3) Explore various brewing methods to find the best one for you. Depending on the specific type, Hei Cha is potentially suitable for gongfu style (this is non-traditional for Hei Cha though), stove-top brewing, Western style (large teapot) brewing, or other. It could go well by itself, with milk, with milk + sugar/salt/spices…

4. What tips can you give on storing or aging hei cha?

BW: Your readers probably know all of this all ready, but… Storage: some air circulation is good (airtight is bad), low to moderate humidity, protection from direct light of any kind, temp-between 40 and 70 F is OK, absolute isolation from any other aroma or taste producing products.

Aging: see above, puerhs seem to consistently (and over the long haul) seem to benefit most from aging, particularly uncooked puerhs. Although cooked puerhs definitely benefit from aging also. As do other hei chas, from Hunan or Sichuan or elsewhere- but my experience is that these other hei chas seems to stabilize after 3-6 years (this will vary a lot from tea to tea), and there doesn’t seem to be much change in the tea after that period of time. The above is mostly anecdotal or personal observation—I do not lay any claim to being any kind of hei cha expert. I proudly claim the mantle of fascinated student.

GS: I don’t age Hei Cha so don’t have much to say about it. In terms of storing, I think Hei Cha is generally very tolerant of humidity (more so than puerh). So common sense of tea storage (dark, free of odor, limited air flow) and humidity levels that feel comfortable for human living would work well on Hei Cha storage.

JW: Many thanks to Gingko and Bill for sharing their knowledge and experience.