One of the interesting things about the various lists of “Big 10 Famous Chinese Teas” (十大中国名茶)” is there is usually only one black tea on the list.
Most of the world drinks nothing but Black teas, but, in China, most black tea, (they call them red or “hong cha”,) is not very highly thought of.
As I discussed in the post about Lapsang Wild Tea, the creation of black tea was (allegedly) a happy accident when the green tea making of a mountain village in the Wuyi area of Fujian province was interrupted by a raiding party and the tea left to oxidize for longer than usual.
In any case, the single black tea traditionally included among the Chinese lists of “Big 10 Famous Chinese Teas” (十大中国名茶)” is usually Qimen, (usually anglicized to “Keemun” in the West).
“Keemun is produced exclusively in the Qimen County in the south of Anhui province. The name of the tea is an older Western spelling of the name of the nearby town, Qimen (pronounced “Chee-men”). The tea-growing region lies between the Yellow Mountains and the Yangtze River. The cultivar used for Keemun is the same as that used in production of Huangshan Maofeng. While the latter is an old, well-known variety of green tea, Keemun was first produced in 1875 using techniques adapted from Fujian province farmers.
“Many varieties of Keemun exist, with different production techniques used for each. Nevertheless, any Keemun undergoes particularly slow withering and oxidation processes, yielding more nuanced aroma and flavor. Some of Keemun’s characteristic floral notes can be attributed to a higher proportion of geraniol, compared to other black teas.”Wikipedia
I’ve drunk Keemun/Qimen quite a few times over the years, but for the most part I’ve had the very coarse types which are easily available in the US. While not usually bitter or overly astringent, these types are very strongly flavored, with a medicinal umami character that is unmistakeable even when it is used as part of a tea blend. I always describe that distinct flavor as a bit similar to the iodine tang of lowland Scotch whiskey.
I’ve even tried to order Qimen from different sources, but never really found any that helped me to understand why it deserved its place among China’s top 10 teas.
Through my travels in the tea circles on instagram, I became familiar with a user called @soiwatter, a French national who was living in China learning about Chinese teas. Even going so far as to help out with the harvest and processing of Tai Ping Hou Kui last year. He posted some great photos from his time there, which helped me understand the tea harvesting and processing steps.
When he posted to instagram wondering if any of his instagram followers would be interested in trying directly imported high grade Tai Ping Hou Kui and Qimen teas, I quickly raised my hand.
When he and his wife moved back to France, they started a tea importing company called Retour des Montagnes Jaunes.
Qimen tea, Spring 2020, from Retour des Montagnes Jaunes.
If you look at the photos below, you can see this is not at all a coarse tea. In fact, it appears to be bud only with a few small stems, early spring tea, of very high quality.
Wonderful bakery scents in the dry leaves. When steeped, super clean in flavor, with the savory medicinal notes only appearing in the background. Lingering umami/savory sweet bitterness which lingers in your palate and mind. Good resteepability for gong fu style brewing, at least 6 or more, and it was still going.
Strong cha qi, which, even as I write this at 8pm, I am still feeling from this morning in my chest and throat.
Easily one of the most elegant black teas I’ve tasted.
Qimen Qi Mei, Spring 2020, from Retour des Montagnes Jaunes.
“Mei” is a grading term often used with Fujian black tea. It literally means “eyebrow” and refers to, basically, single buds the size of an eyebrow lash. It is bud only tea from very early in the season.
When I was weighing this out, I pulled out a big pinch figuring it was way more than 7g. But the tiny buds, without hardly any stem and no leaves, is super fluffy and light. The big pinch turned out to be nearly exactly 7g, even less dense than the bud heavy Qimen above.
Distinguishing it flavor-wise gets a little tricky, as it is the same tea, picked a few days earlier in the season, and sorted for smaller buds and no stems.
I talked a bit about the medicinal note in the Qimen above. That is non-existent in the Qimen Qi Mei. Instead there is a stronger floral character, (Retour des Montagnes Jaunes describe it as rose-like and I agree,) in both the dry tea and the tea in the cup.
That floral character that the scent of the dry leaves promises is stronger through the whole drinking experience, it is rounder and softer in the soup. For a bud only tea, I got a good number of steeps.
I think the cha qi of the Qimen Qi Mei is slightly more calming than the Qimen. All bud only teas have strong cha qi, it is intense in the Qi Mei, but a bit more even.
I said the Qimen was one of the most elegant teas of tried so far, and the Qimen Qi Mei ups the ante on that tea, bringing a stronger floral note and better, more evenly integrated flavor and smell.
Qimen Xiang Luo, Spring, 2020, from Retour des Montagnes Jaunes.
Retour des Montagnes Jaunes calls this Qimen “fragrant spirals”, but it is also sometimes called “aromatic snail”, due to the curly shape of the dried leaves.
This is an earlier pick than either of the other teas, but a larger sort, and also a longer oxidation, making this a more assertive, full bodied tea.
However, of course, it is still a mostly bud, very early spring tea with a very clean sort, so it isn’t going to be anything thing like the broken large leaf “keemum” typically found in most Western tea blends. There is a bit of the medicinal character I mentioned in the plain Qimen, but it is mostly in the early steeps. The later steeps are given over to stone fruit and rose character, maybe even a bit of sweet date. The added length of oxidation gives it a bit more resteepability than the other two teas.
The folks from Retour des Montagnes Jaunes have said this is their favorite of the three Qimen teas and I can see why.
I am glad Retour des Montagnes Jaunes have chosen to feature these Qimen among their offerings. It is hard to find exceptional examples of this famous Chinese tea, and tasting the three illustrates why Qimem deserves its place among the “Big 10 Famous Chinese Teas”.
If I were to compare the three, the Qimen Qi Mei feels like a rich, floral special occasion tea. The Qimen and Qimen Xiang Luo are also special, but a little more down to earth and accessible, highlighting the richer and fruitier aspects of the tea. But, really, you can’t go wrong with any of the three, they are all amazing teas.