Rou Gui – A Cinnamon Dream
Autumn is here and along with glowing ember sunrises and crisp blue skies comes an unmistakable chill in the air that leaves a bite mark on the bones. Here in Scotland, like elsewhere, the the fabric of the landscape is in the midst of a beautiful seasonal transition. One that often inspires people to say it’s their favourite time of year, and who could blame them.
With this chill in mind and the tea season switching focus onto its own red hues of oxidation, I’ve decided to pin the tea of the month badge onto an old favourite of mine that will be sure to provide all the comfort and warmth you need during this most endearing season.
Rou Gui – translating as cinnamon – is a widely grown, hardy tea cultivar in the Wuyi Mountain growing regions of Fujian Province. Although it isn’t one of the original and most famous teas of the region (having been brought in from other areas of Fujian) it has firmly taken root and thrived in this unique microclimate with its mineral-rich, rocky terroir. Dating back to the Qing Dynsasty, Rou Gui features prominently in the blend of one of the most well know teas of the region, Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe). Don’t let an association with blend tarnish its image, though. Rou Gui is hand crafted by many excellent tea masters into a truly unique and distinctive tea in its own right, with a quality that speaks for itself when tasted.
Our Rou Gui is grown and processed by the Chen family and at the moment is the most expensive tea I sell on the website. At the outset of the business I took an approach to make all my teas as affordable as possible to encourage new tea drinkers into the fold but I stretched the boundaries to include this particular variety as it has always been a firm favourite of mine and one I thoroughly encourage everyone to experience. The world of Wuyi teas is a microcosm of tea complexity that embraces all aspects of terroir, cultivar, processing, aroma, taste and sensation. For those of you who haven’t tried Wuyi rock teas before, this is a great place to start.
The main factor in the higher price tag, aside from the prestige of the name itself, is the sheer labour hours and skill that go into making it. Wuyi rock teas are unique for the roasting process they undergo that alters and enhances the profile of the tea. A complex alchemy that draws out and locks in deep and immersive aromas that stay with you long after the drinking is over.
The leaves are picked to a standard that includes 3-4 larger open leaves. These are first wilted like all other tea types before being shaken to bruise the leaves and initiate the oxidation process. This is carefully monitored and repeated by the tea master until the appropriate level of oxidation is reached. Once achieved, the leaves are then ‘fixed’ by heating to a high temperature to stop further enzymatic oxidation. After this stage they can be rolled into the distinctive twisted shape and fired again. At this stage the tea is called “mao cha”; unfinished, unroasted oolong. Mao cha like this still tastes very good but to make a true Wuyi rock tea it must then be sorted to remove twigs and older leaves and then undergo the roasting process to depart from the “green-ness” of the mao cha stage.
The charcoal ash of the roasting pit.
Roasting levels of Wuyi rock teas vary from light to heavy depending on the tea master’s choice and the level most beneficial to that specific tea variety. Our Rou Gui is roasted four times, which amounts to four months worth of incredibly labour intensive work and a heck of a lot of tasting along the way. To begin, the charcoal fires are started in the roasting room, which contains multiple pits inset into concrete. Once the fires start burning it marks 25 days of roasting, with each roasting session lasting 16-18 hours. In our producer’s family, she is on the day shift and her husband takes the night shift, with help from dad and brother. Once the charcoal has burned to white ash and the correct temperature has been achieved, the tea is placed in a bamboo basket that sits over the hot ash. Now that the roasting has begun, the leaves will heat through the night, needing constant attention and turning by hand when required so as to cook evenly and not burn. The heat in these concrete rooms is astounding and the fires must also be maintained at the correct temperature.
Tea in bamboo baskets during the cooling stage.
Day after day this goes on until the full harvest has its first roast. The tea will then be rested and allowed to cool before undergoing subsequent roasts after approximately one month. As well as this tough physical work, the family must stop to taste the tea regularly to assess its development. Finally, months later, the final roasting is done and the tea is ready to rest once more. Commonly, the tea will require 4-6 months after this process to allow the tea to settle and mature. Flavour developments are ongoing throughout that time and its true potential is reached only once the effects of the fires have stabilised. Again, the tea can be drunk and enjoyed before and during this rest phase but the taste of the fire remains prominent and the tea will gradually come into its own after time.
I think this highlights a very unique and special character of this tea and all Wuyi oolongs. The intensity of care and processing that go into it making it are translated into the most wonderful drinking experience that goes beyond simple taste and smell. In China, the term Yan Yun is used to describe this characteristic. Imagine when we hear a piece of music, or experience a work of art that seems to leave a reverberation within you in the moments or even days afterwards. It is the truest conception of art appreciation. With Wuyi teas, Yan Yun is this concept. One that goes beyond the flavour wheel associations of cinnamon, brown sugar, stone fruits, mineral tastes and floral sweetness that we get on the palate but extends into the realm of sensation and experience, even emotion. After sipping and swallowing the tea, let your palate rest a moment. Then breathe deeply and feel a lingering sweetness at the back of the throat as new aromas lift and return into the senses. This tea stays with you. After drinking, think about how you feel. I often feel warmed and uplifted by it, a sensation that lasts hours after drinking. This tea really stays with you and is rewarding on a whole other level than most.
So take your time with it. Appreciate it through multiple steeps. Share it a discuss it. Sit in quiet contemplation of it and let it speak to you. What other drinks can we indulge ourselves in that allow us to think about how it makes us feel as well as how it tastes.
A tea plantation in the Wuyi mountain region.