I was recently lucky enough to make my second trip in two years to the home of Bohea tea. Mr. Zhou owns the principal Bohea garden and factory in Wuyi. He is the 32nd generation of the original family to produce this, the world's first (circa 1600) and arguably finest black tea.
The outstanding growing and production site of Bohea tea, the original black tea, can be found deep in the Mountains of Wuyi. The air is very humid (60-90%) and extremely pure. The village is a protected area - in fact no one is allowed to enter except residents and those lucky enough to be invited. I am always very grateful to see the production of the tea and the local area.
The tea is picked from wild seeded trees of 50-100 years old. They are cut back every five years to promote growth of young buds. The wild seeded trees of Eastern China grow in the form of small round bushes, often situated on steep slopes in clearings. These bushes would have been originally discovered growing in the forest amongst other trees. The other trees were cleared away to make access to the tea bushes easy.
Bohea is always made from leaf picked from Camellia sinensis bohea bushes. These only grow in Tongmu village in the Wuyi mountains. They thrive in the local environment due to the suitable characteristics of the soil composition and acidity; humidity; altitude and aspect of the mountains. The trees are grown organically in small, sparsely populated gardens supported by local streams and varied flora. In contrast, Lapsang Souchong is produced from a blend of four black teas from Anhui, Hubei, Hunan and Jiangsu provinces - these are not necessarily poor quality teas, but they do not express the unique terroir that is so apparent in a sip of Bohea.
The locally grown pine (Taiwan Pine) is used as the firewood in the smokehouse where the tea is withered, oxidised and dried. The bark is removed before burning so that the aroma of the burning wood is light and in keeping with the outstanding flavour of the tea.
The wood is lit in the basement of the smokehouse and the warmth and smoke rises into the middle section where the tea is laid on bamboo trays.
After picking, the leaves are allowed with wither in the warm environment of the smokehouse. Because there is so much humidity in the air, it is necessary to use some heat to promote withering.
After withering the leaves are rolled to expose their juices to the air, thereby encouraging oxidation. They are put into a basket and allowed to oxidise in the warm air of the smokehouse - the warmth promotes a faster rate of oxidation.
In the morning we looked at the leaf and were amazed by how red it had become.
After the leaf has oxidised it is laid out evenly on trays and allowed to dry in the warmth of the smokehouse.
The finished product has a completely different taste and aroma to conventional Lapsang Souchong - this cannot be emphasised enough. It produces a light, complex infusion, full of subtlety and grace. It can be steeped for a long time without becoming bitter and can be enjoyed lightly infused or strong. If you enjoy Lapsang tea then you will almost certainly love Bohea - but if you don't enjoy Lapsang due to its harsh and overly smoky flavour then you will also almost certainly enjoy Bohea.