History of Liu Bao
Liu Bao tea is renowned both in China and abroad for its rich history. It got its name from the place it was originally produced: Liu Bao Village (六堡鎮) in Cangwu County, in the Wuzhou City area of Guangxi province (“Liu Bao” means “Six Castles” or “Six Forts”). The mountainous region of Liu Bao is located near the Tropic of Cancer and has a unique natural environment with strong sunlight—wild tea plants have grown there for a very long time and were recognized and used by the early inhabitants of the region. A well-known tea expert from mainland China, the late Professor Zhuang Wanfang (莊晚芳), has determined that the history of Liu Bao tea production can be traced back more than 1500 years, based on studies of historical texts including the Tong Jun Records from the Northern and Southern Dynasties. Born in the embrace of Liu Bao Village’s beautiful mountains and rivers and destined to become prized around the world, Liu Bao tea was created through a union of nature and human culture.
The Cangwu County Records, published in 1697, the 36th year of the Qing Emperor Kangxi’s reign, contain the following excerpt: “The Liu Bao tea produced in Duoxian Village in Cangwu has a rich flavor that does not change even when left overnight; the color and fragrance are excellent.” During the reign of the Qing Emperor Jiaqing (1796–1820), Liu Bao was classified as one of China’s 24 famous teas of that period, owing to its unique betel nut aroma. The following record appears in the Guangxi Tongzhi, a geographical reference book: “The production of Liu Bao tea is flourishing in Cangwu; especially the Six Castles (Liu Bao) and Five Castles (Wu Bao) teas from Duoxian Village. Liu Bao tea is particularly famous, and is selling in great quantities at ports in Guangzhou, Fujian, Hong Kong, and Macau.” Liu Bao tea was traditionally compressed into tea bricks using bamboo baskets, and the most highly regarded teas were produced in Gongzhou Village and Heishi Village within the Liu Bao township.
There’s a poem by famous scholar Cheng Yuandao (程遠道) from the late Qing Dynasty that goes: “The mountains are piled high with Liu Bao tea; it regulates digestion wonderfully. Drink a cup tonight while entertaining a lord; tomorrow the scent will linger on your teeth and cheeks.” In the past, since land transportation routes were not yet very developed, Liu Bao tea had to be transported to Guangzhou via waterways. During the late Qing Dynasty and the early years of the Republic, Liu Bao Village was also producing bamboo, wood, and charcoal in addition to tea, and trade was flourishing. Guangdong tea merchants set up on Liu Bao Village’s Hekou Street to purchase Liu Bao maocha—unprocessed tea leaves—and then steam them in baskets to compress the tea. They used small boats to transport the tea leaves from the dock at Hekou to Cangwu County’s Li port, then packed them onto large wooden galleys to Fengkai County. From there the tea was taken on motorboats along the Xijiang River to Guangzhou, and finally exported to places like Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur. This route became known as the “Ancient Tea-Boat Road.”
After 1951, when large-scale land reforms came along, farmers found themselves in possession of land. At this time, many farmers started planting tea bushes again, and the area of the tea plantations grew rapidly. By 1953, Wuzhou had more than ten privately-owned tea enterprises, large and small, with Liu Bao tea as their main product. For a long time these were mostly family-run tea processing workshops, which limited the growth of the Liu Bao tea industry. In 1954, the state began rapidly expanding the tea production industry and started to prohibit privately-owned tea businesses from purchasing the raw tea leaves. The state began to regulate the grade and sale price of the tea leaves and the Supply and Marketing Department was in charge of purchasing the raw maocha, which was all shipped to the Wuzhou Tea Factory for final processing. So it was that the production methods of Liu Bao tea in Wuzhou shifted from the traditional hand-processing that had been the norm for a long time to large-scale industrialized production.
The characteristic steps in traditional Liu Bao tea production are “heaping” (a process known as wodui 渥堆 which involves fermenting in moist piles), compression by steaming, and aging—the longer the tea is aged, the better the quality. Liu Bao is widely described using a well-known set of words: “red, rich, aged, and mellow” (hong, nong, chen, hou—紅、濃、陳、醇). The traditional manufacturing process consists of the following steps: raw leaves → sifting to separate → heaping → initial steaming → steaming in piles → breaking up the piles → spreading out the leaves to cool → second steaming → packing into bamboo baskets → aging in storage. The finished Liu Bao tea is divided into grades from one to five. The required qualities for a first-grade Liu Bao tea are as follows: the tea leaves should be tightly twisted and of even size and shape, of a blackish-brown color with a glossy appearance. The flavor of the tea should be mellow and rich with a betel nut taste, the liquor bright red, and the brewed leaves tender and evenly sized.
In recent years, Chinese black teas (as distinct from red teas) have become popular throughout the world and are increasingly sold overseas. Liu Bao tea has earned the esteem of many a tea lover thanks to its health benefits and distinctive character. The well-known general director of the Guangxi Tea Institute, Mr. Liang Yongliang (梁永良), compares Liu Bao tea to “black gold, with many health benefits.” The people of Wuzhou have a particularly high regard for aged Liu Bao, and have expressed their admiration with this verse: “When it touches your mouth you’ll have worries no more, when it lands in your stomach your spirit will soar.” With the enthusiastic support of both the Guangxi Autonomous Region and the Wuzhou City governments, the Liu Bao tea industry developed quite rapidly, and this ancient tea once again began to glow with youthful vigor.
In 2009, the Wuzhou municipal committee and city government published a document entitled Decisions on promoting the industrial development of Liu Bao tea production, which marked the beginning of a favorable period of rapid development for the industry. The consumer market expanded from the original two provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi to include more than ten provinces, cities and regions throughout China, including major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, and Xi’an. Both Liu Bao tea and some travel destinations connected to Liu Bao production were selected as part of Wuzhou City’s “Top ten fine foods and beautiful landscapes,” and the Wuzhou Tea Factory’s “Three Cranes” trademark was officially recognized as one of Guangxi’s famous trademarks. This treasured black tea from Guangxi has travelled a long path throughout history’s many seasons, and it seems Liu Bao tea is now welcoming a flourishing spring!
Betel nut: the unique fragrance of Liu Bao
Article by Wu Ping (吳平)
Liu Bao tea is set apart from other teas by its most unique feature: a fragrance and flavor reminiscent of the betel nut, known in Chinese as binglang (檳榔). As the interest in drinking Liu Bao tea has grown, more and more people are discussing this betel nut aroma. “Betel” nut is actually the berry-like fruit of the areca palm, rather than a true nut, and has a mild stimulant effect when chewed. Chewing areca nut is a long-seated tradition throughout various parts of China and elsewhere in Asia and Oceania, with many cultural associations. It is often chewed in combination with betel leaf, which is how the two became commonly referred to by the same name in English, when in fact the leaf is from a different plant and has a distinct name in Chinese: louye (蔞葉).
Those familiar with betel nut often think that the “betel nut aroma” of Liu Bao tea refers to the smoky flavor of pickled betel nut husks, since these days the pickled kind is the most commonly encountered form or betel nut. This has also led to various other misconceptions about the scent: some people think that it’s simply a pine-smoke flavor, or a flavor that evolves from pine-smoke with aging, or an herbal smell reminiscent of Chinese medicine, or the scent of wild ginseng, among others.
So when we refer to the “betel nut aroma” of Liu Bao tea, just exactly what form of betel nut are we talking about? What distinguishes this particular scent and taste? There aren’t really any written records defining this aspect of Liu Bao, so opinions are quite divided. So, in this article we will investigate the origins of Liu Bao tea’s famed betel nut aroma and identify what was originally meant when people likened the scent and flavor of Liu Bao tea to those of the betel nut.
The earliest written record of Liu Bao tea’s betel nut aroma appears in 1801, during the reign of the Qing Emperor Jiaqing, when Liu Bao was announced as part of a list of China’s 24 most famous teas on account of its unique betel nut flavor. Mentions of this appear in documents such as the Cangwu County Records and the Records of China’s Famous Teas. It’s clear that the Liu Bao tea produced in Cangwu County became famous largely because of this distinct fragrance—so it’s not too surprising that so many modern tea lovers are willing to blindly part with exorbitant amounts of money in pursuit of this highly-prized aroma!
Betel nut tasting experiments
The mature fruit of the areca palm has various parts that can be consumed in different forms. These include the fresh betel seed (the “fruit” part inside the husk that starts off soft and hardens as the fruit ripens), fresh husks, dried seed (sometimes in thin slices), scorched betel nut, dried husk (referred in Chinese medicine as Dafupi—大腹皮), and smoke-cured or pickled betel husk. Different parts of China have different traditional ways of eating betel nuts, so the scent and flavor varies too. Scorched betel nut refers to a method of preparation where slices of betel nut are pan-fired until they are a charred yellow-brown in color.
In the name of research, the author got together with a group of good friends and we bought a few different kinds of betel nut so we could hold a tasting and compare the differences in scent and flavor. We chose some ripe, yellow raw betel (areca) nuts, betel leaves, and betel husk paste from Hainan; we bought slices of dried betel seed from a Chinese medicine shop, made some homemade dried betel husks and scorched betel nuts, and brought some pickled betel husks from a food store. The conclusion of this experiment was that no matter what form of betel nut we tried, be it fresh or dried, seed or husk, the same set of flavors and sensations would emerge: astringent, fruity, and bitter, with a numbing, tingling sensation and a sweet aftertaste. Of these, three flavors came through particularly strongly: bitterness, astringency, and a pungent, grassy scent.
The following records note our impressions of the tastes and sensations associated with each type of betel product. As betel nut is chewed and discarded rather than eaten, we recorded the evolving flavors and sensations at a few points throughout the tasting, including the scent before tasting, the initial taste when first chewed; then after spitting out any excess saliva; while continuing to chew; after chewing; and finally the aftertaste after spitting out and discarding the leftover fibrous parts.
1. Fresh betel leaf (1 leaf—around 1 gram)
Smell: Faint grassy scent
Taste: Grassy, sweet, spicy
Grassy, bitter, spicy, astringent, numbing, sweet
Bitter, spicy, astringent, numbing, with a sweetness that slowly fades into a lingering sweet aftertaste
2. Areca husk paste (0.5 grams)
Smell: Almost no fragrance
Bitter, astringent, numbing
After the bitter, astringent flavors and numbing sensation fade, the sweetness re-emerges
3. Fresh areca seed slices (0.3 grams)
Smell: Very faint grassy scent
Taste: Strong bitter, astringent taste which fades and then grows even stronger
Numbing sensation accompanied by a swelling in the throat and difficulty swallowing saliva
After this sensation wears off, there’s an astringent taste and then a faint fruitiness and slightly sweet aftertaste
4. Fresh areca nut husk (2 grams)
Smell: Strong, pungent grassy smell
Taste: Grassy, sweet
Taste: Grassy, sweet
Grassy with stinging and numbing sensations; astringent, with a growing feeling of swelling
These tastes and sensations continue, the swelling feeling subsides and gives way to a slightly sweet aftertaste
5. Slices of fresh areca seed, wrapped in betel leaf with areca husk paste added (1–2 grams of each)
Scent: Grassy, sweet
Taste: Grassy, bitter, astringent
Grassy, bitter and astringent flavors diminish
Grassy, bitter, astringent, sweet
Numbing, stinging, astringent, sweet
Numbing, stinging, astringent sensations fade, and the sweetness becomes more noticeable
6. Fresh areca nut husk with betel leaf and areca nut paste (around 1 gram of each)
Smell: Obvious grassy scent
Taste: Grassy, bitter, spicy, sweet
Grassy, bitter and spicy flavors fade, sweetness remains
Stinging, numbing, astringent, bitter, grassy, sweet, spicy
Astringent, stinging, grassy, numbing
Astringent, stinging, grassy, numbing sensations fade, sweetness returns
7. Dried mature areca seeds, whole or in slices (0.4 grams)
Smell: A faint irritating and faintly fruity scent
Taste: A subtle fruity and woody flavor
Astringent, bitter, numbing, faintly fruity, woody
Astringent, bitter and fruity flavors grow stronger, numbing, with a noticeable swelling in the throat and difficulty swallowing saliva
Those sensations and flavors fade, giving way to a slightly sweet aftertaste
8. Dried areca husk or Dafupi (0.2 grams)
Smell: Faint sun-baked scent
Taste: Non-descript taste
Numbing, grassy, slightly astringent
Numbing, grassy, slightly astringent with swelling in the throat and difficulty swallowing saliva
Those sensations fade, and the aftertaste is slightly sweet
9. Smoke-cured and pickled areca husk (1.5 grams)
Smell: Slightly sweet and smoky scent
Taste: Sweet, smoky, cooling
Those give way to numbing, astringent sensations with swelling in the throat and difficulty swallowing saliva
Cooling, sweet, numbing, astringent, with persistent swelling and difficulty swallowing
Flavors and sensations gradually fade
10. Scorched areca nut
Smell: Charred, tarry scent
Taste: Tarry, scorched, woody fragrance
Tarry, scorched, woody fragrance, astringent, bitter, numbing, fruity
A swelling feeling develops
Flavors, sensations, and swelling feeling fade
Some historical inferences about Liu Bao tea’s betel nut aroma
Like most people in the regions of Guangdong and Guangxi, the people of Wuzhou’s Cangwu County were heavily influenced by the traditional practice of chewing betel nut. Whenever people would entertain visitors from afar or celebrate important occasions, friends and guests would often be offered areca nut to chew. It’s a custom with a long history that has continued to modern times.
There are historical records of betel nuts being produced in Guangxi province, though according to the Collected Resources on Medicinal Ingredients, they were only produced in Bobai County. Cangwu County is situated near the Tropic of Cancer and has frosts in the winter, so the climate isn’t suited to growing areca palms. Bobai County, the nearest betel-producing area to Cangwu, was still more than 250 kilometers away—which didn’t exactly count as nearby for people living two hundred years ago. So up until twenty-odd years ago, people in Cangwu would rarely come across fresh betel nut. These days, the most commonly consumed form of betel nut in Cangwu County is still the dried mature seed, either whole or sliced into discs. As well as chewing betel nut, it’s also customary to offer it as a gift. For those accustomed to chewing it, slowly savoring the flavor of the betel nut brings a pleasant feeling of festivity, ceremony, and hospitality. This type of betel nut tends to have a simple and elegant fruity flavor with a sweet aftertaste and subtle woody and astringent notes, accompanied by slight numbing and swelling sensations.
Liu Bao tea has been long famed for its “betel nut” fragrance—so when the people of Cangwu two hundred years ago described this scent, what type of betel nut did they mean? Since they seldom had any opportunity to taste fresh betel nut, the person writing the Cangwu County Records would hardly be likely to describe the taste of the local tea by comparing it to a flavor so unfamiliar to the locals as to even be considered disgusting. So the betel nut flavor of Liu Bao tea was not that of fresh betel, with its strong grassy, bitter, astringent and numbing characteristics. Likewise, the people of two hundred years ago didn’t use additives and other ingredients to pickle betel husks as we do today, so the sweetness of pickled betel is not likely what they were referring to, either.
Similarly, scorched betel was not common back then, as it can’t be stored for long periods. So the Liu Bao tea of two hundred years ago didn’t display charred or tarry flavors. Dried betel seed has been used in Chinese medicine for a very long time, and the process used to make it wouldn’t likely cause a burnt taste, though occasionally might produce a smoky flavor. Even then, this smoky aroma wasn’t intrinsic to the betel nut itself.
So if the people of Cangwu County two hundred years ago were not familiar with all those kinds of betel nut, which kind were they accustomed to? The most commonly found variety at the time was a dried form of the mature areca seed, often sliced into discs. People in the surrounding areas were very familiar with the flavor and scent of this type of betel nut – so it was very natural for the Cangwu people to proudly describe the aroma of their local tea with this vivid comparison. The description also called to mind betel nut’s association with festivities and hospitality, so that anyone enjoying a cup of Liu Bao tea at a friend’s invitation would feel they were truly being treated as honored guests.
So, then, this historical description likening Liu Bao tea’s fragrance and flavor to that of betel nut refers to the qualities of the dried mature areca seed: a simple, elegant fruitiness with a slightly sweet aftertaste, and very faint hints of woody, astringent, numbing, and bitter tastes and sensations.
The betel nut fragrance of traditionally manufactured Liu Bao
During the Sixties and Seventies, the former head of the Wuzhou Tea Factory, Guo Weishen (郭維深), and the deputy head, Liao Qingmei (廖慶梅), often used to visit the Liu Bao commune (which later became Liu Bao Village) in the spring and fall. They would head to the fortified village where Liu Bao tea was produced to buy the raw maocha and supervise its production. Each time they visited, they would spend time with each of the tea production teams, including the Lichong, Siliu, Tangping, and Buyi brigades, chatting and drinking tea with the farmers. To entertain the visitors, the tea farmers would often take out their own special Liu Bao tea that they’d kept in storage for many years, hand-made using traditional methods from locally grown tea leaves.
According to their memories of those visits, the Liu Bao tea they drank was most often loose leaf tea harvested in spring before the Qingming (Tomb Sweeping) Festival, or compressed tea cakes that the farmers had made themselves. When brewed it had a light, elegant fruitiness, and a refreshing sweet, mellow flavor with a subtly sweet, lingering aftertaste and sometimes a hint of smokiness. Occasionally they would also taste the freshly produced unprocessed maocha, though this was quite a different tea: the liquor had a duller, reddish-brown color and an obvious raw, astringent taste, often with a heavy pine-smoke flavor and no discernible fruitiness. The two factory heads considered the comparison between the flavor of traditionally produced Liu Bao tea with the taste and aroma of dried betel seed, particularly the liquid that is produced from steeping the betel nut in water, to be very accurate. The notable characteristics shared by the two include their subtle, elegant fruitiness, faint hints of astringency and numbing sensations, and a noticeable sweet aftertaste.
Before 1958, the Wuzhou tea factory produced Liu Bao tea only using raw tea leaves produced in Liu Bao itself, and refined the tea according to the traditional processing method, whose main characteristics included steaming the leaves before “heaping” them for 7–8 days to ferment. After the finished tea is matured sufficiently, the dry tea leaves take on a sort of aged aroma, and when brewed the liquor is a deep red with a rich, mature flavor and an elegant light fruitiness—the astringency is much subtler than with new tea. It becomes wonderfully refreshing with a sweet aftertaste and the famed betel nut aroma, which grows richer the longer the tea is aged.
Between 2003 and 2006, Mr. Liao Qingmei was the proprietor of two tea shops in Guangxi’s Liuzhou: the Tianzheng Tea Shop and the Lingding Tea Shop. At these establishments, tea drinkers had a chance to try an aged Liu Bao that Mr. Liao had carefully stored away for more than 20 years—it was produced at the Wuzhou Tea Factory in 1982, according to traditional methods. He held some special tastings where he would first serve the Liu Bao tea so the customers could appreciate its color, aroma and taste, and then he would slice up some dried mature betel seeds from the local medicine shop for everyone to smell. All agreed that the similarity in fragrance was remarkable. The only difference lay in the taste: aged Liu Bao has a gentle, smooth, refreshing mouthfeel, without the slightly bitter and astringent flavor of the betel seed.
The betel nut fragrance in modern Liu Bao
From 1958 onwards, the Wuzhou Tea Factory and the Wuzhou Tea Import and Export Corporation Tea Processing Plant have largely followed modern methods when refining Liu Bao, namely pouring cold water on the tea leaves rather than steaming them before heaping for fermentation, with the heaping process usually taking 15–20 days. One of Liu Bao tea’s notable characteristics is that it improves with age—the maturation of the flavor is gradual and nuanced, so it’s hard for modern Liu Bao teas to achieve a fully developed, well-rounded betel nut aroma in a short space of time. Usually newer Liu Bao teas have less of a fruit flavor, and the bitter and astringent notes are more pronounced, with a sweet aftertaste. With Liu Bao that has been aged for several years in suitable conditions, the fragrant, fruity flavor is stronger, and the bitter and astringent aspects fade a lot, to the point of disappearing. The sweet aftertaste becomes even more gentle, smooth and refreshing.
How to taste Liu Bao’s betel nut aroma
Whether the Liu Bao that you choose was produced using the traditional or modern method, the betel nut aroma can be easily appreciated simply by brewing the tea however you usually would. In each cup you’ll be able to distinguish the fruity, sweet, woody and astringent notes and subtle numbing sensation of the areca nut. If you allow the tea to cool down to near body temperature, the flavors become even more pronounced. However, if you brew the tea in the traditional way, steeping the leaves for around 10 seconds each time, you’ll notice the fruity flavor and sweet aftertaste grow more distinct after steeping a few times. Keep steeping a few more times, then let the brewed tea cool to body temperature, and you’ll notice that the numbing, tingling sensation becomes more obvious and lasts longer, too.
So, while the betel nut aroma of Liu Bao tea clearly bears a lot of similarity to the fragrance and flavor of dried areca seed, it’s certainly not a direct replica in terms of fullness and intensity. Hence, as long as Liu Bao has a light fruitiness, sweet aftertaste, and hints of the aforementioned characteristic flavors, it is said to display this betel nut fragrance.
In a nutshell, the nature of this betel nut fragrance can be summed up by the definition provided in Guangxi’s Liu Bao Tea standard, which the author helped to draft. The standard defines it thus: the “betel nut” fragrance and flavor of Liu Bao tea refers to that of the dried form of the mature areca seed; this taste and aroma are normally more prominent in aged Liu Bao.
Examining the history of Liu Bao and betel nut in Guangxi has allowed us to trace the origin of this vivid comparison which helps bring to life the distinctive flavors of Liu Bao: elegantly fruity with subtle woody, astringent, and bitter notes; a faint numbing sensation; and a lingering sweet aftertaste.
Want to Try some rare, aged Liu Bao? Don't forget our Expansion Packs!
Every few months, we plan to offer a limited number of expansions to the topic we are covering in detail any given month. These extras will be rarer and/or important to your journey exploring the kind/genre of tea discussed in that month’s issue. We hope to offer three or four such expansions next year as well. Each expansion pack will be exclusively for Global Tea Hut members. We will keep the expansions transparent, letting you know our cost for the tea, shipping and how much we think is a fair minimum donation. Like with all our work, you will be able to choose the amount you donate based on the cost of the tea and the minimum suggested donation, which will not be much more than what we have paid. The expansion packs will be limited, and distributed on a first-come-first-serve basis. If we find that demand for them is high, and that they are really helping you to explore different teas and learn more, then we will try to make more next time.Liu Bao is a very rich genre of tea, with a lot to learn. One of the reasons we have included so many articles on the history of this magical tea is that Liu Bao is an aged tea, like puerh, so its history has much more bearing on the genre, since we often find ourselves drinking teas that were processed very differently than farmers do today. In other words, a trip to Liu Bao is not necessarily going to help you understand how the aged Liu Bao you are drinking was made. For that, you will have to research historical records, talk to old-timers and drink the different vintages yourself. Some of you who have been around here for a while will remember the other two Liu Bao teas we have sent out (a year 2000 Liu Bao and Old Grove, which was from 2008), but for some of you this will be your first exposure to Liu Bao (and maybe even black tea as a genre). For our first expansion pack, we wanted to offer you the opportunity to try two older, rarer vintages of Liu Bao, in the hopes that they would help you further understand the articles in this issue, as well as develop a greater appreciation for this wonderful genre of tea. So, here’s this month’s expansion pack:
- 20 grams of 1970s SSHC Liu Bao (Shuang Xing Hao Yin, 双星号印)
- 20 grams of 1980s Eight Directions Liu Bao (Ba Zhong Liu Bao, 八中六堡)
These two teas are wonderful examples of vintage Liu Bao and amongst the best you can find without getting into the older and much more expensive baskets. They also will allow you to taste the changes in processing over time, as we have discussed in these pages, since the piling methods changed in the 1980s. Both were stored in Malaysia until now.
Our cost for these two teas, including shipping to Taiwan and packaging, is just under 40$. For this first experimental foray into offering expansion packs, we only produced 50 sets and we are going to ask for a suggested minimum donation of 50$ plus shipping, which Shen thinks will be 15$ or less to most places in the world. You can donate anything you want above that. All proceeds will support our free Center.