Liu An tea
By Luo Yingyin (羅英銀)
If you ask tea lovers what comes to mind when they think of Liu An tea, you’re likely to hear many different answers. Taiwanese people might answer that it’s a smooth, refined tea with a distinctive fragrance reminiscent of ginseng; a tea that brings a leisurely, unhurried feeling to the drinker. Other people might say that in Guangdong in years gone by, wealthy families would all be well stocked with An tea – the older and richer the tea, the more highly-prized it was. Still others may recall scenes from 1930s Cantonese movies where the characters would open bamboo baskets and brew some aged An tea. Some people know Liu An as the preferred drink of high-society people in Hong Kong as an accompaniment to smoking cigars—according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, Liu An tea dispels the excess internal heat produced by cigar-smoking. Others may remember that in the past, the restaurants of Hong Kong mostly served two kinds of black tea—loose leaf Yunnanese puerh and Liu An.
Many Chajin in Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Taiwan have a deep attachment to old Liu An tea, thanks to its delicate, sweet, smooth flavor and its fragrant steam that warms you all the way through.
Past meets future: the revival of Liu An
Liu An tea has several uses in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It used to be added to medicines as a “guiding herb” to enhance efficacy, as well as drunk for its intrinsic health effects. It’s considered a “cool-warm” food in TCM—this means that Liu An, particularly when aged, is good for dispelling dampness and excess internal heat. Because of this, it’s very popular with tea drinkers in Guangdong, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and South-East Asia. Like puerh, Liu An is best when aged; tea merchants and individual tea drinkers usually buy some Liu An and then store it away to age, so they are able to witness the tea’s aging process. In the past, Liu An was quite popular; however, during the Sino-Japanese war, traditional Liu An trade routes were interrupted—this, together with the chaos of wartime, meant that Luxi Village in Qimen was forced to stop producing Liu An tea in the mid 1930s. The last shipment of Liu An produced there was unable to be exported until 1947. It fetched a high price on the market when it was finally sold to Singapore tea merchants.
From that time on, Liu An tea was no longer produced in Qimen for over half a century. Many Chajin from the older generation in Hong Kong and Taiwan longed to rediscover its flavor. Around ten years ago, the second large-scale tea expo was held in Taiwan, and the organizers arranged to open a bamboo basket of “Three Labels” Sun Yishun (三張票孫義順), one of the most well-known original brands of Liu An. We went along to the tasting with the aim of exploring and reporting on Liu An’s fascinating journey through history, and recording the unique charm of this old tea. A few years earlier, in 1983, some representatives of the China Tea Fund in Hong Kong sent a basket of Liu An tea to the Anhui Province Tea Company, accompanied by a letter. In the letter they sent their greetings on behalf of all the old friends of Tea in southern China and South-East Asia who missed this special tea that had been gone for several decades, and expressed their hope that Liu An might be given a new beginning.
There were quite a few twists and turns before production was finally re-established. Because the tea is named “Liu An”, the Anhui provincial government first thought that this tea variety was originally produced in Liu An City (also pronounced “Lu’an”), so the basket of tea took a wrong turn and ended up there. It wasn’t until further enquiry that they realized it actually originated in Luxi in Qimen, so finally, in 1984, the well-travelled basket of tea made it back to Qimen, and Liu An manufacturing began once more.
The origins of Liu An: researching Sun Yishun
There were a number of people involved in researching the original manufacturing techniques used to produce that basket of Sun Yishun tea. Among them was Wang Shoukang (汪壽康), a descendant of the original tea merchant Sun Yishun who established the brand, as well as two staff from the Luxi Village administrative office, Wang Zhenxiang (汪鎮響) and Wang Shengping (汪昇平). These three, along with various representatives of the provincial and county-level tea businesses, formed a group of about seven or eight people in total. They all gave careful consideration to the manufacturing techniques, sending several batches of samples to Hong Kong for quality approval throughout the process. Finally, four years later in 1988, they were satisfied that the quality was consistent, and Hong Kong tea merchants came flocking to place orders for the newly available Liu An.
Riding on the success of this foray into Liu An manufacturing, the local Luxi Village government decided to open a tea factory to produce red tea, so they funded the establishment of the Jiangnan Spring (江南春) Tea Factory with Wang Zhenxiang as factory director. The next year, Wang Shengping contracted the factory to make Liu An tea. After some time the factory ceased production for several years due to unstable sales. A few years later, in 1997, the market for Liu An picked up again and Wang Shoukang, the descendant of Sun Yishun, invited Wang Zhenxiang to partner in opening a new Liu An tea factory, again with the investment of Luxi Village. They registered their business under the old Sun Yishun brand name, and so continued the legacy of Wang Shoukang’s forebears. Wang Shoukang himself passed away the following year, and since Wang Zhenxiang was a legally appointed representative, the company was able to keep operating under the Sun Yishun name—and so the name has survived to this day.
Today in the Luxi Village area there are four main manufacturers producing Liu An tea. As well as Jiangnan Spring and Sun Yishun, another company was established in 2004 as an offshoot from the Sun Yishun tea factory, and called their brand “Luxi Sun Yishun—Lu An Tang” (蘆溪孫義順─蘆安堂). More recently, in 2015, Wang Guofeng (汪國峰), then-mayor of Luxi Village and former business partner of Wang Zhenxiang, established a fourth brand and named it the “Sun Yishun Tea Brand” (孫義順茶號). The combined output of these four Liu An manufacturers is modest in volume—they produce around eighty tons of Liu An per year. There are also a handful of other tea factories in Luxi that are officially listed but have either shut down or never started production in the first place.
You may be wondering: why do almost all of these factories in Luxi have the “Sun Yishun” name as part of their brands? In the early years of the Republic there were all sorts of Liu An brand names, including Zheng Ai Ji Yishun, Kangyang Chunzheng Yishun and Qimen Wang Bai Tang An Tea House, among others. But, because of the reputation of the Sun Yishun An tea brand at the time, there were many imitators. Later, Liu An production in Anhui Province was forcibly brought to a halt by political unrest, but this didn’t quell the demand for the tea. To satisfy this market demand, a new tea company named Can Zhao Sun Yishun set up in the relatively peaceful Hong Kong and Macau area and began to produce a tea called “Macau Bamboo Rain Hat Liu An.” This tea was supplied to the market in the neighboring regions and in nearby South-East Asia. So it was that the Sun Yishun name became synonymous with quality Liu An tea.
“Dispelling the clouds”: recreating the Liu An manufacturing process
How it is that the production of a certain tea variety can stop entirely for over half a century? Aside from the political and social background and the changing economy, it was largely because of the complex methods required to produce Liu An. The whole process takes over eight months and the leaves go through five stages of firing; on top of that, the finished tea must then be stored for three years before it’s ready to sell. So the first barrier that hindered the production of Liu An was the detailed knowledge needed to make it; the second barrier was the large amount of time and labor required; and the third was the cost involved in securing storage space for three whole years.
The Liu An manufacturing process is quite complex compared to other black teas. On top of this, certain steps must be carried out at particular times of year, measured by traditional Chinese solar terms. The tea picking occurs in Guyu, or “Grain Rain,” in late April to early May; and one of the final steps is leaving the tea leaves out overnight to absorb the dew during the Bailu, or “White Dew,” solar term. The main steps in the process occur in spring and include picking, spreading the tea leaves, pan-firing, rolling, and drying until the leaves are about 70% dry (as the tea is not dried completely, it’s sometimes called “soft stem” tea). After this, the tea leaves are piled into large bamboo baskets to a depth of around 10 centimeters, and undergo about an hour of “heaping” before being dried a second time. The leaves are then chopped, mixed, sifted and sorted into grades.
Once Liqiu, the “Start of Autumn” solar term, arrives in mid-August, it’s time to take out the tea leaves and arrange them ready for the next step. On a clear evening sometime in mid-September once Bailu or “White Dew” begins, the tea leaves are placed onto bamboo drying frames and baked briefly over a high flame to enhance the fragrance of the tea. The leaves are then arranged on a bamboo mat and placed outdoors ready for the most important step in the Liu An process: the “night dew” or yelu (夜露) step. The leaves mustn’t be spread too thickly, and should be turned over once or twice during the night to fully absorb the dew. When the small water droplets of the dew meet the tea leaves, the moisture causes the tea to oxidize further. One can well imagine that this contributes to Liu An tea’s refined, delicate, smooth flavor, with a fragrant note reminiscent of ginseng. This is also why old-time cigar smokers in Hong Kong liked to drink Liu An, as the cooling properties of the tea help dispel excess internal heat.
The next day, after being nourished by the night dew, the tea is prepared for compressing. A wooden frame is placed over a hot pan, and on top of that is laid a bamboo mat and then a cotton cloth. The tea is placed on top of this to steam for a few minutes, then, while the leaves are still hot from the steam, they are packed into small bamboo baskets lined with bamboo leaves.
The little baskets of tea are placed in pairs, then three pairs are strung together into a row with bamboo strips. Row upon row of baskets are placed neatly onto racks in a tall drying kiln and covered with a cotton quilt, then dried over wood charcoal that is laid at the bottom of the kiln. The purpose of the quilt is to absorb the steam from the tea leaves and to make the hot air in the kiln circulate. The leaves generally need to dry like this for about two days, until the quilt is warm and dry to the touch. This is the most crucial step in determining whether or not the batch of Liu An tea will turn out to be a success.
From picking to drying, the whole process takes several months and involves five different firings: kill-green, drying, high-heat firing to enhance the fragrance, steaming and charcoal drying. The traditional “night dew” method is also an integral part of the process, and is known for its use in processing other food products too, such as old-style soy sauce. It plays an important role in preserving and flavoring the product.
Unravelling a mystery: where does the “An” name come from?
Nearly 30 years have passed since production of this tea was revived, and the market has gradually caught wind of its unique fragrance. But as for its name, many tea drinkers are still confused: An tea? Liu An tea? Lu’an tea? Is there a difference? For starters, the two spellings in English, “Lu’an” and “Liu An,” reflect two alternate pronunciations of the character 六 in Chinese (which is the number six). In the case of 六安, the city in Anhui Province, it is traditionally pronounced lu, whereas the standard Mandarin pronunciation is liu. So you may see both versions used for the name of the tea.
So, pronunciation aside, where did this name come from? According to records, a tea variety by the name of Liu An had been produced in two parts of Anhui Province since the Han Dynasty, namely the Liu An (or Lu’an) prefecture, and Huoshan County. By the time of the Tang Dynasty this tea had gained some reputation, and was known by such names as Huo Tea, Xian Ya (“Immortal Buds”), and Rui Cao Kui. It wasn’t until the Ming Dynasty that it began to be known as “Liu An”; at that time it was also classified as a “tribute” tea, that would be gifted to officials and the royal household. The Qing Dynasty Liu An Records contain the following passage: “In the whole realm there are ten provinces and counties that produce tea, but Lu’an is the only tea that often crosses the thresholds of government officials.” There’s also a line of a poem describing a bustling scene in the capital city that goes: “The shop fronts are decked out in splendorous gold; the merchants compete to see Lu’an tea sold.” Liu An tea also appears in Chapter 14 of the famous literary classic Dream of the Red Chamber. The Liu An tea that all of these examples refer to is in fact a green tea, which genuinely originated in Liu An itself.
So, the Liu An tea we’ve just discussed in the previous paragraph is in fact a different variety from the Qimen An tea that is this month’s focus, and is distinct in terms of both origin and production methods. One is produced in Huoshan, the other in Qimen. One is a green tea, and one is a black tea. Their markets are different too: the first is supplied to the local market, whereas the second is shipped south to Guangzhou and supplied to Hong Kong, Macau and the overseas Chinese population.
How, then, did a black tea produced in Qimen’s Luxi Village come to be known as Liu An tea? Before Qimen red tea began to appear during the reign of the Qing emperor Guangxu, a variety called An tea was produced in great quantities throughout the whole of Qimen. By the early days of the Republic of China there were over 50 different tea producers in the area, and each company had their own tea label. In this case, the word “label” is used quite literally—each tea would have a small slip of paper inside the packaging much like the ones one finds in puerh tea today, explaining the origins of the tea and confirming its authenticity. The Sun Yishun brand that is still so well-known today was one of the biggest tea producers during the early Republic. Their tea labels from that era read as follows: “This tea is genuine Anhui Sun Yishun An brand tea; made with only the most delicate and tender spring buds, picked in Lu’an before the rains, carefully selected and processed, with no expense spared…” The Qimen Museum also has a tea label on display from the Hu Ju Chun brand—on the back, in small characters, it reads: “While fine tea is produced in many parts of China, this Anhui Sun Yishun An tea is truly one of a kind, with naturally unique qualities…” So, as more and more tea with labels such as these crossed oceans, it’s not hard to see how tea drinkers in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia came to know An tea as “old Liu An.”
Where, then, does the “An” part of the name come from? The character安in Chinese means “peace” (as well as a few related meanings), and features in a number of place names. This has given rise to several theories as to how the tea got its name. The first theory is that, since it was largely sold in the southern province of Guangdong, the tea was simply named after Anhui Province where it was produced. As the labels in Sun Yishun put it, the tea was “shipped to Foshan Village and Guangfeng for sale…”. The second and more common theory is that it was named after the original Liu An tea, the green tea variety from Liu An that we discussed earlier. A third theory has to do with production methods. Hu Haochuan (胡浩川), who was head of the Qimen Tea Factory during the early Republic, writes in his Qimen Tea Manufacturing that the majority of tea produced in Qimen was red tea, though there was also a small amount of green tea being made. Because the production methods used imitated those of the original Liu An tea, it became known as An tea. Yet a fourth theory is based on one literal meaning of the character an (安), “to calm or pacify”: the tea is known in Chinese medicine for its ability to soothe the organs of the body and balance the six different types of Qi.
So, whether it originally referred to a green tea from Anhui or the An tea that we know for its soothing properties, the mysterious Liu An name made a place for itself in the hearts of Chajin in Hong Kong and Taiwan, thanks to the tea labels that traveled with it across the seas. As it is picked and processed to the rhythm of the seasons, the fragrance of An tea has once again begun to waft out across the green forests and blue skies of Anhui’s Luxi Village. It’s a tea that has waited patiently over the years for its forgotten charm to be revived and once again carried on the wind to the tea drinkers of the world.