By Lisa Lupo
China is the reputed birthplace of tea where, according to legend, Emperor Shen Nung discovered it nearly 5,000 years ago when a leaf from an overhanging tree fell into water he was boiling. Since then tea has become a staple around the world, but China remains the largest producer and consumer — producing 40% of all tea in the world and consuming nearly two billion pounds annually.
As any tea drinker knows, all teas are not the same. In fact, the most exclusive of teas have been known to sell for thousands of dollars per pound. While the teas of Xi’an-based Qinba Tea are more accessible than that, they are some of the rarest of Chinese teas to be available outside of China. It was in late 2017 that Cha Gardens Founder and CEO Joe Muscaglione contracted an exclusive agreement with Qinba to distribute its teas in the U.S., and in early 2018 that QA was invited to be the first U.S. media outlet (in fact, one of the first of any foreigners) to visit Qinba’s Xi’an facility and Daba Mountainside tea gardens.
CHA GARDENS AND QINBA. Muscaglione is a noted sommelier in Las Vegas, Nev., who founded Cha Gardens as an outlet for his growing interest in and appreciation of teas. It is an apt name for this exclusive distributor as chá is Chinese for tea. While the evolution from wine to tea may not seem to be a logical transition, the more one knows about both wine and tea the more logical it becomes. The distinctive characteristics of both wines and teas are highly defined by their terroir. That is, the environmental conditions in which they are grown give the end products their unique traits.
Wine connoisseurs are very familiar with the concept, but in the U.S., it has not been as widely connected with teas. But, just as with wine, the terroir of tea is influenced by the composition and chemistry of the soil in which the plants grows the dissolved mineral content in the water that irrigates the tea, the purity of the air that surrounds it, the altitude of the land on which it sits, the weather to which it is subject, and the essence of flowers or fruits grown with it. At its simplest, terroir is the plant’s “sense of place.”
It is for all such reasons that Qinba’s green tea is so distinctive. It takes 38,000 buds to make a single pound of its Wu Hao tea; each bud is picked by hand at elevations as high as 2,300 meters (nearly a mile and a half) in the pure air of the Daba Mountains — a World Wildlife Fund (WWF)-protected region. “Qinba tea is something so special, the first time I tasted it, I said ‘I have to tell this story to as many people as possible,’” Muscaglione said.
“I always liked tea, but I first tasted it seriously about 10 years ago with a famous chef.” Upon tasting China’s famed Pu’er tea, he said he found it to be like drinking old burgundy wine. “It is very complex with lots of flavors. I started getting into tea then,” he said. So about five years ago, Muscaglione started looking for something really special, learning about tea-growing regions, and making connections. “The more I learned, the more I fell in love with tea,” he said.
Then about 2-1/2 years ago, he become a small partner in a Las Vegas Chinatown hotspot, introduced 30 teas from China, and started making contacts. One of those was Qinba, but the company did not have enough tea to sell to the United States, Muscaglione said. “So, I put that on the backburner.”
Then a new Asian-themed Las Vegas hotel asked Muscaglione to source a really special tea for its grand opening. “They said, ‘Source the best tea you can get, we don’t care what it costs,’” he said. So, he reached out to some friends in China and asked about the best tea. “They said, ‘The best is whatever somebody likes, but what if we find you the purest tea?’” he said. That tea was Qinba, and Muscaglione quickly realized it was not only the best tea he’d ever tasted, it was, indeed, the purest.
So he worked with Qinba’s 29-year-old Owner Ming Long Chen and Marketing Manager Dong Mei Feng to not only be the first to bring the tea to the States for the grand opening, but to become its exclusive distributor. “I’m really the only one in the U.S. with teas from that area,” he said. “It took lots of negotiation; I’ve been developing this project for about three years. I wanted to find something really special; I didn’t need to go into the tea business.”
TEA PRODUCTION. QA’s visit with Ming and Dong in Xi’an and the tea gardens showed why this tea is so special. We toured the Ankang area fields where the workers were plucking buds for Qinba’s chao qing (stir-fried) green tea; the 1,200-meter lower Daba Mountain tea gardens where the purer, more expensive Mao Jian green tea is grown; its experimental gardens where new teas are being evaluated for the future; and the Xi’an facility where it is all processed. Qinba’s rarest Wu Hao tea is grown in its gardens that are 2,300 meters high, but because this requires a hardy, hours-long trek up the mountain, we did not journey there.
The higher the altitude at which the tea is grown, the purer the air, thus the purer the tea. But regardless of the elevation, the tea is planted in straight lines with space on either side for harvesting. In the field gardens, fruit and flowering trees, such as cherry and peach are grown at intervals throughout, adding their flavor and essences to the teas. The tea bushes, themselves, are pruned annually to a height of about three feet and diameter of three to four feet. This facilitates harvest and aids in bud production.
While Qinba’s black teas are processed by machine, its green teas are all processed by hand. Qinba has 15 employees in its processing facility, including two tea masters: Liao Wie Xiong, who was personally trained by Tea Master Cai Ru Gui (see Cai Ru Gui: The King of Shaanxi Tea, page 17), and Cheng Liang Jun, who is being trained by Liao. Liao has made tea for more than 20 years, Cheng for five. Tea mastery is critical to the process because, in addition to the skill needed to ensure a fine tea, Dong said, “The tea master controls the taste. It can be very different when processed by different people.”
From harvest to processing to distribution, Qinba green tea-making follows the traditional hand-made art, with updated concessions made only where needed for food safety, quality, or regulatory requirements:
- Plucking. Workers individually hand-pick only the newest tea buds at the top of the bushes. Once gently plucked, the leaves are placed into wicker baskets, as these enable air circulation and help keep the leaves from being crushed. Qinba employs 20 workers during harvest which lasts only about a month for these high-end teas. Its 500-hectare (1,235-acre) field of tea bushes, along with 800 hectares (1,977 acres) of tea gardens, spread up various levels of the Daba Mountains.
- Sorting. The plucked buds are then transported to Qinba’s Xi’an processing facility. Because the buds are plucked one by one by hand, there is little extraneous matter, but to ensure this, the leaves are gently sorted and any non-bud material removed.
- First Drying. The tea process begins with the tea master tipping handfuls of the buds into a concave firing pan heated to 150-180°C (300-350°F). The tea masters gently and continuously lift, agitate, and drop the leaves back into the pan by hand for 15 minutes to aerate and shape them as they dry. “The pan must be very hot to make the tea to shape while it dries,” Dong said.
- Cooling. The tea buds are then scooped onto a round wicker mat. The buds cool for a half hour, with the tea masters periodically agitating the mat in a practiced lifting/shaking motion to separate the buds and augment the cooling. Proper drying is critical because leaf that is not completely and properly dried will mold and become unusable.
- Shaping. Once cooled, the tea leaves are gently shaken into the horizontal channels of an open-top tea-shaping machine. The machine vibrates and tumbles the leaves shaping them into the precise form to best impart the essence of the leaves. Again, it is highly trained and skilled tea masters who work this process, as the speed of the vibrations must be properly set and continually increased. As this nears its end, a wooden roller is placed in each channel to press it to its final shape.
- Second Drying. Once properly shaped, the leaves are emptied from the machine back onto the wicker mats and, again, gently shaken and tossed for further drying. “Drying makes the tea smell sweeter,” Dong said.
Once processed, the dried leaves are reduced to about 75% of the freshly picked volume. When infused with hot water in teamaking, the leaves rehydrate somewhat back to their natural state.
Qinba is subject to food safety and quality inspections by the government, which, Dong said, occur on a weekly or monthly basis. The company also holds a number of food safety and quality certifications, including those by the China Quality Certification Centre for compliance with FSSC 22000, GB/T and CNCA Good Agricultural Practices, and Organic Production. All Qinba tea is completely natural and organic. No pesticides are used in any of the fields.
Although the black teas were not in production during QA’s visit, we did a walk-through of that processing area where machinery was used to process these less-delicate teas, and tests are conducted for temperature, humidity, and weight.
Qinba also produces other teas, such as oolong, but specializes in green and black, Dong said. “We can do every kind of tea, but we are best at green tea and black tea.” In addition to distributing to the U.S. through Cha Gardens, Qinba sells its teas, along with dried plants, spices, and tea accessories, in its shop in Xi’an. Ming also is developing a Tea Street adjacent to the processing facility. With only the building facades completed at the time of QA’s visit, the plan was to open the new market by year end.
Generally considered the national drink of China, tea has a rich history filled with traditions that are still followed today, such as that of the hand-picking and production of the rare teas, and the Gongfu Tea Ceremony). As such, tea is virtually inseparable from the country’s culture. As the country itself continues to expand its global reach, so, too, do its traditions and food and drink — as evidenced, in this particular case, by the fact that, even at prices of hundreds of dollars per pound, Qinba’s exclusive teas are selling out in the U.S.
The author is Editor of QA magazine. She can be reached at email@example.com.