文 By: 許玉蓮 Hooi Yoke Lien
The quality of crag tea (or yancha) hailed from Mount Wuyi is refined in three ways: fermentation, roasting, and storage and ageing. Typical full-bodied mellowness and lingering aftertaste are characteristics of crag tea that is adequately fermented, roasted, and aged for at least a year
Under-fermented leaves retain the green grassiness which would infuse the final product. Inadequately fermented leaves are less heat-resistant and promise nothing but a flat flavour after roasting. Crag tea that has undergone proper fermentation (or enzymatic oxidation) is more heat-resistant, allowing more flavour to be developed and released during the roasting process. Normally, tea with lower level of fermentation has a floral accent, while higher level fermentation gives a distinct ripe, fruity aroma.
What does the roasting process involve? Basically, there is the initial roasting for removing the moisture from the raw materials (or maocha, semi-finished tealeaves), followed by the more meticulous processes of medium roasting (or reheating) and slow roasting (or extended roasting). Roasting determines the character of the crag tea. Its flavour and aroma improve in the course of roasting with low heat over an extended period of time; done right, the grassiness, bitterness and astringency will be eliminated. The sharper flavour and more pronounced aroma are mellowed, revealing an intriguing and well-rounded character. The mouth-filling bouquet intertwines with the taste to bring out the allure of the rocky terroir. The finish, as the tea flows down the throat, is exceptionally clean and clear.
Initial roasting: When tealeaves are picked, processed and dried, they become the raw materials. Properly prepared, this will yield an aromatic infusion with a clean palate and mint-like freshness. The moisture in the raw materials interacts with the heat, releasing a hint of pleasant bitterness and delicate, natural flavour.
Medium roasting: The raw materials can develop a warmer and mellower character by way of a meticulous roasting process. The moisture of the tealeaves is further reduced in the course heating at an appropriate temperature. The interaction between fire and water results in medium-roasted crag tea with a distinct floral note.
Slow roasting: This refers to heating at low temperature for considerably longer time – it can last up to 10 hours at about 60°c, which can be done in 2 to 3 rounds. This way, moisture would have been removed thoroughly and the crag tea would have transformed into the ultimate treasure and pleasure embraced by tea aficionados. The ripe fruity flavour is intense with a long finish, while the subtle warm fragrance would have fully infused the tea. There is no harsh roasted smell; only a hint of charred aroma as if inherent in the tealeaves.
On the contrary, using high heat to speed up the process (such as roasting at 100°c for 3 hours) ‘kills’ the interaction between fire and water; the moisture would still be locked inside the tealeaves. Infusion made with such will have a strong smell of ‘fire’. In some cases, smothering heat would assail the nostrils as one lifts the lid of the teapot. The liveliness of crag tea is replaced by a ‘lifeless, roasted smell’.
The roasting process should be carried out with one’s feeling, touch, smell and sight, lacking of which the finished product will be lifeless. The temperature will fall short of the required if the duration is too short; on the contrary, over-roasting will yield tea infusion with a muddled taste. Pay attention to the changes in the tealeaves; touch it to gauge its breathing; feel the temperature in the room; note the smell and constantly observing it are some of the ways to ensure good quality crag tea.
Year-old aging: Roasted tealeaves are kept in wooden crates stored in a shaded but airy place. Allow time for the heat to dissipate; this way, the aroma of the tealeaves will stay in the infusion when steeped, yielding a nourishing and smooth beverage with sweet, lingering aftertaste. That is why the technique of fermentation, roasting, and storage and ageing need to be refined when it comes to crag tea. There are a lot of variable factors through the entire processes; it is the ways in which they react to each other that help develop the rich and complex character crag tea is famous for.
The finesse for the enjoyment of crag tea lies in three aspects: the choice of teapot, the preparation of water and the way of brewing. A red clay pot or a porcelain pot is a must – only teapots fired at a very high temperature could bring out the mesmerizing clarity and liveliness of its unique flavour. The aroma should linger on at the bottom of the cup, and the finish should be long enough to stay in the throat.
Water for brewing: At Mount Wuyi, the unanimous choice will be the spring water near Yongle Monastry. Pure mineral water is acceptable for brewing at home. Other types of water are simply not up to the task. Use low heat to boil water to retain its ‘softness’. Do not use high fire – turn it off once the water is boiled; repeated boiling will transform it into hard water. Brewing with hard water will only produce inferior infusion that is bitter, astringent and stomach-twitching. Use freshly-boiled water for each brew. This way, the water gets to penetrate the tealeaves readily, releasing the authentic flavour for a ‘melt-in-the-mouth’ sensation.
Brewing tips: Keep tealeaves intact; do not crush or break them. Make sure the steeping time is long enough for the first brew. Do not pour away the infusion as this is the most aromatic brew. It takes time for the soluble compounds of crag tea to dissolve in water; however, the tea infusion should not be too strong, as this will overshadow the original flavour of crag tea. Essentially, the enjoyment of crag tea is about the lingering flavour and aroma characteristic of the rocky terroir typical of Wuyi, which is marked by cleaness, clarity, refined taste and a long and intense finish.