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    Inside the Battle to Become China’s ‘King of Teas’

    Wuyishan County makes some of the most expensive teas in the world. But who decides their value?
    Jan 11, 2024#food#tradition

    It’s difficult to find a greater collection of tea lovers anywhere in the world than the remote, mountainous Chinese county of Wuyishan each November. Named after the famed Wuyi Mountains not far from the country’s southeastern coast, growers here specialize in rock teas, some of the best, priciest, and most sought-after teas on Earth.

    Every year, as fall turns into winter, tens of thousands of tea producers, traders, and drinkers gather in Wuyishan to see, sample, and critique each other’s teas. These events, known as doucha hui, or “tea battles,” are meant to determine the year’s best varieties.

    The stakes are high: Past winners have commanded prices upward of 40,000 yuan ($5,600) per kilogram, while the techniques used in their production are quickly imitated by other growers.

    “Wuyishan’s tea competitions are like fashion week for rock teas,” says Huang Sheng, the founder of a community for tea enthusiasts. “They define the taste of rock tea each year.”

    It’s an apt comparison. At some of Wuyishan’s larger competitions you’ll find thousands of tea lovers from around the world wandering from stall to stall clutching tiny teacups in their hands, all looking for the next big thing.

    Now that enthusiasm is helping transform rock teas from a forgotten afterthought of China’s former imperial tribute system into a highly lucrative cash crop — even as some local growers worry the surge in interest risks privileging fads at the expense of tradition.

    Black Bohea

    Teas from Wuyishan were once among the best-known in the world — what European merchants called “black Bohea.” The region’s tea culture was forged through centuries of competition between local growers — a tradition that dates back to the Tang dynasty (618-907), when Wuyishan tea growers battled for the right to send their produce as tribute to the imperial court.

    By the end of the 20th century, however, complex, difficult-to-produce rock teas had fallen out of favor with tea drinkers. “Back in the 1990s, 500g of tieguanyin oolong tea might sell for over 1,000 yuan (then roughly $120), while rock teas sold for less than 100 yuan,” says Liu Guoying, a well-known rock tea producer and officially recognized practitioner of the art.

    At the time, Wuyishan’s tea competitions were often limited to industry insiders and had limited influence outside of tea circles. “At some contests, participants could not even taste each others’ teas,” Liu recalls.

    Frustrated by this state of affairs, Liu and other Wuyishan tea producers pushed for newer, more public-facing competitions. In 2001, he joined with a handful of others to launch a new kind of doucha hui.

    “Prior to our initiative, tea competitions only invited experts to judge,” Liu says. Beginning in the 2000s, however, competitions like Liu’s threw open the doors to the public, allowing anyone interested in rock teas to show up and try the leaves on offer.

    These new-style tea competitions have allowed rock tea producers to familiarize themselves with teas from across the region. “When contestants taste others’ teas, they understand why others win, and they come back (different) the next year,” Liu says. He believes that the competitions have played a key role in encouraging producers to improve their techniques.

    But that’s secondary to winning back the public. New-style tea competitions like Liu’s give attendees a vote, with their ratings accounting for 20% of a tea’s final score. Any participant can sidle up to a table, try a producer’s teas, and join the debate about which is best.

    “The king of teas”

    The surge in tea competitions over the past 20 years has revitalized Wuyishan’s reputation and driven prices upward. It’s also attracted a wave of investment that can be hard for Wuyishan’s small tea growers to manage.

    As the cost of Wuyi rock tea rises, investors are looking for ways to profit off the boom. Their solution has been to invest in competitions with an eye toward creating a chawang, or “king of teas.”

    Historically, the barriers to participation in tea competitions were low. In general, producers needed only to submit a small sample of their teas for consideration; they were free to sell the rest on the market.

    Many investor-backed tea competitions have adopted a different tactic. In exchange for the increased exposure promised by these well-funded events, participants must submit 10 kilograms of any tea they wish to have judged. The winners will be kept by the contest’s sponsors, while other participants will get most of their tea back — typically around 80%.

    Given the sky-high prices commanded by victorious chawang, operating tea competitions has become a highly lucrative proposition. But the emergence of ever more doucha hui has not always been welcomed by locals and aficionados, who worry the new contests could dilute the rock tea brand by flooding the market with subpar chawang teas.

    “The past few years have seen a flood of new tea competitions,” says Huang. “When companies put up the money, they sometimes want to name a chawang according to their own preferences.”

    A question of tradition

    An influx of capital isn’t the only challenge facing Wuyishan’s traditional growers: Some of the tea producers I spoke to complained that the competitions were rewarding gimmicky processing techniques and pushing the industry away from its roots.

    Xiao Caiyu, who has been making rock teas in Wuyishan for over 40 years, believes that many contemporary competitions work against the longer roasts that once defined rock tea. “Real rock teas need to be roasted slowly and patiently if they’re to taste good,” she says. “If you use the new techniques, the strength of the rock tea won’t always come through.”

    The language of rock teas can be intimidating to outsiders, with brews judged according to an opaque set of standards ranging from “cinnamon notes” to its degree of beihuo, or roast. Roasts, in particular, are crucial at competitions, and light roast rock teas tend to be fragrant with clear aftertastes — at least for the first few sips. That generally makes them more palatable to people who did not grow up drinking tea.

    But it also means they’re weaker, Xiao says: “They are light and fragrant, but the depth of flavor is missing.”

    The debate over what makes a good rock tea is not new, and often replicates divides within Wuyishan’s growing areas. “It’s a battle between terroir and technique,” says anthropologist Xiao Kunbing — not related to Xiao Caiyu — who has studied tea culture in Wuyishan for over a decade.

    Classic Wuyi rock teas require a very specific terroir. Those growers with plantations on the best land, including Xiao Caiyu, have traditionally commanded the highest prices for their teas. If tea growers and producers in more marginal areas want to compete, they must rely on roasting or other processing techniques. The tea competitions have thus become a battleground between different interest groups looking to advance their interpretations of rock tea.

    For producers like Xiao Caiyu who occupy the best land, the tea competitions can be useful, but they are not a vital part of business. As usual, her son sent samples of the family’s teas to the local tea competition last year but kept their best products in reserve. Xiao says that even their highest-quality tea would struggle to win given the current trend toward light roasts, and they were confident that the terroir of their teas would command a high price on the market even without the chawang label.

    For smaller or newer brands, on the other hand, the competitions offer a rare chance to differentiate themselves from the herd. “New producers still submit their best teas to competitions,” says Xiao Kunbing. “Their brands are not well known, and they want to make a name for themselves.”

    In tea, as elsewhere, it’s still good to be king.

    (Header image: A “doucha hui” held in the village of Tianxin, Fujian province, November 2023. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)