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A Connoisseur’s Guide to Sichuan Dark Tea – Unraveling the Cultural Heritage, Craft and Flavor Profiles

Drawing from the author’s extensive industry observations, practitioners of Sichuan dark tea exhibit a commendable commitment to integrity. Their expertise lies predominantly in the craft of tea-making, with minimal inclination towards publicity. Consequently, many aficionados find Sichuan dark tea to be a realm shrouded in unfamiliarity, lacking guidance in its selection and identification. Leveraging a collection of antique tea paraphernalia as well as firsthand encounters in production and distribution locales, the author endeavors to unveil the enigmatic allure of Sichuan dark tea through a multifaceted exploration.

Amidst the festive ambiance surrounding the Spring Festival, culinary indulgences abound, featuring an abundance of savory meats and succulent seafood. While antiquity witnessed a poignant amplification of yearning for distant loved ones during such celebratory periods, contemporary festivities often accompany a rather less romanticized consequence – an inevitable gain in weight. In this season, my household finds solace in the ritual of preparing two steaming pots of Sichuan dark tea on a near-daily basis. The consumption of a hearty bowl of beef broth proves to be a veritable elixir, effortlessly dispelling the pangs of excess oiliness. Indeed, the ascent of Chinese black tea into the realms of popular acclaim unfolds as a phenomenon to be reckoned with. While Yunnan Pu’er spearheaded this movement, closely trailed by Hunan Fu Zhuan, the resurgence of Guangxi Liubao since 2020 has garnered considerable attention. Yet, amidst this fervor, the profound historical lineage, exquisite craftsmanship, and diverse array of cultivars inherent to Sichuan dark tea remain inexplicably overlooked. Presently, within the tea industry, a notable cohort of professionals remains unacquainted with Sichuan dark tea, let alone having ventured beyond the confines of conventional wisdom.

Grounded in the author’s meticulous scrutiny of the industry over the course of numerous years, practitioners of Sichuan dark tea emerge as paragons of integrity. Their artisanal pursuits revolve primarily around the alchemy of tea-crafting, with scant regard for ostentatious self-promotion. Consequently, a veil of unfamiliarity enshrouds Sichuan dark tea for many enthusiasts, leaving them adrift in a sea of ambiguity when it comes to discerning and selecting this elusive brew. Armed with an assortment of antiquated tea artifacts and enriched by extensive forays into the realms of production and distribution, the author embarks on a multifaceted odyssey to unravel the mystique of Sichuan dark tea.

Sichuan dark tea, a product steeped in historical lore, traces its origins back to eras spanning from the Tang and Song Dynasties to the Yuan and Ming Dynasties. Initially tailored to meet the exigencies of the arduous “tea-horse trade” prevalent in the region, Sichuan dark tea evolved into a commodity prized for its resilience during prolonged voyages, maturing into an aromatic delight with the passage of time. However, in antiquity, the taxonomy of tea lacked the sophistication of contemporary classification systems such as the “six major tea categories.” Owing to its distribution to frontier regions, Sichuan dark tea earned the moniker of “border tea.” Yet, a closer examination reveals a dichotomy within the realm of Sichuan black tea, giving rise to two distinct schools of thought: South Roadside Tea and West Roadside Tea.

In the grand tapestry of Sichuan dark tea, South Roadside Tea emerges as the vanguard, eclipsing its West Roadside counterpart in both technological prowess and production yields. Among the author’s archival treasures lies a relic from the 1980s—a promotional pamphlet hailing from the Sichuan Tea Branch of the China National Native Produce and Livestock Products Import and Export Corporation. Adorned with the trademark “National Unity,” this artifact eloquently underscores the esteemed status of Sichuan dark tea in the hearts of connoisseurs, particularly among the plateau-dwelling ethnic minority communities. Noteworthy mentions within this historical document include Jinjian tea from Ya’an Tea Factory, Kangzhuan tea from Yingjing Tea Factory, and Jinjian tea from Tianquan Tea Factory—each distinguished by the prestigious accolade of the Ministry of Commerce’s Quality Product Award. These venerable tea estates, nestled within the traditional tea-producing enclave of Nanlu Road, epitomize the pinnacle of Sichuan dark tea craftsmanship. Indeed, contemporary aficionados seeking to savor the quintessence of Sichuan dark tea invariably find themselves drawn to the nuanced allure of South Roadside Tea, predominantly hailing from the verdant hills of Ya’an.

In the intricate mosaic of Sichuan dark tea, South Roadside Tea and West Roadside Tea emerge as rival factions, each boasting its own cadre of luminaries. South Roadside Tea, akin to revered martial arts sects of yore, comprises six distinct categories: Maojian, Yaxi, Kangzhuan, Jinjian, Jinyu, and Jincang. Characterized by slender tendrils and delicate buds, these varieties epitomize the zenith of tea craftsmanship, their very names evoking a sense of refinement and distinction. Once the exclusive purview of Tibetan aristocrats and esteemed monastics, these rarified teas remain a tantalizing enigma for the uninitiated. Scarce in yield and steeped in antiquity, teas adorned with fine tendrils and delicate buds command a premium rivalling that of precious metals. Indeed, the lofty prices commanded by teas such as Ya’an Tea Factory’s Maojian, reaching the staggering heights of 60,000 yuan for a mere 250 grams, underscore their status as veritable treasures.

Amidst the ebb and flow of consumer preferences, teas of lesser renown, symbolized by their modest packaging, languish in obscurity. As societal tastes evolve, demand for teas housed within gilded vaults diminishes, relegating these once-coveted brews to the annals of antiquity. Within the author’s collection lies a trifecta of promotional materials from the 1980s, extolling the virtues of Jinjian tea from Ya’an Tea Factory, Jinjian tea from Tianquan Tea Factory, and Kangzhuan tea from Yingjing Tea Factory. Regrettably, promotional materials heralding the virtues of Yaxi, Maojian, Jinyu, and Jincang teas are conspicuously absent, emblematic of their waning prominence. In the contemporary landscape, Sichuan black tea finds its foremost champions in the stalwart varieties of Jinjian and Kangzhuan.

Jinjian and Kangzhuan, twin luminaries within the pantheon of Sichuan dark tea, stand as paragons of artisanal excellence. Yet, what sets these illustrious teas apart? Let us delve into a comparative analysis, exploring the nuances of both form and content. Firstly, we shall scrutinize their aesthetic attributes. Both Jinjian and Kangzhuan teas assume the guise of compressed bricks, albeit diverging in weight. Historically, Sichuan black tea destined for Tibetan hinterlands was packaged in one-kilogram bricks for Kangzhuan and five-kilogram bricks for Jinjian. However, contemporary iterations witness a refinement in presentation, with Kang bricks maintaining their one-pound stature while Jinjian transitions to a three-liang denomination per brick. Regardless, Jinjian tea bricks perennially overshadow their Kang counterparts in sheer bulk. Discerning aficionados, honed by diligent observation, can readily distinguish between the two without resorting to unraveling their packaging. The telltale sign lies in the curvature of the gold-tip strip bag’s termini, contrasting with the angular precision of the Kangzhuan strip bag. With familiarity born of intimate acquaintance, the seasoned observer can effortlessly discern the tea’s identity at a glance, obviating the need for unwarranted inspection.

Having appraised their outward appearance, let us delve into the essence of these revered teas. To elucidate their essence, allow me to regale you with a tale steeped in legend—an anecdote harkening back to 1985, when the 20th anniversary of the Tibet Autonomous Region Government beckoned a momentous occasion. On this auspicious juncture, the central delegation proffered a gift of Sichuan dark tea, meticulously sourced from the venerable Ya’an Tea Factory. From the vast panoply of Sichuan dark teas, two variants of South Roadside Tea—Kangzhuan and Jinjian—stood poised for selection. I, myself, had the privilege of leading a CCTV expedition to the hallowed precincts of the Ya’an Tea Factory, bearing witness to the archival relics housed within the China Tibetan Tea Museum. On the 16th of March, 1985, under the auspices of Wu Jingjing, then deputy director of the State Ethnic Affairs Commission, a conclave convened, marshaling the resources of the Ministry of Commerce, Sichuan Tea Company, Ya’an Tea Factory, and allied entities to orchestrate the dissemination of tea gifts to the central delegation. Henceforth, a directive was issued, mandating the production of 260,000 kilograms of Kang bricks and 217,500 kilograms of gold tips. With Kangzhuan tea packaged in one-pound increments and Jinjian tea in one-and-a-half-pound increments, a total of 405,000 parcels of gift tea were prepared—a parcel for each of Tibet’s 405,000 households.

Astute readers may raise a quizzical brow at this juncture. Does not the discrepancy in weight between Kang bricks and gold tips confer an undue advantage upon the latter’s recipients? Nay, for the official edict explicitly mandates parity in production costs, despite divergences in weight. Indeed, the raw materials employed in crafting Kangzhuan tea harbor an 8% stem content, in stark contrast to the 13% stem content found in Jinjian tea. Thus, the crux of the matter lies in discerning the subtle interplay between these botanical constituents—the quintessence of Kangzhuan and Jinjian teas being inextricably intertwined with the varying proportions of stems contained therein. While their weights may differ, the equilibrium of production costs remains steadfast, ensuring equity in the dissemination of these cherished brews. Thus, the saga unfolds, wherein a pound of Kang bricks assumes the valor of one and a half pounds of gold tips—a testament to the enigmatic alchemy underlying the realm of Sichuan black tea.

The over 400,000 Kangzhuan tea and Jinjian tea, meticulously crafted by the Ya’an Tea Factory under the auspices of the Central Delegation, epitomize the essence of premium mountain tea. Each tea brick is adorned with the elegant inscription “Gift from the Central Delegation.” Among the diverse tapestry of Tibetan ethnicities, this tea is not merely designated as Kangzhuan or Jinjian; it is reverently hailed as the “Central Tea,” imbued with profound sentimentality. Anecdotes passed down from elder Tibetans reveal a deep reluctance to discard the packaging, transforming it into a cherished memento.

Nearly four decades have elapsed, witnessing the consumption of most of the Sichuan black tea consignment within Tibetan territories, where tea has become an indispensable facet of life. Consequently, this emblematic gift from the central authority, irrespective of its Kangzhuan or Jinjian origin, has largely faded from the tea landscape. After years of fervent quest, the author has managed to procure only a solitary original tea box. Subsequently, in homage to the central delegation’s endowment of Sichuan black tea, the Ya’an Tea Factory meticulously replicated a limited edition, which promptly sold out, now a rarity.

Do the gold tips, replete with more stalks than Kangbian bricks, denote inferior quality? Such conjecture is fallacious. Novices in the realm of Sichuan Dark Tea may succumb to prevalent misconceptions, erroneously perceiving it as lacking in quality. Why eschew a jest? Indeed, the inclusion of stems in Sichuan black tea is not haphazard but rather a deliberate addition by the tea artisan. A calibrated infusion of tea stems augments sweetness, body, and brew robustness. A sip of steamed Sichuan black tea entices the palate with its sweetness, leaving a comforting warmth upon ingestion. To omit the stems would undoubtedly diminish the tea’s allure. As the adage goes, akin to a nagging impediment, one finds no solace until it is expelled. In Sichuan black tea, the stem is a cherished asset; without it, admiration would wane. Presently, national standards mandate a minimum stem content of 13% in golden tips, yet many esteemed tea establishments deliberately elevate this content to approximately 15%, not as a measure of thrift but to appease the discerning palate of seasoned tea connoisseurs.

Tea Along the Southern Thoroughfare

Encompassing regions such as Ya’an, Mingshan, Tianquan, Yingjing, and Qionglai, the finished products find their primary market in Tibet, Qinghai, as well as Ganzi, Aba, Liangshan, and other locales in Sichuan.

Tea Along the Western Thoroughfare

Spanning production hubs like Dujiangyan, Chongzhou, Dayi, Beichuan, and others, the teas are predominantly vended in Songpan, Maoxian, Lixian, and surrounding regions.

Tea Blends and Highland Fare

Whether it be the Southern or Western Thoroughfare tea, whether Kangzhuan or Jinjian, their primary distribution channels are the highlands. These regions endure harsh cold, necessitating high-calorie sustenance to combat the frigid climate. Historically, scarce access to fresh produce plagued these high-altitude locales. Sichuan black tea not only mitigates oily residues but also supplements dietary fiber, rectifying the dietary imbalances prevalent among highland denizens.

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