Rock Tea, Rock Oolong or Yan Cha 岩茶 from WuYi Shan is a tea with a compact profile and at the same time made up of many different identities.
Trapped between a glorious tradition and an industrial present, this tea never ceases to amaze with its thousand marked aromas.
I am beginning to see a certain common pattern among the great tea mountains. Because in China nothing is worth your tea if it is not accompanied by a solid tradition that links its origins to the distant and mythical golden times of Sinic culture.
This is exactly what we also have here in Wuyi Shan, which in addition to being a UNESCO heritage thanks to its indistinguishable peaks, is a key area of the whole country’s tea culture.
In fact, the famous Rock Oolongs are produced here, first of all the Da Hong Pao which traces its origins to the Ming dynasty, when a candidate of the imperial exams traveling to Beijing fell ill near the WuyiShan Buddhist monastery. There, welcomed by a monk, he was then treated with tea from a tea plant native to those mountains. Thanks to the aforementioned drink, the man was able to participate in the exams, resulting the best among many. To thank the plant he returned to the site and placed his large red robe (which translates as Da Hong Pao) on the plant, a symbol of his recently acquired social status.
To make the distinction between reality and myth even more difficult there is the fact that today there are 3 of the plants dating back to that period in life, that until not so long ago were farmed and processed by the monks of the monastery. Unfortunately, since 2006, the harvesting has been interrupted by the government that wanted to retire these shrubs. The last picking of 400g of leaves is still on display in a museum in Beijing.
A further interesting fact is that since the beginning of the retirement, these plants are under the study of a group of researchers, and in the event of damage to them, an insurance has been stipulated for a value of about 10 million €.
This shows the tenacity with which the government intends to protect and at the same time build an aura of sacredness around the history of WuYiShan.
But going back to the present I cannot see the tradition upon which these lands grew their fame. In fact, speaking with a local farmer, he confirms that up to the 1990s many families preferred to cut their plantations to replace them with fruit trees or other crops that could bring food to a starving population.
The rebirth of the centuries-old Rock Oolong took place recently, in the early 2000s, when the government implemented a plan for the economic revival of the surrounding area. Success came quickly and there were many who eagerly joined this wave of well-being.
In fact, in addition to the central production area, called Zheng Yan 正 岩, which is roughly equivalent to the Wuyi National Park, two other production areas have developed, Ban Yan 半 岩 and then Wai Shan 外 , which extends radially and covers other tens of kilometers.
Another factor is also the reactivity with which the local population has adopted intensive production methods, in fact even in the Zheng Yan area, which is the most valuable, the steep slopes have not discouraged the use of machinery for both pruning and harvesting leaves, which has left me a little surprised given the fame and prices that some farmers ask for.
But still the area is optimal for tea production and although many producers look to quantity rather than quality, WuYi remains blessed with its geology rich in red sandstone and pyroclasts (a tea favorite as they drain the water from the roots). This factor combined with a humidity of around 80% and the relative few hours of direct light that the plants receive in the narrow valleys in which they are growing, makes this place the perfect habitat for the growth and production of the best leaves.
Not to mention that WuYiShan is also one of the tea mountains with the greatest biodiversity of cultivars.
In fact it all started with the Da Hong Pao cultivar, but over the centuries this gave birth to hundreds of different cultivars that even botanists find difficult to classify. To further complicate the scenario dozens of alien cultivars were introduced during the period of the agro-economic boom, coming from other parts of Fujian and China, which in turn gave birth to new hybrids.
However, it can be said that in addition to Da Hong Pao, the other two very famous cultivars are Shui Xian and Rou Gui. The latter has recently seen its plantations conquer land previously reserved for other cultivars given the fame it has been gaining in recent years.
The starting cultivar therefore plays a key role since all Rock Oolongs go through the same production method, but with a different duration.
The production phases of the Yan Cha:
Another peculiarity of these plantations is the fact that they are not replaced every 30 years as often happens for shrub plantations, this is because the plants with deeper roots (therefore older) are able to extract more nutrients from the rocky soil of WuYi.
There are three annual harvests, the spring one around mid-April, the summer one at the beginning of July and the autumn one around October. The duration of the harvesting period is approximately 20 days and the bud and the first three leaves are picked.