Zheng Xiaoqin, a tea farmer in Anxi in Fujian Province, sells Tie Guan Yin at the China Tea Capital market in Anxi on August 27, 2009.
The word you will hear most often in Anxi is probably Tie Guan Yin, the name of a premium variety of Oolong tea. Anxi, a small and mountainous county in southeast China's Fujian Province, is hailed as the birthplace of this special tea. Here, Tie Guan Yin has infiltrated everyday life - tea sets for brewing it can be found in most households, restaurants and hotel rooms; many locals work in Tie Guan Yin enterprises; and many farming families process the tea every day.
Seeking evidence of how hot the tea market in Anxi is, we headed for the China Tea Capital, a trading complex located not far from downtown. The market opened in 2001 and is equipped with tea evaluation and consultation services.
The market, claiming to be the largest of its kind in China, holds 1,800 storefronts and 3,000 or more stalls for individual sellers. Tea farmers from nearby villages pay a small rental fee and can sell their Tie Guan Yin directly to customers from all over China. The market also attracts big buyers from more than 60 other countries and regions in Asia, America and Europe.
Trade volume here is astonishing. Statistics provided by market officials show that 15,500 tons of tea have been sold from here so far this year, generating incomes of nearly 1.6 billion yuan, or 234 million US dollars.
It was a bustling scene when we arrived at the market at around nine in the morning. A steady stream of farmers carried in large bags of their tea. Zheng Xiaoqin, a farmer living 30 kilometers from downtown Anxi, told me that she comes every morning at five and sometimes sells out by the afternoon. Other farmers said they could earn up to 8,000 yuan, or about 1,170 US dollars, a month, close to a middle class salary in China.
Appreciating Tie Guan Yin tea.
After the market we visited a showcase center of Wei Yin, one of the best- known Tie Guan Yin brands. According to the president Wei Yuede, the processing craft has been passed down by the Wei family since his ancestor, Wei Yin, discovered the first Tie Guan Yin tree in 1723. Today, Wei Yuede, a ninth-generation descendant, runs a Tie Guan Yin conglomerate and has been named a national inheritor of Tie Guan Yin craftsmanship by intangible cultural heritage protection authorities.
At Wei's showcase center, which he calls "Garden of Tie Guan Yin Culture," we learned the basic process of making Tie Guan Yin and watched a tea ceremony before tasting different types of the tea. The most impressive type was called "tan bei," or wood coal-baked, whose tea leaves had been baked with wood coal for almost a day. It tasted a little stronger than other types, and amazingly, had a coffee-like smell.
Even more amazing, despite its strong taste, "tan bei" tea is particularly good for a weak stomach.
Having found the perfect type of tea for me, I went back to the hotel with three big boxes of "tan bei" Tie Guan Yin.