Mao Cha 毛茶
Updated: Oct 18
In recent years, a trend has emerged in China involving the darkening, or browning, of various tea varieties in a number of ways, such as roasting, baking and fermenting the tea leaves. Thus, dark pu'er made its global debut half a century ago, followed by yellow tea using a similar but milder method, and recently, some argue we're witnessing history in the making with the development of a new tea genre – dark white tea. However, it is actually wulong tea that is most renowned for its darkening process, even though it was originally only known in its lighter version. Not surprisingly, this method developed in an area where most innovative processes and discoveries in the modern tea world were made - southeast China, in today's Fujian province.
The primary reason for darkening tea leaves in China is to enable a wider spectrum not only of flavors and aromas but also of medicinal functionality. Chinese tend to maintain a keen awareness of their dietary and nutritional intake, meticulously monitoring what enters their bodies; every food item needs to have a health and environmental justification and implication. Those who have visited China have surely noticed how people measure each other's "health intelligence" and adapt culinary adaptations derived from weather changes.
Dark Wulong Tea
Today, wulong tea grows in Fujian and Guangdong provinces and also in Taiwan, but its dark version - baked wulong, roasted, or "enhanced fragrance" in a free translation from Chinese (nong xiang 浓香) - is not naturally baked, of course. The leaves undergo an additional post-process that is essentially detached from the leaf production process, and even physically distant from the tea factory located near the plantation. The baking process occurs in a dedicated factory and is not dependent on the harvesting time. In fact, the process can be repeated over the years, strengthening the aromas of old leaves as mentioned.
Both tea types, dark and light wulong, share similar geographical, historical, and botanical origins, although today there is a very clear separation where dark wulong is grown and where light is, unlike most of the dark tea types mentioned above. Anyone who opens a map will discover how close some tea growing areas in Fujian are to each other, and Taiwan seems a stone’s throw away from the province's coast, so it’s hard to argue there are significant gaps in the growing conditions and climate of the two ostensibly deviating brothers.
However, in practice, dark and light wulong differ in almost every tasting aspect and appearance. They are even categorized, packaged, and stored differently, and there are nuances that distinguish between the traditional brewing methods of the two. But what makes dark and light wulong two separate tea types in my eyes, is intention.
Wuyi Yan Cha
The penny dropped during tea tasting of yan cha 岩茶 (rock tea) at a factory in Wuyi Shan 武夷山 in Spring 2018, an area that has become synonymous with dark wulong, where we tasted bai rui xiang 百瑞香 that was surprisingly not baked but was interesting and different. I found a depth and texture that I did not recognize from light wulong, and it also did not look so light. When I showed genuine interest in this unique tea, my hosts were somewhat confused. "It’s mao cha," they told me. In Fujian, the term 'mao cha' refers to unfinished tea, still in production and not yet suitable for consumption. Interestingly, the same term is used in Yunnan province, though to describe loose tea.
As much as I experienced an instructive experience, it was clear to me that the tea I drank was not similar to the light wulong I know from other districts in Fujian, such as Anxi or Zhang Ping, because there too, every stage refers to the final purpose of the tea. I realized that the dark or light character is rooted in the leaves long before deciding whether to bake them, meaning it is not a casual decision at all.