|Keemun Congou (photo by A.C. Cargill, used with permission)|
One of the 10 famous teas of China is what we in the West call a black tea (and others call “red” tea or “congou” tea) from the Anhui Province of China. It is known as Keemun or Qimen, named after the county in Anhui where it originated. (“Keemun” is the British spelling for “Qimen”.) The winey, fruity quality of the tea liquid is what has created this tea’s widespread popularity and reputation.
Amazingly, this tea is fairly new compared with tea drinking in general, which dates back over 5,000 years according to historical evidence. Keemun black tea was first produced in 1875. And its creator? A man named Yu Quianchen. He lost his civil service job, felt disgraced, but the world is eternally grateful. (Just goes to show that your course in life can take very unexpected and often delightful turns.) He went to the Fujian Province first to learn how to make black tea, since his home province of Anhui only produced green teas at that time. He brought that method of production back to Anhui and called the tea “Qimen” where it soon was changed to “Keemun” by the British who made it the base for their English Breakfast Blend.
In China, this wonderful tea is drunk straight without the typical British additives of milk and sweetener. They want to experience the full aroma and taste of the tea. Fruity (dried plum), hints of pine, and a slight floral character are clearly noted in that aroma. These fragrances along with a hint of orchid carry through to the flavor, making this one of the more memorable and complex black teas.
A few steeping hints:
- Use fresh water brought to a roiling boil.
- Use a generous quantity of tea leaves — generally, a heaping teaspoonful per 8-ounce cup of water.
- Steep 3 to 5 minutes — shorter time gives you a more flavorful cup without any bitterness or astringency but is a bit weak for having with milk and longer gives you a stronger cup that could be a bit bitter and that stands up to milk.
Several varieties are available:
- Keemun Hao Ya (祁門毫芽) – BEST GRADES: A is the better and B slightly lower, both often showing silver tips among the fine buds.
- Keemun Congou (or Gongfu) (祁門功夫) – a version processed with care and skill, producing whole unbroken leaves shaped in thin, tight strips.
- Keemun Mao Feng (Fur Peak) (祁門毛峰) – slightly twisted buds that produce a smoother, different taste even after steeped for a longer time than usual (some let it go as long as 7 minutes), bringing out more variety in the flavor.
- Keemun Xin Ya (祁門新芽) – made from early buds and less prone to be bitter than the others.
By itself or in a blend, Keemun is the most remarkable black tea to come from China and certainly rivals the best teas from other tea growing regions.