The change from the Mao Feng market to Yan Cha has been a bit of a tea culture shock.
Looking for tea in huangshan was in a way so much simpler because the goal was clearer, find a good Mao Feng. There was only one tea I was searching for and it was more about separating the good from the bad. Then I moved to the Wuyi area and that all changed.
In Wuyi Shan, each maker crafts his Yan Cha to be different from the next. The teas are a form of expression. Makers can decide what kind of roast they want to put on a particular tea. They can then roast another set from that same batch in a completely different way resulting in two teams that have the same material but have completely different flavors. While this offers an endless world of tea tasting and possible flavors, it provides a challenge when sourcing teas. Where do you even start?
You walk into a shop and they ask you what are you looking for. You like Shui Xian so you ask for that. Then they ask you what kind of Shui Xian you like. What do you tell them? This is where my first lesson in Yan Cha began.
I like a heavy roast. I like the full-body, texture, and depth. I decided this is where I would begin my search, looking for a high quality fully roasted tea. This surprisingly turned out to be much harder than I thought. As I quickly learned Wuyi Shan makers rarely make the roast level that I previously considered to be standard.
Talking with a range of tea makers I got a few different reasons for this. The initial answers I got were that lightly roasted Yan Chas was better. I was told only the cheap ones are heavily roasted. This was by no means an objective answer and sounded more like people trying to sell their lightly roasted tea. As I talked with more people I began to get better answers. (My improving Chinese helped). As time went on though I began to get answers that seemed more thorough.
One maker, who I now regularly buy from, told me that the light trend started in the early 2000s. The market wanted lighter teas so the makers made them. This made sense to me as teas from all over the market are becoming lighter. (Qimens, Tie Guan Yin, and via one source Dan Cong are all feeling the market demand for lighter flavors) Another maker who also cited this reason for the lack of heavily roasted teas added also that a heavy roast involves a risk. When you make a heavy roast you have the chance of an amazing tea, but you also run the risk of over-roasting. An over-roasted tea is unfixable and won't sell, resulting in time and energy wasted. Lighter roasts pose less risk to makers and are much less effort-demanding. (A occurrence happened in Anxi with the introduction of nonroasted Tie Guan Yin) The more I talked with makers the more I understood the situation. The only thing I had yet to solve though is how to find what I wanted.
Zu Huo （足火）can be translated into sufficient fire. Zu means sufficient, ample, or enough; a good amount that has no room for addition. Huo means a fire which is often how makers will refer to roast. Zu Huo translates to ample roast, sufficient roast, or proper roast. This term was introduced to me via one maker who made a tea close to what I was looking for. I tried walking around Wuyishan using this term to describe what I wanted. Still no luck. The problem is that when talking about the roast, terms can be subjective. What a maker thinks is heavily roasted, I often think of as medium. What I consider to be zu huo another may think is too much.
While searching for these heavily roasted teas I of course drank others. At the shop of the man who first told me about the market trend, I was given a Qi Zhong with a roast level that I liked. I bought some to take him and I asked for 50g of another tea. He gave me a tea called Xiang Xin Reng （香袭人）roughly translating to fragrance attacks people. It was fantastic. It was a medium roast but it was also zu huo. A roast any higher would have been too much. It showed clear notes of apricots and stone fruits. All for half the price of the other Yan Chas I had been buying. I sent him a message asking about this cultivar that I had never heard of. Turns out it's Da Hong Pao, a blend of different cultivars. In all my trips to Wu Yi Shan, I had not even begun to look for DHP, focusing instead on single cultivars. This single Da Hong Pao sparked an interest in Da Hong Pao. I had never had a Da Hong Pao that displace such clear notes.
As the title states, all I’ve learned in my time in Wuyi is that I know nothing. I will still keep looking for the high roast, but also need to explore Da Hong Paos and Qi Zhong (wild varieties that don't fit into specific cultivars from my understanding) I will keep learning the language and find the right words to explain what I want. I will learn more from the makers I know while also searching for new ones.
I will know I have made a step toward understanding Yan Cha when I can walk in the door of a new store and answer the age-old question:
What do you want?