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Hong Kong’s Last Tea Roasters Are Preserving Traditional Tieguanyin

The tea has swallowed the room.

Patrick Yeung is brewing his nongxiang tieguanyin and everything around us smells of roasted nuts and smoldering coals. As we sip and chat in his Mercer Street store, Fukien Tea Company, the heart of the tea beats in my mouth: a sun-dappled orchid flavor for which tieguanyin leaves are famous. Then the guan yun kicks in.

The flesh around my lower jaw starts to tingle as if a gentle electric current were running through it. It reminds me of the ferrous twang you taste in a bloody steak, and my mouth begins to water. I take another sip. The feeling intensifies. Yeung refills the pot for steep number five.

There’s no direct translation for guan yun. The closest English term is a “finish,” but guan yun isn’t the end of something. It’s a tension—between deep satisfaction and the compulsion to experience more. I keep drinking and the drama builds, reverberating like a strummed chord that grows louder, deeper, sweeter.

Fast forward hours later: I still taste the tieguanyin. Despite the 90-degree heat, I shoo off glasses of water and beer so the flavor lingers on my breath. Besides, at this point, other beverages seem kind of dumb by comparison.

If I told you I booked a trip to Hong Kong to bliss out on tieguanyin, I’d be exaggerating, but not by much. Great tieguanyin—an oolong tea from Anxi County in Fujian Province—is hard to find, especially the brassy roasted nongxiang kind, a finicky-to-make traditional style that’s nearly vanished on the Chinese mainland. In Hong Kong, though, roasted tieguanyin is currency. Old-timers are crazy for guan yun and willing to pay dearly for tea that summons the sensation. And while you can find good roasted oolongs elsewhere in the Asian Pacific, nothing’s quite like the Hong Kong stuff: burnished high-fire teas that helped build the city’s reputation as one of the tea capitals of the world.

But times are changing. The old-timers are dying off, the younger generations want something new, and the city’s once rich roasting tradition has dwindled to just a few holdouts. Which brings us back to Patrick Yeung.

Patrick Yeung roasts tea at Fukien Tea Company in Hong Kong. | Photo by Palani Mohan.

Yeung, a spry 71, has worked in the roasting business for almost 60 years. He learned how to roast tea from his father, who opened Fukien in 1952, and now runs the shop alongside his sons. He estimates only a handful of roasters remain in the city, three or four besides his own.

Beyond Hong Kong locals, Fukien fulfills orders from Japan, Taiwan, and even the mainland, where the tea is grown in the first place. “People feel they can trust us,” he says. “We have a reputation for the traditional roasted flavor, and we don’t put chemicals in our tea like some processors do in China.”

Fukien roasts their high-fire tieguanyin in electric ovens for a whopping 60 hours; their shui xian, another popular oolong tea from Fujian typically subjected to an even higher roast, takes up to 70. In hot, humid climates like Hong Kong, roasting tea to drive out lingering moisture is an important step in prolonging its shelf life. High-fire (aka nongxiang) roasts like Fukien’s turn the forest-green leaves dark brown, like coffee beans. The color change shows up in the brew as well, transforming a buttery oolong that tastes a little like floral green tea into something layered and rich, with notes of ripe stone fruit. Back in the day, roasters like Fukien powered their ovens with charcoal, which imbued the tea with a greater intensity, but the Hong Kong government has since banned charcoal roasting for environmental and fire-safety reasons. Not to mention that charcoal roasting is literally playing with fire. The ovens demand constant attention and flare up in unpredictable ways; one wrong move can ruin a batch of tea.

In addition to their high-fire oolongs, Fukien also sells qingxiang tieguanyin, a lighter, more modern style that’s baked for just six hours instead of 60. The low roast preserves the tea’s vegetal and creamy qualities, and it’s especially popular with Fukien’s younger customers, who are drawn to its immediate floral fragrance. “The aroma is more attractive, but the aftertaste is less interesting than the nongxiang,” Yeung says. “The tea is less strong, and you can’t brew it as many times.” In other words: less depth. Less guan yun.

Even in the heart of Fujian’s tea country, qingxiang tieguanyin has become the rule rather than the exception. It demands less skill of producers and is much harder to screw up. Plus, its flighty freshness is an easy sell in today’s market, the perky, puppy dog rosé to yesterday’s stodgy Bordeaux. The trend first took off in the 1990s, partly as Chinese growers began imitating a new Taiwanese style of minimally processed green oolong, which is oxidized for a shorter period and only baked enough to dry the leaves, not imbue them with layers of flavor like a traditional roast. A skilled producer working with good material can make complex, beautiful tea this way, but most renditions are a lot more basic. “It’s like a cheap bottle of wine,” says Lawrence Zhang, assistant professor of Chinese history at the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology. “You get a lot of floral flavors up front and then nothing— no base, nothing in the back of your throat. You drink it, and it’s gone.”

In hot, humid climates like Hong Kong, roasting tea to drive out lingering moisture is an important step in prolonging its shelf life. | Photo by Palani Mohan.

Zhang is a peripatetic researcher whose work has taken him through China, Taiwan, Japan, the United States and his native Hong Kong. He publishes papers about the history of Asian tea culture, but most English speakers know him as the blogger behind marshaln.com, a priceless compendium of tea writing aimed at Western audiences. Zhang occasionally writes about the effect of generational shifts on the tea world, and I’ve reached out to him for some historical context: How did Hong Kong become such a tea-trading hub in the first place, and why do dark-roasted teas have such a heritage here?

Like wine in Europe, Chinese tea was traditionally regional—you drank what was grown or sold around you. Up by Beijing and Shanghai, that’s mostly green tea. Down in parts of Fujian and Guangdong Provinces, dark-roasted oolongs like tieguanyin and shui xian are the daily brew. Over hundreds of years, these regions became renowned for carefully roasted teas, especially as Fujianese migrants decamped to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore in search of safety and economic opportunity. They brought their teas with them and kept the tea traditions alive.

Now, as a newly wealthy China seeks to rediscover its erased roots, tea drinkers are looking to that diaspora for insight on their own history. “Traditional tieguanyin has been decimated by green oolong,” Zhang explains. “A lot of farmers don’t even know how to do it anymore because there’s no demand in China.”

But demand is changing in Hong Kong, too. Roasted teas brewed traditionally can be an acquired taste and are often quite bitter and a bit sour. They take time to appreciate and are best drunk in a series of short steepings, with a high ratio of leaves to water. The practice is often called gong fu cha—making tea with skill— and it allows the drinker to explore the full range of a tea’s flavors, which evolve from cup to cup. More than a brewing method, gong fu cha is really a social event. You gather a group at someone’s home or a teahouse. The host breaks out a small pot and thimble-sized cups for tasting. You unwind and sip and gossip as the tea’s secrets slowly unfurl.

Which is part of the problem. “Who has time to sit back and brew tea for an hour these days?” Zhang says. “A lot of people in Hong Kong may remember their family drinking tea like this, but the pace of city life has changed.” When you factor in the growing taste for lighter, greener teas, not to mention Hong Kong’s soaring rents, it’s no surprise that old roasters are closing up shop. “The real estate environment here isn’t conducive to retail business. A lot of people are buying from the mainland instead.”

The loss is more than economic. It takes years to study the art of roasting, and if a roaster retires without training an apprentice, that knowledge disappears. Some seasoned tieguanyin drinkers already wince at today’s teas, which they insist lack the nuance and vibrancy of versions from the ’80s and ’90s. Fifteen years from now, the tea’s taste could be unrecognizable. Zhang is quick to point out that Chinese tea is constantly evolving, and as the internet connects disparate tea communities, change happens faster than ever. Patrick Yeung says his shop gets more curious young people these days than a few years back. And among some producers on the mainland, Zhang has even noticed a spark of renewed interest in heavily roasted teas. “The market is so big and fast- moving that it’s impossible to tell where any of it will go,” he says.

Vesper Chan, the founder of Hong Kong’s catchily named Best Tea House, has made a career out of forecasting the Chinese tea industry. Teas he acquires become some of the hottest commodities on the market. His most famous, the 88 qingbing (a private-aged vintage of a fermented tea called pu’er), will cost you thousands of dollars—if you can find a collector willing to part with their stash.

At 70 years old, Chan no longer roasts his own tea; he ensures his supply by contracting out to a roaster in Fujian, also in his 70s, that he buys out in advance. It’s worked so far, but “if that guy retires, that’s it, Master Chan won’t have a source,” says Linda Louie, Chan’s friend, stu- dent and occasional translator with a tea business of her own, Bana Tea Company, near Los Angeles.

Chan doesn’t consider the roasted tieguanyin business doomed, but if future generations of roasters are to keep up the craft, they’ll need their own promise of economic security. Which means they need drinkers to care enough to support them. “You have to educate someone to understand good tea,” Louie says, “otherwise they don’t know what to look for.” Chan regularly travels, writes and teaches about tea, and as he puts it, most young drinkers he encounters lack the “sophistication or training to succeed in appreciating [traditional roasted teas].”

For anyone who wants to take those steps, the best way to begin is by dropping into one of Hong Kong’s holdout tea shops. See if you can share a pot of tea and ask some questions. Let the tieguanyin swallow the room, and see where the afternoon takes you.

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