Tai Pin Hou Kui is one of the top ten most famous Chinese teas, it became world famous when it won the gold prize for teas at the Panama World Expo in 1915. It also won the King of Green Teas at the China International Tea Expo in 2004. It is one of the country’s most prestigious teas and has been used as a national gift tea for several visiting heads of state. Like many other Chinese teas, it is named after its place of origin, the core producing area of Tai Ping district (formerly Tai Ping county), on the north side of Yellow Mountain city, Anhai province, China.
On my last tea trip to China in April, I visited the famous Tai Pin Hou Kui core tea-producing areas in Tai Ping district (formerly Tai Ping county), in Yellow Mountain city, Anhai province. The landscape and the tea gardens on the hillside are stunning and the making of this prestigious tea is impressive.
Hou means monkey in Chinese. Kui means the best kind. There are two myths associated with this tea. One says that the tea bushes were growing on dangerous cliffs and hillsides that made it too difficult to harvest. The locals trained the monkeys to pick the tea leaves, hence the name Hou Kui. Another version is that a mother monkey was looking for her lost child and died from exhaustion searching for her child in a deep valley. A local old farmer kindly buried the mother monkey along with several tea plants at her grave. The next year when he went to pick the wild tea leaves, he saw the sudden growth of a beautiful tea garden where the mother monkey was buried, from which he harvested the leaves and the tea made from the garden was delicious. To commemorate the mother monkey’s gift, he named the mountain hill as Hou Gang, the valley where he lived as Hou Keng, and the tea as Hou Cha. Since his tea is the best in kind, people started to call it Taiping Hou Kui.
A Princess in the Deep Mountains
This is an exceptional tea, in its appearance, its process, and its character. There is an old Chinese saying that references this tea as “A Princess in the Deep Mountains”. It has incredibly long, flat leaves, which are pointed at the top and the end. Because of this pointed shape, it used to be called Jian Cha during the Qing dynasty, meaning pointed tea.
The Stringent Picking Standard
Tai Ping Hou Kui has the largest sized leaf amongst all green teas. The local cultivar is called Shi Da Cha, a rare varietal that is specifically cultivated for this tea and not used for any other tea products. The tea leaves are big, oval shaped, and thick, yet tender. The picking window is very short, usually around Guyu festival, from mid-April to the end of April. Hand-plucking of the tea leaves stringently follows these four standards:
- Only harvest from mountains of high altitude from south-facing hills
- Select only the Shi Da Cha varietal plant that grows flush and strong
- Pluck only from thick, well grown branches free of disease
- Pick stems that have many downy hairs, one bud and two leaves
Taiping Houkui is made using a unique process. The local masters use a deep flat bottom base pan to fry the leaves for a short time. After the pan frying, leaves are laid on a series of bamboo baskets which are heated over a charcoal pot and batches of leaves are moved at various temperatures for three times. Once the roasting is done, tea masters lay out each leaf flat and press them into their distinct pointed shape. This is an important step in shaping and enhancing the flavor of the tea.
The Aroma and Taste
Tai Pin Hou Kui is known for its aromatic orchid fragrance and full bodied sweet taste. A good quality Hou Kui has the signature orchid fragrance, not overly bold, but like a fragrant breeze in a deep valley.
Nowadays, it is difficult to find authentic handmade Taiping Houkui in the core producing area. One way to judge whether the tea is a good quality or not, is to brew it in a tall clear glass. The fully opened leaves will stand up in the water if they are truly handmade and of good quality, while machine made lower quality leaves will not.
It is best to brew the tea in a tall clear glass in order to observe the amazing leaves opening and dancing in the glass, creating an astonishing view. For a good quality handmade Hou Kui, it can be steeped up to 8 times. The first steeping brings the signature aromatic orchid fragrance. The second steeping brings a full-bodied mellow taste. With the third and fourth steepings, delicate fragrance still remains as does the taste.