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by Shane Qin Apr 11 2013


Early in March, the tea gardens in Yingde become busy again after winter break as hundreds of tea growers return to harvest tea. Tender as they are, tea leaves picked early in springtime are considered the finest of quality. According to director Feng Pingwan from the Science and Research Institute of Tea Leaf in Yingde, the best tea leaves are picked several days before the Qingming Festival (which falls on April 4 this year) when new twigs have just begun to grow. The process of the tea harvest continues to as late as November with multiple pickings from the same plants. But the quality of the tea goes down as time passes.

A county-level city situated in central and northern Guangdong’s mountainous area, Yingde features a subtropical monsoon climate, abundant rainfall and fertile soil, making it ideal for tea growing. Yingde has a long history of tea growing that dates back some 1,200 years ago. Early evidence can be found in The Classic of Tea – the famous work by “Sage of Tea” Lu Yu in Tang Dynasty. Yingde’s tea business witnessed prosperity during the early 19th century when the Qing government opened up to the West, yet it was stagnant in the first half of the 20th century affected by a succession of wars and turbulence. Even so, the longstanding tradition of drinking tea among Yingde locals remains unchanged.

The decade following the founding of the PRC saw the renewal of Yingde’s tea growing. In 1959, a new breed was created to be the specialty of Yingde – Yingde black tea – listed as China’s three best kinds of black teas alongside the black teas of Anhui’s Qimen (Keemun) County and Yunnan Province. “A variety of teas are planted in Yingde, [including] green tea, oolong, puer tea…but black tea is incomparable,” Mr Feng proudly says.

For decades, Yingde black tea has been a sought-after product exported to Southeast Asia and Europe. But what made this tea world-famous is attributed to its bond with Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain. During the Queen's grand banquet in 1963,

Yingde black tea was used to treat guests and received exceptional remarks. From then on Yingde black tea has been recognized as a superior black tea for the royal family in the United Kingdom.
Yingde black tea of the highest quality is known as “Ying Hong No.9,” which, as Mr Feng notes, was the research result of the Science and Research Institute of Tea Leaf in early 1960s. The institute was established in Yingde in 1959 with a mission to cultivate excellent breeds of tea tree and explore new planting techniques. Since the beginning, the institute began to build up a comprehensive ‘gene bank’ of tea trees from around the world. Featuring a massive tea garden of 33 hectares, it is the biggest of its kind in South China.

As the largest black tea growing district in Guangdong, Yingde boasts a planting area of approximately 3,160,000 acres and a total output of 2,928 tons of high-quality tea leaves in 2012. “Although Yingde black tea is in high demand, the current production volume is in fact not enough to meet the market’s need,” Mr Feng reveals. “The cost of tea growing keeps rising and the challenge of market economy gets increasingly tough, and so many individual tea growers quit their business. Fewer teas are planted now and experienced tea growers are more and more difficult to find.”

To depend less on human labor, the refining process of Yingde black tea, including withering, rolling, fermenting, drying, multi-channel selection, is now highly mechanized. It’s reported that the Yingde government will take measures like expanding the scale of tea growing and hosting a tea expo this year to spur the growth of local tea industry. Meanwhile, some academic researchers suggest that more governmental support should be given to reasonable strategies in terms of planting, new product development and marketing.

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