Charcoal-Fired Tea

A charcoal-firing room in WuyiShan, Fujian, China. Photograph by Mary Lou Heiss

A charcoal-firing room in WuyiShan, Fujian, China. Photograph by Mary Lou Heiss

The most traditional method of finish-firing used for highly oxidized ( 60-80% ) styles of Chinese oolong tea is charcoal firing. For this method, a small quantity of leaf is gently spread out in the top of a bamboo firing basket, and paced over a carefully controlled low-heat charcoal ember fire.

Finish-firing is an essential step in oolong tea manufacture, whether the tea is dried in a rotary drum oven or a bake oven or is traditionally charcoal-fired. Final firing is important because:

  1. it allows the teamaker to bring the tea to the final state of dryness by driving off excess moisture in the leaf, and thereby leaving only the desired percentage of residual moisture in the finished tea.
  2. it ‘finishes’ the leaf or ‘seals’ the leaf, so to speak. It is the last step in oolong manufacture and a critical one as it will determine how stable the tea will be in the marketplace as well as how successfully it will keep and age.

Additionally, charcoal firing lightly imbues the leaves with a delicate and lovely ‘suggestion’ of wood, which influences, not overwhelms, the distinctive flavor and aroma of the tea in the cup.

In tea factories that we have visited we have seen small, somewhat narrow firing baskets that range from just over 2 feet tall to large, wide versions that stand about 4 feet high. These well-designed baskets are simple,  lovely works of art. They are usually handmade in local workshops from bamboo that is cut in the forests in the tea producing regions. Every tea factory utilizes tea firing baskets that differ slightly from those used in other factories, but the overall idea is the same.

Tea firing baskets may be one or two piece constructions, and either way they comprised of two distinct parts -a low, round top tray which holds the leaf and ( a several-inch high lip keeps the leaf from spilling out ) and a circular bamboo base that holds the tray securely and keeps the tea safely elevated above the heat. The bamboo base is hollow and open and designed to straddle the heat source, allowing the heat to rise up to the tray of tea resting on top.

The goal of finish firing is just that – the last slow and gentle final drying of the leaf. Depending on the style of oolong tea being made ( semiball-rolled Tieguanyin or other se zhong oolongs such as Mao Xie (Hairy Crab) or Tou Tian Xiang (Imperial Gold) from China and Tung Ting and gao shan oolongs from Taiwanstrip-style Wu Yi yan cha oolongs such as Da Hong Pao, Shui Hsien, Rou Gui, etc,; Fenghuang Dan Congs from the Phoenix Mts ) the tea may be put over the heat and then removed for resting off and on for a period of several hours before it is satisfactorily fired.

Charcoal firing adds a seductive bit of wood flavor to the tea – not a distinct smokiness of pine-smoked Zhen Shan Xiao Zhong but an elusive and barely discernable woodyness to the flavor. Some green teas are basket fired as well, but the short amount of time that these teas are exposed to the heat adds less influence to the finished tea.

For me, charcoal-fired oolongs embody the hand-crafted, traditional nature of stupendous oolong teas.  Charcoal-firing is as much a stamp of terroir as is the tea bush varietals that the leaves are plucked from, various other unique steps of tea manufacture that have been developed in certain locales, and the geographic location of these tea bushes or tea trees.

In some villages in China, charcoal-firing has been outlawed in the larger tea factories due to envirnomental concerns. But there are still individual tea farmers firing tea by the old-time charcoal method. So if you are intrigued by the idea of these tasty oolongs, check our charcoal-fired Tieguanyin.

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One thought on “Charcoal-Fired Tea

  1. Thank you very much for this informative post. I know the firing process in Oolong manufacture may seem relatively nuanced to your average “I like to drink tea” person, but the sheer variety in approach to this one step is a good demonstration of why tea can be so complex.

    By the by, your book was by far the most informative, clear and “well photographed” tea book of the many that I read. It was a large part of my current helpless addiction to tea, and a catalyst to the production of a tea blog, which is current undergoing construction. It’s great to digitally meet you, in a way.

    Thanks again for your tea expertise, and I look forward to reading more of your posts here on Tea Trekker.

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