There’s a famous Chinese green tea that we feel rivals the umami, taste, history, and benefits of matcha, it’s called Gua Pian and we’d love to introduce it to you.
Gua Pian comes from the Da Bie Mountain Range and is one of China's famous teas. During the Qing Dynasty (1644－1912), Gua Pian was a Tribute Tea to the royal court, which meant that both the processing technique and its specific terroir was highly documented and defined.
The historical terroir of this tea is the city of Lu An, in the province of An Hui. Ever since the Tang Dynasty (618-907), tea from Lu An has been noted by tea connoisseurs and has appeared in numerous poems and novels.
Better Than Matcha You Say?
We’ll get into the nitty gritty of Gua Pian’s processing in a bit, but at its most basic, Gua Pian is a whole leaf loose leaf green tea, compared to matcha’s powdered form. This style of tea is much easier to brew, there are no extra tools needed for special methods involved. Milk also isn’t essential to mellow out the flavor - it’s great just on it’s own. All you need is a steeper (could be a pot, or even just two glasses) to provide you with an ease of enjoyment. With whole leaf tea, there is a lower extraction rate of caffeine, allowing your body to get all of the benefits of the complex compounds found in green tea (such as l-theanine and catechins) with a more body friendly level of caffeine.
Because it is made only using leaves, one would expect Gua Pian to be very astringent, but this is not the case. The unique La Da Huo step in processing gives the tea a pleasantly toasty flavor that compliments its grassy umami taste, buttery mouthfeel and bold sugary undertone. Gua Pian has a clear green liquid and is “greener” than most Chinese green teas. It has a greater body too, which makes it taste similar to matcha.
Much of the matcha found on the market today is not the high quality of its origin in Japanese tea ceremonies. Large corporations are producing far lower quality versions that can barely be called matcha by traditional standards, but are hard to differentiate with an untrained eye. Whole leaf loose leaf tea lets you see exactly what you are getting, and you’re much more easily able to assess quality. Green tea is the least stable category of tea and has a higher tendency to lose the flavor intended by the maker the quickest. Gua Pian oxidizes slower than matcha, giving it a longer shelf life and a more consistent taste. Neither tea goes “bad” per-say, but after time the oxidation creates changes that homogenize flavor notes, making it less complex, bright, or aromatic.
Making Gua Pian
Gua Pian tea is unique not only because of its history, but also because of its unusual picking style and processing technique. Gua Pian is the only Chinese green tea that uses only leaves without any buds or stems.
In Lu An, the region where Gua Pian is the primary tea, people wait with intention for the buds to open up and become leaves before picking the tea. Because of this, Gua Pian is one of the latest picking green teas with the primary season usually happening around mid to end of April. Unfortunately, often you will find knock-off Gua Pian made with leftover leaves after all the buds were picked.
In traditional harvesting, the leaves are separated from the stems using a special technique known as Ban Pian, which is a skillful twist of the wrist to pluck the leaf off the branch, leaving behind the stem and the very bottom of the leaf. After the leaves are picked in the morning, they are usually spread out in a shaded area indoors to let the surface moisture of the leaves dry out for a few hours and the official making starts after sunset. This rest period is now considered best practice for green and yellow teas. This step is different from the wilting involved in making white tea and oolong as it does not allow the enzymes of the tea to become concentrated enough to begin the fermentation process. Instead, this step allows the surface moisture of the tea to evaporate and converts some of the rougher tannins in the tea to finer ones for improved mouthfeel.
The Gua Pian woks are wood fired and are usually in a standup position with two or three line up in a row. Without a dial to control the temperature, one person has to be assigned to man the log fire, controlling the temperature completely by skillfully positioning the logs and knowing when to add or take out a few. The two or three woks are usually operating at different temperatures with the first one the hottest. Once the leaves are thoroughly cooked (enzymes killed), they are transferred to the next wok(s) to make shape. The tea makers use a small broom or swatter looking tool to move the leaves then gently beat it continuously to make sure the leaves are heated evenly and take on the signature tightening shape, making about half an ounce of tea at a time.
The leaves then are transferred to a slightly warped bamboo tray and moved nimbly over a dim charcoal ash to slowly bake dry. After the teas are baked dry comes the most tedious step of all top shelf Chinese teas, where one by one the older leaves and stems are picked out from the batch. Then the most unique step of Gua Pian is performed, La Da Huo, or pulling the big fire.
La Da Huo
Twenty pounds at a time, the semi-dried leaves are put on a giant bamboo tray with one man on each side of it and literally walk the tea over a sizzling big pit of charcoal fire to flash roast the teas. For each batch of tea, this step is repeated for about an hour. It is usually done on a three-man rotation as the locals say no stronger man can handle more than five rounds of the roasting a day. The tea leaves lose about 30% more moisture after this step, leaving us with only around fourteen pounds of the final tea.
What’s the Difference?: Semihandmade vs Handmade
Like all tea regions throughout the world, many scientific efforts go into developing more economically viable cultivars and stabilize them through cloning with saplings. Historical mountain teas usually are a late adaptor to this modernization, but are not totally absolved of the practice. Though majority of the Gua Pian in the market are machine processed using the new cultivar, there are still a lot of the old tea trees in the region of a varietal what the locals call Ben Cha, or stupid tea. Because these tea trees were planted by ancestors and with seeds, so it is not of a single stabilized varietal but a collection of varieties and that is what gives the made tea unrivaled complexity.
For semihandmade Gua Pian, the kill green step is performed in a tumbling machine before the tea is transferred to a wok and shaped by hand as with handmade Gua Pian. The tumbling machine makes the semihandmade process safer, but once again this advantage comes at the cost of quality.
Semi-handmade tea production usually does not allow the same waiting time in between steps and uses a pulley system for La Da Huo which compromises the thoroughness of the tea making process, resulting in a greener and grassier tea with more singular taste profile and less translucent leaves.
Gua Pian Origins
Gua Pian comes from Lu An, one of the oldest tea-making regions in China with over 1000 years of tea-making history, but Gua Pian itself has only existed for around 100 years, making it fairly young by tea variety standards. Because of the region’s long history, the true origin area for Gua Pian is larger than that of most historically famous teas. Like any historical terroir, the division of the Gua Pian producing region is strict and clear, it is divided into the Inner Mountain and Outer Mountain areas. The Outer Mountain consists of a northeastern district within five kilometers diameter of Yu An and Shi Po Dian, closer to the city of Lu An. The Inner Mountain (known for better tea) is deeper into the Da Bie Mountain Range including areas of Xiang Hong Dian and Xian Hua Ling, with Qi Shan crowned the best of them all.
There was once a large trading hub known as Ma Bu within Lu An, but it was flooded to create a reservoir, making Qi Shan now a half island accessible by boat from Xian Hua Ling, the main trading hub in the region today. This portion of the trip makes it one of the most tedious to reach but stunningly beautiful tea regions because the ferry only runs once a day and with no set departure time. Interestingly, Huo Shan, an area known for growing the yellow tea Huang Ya, is also part of the greater Lu An area.
Qi Shan, part of the Da Bie mountain range, is the top terroir for Gua Pian. Like many historical tea villages, Qi Shan is both the collective name for dozens of natural villages as well as the name of the natural village with the best of the best Gua Pian. There’s a bat cave near the peak of Qi Shan, which according to legend is where the first tea tree in the area was given as a gift from the divine.
Indigenous varietals of Gua Pian are affectionately referred to as Ben Cha (“stupid tea”) among locals. They bud much later than clone varietals, to the point that the different varietal groups practically have two separate picking seasons. The most common clone varietal used for Gua Pian is Wu Niu Zao, and this is the varietal most commonly found on the market. Though both are produced in the true origin of Gua Pian, tea made from the heirloom Ben Cha varietals offers the most authentic taste of this historically famous tea.
What’s In A Name?: Sunflower or Melon Seed
Throughout history, Lu An tea has taken many shapes and forms, but it reached its height when, during the Qing Dynasty, this tea evolved into the sunflower-seed shape we now know as Gua Pian and obtained the Tribute Tea status. Gua Pian is one of China’s Ten Famous Teas, which is an official status in China. Lu An also has a historical but “peasant” style tea called Lan Cha or An Cha, and like Pu Er, is being rediscovered by tea lovers in China.
Gua Pian is frequently mistranslated as “Melon Seed,” because as individual words, Gua means “melon” and Pian means “seed,” but in Chinese the two words in combination are used to refer to the sunflower seed, not the melon seed. This name, “Sunflower Seed,” is most likely a reference to the shape of the freshly picked leaves. Gua Pian is the only Chinese green tea made using only leaves, no buds or stems.
We hope you learned some new things about this incredibly rich and unique green tea. When you taste it for yourself, we’d love to hear about it! Share your Gua Pian experience and tag us at @teadrunk.
Continue exploring straight from the tea fields with this video of Shunan in Lu An.