Camellia sinensis, the tea plant, is thought to have originated in South Central Asia, around Myanmar, Yunnan, China, and Eastern India. The indigenous peoples there have produced tea for thousands of years. Numerous cultivars of the assamica variety have been developed by both trial and accident. One of the most unusual is zi juan, or purple heart. It is a cross between Camellia sinensis and another member of the Camellia family, Irrawaddy sinensis, which produces purple-veined leaves and buds. Traditionally used for making fermented tea, it is prized in Central Asia because it is thought to possess great health benefits.
For the past two years we have offered several heirloom black teas from a garden in Yunnan, China, located on the Myanmar border. Both Kenya and Eastern China produce purple cultivars, but they don’t share the ancient lineage of zi juan. This particular tea is grown on Wa Mountain in Southwest Yunnan at an elevation of 1700-1850 masl, the perfect environment to slow the plant’s growth and develop lots of flavor.
Most black teas are harvested in summer after the leaves have been picked once already, and have had a chance to grow back. The first picking is known as the “first flush.” When leaves are ready to harvest, tea producers would say that the tea trees are “flushing.” The re-growth of the tea leaves tends to produce a stronger, more assertive flavor, but it also tends to be drier, more astringent. Yunnan Purple, on the other hand, is best when it is harvested from the first flush. This year, we selected a special spring-harvested lot of Yunnan Purple that is very assertive, but still sweet with loads of the bright flowery notes of violet and rose. Maybe it’s through the association with the color purple, but I taste a sweet plum flavor as well.
I prefer breaking out each individual infusion in a gaiwan, steeping 4-5 grams at 210º F for 30, 40, then 45 seconds, and finally a minute. It is a strong tea. Lowering the dose will produce a lighter cup, but it may not yield as many infusions.