Bai Lin Gong Fu Tea

Handmade Chinese Black Tea

Bai Lin Gong Fu is a type of handmade, specialty black tea from Fujian, China. It is very different from the machine-made black teas that most tea drinkers are used to. Jennifer Wood of Canton Tea Company shared her expertise on Bai Lin Gong Fu black tea in an interview. Here’s what she had to say about this artisan tea type:

Lindsey: So what exactly is Bai Lin Gong Fu tea?

Jennifer: Bai Lin Gong Fu is a handmade, whole leaf black tea. (The Chinese call black tea ‘red tea’ due to the color of the liquor/infusion.) The tea is produced in small quantities by farmers in Zheng He County, in the Fujian Province of China.

Bai Lin Gong Fu is made from the young buds of the Fuding Da Bai Cha (“Big White”) tea varietal. This varietal is also used to make Yin Zhen (“Silver Needle”) white tea as well as the green tea that is used to make Jasmine Pearls. Bai Lin Gong Fu has a distinctive fuzz of delicate golden-orange hairs covering the leaf bud.

Lindsey: What else makes Bai Lin Gong Fu unique?

Jennifer: Bai Lin Gong Fu is very rare, especially compared to machine-made black teas. Although it is rare and hard to find, it is surprisingly inexpensive.

Lindsey: Why isn't Bai Lin Gong Fu well known in the U.S.?

Jennifer: Like many lesser-known fine Chinese teas, Bai Lin Gong Fu is a hidden gem. Mostly this is because it is produced in relatively small quantities and domestic demand for it is so strong. Only small, specialist tea companies can get hold of it.

The mass-market production and export of black tea from Sri Lanka, India and Africa all but destroyed demand for traditional whole leaf black teas from China. Although they remain popular within China, Chinese black teas have often been overlooked by international tea connoisseurs, who have historically favored green teas, white teas, and oolongs. But over the past few years, fine black teas such as Bai Lin Gong Fu have been growing in popularity in Europe and elsewhere. This is partially because Bai Lin Gong Fu won one of the highest accolades at the Guild of Good Fine Food 2010 Great Taste Awards (which is like the UK's specialty food award version of the Oscars).

Lindsey: What does Bai Lin Gong Fu taste like?

Jennifer: It tastes quite unlike commercial black teas, which are usually processed in a method known as Crush, Tear and Curl (CTC tea) to produce heavy, tannic flavors. CTC teas make up about 95 percent of the black tea produced in the world. They undergo rapid and intense oxidation whereby the fresh leaves can be processed into finished black tea within an hour or so. Traditional Chinese black teas like Bai Lin Gong Fu are oxidized slowly to create more complex and subtle flavors.

Bai Lin Gong Fu tea is skillfully handmade and the taste and liquor reflect the delicate, artisan skills involved in the production. It tastes sweet, smooth and toasty, with notes of caramel and cream. The flavor is sweet, rich and satisfying. It is a great pick me up in the morning or afternoon, it is very easy and forgiving to brew, and it can even be taken with milk.

Lindsey: Where does the name “Bai Lin Gong Fu” come from?

Jennifer: Bai Lin refers to the village around which this tea is grown, and Gong Fu means roughly ‘Great Skill’ (as it does in the martial art Kung Fu), referring to the skill required to make this tea. Bai Lin is one of three famous Gong Fu teas produced in the Zheng He district, the others being Tan Yang and Zheng He, both of which are considered lower quality but still worthy of the Gong Fu designation. Gong Fu is also used to describe a special way of making tea, using a small infuser with many leaves and making multiple infusions.

Lindsey: Around when was it first made?

Jennifer: Bai Lin Gong Fu was one of the first Black teas ever to be produced in China. The first references to it are in around 1760. Most tea production before then was focused on green and oolong teas.

Lindsey: Is there anything else you’d like to share about Bai Lin Gong Fu?

Jennifer: Yes, a bit of trivia. Convicted Australian fraudster Peter Foster claimed to have bought up the entire production of Bai Lin tea in the mid-80s. He marketed it in the UK, South Africa, and Australia as a miracle slimming cure, making himself a reported $30 million. The tea was later found to be an ordinary Chinese black tea and Foster was convicted on three continents...but not before he had secured endorsements from the Duchess of York (who was herself recently exposed for influence peddling), and jockey and tax dodger Lester Piggott. He even sponsored Chelsea Football club in 1987—surely one of the few times the name of a little known artisan tea has ever appeared on the shirts of a major sports franchise. Sadly, slimming tea scams continue today.