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  • Writer's pictureNeldon Hamblin

Fu for All: A Beginner's Guide to Fu Zhuan Heicha

So, you’ve stumbled across something that you’ve not heard much about before, fu zhuan heicha, and naturally, you’re curious about what this funky little tea is. You see people either extolling its virtues on the internet like a fu-obsessed cultist or squeaming in disgust at the thought of drinking a tea known for its specks of fungus throughout the brick. It's quite the fascinating tea, really, and I'll admit that I, too, was terrified when I first tried it. "A fungal tea?", I thought. "There's no way I'll like this." Lo and behold, I loved it and have bought several bricks since then and drink it regularly. Seeing the lack of English-language content on fu cha and how it’s made, and as a self-described “fu cha fanatic,” I decided it was high-time to create a sort-of beginner’s guide to fu cha. So, without further ado, welcome to this guide to fu for all.

Primer: What is Heicha?

Heicha, which translates to “dark” or “black” tea, is a category of post-fermented tea. This means that after processing and undergoing the kill-green stage, the leaves are then processed by piling into large, wet piles, which are then left to ferment, hence “post fermented.” This process varies based on what type of heicha is being produced, but a piling or wodui (“渥堆,” “wet piling”) is common. Heicha has been traditionally manufactured in Sichuan, Yunnan, Anhui, Hubei, Hunan, Shaanxi, and Guangxi Provinces (Witherspoon 2022). Examples of heicha include shou puerh (a post-fermented tea from Yunnan Province- this is a controversial opinion, as some consider only shou puerh to be heicha due to the wet piling process, but I believe that both sheng and shou should be considered heicha), Liu Bao (post-fermented tea from Guangxi Province), and Liu An (post-fermented tea from Anhui province). The flowchart below, while not nearly an exhaustive one, covers some of the different types of heicha from the Chinese provinces that produce the most heicha.

A flowchart of Chinese Hei Cha

Anhua or Shaanxi?

Xianyang City in Shaanxi province is where the process for making fu cha originated, about 600 years ago during the Ming Dynasty. This location is near the confluence of the Wei River and the Jing River, which also meant that raw materials could be shipped in via boat to Xingyang for processing. Now, with the Silk Road, the popularity of fu cha grew as it became a highly-valued and heavily traded commodity. The process of making fu cha then quickly spread to nearby Hunan and Sichuan Provinces. In the 1950s, the Central Government of China actually canceled production of fu cha in Shaanxi due to the fact that the factories in Shaanxi (usually located in Jingyang county) required the materials to be shipped in, with factories buying hei maocha from Hunan, a process seen as counter to the Central Government goal of efficacy and speed. However, the factories in Hunan had the tea fields readily nearby, meaning that the material would not have to be shipped out to be processed, which was seen as more efficient. As such, the Central Government thus relocated the industry to nearby Hunan, specifically Anhua county, which is still known for its heicha production. In a situation similar to the puerh boom of the 1990s, hei cha began to increase in popularity within China in the 2000s and 2010s, resulting in production of Shaanxi fu cha ramping up to meet demands (Witherspoon 2022).

Shaanxi’s climate also tends to be less humid than Hunan, meaning that the key differences between the two are the time spent fermenting and the overall process. Personally, I’m more partial towards Shaanxi fu cha than Hunan fu cha; I find Shaanxi fu cha to be sweeter and have a thicker, more prominent body in the tea itself, whereas the Hunan stuff tends to be bolder and smokier with a slightly thinner body. Conversely, Shaanxi material tends to brew up lighter whereas the Hunan stuff brews up darker and earthier.

What is Fu Zhuan Heicha?

Fu zhuan heicha (“fu brick dark tea,” or “fu cha” for short) is a type of dark tea (a post-fermented tea, similar to how puerh is classified as a dark tea from Yunnan) generally from either Hunan or Shaanxi province. Most commonly in the Western market, one will see Anhua heicha, a Hunan heicha from Anhua county. These will be things like the tightly compressed shi liang (“ten liang'') or qianliang (''thousand liang'') slices and logs, commonly sold as smaller cubes cut from larger slices. Below, two photos show fu bricks; the photo on the right is a shi liang cha slice from Anhua. With the fu bricks, there is a noticeably sweeter aroma, almost yeasty, whereas with the shi liang piece, it smells more like damp dirt and forest. The compression on the shi liang cha is also significantly more than on the fu bricks.

Fu cha gets its name from the processing: fu cha traditionally was processed into bricks (“砖,” or “Zhuān,” meaning “brick”) during the “dog days of Summer,” (“三伏天,” “Sān fútiān”), or the three periods with the hottest and most humid days of the year, according to the traditional Chinese Ganzhi (“干支”) calendar. There are other origin stories, as with most famous Chinese teas (looking at you, duck shit oolong), but this one seems to be the one with the most sound backing. The tea was pressed into bricks for reasons similar to why Yunnan puerh is pressed into cakes and packaged in bamboo tongs; ease of transportation and long-term storage, as fu cha was heavily traded along the Silk Road, earning it a nickname of the “Mystery Tea of the Silk Road” (Liu 2019; China Xinhua News Corporation 2017).

To make fu cha, manufacturers buy hei mao cha (“黑毛茶,” or “black hair tea”), which is essentially the processed loose leaf material, similar to a puerh maocha. Hei mao cha is divided into four gradings: 1.) first grade, one bud to two or three leaves; 2.) second grade, one bud to three or four leaves; 3.) third grade, one bud to four or five leaves; and 4.) fourth grade, one bud to five or six leaves.

A chunk of fu cha, showing the stems and golden flowers

This base material is quite stemmy, with the grade for fu cha being second grade or higher; usually being one bud to three or more leaves. The pickings must also contain longer stems, as the stems create air pockets in the bricks, allowing for a higher growth rate for the golden flowers within and a layer of sweetness to the brewed tea. The hei mao cha undergoes the kill-green stage and is then treated with a bit of brewed fu cha or water in the wok to steam the leaves and avoid burning. This process, referred to as “beating” or “grouting” (“打浆,” dǎjiāng,” or “灌浆,” “guànjiāng”) is actually common for teas that use hei mao cha as the base, as hei mao cha tends to be older and thicker leaves. Generally, the amount of liquid added to the pile during this process is around 10% of the weight of the fresh leaves, but can be adjusted depending on the material used. Usually, younger and fresher leaves have less water added and older leaves have more; spring tea also uses less, whereas summer and autumn pickings use more liquids. Again, this varies, but is generally kept to that 10% ratio.

Once this process has finished, the leaves are left to sun dry, and are then piled and left to ferment before being pressed into bricks. Traditionally, the leaves are placed into a mold and pounded down with a wooden mallet, allowing for a more hands-on approach and control to the compression. Because the bricks must be compressed firmly enough that they stay together, yet not too tightly to allow for further fermentation and promote the growth of the jin hua (“golden flowers,” eruotium cristatum), modern machinery has made mass production possible while also retaining the integrity of the tea itself, meaning that most companies will offer both the handmade and machine made fu cha bricks. As a general point, handmade bricks tend to be looser than machine made.

Stacked Fu Bricks after packaging (image credit: China Xinhua News under fair use)

After being compressed, the bricks are placed in sort-of “fermentation chambers,” or temperature and humidity controlled rooms to ferment and promote adequate golden flower growth throughout the bricks. Generally, this process takes anywhere from 30 days to 6 weeks, though it also varies based on producer, location of the factory, and methods used. Reader, these fermentation chambers and the exact processes of getting the golden flowers to grow through the brick are a tightly-controlled trade secret; one could say that these fermentation chambers, akin to Fort Knox, and the growth of the golden flowers is the most mysterious and fascinating aspect of the tea itself. Companies within China will rarely, if ever, divulge hints into what these rooms are or how exactly the golden flowers grow, so keep that in mind as you explore the world of fu cha.

What does Fu Cha Taste Like?

Fu cha is a complex flavor that people either love or hate. Tasting notes are, of course, subjective, but common descriptors include earthy, honeyed-sweetness, fruity, malty, brown sugar/molasses-y, and sometimes smoky depending on the brick. It’s a very difficult flavor to describe and one that really must be experienced to understand. Personally, I would describe fu cha as tasting slightly yeasty/malty, like a bread dough, with an intense sweetness reminiscent of Chinese black sugar and red dates. The flavor also is dependent on how the fu cha was brewed, as boiled fu cha has a much bolder, more syrupy sweet flavor compared to a gongfu brew. I’d recommend experimenting with it and finding your sweet spot with fu cha, and you’ll be both pleasantly surprised and rewarded with a delightful cup of tea.

A cup of fu cha, brewed gongfu in a gaiwan

How to Brew Fu Cha:

Fu cha can be brewed in a variety of ways. My general guidelines are as follows for brewing gongfu: take 5-6g of fu cha to 100ml of water and start with a 15-20 second steep, adding 5-10 seconds each steep depending on your desired strength, and enjoy multiple times. You can do a quick 5-10 second rinse, if desired, as well. Personally, when I brew fu cha, I tend to skip a rinse and just go straight into brewing, though if you’re worried about the quality or cleanliness of your fu cha, by all means, give it a rinse. Feel free to adjust these standards to your liking, as tea should all be about what you enjoy and how you enjoy it.

A more interesting way would be a hybrid between gongfu and grandpa style brewing; take 3-5g of leaf to 300-500 ml of boiling water, then cover the top of the mug and let it steep for 5 minutes. You can then either decant this into another cup and drink, then repeat the steeping process, or you can sip and add more water as desired for a grandpa brew.

Fu cha can also be boiled, which results in a darker, more syrupy brew that can be quite enjoyable after a heavy meal. To boil fu cha, take between 5 and 10g of leaf, depending on desired strength, and add to 500ml of water. Bring this to a boil on the stove or burner, letting the leaves steep in a rolling boil for 3 to 5 minutes, again depending on your desired strength. The longer the leaves sit in the water, the stronger the brew will be. Pour this out and enjoy! This can be resteeped multiple times, as well; my suggestion would be to increase the time of each successive boil by 2 or 3 minutes, allowing for a nicer, fuller extraction.

Boiled Fu Cha

You can also add to your fu cha; some popular combinations include lemon, rose, chrysanthemum, osmanthus, honey, red dates, etc. The possibilities are limitless, the only boundary is your imagination and personal preferences.

What are “Golden Flowers?”

The golden flowers (“jin hua ”) are a type of fungus known scientifically as “Eurotium Cristatum.” These little golden specks are the spores of the fungus, and the quantity of golden flowers present generally indicates the quality of the tea. Don’t let that scare you, reader; it’s not a fungus that will cause harm to you. While they might not look the prettiest to most, they impart a nice, honeyed sweetness to the tea and mellow it out, making for quite the delicious tea. I won’t cover the purported health benefits of the golden flowers as I am not a medical expert, nor do I want to appear as such, though I will mention that they are believed to be a beneficial probiotic fungus and are used medicinally in China, being quite desirable and a key characteristic of fu cha. Interestingly enough, golden flowers will grow on other hei cha, like liu bao, though it is very rarely found growing on puerh. It seems likely that the golden flowers will develop on other teas, if given the proper conditions to grow (mostly humidity and temperature), as I have seen both a white tea and a black tea (hong cha) with golden flowers on the market.

“Golden Flowers” or Eurotium Cristatum at 100x zoom

Now, because the process is so secretive and controlled, there are concerns about how the fu cha gets its golden flowers. There are rumors that some companies inoculate the tea with golden flowers using wheat as a base for the flowers to grow. I can neither confirm nor deny this practice, however, when speaking with a representative from MoJun Fu Cha (a Shaanxi-based company, claiming to be the oldest producer of Fu Cha), they stated that this is not the case and that the “golden flowers grow naturally under certain temperatures and humidity” in their rooms, which they said function similarly to traditional oasthouses (buildings designed for “kilning” or drying hops in beer production). The representative also mentioned that it takes approximately 30 days in the rooms to grow the golden flowers, and that after the flowers have grown in the bricks, they rotate them and leave them to continue aging before they are sold.

TL;DR of Fu Cha:

  • Fu zhuan heicha is a type of post-fermented tea manufactured in Shaanxi and Hunan Provinces using a stemmier base material known as hei mao cha

  • Fu cha is processed with a wodui (wet piling) but the hei mao cha is “steamed” (“beating/grouting”) during the kill green process before being piled to give a more uniform kill-green.

  • At its most basic level, making fu cha can be reduced into four steps: 1.) steam hei mao cha in a wok to stop oxidation (kill-green), 2.) pile ferment the raw material (usually through wo dui, or “wet piling”), 3.) press the bricks, and 4.) age the bricks before drinking.

  • Fu Cha tastes complex, though can be described as sweet, honey-like, yeasty/mushroom-y, and earthy.

  • Shaanxi fu cha has a thicker, sweeter tea than Anhua fu cha, which tends to be bolder and smokier, though this can depend on the maker and the brick.

  • Golden flowers (jin hua) are the spores of Eurotium Cristatum and lend a honeyed sweetness to the brewed tea

  • Fu cha is great for aging and the flavors become more complex over time, similar to puerh

  • Some fu cha can be produced using wheat to encourage growth of the golden flowers, so be diligent and ask your supplier beforehand if you’ve got a gluten sensitivity, allergy, or condition like Celiac Disease.

  • Brew your fu cha how you like; add flavorings if desired and enjoy the experience. Fu cha is very forgiving and is hard to get wrong.



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