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Gua Pian Loose-Leaf Green Tea 六安瓜片
Gua Pian Loose-Leaf Green Tea 六安瓜片
Qi Shan, Lu An
Grassy and lighted toasted, protein, buttery texture
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 — the method for crafting the tea — and its specific terroir — the region where the tea is grown — was highly documented and defined. You guessed it: 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.
Though the name comes from the city, "Lu An tea" refers to the teas that are produced in its entire jurisdiction. 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. (Another well-known Lu An tea is Huo Shan Huang Ya, which we will cover in the future.) 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.
Also known as: Gua Pian Tea, Lu An Guapian Green Tea, Melon Seed Green Tea 六安瓜片
A Brief Overview of Gua Pian
Gua Pian green tea is frequently mistranslated as “Melon Seed,” because as individual words for Gua Pian translates literally as ‘melon’ and ‘seed.’ However, 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.
Learn More about Gua Pian
Gua Pian comes from Lu An of Anhui Province, one of the oldest tea-making regions in China with over 1000 years of tea-making history.
Though 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.
It is made up of smaller townships and cities, with Qi Shan being the most famous, and Xiang Hong Dian, Xian Hua Ling and Du Shan following in ranking for their tea.
There was once a large trading hub known as Ma Bu within Lu An. It was eventually 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.
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 Liu An 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 Gua Pian.
Today there is 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. Tea Drunk’s Shunan visited the bat cave, which you can see below!
Indigenous varieties 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.
As mentioned previously, Gua Pian is the only Chinese green tea made using only the leaf. 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.
Originally, workers would pick the full branch from the tree and take it home, then remove the leaves. This method was ideal, as the taste it produced was generally preferred, but nowadays farmers will simply pick the leaves off the tree, leaving the branches attached, which produces more tea while sacrificing quality.
The best practice today for all green and yellow teas is to let the tea rest before applying heat to the tea. This is different from the wilting steps 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.
After a few hours of resting, the tea is then stir-fried in order to produce the “kill green” effect, killing the enzymes which cause oxidation. This is also done using two alternate methods: handmade and semi-handmade.
Handmade VS Semi-Handmade
For handmade Gua Pian, the kill green step is performed in a wok using a small broom-like tool (see the video below.) This allows the temperature to be hotter than it could safely be if the workers were simply using their hands. After this step, the tea remains in the wok, but the temperature is lowered as workers shape the tea.
An uninformed observer would notice little difference between these two steps, as they both use a very similar circular motion to fry and then shape the tea. For semi-handmade 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 semi-handmade process safer, but once again this advantage comes at the cost of quality. The shaped tea is then baked over a charcoal fire to remove 80-90% of its moisture. For some semi-handmade teas this is done using a heated shaking machine to further enforce the shape of the tea and achieve faster results.
After a round of sorting and sifting, the teas will then be baked again over the next couple of days to achieve near complete dryness before the final refining process. As part of this refining process, older leaves and stems are picked out of the batch one at a time.
Following this, the seemingly dried tea is allowed to rest once again in a step known as Hui Run (“come back to moisture”). This is a significant step in ensuring the thorough processing of the tea and achieving a more translucent end result.
The next step is known as La Da Huo. During this step, roughly 20 lbs. of leaves are piled on a huge bamboo tray and two workers lift the tray from each side and walk the tea over a sizzling pit of charcoal fire to flash roast the leaves.
Each batch is roasted like this for an hour, usually in a three-person rotation, as it is very labor intensive. This step removes the last bit of the moisture left in the leaves, solidifying the overall profile of the tea and leaving about 14 lbs of tea in the batch.
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.
Because it is made only using leaves, one would expect Lu’An Melon Seed Tea to be very astringent, but this is not the case. The unique La Da Huo step in processing gives the Chinese tea a pleasantly toasty flavor that compliments its grassy umami taste, buttery mouthfeel and bold sugary undertone.