Liu Bao FAQ
What is liu bao tea?
Liu bao tea is a type of heicha ("dark tea", a category of tea comprised of teas that are post-fermented, or aged after production). It's named for the town of Liu Bao (六堡) in Guangxi Province, China, where the tea was originally produced. Liu bao means "Six Forts."
Liu bao tea is fermented and intentionally aged, much like wine or brandy or scotch. It's most typically pressed into baskets to age, and these are of various weights, as little as 300g of tea in basket to as many as 60 kilos. It can also be pressed into round, square or rectangular bricks/cakes of various weights.
Where is it from?
It is made in Guangxi Province, China, in the areas around Liu Bao town and the city of Wuzhou. Tea has been grown in the region since the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), but liu bao tea in the form we know it today dates back to the 19th century.
What is it made of?
It's made from a handful of varietals of Camellia sinensis var. sinensis local to Guangxi Province.
What does it taste like?
Liu bao is classified into several flavor "types", the most common being betelnut fragrance, wine fragrance, and osmanthus/floral fragrance. There are also medicine fragrance, wood fragrance, pine smoke fragrance, fruit/honey fragrance, fungal flower fragrance, etc. We carry many types and plan to carry more, to give a full idea of the flavor and aroma spectrum.
How is liu bao made?
As with other categories of tea, liu bao is defined by its locality and manufacturing process. These processing techniques differentiate liu bao:
- Duimen, or "piling"
- Wodui, or "wet piling"
- Resting, a mostly not-optional period of aging before the tea is brought to market
Duimen, or "piling", happens after the tea is heated and before the tea is dried. The tea leaves are piled and allowed to ferment for up to 30 hours. This pile heats up to 50-60 degrees centigrade, and this fermentation changes the tea's flavor significantly, making it mellow and sweet instead of bright and vegetal. At this point, one has made sheng or "raw" liu bao tea.
To make shu or "cooked"/"ripe" liu bao tea, the tea undergoes another fermentation, called wodui, or "wet piling". After duimen, the tea is rolled and dried. After drying, the tea is piled and fermented again, this time with added water and for a much longer period, for weeks. The tea is turned and water added as necessary to evenly ferment the tea. It becomes significantly darker and more mellow tasting.
Whether sheng or shu liu bao, the last unique step to liu bao is resting the tea for 60-180 days before bringing the tea to market. How the tea is rested varies, but generally the temperatures range from 73F-84F and humidity from 75%-90%. It's not uncommon for liu bao tea to then be further rested or aired out at ambient temperatures for a year or more. You'll notice on liu bao wrappers two production dates: the first is when the tea was produced, and the second is when the tea was packaged. The time between these dates can be as little as six months and as much as 5 years or more.
How is liu bao tea different from pu'er and other heicha/dark teas?
The processing described above is different from that of pu'er and other heicha, most specifically the duimen step and resting.
Varieties of heicha have locality. Liu bao is unique to Guangxi Province. Pu'er is from Yunnan. Fu tea is from Hunan or Hubei. Liu'an is from Anhui. That locality influences the end result in significant ways: tea camellia varietal, weather, elevation, etc.
Liu bao vs. pu'er
Liu bao is often seen as a cousin of pu'er, because most liu bao teas and all shu/cooked/ripe pu'er teas undergo wodui "wet piling" post-fermentation. But, there are many differences.
Pu'er is most commonly made from Camellia sinensis var. assamica, of this, most commonly the Yunnan large leaf daye sub-varietal (大叶种) and its relatives across the province. It's also occasionally made from Camellia taliensis and other species. Camellia sinensis var. assamica is the dominant varietal grown in India, Sri Lanka, Kenya and most tea plantations in South America. It has more caffeine than the Camellia sinensis var. sinensis varietals used to make liu bao.
Both being heicha, pu'er and liu bao both undergo a lower-temperature heating stage than other categories of tea. This lower temperature doesn't fully deactivate the enzymes in the leaves, and this helps the tea age over time. Apart from this and compression, the manufacturing is quite different, with one exception: wodui, or "wet piling" fermentation.
The wodui process was used on liu bao first, coming to its full fruition in the 1950s but starting decades earlier. The common narrative is that the process to make shu pu'er - which didn't exist until the 1970s - was derived from liu bao. This isn't quite right: It wasn't that Zhou Bingliang and the other heads of the pu'er factories directly borrowed the process, but more that they were inspired by what they saw to experiment on their own.
Many of the details of the wodui process for both shu pu'er and shu liu bao are kept hidden as trade secrets, so it's not easy to compare them, but given that the were developed separately and have continued separately, it's likely that there are manufacturing differences between the two.
Liu bao is rested after processing for 60-180 days, and this is not optional. Liu bao is often aged for 6 months to a year after the resting period before being brought to market. While many pu'er producers do also choose to use aged material in their cakes to improve their quality, this is not a requirement.
Pu'er, especially young sheng/green/raw pu'er, has more pronounced terroir than liu bao, and this terroir is granular, with pu'er increasingly sold not merely as single mountain tea, but as single village or even single farmer tea.
Even the appeal of Heishi Mountain, considered the most premium area for liu bao tea, is more about the ages of the trees, natural environment and traditional methods than it is about the soil imparting a particular flavor. In addition, liu bao raw materials from various farmers and villages are blended by the large factory to produce a balanced product or a particular flavor profile, so it may be of less interest to the liu bao consumer. But, given how marketing goes, I won't be surprised if this changes, and we start to see villages and tea sellers marketing particular villages or mountains in much the same way.
Appearance and Flavor
Shu liu bao and shu pu'er certainly appear similar: both have dark brown leaves and brew dark brown to black colored infusions. In terms of flavor and aroma, they're quite different.
They do share some flavors in common, namely notes of wet bark or wood. But shu pu'er is much earthier in taste, tending toward wet soil and petrichor, sometimes with sweet notes of lotus root. It's much less common for liu bao to have the soil, earth or "barnyard" flavors typical of shu pu'er.
Sheng/raw pu'er when young is bitter and astringent, and sheng liu bao can be as well, but not nearly as much. As sheng pu'er ages, its bitter flavors turn into rich notes of wood, leather, suede, hay. Good examples have long and pronounced aftertastes, where bitterness fades into a sweetness in the mouth, most pronounced on the back of the tongue, called huigan in Chinese. While liu bao can have a long, sweet aftertaste -- and while many liu bao vendors use huigan to describe it -- I don't find the two aftertastes comparable, as liu bao is rarely bitter and the huigan is less throaty.
Liu bao is classified into several flavor "types", the most common being betelnut fragrance, wine fragrance, and osmanthus/floral fragrance. Less common are medicine fragrance, wood fragrance, and pine smoke fragrance. We carry many of these types, to give our customers exposure to the full spectrum of liu bao teas' diverse flavors and aromas.
As heicha, pu'er and liu bao are both intentionally aged. Both are generally aged in similar conditions, with exposure to humidity of 60% or more ideal, at temperatures 70F-85F. When buying pu'er, the year on the label is often the year the tea was made and packaged for sale. For liu bao, there are often two dates, one for the date of manufacture and one for the date of packaging, and these dates can be years apart. Generally, when buying liu bao, you are purchasing a tea that has already aged at least 3-6 months after resting, often 1-3 years, uncommonly even more.
How should I brew liu bao?
Gongfu style is the most common way to brew liu bao. See our brewing information for our basic guidance on common brewing styles, including gongfu.
Some tips for brewing liu bao gongfu style:
- In my experience, most liu bao teas taste best with slightly longer infusions, especially farmer style and large leaf liu bao.
- Shu/cooked/ripe liu bao and aged sheng liu bao are rather forgiving and difficult to ruin by oversteeping, because most will not become bitter even if they are brewed strong.
How should I store my liu bao?
Store your liu bao in the same conditions as you would pu'er:
- In a clean area away from strong odors and dramatic temperature changes
- Not directly on the floor
- It likes to breathe, but don't put it in front of a fan or exhaust vent
- Some humidity is good, at least 50% RH and preferably 70-80%
- You may want to store it away from other teas you are aging if you don't want the aromas to cross