Rare Tea Tasting: Pearl Orchid Anji Baicha 珠兰安吉白

Through the trust of my tea mentor in Beijing I was able to acquire the contact for a woman who lives in Anji, and who is known to make the finest Anji Baicha. She only makes what are called “Private Room” teas – they are extremely limited, hand made in very small batches, and are intended for special occasions. Private Room teas do not really exist in the market; they are rare, and understood to be examples of teas that, for all intents and purposes, no longer exist. These are the teas that would have once been sent to the Emperor as examples of tea regions, their local craftsmanship, and their tea seasons. It is a bit miraculous, and only on account of friendship, that we were able to acquire this tea and bring it to Cultivate, even in the very small quantity that we did.

Pearl Orchids 珠兰 are strings of tiny, fragrant flowers that grow on an evergreen shrub native to, and still only found in, China. They bloom at the end of May and the beginning of June. In recent years, pearl orchids have become extremely rare; there are now only a handful of small farms in Shexian, Anhui that still grow them.

This was not always the case. According to the records of Shexian County, pearl orchids have been widely planted in and around the village since the Qing Dynasty. First they were appreciated as flowers for ornamental purposes, and later, as locals became intrigued by their unusual and elegant scent, as flowers used to scent tea. At one point almost every household in Anhui cultivated the flowers, and there was a colloquial saying that the fragrance of every household that did “could be smelled ten miles away.”

The popularity of Pearl Orchid Tea was still strong in the last century. In 1979, it won First Place in the National Tea Competition. However, this has quite suddenly and strangely changed: in the last ten years it has become very rare to see Pearl Orchids in Shexian. It remains a mystery how and why this drastic decline has occurred.

To find a Pearl Orchid scented tea today points to a craftsman with a deep understanding of regional and historical teas. It comes at no surprise that we see Ms. Qun, a renowned craftsman of Anji Baicha, incorporating the pearl orchid into her work.

The Anji Baicha Ms. Qun has scented with the flowers is a first harvest from 2022, picked on March 29 this year. After the tea leaves are harvested Ms. Qun drives her Anji Baicha 6 hours to Shexian, in Anhui province: home of the pearl orchids. We learned that Ms. Qun has been trying to master this tea for 3 years, experimenting with the amount of flowers to use, the temperature and humidity during the scenting process, and the temperature of the charcoal roasting process. After 3 years, she is finally confident in the results. 

In the early mornings in Shexian, elderly women carefully harvest the delicate bundles of pearl orchid flowers from their branches. The individual little pearls are then separated from their stems by gradually drying and sifting them on bamboo mats. The pearls are left to dry slightly on bamboo mats for a few hours. After all of this work the pile of them appears very meager: 500 grams of fresh flowers will only yield around 100 grams of flowers that may be used for scenting.

Before it is scented, the Anji Baicha is lightly roasted over charcoal. Then, at noon, when the pearls of the flowers open ever so slightly giving off the most of their fragrance, the scenting process begins. The pearls are placed with the Anji Baicha in a bamboo basket – it only requires a few hours of contact for the aroma of the flowers to move into and evenly scent the tea. After that, they are separated once again and the Anji Baicha is finished over charcoal.

The result of this encounter is worth every strange effort required to stage it. The perfume of the flowers and the evenness and clarity of Ms. Qun’s Anji Baicha meet one another equally. And, on account of this fine balance, their qualities are inseparable in the tea. The tea and the pearls are so integrated, it is not worth trying to taste them apart.  

Pearl Orchid Anji Baicha is a calm and stable tea. The scent of orchid is finely woven through the soft, dense Anji Baicha, giving it an ambient and edgeless sensation – it feels spacious and comforting like a light filled room. The tea’s liquor is a shade of off-white, and this crystalline quality, like all of its other characteristics, remains very consistent through many infusions. You can spend a lot of time here, in this tea –  and its so, so pretty. 

With only 18 servings available, we are offering this exceptionally rare tea for tastings at our tea bar. In the 45 minute guided tasting, you will taste both the First Harvest Anji Baicha on its own, and the Pearl Orchid Anji Baicha. Tastings are for two people, and cost $50 per person.