The Chinese tea industry is largely composed of big businesses, large factories and corporate brands. While this frequently results in inexpensive, mediocre tea for the casual tea consumer, some of these factories also dabble in higher-end commercially available tea. A few bigger brands can be purchased in North America, usually in a Chinese or Southeast Asian supermarket. These inexpensive teas are often the ideal way to begin your journey into Yancha (Wuyi Oolongs). Long and cumbersome shipping is avoided and supermarket Yancha is cheap. Often very, very cheap. For more seasoned drinkers, Chinese supermarket Yancha no longer serves as a gateway but a great daily drinker or grandpa style sipper. It is also not always a low-budget affair and brands like Wuyi Star and Huiyuan sell some pretty expensive tea (although these are more difficult to find in the US).
Note: The “larger business” model of the Chinese tea industry is different from the smaller-business structure i.e. Taiwan.
Note #2: There are far more Yancha factories than the three covered in this article!
Sea Dyke (海堤), the Supermarket Veteran
The most likely culprit to be found in a supermarket in the western world. Sea Dyke is a long-established brand created by Xiamen Tea Import & Export Ltd (est. 1954). Reliable and drinkable, the Sea Dyke brand also produces other types of teas but is predominantly known for Fujian-grown oolongs (Yancha, Anxi Tieguanyin). Sea Dyke’s primary consumers are based outside of China either in Southeast Asia or the West. This audience particularly SE Asian consumers prefers higher-fired Yancha and Sea Dyke caters towards this trend and their selection is dominated by high-fired Da Hong Pao (blended) and Shui Xian of varying grades. Sea Dyke’s highest priced Yancha offerings are their Lao Cong Shui Xian and Tie Luo Han.
Sea Dyke Yancha can be acquired for $1.50-4/125g ($0.34-0.91/oz) for their lower-end stuff (boxed tea) and $10-20/125g ($2.27-4.50/oz) for their higher-grade Yancha (tinned tea). This makes it far cheaper than nearly all of the offerings by online vendors. One advantage to shopping for Sea Dyke is it is very easy to tell if people are excessively marking up their prices. Simply put in the product ID (i.e. AT115) paired with the tea character (茶) into Taobao and you’ll immediately see the Chinese price. Similar to the labels of commercially available Pu’erh (Menghai/Xiaguan) this allows for a more transparent transaction that makes it difficult for vendors to excessively mark up their tea.
Purchasing Sea Dyke online is only recommended if you cannot find it locally. While it is possible to find importers straight from China, shipping often complicates matters. Samples of aged/higher-grade Sea Dyke can be purchased from Sample Tea and Chinese Tea Shop.
Note: Factories will usually blend their products to taste, mixing in different cultivars and grades of tea (i.e. Rou Gui + Shui Xian = Da Hong Pao).
Note #2: Interestingly, there has been speculation that some Sea Dyke tea is created by blending blending aged tea leaves in with newer ones. The fact that this is possible is a testament to Sea Dyke’s longevity (est. 1954) and size.
Note #3: Much like Menghai, Xiaguan and labeled pu’erh tea, fake Sea Dyke tea does exist, despite its low price point.
Note #4: It might actually be possible to find cheaper Sea Dyke outside of China than in China.
Partial Sea Dyke Pricelist (sourced from Taobao)
|Tea||Tea Id||$ Cost||Quantity (oz)||$/oz|
|Lao Cong Shui Xian||AT102||$16.25||4.4||$3.69|
|Da Hong Pao||AT103||$11.00||4.4||$2.50|
|Tie Guan Yin||AT104||$9.75||4.4||$2.22|
|Tie Luo Han||AT106||$9.50||2.11||$4.50|
Wuyi Star (武夷星茶)
If Sea Dyke is the old, stable, and reliable veteran, Wuyi Star is the hot, new girl on the block. Established in late 2001, Wuyi Star is already one of the largest Chinese tea brands. They are on the high-end of the major brands (Sea Dyke would be lower-middle). Adding to their fame, Diaoyutai (a historical and famous hotel) adopted a special premium-grade Wuyi star as their official tea. With a snazzy website it’s also possible to browse around and compare prices with western-facing vendors that sell Wuyi Star teas (Dragon Tea House, Tea Spring).
Wuyi Star primarily sells internally within the mainland Chinese market and features a mid-fired roast. This roast is generally lighter than Sea Dyke or Huiyuan roasts. Wuyi Star also sell several different types of tea including all of the Si Da Ming Cong (famous bushes), Rou Gui, Shui Xian, and Lao Cong Shui Xian. They have a number of different grades to their teas, specifically Da Hong Pao. Wuyi Star’s most famous offering is the special guest house Da Hong Pao. It is packaged in smaller 10 gram white packets, in a 160 gram white boxes. These packets can be purchased individually or in a group from Dragon Tea House or Tea Spring.
Partial Wuyi Star Pricelist (sourced from Wuyi Star)
|Tea||$ Cost||Quantity (oz)||$/oz|
|Lao Cong Shui Xian||$17.79||4.4||$4.04|
|Standard Da Hong Pao||$20.37||1.76||$11.57|
|Guesthouse Da Hong Pao (white packet)||$113.45||5.64||$20.12|
|Da Hong Pao (stick)||$25.53||4.76||$5.36|
Huiyuan, Huiwan (慧苑,慧宛)
Want to taste one of the higher-end factories available almost exclusively available in Asia? A vendor far less known in the west, Huiyuan is named after the well-known region within the Zhengyan area of the scenic region deep within Wuyishan (much of their tea comes from this famous area). Huiyuan sells most of their tea in SE Asia and uses a high-fired roast. Because of the high-end nature of the Huiyuan area much of the tea produced by the factory edges towards the premium ($25-60/100-200g,$5.50-20/oz). This places their lower-end offerings at or around the same price range as the Sea Dyke’s Lao Cong Shui Xian (Sea Dyke’s most expensive tea!). Selection-wise Huiyuan primarily sells Da Hong Pao and Shui Xian alongside the other famous teas sold in more limited quantities.