Along with Rou Gui and Da Hong Pao, Shui Xian (also Water Lily) is one of the most represented Yancha in the western tea market. It lacks the sensational origin story or marketing potential of Da Hong Pao but is still sold far more frequently than any of the other famous bushes and possibly even more than Da Hong Pao. Shui Xian is even commonly consumed unknowingly often being marketed as Da Hong Pao or included in a Da Hong Pao blend. Processing-wise, Shui Xian is usually executed in a very similar manner to the rest of Wuyi oolongs. It is traditionally fired a shade darker than most Yancha although this is not necessarily a steadfast rule. Why is it far more consumed than for instance the three other famous bushes (Tie Luo Han, Shui Jin Gui, Bai Ji Guan)? Simply put, Shui Xian is a highly prolific bush.
Shui Xian’s prolific growth rate makes it a highly viable product for mass-produced commercially-driven tea. Lao Cong Shui Xian and Shui Xian are thought to be two of the original commercial teas for export from China to Southeast Asia and the west (via supermarket staple Sea Dyke). Shui Xian averaged ~$7/oz. from Wuyi vendors but can be purchased for far lower prices if you live nearby an Asian supermarket. Unfortunately, this high-yield also means that alot of Wuyi Shui Xian is grown with high productivity in mind. This includes heavy use of Summer and Autumn harvest (inferior to Spring) and use of fertilizers and pesticides (allowed outside of the Zhengyan region). The majority of Shui Xian will also be grown in the outskirts of the Wuyi-region in the Waishan growing areas, a far cry from the nutrient-rich terroir of the Zhengyan region. The high-fired roast is also helpful to disguise Shui Xian’s often mediocre base material.
Does this mean Shui Xian makes only mediocre/bad tea? Definitely not. Given the right terroir and processing, Shui Xian can make top-notch Yancha. The best Shui Xian is grown deep within the nature reserve with the four famous bushes. As an example, The Mandarin’s Tea Room (known for its quality) offers four different Shui Xians making up the majority of its Yancha selection. While its upside may not be quite that of Da Hong Pao or the other famous bushes Shui Xian can make extremely good tea. As a result, Shui Xian’s price variance makes it difficult to place into a simple price range, similar to the prices of Taiwanese Baozhong or Tieguanyin. The distinctions of Lao Cong and Zhengyan are important keywords and are useful in distinguishing exceptional Shui Xian from the norm and to allow for wiser purchasing decisions.
Note: Shui Xian is also grown elsewhere in China and Taiwan, also as an oolong sometimes of the same name. This is most commonly done in Guangdong (where it is a different cultivar and makes Dancong Shui Xian) or elsewhere in Fujian (Min Bei Shui Xian).
Note #2: This article covers Wuyi Shui Xian done in the Yancha-growing style (less leaf per bush, Yancha style roast/processing).
Three Uses for Shui Xian, ABC: Aging, Blending, Chaozhou-like
Given Shui Xian’s prolificness and traditionally high-fired roast, it is well-suited for a few special uses. Please note that other Yancha are also great candidates for these, but Shui Xian is a great, inexpensive starting point.
High-fired oolongs are a great candidate for aging and Shui Xian is no exception. While storing tea is a complex subject, it is generally thought that storing Yancha/oolongs in the cooler and drier climates of North America and Europe is preferable to much of Asia. This is the opposite of pu’erh where natural aging is thought to be far more difficult in the west. Shui Xian or other high-fired oolongs should be stored in air-tight containers and not exposed to excess humidity or sunlight (seal it away). Storing oolong in a more humid environment may require different instructions as some aged oolongs are re-roasted every few years in Asia to drive out excess humidity and prevent the oolong from going sour. Yancha and Shui Xian are even compressed for aging although this is not standard practice and will likely cause a different aging process from normal oolong or even pu’erh.
A couple things to be avoided when selecting Shui Xian to age: (1) Low-fired Shui Xians are intended for immediate consumption and should be drank and not aged. (2) It might be tempting to buy a ton of cheap Shui Xian and store it away (after all Shui Xian can be quite inexpensive) but if the base material is mediocre or bad it probably won’t be worth the space. Traditionally-processed Lao Cong Shui Xian or Zhengyan Shui Xian are great choices. Aging can be done for any mid/high-fired Yancha, with Shui Xian’s traditionally high-fired nature making it a logical candidate.
Note: Some believe that high-fired Yancha is ideally consumed three years after its production. This is another type of short-term aging and Shui Xian should be stored in the same manner illustrated above.
Shui Xian is one of the most commonly blended teas, usually by larger factories. Corporations are experts in this (i.e. oolong factories like Sea Dyke, Wuyi Star, etc.) and can use their far reach to mix for taste. Blending takes full advantage of the high-production of Shui Xian, by mixing it with higher-grade Yancha or even aged Shui Xian tea leaves. It also doesn’t necessarily need to entirely be a corporate affair. Try mixing cheap Shui Xian with Rou Gui to create your own Da Hong Pao (blended Da Hong Pao is a staple of Chinese supermarkets). There are no hard rules here and you can learn alot about factory blending and tea by simply experimenting using cheap Shui Xian as your inexpensive tea lab toy.
Intense Brewing (Chaozhou like intensity)
Traditional Shui Xian and Yancha are great for intense gong-fu brewing. This is not technically Chaozhou as the primary goal of Chaozhou brewing is to create the exact same profile for three brews, but both share a similar strong, flavorful brew. There are some techniques you can use to amp up the intensity a notch. Grind up enough leaves to cover up the bottom of your brewing vessel(about 1/3rd of the leaves you will use) and place them at the bottom of the pot (Sources: 1, 2). Fill the rest of the brewing device with whole leaves and brew accordingly. The ground up leaves will give your tea a powerful kick early on. Traditional Shui Xian’s heavy fire and darker nature make it a good fit for this. While this also works well with high-fired Da Hong Pao (and other Yancha) the cheaper Shui Xian allows you to do it far more cheaply per session.
Note #1: Use a pot, ideally with a wide base. The heat-retention will help to produce the strongest brew possible. The wide base is ideal for the shape of Shui Xian’s leaves.
Note #2: The ground up leaves will release alot of flavor early on, so your brews will lose steam fairly rapidly.
Note #3: A step-by-step resource.