Fun at the Ferry Building

You never know what you'll find at the Ferry Building. This "pop-up opera" production from La Traviata occurred on a Saturday afternoon right outside the gates of the teahouse. Watch it on YouTube.
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Roy's Holiday Update on the "Tea Ranch"

As the holidays approach we're getting more comfortable at the ranch. More folks are visiting and we've moved in some furniture. I hired a local father and son team to handle the landscaping and they are wonderful. Plans are in the works to help them buy their first house in the US since immigrating from Mexico.

Since Thanksgiving I have held several classes at the ranch and we hosted our first overnight visitor, all the way from Hangzhou, China. There's something going on almost every weekend. Slowly folks are starting to congregate. It feels a little like the early days of Imperial Tea Court, when people from all over the world slowly gravitated to the store. I hate to admit how much I miss that original location.

We released over 150 koi into the pond this week, with plans for another 100 or so. I forgot to take pictures to show you how beautiful they are, but I won't make that mistake the next time.

Happy Holidays! We hope to see you at the ranch soon! Spring planting is still being planned...
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A Kind Word from Zagat in 2011

We just saw our new Zagat writeup for 2011 and we're blushing! Once again, our customers are full of praise:

"A vast selection of excellent teas are prepared lovingly, along with Chinese snacks and out-of-this-world hand-pulled noodles at this unique teahouse duo." Zagat calls the Ferry Building teahouse "soothing" and praises Berkeley's "lovely" garden. We rated "20" for food and "19" for both decor and service.

If you haven't visited lately, drop by for a warming pot of tea during the holidays and see why folks are raving!
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New Newsletter: Time to Order 2010 Jasmine Pearls, Green Tea Sale

The latest Tea Readings newsletter is hot off the virtual press! Check it out for all the news about our 2010 Harvest Imperial Jasmine Pearls, just arrived in the teahouse; green tea clearance sale; Roy's newly announced private puerh classes; great teas to drink this fall; news from our teahouses and the California tea farm; and more! And to make sure you don't miss a single issue, subscribe today!
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Roy stopped by the teahouse yesterday with a few of the first almonds from the orchard at the California tea farm. They're delicious and incomparably fresh. We look forward to serving our own home-grown tea snacks soon!
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Check Out Our Latest Newsletter

Be sure to check out the latest edition of our Tea Readings Newsletter, now online. It features out new Qi Zi Bing Cha Puerh Collection, Roy's upcoming puerh class, new black tea, teaware, and more. The popular Imperial Tea Bottle is back in stock and we've expanded our irresistible Mouse Teapot collection.

Don't miss a single issue! Subscribe today and we'll send all the latest teahouse news directly to your inbox.
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Water! And Big Plans

We have water! My neighbor Juan not only makes awesome organic olive oil, he is an awesome worker as well! He and his two men worked 13 hours a day to complete our water project in three days. They cut nearly 3,000 feet of trenches 2.5 feet deep and laid in new pipes all over the property. Now we are totally prepared for whatever irrigation project we need. Late Thursday I joined Juan for an "opening ceremony" where he hooked up the lines to his diesel truck motor pump and on the count of three, we turned the switch and it roared and started pumping. Using flashlights, we inspected the lines for leaks and watched huge amounts of water gush from our main 6-inch pipe. I jumped up and down and hugged Juan while Grace smiled and ducked safely away from the two crazy old dudes getting wet and screaming in joy.

Bringing in water is a major milestone. Since buying the farm I've gone through two managers and experienced lots of heartache. I've been disappointed by hired help countless times. But now, all the troubles seem to have faded into the past. I'm seeking bids for organic compost that we'll spread across the property along with soil amendments, to ready the soil for planting. We're also planning a garden to grow organic vegetables for the teahouses and we're in discussions with Doug at Prather Ranch about possibly raising free-range chickens or turkeys for him. The hope is that the poultry would help keep the soil fertile while enjoying a healthy and happy life amidst the tea plants. If this idea works out, it could pay for a full-time employee to keep the place running.

The next immediate projects are composting, activating the greenhouse, and importing tea seedlings that will live in the greenhouse until spring planting. Things are starting to happen and I am soooo excited!

Photos below: (1) the main 6-inch pipeline from the aquaduct; (2) late at night: water!; (3) water gushing from the new pipeline; (4) the smaller diameter pipe that irrigates the orchard

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Coming Soon: Four New Yan Cha

Roy brought four new Wu Yi yan cha by the teahouse for a taste this afternoon. He'll fire them this week, then they'll be available in our teahouses and online store. In a year when many favorite teas have disappointed due to terrible weather in the spring, 2010 yan cha stand out as unusual but delicious specimens, packed with great flavor and texture plus an uncommon honey-like sweetness that unexpectedly recalls their kinship with the renowned oolongs of Guangdong's Feng Huang Shan.

According to Roy, the pronounced differences between the 2010 and 2009 harvests are the result of the cold spring, which froze the plants' earliest leaves. The bushes essentially got off to a late start, yielding leaves that, at harvest time, are less mature and therefore have more youthful intensity than a typical yan cha crop.  

The selection includes a rich da hong pao with pronounced honey tones that lighten up this often weighty variety; a sweet and fruity bai ji guan; a prize-winning old bush shui xian with creamy texture and lush notes of honey, fruit, and flowers; and a yan ru that Roy thinks exceeds last year's popular edition. The unfired samples we tasted were tantalizing; Roy's firing will improve them by concentrating and refining flavor and aroma. Oolong lovers stay tuned: some of the best tea of 2010 is coming soon. We'll let you know as soon as these intriguing teas go on sale.  
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Water for a Thirsty Tea Farm

This past week, serious work began at the tea ranch. After months of negotiation with our neighbor, various contractors, electricians, and PG&E, we finally managed to start work. PG&E agreed to bring power to the spot where the new pump will be set up to draw water from a nearby aquaduct. A 1,200-foot line was trenched across my neighbor Juan's organic olive orchard to bring 6-inch pipe into our property. Juan agreed to do the trenching so we didn't have to beg the contractor, and with amazing speed, he worked from early morning to late night for two straight days and miracle! The project required over 3,000 feet of trenching and now all the new pipe has been laid. Along with our two wells, this will provide all the irrigation we need to plant tea and any other produce we want to serve in our stores (as well as the Fong household).

I am also ready to prep the future tea field with organic compost and plant a cover crop to ready the soil for early next spring, when we can finally plant some tea. Now I'm concentrating on bringing in tea seedlings - another hurdle to be crossed! I am really excited, things are started to happen...

Photos below: (1) the nearby aquaduct, our water source; (2) the 6-inch pipe that will bring water to our tea plants; (3) my neighbor Juan, trenching through his organic olive orchard; (4) the long trench enters our property; (5) and extends the length of it, all the way to the almond orchard.

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Labor Day: A Day to Relax at the Tea Farm

On a rare occasion when staff from both stores took a break for Labor Day, we held an all-American BBQ at the tea ranch. Over 25 people braved the long drive and congregated for a huge feast. My neighbor Juan contributed his organic olive oil and some locally grown wines from his brother. We ate, drank, and were very merry until late afternoo, when we reluctantly returned home, wishing that this kind of Labor Day wouldn't end.
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Qi Zi Bing Preview

Prepping for his upcoming Seven Mountain Green Puerh Tasting Class, Roy brought one of the Qi Zi Bing bundles to the teahouse this afternoon. Fortuitously, a couple of teahouse regulars wandered in at just the right time to join us and we all had a taste of these fascinating variations on the theme of Yunnan tea.

One of the benefits of the Qi Zi Bing bundles is that some of the cakes are ready to drink now, others can be enjoyed now or later, and still others will age spectacularly if stored away. Each bundle comprises more that 5.5 pounds of tea that you can start drinking immediately and continue to savor for years to come.

Roy selected the tea in the bundles (which were produced exclusively for Imperial Tea Court) from the 2006 harvest and it rested in the factory for a year before being pressed into cakes in 2007. Then, at Roy's direction, it aged for three years in Yunnan prior to being shipped to our Oakland warehouse. Mountains represented in the bundle include Ba Da Shan, Nan Nuo Shan, Jing Mai Shan, Bu Lang Shan, Ban Zhang Shan, You Le Shan, and Wu Liang Shan. Each mountain's tea has a distinctive flavor profile.
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Seven Mountain Green Puerh Tasting Class with Roy Fong

Roy has set the dates for his Seven Mountain Green Puerh Tasting Class next month in our San Francisco Ferry Building teahouse. To accommodate as many tea lovers as possible he'll hold two classes: Sunday, September 12, from 9-11 AM, and Friday, September 17, from 7-9 PM. In each class, students will drink their way across some of Yunnan Province's most famous tea mountains by tasting every cake in our Qi Zi Bing (Seven Sons) bundle. Each cake is from a different mountain. Along the way you'll learn the nuances of each mountain, whose teas vary in subtle but distinctive ways because of topography, climate, soil composition, sun exposure, local cultivation practices, and other factors. Roy will also coach students' brewing techniques to help you get the most out of every tea you prepare. Don't miss this terrific introduction to Yunnan tea for beginners and fascinating side-by-side tasting comparison for experienced puerh lovers.

For those who can't attend, stay tuned, we'll be offering the Qi Zi Bing collection for sale in our online store in the near future.
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Qi Zi Bing Puerh Class Coming in September

September means back to school - back to tea school in our case. After a busy summer Roy is ready to host two classes focusing on an outstanding Qi Zi Bing set of seven puerh cakes. This set, soon to be offered in our online store, comprises sheng (green) 357-gram cakes from seven different highly regarded tea mountains in Yunnan. The tasting will be an uncommon opportunity to venture with Roy through different puerh tea regions, developing a deeper understanding of the special characteristics of each. You'll also get lots of hands-on experience brewing these teas, coached by Roy through all the steps that yield a delicious pot of puerh.

To accommodate as many students as possible while still keeping the classes intimate and interactive, Roy will offer the same class twice, once in the evening and once on a weekend morning. We'll be finalizing the mid-September times and dates shortly, so stay tuned to the blog or email us to join the interest list.
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Hard at Work on the California Tea Farm

We haven't seen much of Roy since his return from China. He's been spending a lot of time up at his California tea farm, growing seedlings, preparing the soil, and otherwise getting ready to put tea plants in the ground in October. Meanwhile, Grace has been setting up a small tea shop in the farm's workshop/garage. Once the tea farm is active it will be ready for visitors!

Currently Roy is growing dragonwell and other green tea seedlings. Later he may add oolong and perhaps a few puerh seedlings to the mix. The countdown to growing tea at the tea farm is underway!
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Time to Retire a Favorite Yixing Teapot

I loaded my favorite zhu ni (cinnabar clay) teapot with Roy's signature Monkey-Picked Tie Guan Yin and was preparing to brew a savory pot to take the chill off of a typical San Francisco summer day. As I added a dash of hot water to rinse the leaves, there was a crisp click, a sound like one tick of the clock that teapot lovers dread. I'd read about this phenomenon and now, unhappily, I've experienced it first-hand. Zhu ni teapots are more vulnerable to cracking under thermal stress than pots made from other types of yi xing clay. Lovely to look at and the ideal vessel to enhance a good tie guan yin, these temperamental beauties are hard to pot well due to the clay's relatively large shrinkage rate. In addition, top-quality zhu ni clay with the high iron content that gives the pottery its distinctive deep reddish orange color has become quite rare. As a result, good zhu ni pots are expensive, if you're lucky enough to find one.

My pot was a gift from a tea-loving friend a few years back and whenever we got together to brew tea we enjoyed noting how its rich patina was developing over time. In the almost magical way that the right pot can interact with its preferred tea and improve it, this pot seemed to love tie guan yin and could be relied on to balance flavors, remove any harshness from overfiring, and release a delightful aroma cloud when the water hit the leaves.

Given all of that I should have been more patient and cautious when brewing, taking extra time to slowly bring the pot up from room to brewing temperature before adding leaves. A tea boat might have helped. But, eager to drink the tea I expected the pot to deliver, and perhaps overconfident from my experience with sturdy zi sha and ping zi ni yi xing teapots, I poured hot water right into the pot, causing it to crack like a dropped egg.

The pot is still intact (although with visible cracks) but it will never again brew a fine pot of tea. I'll keep it on the shelf, looking handsome with the soft glow of many happy tea sessions in the past. It will be a gentle reminder to take extra care when brewing tea in zhu ni, and alway have a seasoned backup teapot in the cabinet.
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Roy's Thoughts on Taiwanese Oolong and Yi Xing Teapots

After a disappointing brewing experience, I asked Roy's advice on yi xing teapots and Taiwanese green oolong tea. He replied:

"It is more difficult to use an yi xing teapot with this tea. Often, you get more concentration with yi xing, which dampens the floral aspects. You would have to use a pot that is less porous and carefully select the right combination of tea and temperature in order to do well. On the other hand, with a gaiwan you have a larger opening, which makes it easier to detect the florals. It also provides better temperature control."

Aha, now I know why so much Taiwanese teaware is either glazed or porcelain. Bottom line, for carefree brewing and best results, go with a gaiwan when you prepare these popular, fragrant oolongs.  
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Roy Returns from China

Roy touched down in San Francisco last week, after an eventful trip to Taiwan and China. Word is, his luggage was full of interesting new yan cha, Taiwanese green oolong, jasmine, and black tea from the 2010 harvest. We'll be posting details here on the blog and adding new tea to the web site soon.

Meanwhile, Grace has been busy at the tea farm setting up a tea shop in the large, lofted garage. She says it could open to the public this fall. Then we can throw open the gates to the farm and invite tea lovers everywhere to enjoy this beautiful patch of land where Roy is on track to put the first tea plants in the ground before the end of the year.
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Roy Strolls Down Memory Lane...With His Camera (Part 2)

A look of distaste on the face of the woman who has to pack food for others to take away!
Typical HK store selling expensive dried goods
It's a tough job but someone's got to do it, right? Had to eat dim sum in HK all by my lonesome
Ahhh, the famous Milk Tea! No respectable HK resident can go without it for long
24-hour noodle and porridge shop, waiting to do business whenever you're hungry
An herbal jelly made with turtle shells and herbs is reputed to remove all "poisons" from your body
Temple Street's famous Gui Ling Gao. I ate at this herbal tea shop some 25 years ago...
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Roy Strolls Down Memory Lane...With His Camera (Part 1)

Coiled incense lit on behalf of the person whose name is written on the bottom
A street fortune teller uses small birds to predict your fate
Tin Hou Temple was built in the 1800s. These paintings are showing their age!
Multitudes of coiled incense hanging from the roof of Tin Hou Temple
Pilgrims are busy praying and asking for fortunes in front of the temple's main hall
Tears run down your eyes when it seems like half of HK's residents are burning incense
An alley on the way to Wong Tai Sin Temple where everything from incense to lanterns are on display
On the way to Temple Street, one of HK's sudden downpours
A traditional pawn shop still looks the same as when I was a kid, over 40 years ago!
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A Nostalgic Stop in HK Before Heading Home

After Beijing I arrived in Hong Kong to pick up my HK ID card, which will allow me much easier access when I travel to China in the future. I also like to pause before going home to revisit the entire trip in my mind and cover whatever loose ends I may have left along the way. As it turned out, I was stuck in HK awhile, as I was not able to get on my scheduled flight to Taipei and the oolong teas of Taiwan.

I used to live within walking distance of the famed Temple Street, where vendors sell everything from underwear to phony Rolexes. Some of the best meals Grace and I ever had were here, where street vendors and small eateries abound. Temple Street was named for Tin Hou (Queen of the Heavens) temple. During the 1800s, this area was near the shoreline and Tin Hou was known to protect fishermen and sailors. Eventually a temple was built and Tin Hou has resided here for over a century. While Temple Street has grown and changed, her temple has not. I also visited a medicinal herbal tea shop. They don't sell real tea, only bitter herbal formulas. I always say that if you can drink these bitter beverages with gusto, you deserve to get better!

I also visited the famous Wong Tai Sin (Great Immortal Wong) temple. In Chinese mythology Wong Tai Sin is not one of the most noted immortals, however, in Hong Kong, he reigns supreme! Young and old alike flock to his temple to pay respect and pray for fortune and to have their prayers answered. The evening before the first day of the lunar year, hundreds of pilgrims gather. As soon as the door opens, the rush is on! Everyone fights to put the first joss sticks of the year in the temple urn for good luck.

During this trip I marveled at how fast the world has changed and the breakneck speed at which China has changed. Young DJs on Beijing's radio stations switch back and forth between flawless English and Mandarin. Chinese and English pop songs play on the radio and everyone takes it for the norm, which it now is. Now I'm in Hong Kong, known for its modern ways, yet I find Temple Street virtually unchanged. Amazing...
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Exciting New Wu Yi Yan Cha

I returned to Beijing for another visit with my ailing friend Yang Wu. I feel like each visit with him may be the last. Mr. Yang somehow fights off every prediction from the doctors and continues to soldier on for another day, each and every day. Despite having lots of tumors inside him, he always receives me in good spirits. I stayed with him for three days, chit-chatting whenever he was able. As I prepared to leave for Hong Kong, Mr. Yang insisted on making dinner and, with a little help from his housekeeper, he did a fine job! We toasted each other for health and prosperity and talked about old times, recalling the time he insisted on traveling with me to Wu Yi Shan to "protect" me from the "tea vultures." His fondness for me keeps him from thinking about me as one of the "vultures!”

I brought out all the samples of Wu Yi oolongs that I collected in Fuzhou. My friend Mr. Wang drove all the way from Wu Yi Shan to deliver them because I didn’t have time on this trip to run up to see him. The list includes this year's Da Hong Pao, Bai Ji Guan, Yan Ru, Old Bush Shui Xian, and several others that I am not too keen about. I set up and cupped each one while Mr. Yang watched. He finally got tired and went to bed, but I kept going.

Although severe spring frost damaged Wu Yi Shan's tea (along with most of the spring 2010 tea crop from the East to the South), there are still good teas around if you look hard enough. This year's Bai Ji Guan will be up to our standard and the Yan Ru is simply amazing. The Da Hong Pao continues to impress and the Old Bush is delicious. After carefully cupping them several different ways, I called Mr. Wang with the final firing instructions and called it a day.

My body is telling me that moving towards home is probably a good idea now, however, I still have to go to Taiwan to attempt yet again to make frozen tea.
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Photos from Shaanxi

Description of photos, from top:

New tea factory building in Ning Qiang County, Shaanxi Province

A green tea production line is being installed

Another view of the green tea production line

My tea farm property in Ning Qiang County, Shaanxi Province

The moon gate in a tiny local temple dedicated to the Jade Emperor

The Jade Emperor's temple

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Documents Are Signed for the Shaanxi Tea Farm and Factory

I staggered into Hangzhou yesterday, thoroughly exhausted. After four hard days of drinking, eating (the photo is only the appetizer course), and negotiating, we signed the final agreement to go forward with our tea factory in Ning Qiang County of Shaanxi Province. The last little thing that needs to happen is called money. Once you pay the deposit the contract becomes binding and, obviously, you lose your money if you don't come up with the rest.

As I've said so often before, China moves at amazing speed! What was a big dirt lot just a few months ago is quickly taking shape. Four brand-new factories have been built and two companies have already moved in. Ning Qiang County is starting a 150,000-square-meter industrial park for processing "green food," situated a kilometer away from the future station for a high-speed train that will be activated in about two years. Roads are going in right before our eyes.

I also signed a letter of intent to take over about 35 acres of beautiful tea farmland, pending soil studies and, again, that little thing called money, which always gets in the way!

The possibilities are enormous and exciting, but given the way I feel now, I'm not sure I could start a boxing match with an ant, much less a big undertaking like the opportunity in Shaanxi. The reality dawned on me as I was signing papers and drinking with the mayor (no, we weren't drinking tea). I'll have to get home and take a few days off before finalizing all the commitments. I still have a California tea farm to get started! if anyone wants to volunteer to pick almonds and plant tea in October, raise you hand now...
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Single and Multiple Trunk Tea Trees

Two types of tea trees: the kind found in Yunnan, where multiple stalks emerge directly from the ground (top) and the kind found in Guangdong, where a single stalk grows up and branches out above ground (bottom). The famous dan cong variety is this latter type. Both of the plants pictured here grow in Mr. Wang's forest on Gu Dou Shan in Guangdong Province. The top plant is an import from Yunnan, while the one pictured below is the native bai yun cha.

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King of the Mountain: More on My Visit with the Eccentric Mr. Wang

Bai yun cha can be made into green, yellow, or black tea. Mr. Wang made it very light in a glass teapot and he recommends cold brewing (using room temperature water and infusing the tea for a long time) or brewing it with only a few leaves and serving it after it cools. He feels that hot tea is not good for the esophagus. He said that people of Chao Zhou who drink a lot of hot gong fu tea tend to have esophageal damage or cancer, so he wants everyone to throw away their yi xing pots! Obviously, some of his views are rather ridiculous. If his statistics are even correct, those problems might easily have other causes, such as smoking.

In any case, I made the tea for him and his employees using lower temperature water, but stronger than his preference. I thought it tasted fine, but he is entrenched in his own ideas. He didn't say anything, but obviously he didn't agree with me, so both of us wisely left it there. The tea brewed by my method tasted good, with nice flavor and texture, however, it isn't very refined. Mr. Wang could improve it with better production techniques, but he isn't someone you can persuade. After having built one of the largest construction companies in his area he feels like a king, and perhaps rightly so since everyone around agrees with whatever he says and does.

No matter, his efforts are admirable. According to Mr. Wang, Gu Dou Shan means Old Mountain and bai yun cha only grows here. Similar to dan cong and Yunnan tea, bai yun cha can grow into a big tree. He is also growing some Yunnan varietals. All of his tea trees are thriving.

Now I've moved on to Ning Qiang, in Shaanxi Province. Yesterday I visited the tea farm here and fell and almost broke my back. I also visited the site of our future tea factory. It is very exciting. The site is being developed as a "green food production campus" only a kilometer from the future high-speed train station targeted for completion in 1-2 years. On the campus, four people have already built processing factories and two have started production. One facility belongs to the biggest tea producer in the area, who has a 200-acre tea farm and 25,000-square-foot factory and brand new production line.

Our future tea farm looks more awesome each time I visit, although it isn't being maintained because the farmers there know the farm is going to us, so they are not doing any upkeep. The opportunity is amazing. At around 1,000 meters elevation with fresh running spring water, I think we can grow some great teas! I'll post pictures and more details soon.
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Photos of Wild Bai Yun Cha

Photos of bai yun cha near Tai Shan. Top: tender seedlings get their start in the shade. Bottom: with Guangdong's hot, humid climate and fertile soil, tea plants quickly adapt to the environment and flourish. Note the "single trunk" similar to dan cong: the plant emerges from the ground in one trunk that branches off higher up the stalk.
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