Anhua Dark Tea is certainly one of the tea varieties that requires the most processing steps. While every single step has its purpose in the making of the final product, none is as defining as the Qixing Stove (七星灶) sequence. It is also unique to Anhua Dark Tea. All its variations go through it.
The secret behind Anhua Dark Tea’s taste
A Qixing Stove is made of three parts. In the fire pit, local pinewood is lit. It is a closed area and sits at one of the extremities of the stove. Holes placed at regular intervals lead the hot air into the large rectangular smoke pit, on top of which lies the drying / smoking surface, covered with a mat of woven bamboo.
After their light pile-fermentation, the already humid tea leaves are kneaded for a second time, which makes them release some water. This is when the Qixing Stove comes into play. More than just a drying mechanism, it further transforms the leaves and confers to them Anhua Dark Tea’s unique character.
It is on the Qixing Stove that the alchemy of Anhua Dark Tea takes place. The tea leaves receive their exclusive taste in the coming together of three elements: the leaves’ own liquor, the scent of the woven bamboo mat on which they are laid, and the heat and smoke of the pinewood fire.
More than just a tool
Traditionally, the Qixing Stove itself and its use were associated with mystical meanings and practices. It is said that it is under the influence of the celestial bodies, and that, within it, heaven and earth are blended into the tea leaves, giving Anhua Dark Tea its soul. Its use was reserved for auspicious days.
Qixing literally means seven stars. On the one hand, it refers to the fact that most stoves’ fire pits have seven holes. It is also a direct allusion to the seven stars of the Big Dipper, which plays a central role in Chinese Daoism. While its actual appearance is the result of incremental improvements, It can be traced back at least to the Ming Dynasty.
It can be found in tea producing villages as well as in factories. Even the big factories that have a mostly automatized production will very often maintain a Qixing Stove for at least some of their products. The simple reason is that everybody in Anhua County will tell you that leaves that have not been on a Qixing Stove cannot be called Anhua Dark Tea.
The picture in the middle of the collage above was not taken by us, but shows a friend of ours demonstrating the use of a Qixing Stove. The pictures on the left and the right show the same stove as in the middle, and were taken by us in a small tea producing village.