Mr. Wong has a gift for giving. Specifically his ability to order an astonishing amount of food and order such delicious dishes my travel friends and I are compelled to eat as much of them as possible before pausing to take deep breaths and let our chopsticks rest. Then he encourages us to eat more -as if our work was only half done. How does he do that?
After dinner, I thought he would take us home, but he didn't, he headed straight out to the farm at about 8 pm, to see night processing.
On the farm, after picking tea from 7 am or 8 am until 5 pm, after-dinner tea processing begins. Picking and processing tea is a 2 - 3 month 24/7 ordeal. It is non-stop. When I visit farmers and they have dark circles under their eyes, they have a dizzy look and are drinking very strong tea and eating hearty meals it's because they're working harder than they will work all year round. They only have one shot at this and it's a make it or break it endeavour.
We drove down black roads, unmarked tracks, up hills, over streams, and I think Mr.Wong has some kind of incredible tea-mountain GPS because he seemed perfectly fluent driving down roads that were invisible in the dark and had no distinguishing marks.
We arrived at the farm and processing was in full swing. Heaters were heating, Rollers were rolling, toasters were toasting, dryers were drying. What is the sonic frequency of a tea farm at night? Louder than you think. It sounds like you're on the tarmac and a 737 is taking off next to you.
The basic steps in WuYi Oolong Tea processing are picking and withering the tea leaves for anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours to a day. This depends on the weather when the tea is picked and temperatures and conditions while the tea is drying. This is also personal to the farmer's skill level, the better the farmer, the better they are at telling where tea is in the stage of processing and how to evoke the best flavors of tea through out the process.
Then, comes bruising which is done in a heated roller. By the way, this smells divine.Divine.
(I'm sorry these pictures were dark, there wasn't a lot of light to work with.)
Next the tea is put through the kill green machine to completely stop all further oxidation.
After that, the tea is twisted and then toasted.
The result is Mao Cha, or "raw tea". Here is what Mao Cha looks like.
The leaves are very green because they haven't been put through final firing yet. Wu Yi leaves are about 70 % oxidized, compared with Ti Kuan Yin leaves which are about 40% oxidized.
This is us tasting tea from this farmer. Mr. Wong brought along another sample to taste against this farmer's tea. I didn't realize what was happening at the time, but of those 4 gaiwans there, I was asked to choose blindly which was the most fragrant.
They were set in front of me as rinsed teas, and I smelled one, then another then a third. Hm, which is the most fragrant? I pushed the third gaiwan away and kept the 2nd and 4th teas because they were equally fragrant. I smelled the 1st tea and it was extremely fragrant, so I went back to the 2nd and 4th teas and smelled them against each other again. I pushed the 4th gaiwan away and smelled the 2nd and 1st teas side by side. I picked the 1st tea as having the highest and most gentle and best fragrance and offered it to Mr. Wong as the most fragrant of all 4 teas.
He erupted in laughter and thanks and I thought he was going to lose his cigarette in the process, but he managed to hold on to it as he patted me on the back and said "well done!" several times. Unbeknownst to me, I had inadvertently been chosen as a judge in a kind of kung-fu tea competition. And apparently, I chose wisely, because the other 3 teas were the farmers tea, and the tea I chose was Mr. Wong's tea.
Later, either in a few days, weeks or months, the tea mao cha on this farm will be roasted to taste. Different roasting masters have different processes (we were too early in the harvest to take pictures of this) and roast to different degrees depending on several factors: Picking day, picking time, leaf quality, beginning, middle or end of the harvest, or if the tea is a single varietal or a blend.
I'll talk about varieties of Wu Yi teas in my next post.
Just in case you've never been offered, I want to offer you the opportunity to quietly thank the tea processors for their all-day all-night work. Please remember them the next time you drink an exquisite cup of tea. It may be something you love now, but it was something they loved first before you even knew about it. You enjoy it thanks to them. And they appreciate your appreciation.
When it was so late I could barely see, we drove back to the hotel and we said goodnight to Mr Wong and agreed to meet him at 7 in the morning to go see picking.