Ti Kuan Yin oolong from Xi Ping, Anxi China
We arrived today and luckily it was not down pouring, but there is a heavy mist that shrouds even the lowest peaks. We met Mr Wong who picked us up at 5 am as we got off the night bus. There are no planes that fly to Xi Ping, and the trains are not direct. He drove us to his house up in the hills of inner Xi Ping on the western peak at 1400m and we had a rest, some tea, and a light breakfast of noodles and pork with broth. We headed up the mountain at 9 am. We visited the original Anxi oolong bushes and the library where Wong See Yeung used to study. He was a government official from Anxi who first gave the emperor oolong from Xi Ping. Not knowing the name of the tea he called it as beautiful as the goddess Kuan Yin, and as heavy as Iron or Ti, and the emperor liked the name and called the new tea “Ti Kuan Yin”. Thus, modern Anxi oolong entered the lexicon of one of China's Ten Famous teas.
Farmers are holding out for sunny weather to harvest the high mountain tea and the sun is not cooperating at all. It’s misty, gray and damp, and it’s been raining on and off. To successfully harvest high mountain tea, the leaves must be damp in the early morning, then when the sun comes out, ideally, those drops of water are absorbed by the leaf before picking which starts promptly at 9 am, and continues throughout the day until 4 pm. Unlike green tea or white tea, with Ti Kuan Yin oolong, the buds are never picked. If picked and processed, the bud gives a bitter taste. Good oolong tea should use the first two of the larger leaves, with an ideal amount of stem between each leaf. The length of stem indicates how much growth has occurred.
After processing, that water absorption results in an amazing fragrance when brewing the tea. Without sun, the tea leaves simply cannot be picked, and the clock is ticking for the farmers here, because the plant does not stop growing. Every day the farmer waits, the leaves grow, getting bigger, and eventually if the sun does not come out, they'll have to pick the to-large-tea any ways and either process poor quality high grown tea, or just compost the leaves; neither is ideal.
Further up the mountain we met with local farmers. We saw traditional withering of tea leaves resting in baskets, and initial toasting or, the "kill green" processing, as well as secondary wood fired processing. Once a tea is withered, bruised, rolled and toasted to stop the oxidation process this tea is called Mao Cha - raw tea. Later, this tea will be roasted lightly or to a deeper degree depending on the skill of the roaster, and the taste preference of the person purchasing it. All low grown tea is processed by machine. It lacks the depth to merit the effort of small batch charcoal processing. Larger batches of high grown tea are also processed by machine, but they are custom processed with special temperatures and are processed separately from low grown tea.
In town, everywhere you look, ladies are sitting on tiny stools in a semi-squatting position with a round metal or bamboo tray in front of them that is about 3 feet in diameter holding a moderate sized mountain of tea on one side and they are picking apart the tea and the stem. The tea goes into the pile on the right and the stem goes in their apron to be composted later, or in some cases used as twig-tea. And men are busy continuing the processing steps of roasting tea to the degree they think will sell best in different markets. Light Roast for China and the US, Dark Roast for Hong Kong and Singpore.
Secondary processing for large batches of tea happens in a massive toaster oven on a series of conveyor belts. To heat the oven and toast the tea, there are three choices a roasting master has to bring out the flavor, and they are electric, propane and wood firing. Electric processing leaves the tea with no aroma and is used when the tea is fragrant enough to keep its flavor, and the roaster is not interested in taking the time to take the tea to the "next step" of bringing out more flavor. Propane has a sulfur smell that is absorbed by the tea and is unpleasant and not commonly used. Wood is expensive, but only wood charcoal firing gives roasted tea an amazing aroma that complements the tea flavor and brings out all the character and depth a tea has to offer.
60 years ago Mr. Wong’s father, Old Wong, had a convenience store and a plot of land to grow tea on, and almost everyone in Xi Ping had farm land, processed tea or sold tea. Today Mr Wong has grown his father’s secondary business into one of the four largest producing factories in the region, has three homes and two businesses in Guangzhou. He produces two kinds of tea, light roast Ting Heung and dark traditional roast Sook Heung. About 60% of the tea traded around China is Ting Heung, 40% is Sook Heung . Of the tea sold to Hong Kong 95 % is Sook Heung. There’s an interesting history to the development of these two kinds of oolong and a big difference in taste. We’ll delve deeper into those differences in the next post.