Into The Grey Morning
At 6:30 am we rise with the workers, still in our clothes from yesterday, put our shoes on and and have breakfast of Jook (porridge). The ladies head up the mountain at 7:30 am and the men are still sleeping.
Of course they are, they were the ones bruising and processing the tea until 3:30 last night. The only person involved in every step of each of the processes AND picking AND cooking is Mrs Lam. She oversees everything and everyone. We wait for the men to rise at 8:30. They are still dressed. This has been going on for a month now, and everyone is bleary eyed and exhausted. I’m exhausted and I just got here last night.
The men quickly eat Jook, and Day processing starts right away. It starts with the “Kill Green” process, or stopping the oxidation of the leaves. They’ve rested overnight (this process is reminding me a lot of bread making) and changed color and are ready to be set so the oxidation stops. The fire is the first thing that needs to be tended to: it is lit right away and left to come up to temperature.
One fire is set in each of the tiny holes that holds the ovens below the kiln-like machine that holds the drum roller that the tea tumbles around in and the roaster that the tea will be cooked in.
First, the tea is put in to the Kill Green machine. It’s brought over rack by rack and dumped on the processing floor in front of the kiln and then the leaves are tossed into to the hot tumbler. The leaves are heated at about 100 degrees Celsius for 2 -3 minutes depending on moisture content. Interestingly, the front of the kiln is covered with a bamboo basket and the leaves are steamed. I’ve never seen this before. It’s like pressure cooking tea. This is strange, because after all this work to get the moisture out of the leaves, it’s being contained rather than released. It gets to the point about 3 – 4 hours later when it’s “raining” indoors, and the people processing tea wear hats to stay dry.
After the Kill Green process, the leaves are removed from the kiln (the motor is reversed and the leaves are pushed out naturally). They are fluffed and transferred to the rolling machine. Now, for Ti Kuan Yin tea, this step happens multiple times, and with two machines, to both roll the tea and then curl it upon itself. This time, the tea is only being twisted, and so the process is much shorter: only 5 minutes, and it happens only once (if done properly).
Next, the tea is fluffed – this time for about 20 minutes per basket. This is crucial at this point, the leaves are curled, but they need to be separated, otherwise when they’re cooked, it will just be a lumpy mass of leaves. They are sprinkled on mesh wire cooking racks, about 3 feet around, and put in the oven to bake for an hour.
Both kiln and oven use wood fire but I couldn’t find out what wood is used, I was told whatever’s available. I’m going to investigate and see if I can find out what wood is used – I have my theories about this and I think it matters.
Next, the tea is collected on a plastic tarp and rests for about 3 hours. It is re-fired again for an hour, and racked to cool completely. Lastly, it is bagged and you have 20 kilos of Mao Cha (or raw tea ready for sorting) and ready for a finishing roast to bring out the specific flavor of the tea varietal.
And finally, we’re at 6 pm the following day. So from 6 am the previous day until now, we’ve processed one batch of tea. At the same time, 6 pm, that day’s pickings come up the mountain and they’re ready for that nights drying, and the process starts all over again.
I'd like to say here, that Mr Lam is quite the tea bad-ass he appears to be. He rocks tea processing like a pro, because he is. This is him checking the moisture content of the leaves during the Kill Green process, determining how they are doing just by touch. Pretty awesome if you ask me.