Category Archives: Tea making process

On Buying Tea

This post started off as a response to a simple question that someone once in a while will ask about how  Zhi Zheng sources tea, but then it developed into a little monologue about visiting tea villages looking for tea. I have left that part till the end.

So first, let’s go back a few years, to when someone once suggested to us, rather humourously I thought, that we might consider changing our farmer – singular – as though there could possibly have been only one.

A couple of things become clear very quickly: if you’re not just sourcing tea from a few places that are near each other, you need a team of people. Some people you can squarely rely on. You can’t be in two places at the same time, and though regional differences exist – Menghai flushes earlier than Liu Da Cha Shan, or whatever, there’s a limit to how much ground you can cover in the relatively brief period of time that is (early) spring tea harvest.

Different areas & villages can have slightly different approaches too. There’s a reason for this, so it makes sense to draw on local knowledge and skills, rather than have a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Of course, a skilled tea maker can no doubt quickly adapt, but in any case, having one person make all your tea is a physical impossibility, dictated by distance and topography.

So then, the ways Zhi Zheng sources tea are essentially these:

  1. We arrange for pickers to pick leaves from a tea garden we have identified, which are then taken to a place where we have someone take in the fresh leaves and make the tea. The trees may not belong to the person who makes the tea. The farmer who owns the trees sells the fresh leaves and may be involved in the picking. In this way we have the most control over the process. It is also useful where a farmer has good trees, but hasn’t necessarily mastered the skills of making good tea.* We do this in Nan Nuo Shan and Ban Pen.

nan nuo shan zhi zheng cha zhe suo

 

The caveat, if it need be stated, is that the person taking in the fresh leaves must be skilled at recognising fresh leaves from different trees and sources, be familiar with, and trust the pickers, and know exactly where the tea is coming from in order to avoid tea from elsewhere being brought in.

Cha Wang Shu

Cha Wang Shu – the small blue roofs are typically tea processing places

  1. Another situation where we might make tea in a similar way is where the tea garden is too far from the workshop to carry the fresh leaves out, and so the tea is made on the spot and carried out as mao cha. Gua Feng Zhai tea is like this – anywhere where the tea gardens are too remote to be able to carry fresh leaves out to the place of processing- we do this in Bai Cha Yuan for example.
freshly picked leaves - bai cha yuan

Making tea in Bai Cha Yuan

  1. The third situation is to have a known farmer with good trees and tea making skills make the tea themselves. This also works well, but one needs to be sure of the skill of the tea maker. If the quantity is relatively small – a few kilos – it may be no problem, but a farmer who can make 5 kg well, may have trouble making 30 all to the same standard.

One also needs to be clear if the tea farmer takes in leaves from other villagers – many do and are honest about it, but not all, so one needs to be sure of sources and consistency.

  1. The fourth situation, which is not necessarily separate from the above, is to work with others in the business. i.e. have others who help monitor or supervise the tea making and sourcing. This could be people who are effectively paid or take a cut, or it could be others in the tea business with whom one has a good relationship and with whom you pool resources.
  2. The next situation is buying on spec from a sample. One can occasionally can get some good tea like this, but mistakes can be made. If the volume is small, so is the risk.  In any case, if someone comes to you with a sample of good tea, it’s worth the trouble to go and take a look at where the tea is coming from. We have on occasion bought tea in this way.
  3. The last approach is going cold to a village with no knowledge or connections , this can be fun, but very hit and miss.

You only have to look around online at various blog posts by people who have done this to see that it is the least reliable method of sourcing tea. Unless you get very lucky, this is at best exploratory – laying the ground for something in the future. In the first couple of years of Zhi Zheng we sometimes did this. It’s rather like a paper chase…

bulang shan - 2008- looking for tea

 

It’s something I personally enjoy doing – going somewhere I’ve never been before and seeing what turns up. But it takes time. You can’t accomplish too much in a day. It generally takes a few visits to start to get a handle on the situation in any one village.

Because of this, it’s worth considering how best to go about it.

Ideally maybe, you would look at the trees first, assuming they’re nearby and you can find them, then visit the farmer with the best looking gardens. But this is neither practical nor reliable, as you likely still need someone to show you round and in any case, the owner of the best looking gardens may not make the best tea, or it may already have been sold.

So a better option is going to farmers’ houses and see whose tea making looks the best (most professional, consistent,) and try some of their tea. You can always look at the tea gardens later.This is also time consuming. The first tea you get offered is likely not the best – the tea farmer is also testing you: he’s not going to sell you his best tea if you can’t tell the difference – and you could easily spend a few hours getting to the better stuff. If you do that in a couple of places, the day has gone. It’s impossible to go round every house in a village in this way, so inevitably there’s some luck involved in where you go.

It’s a long time since I read Walden, but I remember the observation that “A farmer’s wealth is measured by the extent to which the barn overshadows the house.” or something like that.

It’s useful logic. You’re probably not going to find the best tea by going to the poorest looking house in the village – particularly one where they have old tea trees. Anyone now, who has old tree tea gardens, should be getting a decent price for their tea if it’s any good. Of course, there could be other factors: the farmer has old trees, but because of size, poor management, etc. it doesn’t provide a good income, or they’re just not good at business – A Hungarian winemaker told me his father would say “A good winemaker must be a good man, must be good at wine making, and be a good businessman.” It’s the same.

So a reasonable way to start is to see who looks like they’re doing decent business. It doesn’t of course mean their tea is good. They might just be good at doing business, or the owners just took out a hefty loan to build the house, but there’s a chance you’ll find something, and they might know what good tea is, and maybe know where to find it.

Occasionally you might get lucky: someone ordered 60 kg of tea, but then didn’t come through, or only bought 30 kilos in the end – spring tea buying can be a little frenzied and sometimes folks bite off more than they can chew – so, if you’re timing is right, there it is waiting for you.

A couple of other things are important:

The first, is village politics. Villages often comprise of two or three extended families, and they don’t all get on. Once one gets to know one farmer in a village, they will likely rather jealously guard the connection. One has to be a fine diplomat, or a little thick skinned to navigate the network of connections both within, and outside a village.

Secondly, if you don’t know what the tea from village X should taste like, it’s better not to attempt any serious tea buying. It’s foolish to assume you’re beyond being fooled.

You should know roughly what the price is before you go. Tea prices are actually fairly transparent: very early in the spring, when there may only be a few kilos of tea around, if you were to ask how much tea ‘A’ is, the reply will likely be ‘I don’t know, the price hasn’t come out yet’ “不知道,价格还没出来。”. But a week or two later everybody knows – ‘So-so Pa Sha is about 600 a kilo, higher quality, around 800′, or whatever it was.

Like taking an un-metered taxi: to ask the price of going to ‘A’, only shows your ignorance. They see you coming. If you’re only buying 5kg of tea, the price will be higher than if you’re buying 50.

Bartering is worth it if you think you’re getting a bad deal and or, you don’t have too many hopes of developing a longer term relationship with the farmer. If you want to build mutual trust, trying to hack the farmer down on the price is not going to help much.

*It is quite  common for farmers to sell fresh leaves to someone else in their village, and in this way ensure a potentially less profitable, but more secure income. In the past it has been quite rare for farmers to make their own tea. The common practice was for farmers to pick leaves and sell them to a factory for processing.

Lao Huang Pian

I was around Ge Deng somewhere drinking tea with Chen Lao Ban (Guangdong Chen) when a tea farmer brought a bag of tea he had made for him. Chen Lao Ban makes his own tea and also has some local people make tea. There wasn’t much, no more than three kilos. He looked in the bag, looked up and asked “Where are the huang pian?”  “You complained about them last year” the farmer said, “so this year I took them out.” Chen Lao Ban, looked up, shaking his head in disbelief, but said nothing.

Bada Shan Autumn 2012 Lao Huang Pian

Such is the story of huang pian, or yellow leaves, sometimes called ‘lao huang pian’.

As indicated in the previous post on the causes of bitterness and sweetness in tea, it is the older leaves that are sweeter.

Tea farmers: Aini, Bulang, Jinuo, etc, would not traditionally use young leaves to drink themselves. They use the sweeter ‘lao ye’, which they brew up in a kettle – traditionally in a bamboo tube – maybe having baked the leaves first.

For them, younger leaves, and all the tea brewing paraphernalia, is a Han Chinese thing which is alien to them. Many a tea farmer will tell you that when they were young, they never had a gaiwan or bowls. It is something they have now, rather as part and parcel of doing business.

If tea is growing quickly, the leaves, even including the fourth leaf are supple, pliable, and will not produce huang pian. When tea is growing more slowly, or has been left longer before picking, the lower leaves become less pliable, and if they are picked, will make huang pian. These leaves will not be made more supple by time or the frying processes, and remain un-rollable.

Ideas about huang pian in Puer tea change. From an appearance point of view, they are less desirable, but from a flavour point of view they are fine, and in small number, will not be detremental to the flavour; bringing a little extra sweetness.

The practice of picking them out is to please the customer who is primarily concerned with appearance. In Spring tea there should never be many. Autumn tea has more, and summer tea the most.

If the tea leaves are picked well and there are are few huang pian, the farmer can pick most of them out when they are firing the tea. When there are more, the laboriuos job of picking them out of the mao cha has to be done. The benefit is that they then become a ‘product’ in their own right.

Too many huang pian will lower the value of the tea, but most tea producers are happy to see some in their mao cha, which they can then decide to leave in or pick out and sell separately.

At Zhi Zheng, as there are generally very few huang pian in our mao cha after it has been dried, we prefer to leave them in the cakes rather than pick them out.

 

Monkey Picked Puer Tea

We’d been talking about this for months – going to pick some wild tea trees in the forest on Long Pa Liang Zi. Of course, they’re not truly wild trees in the proper botanical sense, but they’re trees that the village has no collective memory of anyone planting and they are left largely untouched in the forest except for when they flush twice a year.

picking wild Puer tea in the forest

There apparently used to be a lot more, but they have over time, died or been cut down. The taller trees are a fairly impressive 7 or 8 metres in height but my tea farmer friend’s younger brother scaled them in seconds to pick the tea.

To see him move through the forest – at a speed I could barely maintain – was to be reminded of the Jinuo people’s still recent past as hunter gatherers. The animals are, unfortunately largely all gone, but the brother is the kind of guy who is happy to set off for a few days in the forest – as long as he has a couple of packs of cigarettes and his machete. He also has a mobile phone but with the sound turned off, so wearing his camouflage outfit so that he melts easily into the forest.

wild tea tree in Jinuo Shan

The trees are a mix of da ye zhong and xiao ye zhong. The girth at the base of some is significant, but having been cut back, they have subsequently produced a number of relatively slender trunks. The taller trees, of course, in this kind of environment will have grown very quickly, and don’t necessarily represent vast ages, though the villagers believe them to be several generations old.

I was trying to measure the height of one using the altimeter on my mobile phone – which wasn’t very successful and, reminded of the ‘barometer story’ about the young Niels Bohr as a student under Michael Rutherford, was thinking it would be better to give the phone to  the brother in the top of the tree and get him to drop it so we could measure how long it took to hit the ground. (If you’re not familiar with that story, you can read it here ).

One problem with trees in this situation is that, since they are on ‘common’ land, anyone can pick them – the sort of situation that led to fighting between Yi and Yao people near Yi Shan Mo a couple of years ago. Here, there are only Jinuo people so there is not that kind of issue, but the tree in the picture below was cut down last year. No one is saying who and, contrary to Wilde’s assertion, in villages like Ya Nuo, it is probably indiscrete to ask.

tea tree growing in the wild

We kept moving through the forest from one small group of trees to the next, so there was no way to spread the leaves out to  keep them cool and time was an issue.

wild tree tea leaves

Having finished picking, my friends brother took the basket and, moving quite a bit faster than the two of us, carried the leaves back to the workshop to spread them out.

When we got back, perhaps 20 or so minutes later we fired the wok and fried the tea.

frying tea in you le

We ended up with just under a kilo of mao cha which has a very distinct and pleasing fragrance. More on that another day.

Mang Zhi

When one thinks of Gong Ting (Tribute Tea) one first thinks of Man Song and when one thinks of places of historical importance related to Puer tea in Xishuangbanna, one perhaps first thinks of Yibang or Yiwu, or maybe Gedeng, but Mang Zhi has its share too.

Man Ya is below Hong Tu Po and the quickest way to get up there is from the Xiang Ming road.

the road up to Man Ya

Once across the bridge, it’s quite a quick journey up to Man Ya where the ancient tea tree gardens are. Like many places here, the original village no longer exists and the inhabitants have all moved further down the mountain.

One reason that this has happened is because of a lack of water, or the need for it outstrips the resources. Another is simply convenience. Sometimes villages have also been moved by the authorities.

tian an men

These trees, known by the villagers as Tian An Men provide a fitting entrance into the area where the gardens are. As with many places, the gardens are a mixed bag with some xiao shu near areas of older da shu and gu shu, but the general feeling is still good.

Most villagers make tea in or on the edge of the tea gardens, while several sell the fresh leaves they have picked to someone else from the village to process.

puer tea drying in man ya lao zhai

Many of the trees are similar to those in other Liu Da Cha Shan areas, but a few are significant, like the one below with a girth of 60 or 70cm.

man ya gu shu

The gardens have good ground cover with plenty of ‘za cao’ or weeds.

Lost in the undergrowth are a couple of tombstones which appear to be maybe Ming Dynasty and look like they were for government officials. One has been defaced, it seems by…. well you know the story. The other is still in relatively good condition.

 

mang zhi gravestone

It is said that tea from these gardens was also Tribute Tea – tea that was reserved for emperors or government officials.

Ya Nuo (You Le Shan)

the road to ya nuo

There’s plenty of tea to be found on the road out from Jinghong to Jinuo Shan, but it’s not until you get some way past Jinuo Shan Town that you start to see anything that looks like you might want to try drinking it. And not until you get to Ya Nuo, some 10 km later, that you start to see some forest and ancient tea tree gardens.

tea trees typical of Yanuo ancient tea tree gardens

Formerly known as Long PaYa Nuo is a Jinuo village on the Menghun side of Jinuo Shan. It is one of two original ‘buluo‘ that the Jinuo inhabited. Originally, there were two extended families with fifty odd households living under one roof in a large bamboo structure with a grass roof. All the buildings in the village now are brick and concrete.

In the late 1970’s, when the Jinuo people were officially recognised by the National Government, the families in Ya Nuo were joined by families from the second village.

The Jinuo are a Tibeto-Burman group with a population of about 21,000. Their language shares some similarities with Burmese and  belongs to the Yi branch of the Tibeto-Burman family. Jinuo people are animist and traditionally, hunter-gatherers and tea farmers. The Jinuo ‘creation myth’ is that they were born out of the sun drum – a large drum with pegs holding a taught skin over the end of the drum that radiate out resembling the sun’s rays. All Jinuo villages have a male and female drum which are of central importance in festivities as they embody sacred spirits.

Traditional Jinuo culture was egalitarian, with clan members hunting and farming together and sharing their spoils equally amongst all families. Tea  was traded with ‘ma bang’ caravan traders in exchange for commodities that were needed, such as salt, cotton and ironware.

The most important festival is Temaoke or ‘Iron Forging Festival’ which falls early in the new year and is referred to as the ‘Jinuo New Year’.  See here for some photos of a Jinuo New Year festival. For Tamaoke, a cow is slaughtered and shared amongst the villagers such that each household gets an equal share of all parts of the animal.

Jinuo people tradionally make tea by wrapping it in a large leaf and roasting it in the embers of a fire. The leaves are then removed and brewed in a length of bamboo,or nowadays, in a large kettle. The resulting tea is strong and sweet.

traditional Jinuo tea

Older Jinuo people – particularly women, chew betel nut ‘Burmese style’ using areca nuts and betel leaves and continue to wear traditional dress, but most younger people now only do so for special occasions.

At Ya Nuo, there are 2,800 mu of old tea tree gardens, owned by the original families of the village. In the 70’s, a co-operative, that is now defunct, was set up and tea bushes planted around the village. The later arrivals have no old tea tree gardens.

From the back of the village an area of protected forest extends all the way to Menglun, and it is mostly in this area that the ancient tea gardens are to be found, at altitrudes ranging from 1300 to 1700 metres.

jinuo shan-autumn-tea-tea-drying

Puer tea production – Supply and Demand

I’ve been thinking it’s about time to reach some kind of a conclusion on the issue of over-picking old tea trees. But to digress for a moment, I recently remembered these words from a Congolese student of economics I used to know in London:

“les besoins sont beaucoup, mais les ressources sont peut.” 

So, putting that to one side for the moment, let’s carry on.

Climate and its impact on  Puer Production

We have had a few years of drought conditions which have badly affected yield. Tea farmers are typically reporting a 35-40% drop in yield in 2012 compared with 4 or 5 years ago.

This, admittedly bleak scenario is offset by the topography of Xishuangbanna which creates many micro-climates, thus in some cases, mitigating the impact of localised, if not global climate change.

The factors for the farmer are about income, keeping customers happy and maintaining their (mostly inherited) trees. In the face of the first two, it is easy to see how the last could be relegated in importance in a quest for short term gain.

Not all farmers are necessarily aware of the issues, and may not have a long term view of their own livelihood or the health of their trees, though generally there is an understanding of the nature of the ‘heirloom’ that farmers have inherited and may hope to pass on to their own children.

Greed and the Market

Over-picking is sometimes attributed to the greed of tea farmers. This seems a little disingenuous. From an outsiders point of view, traditional tea farmers houses and lifestyles may look appealing, but I wonder how many people would be willing to take their place? How should tea farmers live? And who should dictate that?

Even as little as a decade ago, tea farmers in Xishuangbanna sold their tea for very low prices: often a few jiao a kilo. Puer tea mao cha was considered more an agricultural product than a high class beverage. Farmers would often travel considerable distances – not easy given the terrain and their limited resources – to try to sell their tea. Some did not even pick tea, apart from a little for their own consumption, until a few years ago, when the Puer ‘boom’ brought a new perception of the resource on their doorsteps. It must have seemed like a little magic to many farmers who suddenly were able to generate significant income without too much outlay, other than their own effort.

Most mountain minorities in Xishuangbanna have been used to living a subsistence lifestyle, so the Puer boom brought about a groundshift in their circumstances. With the cash income that many farmers now have, they are building houses, buying cars, flat screen TVs, computers.

The stories  of tea farmers – and rubber farmers too for that matter – are legendary: suddenly coming into a decent amount of money, and then simply going to Moding in Laos (over the border from Mohan) and blowing it all in some mad frenzy at the casino, only to return home with empty pockets and carry on with their hand-to-mouth lifestyle.

So in a way, the fact that more farmers are beginning to have the foresight to put their hard earned money into something solid, like a house, should be seen as positive, even if, from a western point of view, the traditional house the farmer was living in had rather more charm than the concrete construction that has taken its place.

Most farmers houses have rather less stuff in them than other peoples so one can hardly blame them for wanting to acquire more household durables either.

Caveat Emptor

As tea farmers are increasingly exposed to the wider world, their ideas and expectations are changing. It is impossible to oppose or change that – hopefully, in the end, it will be beneficial to all, but one can’t condemn tea farmers for wanting to jump in and get a share of the bunfight that is ‘capitalism with Chinese charateristics’.

Things here are changing quite rapidly, but not all areas of a society or economy develop at an equal pace, and there is surely a process that we most of us know well enough: that ‘things’ do not necessarily equal quality of life, that awareness comes later, mostly after the acquisition of the things that one thought would bring something else into one’s life.  But part of that process of acquisition will bring some interesting changes:

A while back, I was with a tea farmer I know in Nan Nuo Shan, who still lives in a traditional wooden has, but one equipped with a number of ‘mod-cons’. He was on the computer using QQ to talk to one of his customers in Shanghai. And this is a guy who left school before his teens without even the chance to learn Mandarin Chinese.

If it’s not already here, the time will probably soon come when someone in America can get online and buy tea straight from a tea farmer in Bulang Shan.

The Needs are Many but the Resources are Few

So back to the opening comment: given recent conditions, a farmer may be faced with a demand that they cannot meet, at the same time seeing a potential near halving of income. Does the tea farmer stand his ground, and resist the pressure/temptation to pick more than is good for the trees, and at the same time tell the buyer that the price has doubled?

Some buyers will go further and offer financial incentives to farmers in order to encourage them to pick more responsibly, but in any case, the buyer walks away with less tea than they were hoping to get for their money and is faced with recouping an investment that the consumer may not be willing bear.

Earlier posts on over-picking are here:

http://www.zhizhengtea.com/puerblog/picking-money-trees/

http://www.zhizhengtea.com/puerblog/over-picking-tea/

http://www.zhizhengtea.com/puerblog/pickin-money-trees-iii/

 

Naka

Naka -(Menghai Mengsong)

Early morning in Autumn - Naka. Near Jinghong Mengsong

Naka is a Lahu village above Menghai Mengsong with around 100 households. They have a compratively small area of old tea gardens – about 500 mu of old tea trees. As early as the 1970’s tea manufacturers were sourcing tea from here. Read more about Naka here.

 

 

 

Like Picking Money from Trees II

To try to understand the problem better, let’s first consider what the ‘norm’ is in order to understand what over-picking is.

Methods of picking tea:

To cut a long story short, there are four basic methods of picking that vary according to whether the intention is to maintain or encourage growth, according to season and prevailing weather, and the condition of the tree.

Typical leaf formations that are picked are tip and one, two, three and even four leaves. The leaves that are left on the plant affect growth; anything from 3 or 4 older leaves to a ‘milk’ leaf can be left on the tree.

Also, the age of the tree and the intention of the tea farmer further determine how the farmer picks the tree;  whether they pick high or low, the outer or inner leaves, strong or gently.

See the notes at the bottom of the post for more detail

Here are images from Yunnan Cha Shu Zai Pei Ji Shu (云南茶树栽培技术) showing the basic approaches to tea picking. The fourth approach discussed below uses a combination of the the following methods. Puer tea uses the same approach though typically with Puer tea there has been less rigorous adherence to these standards with tip and four leaves not being uncommon.

 

Normal black and green tea picking standard

Normal black and green tea picking standard

image of picking the top out of a tea tree stem method - leaving more mature leaves further down the stem

Picking the tops out of the stem

Leaving a 'fish' leaf or 'milk' leaf on the tree

Leaving a ‘fish’ leaf or ‘milk’ leaf on the tree

Tree Age, Season and Picking Frequency

Tea trees are generally defined by three phases: young, mature and old. Tea plants in their prime have vigorous growth and can be picked several times a year. The picking encourages further growth so, in this way, productivity can be increased. Borrowing liberally from Yunnan Tea Cultivation Techniques:

A tree that has reached maturity is in its prime. It has many branches and its foliage is plentiful. It has a well developed root system and a strong capacity to transpire. Its ability to photosynthesise is strong. At this stage a tree is at the height of its productive cycle, producing plentiful, quality tea leaves. At this point it is important to maintain the trees abundant foliage. In this phase of the trees life the tree can be picked more lightly (i.e. leaving more leaves on the tree) in the spring, pick more strongly in the summer, and in the autumn leave ‘milk’ leaves on the tree.

To maintain the trees foliage density, spring picking should leave the ‘milk’ leaf, summer, leave one large leaf, and in the autumn again leave the ‘milk’ leaf. At the same time as paying attention to the trees condition, ‘leave fewer leaves higher in the tree, more leaves lower. Leave more leaves on the outside of the tree, fewer in the middle.

Once a tree has reached an old age, it’s growth is less vigorous, it’s ability to photosynthesise is no longer at its peak and the tree becomes weaker. The trees organic compounds are reduced. ‘Chicken feet‘ branches begin to appear in the crown of the tree and new growth is weaker. Branches begin to die. At this stage, picking should be stopped for one or two seasons to allow the tree time to recuperate…..

Typically, tea bushes are generally picked three times in the spring, again in the summer, and then again in the autumn. Occasionally, also in winter or very early spring.

Mature tea trees are typically not picked in the winter, but are still often picked two or three times in the spring and again in the summer and autumn.

When a tree reaches an old age, it is accepted practice to reduce the number of times it is picked. In this way, an older tree may be picked once or twice in the spring and then again in the autumn. Though summer picking is often considered necessary to promote an autumn harvest. Trees in their ‘N’ hundreds of years may well only produce leaves in the spring, so are only picked once.

Clearly, appropriate-picking must take into account the season and age of the tree in order to preserve tree health.

From Yunnan Cha Shu Zai Pei Ji Shu

1. The aim of this method is to encourage growth in the crown of a bush or tree. This is typically used when plants are only a few years old. In this method, a stem is left till it has 5 or 6 leaves on it, or until it stops growing further leaves, and then the tip and two or three leaves are picked, leaving 3 or 4 older leaves still on the plant. Each flush is picked one or two times in the same way – picking the upper leaves, leaving the lower to encourage the plant to branch and produce more profuse foliage in the crown.

2. The second method is a combined approach. In this method, trees are left to grow till they have tips and 3 or 4 leaves, or sometimes tips and 4 or 5 leaves before picking, at which point, tip and two or three leaf formations are picked, leaving one or two mature leaves on the tree. The aim is twofold: to encourage growth and to harvest tea. The decision to leave one or two leaves is determined by the season and the strength of the plant.

3. The third method is in Chinese referred to as ‘Leaving a fish’ method because the tea picker leaves a small leaf on the tree which perhaps looks like a small fish. It is also referred to as ‘liu nai ye’ – leaving a ‘milk leaf’ method. This is the principal method used in picking many kinds of tea. Generally, picking is done when there are new tip and one, two or three leaf formations. The small ‘milk leaf’ is left on the tree.

It is typical to pick a bush ‘clean’ as if this is not done it will influence the following flush.

4. The last approach is to pick ‘according to local conditions’. This is understood as ‘whichever leaves sprout first, pick first, whichever leaves sprout later, pick later’. i.e. ‘Pick those leaves that have reached the standard (e.g. tip & one, two or three leaves), those that have not reached the standard, leave till the next phase of picking, those that have already passed the standard, pick according to the standard.’ Superfluous leaves are left on the tree. In this way, the tree is picked clean and there is an even distribution of both young and older leaves and whilst suiting the requirements of the tea farmer, picking is determined by the trees age, rate of growth, season, etc. In this way a tree can be picked many times in a year.

Autumn Tea – Flowers, Nuts & Yue Guang Bai

Autumn is the time for tea flowers and nuts.

tea fowers and fruit on old tea tree

This is an ancient tea tree near Shi Tou zhai near the old Nan Nuo Shan Cha Chang.

On the way, I dropped in on a tea farmer we work with who had made some yue guang bai. Made, in this case, from old tea trees Yue Guang Bai is shade dried and does not undergo any other processing.

white moonlight - yue guang bai drying

An inescapable sweet fragrance fills the work area where the tea has been drying. The tea is a little more astringent than spring harvest, but the fragrance is fine and the broth sweet. There is a little hint of fermentation, probably related to the slight oxidation that inevitably occurs during drying. This could be more or less, depending on   the weather.

autumn yue guang bai broth

The spent leaves look a little like black tea as there is inevitably some oxidation in the drying process.

yue guang bai leaves after steeping

 

Ban Zhang & Hekai Old Tea Trees

ma hou pao – 马后炮

A friend told me today of some news from Lao Ban Zhang and He Kai: “Ban Zhang and Hekai have decided not to pick summer tea.” It seems a little disingenuous since we’re already into the autumn tea season, but it’s a step in the right direction, as long as they haven’t changed their minds by next year. Or is it?

The issue of over-picking tea, particularly on old tea trees is important, and not that straightforward. There are some seemingly common misunderstandings about exactly what ‘over-picking’ implies.

Not picking summer tea, the least sought after/cheapest harvest of the year, is not going to suddenly make everything right if other issues aren’t addressed. Ban Zhang autumn gu shu is on the market at 1,500 yuan/kilo, so the cynic might say they can afford not to pick summer tea, but whilst it would have given trees a chance to recover a little had it happened, it won’t necessarily improve next spring’s harvest.

Over the next few posts, I hope to explore this issue further and try to get to a deeper understanding of what the issues are, and how they would best be resolved.

 

* ma hou pao, is an expression that translates as something like ‘Firing the artillery after the horses have charged.’ Rather like ‘shutting the door after the horse has bolted’.