Category Archives: Tea making process

Nan Nuo Shan Dian Hong

I  was in Nan Nuo Shan yesterday where a friend of mine gave me some da shu black tea to try.

Nan Nuo Shan has a history of tea making. When Nan Nuo Shan Tea Factory was set up in the late 1930’s, it produced black and green tea, and in its heyday was producing hundreds of tonnes of tea a year, mostly for export. Although they planted large areas of tea trees, initially they made black tea from the old tea trees on the mountain which was, by all accounts, very good.

Fu Hai tea factory was set up later, also in Nan Nuo Shan. My friend worked there as a young man and learned the skills of tea making. He later was employed to teach new apprentices and was one of the first farmers in recent history in Nan Nuo Shan to start making his own tea: prior to that, the custom was for farmers to pick tea and then take the fresh leaves to the factory. Because of this, many farmers at that time had limited experience of making their own tea.

But making black tea is becoming quite popular in Nan Nuo Shan. My friend had made a couple of different batches. One we drank at his home, the other I tasted in Jinghong.

nan nujo shan black tea

It’s not the most beautiful Dian Hong – as Dan San says, there would be more tips in bush tea, but the leaves are impressive. Most people making tea in Nan Nuo Shan ferment it quite lightly. This is a little more heavily fermented. The dry leaves are still quite fragrant, but the flavour is deeper, stronger, more full bodied than typical Nan Nuo black tea.

It’s got what I think of as that kind of peppery sweetness which seems to typify Yunnan Dian Hong. Some hints of caramel and spices whose names don’t come to mind. The flavour is quite robust and has both some bitterness and a little astringence. The broth has that classic bright, golden – orange colour, but deepens somewhat on later steepings.

nan nuo shan black tea old tree dian hong broth

I was expecting this tea to be slightly more fragrant than the one we tasted in Nan Nuo Shan, but it was not obviously so. Muted, elusive, perhaps some hint of flowers, so it’s sweetness is the thing that stays with you – lasting for quite some time.

The leaves after a few steepings. As one can see, this is still not very heavily oxidised. The leaves are still very much intact and a testimony to the trees they came from.

nan nuo shan black tea broth after a long steepingAfter steeping for several  minutes, the broth darkened somewhat. It has nice clarity and lustre.

By the way, the small beaker above is Thai celadon, made in Chiang Mai using an ash glaze. They specialise in tableware and produce this quite ‘costaud’ style which feels very comfortable in the hand and is pleasant to drink from.

Tea with the Chens – From He Kai to Ge Deng

I have recently had cause to hang out with two different Chens – a Chinese name something akin to the English Smith. One in Hekai, on the edge of the Bulang Mountains, and the other from Guangdong who sources tea from the Six Famous Tea Mountains area.

Chen No1 is based in He Kai. I went up there a few weeks ago and then accompanied him to Lao Ban Zhang where he got 30 kg of fresh leaves. The cost of fresh tou chun leaves in Ban Zhang this year was anything from a little over 400 to over 600 RMB/kg, and this Spring, just over 4 kg of fresh leaves was making a kilo of mao cha.

We got back to his place with the tea around mid-day and spread it out to wilt for a while. He started frying tea later in the afternoon and continued till almost midnight, putting the tea out to dry the next morning, which is normal practice.

His sha qing approach is a little different from some tea makers as he tends to fry the tea for considerably longer than is typical, and then rolls it for a relatively short period of time. When tea is heaped in the pan during frying in the fashion described above, it is locally described as ‘dui de‘ or piled.

He Kai Chen left his tea to wilt for a fair time even though the weather’s very dry – although it had been raining a little at night when I was there – (one reason for wilting, apart from allowing the moisture content in the leaves to drop, is to allow it to even out, so that there is a more uniform amount of moisture throughout the leaf – from tip to stem. If this is not done, it’s easy to burn the leaves).

Typical tea frying woks in the Bulang Shan/Hekai/Ban Zhang area are set flat on a brick oven. Initially, the tea leaves are kept moving in the pan which must be done to stop the leaves from burning and to produce an even roast. As the tea is roasted, the heat is allowed to drop a little and the tea moved less. After frying for a while – maybe as much as 15 minutes – during which time the tea is turned and shaken out repeatedly (this allows some of the heat to disperse), the process slows down and the tea is turned and then piled in the centre of the wok and left for a minute or so. This process is repeated many times.

Chen Lao Ban then takes the tea out of the wok and leaves it on a tray for several minutes – again piled as opposed to spread out, which is the more common practice.

Making tea in this way, he then machine rolls it in an old electric roller with a wooden drum and tray, but only for a few minutes. The result is a tea that is very fragrant, has good body, with a light clear broth, little astringence and good hou yun.

When He Kai Chen makes tea completely by hand, as he did with some of the Ban Zhang tea, he does not follow this method, and has a more typical approach to frying and rolling.

Across the other side of Xishuangbanna, a few weeks later, I was in Ge Deng and bumped into another Chen. Chen Lao Ban is from Guangdong where he sells tea. He spends quite a lot of time in ‘Banna and has been sourcing/making tea in the Liu Da Cha Shan area for 5 or 6 years. He has set up a few small chu zhe suowhere he both processes fresh leaves and collects some mao cha.

Guangdong Chen has had a wok made according to his requirements: the wok is also set flat on the oven in a manner similar to Bulang Shan woks, but it’s a fair bit higher. One only has to fry tea for a few minutes in a wok in say, Nan Nuo Shan, to realise how important the height is! Most Aini people are relatively short, and build their ovens accordingly, so this can be back breaking for anyone taller.

His approach to tea making is almost as far from Hekai Chen’s as Ge Deng is from Hekai. The wilting time is probably about the same – somewhere between 3 and 5 hours, but his approach to sha qing is quite different. Tea Urchin referred to this style as ‘medium rare’. I like that description. I think a lot of people I know here would say it was ‘sha bu tou‘ – not fried enough, but Guangdong Chen (and lots of other people in Guangdong) seem to like tea with this kind of flavour; a little less smooth feeling in the mouth than is typical, a fair bit of astringency, and not much obvious fragrance; either in the leaf or the cup. And virtually none of the retro-olfactory aromas that He Kai Chen produces.

Chen Lao Ban says that when the tea is stored (in Guangdong), the astringence mellows, though I have to say, that in my (limited) experience of drinking tea in Guangdong, even after several years, tea is often still markedly ‘apre’. He Kai Chen also says his tea ages well. I have had some which was 3-4 years old which was reminiscent of a rather older tea; very smooth, good hou yunand a pleasant chen wei.

What is most interesting in all this is that Puer making methods, within a broader understanding of the process, can vary considerably. There is not necessarily any ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of doing things – and I suspect there never was – although it is easy to find people who will swear by one particular approach.

1,000 flavours of Lao Ban Zhang

I first met Chen Jian Ming five years ago. We went up to Hekai together where he was making tea. He has been making tea there since. He now has a shop in Jing Hong where we were trying some samples of Lao Ban Zhang that he’d got in the last few days. One was made by ‘lao bai xing’, i.e made by villagers following their own methods/standards. The other two were made by villagers, but to more exacting standards.

The other two samples were also from the village: one, the flavour somewhat fuller, the bitterness more pronounced (Lao Ban Zhang kuwei seems stronger this year than last year, for which I ‘ve heard a couple of explanantions, the most plausible of which is the climate – the dryness), the other kuwei less pronounced, more fragrant with a quicker huigan.

Lao Chen, calculates that ‘there are 500 households in Ban Zhang. If they all make tea in their own way, that means there are 500 flavours of Lao Ban Zhang tea. If each has, say 2 different tea tree gardens, then there are 1000 different flavours’ ….and so on…there was a further parameter which increased the possible variations exponentially, but I can’t think now what it was.  But you get the idea: there’re likely to be some broad similarities in tea from any village, but within that, there will be significant, often easily perceptible, variations. So having a fixed idea about ‘what this or that places tea tastes like’ is not particularly useful

Gua Feng Zhai – Cha Wang Shu – First Spring tea

HM was back up in Gua Feng Zhai about a week ago and came back with just over three and a half kilos of the first spring tea from Gua Feng Zhai’s Cha Wang Shu.

gua feng zhai mao 2012 cha

gua feng zhai mao 2012 cha

We tried the tea which at that stage was very smooth in the mouth, and sweet, but seemed a little thin in flavour. So about a week later, I thought I would try it again.

It had changed somewhat: still very smooth. The lid of the gaiwan carried the scent of  ‘flowers and honey’. The wet leaves have a dense ‘green’ aroma – a very distinct qing chou wei.  A faint hint of bitterness on the upper palate and ‘retro-olfactory’ hints of honeysuckle in the nasal cavity.

Lao Feng dropped by just as I was pouring out the second steep. We agreed it had improved in the week since we had tried it first. “The very first tips of spring” he said “it’s like an animal that’s been asleep all winter and has just awoken. It’s not fully awake yet.”

gua feng zhai cha wang shu 2012 puerh

Wan Gong and Bai Cha Yuan

HM has been recently spending a fair bit of time going up to Wan Gong where we found a little tea last year, and Bai Cha Yuan . Our hope this year is to build on last year and make some more tea from a couple of tea gardens up there.

Old tea tree around Wan Gong

Old tea trees that were cut back and then left untended

The trees in the photo are typical of a fair number of the trees in this remote area near Bai Cha Yuan – they are maybe about 200 years old but were cut back heavily many years ago and have subsequently been left untended for a long time.

HM and some tea farmers from the area have built a small makeshift ‘pondoki’ where we will make tea, as it is much too far from any more permanent tea making facilities.

A rough shelter on the mountain

A makeshift shelter

We have improvised two small woks for frying tea.

Two makeshift woks for frying tea in the field

A rather splendid view from near the top of the mountain.

A view from near the top of the mountain

A view from near the top of the mountain

2012 Lao Ban Zhang

Yesterday we received our first little bit of 2012 Lao Ban Zhang. A few kilos, brought in by our friend from Menghun.

lao ban zhang 2012 mao cha

Lao Ban Zhang 2012 mao cha

Quite nicely made, and with a very ‘chun’ – unadulterated, pure flavour. It seems like it could have used a little more drying time perhaps. The kuwei is pronounced, the huigan a little slow, materialising after a couple of minutes, but pleasing enough when it does show itself.

Lao Ban Zhang Mao Cha from early 2012

Mao cha and gaiwan

It has that slight smokiness which disappears after the first couple of steepings and that I’ve almost come to expect of Lao Ban Zhang. As someone said to me a couple of years ago, “If it’s not smokey, it’s not Lao Ban Zhang.”

It’s just been made, so we’ll give it a little time.

2012 Lao Ban Zhang mao cha broth after four steepings

Lao Ban Zhang mao cha broth after four steepings

 

The leaves after four steepings look pretty good. A nice eveness to their appearance

Tea Heads

We’ve recently been going to Nan Chun Tea Factory in Menghai to get some work done. One day while we were there, HM discovered that they had previously made som ‘cha tou‘ or tea heads. This is basically a large ball – 1 or 2 kg – of tea. H.M managed to convince Nan Chun Cha Chang’s lao ban to personally make some cha tou out of some Nan Nuo Shan mao cha that we had left from this spring.

The weighed tea is steamed in the usual way and emptied into a cloth bag.

The tea is then rolled,

puerh tea heads getting a roll

hammered,

making cha tou

and squeezed

detail of making tea head using puerh mao cha

into a near spherical shape

nan chun cha chang lao ban with tea head

Nan Chun Tea Factory, Peng Lao Ban with a ‘tea head’

What you end up with is a pretty dense ball of tea – it could certainly do some damage if thrown in the wrong direction. (You’ve heard of Gunpowder tea – this is cannonball tea)

It has to be dried in a low temperature oven because, despite all the beating and squeezing, the moisture content in the centre is still relatively high so normal air drying would run the risk of the centre of the thing going mouldy.

The end result is rather pleasing – a solid lump of tea!

 

Make Tea According to What You See (More on wilting)

The expression in Chinese  ‘kan cha, zuo cha‘ is saying ‘Make tea according to what you find, according to the situation.’ or as my grandfather used to say “Conditions determine.”

In light of some recent online discussion on withering tea, I thought it worth revistiting the topic here.

The debate centers around a couple of issues; Why are some Sheng  ‘greener’ than others. The second issue is the supposition that the degree of ‘green-ness’ in a young Sheng Puer is determined largely by the length of time that the fresh leaves are withered.

This is a fair assumption, but it’s a partial reality. Wilt time, as previously said, will have some affect on the flavour and appearance of tea, but so also will the provenance, the type of trees, the season, the method and degree of drying and also the method of drying the pressed cakes. Last but not least, how long the mao cha is stored for prior to pressing, and where the tea is subsequently stored will also impact the teas flavour and appearance.

Two most common reasons that a Sheng Puer will seem more ‘green tea’ like are these:

Shaqing/frying temeperature: a higher temperature (say 90 + C) will do this.

The tea  isn’t sun-dried and the temperature of drying is a little high.

Habits vary in different areas, and from season to season. Some farmers do not wilt at all, others wilt in the spring but much less in autumn. Wilting may be done for 40 minutes or for a few hours.

Kan cha, zuo cha‘ – A farmer is less looking at his watch than looking at the tea, feeling it, smelling it in order to decide when to start each step of the process – from picking to drying.

As teas from different regions and different farmers vary, so do ours. What works well for one tea, may not work well for another. No two teas are made exactly the same. What we strive for is to produce quality teas from different regions that maintain their uniqueness.