The issues of wilting Puer tea, good and bad tea making processes, and the consequent suitability of a tea for ageing are perennial.
Tan Lao Shi is probably in her 50’s. She’s already retired. She grew up in Luo Shui Dong where her family have been tea farmers for several generations. Her childhood, up until her early teens was spent at Luo Shui Dong.
I asked her about how the tea making process of Puer now varies from when she was young and specifically about the weidiao process; Could she confirm that wilting fresh leaves before frying was a recent introduction in the Puer making process.
The idea, she said, is only from the late 80’s or early 90’s. Prior to that there wasn’t that thinking. But of course, the tea was wilted. Not to wilt the leaves; “zhe shi bu ke neng de.” – ‘It’s impossible the tea was not wilted.’ she says.
She went on to describe a typical day and the tea making process; after breakfast, around 8 a.m her family would go to their tea garden to pick leaves. “The garden was as far as from here to the school. Not far.” (Jinglan cha cheng to the local primary school – perhaps 100 metres) “They would pick tea until around 2pm, putting it in big baskets, then they would bring it back to the house. In the afternoon, they would go again and pick tea, up till maybe 8 at night.”
Tan described how only when the afternoon’s tea was brought back to the house, and the morning and the afternoon tea was put together would it be fried and rolled. In her estimate, at the very least, tea was left for 5 hours before frying; so, whether it was done unwittingly or not, the tea was wilted. In fact, the idea of picking a relatively small amount of tea and taking it back to the house to process immediately seemed implausible to her.
Her explanation for lack of historical evidence is that people wilted the tea unknowingly. They were just putting it to one side until they were ready to begin frying. There was no specific aim. She challenges me to find the words weidiao or tan qing in any literature. “There’s no mention of it because no one recorded the information, but it still happened.”
She went on to talk about how the tea was piled up and not spread out on mats as is the manner now and how, as children, they would jump into the big piles of tea which was fun, but because they were worried about their parents being angry when they returned to the house, they would sweep all the tea back up into a pile prior to their parents return. So this tea was most certainly oxidised.
She talked about how, prior to the early 50’s, they would pick tea fairly crudely, picking older leaves along with younger ones. After that (probably 1952-53) they would still not be selective in their picking, but when they took the tea back to the house they would separate out the older leaves from the younger tips and leaves – up to maybe tip and three leaves.
The tea made form these older leaves would be put in baskets after rolling, bamboo skins were placed on top and stones ( she described the kind of large stones that were used for sharpening knives) were placed on top of the bamboo skins to weigh them down. As a consequence the leaves were tightly compressed. This tea was left for two nights. “We used to put eggs in the tea. After three days the eggs were cooked.”
She also described making autumn tea and how the weather in Luo Shui Dong could be quite cold, but when they put their hands in the tea it was hot. On the third day this tea would be put out to dry. After handling it, their hands were ‘black’ from the tea.
I asked her what the tea broth looked like. “Not black like shou cha is now.” she said. “About the same colour as that.” and pointed to some tea in a ‘piao-yi-bei’ that had the colour of say a 4 or 5 year old raw tea – a brownish, ruby-red.
This ‘fermented’ tea was sold to an export company for export to Russia. Tan describes when she was a child how Russians came looking for tea. She said the Russians knew the difference between spring, summer and autumn tea, and would not buy the summer tea.
The tip and leaf formations from the process described above were not treated in the same way. After rolling they were shaken out and left till the next morning to be sun dried. This tea was typically given to local officials and the like.