On Day 3 we travelled from Yixing on to Eastern Anji to search for an incredible tea called Anji Bai Cha. Anji Bai Cha (安吉白茶) translates as Anji White tea. It is in fact a green tea produced in Anji County, Zhejiang Province, China. Its name comes from the fact that it is made from a varietal of the tea plant whose unprocessed leaves are more white than green. It’s liquor so delicate and light that it could well be a white tea. However, the leaves are withered, pan-fired, shaped and dried as green teas are.
Anji Bai Cha is a very desirable tea with long, delicate leaves that has a gentle, fresh, lemony taste which lasts well. It is also very good for you as is contains a high amount of theanine in comparison with other green teas.
Arriving early afternoon we had the chance to visit two gardens in Anji. This is our first visit here so we are looking for new partners. The first garden we visited had already sold all of their tea for 2017 so in this case we are looking ahead to 2018 and the potential of the garden in the longer term.
This first garden in Eastern Anji, Tan Jia Hu village was surrounded by Bamboo forest. Run by Mr Xiang (in tea for 15 years) and his brother the picking season had just ended - running from April 3rd to 21st their 20 mu produced just one type of tea - Anji Bai Cha. There are no grades of tea here as such, single batches are picked each day and the price is dictated by the white tea market in Anji town. Here a daily rate-band is fixed for teas depending on where they are from and what tea is fetching from that area - the rate is then + or - 150RMB for 500g. With high demand from the North of a China for this tea there is an influx of tea from outside the county. The price will therefore also vary depending on whether the tea is 'internal' (Anji) or 'external' (out of area). From this farm they produce 250kg a year. Now the workers have gone it is just him and his brother available to pick the last tea of the season - but this is not so serious anymore - just for their own enjoyment and for the local community. We arrived as they had just fetched some leaf in and they were generous enough to show us the process.
THE MAKING PROCESS - ANJI BAI CHA
When the fresh leaf comes in off the mountains it is put on the wilting beds for four hours. There is no fan and the tea is not touched in this time. Then the tea is moved to the machine. 1kg green leaf is put on it at a time. This is the ‘kill green’ process when the oxidation is arrested. The temperature is 300 degrees for 8 minutes. The machine also shapes the tea to the unique Anji Bai Cha shape - the heat makes the leaves sink to the bottom of the trough. At the end of this process it is 60 percent dried. From here it moves into the dryer 120 degrees for 20 minutes.
We continued on with our journey to meet with Mr Ye (translated as Mr Leaf!). He has worked in tea since 2004 following on from his family who started with 50 mu (8 acres) of land in their village. He now oversees three main tea gardens, with the biggest one Qi Long being 500 mu (80 acres) and the rest being made up of small pockets of land across Anji.
Mr Ye has a strong focus on 'green' as does the government in this area. For the largest garden he has annual tests on soil, water and air as well as sending his final product for testing. As is often the case for smaller gardens they work to the same standards at the smaller gardens but choose not to pursue certification - for the time, time and costs involved the numbers do not add up.
For the Bai Cha tea they prune every year - the extent varying on the age of the plant - every 10-15 years they cut to 5 cm or so then the plant re shoots - like a new plant. Mr Ye shared a lot on his agricultural techniques. Demand for Anji tea has soared in recent years so many gardens are stuck in traditional cycles involving pesticide use - In his situation he has decided to take a step back, employ people to observe the plants (he has one or two people employed to walk the gardens and observe the plants and environments) and adjust his practice accordingly. One example of this is in June - at this time they now go round the gardens and strim the ground between the bushes - this is in contrast to the past where they used to hoe it - there are several advantages to not hoeing : one bring that it is good for binding the ground making it more resistant to landslides in the heavy rains. The second is that hoeing is more labour so both the environment and the financials benefit. On the side of pesticides they traditionally used them on a calendar basis - now Mr Ye has more human presence in the gardens he and his team are more in touch with nature. As a result practices have changed and new techniques such as lamps and manual checks have come in.
The key seasons for pests are still late July to September - if insects come earlier Mr Ye and his team have actually found that it is good, as the plant can be eaten and then reshoot in time for the season - everyone wins! This more active approach to managing and understanding his garden is helping Mr Ye to use different techniques and localise interventions intelligently. The government is very much in support with a clear push to develop green and healthy food and drink in this area of China. Mr Ye shared that he has a personal ambition to deliver green gardens - this is where he sees the future!
Mr Ye also talked of one of the big issues for Anji Bai Cha as being the incredible demand for the tea - local supply cannot keep up. More tea is getting grown in surrounding areas. The growers we met explained to us that tea coming in is sometimes better quality than some of the local tea. That is a problem for the government - they are so fearful of this that they are setting a lower price for the external tea. They are now trying to look at how they can work more on quality control.
Whilst in the area we had the chance to taste some other local teas. The first is one called Huang Jing Ya. This tea has one and a half times the amino acids of the normal tea, as it has developed from a freak cultivar. In Anji there are about five companies growing it, plus individual farmers growing it on a small scale. This type is really expensive as the little amount of land planted with it yields a third of that of Anji Bai Cha. The market for the another tea called Huang Jing Ye is bigger and the yields are same as Anji Bai Cha - it also has higher polyphenol levels than Anji Bai Cha. Processing is the same but Ya harder to process as it's quite tender. Going back to the internal and external farmer issue there is even a difference in the price to enter the Anji tea market for internal area and external area growers. You have to swipe a card, which costs 5RMB for those in the town and 50RMB for those outside of the town.
After a quick look in the tea market we travelled to the village where Mr Ye’s parents grew up. Here they have 200mu (33 acres) here in total with the biggest being 80 mu (13 acres) and the rest spread around in tiny pockets. This village (polulation 2000) has one of the highest incomes in Zhenjiang with lots of it is from the sales of seedlings. Among the tea buses there are areas being left to grow. Cuttings will be made here from the unpruned bushes.
Also gaining importance is the care for the land. Planting now includes 30% plants, trees etc to encourage biodiversity. The steep slopes have historically not been allowed to be planted on. When people were poor they cleared bamboo forests and the Government turned a blind eye but now the income has gone up they are wanting to go back to block planting trees and stopping the planting of tea.
On the rock (see picture) is carved ‘China Anji Bai cha source’.
Next stop Huangzhou...