Day 6 started early in Huangshan town having had some time to explore the 'old street' crammed full of shops & restaurants the night before. We wandered up the road, for breakfast....
...past the tourism toilets [sorry couldn't resist a photo!] before hailing a cab to our next destination. You can already see a hint of the magnificent mountains in the background.
Anhui province is home to four of the top ten Chinese teas. As well as Huangshan Maofeng tea there is also Qimen Black Tea, Lu'an Guapian tea & Taiping HouKui tea. Breaking down the name 'Huangshan Maofeng' we see that :
"Huangshan" means Yellow Mountain
"Mao"means fur or hair
"Feng" means mountain peak
The shape of the tea is slightly curly in appearance and you can see silvery hairs on the bud [Mao] and pointed bud ends [Feng].
This was our first trip to this area and following on from the theme in the previous blogs our time here would be focused on looking for ecologically produced Huangshan Mao Feng green tea. As a first visit we decided to focus our time here on visiting a company set up as a co-operation between the government, university and village co-operatives. Our main aim for this was to get a sense of how the area worked and an understanding of the areas where ecological principles are understood and in place. The day started with a bit of fun - a chance to have a go at traditional tea making ourselves - always an important reminder of just how much hard work traditional tea manufacture is. Of course, the experts made it look so simple until you had a try yourself! As we had a go ourselves we learned more about the traditional process for hand made Huangshan Maofeng :-
HARVESTING : As with all other high grade green teas, harvesting only takes place once a year, in spring. It consists of picking, sorting and withering. The moisture from the leaves can often be naturally evaporated within 1-2 hours. For the picking there are a number of standards which are highlighted below next to a picture of the garden we visited. High grade tea can be identified by a number of characteristics including:
- Uniformity in finish, pointed buds with downy hair
- Orchid Fragrance
FIXATION : Also known as "Sha Qing". The wok temperature starts at around 150 degree Celsius and is then reduced. Tea makers fry the tea leaves with great care [and bare hands!] using precise movements to kill tea enzymes and stop the oxidation process [these movements can total up to 60 every minute but they make it look very easy]. The tea maker must be observant at all times in order to produce a uniform finish in the leaf and avoid burning the leaf.
For machine made teas tumbling rollers are used with a high temperature of 240-280 for 4-6 minutes.
SHAPING : The next task is to "roll" the leaves into the required shape. The approach needs to be adjusted depending on the tenderness of the tea leaves. For hand made teas the tea maker can feel this in the leaves. For machine made teas teas with a greater degree of tenderness are twisted lightly for 3 minutes. Older leaves are twisted heavily for 20-30 minutes.
BAKING : The final stage is 'Baking' also known as 'Ovening'. The length and intensity of each roasting depends on how much moisture is in the air - the tea maker will make a judgement on this. We were told that for example high quality teas are gradually dried three times with varying temperatures of 120, 100 and 90 but the start temperature can be as low as 90 degree Celsius moving down towards 60 degree Celsius. The first stage is the most precarious as the tea maker is moving the leaf by hand - poor control of this process can still produce an inferior tea.
So back to the trip. After a local lunch we set off to the villages of Yancun & Fang Cun around 15 minutes from Fuxi (富溪 ) - the town in Huangshan where tea merchant Xie Zhengan invented Huangshan Maofeng during the Qing Dynasty. Huizhou area as a whole has been known as a centre of excellence for tea production for centuries. We were told that tea production could date back as far as 604-790 AD when the first records exist [the 'Shezhou' tea section in Tea Classic written by Lu Yu, the earliest monograph of tea, in the mid Tang Dynasty]. The landscape along this route is breathtaking with forest covered mountains divided by rivers and interrupted by villages. On the way we stopped by at what we would later find out is the largest green tea manufacturing plant in Asia. With 4 lines this factory processes much of the leaf from the surrounding villages. As a company used to dealing with much smaller scale operations I was curious but sceptical about what had driven this development in this area. On digging deeper an interesting story emerged - more on that later.
We entered the factory at the same time as the farmers who were arriving with fresh leaf continuously. Just as in the last blog these settings can seem chaotic at first but if you stand back a structured process emerges. On arrival the leaf is inspected before being divided based on quality [see notes on standards below] by an assessor at the delivery point and sent to separate lines for processing. All the leaf comes from a 5km radius of the factory - from 4 pick up points in the local area. Pick up times are staggered so that the leaf entering can be dated and assigned to a particular set of farmers on the mountain - a good start on providing transparency on date and terroir even at this scale.
Discussing the farming principles here we learned that there are a number of high standards in place for fresh tea leaves which they call '7-2'. The '7' refers to latitude, altitude, temperature, rain, soil and percentage of forest cover. The '2' refers to the focus an continued discussion around environmentally & ecologically friendly land management. A record is kept for each batch of tea processed.
Leaving the factory we headed up to Yangcun and stopped at the entry point to the mountainside tea gardens. The path ahead led up through onto the hillside to an area swathed in forest. On these hillsides 500 families farm plots of around 100 mu and the rest have plots of 30-50 mu totalling 21000 mu up to a height of 500m. To reach them all would involve a three hour hike from the place we started although there are other entry points across the mountain. We wandered up through the tea bushes to the edge of the forest where a few families were picking.
So back to the questions that I had going around in my head since coming across the factory. As we walked towards the idyllic mountainside we chatted & learned that this mountainous area faces a number of issues in terms of tea manufacture.
Firstly labour [a common theme in the tea industry] The tea bushes here cover undulating forest covered terrain which requires hand picking. This leaf historically then needs transporting down to the villages to process and then on to market for sales. There are few guarantees in this process for farmers - many young people have left the area for work elsewhere and the processing is very labour intensive. It is always easy to take a negative view around the lack of labour however let us turn this on its head for a moment - with less people around there has been less intensive land management and largely left alone the steep slopes lined with trees and vegetation have continued to support a rich ecosystem to support the tea - this ecosystem has seen large swathes of the area designated as rainforest alliance. The terroir here should therefore produce excellent tea - this is certainly an area which has excellent foundations for ecological tea development.
Secondly changing practice : With increasing interest in ecological practices many small farmers can't keep up with the increase in technology standards that would help them to sell their tea at a premium price.
These factors combine to make it hard for the farmers to make economic sense of processing the tea themselves.
We discussed how the factory fitted in. Often when large companies are involved it is the farmer who suffers but it would appear here that with the involvement of the village cooperatives and focus on farmer education of ecological practices there is an open dialogue and partnership. Agreements are set up between the factory and the local village governance who are then in charge of overseeing the application of organic practices. Adherence to these principles ensures the leaf will pass to enter the factory and the farmer will be paid a rate in line with the local market. This is guaranteed payment for them with no need to dedicate time and resource to processing and sales. [In the current Mao Feng market much of the value is in the latter part of the chain in marketing and branding - something individual farmers currently have little expertise in - this means their hard labour in getting the product to market themselves is rarely rewarded and sometimes it is hard to even break even. The current agreement with the factory still leaves them space to sell direct if they wish - they do not have to sell all their leaf into the factory - decisions are made at local village governance level about what is required.
So what had we learned? Well we had certainly gained an understanding of how the area had developed. We had also learned that farmers involved in this co-operative were part of a system that supported them to apply ecologically sound farming principles to their individual plots. Naturally this opens up this geographical area as one to explore further and we made some great individual contacts with local farmers who are still producing small quantities of their tea locally from the leaf they choose not to sell on to the factory - companies like us can offer a fair direct price here. As I thought about this model my hope was that perhaps the work of this larger cooperative can further enhance the reputation of this region both in China and abroad and, supported by regular income from their leaf sales to the factories farmers may in some way continue with small scale traditional production of high grade teas - let's see!
[Photos above | Yangcun | courtesy of our friend whose family farm in yangcun]
It was a great day and a great chance to see how the tea ecosystem : factory, village, farmers, government, environment is working together in this corner of China. As a next step we are working with new contacts to learn more about what is happening on the ground in this area at farmer level. Next year we will return and continue up the paths we saw and into the mountains. In the meantime stay tuned for more info and Mao Feng tea news.