TAIPING HOUKUI | THE PLACE
First a short introduction to the area. If you have read about Taiping Houkui before you may have read that the only way to reach some of the villages involved in its production is by boat and indeed this is still the case for some areas. As we trekked through the area on this gloriously bright day we saw boats zipping across and along the water. The three main villages for Taiping Houkei production are Houkeng, Hougang and Yanjiachun. We chose to base our visit around Houkeng and road access to the area we visited - the new HouKeng village - has improved dramatically over the last few years. From the photo above [taken on our walk through the tea garden] you can see how the area has evolved. There are in-fact three distinct villages. The original village which you can see in the distance of this photo started on the other side of the lake and with time and the expansion of tea and improvement of infrastructure three villages grew and are now combined and known as Hou Keng.
The teas from the three main villages mentioned above fetch the highest prices with variations in price being determined by altitude and location. The most highly regarded and sought after teas come from areas that have the optimum mix of a favourable ecosystem and sun/shade. Too much sun is not good for tea and Mr Xiang pointed out that tea growing in the opposite side of the valley was inferior for this reason [this may also be to do with the location of his bushes so as always we let the taste of the tea guide us!]. When people tell you stories of China tea travels in the Spring it is hard to imagine 'villages where every house turns into a small tea factory' but this is truly the case in many places we visit. At this time of year practically every house in Hou Keng village is a small processing unit with families sitting together in their homes producing teas to take to market. Beyond them in the hillsides areas of land are marked out for each family and each family often has multiple pieces of land dotted around the hillside in different locations. The temptation to get up into the hills was temporarily halted by the need to eat so before walking to see the tea growing areas we stopped for lunch at a 'nong jia le' or 'happy country home' - a small restaurant in the home of a local that has come about to cater for travellers passing through the area. While it was being prepared we took a water upstairs and found a whole room full of people processing tea. Here we saw a new piece of equipment being used to roll the tea - to be honest it seemed to take the same amount of time to thread the leaves in as it had taken the ladies in the previous small factory to hand roll but it was interesting to see how technology is playing a greater role in tea production here.
After a delicious lunch of tomatoes and egg soup and all the fresh village vegetables and rice [all cooked by the gentleman below] we were ready to head up into the hills for what we thought would be a short walk....
....three hours later we had treked through bamboo forests and through the tea fields to see both the location of Mr Xiang and his father's land - his father's land is around 600 metres above sea level. The higher tea surrounded by the more diverse ecosystems and in their own microclimate protected by the surrounding forest is considered to be better. Those teas growing on the edges of the bamboo forests are also said to have more aroma. At lunch we had enjoyed a delicious but extremely expensive hand made tea - Mr Xiang pointed out the location of the garden high up on the slopes dotted with pine trees and bordered by bamboo forests. He explained how it takes the villagers 1-2 hours just to walk up to these higher areas before they even get to start picking and from below the slope certainly looked to be quite challenging. He also explained how more and more people are coming from outside the area to buy up pieces of land for tea cultivation understanding that the demand for premium teas in the Chinese market is incredibly high and growing. The pieces of land such as this one, high on the slopes and isolated from the villagers plots often belong to these investors. As we walked we talked about pruning, plants and land management. Being late in the season fewer pickers were out but those returning from the higher gardens we encountered told us that in a day they pick around 750g of fresh leaf for a salary of 150 RMB. There is no fixed schedule between the picking and processing but picking starts at 5am to just before lunch and the season starts just before the Qing Ming Festival and ends around 2 weeks from the time of our visit [meaning it would end in early May].
Come take a walk with us through tea plots, bamboo forests and across streams by following the gallery below .....
Wandering and chatting we learnt many things about the approach to tea cultivation here. Firstly Mr Xiang did not have a particular name for the Taiping HouKei cultivar - he and his family simply call it the 'local varietal'. Looking at the plucked leaf in the villages we passed we learned that the main shoot has higher polyphenols and amino acids vs the offshoots. In the early spring after dormancy the pluck is main shoots only - later in the season when the plant has more opportunities for growth you get the offshoots. In June the tea farmers and workers prune. For Mr Xiang they let the mature plant stays at around a metre high, for other plants they cut back much harder - every 3 to 4 years cutting back to 19 inches. When planting seedlings Mr Xiang explained that they wait two years to get early minimal picking - it is not until the 4th or 5th year that they can expect to get better yields - this is a game of patience. Looking to the soil they choose July and Aug to loosen the soil to aid the growth of the plants.
Walking through in the shade of the bamboo forest we saw unmanaged tea bushes. These are used to make the local tea - no one planted these bushes they probably came from wildlife eating the seeds and spreading them around. Left to grow slowly and uncultivated they are considered to deliver tea with much better flavour. Emerging from the forest we came across Mr Xiang's second area behind the bamboo forest. He processes the teas from each of his areas separately only blending the teas right towards the end of the season. Returning to the village we passed a tea picker keen to talk with Mr Xiang and happy to let us look at the fruits of his labour. He had collected a basket of 2 kilos from his 4 1/2 hours of work but was still smiling and in better shape than most of us in the baking sun! Coming towards the end of our walk we entered the village in need for refreshment - every house was full of people making tea - we stopped by to drink tea and cool down.
Back in the car Mr Xiang stopped and turned the car around for an unexpected detour to some older villages further down the mountain keen to show us the older houses and way of life that remained despite the rapid modernisation of China. In one village 'Sha He' Villagers welcomed us into their homes bemused at our sudden appearance and happy to include us in their tea work. The tea from these lower altitude villages are cheaper and interestingly the bushes grow very far apart and separately in contrast to the close growth of the bushes up higher. The direct sun and the soil plus potentially more continuous agricultural use means the plants don't flourish. Higher up in the shade on less intensively cultivated areas the tea trees put out more growth and at a slower pace improving the quality of the final tea especially the aroma as mentioned before.
From here we headed back to Mr Xiang's home. Talk turned to family & life. Visiting these beautiful places and drinking hand crafted teas little known in the West can often lead us to romanticise tea and a life in tea. The reality is that the picking, processing & selling windows for teas such as Taiping Houkui are very short, the work hard and the returns unpredictable. With this short season and unpredictable income tea pickers and producers must find other work - Mr Xiang is no exception and when the tea season is finished he shared how he returns to his work as a painter decorator for the rest of the year. Grateful for the time he had spent with us and so impressed by the family camaraderie and dedication it takes to continue these tea making traditions with us we said our goodbyes and got into the car. Next stop Huangshan City.
You can enjoy Taiping HouKui from Mr Xiang at Comins. The best way to enjoy this tea is in a tall glass where you can admire the leaves as they 'dance' when you add the water.