TAIPING HOUKUI | THE PROCESS
People often ask how we plan tea trips, make decisions on where to go, who to meet. Well, it often starts with an interest or curiosity about a certain tea. The trip then grows around the area that tea come from. This year the trip was really all about Taiping houkui, one of the top ten teas in China which is produced in the HouKeng area of Taiping county at the base of the Huangshan Mountains, Anhui province.
We have long been fascinated by this tea and the manufacturing process that results in the long pressed leaves - take a look at the picture below....this tea is something rather special with the leaf often measuring up to 6cm and delivering a beautifully delicate fragrance and smooth mellow flavour. You can already start to see and understand the dedication needed to get the final leaf to your cup.
The last blog ended with us arriving at our lakeside hotel & awaking the next morning we were greeted by the beautiful sight of the trees, lakes and mountains. After breakfast and a little time for writing and walking we met Mr Xiang who would take us to meet his family making Taiping houkui. We had already seen from discussions at the market just how labour intensive the manufacture is - we were to now experience this ourselves. As always we were interested to see the full picture for this tea including both the handmade teas and the more modern part hand/part machine manufacture. As you can see from this picture it is easy to identify the different methods used [part hand/machine made left | hand made right]
First stop was around 20 minutes from the hotel. We stopped just off the road to visit the first of Mr Xiang's small factory unit. This is one of the things I love about sourcing tea in China - one minute you are driving along a pretty non descriptive road, you pull up, look around, no - still no sign of anything - then you approach a building, walk in and it is FULL of people, often from one extended family, making tea.
The first process we observed in the small processing unit pictured above was the production of partially Hand Made Taiping houkui : In this building a highly organised team were making the partially hand made tea with the wider finished leaf and the lighter green appearance. When you first walk into a room like this it is quite overwhelming - machinery, leaf, people, chatter. Over time I have learned that the first step needs to be to respectfully stand back and observe. When you do this you start to really appreciate the art of what is happening in the room.
When the fresh leaf arrives at the small processing unit the workers [all ladies in this case] go through a process of sorting - it kind of looks like top and tailing. When the leaf for TPHK is plucked it contains one bud and 3-4 leaves. The process we see here is the re-plucking where leaves are removed to leave one bud and two leaves - we were told that the excess stalk was also removed before straightening out the re-plucked leaf in preparation for it entering the 'kill green' stage. The preservation of shape at this early stage is extremely important for this tea and the end product will be testament to the skill of the team.
The second step happening to our left as we entered the room was the ' kill green' - 300 degrees for 8 minutes. This stage quickly kills the enzymes in the leaf - preventing oxidation - the movement of the machine allows the leaf to only briefly touch the hot metal.
Following on from this stage the leaves are then passed back to the ladies to be laid out flat on the plate that will then go into automated pressing machine to remove the moisture. This 'plate' is essentially a wooden frame fitted with a tight wire mesh to make a screen. Another wooden frame is then placed on top pressing the leaves flat between the two. This screen is then laid onto a rolling or pressing table. As you can see here the process is mechanised with part hand made/part machine made Taiping Houkui - the result of this is more pressure vs a fully hand made tea. When the press is operated by hand you maintain more of the original nutrients in leaf. Once the pressing is finished, the complete frame is then placed into the dryer at 100 C starting at the bottom and moving up away from the heat filament before being pressed again and then removed from the tray. This whole series of events [& note here a key difference between Taiping Houkui and other green teas - Taiping Houkui does not undergo any rolling process] inactivates enzymes and enhances tea flavour - presenting us with a beautiful end product that clearly reminds us that tea is a plant - a connection lacking with commercial grade teas and especially with teabags. If you look closely at the finished leaf you will also be able to see the pattern of the wire impressed upon them - another great reminder of the careful process that has been used to create it.
You can see this process in the video above - you can now start to envisage the cycle of activities taking place in the small factory and see how each person is reliant on the other. Everyone must work together to maintain a constant pace and get the fresh leaves processed to tea as quickly as possible. This tea will then travel to the market [see the last blog] for sale.
Fully Hand Made Taiping Houkui : After seeing this first unit we walked around the corner to see the full hand making process. As discussed above the full hand making process maintains more original nutrients in leaf resulting in a more flavourful tea.
The room was full of chatter and laughter as the extended family sat around hand making tea. On the left the father of the family, who was in charge of the whole process, put the fresh leaf went straight into a more traditional machine for 'kill green' - a sort of hot wok with a paddle rotating the leaf.
Once the leaf came out and cooled the ladies swiftly and skillfully hand rolled the tea and lined them up on the trays ready to go onto the press [no need for the machine to shape the leaf as it will be done by human hand!]. I was invited to have a go and it was my turn to be photographed....lets just say it is not easy but we had great fun rolling, laughing and appreciating each others company.
Once full the tray was placed onto the press table, covered with the brown cloths lying around the room and then pressed with the roller using human rather than machine pressure which is of course much lighter. The tray was then moved across to the dryer for the same rotation as before. After the first rotation with the press and dryer the leaf has 70 percent of the moisture removed. After it goes through again the tea maker is trying to get it closer to 100. While this is happening of course the next round of leaf is being plucked on the hillside which is where we were headed next. You can see the process which we were kindly invited to film here :
After spending some time at the small factory we headed up towards Hou-Keng village to see the tea fields and understand more about where the leaves used to make this beautiful tea come from. Check out our next blog for more details!