April, 6-7 2015
After some hours on the bus I find myself in a small mountain village. A friend of mine grew up here and kindly offered to be my guide in these two days.
Her family has been producing Qimen Hong Cha (aka Keemun) for generations. She left home few years ago to study English in college, but the rest of the family is still living in the village.
In front of their shop there is ferment. Many pickers are coming back from the tea gardens with baskets packed with tiny, tender leaves. Next to their shop there are others, each of them trying to buy the leaves from the pickers at the best possible price. Over the whole afternoon the shop owners and the pickers keep on yelling, negotiating and complaining. The leaves are sorted by their size; the smallest lead to the finest tea and are therefore the most expensive.
The shops just act as an intermediary. In the late afternoon the tea producers come to buy from them the leaves collected during the day. Overnight the leaves are oxidized and the day after are shaped and dried. The smallest leaves -used for the highest grade of Qi Hong- are shaped by hand in the wok, a time consuming task requiring high experience and skills. Shaping machines are used for lower grades.
Qi Hong is available in three different leaf shapes:
- Qi Mei (Qimen eyebrow): long straight leaves, tightly twisted
- Maofeng (downy tip): also straight and tightly twisted
- Xiang Luo (fragrant spiral): curly
The farmers could not clearly explain to me the difference between Qi Mei and Maofeng. It seems that the leaves of Maofeng are slightly bigger.
Qi Hong can be dried in the oven (left photo) or in a basket over glowing embers (right photo). The former results in lighter and fresher taste, with hints of citrus fruits. The latter and more traditional drying leads to a smoked and more intense tea. The smokiness is not overwhelming though; it perfectly harmonizes with the natural taste of the leaves. I personally prefer the smoked version.
During the two days I have the pleasure of tasting tens of Qi Hong from different producers, ranging from family-driven business to small tea factories. I decide to buy two Qi Hong for nannuoshan, smoked and non-smoked respectively. Both produced by the same family with tiny leaves and completely crafted by hand.
Smoking is more demanding, because only 250g of leaves can be processed at a time in the basket, while few kilos can be dried in the oven. So most of the tea is not smoked and the smoking process, when carried out, is kept short. I have to explicitly order the smoked version, asking for forty-five minutes in the basket instead of thirty.
I am very happy with the result! The two teas taste quite different from each other, although they are made out of leaves of the same garden, picked in the same time and processed by the same farmer; the difference being only the last step of the production: drying of the leaves.
In these mountains another famous tea is produced, namely Huangshan Maofeng. Last year I arrived here too late in the season and the best Huangshan Maofeng was already sold out. This is not the case this year! After sunset the father of my friend drives me to some farmers absorbed in processing the fresh leaves to produce this outstanding green tea.
I have seen the production of several green teas, but this one really fascinates me. The leaves are fired over a wide bed of glowing embers, like meat on a huge grill. The grill is tilted and oscillates fort and back; so the leaves slowly slide over the grill from one end to the other while they are heated to prevent oxidation. The second and last step is drying; The farmer put the leaves in a large oven, but not an electric one, like done for Qi Hong. It is powered by wood fire!
I take a sample of tea to compare it with the other Huangshan Maofeng that I collected in the afternoon, but in my heart of hearts I already know that I will buy this one. (…and so I did!).
April, 8 2015
During the day I visit the tea market in Tunxi, the main city of the Huangshan county, to buy Taiping Houkui.
Because of the cold weather, my usual supplier didn’t receive new tea yet. So I move from one shop to the next to find a substitute; the quality is high but the prices are extremely high as well!
With respect to a year ago, the Chinese Yuan is more than 30% stronger with respect to the Euro. Even if the prices were unchanged, this year the tea would be anyway 30% more expensive for nannuoshan! And, with the Chinese economy still growing at high pace, the prices are higher than a year ago!
Luckily, a relative of my today’s interpreter runs a tea shop in this tea market. Thank you to her intermediation, I purchase the machined Taiping Houkui at less than half the initial price. Today, they received from Taiping also an amazing Houkui completely crafted by hand. The taste is even more intense and mellower than the handmade Houkui I bought lat year. So I purchase also this one. In the picture below: left completely handmade and right partially machined.
In the evening I take a night train to Fuzhou. It’s time to leave green tea for a while and concentrate on Fujian’s black and white tea!
Written by Gabriele