Taiwan is famous for it's oolong tea, but very few people outside the industry actually know the process in detail. The distinctive flavor of modern day Jade Oolong is the result of a marriage of two famous processing styles. The famous Baozhong style of Northern Taiwan (Wenshan) and the Central Taiwanese Dong Ding style of processing.
To discover how these two unique styles became unified into a new modern style we joined a tea processing crew and participated in the process ourselves. This was done entirely under the supervision of a tea master to ensure that the tea came out perfectly and that our experience was meaningful and educational.
We woke up early to make sure we would miss nothing. Normally the tea picking will begin at around 5:00 am to make sure the material will be enough for the later process. We began our picking at around 7:30 AM, which means the regular tea picking squad had already been in the field for two hours.
We thought the tea picking would be fairly easy based on our past experience - small bushes that are easily accessible by hand, only to prove that we were totally wrong. The tea garden we were visiting is an "organic" tea plantation, so the owner has minimized artificial interference by humans, by simply doing nothing to the tea trees. Since the tea trees were never pruned they had grown tall much like a tree, many higher than 2 meters. This lack of pruning makes picking laborious and slow, not to mention less leaves are harvested.
Below: none of the tea pickers could be spotted in this photo because they are covered by the tea trees. The only way to have known they were there was to hear their chatter in this green labyrinth.
Due to the organic nature of this tea garden, you'll find many spiders and other small insects everywhere!
Sometimes bigger predators, like this one (below) can be observed as well. For tea lovers with arachnophobia, an organic tea garden such as this might not be such a desirable place to visit.
Normally a tea leaf picker will use this small blade which fits over their finger to enhance the efficiency of tea picking. Picking and cutting the stems with bare fingers is very difficult and slow.
This tea material showing here is the classical "One Heart, Two Leaves" (1 bud, 2 leaves) With matured bud and fully opened first two leaves. This kind of material is considered the best for oolong processing.
Although the material in the picture above is considered the best material for Oolong processing, it is basically impossible for a tea picker to have perfectly formed and sized "One Heart, Two Leaves" sets to bill their basket. First of all, this type of perfectly grown material is only a small percentage of the tops of tea trees and bushes in the garden at any given time. Some buds are too tender while other parts of the tree or bush will have too many mature leaves.
Secondly, only picking the perfectly formed 1/2 sets is not practical or economically feasible. Tea pickers will not be able to make enough money for their living with "only" picking this perfect material, and even if they did so, the tea factory would not be able to process batches without enough quantity of fresh tea leaves. As a result, we won't be able to find any tea in this day and age that is processed entirely from "perfect material".
Since having the factory processing with 100% "perfect material" is impossible, a tea garden with around 80% of mature material and fully opened leaves would be considered more than ideal. Even so, a lot of high mountain oolong producers these days tend to favor more tender material that would traditionally be consider as "too tender" (or immature) in the pursuit of a more green-like tea with an emphasis on a vibrant super-green Jade profile.
So how inefficient was this morning of "tea picking"? Well, my four hours of work in the field resulted in just 300 grams of material, which after processing it would yield just 75 grams of tea. After this experience I developed an even deeper level of respect for tea pickers.
Once the fresh tea leaves have been picked they are sent to the "withering room" for the first stage of processing. This stage is called "sunshine withering" or "outdoor withering". Sunshine withering will allow the tea leaves to dry a bit in the sun lower their water content, which is key to the success in the coming stages. Withering helps eliminate the "grass scent" (菁味) , but also acts to activate the enzymes within the tea leaves, opening them up to the master's hand.
The thickness of the "tea mass" is a crucial element in the withering stage. The thickness and compaction of the mass will impact the temperature, moisture level, and ultimately how fast the withering stage needs to be.
During the first stage of sunshine withering it is necessary to regularly "flip" the mass of tea to allow for a uniform degree of withering and moisture content reduction. Moving the tea leaves around accomplishes this uniformity in exposure to the sun and the air. If tea leaves are clumped together to tightly the leaves on the outer part of the clump will wither at a different rate than the leaves in the middle. Moving or flipping them gently also speeds the evaporation of moisture.
A black netting can be used to cut down on the sunlight a bit if needed, too much sun and heat can accelerate the withering to such a degree that the tea leaves may inadvertently become over-done.
After the "sunshine withering" stage is completed, the tea is ready for the "indoor withering" stage. We will continue this in Part II. So stay tuned, and Merry X'mas to everyone who loves tea!
The tea from the farm that visited is available here: