With the outdoor withering process being completed, the mass of semi-withered tea leaves is ready to be sent on to the next stage of the processing, which is referred to as "indoor withering". Before we begin to discuss the topic of indoor withering, it would be wise to talk a little bit about the concept of the "tea master," since this is an article about tea processing.
As we can see from the pictures, there is more than just one "master" participating in the process. As said in Part I, in order to be economically efficient, the quantity of the tea leaves being processed at any single time will most definitely surpass what a "single master" could handle. As such, most tea processing facilities employ a team of "tea masters".
The concept of "tea master" is inaccurate in real practice, instead we should use the term "team" (產銷班), since depending on the size of the tea factory, there might be anywhere from 5 to 20 people involved in the processing of the tea. Each of these people are "tea masters" in their own right and equally crucial in producing a quality finished product. In many cases the team will be divided into a couple of different groups to manage the work load.
Now back to the topic of indoor withering. Like outdoor withering, indoor withering is also a process to control the loss of moisture from the tea leaves, but with a more "gentle" touch.
This picture below shows how the tea is sent down a chute from the "outdoor withering deck" down to the indoor withering area.
Most of the tea factories will have this style of design wherein the outdoor withering deck is located directly above the tea factory's indoor withering area for convenience. Nothing is cheaper and easier than utilizing gravity! This simple design has been employed for decades, much like the "drop chute" employed in the historical black tea factory we visited last time. Some of the larger and more sophisticated tea factories will have multiples trays located right below this tunnel, as we can see in the next picture.
With more capital and more production, technological assistance is crucial. these very large stacked trays allow for a huge space and labor savings.
But since this is an "organic" tea factory, (much like the historical black tea factory) the total quantity of finished product that can be processed here will be relatively moderate.
Despite some modern conveniences there is some hard work to be done!
Once the leaves come through the chute from "upstairs", the material will then be evenly distributed to each bamboo tray for the indoor withering process. The leaves should be handled "gently" to avoid breaking the vein of leaves, but when the quantity of fresh leaves are a much as seen in the picture, it can be a slow process.
When arranging tea leaves on the bamboo tray, it is ideal to make a layer that is just thick enough so that the moisture will evaporate at the optimum rate, neither too fast, nor too slow.
Once the bamboo trays have been filled with tea leaves, the trays will be loaded into a slotted wheeled cart, and sent to an enclosed room that has a humidifier in it. The level and stability of humidity is an important factor of the indoor withering process.
Now we are sending the tea trays to the "indoor withering room"!
The room will be shut for a while once all the trays have been loaded inside.
The tea squad can finally rest for a while, but not for too long, because a very crucial part of the tea processing will soon require some heavy physical labor, which we refer to as "tea stirring".
Why is "tea stirring" a crucial part of the process? Well, because this step controls the factor of "aroma transforming". The key to oolong tea's mesmerizing floral and fruity aroma is decided by how the enzymes interact with the water inside the leaves. As a result, when tea leaves were being placed steadily on the tray for too long, the tea leaves will become less active as the water was continuously evaporating from it.
The only way to allow tea leaves becoming more active again was to transfer the water that was still inside the stem to flow back to the vein. To make this possible, the processing team has to stir the tea leaves on the bamboo trays gently several times during the withering process.
In the photo below, we witness the "stirring" of the tea leaves. You sort of grab the leaves from the tea mass, toss into the air then release it. The action has to be gentle, but precise.
A first person view might be more accurate...
All the tea leaves on the tray must go through this process, and it has to be done in a realtively short period of time. As such it would be quite impossible for a single "tea master" to complete the work by his or her lonesome unless the batch was very small.
If the force applied is too heavy, the veins (of the leaf) will be broken, cutting the path for water to exit the tea leaves, and causing the tea leaves to turn red. This is like choking the tea leaves, and must be avoided if at all possible!
This process took about 2 hours to complete! It's now 10 PM and the final stages of the tea processing remain uncompleted! The final stage of processing will be documented in "Tall Tree Oolong Tea Processing - Part III"!