On a recent tour of Jhentea’s family tea garden, we were hiking around the hills. Monkeys were crossing the paths and blue butterflies flitted back and forth. The only things interrupting the idyllic scene were the mosquitoes that seemed to be mistaking me for a glazed donut. It was humid. I was sticky. But the fragrance of the fresh tea and the mountain air more than made up for it.
The tea gardens are speckled along the mountainside, each separated by just a whisper of a trail. Here we are walking on from one plot to the next. Once you reach the next garden, amazing vistas spread out before you.
Some of the gardens have been left unattended, and the tea bushes have grown up tall and strong. These are considered wild tea trees now, classified as No. 17, Bai Lu varietal. No. 17 is known to be a bit more astringent with a thick mouthfeel. It takes more skill to tame the astringency and this garden was left alone as attention was given to more popular varietals. Like grabbing fistfuls of green gold, we gathered as many young leaves as we could, gently holding them in our hats and shirt pockets.
Picking tea is delicate work. Much care must be taken to not crush or break the leaves. Between the three of us, we finally had enough to make a small batch of tea, probably just a few pots worth. It takes 5 kilos of fresh tea leaves to make 1 kilo of dried packaged tea. We cradled our stash like a newborn baby and trekked back to the factory.
Oolong teas are their specialty, but for my sake, they decided to turn it into black tea. As a demonstration, making black tea is one of the easiest kinds of tea to process, because oxidation is taken all the way to completion.
First the leaves are left out to whither. Like a cut flower left out of its vase, it goes limp. At this stage, it still smells green and freshly cut. Once it has whithered enough, rolling takes place. This is a lot like gently kneading bread dough. This rolling process is where the flavors of the tea start to develop. All your senses are involved as you feel the leaves getting softer in your hands, and you smell the fragrance change from green to something a bit deeper and slightly sour. Sourness is not desirable, so more rolling is done as bitterness and sourness is worked out of the leaves. Eventually, the leaves transform from green to brown, and the leaves start to smell sweeter and fruitier. When the tips have turned from silvery white to golden yellow, oxidation is complete. Under a watchful eye , the leaves are roasted slowly and finally – you get to sip and savour the result of your efforts: wild, loose leaf tea! It took about 3 days to complete the process. The next pot of tea you brew may seem so simple, with just leaf and water, but take a moment to appreciate all the labor and care that has been put into those leaves. They’ve come a long way.
My tea was definitely strong. There was bitterness and astringency, which my inexperienced hands did not work out of the leaf very well. Luckily, this varietal comes with a punch of flavor, so the afternotes were strong, and the mouthfeel was nice enough. With a few more decades of practice, I may get it right – one day.