Since my last blog post a lot has happened. Mainly I went backl to Hou Keng for another three days. So much happened in those three days that it took me a while to figure out how to communicate everything I saw and learned. It was only as I made the video did I realize the best way.
24 hours of Traditional Hou Kui making.
The day started around 7. The tea pickers had already gone up to pick tea, but I was given the task of collecting bamboo shoots from the forrest surrounding the fields. As I came back down my friend was checking on yesterdays tea.
My friend is originally from Sichuan but lives in Shanghai. She has a tea shop and a much higher than average understanding of tea...much higher. She is a boss in all senses of the word. The night she found me sitting alone in the room she laided into the coal worker, but she did it with such a sweet voice and a politeness to it that anyone who didn't know what was happening would think she was asking a favor of him. "How could you leave him alone? And no tea?" She said with a smile that saved face for everyone there.
She says she has a natural love for Hou Kui but had trouble finding any that really stood out from the pack. She learned that this was because no one made it the traditional way anymore. Unable to find anyone to make it the way she wanted, she did it herself.
It is a very small operation. My friend, one villager who help with baking and stir frying, who ever she could find who would help her. Being one of her helpers I was not able to get as much footage as I wanted because I was too busy working the baskets, but we will talk about that later.
Since the amount out hands is not alot not all the teas that are picked in one day can be proccessed that day. Some have to stay in the raw form. To keep them fresh my friend keeps them in a room surrounded by wet clothes. Moisture content of tea leaves is a huge part of tea making that is often over looked when people talk about how a tea is made. By keeping the leaves at a certain moisture level you can keep them more or less alive for an extended period of time. (there is a difference in the flavor obviously but its smaller than you might think). Through out the day my friend checks the rags hanging in the room to make sure they are still wet; giving them a soak if they aren't.
Around lunch the fresh leaves start coming in. My friend inspects them and pays for the ones she wants. She buys quality leaves and quality wild leaves. She doesn't know if a raw tea leaf is wild just by looking at it, only by drinking the final produce. If, however, she pays for wild and she realizes its not wild upon drinking she adenmently explained she will never buy from that person again. On the days I was there she said she paid about 200 rmb per lb of tea.
From here the tea is sorted, this is my first job. The big leaves, the medium leaves and the small leaves must all be seperated. The bigs leaves are for the best Hou Kuis, the bigger the better as she says, the small and tender leaves will be made into green tea, but they wont be given the hou kui shape. The middle leaves will be made into white tea, a little expirement of hers.
Once the leaves are sorted we break for lunch. One of the days I was there she had a chicken freshly killed and made a stew that was able to last two or three meals. Keeping pumpkin away from the wild chickens running around was an on going struggle this trip. (9 month old rottweilers are not great companions during tea season).
Around this time teas from yesterday are tried. Becuase the teas are charcoal baked the exact tempeture and therefore time are not as set as teas that are done by machine. This makes tasting the teas very important. Tasting the tea is about learning its story, when my friend taste hou kui she can read the story.
On afternoon my friend realized that one tea was underbaked, to the point where the stem could bend with out snapping, she rebaked this tea and looked out for this problem in the bakings that followed.
Around lunch the coals are prepared for the baking. In this trip I realized how important baking is to green tea making. Hou Kui, along with Anhui's other famous teas Mao Feng and Gua Pian, are baked dry green teas and traditionally done over charcoal. Charcoal baking gives a warmth of flavor to the tea that you dont get with wood or electricity. Special wood is burned and then the hot coals are covered in ash to keep them at an even tempeture. In the evening the tea making starts.
The tea is made in what is basically a one room house. An electric stir fry machine sits in the corner (my friend says eletricity gives it a stronger frangrence) while the rest of the room is taken up by baking baskets. The baskets are not of the same tempeture and the teas will go on two or three. My job is to fold the leaves as soon as they come out of the stiry fry machine.
You haven't expirenced pressure until you have tried to figure the processes of how to fold a highly valuable tea leaf which is being explained to you in a language you only half understand. They explained something to me, I would start doing it only to be greeted with "no no no, 你特别慢懂“ （you understand so slowly). Finally on the second night I figured it out.
When you pick up the leaf you want to give it it's shape in three presses, making sure the tip is together. After this you want to push down on the stem and break it, this will prevent water from getting trapped in the stem which is evident by a red coloring. While you want to be careful you are working against the clock, new leaves are being proccessed and the leaves are sitting on a basket, so if you go to slow they will dry out and you cant fold them. Eventually the stir frying stops and everyone is focusing on the baking. It was clear this trip to just how important baking is to baked dry green teas. The stir fry will get the teas to a certain point, but its in the baking that the real flavor gets developed.
This goes on for hours, one night everyone but my friend and I went to sleep at midnight as we kept going. (I think this is when I earned her respect). As I mentioned before, my friend doesn't have the hands to process all the leaves in one day.
We go to sleep, wake up, my friend checks the leaves and we start it all again.