Second Trip to Bi Luo Chun Areas

With the Bi Luo Chun Season fast approaching it’s time to start putting in leg work.

This week's trip to Dong Shan was meant to start getting myself more familiar with the region. On my last trip, I stayed in the city center, on this trip I wanted to find more of the mountain villages. This would be much easier because, for the first time, I had my means of transportation, a scooter.

I set out for Dong Shan around noon, after taking care of the dogs. It was a two-hour drive on my scooter, but luckily the day was nice.

As I cruised I watched the suburb where I live to turn into factories, then fields, and then finally Dong Shan rose in the distance. Dong Shan is not a high mountain whatsoever. At just under three hundred meters tall, it is not the high elevation that gives this area its beautiful terroir. As we are going to see it has more to do with biodiversity.

As I rode the road toward the mountain I saw on my left a few stores. Feeling a little hungry I turned off for a snack. To my surprise these shops were not only tea stores, but inside were people making tea. In the first store, a table of ten ladies sat and sorted tea leaves by hand, while an older gentleman worked the wok. I took some videos and went to a few other shops where I saw the same thing.

I came to a shop where the owner spoke some English and invited me to sit down, just as excited to practice her English as we were to share tea. As we sat she showed me three pickings that she had. I asked if they were the local variety and she said yes.  I conveyed my surprise that the teas were picking up so early, I thought it was going to be another 10 days. She smiled and told me that the mountain top teas were picking now and the lower level teas would be later. This only furthered my surprise. Even though Dong Shan isn't tall, I'm surprised that higher teas would pick first. She explained that it was because the mountain teas got more sun. This made sense to me and I accepted it for the time being.  Her auntie was working the wok and would occasionally come over to chat or drink tea from an old jar.

The teas had a nice smell. They were light but had notes of cucumber. She put each of the three into a glass and poured water into it. This was my first sign that something wasn’t right. Bi Luo Chun is water first then tea. It's the way everyone in the region does it almost without thinking. I began to suspect that she wasn't the owner just someone watching the store. As we began to taste the tea I knew that there was no local variety.
I have talked about recently the flavor of basic green tea. There is a bare minimum flavor that you get from a tea leaf if you put it through basic green tea processing. It's light, a little sweet, a touch vegetal…..and that’s about it. I’ve tasted this sort of flavor in various low-level green teas across China and I think it is in part from the use of new cultivars. More on that later.

I gave a polite thank you, exchanged webchats, and hopped back on my scooter. I continued to drive down the road and entered the village environment I was looking for. For those who don't know, in my last days in Huang Shan, I lived in a village. On the one hand, villages are very similar. Uneven roads, locals sitting outside, mixes of wood and concrete in the architecture, and streams for washing clothes are common throughout our villages in this area of china. That being said it's also interesting to see the differences. The village I was in was very close to the main street. Compared to a village in Xi Shan (west mountain)   I went to a few years ago, this village had more developed houses. Some of the houses had been turned into tea rooms and there was even a coffee house. That being said it was still a village and had many of the things mentioned earlier.

I wandered around a bit and found myself in what may be the town square. In the middle was a statue of a girl holding a tea leaf, picking a basket hanging by her side. As I walked rode down these roads, which were once again full of shops, one shop caught my eye.

It was a larger shop with a large table surrounded by a few smaller tables. Meant for people to come to sit down and have tea. There was also a bit of a bar that had teaware, but also fruit-infused bai jiu, coffee, and a few liquors. The main table was being used by three people for packing up tea that was freshly picked while a kayak hung on the wall above them. This was a tea studio. A place where someone wanted to offer tea in a way that was more personal to him or her. I walked in and was greeted by a guy about my age. He poured me some tea and I asked about the cultivar. He confirmed what I knew, the cultivar picking right now was a special cultivar meant for picking early and not the local cultivar. The local cultivar would start picking in about 10 days.

This is not the first time I have met early pick cultivars. Meant for filling the gift tea side of the market, some cultivars were created for the sole purpose of picking early and thus having the bragging rights of being such an early pick. To an experienced tea drinker though, even a basic one, these cultivars are tasteless. I saw them a lot in Huang Shan.

I exchanged webchats and went on my way. It was time to see some tea fields. I headed into the mountain until I ran out of the road then got off and walked. I was quickly surrounded by tea plants. These tea plants though we're not in organized rows like most regions. They were a little more scattered among trees and bushes. I often heard tea sellers talk about the bio biodiversity of Dong Shan and from what I was seeing they were not lying. This area is also well known for its loquat which encourages farmers to have more than one type of plant on their land. I climbed through the fields, and up the mountain till I hit a small graveyard. Graves in any sort of field are extremely common in China. Graves south face south or southeast and so on mountains you will often find graves together since no one wants to put graves on mountain faces facing the wrong way. I took this as a sign to head back and took my scooter home.

This concluded my second preseason trip to Dong Ting, home of Bi Luo Chun.

The purpose of these trips is to get a lay of the land. Know where the fields are as compared to the stores and where the tea is being made. Next week I will go back and visit the other side of the mountain. It will be right before tea season so there may be some good teas but I am still not expecting to find anything good. Especially since right now, Suzhou is a little chilly which is going to slow the growth. The good stuff will start on the 20th.