Mid-April is a busy time for many tea farmers, yet some famous high mountain tea regions are still waiting for the tea to grow. As health problems and food safety become more prevalent issues due to environmental degradation, my big questions remain ever more important to me.
Can we trust safety of Chinese foods and tea?
Are their farming practices sustainable?
Is Chinese Organic really safe?
My visit was too brief to address a significant part of the questions posed, but the visit should give us good insight as seen through the eyes of a farmer of natural farming and as a tea producer. My visit was to three green tea regions of Anhui province, the ecological village of Wuyang, and Taiwan. This article features my visit to Huang Shan to learn about their Mao Feng tea.
Huang Shan Mao Feng (Yellow mountain green tea)
As I arrived in Shanghai, Max, my good friend and a student of sustainable farming greeted me. He visited my farm in Hawaii and conducted some research on the impact of shade on tea quality, last summer. The current economic model in China seems to conflict with the practices of sustainable farming that Max is so dedicated to.
He stayed with tea farmers in Huang Shan to understand their farming and cultural practices earlier this year. As we arrived in Huang Shan, Mr. Hong, a local tea factory owner and tea merchant, picked us up at the bus station.
Once we arrived at his factory, the factory workers introduced us the living quarters where we were to sleep for the night.
Because tea is so dependent on weather conditions, people are forced to adapt to the lifestyle of the tea's maker. When the weather does not cooperate with a farmer, he has no choice but to wait. On the day of our visit, there turned out to be no harvest and the workers were left nervously waiting.
As luck would have it, this brought us to Mr. Hong's tea tasting table. I had brought two teas to entertain the pallets or my hosts. My spring green tea, from a small leaf green variety, seemed to suit today's need better than my Hawaiian variety of green tea.
Many people who engage in tea in Huang shan understand that good tea is not bitter and has good aroma. The distinction between good and bad is very clear. Tea is inherently bitter but here processing supresses it, and brings out sweetness and the aroma of wild orchids and chestnuts. This can be controlled by harvest type, how extensive the processing is and quality of the leaf itself. For Mao Feng to retain its aromatic quality, the harvest must be the tips only. Now we've determined why the material harvested became only the tips, but what made the people of this region so obsessed with this aroma, I will always wonder.
While some regions developed the tip havest with light processing like Huang Shan Mao Feng, other regions developed unique roasting techniques like Lu an gua pian to control bitterness. And Gyokuro developed shading and a low temperature brewing method to minimize bitterness while maximizing sweetness. Japan's Fukamushi sencha adapted to use a longer steaming time in order to suppress the bitterness of its low elevation leaf.... but at the same time, what is sacrificed in tea quality?
Mr. Hong prepared his highest grade of Huang Shan Mao Feng with his unique method of temperature controled brewing. The extraction was short, but the tea held its fresh aroma, expressing the subtle aroma of the orchid with almost no bitterness. Once this tea hits the palate, the aroma resides on the palate for an extended time. He explained that good (Huang shan mao feng) tea does not express any bitterness however long it is brewed and still retains sweetness and orchid aroma.
He instructed us to let the tea steep over night. I tasted it again when I awoke, and indeed, it was not bitter.
Huang shan mao feng is a commonly used regional small leaf variety. Usually tea along with fruit trees occupies steep mountaneous slopes, while common vegetables thrive on low fertile valley soil. Huang shan is also known for Huang shan pine that grows on rocks and unfertile high mountain environments. The high mountain environment is harsh. Not very many nutrients are available so whatever grows there has to adapt and possess the strength to survive. Some people swear that orchid aroma comes from bamboo and charcoal drying process, but not all mao feng possesses this aroma. Perhpas this high mountain strength gives the unique orchid aroma in combination with the unique processing.
Small leaf variety of Huang shan mao feng is well suited for the region for its low growing shrub form. Most weeds have adapted to the cold winter weather and so has the Huang shan small leaf variety. This low growing variety has higher tolerance to cold weather. Some Chinese tea researchers mentioned that small leaf varieties generally have lower level of polyphenols which makes it less bitter so more desirable for green tea.
I have personally processed both low polyphenol and high polyphenol varieties into green tea and they both make excellent green tea, but they require totally different processing and brewing to make it pleasant. In general, low polyphenol variety is easier to process into green tea and does not require lengthy fine-tuned processing.
Tai ping hou kui is famous green tea produced in just north of Huang shan, and they use large leaf variety also related to Huang shan mao feng variety according to local tea makers. They are still grown from seeds, thus not very uniform, but it makes better adaptation to high mountain condition. Even though Tai ping hou kui uses large leaf variety, their leaf is much smaller than southern large leaf variety or large leaf variety we have in Hawaii. I would still call it a small-mid size leaf variety.
Since so much mao feng is produced, the price of mao feng seems to hover very low and grades vary drastically. In the regional term, mao feng is a tip harvest, but its terminology also extends to small leaf harvest up to 2 leaves. Due to the cold winter climate the small leaf variety used to make mao feng remains small even at maturity. Location of tea fields also affects the quality. Many people say that high mountain slope typically has better high mountain aroma than lowland valley tea. It occurs to me that it is not so much of elevation alone that determines so called high mountain aroma, but ultimately, nutrient level and growing conditions may be the coexisting factors that adds to the quality. High mountain slope generally has poor nutrient availability due to topsoil runoff and lack of organic matter, while the organic matter from higher ground accumulates in the low valley so the soil is richer and growth is more vigorous, but the tea lacks high mountain aroma even at high elevation.
There is also wild mao feng traded in small quantity in Huang shan and surrounding area. The price is a bit lower, but farmers claim that the wild tea uses no (chemcal) fertilizers. Simply, the price for the tea is too low so they don't want to use fertilizers. Wild tea grows in the mountain or unmanaged land so they are not well maintained and occasionally, tea itself lacks in nutrients. Thus, producers don't put effort into high quality wild tea, so neglecting the discussion of comparable quality, the wild tea may be safer in regard to chemical use.
Leaf and Processing
Processing of Mao Feng is very simple. Cook, roll and dry. Because of its simple processing, any mistakes, however small they are, expose the tea makers skill quite obviously. Tippy harvest generally means light flavor, and challenge in the processing is to keep the bitterness down while enhancing sweetness and unique orchid aroma. Generally lower grade tea rarely has the orchid aroma in its infusion. Green color of the dried leaf is not as crucial because of its tippy harvest, but a light yellow to golden color generally indicates a tippier harvest.
The photo shows different sizes of tip harvest at different stages. Typically, earlier harvest is considered better grade before qing ming in the lunar calender, or around April 5th. White hair also indicates younger tip harvest.
Many farmers claim that tea absorbs the natural scent from the wild orchid, but others believe that the scent is the result of bamboo basket fire. There are also many fruit trees planted in tea fields which is also Huang shan tea tradition, but as economic value of tea becomes greater, the mixed forest also starts to become monotonous.
I believe that tea culture reflects local culture. It is quite natural to avoid bitterness and desire sweetness. Even though I felt that they are being too sensitive to this subtle bitterness and sweetness, perhaps there are differernt dimensions added through aging and local food pairing. Perhaps it is the available tea variety that forces people to make tea in this specific way.
Also, why this wild orchid scent is desirable in this region is still a big question to me, but it gives romantic feeling to the tea itself. In American culture, I imagine that the orchid scent is too subtle to be appreciated. In that region of China, the cold winter and harsh environment does not allow more colorful and fragrant culture as seen in southern part of China where they pursue more bold, aromatic oolong and tiekuanyin. If I were to live there for extended period of time, I feel that I would have more appreciation for this tea and its naturally derived fragrance, by relating to natural world itself.
Stay tuned for the next part of this article where I tried Mao Feng processing in Wuyuan Village.