We left Huang shan for Houkeng when the air was just starting to warm. The weather was very nice, blue sky. Tea pickers were already scattered around in the fields picking tea. As we set out for the end of the road, we drove past the Huang shan scenic area. The large faces of Huang shan rock exposed their rare beauty while the famous Huang shan pine clung to the steep surface.
We met Nola, a tea merchant from Taiping city along the way. Nola’s family owns a small tea shop in Taiping. Her mission in coming was to find good early season Taiping houkui in villages around the remote remote Houkeng and ours was to see production of wild tea.
Houkeng is at the end of the steep mountain road in the Taiping houkui production area. The region is known for its exceptional tea quality. Today happened to be the first day of Houkui production but as Houkeng is a high mountain, the tea at the top was not ready yet.
The Taiping Houkui tea bush in Houkeng is naturally shaped and the whole bush is kept low. The harvest is all done by hand and they pick the side shoots. As Mr. Hong mentioned, ½ shade generally produces better leaf than full sun or full shade, and natural shaping filters the sunlight and adds an extra layer of funneling and capturing of light. Unlike many tippy Chinese green teas, Tai Ping Hou Kui is a large leaf tea that extends straight out and is beautiful to look at. It also holds an incredibly refreshing aroma with an orchid scent. Just like Huang shan mao feng they also emphasize the scent of orchids in this green tea. The finished shape of the Taiping houkui is flat and straight. The color is vibrant green with an occasional streak of red, which indicates a sweeter leaf.
Soil, Tea leaf and Climate
When it comes to farming, good growing condition for the crop determine the success of the crop much more than what people can do. Tea adapts well in various conditions, but quality difference is obvious. Taipin houkui is growing area is so vast. It took me more than 3 hours to just go from Taiping city to Houkeng, on a boat and a car. The remote location and high mountain condition as well as ideal climate and soil type makes it desirable for tea growing. Flush is even and clean, no pest or disease problems are noticeable on new growth at this stage. Most pest and disease problems usually occur in summer months anyway.
Soil is rocky clay soil which helps tea taste more aromatic, but many tea field I noticed the lack of forest smell in soil. The soil is shifting more toward grassland to farm soil, perhaps lack of high carbon organic matter (OM) recycling in soil. Under bamboo or other trees the soil still holds good forest smell and lots of organic matter functioning as mulch and continuously adding more OM to the cycle. This somehow reminds me of farmed salmon vs. wild salmon and their fresh taste and color.
There were some areas in Houkeng that soil even smells sterile and has white color from possible chemical fertilizer application. It smells almost like medicine pills. Soil smell drastically changes with chemical based fertilizer application once the buffer capacity of soil OM is depleted. Organic fertilizer also reduces forest smell by eating up remaining organic matter. Continuous application of fertilizer can alter the soil condition and eventually alter the tea quality itself once soil loses buffer capacity.
Taiping Houkui Processing
Taiping Houkui processing is quite simple.
- Pan-fire a small amount of leaves
- Lay individual leaves on a screen
- Press with roller between screens
- Dry on special shelf dryer
The Pan-firing of taiping houkui is very simple. About a handful of leaves are dropped in the heated wok. The wok is kept clean. Leaf is slightly withered from indoor withering yet has no smell of oxidation . The purpose of the wither is to give just enough to encourage the pan-fire to be more even. My casual glance assesses that the leaf has been lightly withered, but not to any oolong degree. Bottom leaves have just lost gloss, yet still feel fresh and not wilted.
What Mr. Hong said about my assam hybrid green that we tried the day before was that it is slightly more withered than it should be which gives more bitterness in the brew, but I personally think that it’s the higher level of polyphenol present in unique Assam-Green hybrid variety .
After initial pan-firing, leaves are peeled open and lightly rolled to give a clean straight press on the screen. The leaves are laid out in a very systematic and orderly way, not so much to enjoy the array of beautifully pressed leaves, but as a result, the leaves, as they appear from the press, inherit the orderliness and aesthetic elegance of Taiping houkui.
Leaves are pressed on a simple press with a roller attached. Each pressing is done in a single stroke, like a calligraphy brush, as if no going back and redoing is allowed. Perhaps redoing would imprint a naive and amateur touch to the flavor of the tea. Just as too much rolling results in a denser flavor, it also results in bitterness.
The red streak on Taiping houkui is much like a gold standard of taiping houkui quality. The raw leaf of Taiping houkui is rather sweet. Large leaf varieties are used for Houkui. One farmer showed me that the red streak comes from red tint of new tips. As I tasted raw leaf, the red tint of the large leaf variety is sweet with less or almost no bitterness, but the greener tips are slightly more bitter which also seems to suppress the relatively sweet sensation.
Even large leaf varieties used for Taiping houkui appear small when compared to many oolong and black and some of Mauna Kea Tea’s green tea varieties. Taiping, Huangshan, Luan and most of the famous Anhui green tea regions use small leaf varieties that are cold hardy and frost tolerant. If what they want is sweet leaf with little bitterness, careful selection of tea varieties and mild subtropical climate helps, but the temperate climate and cold winter of Anhui limits the variety selection. Instead they developed harvest and processing styles to control the flavor profile. Fine tip harvest, light processing, and special roasting technique are all part of the control measure.
Just as many tea regions are experiencing a shift toward efficient high quality commercial production, they are adapting to use of a few high quality, high yield varieties. This is beneficial for commercial success of the regional tea industry, but each village and each producer starts to loose their signature flavor that sets them apart from others.
Once leaves are pressed, the screen is placed in a simple drying rack and charcoal slowly dries the leaves. What wood do they use: Chestnut? Persimmon? I’m certain that the wood plays a significant roll in sweetening the leaves and adding the faint scent of orchid. One farmer believed that the orchid scent is derived from the combined use of a well seasoned bamboo roaster and a certain type of charcoal. Some believe that it is the soil and growing conditions, others the unique varieties used. The heat is warm, but not hot as it exits the vent. Due to the small batch size on each screen, it seems to dry quick too.
While we were in Houkeng, a young tea farmer invited us to his house for lunch and beer. It’s was just noon and I didn’t want to desensitize my palate so I politely took a cup of tea. As we sat and listened, it turned out that after all, what he really wanted to do was sell his tea. I quickly noted that the tea was over roasted. This young man still needed to refine his charcoal drying technique, or perhaps it was his youth that gave speed and strength to his processing.
In this village, many houses we passed were engaging in Houkui making. A humble fresh green scent filled the air. The dry tea from some farmers we visited had a fresh green smell with pleasant sweetness. The more natural tea is sweet without excessive sweetness, more pure and clean tasting. I wondered if the saturated sweetness was the result of too much fertilizer. Too much sweetness seems to artificially offset the well rounded, balanced aroma and clean taste of tea itself. Is this plainly a human desire to pursue sweetness? and where is the limit? Perhaps is it one’s preference for natural production that allows the preference for a natural taste.
Ecological and Environmental problems
There is a big challenge in Chinese minds. They are not well educated in environmental issues. They have been doing farming in traditional way for so long that transition to more commercial agriculture fo recent days are changing people's lives dramatically. There were evidence of chemical fertilzier bags laying around in some parts of small villages and trash covers fields near villages. The remote location also makes it difficult to remove trash in more environmentally responsible manner.
Also high brand value of tea makes it worthwhile to purchase and apply fertilizers to increase production even in remote location while some not so famous tea regions farmers are avoiding extra expense because tea does not pay enough to cover the cost. Is it just a sad destiny of famous tea regions?
I am certain that some farmers are more conscious about what goes in the soil and how it all affects what we consume regularly, but in current economic model of China, many people are in a mindset to make more money and live better life without knowning true consequence of their action.