Moonlighting at making tea under a full moon

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Last May 24th, we were graced with a beautiful full moon night in our little tea making village of Songboling, on the edge of the Baguashan ridge in Nantou County. Coincidentally, this was also a busy night in the village, not in the bars (there are none) or in other hangouts, but in the tea making workshops all lined-up next to each other along the Main Street. All the ground levels of the typical 3 story concrete dwellings that make up the street were lit-up and workers were busy feeding the chirping drum heaters, dryers and ball rolling machines required to process and make Taiwan oolong tea. In one of those workshops, a special tea was being made: it was ours. Made from leaves freshly picked earlier that day from our recently acquired fields of Si Ji Chun bushes, it was now in the skillful hands of the Yi family to turn it into a finished tea. Follow-us today as we give a chronological account in pictures and video on the making of our Four Seasons Oolong Tea, Lot 244 and pay a well-deserved homage to the people that make your tea.

13:00, May 24, 2013

The day started around 1 pm. I was dispatched to tea fields no. 1 and 2 to wait for the trimmers to tell them which field was ours. The small contiguous plots that make-up the landscape in our tea making countryside are easy to confuse with the neighbour’s so, it is always best to be there to make sure it is your leaves that get picked. The weather was overcast and muggy, rain was in the forecast. We’ve waited until the early afternoon to let the leaves dry from the previous night’s rain and now, we were hoping it would improve to allow a séance of sun withering after the picking. Mr. Yi and 2 helpers finally arrived. A three person team is what you need to mechanically pick a tea field. Two people to operate the cutter and one that guides the bag that gathers the leaves behind the trimmer. Since it was our leaves that were about to be picked, I zealously preceded the trimmers along the rows to pick out some of the protruding weeds that we had not spotted in the previous day’s grass picking chores. By doing so, I was also giving the bushes a good shake to signal to all the living creatures still squatting our garden that they’d better not stay there or else… I was doing it for them, but mostly for the eventual tea enthusiasts that would drink our tea. Animal protein is not part of the usual elements found in a good cup of tea, as I am sure you will agree. This step is not usually required and I never did see anybody perform it in a tea field. Being a foreigner gives me an automatic license to do any weird unconventional stuff that no local would do, you see. But seriously, pesticides usually does the job of keeping anything that moves away. In the case of these fields, none of that stuff was used in the last 2 years, so a bit of prompting was required. For those of you that are frowning at the thought of possibly ending up with little critters rolled up inside your tea leaves if you buy organic or low pesticide tea, read along, there are steps further down the road in the manufacturing process that will filter these out.

In less than hour the job was done. The bagged leaves were hoped onto the truck and off to the workshop.


14:30, May 24, 2013

The bagged leaves arrive at Mr. Yi’s workshop. A quick look at the sky made him decide it was too risky to lay the leaves outside for a session of sun withering. The sun could not be coaxed that day. So, the leaves were laid inside. Needless to say that as soon as the leaves were spread over the tarps and left to rest the rain started to pour. They’re in good experienced hands we thought, especially that we were lucky to pick them dry. Making them wet at this stage would not fare well on the final product. Periodic raking, piling of the leaves and re-laying were performed during the course of the afternoon. Around dinner time, it was time to move the leaves onto bamboo trays after gently rubbing them together to stimulate the oxidation. The process was much slower due to the damp weather. and it’s only much later that evening that leaves were rolled inside large bamboo cylinders to gently bruise them to stimulate the oxidation. Following this step, the leave were piled again onto the bamboo trays in a thicker pile this time to maximize the enzymatic transformation of the leaves. Dare I mention the enthralling fragrance that filled the room?.. It is one that is simply indescribable. To me it is one of the most blissful scent that exists. This is something I wish every tea enthusiast can experience at least once in their lifetime.


00:00, May 25, 2013

We had gone back home during the time the leaves were divinely transforming themselves into aromatic jewels and it’s only close to midnight that we got a call from Mr. Yi. Now was the time to turn these leaves into tea, he said! The weather had cleared during the evening as it very often does during this start of the rainy season leaving the sky cloudless, but certainly not moonless. A big round circle of reflected light was illuminating the whole village and playing its full moon trickery. Despite the late hour, the village seemed quite animated. Any urbanite that would have driven down the main street in the middle of that night would have been surprised by the bustling state of the village, but, despite the full-moon, this was not such a different night from others as this is a fairly common occurrence and the nature of things in the life of a tea making village. As one of our tea making friends once told me:

Only the tea bushes in the fields get to rest at night, we, the tea makers, have to work day and night to make a living.

As we arrived at the Yi’s, the family team was already at their respective positions manning their respective machines. The daughter had fired up the dryer and was cleaning and preparing it to receive its first   leaves. The mother was handling a pair of ball rolling machines. Finally, the father was orchestrating the firing of the leaves into 4 large drum heaters to stop the oxidation. As soon as the first drum-full of steaming leaves were poured out, started a well choreographed routine of gestures that was obviously well-rehearsed. Rolling trays of hot leaves were passed from the heaters to the rolling station and then hauled onto the conveyor belt of the large dryer from which they were expelled from after a good few minutes to be finally visually checked and sorted by the daughter. Trays after trays of leaves went through this repetitive sequence with an intuitive efficiency only to end up back onto the racks that held them during the withering and oxidation steps for a little rest until they would undergo another cycle of rolling, this time in cloth bags to give them their shape. This step, which is not shown in the video, is responsible for shaping the leaves into the familiar cylindrical pellets common to Taiwanese oolongs. This is the most tedious of all steps since it can be repeated up to 20 times to achieve the desired roundness and size. This was performed in the late hours of the night, or if you prefer, in the early hours of the morning. Mr. Yi delivered the finished tea to us around 1 pm after a shower and a few hours of sleep. We had already gone back home around 3:00 am.



Is the tea that we made that night fantastic? Sincerely, I don’t know. You are certainly in a better position to judge this. For me, when I taste a cup of Mr. Yi’s tea or a cup made from leaves from our gardens, my sensorial appreciation of it is quickly overshadowed by one from the heart. I think of Mrs. Yi’s grimace as she hauls a tray of tea over her head into the dryer and rubs her back afterwards. I see Mr. Yi yawn while he runs his hand into the steaming leaves to check their temperature. I think of their daughter having a lengthy discussion about the tea trade with my wife while wondering if she is truly fit for this style of life. And yet, I also have in mind their generosity and “joie de vivre”, Mr. Yi’s permanent smile and, yes, the solace brought forth by the tea they make. This, for me, is how the word “authentic” tastes like. Life is hard as a tea maker, but life is also good.


Now that you’ve been introduced and got to know some of the people behind our teas, why not get further acquainted by sharing a cup of their tea at home…

The tea being made on that evening is available for you to experience until quantities last, it is our Baguashan Four Seasons Oolong Tea, Lot 244.

Part of this same lot was subsequently baked by our tea master to make our Baguashan Baked Four Seasons Oolong tea, Lot 245.

With the early Spring pickings from the same garden, we produced earlier this year a fine black tea called Baguashan Four Seasons Black Tea, Lot 216.

Finally, Mr. Yi’s family produced this Spring a superb Mi Xian Black Tea from their own hand-picked Jin Xuan leaves, available as our Baguashan Mi Xian Black Tea, Lot 228.


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