After water, tea is the most popular beverage around the globe. As part of the preparations of an educational programme, we visited the tea fields in rural Guiyang, Guizhou province, China, to learn more about this fascinating process from one of the area’s most renowned tea-masters, otherwise known as “Shifu” in Chinese.
Tea was mostly unknown to Europeans until the 1600’s. The story of tea originated in China, with a legend dating back to 2737 BC when the Chinese emperor, Shen Nung, was sitting beneath a tree whilst one of his servants boiled drinking water. As a breeze was blowing, some leaves from the tree fell into the water. Shen Nung, venerated as the father of Chinese medicine, decided to drink the infusion. The resulting drink was what we now know as tea.
Whether there is truth in the legend remains an uncertainty, however, tea drinking definitely became established in China centuries before it had even been mentioned in the west.
During the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) tombs were discovered with containers for tea, but it was only firmly established as China’s national drink under the Tang dynasty (618 – 906 AD).
As we arrived, we were greeted by a little pathway leading to rolling hills filled with stretches of tea plantations. Eager to meet with the tea-master we made our way down to their cabins to witness the transformation process of this amazing plant, known as the Camellia Sinensis – a process which has been refined and has evolved over thousands of years, passed from generation to generation.
Just like other plants, the initial steps of traditional tea-making involve cultivating, sowing and irrigation.
Farmers remove unwanted vegetation, like weeds, and plow the fields to loosen the soil. A necessary step to ensure good growing conditions for the seeds, and so that their roots can reach deeper into the soil for better absorption of nutrients and moisture.
Tea farmers then divide the field, separated by furrows, and dig small holes in the separated areas to place three to five seeds in each hole. After having done this, they cover each hole with soil.
Next, farmers will water the field twice daily until the seeds start to root. Seedlings are then only to be watered every couple of days to prevent the soil from drying out.
In this picture we see one of the workers doing something called tea picking, which primarily occurs during spring. Plucking is a technique which involves pinching the plant between your thumb and your index finger.
For a higher grade of tea, a bud is plucked with fewer leaves beneath it. The higher the grade, the fewer the leaves. There can be multiple pickings – the first picking produces the finest tea, where the pickers only pick the bud. With the second picking the workers move their way down the plant and so on.
Here we can clearly distinguish the bud and the leaves of the Camellia Sinensis plant. In the world of loose-leaf tea there are several different types of tea, however, all of these teas are made from Camellia Sinensis.
Tea plays such an enormous part in Chinese culture; they even have traditional clothes to be worn throughout the entire tea-making process. Men and women each have their unique outfits fitted for their roles.
However, this tradition seemed to move to a more occasional event, rather than a daily one.
After picking, it’s time to remove all the impurities, such as stalks, yellow and/or withered leaves to keep only the tender leaves and buds.
Workers would then spread the leaves out for natural drying, this necessary step removes moisture whilst activating the leaves’ enzymes in order to stimulate the chemical reaction which ultimately produces “tea juice”.
Next, we were taken to a room where a few things take place at once.
The tea leaves are exposed to heat, just enough as not to burn the leaves. It’s not filmed in this video, but the tea master stir-fries the leaves in a large wok – a skill involving great discernment of when to start and when to stop. This deactivates the enzymes to cause a process called oxidation, thereby, not only preserving the green colour of the leaves, but also brings out the natural aromas of the tea.
Afterwards, as seen in the video, the leaves are rolled or kneaded to breakdown the cellular structures within the leaves, causing fermentation. This process of constant pressing and turning gathers the tea juice onto the surface of the leaves, giving the tea its flavour profile.
The twisted leaves are then spread out on bamboo containers, which will be on top of an oven of a temperature-controlled room. Tea-masters will frequently toss the leaves in the bamboo container until they are dried out.
Lastly, workers will use bamboo sieves to sift out any dust or impurities, before packing and selling the tea.
A picture filled with much tradition, culture, hard-work and generations of passed-down knowledge.
After all the hard work, it is finally time to enjoy a lovely cup of team among friends and the Shifu (on the right).