Tai Ping Hou Kui Factory

After lunch, I visited the Anhui Yunxi tea factory. This factory owns its own organic tea farm and produces many fine organic green teas. Here I was able to watch how a semi-automated  (as opposed to traditional hand-made and much more expensive) Tai Ping Hou Kui (what we called Taiping Monkey King). I hope you like the video I am posting.

Tai Ping Hou Kui, Semi-Automated Production from Babette Donaldson on Vimeo.
Tai Ping Hou Kui, Semi-Automated Production

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Producing a supurb Keemun - 2013 Harvest

I returned to the factory to cup last night’s production, and would like to think that my involvement was beneficial. After cupping the first batch of last night’s production I was just floored by how good it turned out.

The aim for this batch was to retain floral notes without the excessive bitter astringency commonly associated with today’s lower “fermented” Keemuns. After long discussions with the factory's head tea maker, Mr. Li, we decided to give this batch of excellent material a longer withering period and then use the standard oxidation time for the rest of the production. It work out just exquisitely, final cupping shows nice rich floral notes with no grassy bitterness.

I am still amazed on how floral a black tea like this can get! I took the entire production of forty kilos. The factory will be sorting out all unqualified leaves and will pack the tea tomorrow for shipment. I will give my final OK when I return for one more cupping to confirm acceptance. I can’t wait to share this tea with anyone that will listen to me!

Empty Fermentation Trough

Empty Fermentation Chamber - Interior

This second batch was aimed towards producing a "traditional" keemun black tea. This batch was given more time both in the "fermentation" trough and the "fermentation" chamber. The process was watched VERY carefully to make sure no over-fermentation occurred. The aim is to produce a deep red liquor with the trademark "keemun" sweetness and unique fragrance. The mouth-feel must be smooth and the sweet finish must be long lasting.

This morning's cupping showed excellent results. I asked for one final charcoal firing to reduce moisture to 6% and to further heighten the aromatics. The final firing helped seal in the flavor. Tea fired correctly can remain fresh tasting for much longer period of time. Charcoal firing is the preferred method when performed with skill. Otherwise, this is where your favorite Keemun takes on that annoying smokiness that often exhibited with a lot of the Keemuns produced. I asked the factory to finish firing and sorting by tomorrow morning when I return for a final cupping before departing to Fuzhou for this year’s Jasmine tea planning with my people there.
Sorting the tea by hand, selecting only the finest leaves, removing leaves of lesser quality.

After cuppings, I agreed to go to lunch but with NO ONE who smokes! This time, my head of gray hair helped me. Since most of them are younger, they deferred to the old guys who may have a heart attack (I use the heart attack scenario to full effect whenever I can).
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Birdcage Lamps in a Chinese Tea Room

I often hear from those of you who remember our original Imperial Tea Court in Chinatown that you  will never forget the birdcages. So this string of birdcages as lamps caught my idea and reminded me of happy and challenging days when we were just beginning our life in tea in San Francisco.

Bird cage lamps in a Chinese tearoom.
This is for all you customers who have been loyal for twenty-something years.
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More About Keemun Production

I had totally forgotten why I haven't been huffing it to the factories the last few years. I always thought that I am getting old and soft and surly. It was easier to have the factory bring all the samples to be cupped to my hotel or my office and I would cup the samples and give instructions then re-cup the next day.

Well yesterday, I got excited by a sample at Mr. Shao Hui's office, so I left the hotel at 7 am and got to the factory at 9, ready to give em hell. I started the day cupping all of last night's production. I have to say that I was so disappointed I was ready to walk off! 
Fresh Leaves - Withering on Bamboo Mats

But fresh picked leaves started to arrive and the factory start to hum into action. I started looking over everyone's shoulder and I’m sure I was being a general pest and thorn in everyone's side. After all, who needs someone from far away telling you what to do? I am sure they've got moms and dads and may be a wife or two that does a good job at home!

Anyway, lunchtime came along rather quickly and the factory bosses and their entourage invited me to lunch and off we went. Memories of one of the few things I no longer enjoy came rushing back. It was the damn drinking and smoking! Being a resident of California where smoking is almost a sin against God himself, so I've been pampered for the last few years. I've forgotten how annoying it is to be the only non-smoker surrounded by a group of chimneys! I was glad that lunch was done eventually.

By the time we returned to the factory, the fresh leaves that arrived in the morning were now being oxidized in the "fermenting trough". This is a concrete trough with controlled, warmed air to accelerate the oxidation process. Since there's not much I could do during this phase of the process, we went to look at other factories to see what they had to offer. 
Fermenting Trough

We sped through four different factories in the Keemun County and there just not very many teas offered that interested me. The new so-called "market demands" are driving black tea to be harvested earlier so that more tippy leaves can be produced. Since Chinese consumers are new black tea drinkers, their expectation is different than a western consumer who is much more familiar with the typical style of black tea that produce a deep red liquor with less regard for leaf appearance.

The Chinese consumer today wants a good-looking leaf that produces lighter and more golden color liquor with more a floral note but requires lighter oxidation to achieve. They are willing to pay top dollar. The drawback is that lower oxidization can produce a green grassy-like astringency that I despise. The raw bitterness lingers way too long and destroys any hope of smooth texture and mouth-feel. I decided to get back to the factory to see what's up.

Fermentation Chamber In Operation

While we were away, the production continued. The next step is the "fermentation chamber" where the tea is loaded on bamboo trays and the chamber is kept at 25 to 28 degrees C with 90 percent humidity (Sorry, no pictures since I would like to keep my camera working a bit longer). 
Hand Rolling In a Heated Wok
Once that is done the tea is then hand rolled and shaped in a wok heated with charcoal fire. Then it is dried and sorted. 

It is now 11:30 pm at night and I have just gotten back from the factory. I am very encouraged by some of the production from today. I left final instructions for the workers to finish up so I can come in to re-cup tomorrow morning, if all goes according to plan, I will be sending some home, remember, we want floral notes but we also want a smooth cup with that typical honey sweet tone, if I am successful tomorrow, I'll let you be the judge to see if I have done it.

I know now why I kind of quietly moved away from working at the factory level. Some of it is certainly because I appreciate other peoples' hard work and really don't want to make it more difficult by being a constant pain in the ass. I'll also admit that I'm no longer 35 so I'm getting a bit soft! But seriously, it ain't the hard work or the long hours, it's those nine other nut jobs that wants to smoke a pack of cigarette each over a great meal while drinking gut rotting liquor with the windows closed! 

I guess if it’s all easy everyone would be doing it right? 

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Exciting Keemun News

I did as much as I could in Zhejiang, but after several days of running around and marathon cuppings, I have not found much to keep me here in Hangzhou. 

It seems that every year, no matter how promising, the weather always turns and messes things up. I guess Mother Nature is not very happy with us humans who are messing with her formula by over-polluting.

This year's harvest started off well with a warm winter and early harvest. But then nature decided to turn and bring in cooler temperatures which damaged some tea and caused a limited harvest. With only a few exceptions, I found this year's tea all exhibited that annoying bitter raw greenish astringency that I hate. With a heavy heart I departed for the Anhui province. I have complained so bitterly for so long about my farmer's Keemun Black Tea that he invited me to visit the factory and to "DIY--do it yourself"!

I arrived after a four-hour car ride from Hangzhou to the City of Huang Shan, my friend Mr. Shao Hui greeted me at his impressive tea facility. He served me a Keemun Xiang Luo in his office. Let me tell you, my heart skipped a beat or two because this Keemun has the signature sweet finish and that unique Keemun fragrance that is not found very often these days. More importantly, it didn't have that under-oxidized raw green astringency you would find in modern day black teas.

Some tea merchants try to tell their customers that this is the new correct black tea where lighter fermentation allows more floral notes to be shown. That may be true and good to them. But for us older guys who have seen what true black tea is suppose to be, that theory just doesn't cut it. Well this tea is as close as I have found to that true standard in many years.

I drank that Keemun right from the glass continuously until they chased me out of the office for dinner. I am convinced part of the equation that makes the tea exceptional is the excellent water here in Huang Shan. But when the tea is processed correctly, it is just good. There's no doubt about it. When it is good you know it.

Huang Shan Old Street

After dinner, I did my customary walk-about where I visit local tea houses to see what is being offered and how they serve their teas. Sampling local delicacies and talking to the locals who knows what's up since they live there is a very important part of my approach. I did not discover any outstanding teas but did find some awesome tea 
biscuits. They were handmade by a local teahouse who boasted a lineage of over a 160 years of tea making. Their prices are ultra high (over a $100 for an oz. of this year's first harvested Keemun!).
Teahouse owner serving $100/oz. Keemun

My hopes are high and suddenly I don't feel so tired. I am scheduled to leave early to go the Keemun area to give the factory much more trouble than they've bargain for. I havn't been so fired up for a long time!

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2013 Harvest - Dragon Well

What are some of the issues about buying tea directly from the sources?

Your everyday tea merchant worries about production or procurement issues from foreign sources. We also have to be tuned into marketing issues and the current trends so we’re not left with overstocked products that may go out of date or fall out of popularity. We must also be aware of political issues.

I, for one, did not believe in the so call anti-corruption efforts currently going on in China. After all, corruption has been like the air we breathe. It's everywhere and can’t be avoided! At least that’s the attitude of most people I meet here. But I’ve observed a new, guarded optimism even though most people would say, let’s not get our hopes up too high.

Since I have arrived almost a week ago, I have to admit that, at least at face value, there are minor changes. The high priced restaurants generally frequented by elite officials and rich folks are not only easy to get into now, but their business is downright slow. And in some cases - restaurants almost empty! The prices of luxury items like expensive Mao Tai wine have dropped in price due to the authorities order not allowing Mao Tai to be served at official functions. Officials are being encourage to “save”.

One of the luxury items is definitely Long Ching or Dragon Well tea. The prices for high quality “Ming Qian” or before “Qing Ming” Dragon Well have dropped in the general market. On the other hand, the ultra-high quality teas that are not available to the public have maintained their ultra-high prices. In at least one instance, a farmer was actually able to raise his price due to high quality in spite of the fluctuating weather condition from early warm spring and then the sudden drop in temperature followed by excessive rain.

Google Maps - Meijiawu, Hangzhou, Zeijiang, China

Our Meijiawu tea farm, (near Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China) has been producing our best quality Dragon Well for almost twenty years. It has been no exception to price increases over the last few years. In addition, buyers are sometimes forced to accept lower quality and high prices due to the increased demand!

This year, armed with my new-found courage learned from the general atmosphere, I inspected our harvest and found that it was about equal to last year’s production. Although the quality of the harvest was very good, there was certainly room to improve. Last year, due to high demand, the farmers in Meijiawu were in no mood to do anymore than they already have done for me, respecting our long relationship. This year, the production of our entire two grades of Dragon Well, the Lotus Heart and the Imperial Dragon Well grades equaled to 20 Kg. I had a long meeting with my farmer, Mr. Ye, and told him that I am not paying the same amount or they would have to double their efforts to increase the quality to keep their high price point. I successfully negotiated that Mr. Ye to re-sort the entire production by hand. This reduced the harvest by 5 Kg, sorting out some of the less quality leaves that would have been included previously.

I am pleased to report that I am happier with this year’s harvest of Dragon Well than the pass few years and I will be sending them home via FedEx rather than waiting for freight shipping so you can taste the remarkable results. Watch for our announcement of the arrival very soon!

Preliminary cupping of more than forty other green teas have been disappointing and I have rejected everything other than our premium quality Dragon Well.

More soon, 

Note:  Technical difficulties (camera breaking) prevented us from adding photos to this post. Roy is getting another camera and going back up the mountain to the farm to take more pictures for the next post.
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Things Are Changing In China

Strange as it may sound, there are some things I miss from the olden days of Communism in China -- where once you are connected to the right people you'd get things done. Where small gifts or just your friendship is worth something. Where some people are quietly proud of what they do and continue to do a good job regardless of there being no reward for doing a good job. The rest of the folks are told to do their job a certain way and they do it that way with a lack of motivation -- but just to pass the time. You know what to expect back in those good old days. 

Now, everyone is free to do whatever they want and are now able to own many things that are not even in the thinking formula back then (like cell phone and color TVs to say a few. Who doesn't have them now?) The new-found riches cause prices to jump unreasonably and, in fact, if it’s not expensive, it ain’t worth buying.

The quality, in general, is less than in the days of Communism because demand is so great and everyone is free to sell and try to confuse their clients instead of just telling it like it is as before. In the olden days, a standard actually meant something. For example, K101 is a specific standard for Tie Guan Yin. There were specific requirements in order for the tea to be called that. Those numbers mean less now and, instead of one enterprise being allow to produce it, everyone is doing it with their own standard. It’s a mess if you asked me . . . 

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