Friday, December 2, 2011

Visit to a Tea Plantation in Yangshuo, China

I recently accompanied a school trip to Yangshuo, a town in an agricultural area of southwest China in the Guangxi province. Together with 48 students and three other staff, I climbed, biked, hiked, and kayaked through the gorgeous rural scenery and walked through bustling, dusty chaos of the town. One highlight for me was a visit to the Qi Xian Feng Peak tea plantation, on a hilltop outside the town. We had a tour, picked tea, and drank tea in the traditional way. I even got to pour the tea for the group!

The plantation covers more than one thousand mu, measured in the Chinese system, which is over 160 acres or 70 hectares. A small group of students and I started by taking a tour around some of the plantation. We were each given a dǒulì straw hat and groups of three were given baskets. Our guide took us to the long rows of tea plants.

We were instructed to pick tea from the top leaves only. The tea is best if it is made from the tender, tiny, topmost leaf and a bud attached to it. We were given some time to roam, enjoy the clean air, and search for small leaves. I was glad for my conical straw hat, which moderated the heat of the sun, high overhead. It was a bit scratchy on my forehead, though.

The students and I took a break in a pavilion overlooking the farm while the guide told us more about tea farming; one of my Mandarin-speaking students translated as we asked questions. Tea grows best at altitude, and the plantation is at 700 m (2300 feet) above sea level. The tea here is picked by hand, and the pickers work for 9 months of the year. The tea bushes do not grow during the colder months of December, January, and February. During the other three quarters of the year the leaves regrow within ten days of being picked, ready to be harvested again.

The rows of tea bushes are interspersed with osmanthus shrubs, which flower during the same nine months that the tea is being picked. Their fragrance contributes to the aroma of the tea, lending a subtle sweetness to the tea produced by this farm.

The tea plantation makes green tea and black tea from the leaves. Green and black teas are made using the same leaves but process differently. Green tea is made with less processing. The leaves are steamed, which stops the enzymes that might cause the leaves to ferment. Then the leaves are rolled and dried.

Black tea is made by first drying and rolling the leaves; as this happens they begin to ferment since the enzymes are still present. This lasts only for a few hours, then the leaves are fired at a higher temperature to halt fermentation.

After passing our leaves to the plantation workers, we headed inside for a tea tasting. A staff member poured hot water over the tea pots and tiny cups to warm them. The tea was made with loose leaves and brewed repeatedly; each pot of leaves can be rebreed up to five times.

The girls were instructed to let their little fingers stick out slightly, "so that the hand looks like a flower". And the boys were told to keep their fingers in when holding the tea cup, to show their strong fists. Each time the tea is poured, the cup is filled to about 70% of capacity. This is a hospitable tradition; in China a full to the brim tea cup means "drink up and leave".

We took turns pouring and I got to brew the tea for the group as well (though, sadly, the photographic evidence is missing). The slightly sweet green tea was bright and fresh. The black tea we tasted was smooth and light. Visiting the tea plantation was a wonderful afternoon activity. The students enjoyed it and I was ecstatic for the chance to see how tea is made.

Do you enjoy drinking tea? Do you prefer green or black tea?

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