Tealeafster - The processing of Yancha, Part Two
Recently we had the pleasure of a visit by one of our favourite collaborators, Jelmer aka "Tealeafster", who supplies us with with some of our favourite chinese tea rarities.
Here we present to you the second part of our conversation about Yancha. This time, the focus is set on the processing of this very special type of chinese oolongs.
[Photo above]: Tea trees in the Wuyi region; courtesy of Lennartbj via wikimedia
ANMO: How does the processing of a Yancha work and what makes a good quality?
Jelmer: Making high quality Yancha is an extremely labour intensive process. It starts with the picking, where tea pickers have to walk for up to 2 hours to get to the tea fields on top of the mountains. There, the picking starts in the morning, but as soon as the leaf is picked, oxidation starts, and you don’t want to wait too long without controlling the process. So leaves need to be taken down to the tea processing facility fairly quickly. Every two hours, big baskets of tea are being carried off the mountain, and the distance from the tea fields to the nearest place where a truck can pick the leaves up is covered by three different people for every two baskets of tea.
The picking, by the way, is a cautious process because there is nothing that differs one farmers area to the other. You don’t want to pick the tea of another farmer, so this is monitored very closely by the field owners.
Once the leaves arrive at the processing facility, they are spread out on bamboo racks to let them wither in the sun. Farmers are very cautious at this stage, because a hot day can ruin the tea. So a bit too much sun, or a splash of a raindrop, could ruin the tea already. The idea of the withering is to reduce the moisture inside the leave, so it’s not too fragile to process further. There are no exact numbers on how long the tea is being withered every time, it all depends on the circumstances.
High quality yancha will be shaken by hands, which helps the oxidation process because the leaves are getting bruised on and off, for 16 hours. Tea makers will shake the bamboo racks for a while and then leave them to rest. This process is repeated over and over again. As you understand, during picking season farmers sleep only 1 or 2 hours a night.
Lower quality teas will be shaken in rolling machines.
In the next step the tea will be fired. This stops the oxidation process and remove the bitter taste of the tea. As with the shaking, years and years of practice are needed to do this by hand. Nowadays, most firing is done by machines. Right after firing, the leaves are shaped because they are still flexible.
And then comes the most interesting part to me: roasting/baking over charcoal.
Why is this such an important step?
After all the hard work done, it can make or break a tea.
A good roast can: Take a great tea to an even higher level Repair and fix flaws in a tea
A bad roast can: Ruin the best harvest you ever hard
So, a lot of skill is involved in the baking. There are a few specialists doing it for farmers, but most farmers do it themselves because they know the tea the best. They know exactly every step in the process it has gone through and they know exactly what is needed to enhance the tea.
[Photo above]: Yancha Leaves during the step of baking
A: From what you say, the baking process is very important. What does the baking do to the tea taste-wise?
J: Yanchas are often baked 2-4 times. The first one is to get the ‘bitter water out’, as the farmers say. The second to correct or enhance some of the qualities (or the lack of) in the tea. Some teas are baked three or four times, every bake giving a new or different twist to the tea depending on what the farmer wants to achieve or repair. Every bake will be a few degrees higher than the last one – ranging from 100-120 degrees Celcius - and of course leads to darker color of the leaf and a more heavy brew as well.
The intensity of the bake also has a lot of influence on the tea. Heavy roasted teas are often not of the highest quality, as all the great features will disappear in a charcoal overload. A roast that is light is good for the aroma of the tea to get people’s attention, but it often lacks the deep energy, has a light ‘body’ and the taste disappears very fast, after a couple of brews.
The bakes are done in bamboo baskets over charcoal fire in a chamber that is filled with the typical Wuyi aroma. It’s a sauna with a delicious smell to it. Bakes can go on for hours, 6 or 12 or 18 or even more, and temperature can be controlled by the amount of sand thrown over the charcoal. The leaves are constantly checked to see if nothing goes wrong in the baking.
A: Tea making is a very time-consuming process. How long does it take for the tea to be ready for consumption?
J: The whole process of making tea costs literally months. First a few intense days of processing, then the baking process. After every bake the tea needs to rest for a month. So, for heavier roasts to finally go to the market, it can take 4-5 months. And even then the yancha is still not at its prime. After such heavy roasting, it is suggested to leave the tea alone for about 6 months. This allows the charcoal fire to rest.
In the next article we will shift to a different topic, that being another one of our favourite teas. To find out which one it is and when it goes live you can subscribe to our newsletter to be among the fist to know, or follow our instagram!