On the subject of handmade green teas, I expect that the first image that springs to mind is Dragonwell. Heavy tourism to the West Lake area in Zhejiang means that many people have seen the hand motions coaxing leaves into their distinctive, flat, spear-like finished shape.
Alas, it may be discomfiting to realize that though very small quantities may still be made by hand, virtually all grades of Dragonwell are now shaped by machine, even this Special Grade tea shown here below:
The main reason is that demand has risen tremendously, while at the same time, labor cost has also gone up in Zhejiang, the origin province. It is true that senior tea masters are still brought in at this time of year to monitor the process and are paid handsomely for their 2 or 3 week stints, but the mesmerizing image of toughened hands moving leaves over hot pans is now more a moment captured from recent history rather than an accurate picture of current practice.
So what are examples of “hand rolled” teas? There is sometimes a hybrid between machine and hand shaping and some room for marketing interpretation, but here are two green teas that show very nicely what hand shaping can offer.
This tea was finished in April, and comes from Jiangsu province, where 3 districts embracing 6 tea gardens yield this tea. (Below at right is one shot of a Yu Hua [rain, flower] tea garden.)
As the photo below shows, the dry leaves are neat and pine-needle shaped.
The pluck is one bud with one leaf and/or one bud with two leaves, and one kg of finished tea requires almost 20,000 fresh budsets for the special grade and higher. Many green teas are associated with high mountain elevations but this one is really about the work that went into shaping. (See photo below at left.)
De-enzyming relies on high heat for a brief duration; moisture is reduced but the teas are still very pliant, ready for the extensive rolling and shaping. The finished tea is tight and compact, giving a precise, uniform appearance. Each needle is about 2 cm long and should be pointed at both ends.
Take a look at the wet leaf and one can get some idea of the work in transforming fresh leaves those thin, even needles.
Development of this tea began in 1958 and was introduced to the market the following year, and garnered a prize in 1982. (The standard shown here is a special grade; there is one higher standard made earlier before Qing Ming, and lower grades do not show the distinctive needles.)
The cup is mouth-filling and sweet on the palate and in the finish. The flavor of some green teas tends to dissipate as the brew cools, but this one holds its character.
Kit Chow’s description of Rainflower tea follows, taken from his book, All the Tea in China (1990).
Yuhua Tea and the Legend of Rainflower Terrace
Clear green, mellow-tasting Yuhua (Rainflower) gets its name from a legend. In ancient times Master Yun Guang, an eminent monk, usually taught the Buddhist scriptures on a certain hill in the city of Nanjing, in Jiangsu province northwest of Shanghai. He taught so well that God was pleased and sent a shower of flowers down after every good sermon. The flowers turned into the many multicolored pebbles that can be found on the hill. People collect and display them in a bowl of water, which enhances their color. The place became known as Rainflower Terrace.
Jiangsu province has produced famous teas since Tang times. When its tea company decided to launch a new product in 1958, Yuhua was the logical name. The leaves are straight like pine needles and the clear green beverage has a mellow taste.
Another hand rolled tea is Curled Dragon Silver Tip Green.
Not nearly as famous as another green (Dragonwell) from Zhejiang, this spirally green is softy sweet, and offers a rounder taste.
Zhejiang mountains are dwarfed by China’s more famous mountains, but Curled Dragon Silver Tip green comes from gardens situated at about 1300 meters, still quite impressive.
This is a visually attractive green, and even for a novice, its plentiful silvery downy hairs warrant closer inspection. The tea’s finely curled shape is the result of hand processing. Tippy budsets still warm from pan-firing are placed between the palms and rolled with circular motions as one might shape meatballs. This is one green that is not only expressive of place but speaks of expert, hand crafting.
There are several spiral shaped green teas, but some are harsh and bitter from over manipulation of lower quality leaves. Pi Lo Chun is expensive, and it has inspired the manufacture of other spiral shaped teas, but with over working of hardier, lesser leaves rather than gentle hand motions applied to tender sproutings, the taste is not inviting. This is why Green Rings or Earrings are visually appealing but the flavor invariably disappoints. Here, in the case of Green Tea Rings, the point was all about the finished look; in the case of a tea such as Curled Dragon Silver Tip, the intent was to bring out the best in the leaves.
This is also a single plucking tea and was also finished in April. Zhejiang is known for its superb green teas, and this is a sought-after green among Shanghainese, who probably lead the way for things culinary and what’s fashionable. There is no raw edge in the taste; the cup is mellow and well balanced, comforting as it resonates in one’s palate memory of fine green teas.
Text and photographs courtesy of Lydia Kung