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38,000 Buds

by Lydia Kung

That’s approximately how many tea buds it takes for a half kilo (1.1 lbs) of a single-bud tea, in this case, a Cui Ya, or Emerald Buds green.

At one garden in Guizhou in southwestern China, where labor shortage and retention for this type of work are now prominent concerns, workers were picked up and provided with two meals during the busiest weeks. It takes 5 parts of the fresh leaves to yield 1 portion of the finished tea. Little wonder then that the wholesale price in China is about USD450/kg.

By the time I arrived in Guizhou in mid-April, the processing of pre-Qing Ming (4/5/18) teas was finished for the year.

The reference to Qing Ming in a tea context has to do with the rains associated with this grave-sweeping holiday. Ming-Qian, or Before the Rains, is a mark of the earliest growth on the tea bushes. The holiday itself is more a marker of the season in the almanac than of any ceremonial significance for teas.

The remnants of grave decorations were still visible when I was traveling in the tea hills.

The window for picking and production of these early spring green teas is small, beginning around the 3rd week of March.

Here are two other well known examples:

Swallow's Tongue Green
(Chur She)

Swallow's Tongue Green (Chur She)

Bamboo Leaf Green
(Zhu Yeh Qing)

Bamboo Leaf Green (Zhu Yeh Qing)

One such tea, Emerald Buds, (shown in the first photo) is a showpiece for this category.

​The cultivar, now planted in Guizhou, originated from Fuding in Fujian, better known to most people for its White teas. (Here, the cultivar name is appended by “Qian Mei #10.”) Not only is production limited, the plucking and sorting are labor intensive.

This type of tea is not a personal favorite. My description is meant to convey an account of why the cost is high and why it carries so much cachet in the domestic market. I find there are other teas that offer better value, but these single bud teas are very much of-the-moment and topical in early spring conversations about tea. Producers take much pride in them, and the limited quantity generates excitement among those who are attuned to this sort of thing.

This product demonstrates work defined and limited by weather conditions, precise plucking, quick and minimal intervention during the manufacture, and exacting sorting standards. These singe-bud teas (Dan Ya) are at the apex of spring greens.

This year, the two weeks before Qing Ming were warm, meaning that tea buds were appearing (too) quickly and prone to unfurling into full leaves, making for some urgency in the picking. Left for 2-3 days, the buds would become full leaves, and a large part of the harvesting period would be irretrievably lost until the following year.

More buds will appear, of course, but the quality will not be the same. The buds shown at left were from mid-April.

The next photo shows a morning’s work for one woman at a garden near Meitan in Guizhou at an elevation of around 900m (on 4/21/18). You will notice that she has remembered to bring her glasses for this precision plucking. I estimated barely a pound in her basket after 3 hours of picking. These single buds are post-Qing Ming but still valuable.

Multiply her yield by many others like her and we can envision a more substantial quantity going to a factory, like the one shown here.

Its one-line processing equipment is state-of-the-art, capable of finishing the buds in approximately 10 minutes !! (after withering has ended).

Just picked leaves are brought to the factory in the late afternoon, and after withering overnight (6-7 hours), the processing begins.

Since there is no rolling – for that would detract from the integrity of the single bud – – there is only a flattening of the buds and subsequent drying to bring out the aroma. It was interesting to learn that the equipment was adapted from Dragonwell machinery; this makes good sense since this is another green that has its budsets/leaves flattened rather than rolled. (Most tea equipment is designed and manufactured in Zhejiang; no surprise here.)

It is noteworthy that this equipment was designed specially for these single-bud teas, and it follows, of course, that the cost of maintaining idle equipment for the remainder of the year goes into the final price of the tea. Without rolling designed into the equipment, it is not suitable for processing other teas, such as maofeng or maojian (hairpoint) teas.

Next comes a color sorting machine, capable of sorting out extraneous matter, and then the buds go into a dryer to “elevate” or draw out more aroma.

Hand sorting is next, as shown here.

Even working with what seemed to me remarkable speed and dexterity, the finished, proper single-bud tea this woman is able to complete is only two liang, or 2.66 oz (76 grams), over a 4-hour period. The two large piles are unsorted; the select final batch is much smaller, between her hands. Rising labor costs were the lament of all factory managers I met. One can imagine what this woman’s skill added to the final cost of the single-bud tea.

Those who can afford such teas in China pay a good deal of attention to the visual – – the look of the dry and infused leaves – – and these are almost always brewed in glasses or glass pots, with an appreciative nod to the “dancing leaves.” (Note – no lid was used.)

As I’ve noted elsewhere, I find the flavor of these teas quite delicate, not what one would describe as robust or full flavored. This is not surprising since there is not even a single leaf to lend more oomph to the cup. But consider the entire package: our experience of flavor is not just limited to taste and aroma. It is colored by context- – in this case, the price tag and awareness of very limited production. So for those who can afford such teas, there is the expectation that the tea will be excellent. The context or presentation assures that the tea will be found to be very satisfying.

Perhaps it is just as well that this type of tea remains an aspirational sort for me; the retail value in China is typically around $300/lb.

For the domestic market, the tea is packed into small boxes holding 50g to 75grams. I saw one beautifully boxed package — destined for members of the air force.

The demand for such teas is a mark of more prosperous times in China.

May 4, 2018