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Chunmee and Gunpowder Green Teas

by Lydia Kung

Chunmee

From late May through June, the green tea producers in China have shifted gears dramatically. Where early spring called for precision plucking of buds and budsets, the warmer weeks that followed involved a vastly larger scale in production. Very important in this later period are Chunmee and Gunpowder green teas. These are everyday teas, and while they do not receive any poetic tributes, they dominate heavily in export revenue.

One Chunmee producer sitting next to me at dinner in April proudly “confided” that he sends 2,000 tons of Chunmee to Morocco each year, a staggering figure. (I had to use my phone later to figure this translates to 50 x 40FCL.)

This perhaps is not too surprising to anyone who has visited Morocco. (These shots were from an early 2018 trip.) Chunmee enhanced with mint is offered once a visitor is seated, and the tea is served during or towards the end of a meal.

Chunmee has been systematically categorized into several grades for many years, with the Special Grade topping the list. Once identified with Jiangxi province, the tea is now produced in several provinces, the main producers being Zhejiang, Anhui, and Hubei. Sometimes known as “eyebrow” tea, due to the slight curve in the dry leaf, mee/mei cha virtually takes over a factory’s operation and storage once processing begins.

Chunmee does not come from one specific cultivar. This green is more identified with season and processing rather than a particular cultivar. The first half of processing is standard: withering, pan-firing, rolling, and drying. It is during the second half that the flow of work varies, depending on the result desired. At this juncture, there are literally tons of primary tea sitting in factories. There is a range of duration in baking time and subsequent drying time that involves several stages. In some instances, Chunmee from one season may be blended with that from a previous season to meet customers’ requirements.

There are four grades after the Special grade, and these lower grades also go to Eastern Europe.

Gunpowder green teas

Gunpowder green tea is also in full swing by June. Known as “pearl tea” in Chinese (zhu cha), it was exported to Europe in the early 18th century (Kit Chow). Once closely identified with Zhejiang, this green is also produced in many other regions now and is not closely associated with any particular cultivar. Many of the plants used simply have numbers/letters assigned to them.

Organic Gunpowder comes primarily from Wuyuan in Jiangxi, one of the earliest gardens to be certified. There, the gardens are at a modest elevation of about 300 m.

The primary stage of Gunpowder Green making is pretty standard: withering, de-enzyming, rolling, and drying. The secondary stage yields the familiar tight pellets we are accustomed to seeing. Unlike most other teas where the quality of the pluck determines the grade at the outset, machine-cut leaves are processed, and only later is the tea sorted into different grades.

The large round pans here are the receptacles where the tossing and heating action that produce the pearl shaped tea takes place.

Each pan can hold up to 40 kgs (88 lbs!) at a time, and this rolling stage can take up to 8 hours. During this refining step, a bit of rice starch is added to reinforce the tight roll.

Then the tea is sent to another facility where a color sorter, metal detectors, and another sorting machine separate and sift Gunpowder into various grades.

Note how these impressively sized pans are very different from other equipment used to shape leaves of other green teas;

this one shown above, for instance, will coax pliant leaves into wiry strips.

The long-standing Gunpowder lineup has Pinhead at the top, followed by Special Grade, and four grades below that.

Because no rice starch is added to organic Gunpowder, the dry leaf appearance is looser and flatter than conventional Gunpowder.

Machine picking/cutting and the huge volume of production have brought down the price of Gunpowder green teas, making it a preeminent export to Africa and the Middle East.

Finally, I remember being duly impressed by the size of a cooking wok at a small family-owned tea factory in Hubei, as I was about to be treated to lunch:

but then I saw the size of the “woks” for making Gunpowder Green!

July 17, 2018