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Handmade and Machine Made: One Oolong Example

by Lydia Kung

A remark came up recently in a conversation with a customer, who in the course of providing tea tastings, is often asked about the extent of handcrafting vs. more industrial manufacture methods in tea processing.

In the specialty tea circle, we do not bring in much in the way of CTC teas nor teas for RTD products. There are huge factories in China with impressive stainless steel equipment capable of holding hundreds of kgs of tea at a time. Here, white-coated staff are likely to be ensconced in a small room monitoring dials and timers. Few leaves are to be seen except in huge vats. At the other extreme are the small (think house-like) processing facilities where baskets of leaves are everywhere, but where no computers or timers are to be seen.

Many teas from Taiwan are picked (cut) by machine; this lowers the cost somewhat, and hand plucking is mostly limited to true high mountain teas. Labor costs being what they are on the other side of the strait, there are very inexpensive Fujian teas that were picked by hand, then finished mechanically.

I use the following primer about one Oolong, Huang Jin Gui, as an example where both types of manufacture are involved. This is a medium to low priced tea, well known in its own right and one with a relatively long history.

It bears remembering here that Green and White teas show little intervention; the object is to prevent oxidation and any steps applied are designed to stabilize the tea. (Freshly picked leaves for green tea shown below.)

In the case of Oolongs on the other hand, the intent is to draw out, by various methods, as much from the leaf as possible without full oxidation. Manipulation here is extended and complex, with finished styles that range from a light golden cup to a deep amber cup, even for the same one varietal.

Huang Jin Gui Oolong

Huang Jin Gui Oolong is a modestly priced oolong that dates back to the mid-1800s from Anxi County (where else?) in Fujian. For ease, we call it Orchid Oolong . Even today, the tea is very place-specific, and in wine-speak, it is true to its terroir. The 3 words in the tea name are “yellow – gold – osmanthus.” The tea is not scented, and the reference to osmanthus signals the wonderful aroma of this oolong.

In brief, the work done by hand in making this tea comprises plucking and laying the leaves out to wither. Machines are used to shake the leaves, to stop enzyme activity, to roll the leaves, and to dry them. That said, the timing and duration of each step are monitored by tea workers, who rely on their experience to determine when one step progresses to the next.

I often refer to the importance of having a sense of the tea maker’s intent as he (usually it’s a he) applies his craft. For Huang Jin Gui, there are three styles: light/floral, medium roast, and strong-aromatic (nong xiang). The first is the most popular; the second is traditional, and the third is a local preference.

The outline below describes Huang Jin Gui Oolong but covers most (semi-balled) Oolong processing in general. (Garden shown below.)

The photos are self-explanatory, and the text below simply provides more detail about processing steps for Huang Jin Gui/Orchid Oolong, for which there are two main harvests, spring and autumn.

  1. Plucking: the pick is 2 or 3 leaves just under the bud, and picking is done between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. As noted in other posts, it is now challenging to find tea workers. At harvest periods, they are recruited from outside the tea areas and their transport, room and board are paid for, in addition to wages for tea work, which in this area are about USD35 to USD45/day. One worker can pick about 15 kgs of leaves per day that will become 3 kgs of finished tea.

  3. Outdoor withering if weather (dry and sunny) permits, between 4-5 p.m. for about half an hour, and leaves are turned over gently on the basket trays to rest after.
  1. Cooling: the leaves are moved indoors to bring the temperature down, and they will soften during this withering stage. (See photo at left.)

  3. Shaking to initiate oxidation: leaves are placed into a long cylindrical drum. As the leaves’ edges are bruised, oxidation will begin. There are usually 4 cycles of tossing the leaves inside this drum, with each cycle longer than the previous. For the light/floral style, the entire duration is shorter.
  1. Resting/cooling: leaves are spread on bamboo trays once more, with air circulation to control temperature and humidity.

  3. De-enzyming: sometimes termed “fixation,” heat is applied to the leaves to halt oxidation. The leaves go into a drum at a temperature between 240-260°C. Depending on the extent of oxidation in Step 4, this step now determines the finished style. (Shown at left: using heat to prevent further oxidation.)
  1. First rolling: leaves are placed in cloth bags and kneaded. At this stage, the leaves are quite warm and juices will be exuded by the rolling motions, adding layers of flavor to the leaf surface. Compare this step as shown in the photo at left with rolling by hand for high quality, early spring green teas.

  3. First baking: this is done at a high temperature (110-120°C) and briefly (10-12 minutes). By the end of this stage, the leaves will no longer be very sticky.
  1. More rolling: each bag holding 5 to 7 kgs of leaves undergo further kneading, to achieve the desired finished leaf shape, which is semi-balled. After each round, the leaves must be separated by hand, tied up inside the cloth bag, and rolled again.

  3. Drying and sorting: this stabilizes the tea and is known as primary tea at this stage. There is visual inspection and hand sorting before another round of drying. Some teas will undergo post manufacture baking – more on this below. (Again, compare this photo at left with teas that are dried over charcoal in baskets, with little piles of leaves moved by hand.)

This type of Oolong is not as intensively rolled as Ti Kuan Yin, and so inexpensive mugs or covered bowls (gaiwan) are commonly used, rather than gongfu pots that allow a Ti Kuan Yin to “bloom” over 4 to 6 infusions. The repeated rolling steps in making TiKuanYin rely on machines, but it is elbow grease that separates the increasingly sticky leaves after each turn.