Master Tsai offered me space in one of his Nantou tea-making workshops, so of course I jumped at the chance. We rode the high-speed train to Taichung, then by car to Yu Chr, a black tea growing area around the north end of Sun Moon Lake. The first day consisted of actually producing our own hand-rolled organic Assam tea in the local style, a group dinner, and then a late-night tea session at a local bed & breakfast. The second day we picked tea in the mountains, toured the Sun Moon Lake area (including a visit to the Tea Research Center near the lake), then held an informal competition to taste and discuss our tea before heading back to Taipei. This post focuses on the actual processing of our black tea.
We arrived at the production facility in mid-morning, and immediately began the workshop. The Assam leaf we used had been picked the day before, and had been oxidizing in racks for about 24-26 hours. This allows as much moisture as possible to evaporate out, and gives the leaf a soft, withered texure.
Each participant started with about 500g of unprocessed leaf, which translates into about 100g of finished tea. After collecting our leaf, we went outside to begin work.
Hand rolling takes between 1 and 2 hours, depending on the skill of the roller, ambient temperature, humidity, etc. We started by dumping our leaf into a bamboo basket, removing our shoes, and sitting right in the basket with the leaf. This makes it easier to work with the leaf and keep it from spilling out onto the concrete.
Teaboy at work
Master Tsai checking the leaf.
Some of our classmates:
Quality time, Tea Guy style:
The trick is to roll the leaf in a ball gently at first, bruising the leaves and allowing the enzymes to leak out, coating the outer surfaces. Then, we slowly increase pressure, until we’re putting all our weight into it, and the ball of tea compacts to about 2/3 of the size we started with. Our hands also got very sticky, and turned orange during this step. Later, when dry, my hands felt like I had gloves on.
Ready to roast
They were also processing some of the same leaf for commercial sale, so we had a chance to compare methods. The basket on the left is our hand-rolled tea, while the right side is machine-rolled. The machine rolled tea is much finer and more uniform, but it’s not as aromatic. We’ll compare how they taste at the end of the day!
The machine they use for larger volume processing is basically a large drum over a bowl-shaped plate that has curved ridges in it. The lid of the drum has a hydraulic press, which can be used to apply pressure to the leaf. As the machine rotates over the plate, the ridges bruise and roll the leaf, just as we did by hand. The operator can control the pressure on the leaf to roll it into the proper consistency before drying. With the large capacity of the barrel, they can process an impressive amount of tea quickly (actually black tea is one of the simplest teas to produce, as the leaf doesn’t need to be compacted the way oolongs are).
The second step was to let the leaf dry out a bit and oxidize a little more and ‘rest’ before being dried. We set our bamboo trays in the humidity-controlled drying racks, and then took a lunch break.
Organic home cookin’ !
Since the tea needed a couple of hours of ‘rest’ before we could continue, we took a short walk up the hill behind the factory.
We were given an introduction to some of the local plant life, as well as some ‘wild’ tea plants growing randomly near the trail. After our walk, we went back for some tea (duh!) and then continued with our tea processing.
The next step was to run the leaf through a separater machine. It basically sifts the tea, loosening the clumps so that it will dry evenly when we put it into the oven. Then we load the tea into the conveyor belt on the drying machine. The tea passes back and forth in the dryer 6 times, and when it drops out at the bottom, it’s pretty much finished. We then spread the leaf out on the bamboo racks and gave it some time to cool off before bagging it up.
Into the oven
The best part, of course, is/has been showing off our ‘own’ tea when friends are over. It really enhances the entire brewing experience to have actually rolled the leaf personally and to really see what goes into it.