Hand-procession of The Cliff Tea

A cup of Wuyi Cliff tea undergoes more than 20 processes, it has the most complex production process and the highest requirements. The local tea artisans summarize the traditional processes as follows: 1. Picking, 2. Withering, 3. Shaking, 4. Controlling water, 5. Frying, 6. Rolling, 7. Roasting, 8. Sorting, 9. Re-roasting and 10. Storing and Packing (一采二倒青,三摇四围水,五炒六揉金,七烘八捡梗,九复十筛分).” This simple folk song outlines the extremely complex production processes of the cliff tea.

Picking

Cliff tea is harvested once a year, typically between late April and mid-May, from the beginning of Grain Rain (Guyu, 谷雨) to before the start of Summer (Lixia, 立夏). The quality of tea is closely tied to the standards of leaf picking. Generally, harvesters pick one bud with two to three leaves, at most four. There are strict requirements for harvesting: no picking during rainy or dewy conditions, and avoiding intense sunlight. The optimal time for picking is from 9 to 11 am in the morning.

Withering

After the fresh tea leaves are picked, it is necessary to transport them to the tea processing workshop in the shortest time possible. However, since workshops are not allowed inside the Wuyi Mountain, fresh leaves can only be transported out of the mountains on foot. It takes several hours of walking back and forth on the mountain road, which is very laborious.

Once reach the workshops, all the fresh leaves need to be poured into a Qinghu (青弧), then shake them by hand, spreading them evenly into sieves to dry on bamboo shelves. Depending on factors such as intensity of sunlight, wind speed, humidity, the freshness of the leaves, as well as different tea varieties, the timing needs to be flexibly adjusted. For example, for Rou Gui (肉桂), the method used is sun-drying and air-drying twice.

Zuo Qing

Zuo Qing (做青) is an essential step in forming the unique aroma of Cliff tea. Similar to Tai Chi, it involves shaking and rotating the bamboo trays to let the tea leaves flying in the air, causing them to collide and rub against each other, causing the leaves to be structurally damaged, allowing the internal substances to come into contact with air and oxidize to create the beautiful aroma. The entire process takes several hours.

Frying & Rolling

The purpose of Chao Qing (炒青Frying) is to use high temperatures to destroy the activity of enzymes in the tea leaves, stop fermentation, and stabilize the aroma compounds that have already formed during the “Zuo Qing” process. Rolling is the primary factor in shaping the appearance of the Cliff tea, aimed at releasing the juice inside the leaves and rolling the tea leaves into tight strips. When firing, an iron pot is heated over firewood until it reaches a temperature of around 220 to 280 degrees celcius, then the tea leaves are stir-fried by hands for about two minutes. After that, they are quickly transferred to a bamboo tray for rolling. Then firing and rolling again. Double-frying and double-rolling is a unique method of making Wuyi Cliff tea, where the second round can compensate for any shortcomings in the first round while also creating a beautiful appearance known as "dragonfly head," "snail tail," and "frog skin."

First Roasting

The tea leaves that have been fried and rolled will be sent to the roasting room for the first roasting, aiming to make the tea reach a semi-dry state. Before roasting, it requires a highly experienced tea master to prepare the charcoal fire and accurately perceive the required temperature. The tea leaves are put in a roasting cage and placed over the charcoal fire, moving from high to low temperature, a process known as “roasting to walk out the water (走水焙)”. Different varieties of tea require different times and temperatures for this process. For example, the optimum temperature for Shui Xian (水仙) is slightly higher than that for regular tea, so precise control of time and temperature is very important in this step.

First Sorting

The roasted tea leaves are poured into a Cha Hu (茶湖) and shaken to remove yellowed leaves (Huang Pian 黄片), torn leaves, old leaves, etc. These leaves are then transferred into a container called Shui Shai (水筛) and removed from the roasting room. The next day, female workers pick out and throw away the stems of the leaves and unwanted leaves missed by the previous worker. This is to prevent the minerals in the tea from being sucked into their stems. Currently, this step is still mostly done by hand.

Second Roasting

To improve the quality of tea, it is roasted for a second time. The difference is, unlike the First Roasting, this time, a covered fire is used. And the second roasting is an important reason why Wuyi Cliff tea is so unique. We know that tea was discovered for its detoxifying properties, and just like a laxative, to help the body to eliminate toxins. These substances may has a certain stimulating effect on human body, so the process of making tea is similar to the process of  traditional Chinese medicine, which uses fire and roasting to weaken and remove the irritating components. Furthermore, charcoal roasting can also greatly enhances the layers and wonderful aroma of the tea. The traditional roasting is full fire (足火), which fully stimulates all the contained substances. However, modern people prefer light-flavored oolong tea, so there are more and more medium-fire (中火) with stronger floral notes on the market.

Storing and Packing

Tea that has undergone secondary or multiple roasting needs to be stored in wooden boxes lined with aluminum foil or well-sealed tin can for annealing (退火). This is because freshly roasted tea carries a strong charcoal fire, which can be irritating to people. It requires several months of storage to allow the fire to slowly fade away and the aroma of the tea to become softer.

 

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