This is a complete photo guide to how our Iron Buddha (tie guan yin) tea is produced, taken in May 2012.
I wanted to post these photos because every tea leaf has a story, and it's what makes drinking a great quality loose-leaf tea worthwhile. This is a guide shows how your Iron Buddha tea travels from a farm on the high peaks of Gan De in Anxi County, China, and into your teapot.
The leaves are picked high up in the mountains, before being transported (often by motorbike) to the farm buildings for processing. A good tea picker can pick up to 50kg of leaves in a single day, but it's hard work in the baking sun.
The first step is to dry any excess water from the leaves - they're spread on the roof of the building, and occasionally turned. This lasts around 30-40 minutes.
The next stage is one of the most critical. The tea leaves must oxidise, which takes approximately 12 hours. The leaves are alternately rolled in a tumbler, and then left to sit on bamboo trays in a climate-controlled room. The tea master takes exceptional care at this stage.
The leaves oxidising on a bamboo tea tray. At this stage, the tea oxidises very slowly, and they will sit like this overnight before they reach the right taste.
Early the next morning, the tea processing starts. The oxidised tea leaves are placed in a high temperature roasting oven. The oven is heated to around 300 degrees celsius, which will stop the oxidisation process.
This is the strangest, and most unique stage of Iron Buddha processing - the bruising. The tea is placed in a sack, and then either by hand or with a machine, it is smashed against the floor 20-30 times. It helps break the tea open, releasing any liquids still left inside.
The tea leaves are then worked, partly by hand, partly by machine, into highly compact 'tea-balls', with 2-3 layers of thick cotton covering them.
Once compressed, each tea ball is hard like a stone, weighing around 10kg each. They are then passed through a series of rollers which helps to shape the individual tea leaves into circular shapes.
The tea-balls are then loosened, shaken out, and the process is repeated. This is heavy work, and the three labourers will work on 10-12 tea balls each day, continually compressing, shaping and then loosening the tea until it is ready.
Finally, when the tea master is satisfied, the tea is roasted at around 80 degrees to dry it out, and finish the process. Up until this point, the tea leaves have been soft and flexible, but now they will take the more familiar dryness.
The finished product - this is high grade Iron Buddha, processed the same way it has been for many hundreds of years.
The leftovers - interestingly, these 'fannings' will also be sold, for perhaps a few pennies per kilo. It's good that nothing is wasted, but at the same time, these fannings should be avoided. They'll probably be used to make many of the free teabags found in hotels across China.