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Welcome to the first (rainy) installment of our Spring 2012 Tea Harvest blog! I'll be updating this blog as the tea picking season progresses, so keep checking back.
The adventure starts with an early bus from Fuzhou (my home) to Anxi in the south of Fujian. It's 3.5 hours away, which is a vast improvement on the 6-7 hours it used to take a few years ago, pre-expressway.
I'm off to see the start of the tea picking season in Anxi county, which is the traditional home of Iron Buddha (tie guan yin), one of China's most famous exports. In fact, some tea picking has already been going on since the beginning of April, but it's generally agreed that the best Iron Buddha is picked during or just after the May 1st holiday period.
Anxi County is split into 3 main parts - there's the urban centre, and then two countryside zones known as "inner Anxi" and "outer Anxi". Most of the best Iron Buddha teas are grown in the more mountainous "inner Anxi", while in the outer Anxi area you can find lower quality Iron Buddha, as well as two other types of cheaper green oolong tea - Ben Shan (本山, pronounced 'burn' shan) and Huang Jin Gui (黄金桂, Golden Osmanthus).
There's no tea-picking today. Each tea-region is different, but in Anxi they need a bit of sunshine or dry weather in order to pick the tea, and the rainclouds haven't been cooperating today. We plan for a bit of wandering around China's largest tea-market, and then a visit to Peng Lai, a nearby village with a few tea farms, and an impressive Buddhist temple. We see a few tea farms and also loquat fruit farms from the bus, but it's really tipping it down now and too wet to go outside. Unhappy face is firmly fixed now.
The afternoon starts with a quick visit to Cha Du (茶都) which literally means "tea capital". It's the largest tea market in China, a giant mix of wholesale stores, an open-air tea market, and temporary exhibitions and shows.
The open air market is fascinating. In fact, we don't source our tea from places like this, because it tends to represent the lower end of the market. There are row-after-row of metal stands where farmers descend from their plantations to flog yesterday's crops - buyers must pick their way through a bewildering array of teas, and it's not for the faint-hearted. Discussions take place in the Min Nan dialect, so it's hard for me to follow, but the familiar sounds of haggling are not hard to understand. Prices in markets like this start from under £1 per 500g up to around £5 per 500g. Some of the teas, stored in huge plastic bags, have already been sorted, while others are just the teas and twigs which will need to be manually sorted before they can be sold.
Most of the tea in Tea City is lower quality. It's Ben Shan or Golden Osmanthus, teas which are not grown in the expensive mountainous regions, less resource intensive and almost certainly not grown organically. Farmers selling more expensive, higher quality teas don't often need to come here; their buyers will travel to their farm to inspect the crops.
The afternoon and the next morning are washed out by the heavy rain. I spend a long time with my colleague (Xiao Ma, a local tea farmer and family friend) drinking tea and visiting various tea shops and friends houses. Although I'm frustrated not to be up in the mountains, the next few hours becomes possibly one of the most enlightening tea-lessons I've ever experienced.
Each of the conversations really deserves its own blog post, so I'll follow on later with more detail, but here's the gist: a secret tip that tea-masters use to evaluate teas; why truly organic teas start at £200 a kilo, how blending teas can quadruple their value, the economics of a tea farm.
For now, I'll leave you with these photos from my Flickr feed. Xiao Ma advises I come back in a few days time as it doesn't look like the rain will abate, so it's off to Wuyi Mountain later today!
UPDATE: check out Part Two of our tea harvest blog from Wuyi Mountain »comments powered by Disqus