Wednesday, April 23, 2014

China 2014 Day 4: Picking Pre-QingMing Longjing Tea in Hangzhou, China

3/31/2014
China 2014 Day 4: Picking Pre-QingMing Longjing Tea in Hangzhou, China

This day of complete and utter epicness began with a bath on the floor at 4:30am.

The most amazing part of the day was picking Pre-QingMing Longjing Tea in the villages around Hangzhou, China -- the most sought-after Green Tea in the world. This day was totally amazing, but first... breakfast.

We were up super early again due to jag lag so I figured that even though it was insanely early in local time, it was quite appropriate to make good  use out of the tub that happened to be on the floor of our hotel room, and man that was awesome.

First things first, gotta take a bath on the floor!
Then the epicness continued with an AMAZING Breakfast Buffet that was included!! Crazy. The pastries were good, and I really liked the Kimchi -- the best I've ever had! I got some tasty egg, tomato with cheese, a mini mango, some cheese from an awesome cheese plate... rockin'. The fried fish with Shanghai noodles was glorious too. It was quite an interesting mix of different foods from around the world, and it just tasted fantastic. What a great breakfast!

Awesome breakfast fruit
Mmm... cheese
Excited!
Epic breakfast at the Banyan Tree
Tasty stuff. Note the foods from around the world -- tomato and cheese, fish, shanghai noodles and kimchi all on the same plate!
Melon + Chopsticks = Win, also crazy Cucumber Juice
We finished, and then sadly checked out of our awesome hotel. A short stay, but a really amazing one. We met Forrest upstairs, the tour guide we had been hooked up with via the GoToHangzhou.com website. (You can also get in touch with him, Forrest Gan, via the Hangzhou Delight Travel Service at hangzhoutravelagency.com). He was an incredible tour guide and I'll explain all the details about our day tour in this post.

Forrest is a super nice guy and was very flexible for our tour day. We told him we'd already (crazily) walked all around West Lake last night and also even made it all the way to the Green Tea Restaurant (on foot!) so he re-arranged the itinerary as needed to allow us to try some fun new things. As we'd requested from the travel agency, the focus of the day was going to be Tea, and they sure hooked us up with the right tour guide.

First we drove up to the mountains. As we were driving, you started to see more and more tea plants just everywhere, along the side of the road, on little hillsides that were near-vertical right alongside the main road... wherever it can grow! We stopped on Meiling Rd and parked the bus, and just walked right into the rows of tea plants. This was the world-famous "Longjing #43" tea plant. This was SO exciting!!! Forrest showed us how to pick the tea, and it's not actually the big leaves that you see clearly in these photos -- rather, it's a small bud surrounded by 2 small leaves, very delicate work.

Women picking the Longjing Tea
The world-famous Longjing #43 tea
The best green tea in the world. Two leaves, one bud in the middle.
Working hard picking tea just off the side of Meiling Rd, Hangzhou, China
Only women were picking the leaves, so we asked Forrest if that was normal. He said yes, and for a few reasons. Firstly, he said the reason is basically the same thing about the woman-vs-man skills that I heard them say at the Lamborghini Factory in Italy when I visited there. (At Lamborghini, they said the men are terrible at the detail-oriented work, so the painstakingly detailed job of hand-sewing the leather seats at the Lamborghini Factory is only done by women, while the men lift the motors, attach the doors and do much more heavy-lifting and broad work.)

Forrest said something quite similar, that the thought is that women are much better at "attention to detail" and men are not usually as good at this kind of work. He also said that the men tend to do the work with the leaves after they are picked, (for example, the roasting). This work tends to be very rough on your hands, making the hands rough and calloused, so the men tend to do this kind of work. One of the other major reasons why women pick the tea is that women are paid less than men, so it's cheaper for the farmers/owners to hire women to do this work as they need many, many people to do it. Though the work is long and detail-oriented, the women we met were laughing and talking and joking with each other. Forrest said that these women do other jobs in their home towns, and they pick up these jobs seasonally and come together from other parts of China in groups with several friends. So, it tends to be a fun working day, as you are working always with your close friends. Awesome.

From there we headed to Meijiawu Village, one of the few villages amongst the mountains of tea. At first we parked and walked past many "commercial" shops. Many of the shopkeepers were trying to get us to come into their shops, try some tea, and hopefully pay them lots of money. We'd heard a lot about this, that it was quite likely that if you bought some tea there, that it had a high chance of not actually being this year's Pre-ChingMing Tea, or it could be last years, or just Longjing but not Pre-ChingMing, or it may be tea that costs 1/50th of the price and is from some other village in the south, and the shopkeepers are just pretending it's Pre-ChingMing Longjing tea. Forrest said that, even as a local, he had no idea in the past whether he was getting "legit" Longjing tea -- to really know the difference one has to be very knowledgeable about tea. But some things are obvious if you know just a little bit about tea - for example, the Pre-QingMing Longjing will have a very strong and potent aroma, it will be very grassy and fresh smelling. Cheap imitation tea may not have any distinguishing aroma at all when you smell it.

A man sorting the tea leaves
One thing he said was highly suspect was that these "commercial" shops at the front row of the street where we parked seemed to have a LOT of tea, and the day we were visiting was only day 6 of the 10 days of Pre-QingMing. So, if truly legit, they would only have approximately 5 days-worth of tea available for sale -- it is impossible to have any more of it because you can't pick it before March 26th! So the vendors with tons and tons of tea available "may" have been selling you Pre-QingMing Longjing Tea, but it's somewhat unlikely. There are some honest farmers in the bunch, but the people on the main road Forrest said we should move past and go straight to the source.

We got up and away from the main street, and Forrest told us a story about where we were going. 10 days earlier, Forrest did a 5 day-long tour with a Tea Seller from the USA! He said this was very fortuitous because he spent so much time with this Tea Master and she wanted to be extremely certain that the tea she was taking back to her customers was true West Lake Longjing Tea from Hangzhou and not some cheap imitation. He spent many days with her, at many farms, meeting the farmers and observing their operations. They also picked some leaves and took them straight from the plants to the pressing machine and the frying process, so that she could be certain the tea was legit. In this process, Forrest had made friends with a Farming family, the place where the lady from the US ended up purchasing some tea at the end of the 5 day research tour. We went there. :) We met the farming family: the grandmother, the grandfather (the main farmers), plus their daughter and some guests who were staying at their home. We said hello as they were eating lunch when we arrived, and headed up to the fields.

A long day of work ahead
Beautiful
Surrounded by the most sought-after Green Tea in the world.... AHHHH!!!! SO EXCITED!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
In awe
Longjing Tea Plantation, Meijiawu Village
We walked up the mountain, saying Hello to all the ladies on the way. Everyone was laughing and saying "Nihou" or "Hello" and they just thought it was so hilarious and wonderful that we were there. Forrest said they laughed because I was so excited to pick tea and I was both foreign and a man, and this was apparently super hilarious. :) I was SOOOOOO psyched. Michal had an awesome time too and also was, along with the other ladies, amused at my over-excitement.

Carefully selecting the bud + 2 leaves
Picking tea!!!!
This is AMAZING
This is what the Longjing Tea looks like before it's pressed and heated
Yes!!!!!!
Some of the ladies gave us a basket of tea that they had already picked and said we could just "have it". We thought maybe we should just take it back to the farmer, but they said, "Hey, there is plenty of tea here!" We continued to pick and add to our basket, which already had quite a bit of tea in it. The ladies laughed and we picked for a little while. As we said goodbye, we noticed some men coming up from the village -- one was our farmer grandfather, coming to check and make sure we were picking tea from his crops and ensure that we weren't mistakenly picking a different farmer's plants. The other group was some men coming up to bring lunch for the ladies picking in the fields. Forrest explained that the lodging and food are paid for by the landlord for all of the seasonal workers.

Some of the ladies gave me a basket of tea to take down that they'd already picked. All the other farmers thought it was hilarious how excited I was to carry it.
Tea drying in the shade
Amazing
Showing off "my" tea haul of the day!
Walking back to the farmer's home
We got back to the home and I "donated" my batch of leaves to the big pile because Forrest told us that you aren't able to drink this tea anyway because it hasn't been pressed and roasted yet. So we just "donated" it back to the place it was being picked for anyway :)

Discussing the tea with our tour guide Mr. Forrest Gan, and with the elderly farmer to my right
Sooo much Pre-ChingMing Longing Tea!
Helping to sort out the bad leaves with Mr. Forrest
Looking at the delicateness of the tea
And now... it was time for tea!

The smell of the leaves was awesome, very fresh and grassy. And then I smelled the bag of leaves ready to use for tea... O.M.G. The fresh leaves smelled just sortof like grass, but the leaves ready for drinking... WOW. The smell is strong, pungent, full of energy and a sweetness you can almost taste just by smelling it. It smelled like a grassy, intense, Japanese green tea that you might smell in a tea shop, but with a freshness that I've never smelled before. Truly INCREDIBLE. Now that was just the smell... just you wait until I tasted it...

Smells fresh!
This smells SO GOOD.
Longjing Tea from Day 3 of Pre-ChingMing (Pre-Qing Ming) that is ready to drink
There are no tea-ball, tea-bag, tea-strainers here in the hills of Hangzhou. You just pinch the right amount of tea leaves with your fingers (about 3g, the Grandma has many years of practice picking up the right amount!), and you just drop it into a tumbler glass. The Grandma filled up our glass tumblers with the leaves and some "off-boil" water. The water was boiling and then was left open for a little bit to cool it down. The leaves are tender so you can't put boiling water in or it overpowers the leaves. She put in the water from a thermos and then we waited... patiently.

Well... that sure looks amazing
As soon as some leaves started to drop from the top of the cup, we were told that this was the time we could start to drink it. Interestingly, the water in the cup stays almost clear unlike other green teas I'd seen. She said the best green teas do not colour the water all that green -- I guess it's so fresh and so early in the picking that it's almost like a white tea. And now, we've waited so patiently... the leaves are dropping downwards... it's time to take the first sip. With baited breath... I try it.

The smell of the Longjing tea is very potent, and unlike any Green Tea you've ever tried before
Amazing
The aroma is absolutely incredible. The flavour just totally blows you away. The taste is incredibly fresh, and unlike any green tea I've ever tried before or will ever try again. We drink through the first glass slowly, with enjoyment, because I'm not sure how much we will get to try... but the Grandma zooms up onto her feet to grab the thermos and to fill up our cups again. Forrest said the way you do it is you drink just about to the bottom but not all of the water, and at that point you fill it back up. We did this many times, and you can do 5 steepings with the same leaves. It was INCREDIBLE. After we finished all 5 cups, I went to go check out the tea pressing and roasting process.

They had recently purchased an automatic presser machine, and it was brand new. It was actually so new that they had gotten it sometime between Forrest's previous visit 10 days before and now! Prior to this, they were using a semi-automatic machine and prior to that, all the work was done completely by hand. This new machine changes how hard it is pressing automatically over time, and was very impressive. It does the pressing for the exact amount of time that you need. After the pressing, any leaves that are old are pulled out by hand. And after this, there is a 2nd roasting process done in a round electric kiln like I'd seen on the street in Hangzhou city. The Grandfather was doing this work, because this is rough on the hands.

Our farmer Grandmother describing her new automatic tea pressing machine to our tour guide, Mr. Forrest
The leaves getting pressed
So cool
The fancy new machine
Discussing and learning
Controls for the new tea pressing machine
When the tea is pressed it's dropped into this tray
Then the tea is "roasted" in this machine
When is the roasting done? Well, this is the art of it all. One can only tell by experience.

She graciously gave us new leaves and started to pour for us again. SO good. Like yesterday, I found that the 2nd steeping was the best. The first one is a little bright and harsh, but only slightly. This tea is so well-balanced and beautiful that the first steeping just has a little more kick that you'd expect, but it's not overpowering like any "strong" green tea you may have had before. The 2nd steeping is literal perfection. Sometimes described as a chestnut flavour, the tones really come out and the flavour is at it's very best. Steeping 3, 4, and 5 get further and further away from the strong taste of the early steeping, but they have varying notes of their own. It gets more and more subtle until it fades away almost completely and you need to get some more leaves and start again. :)

She also brought out a bag of sunflower seeds for us to eat along with our tea. I was breaking them open manually with my hands and this was really tough... so she taught me a trick. She put a seed in her mouth on it's side, and then bit down slowly, this cracked the shell and made it much easier to open the shell. Funny how you can communicate without sharing any of the same language.

Michal and the farmer enjoying Sunflower seeds and tea
This tea is amazing
And then, as if to remind us that this tasted like the most sacred tea of all time, a Monk walked by! This guy was a "Lama" from Tibet, as Forrest explained, and was staying in the family's house as they rented out some rooms as a guesthouse. There are multi-generations in this home - the farm was given to them by the Grandparents of the main farmers there today, and now they had their daughter and her husband and their child as well in the home. Awesome.

They were so happy that we liked their tea, so much in fact, that you always had to finish your cup! At the end of the 5th steeping, instead of leaving a bit more water in there, you were expected to finish all the water! They took so much pride in their tea that Forrest said it was so obvious to him on the previous expedition that these were farmers who really care about their product. This was actually a 3rd Day Pre-QingMing Dragon Well Tea, picked 3 days before we were there and then went through the same process as we just watched. The earlier the day the tea was picked, the more it costs because there is much shorter supply of "ready" tea buds on the earlier days of Pre-QingMing.

And now... it was buy time. :)

I wanted to buy some Longjing and there was no better place to get it than directly from the people who picked it, pressed it, and roasted it.

The "default" purchase amount that people generally come to purchase is quite a lot, 500gr. This is usually split into 4 separate containers. 500gr/4 = 125gr per tin. And the cost for these 4 tins was 2500 Yuan... about $400 USD! Even at this cost, they are not making a huge profit. This is generally their only income and they also pay these seasonal workers and provide lodging and food. The workers are paid per kilo, and I believe I remember Forrest said that good workers often bring it 1 Kilo of leaves max. per day. (I might be wrong on that, can't remember exactly). 5 kilos of fresh leaves roast down into 1 kilo of ready-to-drink tea. With all the costs, I believe Forrest mentioned the cost of making 1 kilo of tea is approx 2000 Yuan. So to charge only 2500 Yuan (per 1/2 kilo, that is) for the absolute best tea of the year is a reasonable deal for something of such amazing quality and in such short supply.

That said, I wasn't quite budgeted to spend $400 on tea in one sitting, and I had high doubts that our friendly Grandmother farmer would take Visa or Mastercard. ;) Originally I was thinking about just getting 50gr of tea, but it was SO good that I thought maybe I'd get 100gr instead. She wanted to make a deal, and said "Oh no, for your health, 100gr is not enough!" She's probably right. Also, man it's good tea. I wanted to support the farmer but not totally break the bank, so we discussed it a bit. She said if I bought 2 of the big containers (250gr), she would throw in a little gift for me for free of some extra tea. We discussed and she said the price would be 1000 Yuan in that case, and that sounded good. The usual containers come with 125gr, so she would put in a bit less and give me 100+100 instead. She pulled out a super old-school balancing scale, a stick with some weights on it, and started weighing. By habit she put in 125gr into each and then was about to charge 1200Y and got confused, and then apologized and gave me one full tin of 125gr + a medium one of 75 gr + my gift. So in the end I got about 230 gr (almost as much as 2 of the usual 4 containers) and she charged me only 1000 Yuan for it, which was very kind (prob should have been closer to 1200 Yuan). She also gave Mr. Forrest a small gift of tea as well for coming back and he was blown-over with gratitude. He couldn't believe that she would give him some and he was so grateful and excited about it.

The lane to our farmer friends' home
We said goodbye and off we went for lunch.

We were glad to have Mr. Forrest there to explain the situation and to translate for us. We definitely ran into a few cultural barriers and intricacies -- with the tins she seemed to be pushing for us to buy 2 instead of less because in China, "Good things come in pairs". As Mr. Forrest said, "She's not pushing, she is just accustomed to selling this way." Very interested. I figured the tea was so excellent and our hosts so gracious that I was happy to get more than I was originally planning as it was the best Green Tea ever and it would make for some good gifts (if I wanted to part with any of it) later. All-in-all, a truly incredible and over-the-top amazing experience.

Before I post photos from our lunch, here's a video of the tea picking experience, as well as the pressing machine.



After that, we headed for lunch to a place called Jura, which was AWESOME. It was mostly vegetarian and Forrest ordered so much good food for us. We got tofu, beef and onion (the good one this time, not the crazy one we got last night by mistake!), and some other great vegetable dishes. We also tried some "Wheat Tea" which sortof tasted like beer.

And now for a change of pace... Lunchtime! The BEST Tofu we've ever had!
Awesome veggies
Rice and yes, more tea -- though an odd one this time!
More tastiness for lunch
Enjoying
After a tasty and awesome lunch, we headed out to go see the actual "Dragon Well". We started first at the "Old Dragon Well", checking out some cool Pagodas and tiled roofs.

At the "Old Dragon Well"
Maaan that's a huge teapot
Me at the Old Dragon Well!
Good times
Old Dragon Well
From there we went to see the "New" Dragon Well and the Imperial Tea Garden. This is the famous "Lion's Peak" area where the Emperor had his tea plantation, and this was also the first location to ever make Longjing tea. Forrest called this the "Government" Tea House, as it's run by the government. We wandered the grounds and also saw the plantations there, it was very beautifully laid out.

And now, to Lion's Peak
"New" Dragon Well
And... more tea
Lion's Peak #1, the birthplace of Dragon Well Tea
Said Mr. Forrest, "The Tea Leaves glow here"
This place rocked
A statue of the Monk who first planted Longjing Tea
The birthplace of Longjing Tea
We smelled a bunch of samples and they smelled nice and cost more than our farmer lady was selling it for (the 3rd Day Pre-QingMing tea they were selling for 3500 Yuan per 500gr, and our lady's price was 2500 Yuan per 500gr).

I also decided to just splurge and try their Lion's Peak Longjing (same, roughly, as our Meijiawu Village -- though apparently Tea Masters can tell the terroir of the tea just like a wine expert, and can tell the difference between tea from one area of Hangzhou compared to others, and if the tea was picked in the morning or the afternoon!) I did notice some difference, as I thought this one was significantly stronger than our previous one and more intense and less sweet and subtle. Forrest noted that there were a lot more tea leaves in my glass and it was likely they had given me a large amount of leaves rather than a regular amount -- more like 5gr instead of 2.5 or 3gr. So this meant the tea was much stronger and less pleasant. It was nice to try it, but I greatly preferred "our" lady's tea! Glad we stopped though and it was fun to compare and see if I could notice a difference.

Then I tried a cup of the Lion's Peak Dragon Well. It was good, but I think our farmer's tea was better.
Contemplation at the Dragon Well :)
Spring!
So good
And after a truly amazing, magical day in the tea leaves, we headed back to the train station. Forrest helped us get our tickers and bid us farewell. We got some roast chicken chips and onto the train we went... and... asleep!

We got back to Shanghai Hongqiao quickly, got onto the Metro, and were soon back at the hotel! I sat in bed, writing my journal notes and chillin' with Michal after a long and awesome day. We also got ANOTHER fruit plate?!?!! Crazy and amazing.

We were so crazy carpe-diem fiends that we then were trying to decide if we should go down to check out the Jazz Band, go outside and wander on the Bund, go to the Restaurant... or just get some food delivered and go to bed. It was such an amazing day and we were so exhausted that we unpacked and then got some broccoli and spring rolls and went to sleep. Done and done! We figured we'd done just about all someone could do in their first day in another country, and decided to try to walk the Bund at night another time. Good idea. :)

What an AWESOME day.