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!|
|Awesome breakfast fruit|
|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|
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|
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|
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|
|Surrounded by the most sought-after Green Tea in the world.... AHHHH!!!! SO EXCITED!!!!!!!!!!!!!!|
|Longjing Tea Plantation, Meijiawu Village|
|Carefully selecting the bud + 2 leaves|
|This is AMAZING|
|This is what the Longjing Tea looks like before it's pressed and heated|
|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|
|Showing off "my" tea haul of the day!|
|Walking back to the farmer's home|
|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|
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...
|This smells SO GOOD.|
|Longjing Tea from Day 3 of Pre-ChingMing (Pre-Qing Ming) that is ready to drink|
|Well... that sure looks amazing|
|The smell of the Longjing tea is very potent, and unlike any Green Tea you've ever tried before|
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|
|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|
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|
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 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!|
|Rice and yes, more tea -- though an odd one this time!|
|More tastiness for lunch|
|At the "Old Dragon Well"|
|Maaan that's a huge teapot|
|Me at the Old Dragon Well!|
|Old Dragon Well|
|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|
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 :)|
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.