The Tieguanyin Project, Spring 2022 | TeaSource
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The Tieguanyin Project, Spring 2022

Great outcomes in tea-making are not a given. Sometimes it goes according to plan, but often times tea-makers are presented with circumstances that may not reflect what they were hoping for and it’s time to make tough decisions. They can simply follow a written procedure regardless (and many of them do), but each situation brings change, change brings challenge, and challenge brings charm – if you can adapt. The 2022 spring season Tieguanyin project certainly brought challenge.

Buy The Tieguanyin Project, Spring 2022

Dehua tea fields
Tea fields in Dehua County, Fujian Province

 

Challenge #1 was to choose new fields with access to better equipment (the factory has to be nearby) and better leaf material.

These fields are at a lower altitude than last year (meaning higher temperatures) and quite wild, though the grower informed Daniel that light trimming and weeding are occasionally applied and the quality of the leaf appeared good. These plants date back to 2003 and when not growing in their wild habitat, too little maintenance can produce poor quality leaf material to work with.

The wet leaf on the plant waiting to dry out for picking

The wet leaf on the plant waiting to dry out for picking

Challenge #2 was persistent rain and we worried that it may rain through our target harvest date and foil our plans entirely.

Luckily, there was a long enough pause for the leaf to dry out prior to picking (which was done by hand this time instead of machine), but the moisture content was still much higher than anticipated. High moisture content will inhibit the ability to bring out high-quality aromatics or that “fruit” character we keep chasing.

Insect damage to contend with
Insect damage to contend with

Challenge #3 was insects.

These fields have been pesticide free for the last ten years, which presents its own series of trade-offs. The green leaf hopper is a small cicada commonly found in tea fields and its presence is desirable (or more accurately – necessary) in traditional Taiwanese oolong teas like Oriental Beauty and Gui Fei. However, there was a little more presence than desirable here and though it didn’t ruin the leaf, it definitely changed the circumstances upon which decisions are made.

Daniel Hong assessing the withering process
Tea-maker Daniel Hong assessing the withering progress
The traditional route for making tieguanyin is sun withering > shaking > kill-green > rolling > drying > final roast. But after the kill-green step the moisture content was still too high. To compensate for this, another 100°C roast was applied after rolling and the tea was piled and wrapped for 4 hours (similar to yellow tea craft) to improve moisture flow, raise the temperature, and kickstart fermentation again. Using these techniques allowed Daniel to get a clean aroma and preserve the body of tea. The mao cha (mao cha = finished, base material tea) was completed and allowed to rest for a month before roasting. 
Kill-green step to arrest enzymes that allow oxidation
Kill-green step to arrest enzymes that allow oxidation

 

By this time the project had already veered far from its original course so Daniel presented us with four options – the original mao cha and three increasing levels of roasting. To us, the heaviest roast was the most cohesive product - a pleasantly aggressive toasty aroma and a comfortable feeling in the stomach. When the leaves had cooled after steeping the aroma was fruity rather than toasty or fire. Talent!

Steeped leaf and liquor
Steeped leaf and liquor

 

Challenge #4 was roasting all the mao cha to match what we had chosen.

He planned to use the electric roasting oven since this produces the most consistent results, but Mr. Soup (his real name is Tang Shuang Jiang – check out his excellent teas here) had stunk it up by roasting puer tea (which means our tea would absorb the puer aroma – not good). Rather than wait for the smell to dissipate and delay the project further, Daniel chose to use an electric roaster with a bamboo basket, which combines traditional and modern technology. Though it is more difficult to get consistent results from batch to batch roasting this way, it gives more control to the roaster to accomplish specific goals. Because of the difficulties presented at the outset, the “Qi” of this tea was not clear and required thoughtful handling to recover its more desirable qualities (“Qi” roughly translates as “energy” and as a concept that relates to tea we’re not going to go into that here). This included several roasts with slowly increasing temperatures with periods of rest in between. The resting is important as the tea can only tolerate so much roast at one time and cannot be pushed beyond its limits without bad things happening.

Tieguanyin sign

Buy The Tieguanyin Project, Spring 2022

With the roasting and blending completed, we have the only 15kg of this tea that will ever exist. Was it perfection - no. But did we still get a good product at a good price – yes! Maybe some of these details are less than romantic, but such is tea-making in real life. The challenge is the charm and victory is sweet. Thanks to Daniel Hong for all his hard work on this. After everything that happened, this one is clearly a win.

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