Tea grower Yihua Luo creates wulong more valued than gold
Long into the night tea grower Yihua Luo keeps a watchful eye over the new harvest roast. It is the critical final stage of the most intricate processing technique of any tea. He hasn’t slept in 32 hours.
Luo is making rock tea (Yan Cha) precisely as it has been done for the past 1,200 years. He grew the tea in the rugged Wuyi Mountains in northern Fujian province, which rise to 7,000 feet.
Luo is a traditional grower. His 30-acre farm in Wuyi is 1,640 feet above sea level. The region is famous for Minbei wulong. Three quarters of his 6,500 kilogram yield is processed as wulong, the rest being Lapsang Souchong black tea.
Luo knows tea like few others. He has a shy demeanor but once he begins talking about wulong you can expect the conversation to last a long time, accompanied by superb rock tea. To be known as a tea master one must demonstrate more than tea-making skills. A true master is capable of delivering delicious, foolproof products that cater to customer requirements via limited resources. A tea master must compensate for variations in weather while controlling pests and training apprentices. There is more to it than craftsmanship – a tea master is also expected to distill decades of hands-on experience rising to a metaphysical level that represents the art of tea.
“Tea in Wuyi dates back to the Tang Dynasty in the 9th century. We have always produced the top tea in China. Visit Wuyishan City and you will see the remains of the Imperial Tea Garden that produced tea for Yuan Dynasty (13th century) emperors,” says Luo. He speaks of history that deeply resonates with a proud smile.
In the 1600s when China first opened its ports to trade, the Wuyi region was called Bohea. Tea from Chongan County has always been considered one of China’s top quality teas, suited for Emperors.
Historical records describe more than 200 types of rock tea produced in Wuyi. The most famous is Big Red Robe (Da Hong Pao), which is also the most expensive tea in the world. In 2005, 20 grams of Red Robe harvested from the six mother plants on Wuyi cliff brought RMB ¥200,000 (USD $25,000 – $1,260 per gram) at auction. At the time the price was 90 times greater than gold.
Luo produces three styles of wulong: Narcissus (Shui Xian), Cinnamon (Rou Gui) and Blended Red Robe which is blended with more than a dozen local cultivars, to imitate the original Red Robe.
During this career Luo, 50, has tasted every major tea produced in China. He collects puer and more recently white tea in small quantities to drink at home. Both age well and offer health benefits. He drinks Iron Goddess wulong (Tie Guan Yin) as well, preferring these teas seasonally when they are fresh on the market.
None compare to rock tea, he explains. The reason is roasting.
The raw tea is plucked in April or early May depending on weather conditions. The lightly roasted new teas are usually available by late June or July.
The process begins with the selection of charcoal made from local pine, indigenous to Southern China. The tea is placed in a shallow woven brazier called Bei Long.
Bei Long are braziers hand-woven of peeled bamboo. Charcoal in the lower level provides constant heat to the raw tea (Mao Cha) above. The largest Bei Long hold up to 4 kg of raw tea. Smaller ones hold 1 kg. Roasting rounds take from 6 to 14 hours, depending on the following factors: cultivar, the quality of the fresh tea leaves, how much it has dehydrated, and whether the fresh tea leaves were picked in sunny or rainy weather. Timing the roast is more of an art than science. Experience and personal preference play a vital role.
The work is arduous. During the many hours of roasting, the master and his helpers cannot sleep. They must turn and stir the tea every 45 minutes to one hour. No one, including the tea master, knows the final number of rounds or precise time it will take until the final outcome.
Roasts are classified as light (Qing Bei), full-fire (Zuo Huo), and high fire (Gao Huo, or well-done) depending on the number of rounds. The minimum is three rounds of roasting. At that point the tea is considered lightly roasted. Once it rests it will be good to drink.
The technique is the same for all rock teas but fine tuning determines the results and that is entirely up to the tea master. Green fresh tea leaves picked on a rainy day, for example, are roasted longer to drive off the excess moisture. The cultivar Narcissus leaves are thicker than other cultivars, which means they take longer to roast. A tiny mistake will ruin the tea and render all the previous hard work futile.
A true master brings out the best in the tea.
It takes two weeks for the roasted tea to “breathe out” the charcoal flavor. The tea is sealed in sacks to prevent it from absorbing excess moisture from the air.
Experienced rock tea drinkers generally prefer a more heavily roasted tea and are willing to wait longer. A fully roasted rock tea requires 4 to 6 rounds. The tea takes on a dark color (light roast tea is still a bit yellowish and green in color). Fully roasted teas are not available until autumn starting around the Mid-Autumn Festival in September.
High-fire teas require up to 8 rounds of roasting which results in a deep black and shiny tea. These teas are not ready until the end of year—six months after the fresh tea is plucked. (See Rock Tea Processing chart)
Connoisseurs say that it is worth the wait. Rock teas are at their best a year after they are plucked. Savvy rock tea drinkers have the patience to wait until after the Chinese New Year and enjoy the new rock tea in spring.
Luo divides his time between his tea garden and factory in Wuyi and his store in Beijing’s Maliandao market. He returns to his land several times a year, sometimes for two and a half months, to supervise the harvesting and processing of Mao Cha as well as repeat roastings. He also personally supervises the processing of extremely rare and expensive teas such as Rou Gui from Niu Lan Keng (considered China’s best Rou Gui region).
According to Luo, making tea the traditional way is an art that demands intense study, hard work and many years of experience to perfect. Sipping the tea from his Jianzhan cup, Luo reflected on his career: “When I was younger, it was a kick selling more tea to make money. Today I enjoy making tea much more. It is very fulfilling to be able to bring out the best features of a quality tea with your skills.”
“If I were to go back in time to choose my career again, I would make the same choice from govenment to tea,” he said.