South Fujian Oolongs
The Anxi county 安溪县 is famous for Tie Guan Yin oolong tea, 铁 观音, Iron Buddha Tea. It is one of the most famous Chinese Oolong teas. The tea is made here for more than 200 years processed by multistep technology, including “light drying and heavy shaking”. The result is dense springy balls that have polyphonic fragrance and “returned sweetness”, huigan taste with deep houjun, the “overtones in the throat”.
Warm, mild climate (average annual temperature of +18 ° C), high humidity (1800 mm of rainfall per year), and fertile soils present an excellent environment for growing tea. There are about 50 tea plant varieties cultivated here. The most famous are Tie Guanyin, 铁 观音, Iron Bodhisattva Guanyin, Ben Shan, 本 山, Oolong from the Benshan mountain, Mao Xie, 毛蟹, Hairy Crab, and Huang Jin Gui, 黄金桂, Golden Cinnamon. Anxi had been one of the poorest districts of Fujian before 1996, and today it is among the top hundred richest districts in China.
Tea plants are set on an area of over 400,000 mu (1 mu = 1/15 hectare). Every year the plants give 42,000 tons of tea, 7,000 tons are exported. More than 800,000 people are employed in this production.
The oldest tea factories are located in the Xiping village area, the legendary place where the local tea grower discovered an amazing tea bush pointed in his dreams by Bodhisattva Guanyin. Today, new plantations are set in Gan De and Xiang Hua areas.
Tie Guan Yin is produced according to the typical oolong technology. It includes traditional stages, such as “zuo qing”, 做 青, “processing”, “sha qing”, 杀青, “the kill green”, “zhou nian”, 揉捻, “rolling”, “hong bei”, 烘焙, “warming” and “gan zao”, 干燥, “drying”. A highly roasted Tie Guan Yin is authentic, it is called Shu Xian (蜀乡, “mellow flavor"). But light roasting technique “qing xian”, 清 鲜, “fresh flavor” has become popular in Taiwan in the second half of the twentieth century. Taiwanese method has been actively used in Anxi since 1992.
The “qing xiang” technology means that picked tea is dried in the woks, preventing oxidizing, and then it is rolled by machines made in Taiwan. The low temperature air-conditioning is another Taiwanese innovation in the tea making process. By 1996 "light fermentation" technology had become more spread than "mellow flavor" technology in Anxi.
Traditional "mellow flavor" technology is three parts of the red for seven parts of green (dark base, the green middle, red along the leaf edges; large hard leaf knot, visible red spots, white bloom on the leaf surface). "The fresh flavor" is one part of red for nine parts of green (emerald green color and gloss, a small knot, pure, fresh aroma, light green leaf base, a little bit of red on the edge or red spots).
The tea is harvested four times a year in Anxi. Spring tea (April 20 - May 7) is 45-50% of the annual harvest and has the brightest flavor, but autumn tea is richer in taste. Early summer tea (June 21 - July 7) is 25-30% of the annual harvest, and late summer tea (August 8 - August 24) is 15-20% of the annual harvest. These teas are not very interesting. Autumn tea (September 23 - October 9) is 10-15% of total production.
Picked tea leaves are delivered to the factory, and they are set in a thin layer to wither. When the leaves become soft to the touch and loose 6-9% of the original weight, they are put in the chilled room for processing.
The leaves are processed in the rotating bamboo drums, where the edges are damaged and blushed, and the elastic middle stays yellow-green. This process gives "one part red", because the fermentation goes mainly along the edge of a leaf.
Formerly, the next step after "processing" was the placing on trays for further fermentation. Now the fermentation is stopped by hot air blowing into the drum to fix the tea leaf properties and green color.
The next step is the spherical rolling. It is typical of the light fermented oolong and includes three stages: the rolling in a linen bag, unpacking (the leaves tend to take original shape) and mixing in drum for a few seconds.
While the tea leaves are still hot, they are poured out on a thick cloth and wrapped, forming a large ball. A tea ball is placed in the machine with the rollers where it is slowly rolled and compressed. Then it is placed in the press machine between the two disks. The compressed ball is removed from the cloth and placed in a centrifuge, which breaks the ball ("open leaf" step). The last step in this cycle is drying in a case. This process is repeated 40-60 times to make a ball shape for each leaf.
The final drying is made in a special oven at low heat, then tea powder and stems are disposed, and tea is packed in large foil bags (typically 18 kg). The whole process takes 36 hours.
Although the most of the operations are made by small machinery facilities, the experienced technologists control all of them "by eye", "odor" and "touch". All the basic technological standards are maintained.