Heaven is in the sky, Hangzhou and Suzhou are on earth. This is a Chinese saying to describe the beauty of two cities, Hangzhou and Suzhou.
My time in Suzhou started two days ago when my friend Aaron picked me up from the train station. I met Aaron on a past visit to China. His parents are Bi Lou Chun farmers in Dong Ting and he had agreed to show me their field and how it is made. Upon picking me up one of the first things Aaron said to me was “There is no Dong Ting Shan.” I paused, confused. He continued “Dong Ting is not a mountain (shan), it is an area and within it there are two mountains, east and west.” I laughed. As it turns out he had been reading my blog and while he enjoyed it there were some errors. Dong Ting refers to the general area that the mountains from where Bi Lou Chun originate are from. The two mountains, east and west, have no real specific name. I assured him, slightly embarrassed, that I would correct my mistake.
We had dinner at a local restaurant and went to his house where I would be staying with him and his family in the area of Dong Ting outside of Suzhou. His street was pitch dark because the one street light had broke and no one had come to fix it. “Welcome to the country”.
We set up my mattress on his floor and then sat down to have some tea. First he offered me some red tea from the area. When I asked about it he said that this was something they made from the later picked plants. “Green tea sells for the highest price so we always make that first”. The red tea he said, was from less desirable pickings.
On his table there were an arrangement of pots and gaiwans which he had brought out for me. He asked me to choose which one I wanted to use and I naturally reached for the gaiwan and started my usual pouring method. When it came to he rinsing out the of first brew he was amazed. “So professional! We usually just put it in a cup.” Green teas in China are most commonly drank by just putting the tea leaves directly into the cup you are drinking from, so in a green tea region is it natural that they just brew red tea in the same way. The farmers view of tea is all about practicality. In starch contrast to tea houses and “tea masters” who brew in beautiful tea pots with elegant movements, farmers just brew in which ever way is easiest and will bring out a good flavor.
Next we began to drink his family’s green tea. In one cup we put a late pick in of Bi Lou Chun and compared it to an earlier picked one. “Late picked Bi Lou Chun is just bitter, nothing else.” He said observing a glass of late picked Bi Lou Chun. He then picked up a glass of earlier picked Bi Lou Chun. “When it is picked earlier it has more flavor. The flavor is softer though, sometimes you have to close your eyes to really get it. The color of the tea is also more yellow and it has hairs”. When a tea bud is picked it grows back, but it grows back with weaker and with less flavor than before. Because of this earlier picked green teas are more desired because they have more flavor and complexity.
It was already midnight by then and we had to get up early the next day, so we cleaned up and went to bed, but I had one last question to ask. “Does this area ever make white tea?” He looked at me confused. “Ummm” he paused “Anji baicha is from a different region” “No, I meant white tea, the category.” I said. “What is white tea?” He asked. I proceeded to explain to him that white tea was a category of tea that was not exposed to high heat during its making. He was amazed. Growing up in a green tea region, he had never heard of white tea.
“But how do they dry the tea enough that it doesn’t go bad. How can the mere sunshine do it?” I paused and realized I really didn’t know enough about white tea to answer that. “I guess so. I will find out for you” We both laughed.