“Mei Gou la!!!!”.
I looked up to the sight of the local neighborhood kids running toward me. The kids all surrounded me laughing and jumping up and down. “Ba Bao!” They cried. While I didn’t understand much of what they said I had learned that this meant they wanted a piggy back ride. One by one I put them on my back ran around the front a little bit, and gave the next one a chance. This was a routine that had gone on everyday for the last week. The kids would get out of school and come run to play with the me.
Gande in located in the inner mountains near Anxi and is home to Tie Guan Yin. Tie Guan Yin is a personal favorite tea of mine. I never get tired of the easy drinkability and the justification of floral aroma and sour like finish that Anxi Tie Guan Yin gives you. I had come to Gan De through a friend who was from the village. This year across China the teas have been picking later, and Tie Guan Yin is no different. When we first arrived my friend thought the tea would be picking on the 5th, as it turns out the real picking was expected to start around the 8th. He had a shop to look after in the city and could not stay, but he offered me the opportunity to live with the family and wait for the tea to pick. This gave me the opportunity to experience village life the days before, leading up to and entering tea season. And so there I was in the village of Gan De, where not only did no one speak english, but they also spoke a local dialect of Chinese making the little Manderine I knew basically useless.
Of all the kids jumping around me and practicing the two english words they knew, “hello” and “bye bye”, four of them were part of the family I was living with. There were two boys, a girl ,and a small toddler. Of the two boys one was more behaved, the scholar of the family, while the other was more physical and had started more than one fight in the week I was there. The girl was cute but mischievous. She enjoyed finding out what she wasn’t able to do, like climbing over the balcony rail for example, and laughing as I tried to get her to stop. The youngest was about one. While he was the slowest to warm up to me, he grew quiet fond of me by the end. When the tea season was in full swing the mom would give him to take care of while she picked tea.
Most days began around seven am. Breakfast was simple, often congee with a little vegetables from their garden which had been pickled to preserve them. The kids would then go to school and the adults would go about their various tasks. At this time I would often go into the tea fields. The tea fields surrounding Gande, and most Tie Guan Yin villages, seem to go on for ever. They cover more then 75% of the slopes, taking up almost every mountain in sight.
Anxi is facing a problem with over cultivation that came when Tie Guan Yin was wildly popular around the 80s. That being said there were plots of land that still had biodiversity. It is important to understand with in famous locations there are small microclimates. They can be quite complexly broken up like in the case of Wuyi Shan where each area has a name and desirability; but often it is a little more general. Often villages will start by having teas growing within the village. The neighborhood I was staying in was along a road that curved around a small tea field. These teas are usually lesser quality due to the fact they are flat ground and the soil isn’t as rich. Then there are the teas grown outside the village. It is in these fields where you see the most differences in microclimate.
The land that is broken up in sections with each piece owned by a different family. What each family does with their land is up to them. Wether they want to keep it diverse and strive for better quality tea, or if they want to rip up all other plants and plant tea in order to produce the most quantity; this decision is up to them. What this means for the tea drinker is that just because two teas can be from the same location general, does not mean that they are the same tea at all. In Hou Keng I bought Hou Kui from two different fields, and not only was there a giant price difference there was a humungous taste difference well. (And we aren’t even talking about the different making practices of individual farmers either).
Around noon the kids would come back from school for lunch. After lunch they would play and do their homework. (Well the smart one would do his homework, the other two just played) then it was off to school again. With the morning chores done the adults had a little more time to relax. Neighbors often came and went, and the men would sometimes sit down to have some tea and smoke.
In my time here in China I have noticed a large difference in brewing styles between the tea shops and the farmers. Tea shops tend to go for beauty and form. Beautiful tea pots are used and tea shop workers often have a specific and sometimes strict way of serving the tea that they think brings out the best flavor an enhances the whole experience. The farmers not the other hand, tend to be a lot more casual about it; letting the tea do most of the work. Good Tie Guan Yin in the gong fu style can easily get eight steeps. The farmers rarely drank more than four.
Each steep was long and rough. Water was poured on and the gaiwan lid was put on loosely The steeps were very long from the beginning, with each person occasionally taking the lid off to smell it mid brew to see had the flavor had developed. What they were essentially doing was pushing the tea to the max right away. Long brews are a way of brining out the teas flavors, good or bad. When the goal is enjoyment, you can keep the steeps short and control the release of flavor. When you are trying to find out the honest flavor of the tea though, a long steep will bring out everything at once, letting you taste all the characteristics of the tea. For these farmers their whole life is connected to this tea. They care little for the atmosphere or ascetic of the tea brewing, they only care about what sort of flavor was produced in this teas making.
The afternoon did still have chores though. If needed, this is when dinner was prepared. Like I mentioned before the food was often pickled. The family did have a fridge, but they did not use it much. Instead they left the food on the table with a basket over it to keep the flies off. One plate would be present at two or three meals, unless it was really good then it didn’t last one. (Remember these dishes were almost always pickled so they didn’t go bad) Since there was no place to buy food near by, the occasional truck would drive by selling everything from meat to fruit to live animals. It was like Fresh Direct meets an ice cream truck. I would help take care of the youngest so the mom could do other work or relax for a bit. The screams of “Mie guo la!!” would let me know that the kids were home from school. It was then dinner and more games until bed time. In the week I was there I showed the kids the card game war, and I also managed to introduce Gan De to the high five. The first few days were slow and lazy, but as the time to pick tea drew closer activity began to pick up.
Each house has an area for making tea. A large garage like space equipped with rolling machines, a tumbler, a kill green machine and an oven. There was a separate room for resting the tea, but we will talk about that later.
While the days leading up to the picking were still slow, you could tell tea was on people’s minds. The first sign was when I went outside and saw the grandfather, who is apparently very well known for his tea, drilling holes in his rolling machine. These holes were for the broken bits to fall through during the rolling process. I think this was a technique he was pioneering because I saw no other machines with these holes. When I first got to the house the machines were dusty and had stuff piled on them. The loose clothes and toys were taken off the machine and they were tested to make sure they worked, repairs being made when needed. On one of my walks through the town I saw a truck dropping off a new rolling machine to a family. In the back of the truck were three or for more machines destined for other homes. The tea fields, which were empty when I got there, now had the occasional person in there checking on their tea. My anticipation for tea season was building. Then one day, after the kids had gone to school, I went outside and there laying out in sun was a fresh batch of tea leaves, just picked. Tea season had begun.