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The Traditional Processing of Wuyi Rock Teas: An Interview with Ling Ping Xang

Malaysian Tea Master Ling Ping Xang has been such an important part of the tea world for so long that it's difficult to describe his contribution concisely. He has studied tea art, culture and ware for more than thirty years, has graciously taught students for twenty, and has served as a liaison to large Western companies like Lipton. He also travels to China regularly to supervise the production of various kinds of tea, ranging from his amazing hand-processed rock teas reported here to high-quality cakes of Puerh tea from Yiwu and other regions.

(Wuyi Tea) is loved as the only son of mountain springs, twisted, reaching peaks, winding rivers and delicate Qi. It absorbs the unique essence of the world's spine, the fragrance of flowers and the strength of this strong place.

Oolong is the most sophisticated of teas. It represents the pinnacle of skill and accumulated tea wisdom passed from master to student throughout the ages. Whereas many kinds of tea are processed simply, Oolongs undergo a complicated procedure that will make or break the tea. The plant itself is only half of the equation. Great Oolongs represent the combined effort of several areas of mastery. The subtleties and elegance of Oolong teas are created through the magic of the land, the bush and the processing in harmony. If any one note is disjointed, the melody will be discordant. Master Ling Ping Xang has conducted such orchestras for more than fifteen years, and has taught them freely for many. He says that "the processing of tea began crudely in the nascent jungles of Yunnan and progressed slowly. The art spiraled upwards through time - finding its peak in the end, Oolong. And of the Oolongs, in my opinion, Wuyi teas are the masterpieces." "The art of tea processing finds its ultimate refinement in Wuyi tea." The blossoming flavor and long-lasting aftertaste of great Wuyi Rock Teas (yan cha 岩茶) are famous. Even in ancient times, the palace eagerly awaited its annual tribute from Northern Anxi Province.

The great acumen developed over centuries in Wuyi is still passed down from father to son today. Some of the best rock teas are produced completely by hand under the supervision of Master Ling. His decades of cultivated wisdom are evident in the first sip, as the tea unfurls over the tongue and upper palate, filling the breath with sweet depth and grace. He believes that Wuyi tea is special because of the place itself, so magical, and the advanced processing method that generations have carried into the present unhindered. It was a great honor to sit with Master Ling for a discussion of these two elements, and how they work together to make some of the best teas on Earth.

The Place

Wuyi is indeed gorgeous enough to seem otherworldly, as any traveler there would remark. It's one of those places that are so beautiful one can't make up their mind whether to even bother with the camera or not. The craggy mountains twist and turn upward to the sky, covered here and there with green that shines on the surface of the river on sunny days. Beyond its beauty, Master Ling believes that Wuyi is an ideal place to grow tea. He stressed that it was no coincidence the area was chosen for tea production. The volcanic limestone soil in Wuyi contains the perfect combination of minerals and sediments needed for growing tea. Moreover, the sunshine, rainfall and temperature are well suited for Oolong tea. Beyond the science of the soil and environment, the spirit of Wuyi is strong enough to be tangible. Master Ling mentioned that Wuyi has focused more than a thousand years of religion: it has been an important place for Dao mendicants, Buddhists as well as followers of Confucius. The years of meditation and prayer have made Wuyi even more special, but Master Ling emphasized that it was the place that summoned them there, that the natural Qi of Wuyi was not created by the eons of religion, but rather the reason for it. The soil, climate and Qi of Wuyi are all nonpareil, and find their reflection in Wuyi tea. Master Ling looked at me poignantly and said, "the beauty and glory of Wuyi Mountain - the cliffs, flowers, crystal river, the earth, sky and spirit of this Heavenly place are all expressed in a cup of good Wuyi tea."

The Process

The yan cha must pass through many stages in its production before it is ready to brew and enjoy, and if any one of them is done improperly the tea's quality will be compromised. Therefore, Master Ling oversees the entire process to ensure the highest quality tea. He offered to discuss each stage with us as it is conducted by hand, in the age-old fashion. He said there aren't any secret recipes involved; rather, the beauty of the tea depends upon mastery of technique gained only through experience. "Knowing how something is made isn't the same as being able to make it," Master Ling laughed. He mentioned that the tea-producers have been handling this tea for a long, long time, first watching as they were children, then participating more and more as they got older. The masters have lived Wuyi tea for decades.

The Harvest

Master Ling stressed that one can't underestimate the importance of the picking stage. A "Master Guide" must accompany the pickers to find the right bushes. There are no fences or boundaries in Wuyi, so the Master Guide needs t6 know the land as if it were his own backyard. Unknowingly harvesting leaves from someone else's bushes is a serious offense according to Master Ling. He said that in the olden days the owner of the bush was permitted to exact any punishment he wished on the culprit. Today, it is an unwritten law that the offender must pay the owner double what was taken, by mistake or intentionally. Consequently, the first job of the Master Guide is to lead the pickers to the bushes that they can pick.

At the start of the season local monks hold a large ceremony. They make offerings, burn incense and place fruit upon the altar before chanting through the morning. The Master Guide, the tea-pickers and porters are all blessed in turn before they set out. Master Ling said that they remain silent as they walk to the tea bushes for the first time. This comes perhaps from a tradition of keeping the locations secret or out of respect for the spirits of nature so that they help make the harvest more plentiful. They sometimes hike for miles in order to reach the tea bushes, which are often high up amongst the cliffs, which is why Wuyi tea is sometimes referred to as "cliff tea." When they arrive at the destination they can begin to speak. Even before the leaves are ever seen there is a reverence - a sense of spirit even amongst the lowest porter.

The Master Guide's second job is to direct the pickers, showing them exactly which leaves to pick. Tea leaves grow alternatively on their stems, not opposite from one another. Traditionally, only the first three leaves of each branch were taken. However, according to Master Ling, the increased demand for Wuyi yan cha has made the Master Guides more lenient. Nowadays, the leaves are picked down to what is called the "fish eye" (yu yen 鱼眼), a small curled leaf residing about five leaves down the stem. The leaves below the fish eye are reserved for next season. Despite the increased yield in recent times, Master Ling assured us that the leaves that are lower down, between the fish eye and the third leaf, are lower quality and later downgraded in the sorting, so that even today the first three leaves are separated and packaged together to create the highest quality rock tea. Master Ling then clarified that the picking process can become extremely complicated. He said that even the placement of the bush must be taken into account. "The side facing east will be blessed with more morning sunshine and therefore grow larger leaves that are opened more. The backside, on the other hand, will have more buds. These teas must be separated. Sometimes blends are made, if the mixture will have a better flavor, but all of this must be conducted by a master with years of experience." We were already amazed, and the story hadn't even reached the processing part yet.

After showing the pickers which leaves to take, the Master Guide can step back and supervise. Master Ling said that the best pickers are elderly ladies: "the picking is a delicate process. If a leaf is dropped to the ground it is considered spoiled and left behind. These older woman have the experience and dexterity to pick the tea with the most efficiency. Many delicate jobs are best performed by grandmothers, don't you think?" Master Ling then went on to say that the women often only pick the tea. Usually porters carry it back to the village. The paths are often steep and treacherous and the baskets heavy. When the tea is harvested to the fish eye the Master Guide will order the pickers to halt. They return to the village at a quicker pace than they walked on the way there, because the tea must reach the village as soon as possible to start the processing. Most of the entire process occurs in the same day the leaves are reaped.

Drying and Reduction

When the leaves arrive at the village they are gently placed on round bamboo trays. Master Ling says that sometimes a tarp is laid on the ground if the leaves are of lower quality or higher yield. The leaves are arranged neatly in a single layer, using as many trays as necessary, then left to dry. The leaves are dried because the moisture in tea leaves makes them too fragile for processing; they would only break. The drying, accordingly, prevents breakage by making the leaves slightly limp in preparation for the rest of the procedure. Master Ling said that there is never a moment where they aren't monitored. If it is too sunny or hot the leaves could be burned, which would ruin them. Also, if they are left to dry too long, they will become overly wilted and must be discarded. The leaves must reach the desired level of flexibility, no more or less. Master Ling underlines that like all the stages of processing Wuyi teas, even the simple drying of the leaves requires a certain genius.

Periodically, the trays will be brought inside and placed on shelves, where the temperature and light can be controlled more precisely. Master Ling called this stage "reduction." He said that when the leaves come inside out of the sun, they begin to stiffen again slightly. This is called "huan yuan (还原)" Chinese, which literally means "alive again." A master watches the leaves and moves them in and out of the room as many times as necessary to reach the desired flexibility. Much of this depends on the weather for that day, the time of day, the strength of the sun and the nature of the leaves themselves. "Like any aspect of life, it's about finding the right degree - in this case not too limp or too stiff. Just right." Masters know by sight and touch when the leaves are ready for the next stage. Master Ling said that harvest day is usually chosen at a time when there won't be any weather issues that could potentially disrupt production. Though contingencies are there, one has to wonder what kind of subtle changes would result if the tea were to be processed on a rainy day, and therefore dried indoors.

Shaking and Fermentation

The shaking part of the process is the very thing that separates Oolong from all other varieties of tea. A round, woven bamboo tray is held firmly in two hands and the leaves are vigorously shaken. Master Ling said that shaking the leaves requires great skill. There is a rhythm to the process that Master Ling humorously called a "tea dance." It takes strength and endurance to shake the leaves and wisdom to know when they are finished. Master Ling explained that the shaking bruises the leaves, which encourages fermentation. He said that the master producers try to bruise only the edges so that they will later develop a reddish hue that makes the leaves beautiful to look at and more delicious to drink. Apparently, it is quite difficult to achieve this by hand.

After shaking, the bruised leaves are placed on shelves to ferment. The shaking and fermenting will be continued at regular intervals until the master who oversees the production declares that the tea is sufficiently oxidized to move on to the next stage. It is this keen eye which distinguishes the masters from the skilled apprentices.

Frying

When the tea has finished fermenting it is time to fry it. The frying of tea serves two purposes, and according to Master Ling they are of equal importance. First the frying arrests the fermentation process. If the leaves were allowed to oxidize any more, they wouldn't taste and smell the same. "Again, it's about maintaining that perfect place right in between the extremes," Master L i n s said smiling. Secondly, the frying destroys certain enzymes in the leaves that give them a bitter, grassy taste. For that reason, (the frying of the leaves is often called the "kill-green stage", (杀青)".

When the process is done in the traditional way, by hand in a large empty wok, as it's done with Master Ling's teas, the person frying must know when the leaves are finished by touch alone. It takes many years of practice before a frier is allowed near the best quality teas. The fingers must remain firmly closed so that no leaves get caught between them. The leaves are pushed to the center and then stirred outwards again. Master Ling looked as if he was doing Qi Gong when he demonstrated the process. He mentioned that sometimes, if the leaves are slightly damp, the person frying will gently pull them up from the center and drop them to evaporate any excess moisture. The leaves must be pulled because they are too hot to reach under. The wok itself is also occasionally turned in a circular fashion to keep the leaves in motion, ensuring that they don't sear. "Besides the heat and moisture, a lot of things are going on at once during this stage. The person frying must concentrate. A lot depends on this phase of the process."

Shaping and Bruising

The shaping of the leaves must happen immediately after frying. Master Ling repeatedly highlighted how important this is. He said that the temperature mustn't decrease at all, that "not even one single second should be lost." This often requires the cooperation of more than one worker. The leaves are quickly carried to bamboo trays that have raised ribs woven into them. The shaping rou nian (揉捻) is done with rolling, kneading motions. Master Ling clarified that the shaping is done for several reasons. Firstly, it causes the leaves to dry in a curled shape that is both pleasing and saves on packaging space. More importantly, rubbing the leaves across the bamboo ribs bruises the cellular structure of the leaves. The combination of the curled shape and bruised structure will cause the leaves to slowly release their essential oils, flavors and aromas when they are steeped. "The heart of a tea, its flavor, depth and smell - its everything - must slowly unfurl just as the leaves in the pot do." The bruising also changes the way in which the tea will oxidize during the rest of production as well as when it is finished. Master Ling said that this is more important with other kinds of tea, like Puerh; Wuyi teas are roasted to prevent post-production fermentation.

Roasting

When the tea is shaped properly, it is ready to be roasted hong bei (烘培). Master Ling said that small factories that produce Wuyi tea by hand do not have time to complete the roasting during the harvest season. There isn't enough space or people to complete all the other steps and roasting on the same day. For that reason, only the best teas will be roasted start to finish on the same day. The greater bulk of the tea will go through a short initial roasting, called zhou shui bei (走水焙)", or "temporary roasting", which stops the fermentation process and puts the tea "on hold" for a short time. It is then carefully stored until all the tea has been gathered for that season. This could take days or even weeks depending on the factory and farm. When all the tea has been picked and processed, they are roasted together. The second roasting, referred to as "zhu bei (足培)" or "completing the roasting" is then conducted under the supervision of the masters. All of the laborers cooperate in this longer roast, which requires constant supervision. Master Ling said that any stage of the process can damage the quality of a tea, but that the roasting is perhaps more evident than the others. A poor roasting is immediately noticeable in the first sip.

In order to roast the teas compact charcoal is placed in wells. Rice ash is used to cover the coals, reducing the temperature to inhibit any flame. "The roasting must be through heat alone," Master Ling said. "Any fire will cook the tea." The tea is stirred and spread out regularly throughout the roast. Master Ling flashed us a knowing grin and asked if we knew when the roasting was finished. Of course we lightheartedly replied, "When it is just right." We were beginning to understand just how much experience and skill is needed to hand-process Wuyi tea in the traditional fashion - especially when the quality is important. Master Ling reminded us that some of the higher-grade rock teas, like second generation Da Hong Pao (大红袍) are only harvested in small amounts. They are worth a fortune, and if any part of the process is done incorrectly, the farmer will lose a lot of money in the downgrade. Mastery of each stage is paramount.

Sorting, Heating and Packaging

The teas are sorted on large tables by masters. The first three leaves, which are of higher quality, are separated into piles. The sorting is very time consuming, and done very carefully to maximize the amount of higher-grade leaves for market. Sometimes a winnower is used to remove dust particles from the lower quality leaves. This is the only part of the process that uses any kind of machinery.

Because the process takes a long time, the leaves will again be exposed to moisture in the air. For that reason, when the sorting is finished, the leaves are then roasted again for a very quick spell. This dries them out. Master Ling said that the best Wuyi teas are packaged while they are still hot from this final, swift roasting.

We learned more about Wuyi tea processing in those few hours with Master Ling than we had in our entire lives, and finished the interview with a sampling of two of Master Ling's Wuyi teas. He said that almost all of his teas are left to age for at least a year or two. He explained that when the teas are fresh the roast is often too overwhelming. "It will overpower the other flavors in the leaves themselves. If you let a Wuyi tea age for even just a year or two, it mellows and you can taste the natural flavors as well as the roast." Master Ling let us drink a new Rou Gui 肉桂, followed by a two-year-old version of the same tea. We found that his insight was right on the mark. The older tea offered a spectrum of subtleties that weren't available in the newer one, due to the strong roast-flavor.

We then ended with a 1999 second-generation Da Hong Pao 大红袍. It was one of the most amazing tea experiences of our lives. Master Ling reached deep into his backpack and pulled out a small Qing Dynasty canister. His eyes glimmered as he held it out and said "the beauty and elegance of Wuyi tea is expressed perfectly in this little can, sealed for seven years but still so fragrant and distinct." He handed us the can and we each opened it gently. The smell rushed forth as soon as the lid left the can, the aroma strong before it even reached the nose. Master Ling instructed that dry tea is best smelled with long, deep, slowly drawn breaths. We tried it and found the smell blissful. The liquor exploded in the mouth, like a lotus pouring open to the sky in a sudden floral ballet of grace, and the aftertaste literally stayed on the breath for hours. Everyone left grateful for Master Ling's generosity. On the way out, we asked him if he thought that Wuyi teas could be aged for a long time, like Puerh. He said that some people only like to age it for a few years, claiming that it has a peak and must be monitored so that it can be appreciated at the right time. However, he said that he personally thinks "the older, the better." He admitted with a smirk that he had a Wuyi tea at home that was more than forty years old. "Next time," he said with a wink.