Surrounded by mountains and near sea, Fu’an City is the hometown of Tan Yang Gong Fu Black Tea. Located in subtropical zone and widely spread with thick, humus-riched, red and yellow earths, this region provides ideal natural conditions for tea growing due to the humid, misty and warm weather. All these conditions contribute to excellent tea characterized its good quality.
There are several kinds of tea leaves can be used for making Tan Yang Gong Fu. Among them the Wu Yi Cai Cha (菜茶) is regarded as the best. In additions to fresh leaves, the processing method is also important.
Tan Yang Gong Fu has won fame home and aboard for its beautiful shape and attractive aroma just because of its complicated processing steps. Developed from early herbal medicine making procedures, after years of development the modern way of making this tea is still complicated. From bitter newly picked leaves to finished black tea, the main processing procedures are: withering, rolling, fermentation, drying.
Till now, the traditional tools used for making Tan Yang Gong Fu tea such as old-fashioned bamboo braziers and baking cellars can still be found in tea famers’ house. Those tools are used for smoke baking, the last procedure, which not only helps evaporate excessive water but gives the finished tea some extra smoothness and fragrance which distinguish it from the others.
“Tan Yang Gong Fu” is a completely fermented tea which is renowned for its “dull red leaves and shinning reddish liquid”. Gong Fu (Chinese: 功夫) here implies that making this tea is not an easy thing, in other words, much time and efforts are needed due to its high quality requirements both in appearance and taste.
Picking one bud with one leaf/ two leaves as materials，the first step of making Tan Yang Gong Fu is withering which is crucial to tea quality. Spread out all newly harvested leaves in a large and flat bamboo baskets laid on a wooden shelf, to let out excessive water and grassy flavor to make them pliable and resilient enough to be rolled for further process. Usually about 1-1.5kg/m², make sure that the leaves are not too thin or too thick.
There are two ways of withering, one is called sun withering and the other is artificial withering.
Sun withering refers to the way of withering by spreading ready tea leaves on the outdoor bamboo flat baskets and naturally withered under the sunlight in the morning or evening.
Indoor withering is a natural process and needs appropriate conditions. Basically, it requires a special room especially designed for withering. Generally, those houses face north with operable windows for a good ventilation convenience to keep an appropriate room temperature of 22 centigrade and 70% humidity. Meanwhile, it is needed for experienced tea makers to slightly ruffle them with hands from time to time to keep temperature and thickness in a desirable level.
Excessive withering may totally spoil the internal organization of cells and bitter the taste. In contrast, if withered not enough, the processed tea incline to smell like grass and taste bad.
Rolling also has close connection with tea appearance and tea taste. This rolling action can let fresh juices inside the leaves out, which further enhances the taste of the tea flavor. Besides, this step also contributes to fermentation which makes dry leaves look more attractive in shape and have a good taste. High destruction rate of cell is good to the tea quality, but it does not mean the higher is always good. The appropriate destruction needs to be confined between 80-90% in order to keep tea leaves intact.
We usually take color, flavor and taste as elementary indicators when we try to figure out if one tea is good or not. Because the color, flavor or tastes actually are all the manifestations of the chemical changes happened in tea leaves interior in the making process. And these chemical changes (some catalyzed by enzyme) are subject to environmental conditions such as temperature, humidity, air quality.
1. Temperature. The indoor temperature of the fermenting room should be controlled between 22℃-24℃, the ultimate temperature is 28C and the appropriate time should be 2h-2.5h. Tea makers usually sprinkle water on the four walls to balance the room temperature if there is any sign showing that the inside temperature is too high.
2. Humidity. The appropriate relative humidity in fermenting room should be controlled between 85% - 90%.
3. Air quality. The fermenting room also needs to be well-ventilated and avoid direct sunlight.
After having being rolled, those tea leaves are going to be spread out in a flat bamboo basket up to about 4cm high, being extra careful not to press them and create enough air volume in tea leaves. The fermentation time depends on the temperature; generally, the whole process needs 3-5 hours in spring, 1-2 hours in summer.
The last step of black tea making is drying. Different from other teas like puerh, those half-finished tea leaves placed in bamboo drying frame are going to be fired twice with charcoal fire, at an interval of cooling time, in order to stop the oxidation process by curbing enzyme activity and shape the tea appearance.
1. First time – open fire and high temperature.
Overlay a layer of 2cm tea leaves in drying frame, then use open fires and shuffle them every one minute to actuate excessive water vapor out. It takes about 15-20min.
2. Second time- low temperature.
Different from the first time, this time needs to layer the tea about 4cm high, 0.5 hour time and 3 times shuffle. Let the bamboo drying frame leave the oven when shuffling to avoid overheating and scorch smell. See and wait them until they begin generating sweet aroma and have slightly spiny hand feeling.