We met Huang Ruiguang through our good friend Master Zhang, who worked with the Huang Family for years exchanging techniques and learning. He volunteered to drive with us to introduce his old friend and teacher and give us a glimpse into the world of Fenghuang Dancong. Master Zhang explained how Huang Ruiguang was responsible for teaching much of Fenghuang how to grow and process tea. He is the most respected palate in the area, with dozens of well-deserved awards to his name.

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As we pulled up to the Huang Family’s beautiful new workshop, high up the slopes of Wudongshan, the sliding corrugated steel barn door rolled back to reveal Huang Ruiguang’s striking figure – his family’s workshop was buzzing with activity, his sons and grandson carrying tea back and forth, his colleagues sitting and debating over tea; yet Huang Ruiguang stood with an air of calm and assurance that could only come from the man who rocked the industry, who built Dancong from nothing along with a handful of peers. He wore a pair of sunglasses worthy of a rockstar. He and Master Zhang share a certain resting expression of deep thoughtfulness that makes it easy to see how they worked and innovated together.

We were granted an incredible opportunity, a rare privilege to document the craft behind one of the greatest Dancong growers in Fenghuang. We were invited to watch the entire process, from raw leaves to finished Mi Lan Dancong. We have always been in love with Dancong for its incredible diversity of flavor and shape shifting complexity. We were eager to find out how much of what defines Dancong comes from terroir, how much comes from managing each trees picking, and how much comes from the complex craft of finishing the tea leaves as oolong.

Master Zhang and Hunag Rui Guang brew tea together

First Huang Ruiguang invited us to sit and try some of his favorite Dancongs: Jin Lan Xiang, Wudongshan Milan, and Ye Lai Xiang. We were blown away by the intensity of aroma, as well as the incredible potency of each steeping.

 

People in Fenghuang
don’t mess around with
light short steepings.

Huang Ruiguang used nearly 20 grams of leaf in his gaiwan and steeped for a good minute and a half for a bracingly intense brew. He insists on such a strong brew because it reveals everything about the craft behind a tea.

When other farmers in Fenghuang come to him for advice, he can taste from a strong brew exactly what shortcomings could be addressed through different craftsmanship. Huang Ruiguang explains that a perfect aroma can only be preserves in full integrity through perfect hand craftsmanship. Soon, we would have the chance to see and smell for ourselves.

But first, we were treated to an incredible meal- every ingredient, down to the rice, was grown and harvested from right nearby. Huang Ruiguang and his son explained that we needed a big meal to build the stamina for the work ahead of us. While Dancong is picked in the early morning, it needs to rest and wither throughout the afternoon before it is finally ready to handle in the late evening. As Huang Ruiguang’s nieces and nephews brought dish after dish, the whole extended family streamed in, filling three full tables. Spring is the busy season, so the whole family had been working hard picking tea.

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While the family dug into an elaborate meal, our table was served much lighter fare. Huang Ruiguang and his sons explained that while most of the family was done for the day, our work was just beginning.

Hand processing each leaf requires physical and mental preparation. Heavy meats, spicy foods or overly aromatic dishes could linger on the skin and influence the tea. We ate the locally harvested rice, boiled in sweet Fenghuang spring water, perfectly steamed wild greens, salads, and simple fish.

As we began to fill up on food, Huang Ruiguang’s son brought out a two liter plastic soda bottle, rinsed clean and filled to the brim with the family’s very own distilled rice spirits. Using local rice, sweet spring water and the craftsmanship of tea masters, the Huang Family offered up one of the smoothest, sweetest and most aromatic rice liquors we have ever tried. It had a similar proof to vodka, but retained much more flavor and aroma.

 

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After several rounds of toasting, we thought we were done, but another earthen jar was brought out. The seal was broken and liters of the family’s own medicinal infused rice wine poured forth. We celebrated the harvest with  toasts of their special fifteen year aged rice wine infusion.

This wasn’t just to drink and enjoy. Instead, the celebration was helping prepare us for making tea by relaxing the muscles and making the process more intuitive and instinctual. As we would later learn, overthinking the turning and fluffing process can cause the leaves to bruise and wilt, and destroy their unique aroma and flavor.

 

Finally,
we were ready
to make tea.

Leaves were already spread in circular bamboo trays; after two hours of wilting in bamboo baskets, they were ready for the all-important step of fluffing and turning.

This fluffing process is what defines the tea as oolong.

The light pressure and movement of the delicate leaves bruises them just enough to release the aromatics and create a deep lingering floral quality. Without the turning process, Mi Lan Xiang leaf can be made into black tea, which is significantly simpler to produce. Indeed, we walked by several kilos of Mi Lan slowly oxidizing without being disturbed. This tea was destined for Mi Lan Black, a deliciously aromatic black tea from the Huang Family.

 

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Rolling and oxidizing Mi Lan Black tea leaves

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Huang Ruiguang picked up a bamboo basket of leaves and braced it against his hips and the wall. In one confident shake of the basket he shifted all the leaves into a dense pile on one side of the basket.

He explained that the goal was to turn and flip the leaves in the pile on one end until they ended up in a pile on the other end. Every few hours, depending on the humidity and temperature throughout the entire night, each basket of leaves needs to be turned and fluffed – turned and piled in the center, then turned and spread around the basket – about three times. At first glance, this seems simple – indeed, many modern tea farmers choose to automatic this part of the process as much as possible. The trick is that applying any pressure or even the heat of a hand to the leaves risks over-exposing them, ruining the batch. The turning and fluffing process has to be slow and extremely delicate to yield the even pressure necessary to release the aroma of the tea without battering the leaves or damaging them in any way.

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We imagined that this meant delicately picking up handfuls of leaves and tossing them from one side of the basket to the other.

Then, Huang Ruiguang showed us
his incredible technique.

His hands never grasp or hold a single leaf. Instead, he uses quick motions – digging under the pile of leaves without applying pressure and quickly flipping the leave above, launching the leaves across the basket almost without coming into contact with them at all.

 

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In person, the way that he swirled his hands back and forth in a yin-yang circular pattern looked like a meditative and masterful form of tai qi. He was not concentrating on his motions at all but on the texture, aroma and appearance of the leaves. He adjusted his motions, speed and direction based on aroma, seemingly without thinking.

Watching his motions in contrast to his sons work was fascinating. Huang Ruiguang has practiced for so many years that he can turn and fluff leaves without damaging them while completely sober. His sons prepare for the process by imbibing the family’s incredible rice liquor. While Huang Ruiguang was fast and decisive, austere in movement and hard to even visually track while he worked, his youngest son fluffed tea with a fluid and flexible motion carried throughout the body. While Huang Ruiguang performed Tai Qi, his sons performed drunken kung fu. They hadn’t yet learned the austere economy of motion of their father, but their results were nearly equally perfect: fluffing every leaf without touching any single leaf or applying pressure.

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Now it was our turn to try. The whole family made it look so effortless that when we started trying to turn the leaves, we were surprised that they didn’t move themselves. Instead, we found this first round of fluffing extremely difficult.

Simply flipping and turning leaves without them flying off the basket was challenge enough! As soon as the brain is involved in thinking through the process, the whole thing goes wrong. Overthinking makes you grasp the leaves, which bruises them prematurely. As Huang Ruiguang’s son guided us, his constant advice was to let go, stop overthinking, and let the leaves do as they wished. Not an easy feat!

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Between each round of fluffing, we took a handful of leaves to the sitting room and brewed them up to monitor the progress. Even after one round of fluffing, the tea was already more floral than it was fresh.

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Finishing one batch of tea was not a simple one or two hour process. Since the leaves require resting time between each round of fluffing, the entire process starts after dinner and continues until the following afternoon.

As we moved between tasting tea and talking tea culture back to fluffing and turning tea, we noticed that it got easier for us to turn and fluff successfully. It seemed like the sleep deprivation actually helped suppress our habit of thinking while turning the leaves. The less we thought about our movements, the more successful we were.

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After over eight hours of fluffing and resting, we finally had a chance to compare our leaves to Huang Ruiguang’s.

What a difference!

Huang Ruiguang’s leaves looked as perfect and vibrant as they did when they were picked. Ours were all various levels of wilted. While we smelled and tasted our batches throughout the process, the floral aromatics in our tea peaked early and dropped off after several hours, faded from over-exposure and bruising. Huang Ruiguang’s batch remained potently sweet and floral throughout the entire process without any loss.

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By this point it was already morning. The fluffed and turned leaves were slotted into a hand-built special oven. This wood-fired oven maintained a perfectly consistent temperature through careful monitoring. Slots fit a dozen bamboo baskets of tea at a time. Huang Ruiguang’s sons monitored the baskets, removing them and allowing them to rest whenever they got too hot. The entire baking process added several more hours to the entire crafting of the tea, requiring careful monitoring throughout.

 

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The finished Mi Lan Xiang Dancong tea is a true labor of love. Even after the tea is packed and sealed, Huang Ruiguang and his family insist on a four to six month resting period for any roasted aroma to fade away so that when we finally drink the tea only the purest most refined florals come through.

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We came away from the Huang family’s astounding hospitality with a newfound respect for the craft of making tea. After seeing the subtlety, vision, and commitment that it takes to produce some of the finest tea in the world, we believe more firmly than ever that agriculture can be an art, a discipline from which emerge true masters worthy of the title.

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Every farmer that achieves mastery over a lifetime of commitment brings their own perspective and vision to their work.

We are the lucky beneficiaries of their craftsmanship in every sip of tea we taste.

Learning the intricacies of craft practiced across China is a window into the people who drive the industry as well as the core identity of each tea growing region. The minimal, hands-off approach of Master Zhou in Qianjiazhai reflects the wild untamed part of the world he calls home. The hearty, hands-on processing of Laoshan reflects Shandong’s straightforward style. The complexity and intricacy of Fujianese and Guangdong oolong craft grow out of the rich long history of tea culture in the region.

At the end of the day, we fall in love with tea again and again for the way it connects us to people and places.

Tea is honest and transparent in telling the story of its origins and crafting through the flavor, aroma and brewing experience. Master Huang Ruiguang reminds us of the passion and labor that makes tea so special. Knowing what goes into his tea makes it all the more rewarding every time we brew his perfectly-crafted leaves.

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