Generally, roast is talked about a lot more in coffee than tea. Tea can be roasted, too!
In fact, heat is a critical, almost universal step in finishing everything from green tea to Big Red Robe. The Li Family in Wuyishan is working to bring the conversation in tea back to the roast, and so far, they’ve been racking up awards across the board for their unique roasting work.
But what makes hand-firing unique in the world of roasting craft?
As it turns out, most roasty teas are simply baked to get that dark flavor. The electric ovens common in the industry might make roasting faster, but as Mr. Li explains in this video, the problem with oven-roasting is that you have no fine control. You are stuck with whatever comes out, with some leaves over-baked and some under.
Compare this to the labor-intensive process of hand-firing in bamboo baskets over special local Wuyi hardwood embers and you get something completely different.
Mr. Li cites a study done at Wuyi University on the effect of the rising radiant heat of hand-firing and it yields a chemically different caramelization process than the heat of an oven.
How does this play out in the cup?
With hand-fired teas, you get deep, more potent aftertaste. The deep roast doesn’t ever overwhelm the natural qualities of the tea itself or the Wuyi terroir, but rather tends to intensify them. This is the magic possible when a real craftsperson is hand-turning the leaves, controlling the heat by piling ash over the embers or scraping them bare, and knowing by smell when the tea is exactly at the perfect moment to pull and rest.
This process is a lot of work. From personal experience, I can tell you that Mr. Li would not do it if it did not give something incredible to his family's teas.
The roast process takes about fifteen hours, followed by a month of resting, and often several rounds of re-roasting over many to control for moisture and get the perfect results. We were invited to film this highly specialized work of hand-firing, and within a minute of entering the roasting room, our camera malfunctioned from the intense heat. That’s how intense the Li Family’s commitment to old-school craft is.