The He family (pronounced Hə “huh”) produces every one of our teas from Laoshan Village. While the best known and most traditional tea produced in Laoshan Village is Laoshan Green Tea, in recent years, the He Family’s Laoshan Black has quickly become one of their most popular teas! Known for it’s distinctive malty, chocolatey and naturally sweet flavor profile, Laoshan Black tea exemplifies the way that careful processing alone can transform the flavor profile of a single region’s tea to create a completely new and distinctly original kind of tea.
How is Chinese Black Tea Made in Laoshan?
Over several days this Spring, Mr. and Mrs. He and their daughter QingQing walked us through the intensive processes involved in making Laoshan Black Tea, and we documented these steps to share with you. Making just 10 pounds of black tea in Laoshan takes 4 to 6 people three full days to process after picking! This is true even for Yu Lu Yan Cha: while Yu Lu Yan Cha’s leaves are grown and picked in Xinyang, Henan, the finishing and processing happens in Laoshan Village where it’s made into a black tea in the same way as Laoshan Black. Whatever tea you’re making, the first step always begins with hand-picked, pesticide-free fresh tea leaves.
Step 1: Picking Fresh Tea Leaves
The He Family starts picking their tea at about 5 o’clock in the morning. The tender tea leaves and fresh buds are picked by hand from low tea hedges. An early start ensures no one is picking in the more intense heat and humidity of midday beneath the greenhouse tarps; instead, production moves inside to the workshop once the sun rises over Laoshan’s mountain peaks.
When the tea is not being picked, each hedge of tea bushes is covered and shaded with tarps, and the entire field section is enclosed in a green house to protect the growing buds and leaves from the elements. The hedges are hand weeded each evening, and any weeds are collected in buckets to be composted.
Step 2: Air Drying Black Tea in Bamboo Baskets
In a day, two people can usually pick in total two large baskets full of fresh tea leaves. After processing, this will become just 10 lbs of finished tea. The fresh leaves first sit and air dry for 3 to 5 hours in racks of bamboo and wicker baskets.
For Yu Lu Yan Cha, the Xinyang Maojian leaves arrive fresh and go straight to withering upon arrival at the workshop in Laoshan.
Step 3: Withering Black Tea Leaves
The air-dried tea leaves travel through a long rotating drum, carefully tended to maintain a temperature that withers the leaves without scorching or burning. This process takes about 30 minutes per basket of tea.
Step 4: Black Tea Leaf Inspection and Sorting
Once withered, the leaves are carefully inspected for any imperfect leaves that may have become torn, scorched or overly dried during withering. Stray stems, tea flower petals and tea berries are also removed during this step.
Step 5: Curling Black Tea Leaves
The withered and inspected leaves are then curled into the distinctive twisted shape. Laoshan Black Tea is curled with the help of special curling machines, made up of two rotating plates spinning against one another. Though the tops of the curling machines appear to be tightly closed, they’re actually in place just to prevent leaves from falling out as the discs spin. Only the weight of the leaves above press the bottom leaves against the rotating plates. In this way, the leaves are very gradually and gently curled over one hour. The speed of the plates are also carefully controlled to eliminate excess heat caused by friction.
After curling, the leaves are carefully inspected again. Any imperfect leaves and buds are removed, swept up and composted.
In contrast, Yu Lu Yan Cha is not twisted with curling machines. Instead, withered and inspected Xinyang leaves destined to become Yu Lu Yan Cha skip the curling step and go straight to oxidization.
Step 6: Oxidizing Black Tea Leaves Traditionally
The curled and inspected leaves now spend three days oxidizing traditionally. The leaves are gathered and sealed in special bags, then placed outside for the heat of the sun to complete the oxidization process that makes black tea unique. In parts of southern China, like Fujian, farmers can use special oxidization machines or ovens to oxidize their tea in as little as two hours. Tea farmers in Laoshan Village does not use this specialized equipment, and instead uses the traditional, rustic original methods still in use across Yunnan.
The leaves must be carefully tended and monitored during this process. As QingQing describes, you have to watch to make sure that the color of the leaves are just right before finishing Laoshan Black Tea or Yu Lu Yan Cha in the tumble dryers. Otherwise, you won’t have the correct amount of oxidization necessary to give Laoshan Black teas their distinct and natural chocolate / malt flavors.
7: Tumble Drying Black Tea Leaves
The oxidized leaves spend an hour to an hour and a half tumbling in special dryers, carefully heated and tended to remove moisture without burning or scorching. For Laoshan Black Tea and Yu Lu Yan Cha, this is the final step in processing. Mr. and Mrs. He carefully monitor the temperature of the dryers, and constantly check the leaves’ progress every ten minutes, both by feel and by eating the semi-processed leaves.
The tea leaves do not spend all of their time in the dryers, however. They come out half way through the tumble drying process for a round of inspection, removing any imperfect leaves and buds. After a thorough inspection, the tea leaves return to the tumble dryers for final finishing.
Step 8: Final Black Tea Inspection and Tasting
The tea leaves are inspected one last time for imperfections. Any tea leaves that don’t pass muster are removed, swept up and composted.
Then, the just-finished tea is tasted for the first time. The flavor of new tea is uniquely vibrant and intense: the leaves are still quite warm from their journey through the last stage of processing. The taste of the tea will change even more over the next 48 hours, mellowing and settling into it’s final flavor as the tea leaves cool and excess tea oil sets and fully dries.
Step 9: Brew and Enjoy!
All in all, it takes three full days of skilled labor (plus all of the time picking!) to create each finished bath of Laoshan Black Tea. In every step of the process, the tea’s changing flavor is carefully monitored and tasted. Any imperfect leaves are carefully removed between each stage. These broken leaves could theoretically be collected and sold as a lower grade of tea, but the He family instead removes the sweepings and dustings and composts them.
What remains is a beautiful, complex hand picked and carefully processed artisan tea from the He Family farm. Specialized machinery in the workshop aids each step of the process and allows for larger quantities of tea to be finished in a day, but everything must still be constantly, carefully monitored, checked and adjusted by hand. In Laoshan, oxidization, the most important step in making black teas, is still completed in the original, traditional method, without the aid of specialized equipment or machinery.
As with every tea produced by the He Family in Laoshan Village, the final brew you taste in your cup at home is a labor of love and dedicated, passionate perfectionism on the part of the entire He family. We are honored to share the He Family’s black tea on their behalf every season, and excited for the opportunity to share new innovations from Laoshan Village like Yu Lu Yan Cha. That’s why we’re dedicated to spreading appreciation for the He Family’s craft and their unique black tea with the rest of the world.