The He family (pronounced Hə “huh”) produces every one of our teas from Laoshan Village. For 2013 Spring season, Verdant Tea was honored to introduce the He family’s world premiere of an entirely new category of tea with Laoshan Green Oolong and Laoshan Roasted Oolong. This year, we’re proud to continue sharing this innovative new kind of oolong tea again for the third time!
How is Laoshan Oolong Tea Made?
Laoshan Oolong began as a great idea from Mr. and Mrs. He’s oldest daughter, He Qingqing. Because of He Qingqing’s lifelong friendship with Weiwei Ren, our head of Sourcing & Logistics in China, Qingqing was exposed for many years to some of the finest Tieguanyin in the world. Last autumn (2012), He Qingqing alluded to her desire to try making a green oolong with her family’s rich and beany Laoshan tea leaves. We were ecstatic, and promised to buy the whole harvest. Despite oolong being one of the most intricately difficult and labor-intensive kinds of tea possible to produce, He Qingqing was true to her word: she and her family hand-picked and processed every leaf in the spring of 2013, and were rightly proud to share their innovative new tea with us when we visited Laoshan in May.
Over several days, the He Qingqing walked us through the intensive processes involved in making Laoshan Oolong, and we documented each step to share with you. Making just 10 pounds of tea takes 4 to 6 people a full 8 hours, not including time spent in the fields hand-picking the fresh tea leaves.
Step 1: Tea Picking
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 the 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 peaks.
Step 2: Air Drying 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.
Step 3: Withering
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: 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.
If the leaves are destined to become Laoshan Roasted Oolong, the leaves are transferred to sealed bags and placed in the sun to oxidize over three days. Laoshan Green Oolong leaves move to the tumble dryers to remove even more moisture and continue processing.
Step 5: Tumble Drying
The withered and inspected leaves spend about half an hour tumbling in special dryers, carefully heated and tended to remove moisture without burning or scorching. Mr. and Mrs. He carefully moniter the temperature of the dryers, and constantly check the leaves’ progress every ten minutes, both by feel and by eating the semi-processed leaves.
After tumble drying, the leaves are carefully inspected again. Any imperfect leaves and buds are removed, swept up and composted.
Step 6: Bruising and Rolling
This step is unique to Oolong processing in Laoshan. The tumble-dried leaves have lost most of their moisture by this time, and now spend a little over two hours over light heat in special pans. Slowly and carefully, the leaves are tossed back and forth, bruising and rolling into the trademark rolled oolong shape. It is this rolling over low heat that initiates the unique enzymatic processes the create oolong teas, ultimately adding complexity and depth to the finished tea’s body and aftertaste.
As with tumble-drying, the entire process is carefully monitored: the leaves’ progress is tested every few minutes by checking the feel and appearance of the dry leaves and eating the semi-processed leaves. After two hours, the now-rolled leaves return to baskets and are inspected one more time for imperfections. Any leaves that don’t pass muster are removed, swept up and composted.
Step 7: Dry Heat Finish
In this final stage of processing, the Laoshan Oolong is hand tossed and dry roasted over very hot air, traveling up through special perforated pans. The He’s keep the leaves moving constantly in the hot pans to make sure nothing scorches. Depending on how heavily roasted the final tea will be, this process takes between 40 minutes to an hour.
As with every stage in this process, the He’s carefully monitor the tea’s progress by taking samples of the leaves and eating them to check on the taste.
Step 8: Final Inspection and Tasting
The leaves are inspected one last time for imperfections. Any 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 intensely green: the leaves are still quite warm from their long journey through all stages 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 leaves cool and excess tea oil sets and fully dries.
Step 9: Brew and Enjoy!
All in all, from bush to final brew, it takes an entire 8-hour-day of intense, skilled labor to create just 10 pounds of finished 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 incredible, complex hand picked and hand 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.
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 this special, innovative new tea with the world on the He’s behalf again, and can’t wait to see what the He’s produce in the seasons to come!