In every tea legend, the greatest discoveries are always accidental, or acts of nature. You do not set off with a goal and accomplish it. Instead, the myths involve gracious farmers intertwined with the pull of fate directing the advancement of tea. Our trip to Anxi and meeting Master Zhang feels like a small tea myth.
We never planned to meet with Master Zhang; he never intended to work with us. We had a whole Anxi itinerary lined up for the third day of trip, but we ended up succumbing to too much tea from a source we won’t be working with in Xiamen. Drinking lots of fine tea makes you feel like you can fly. Drinking lots of less than great tea takes more of a toll. We thought it best to postpone our trip. We later found out that the day we had originally planned would have been a disaster: everyone was out on the mountainside picking and wouldn’t have had time to meet with us.
Luckily, our full time representative in Xiamen, Wang Huimin, is very well connected. Through a friend of a friend, she arranged to meet Master Zhang. He just happened to be in Xiamen the day we wanted to visit, so he was able to pick us up and drive three hours out to Anxi, which proudly declares itself “The Tea Capital” in big letters across the main square.
Master Zhang is an incredibly soft-spoken gentleman of a tea farmer. He dressed in a fine suit to meet us. Wang Huimin is extremely charming, chatting with him all the way to Anxi about how wonderful it would be to work together. He politely evaded these discussions, and evaded the idea of going out to the tea fields together. In the legend, he would be the noble guardian of the tea, and we would be the adventurers who must first pass a test.
Master Zhang’s “test” meant stopping in Anxi where he stores much of his fresh Tieguanyin in a walk-in cooler at -13 celsius and sharing a few cups of tea. He made us several different Tieguanyins, all fresh vibrant green. As we tasted the tea and excitedly began to describe its flavor, his eyes lit up. Talking about taste is his favorite thing to do. Quite and reserved on the car ride, Master Zhang eloquently expressed his opinions on the ideals of Tieguanyin, and pointed out the best elements of each tea.
Next, conversation turned to our interest in tea, and in tea’s connection to Chinese philosophy, history, and literature. We talked about how sharing tea is an act of cultural exchange, and a way to facilitate understanding across great distances using the senses.
Seeing our intent, and realizing that we could respect his tea, Master Zhang told us that we had come at the perfect time. He had just finished his early spring batch of tea, and he had another few days before having to start preparing for the main spring batch. We came on the perfect day, and met the perfect farmer whose devotion and interest aligned with our own. Master Zhang was willing to take us up two hours further into the mountains past Daping village and to his tea fields and workshop / house.
Past Anxi township, the road ascends straight into the clouds, literally. The clouds were drifting over the mountain peaks, leaving about ten feet of visibility on the winding roads. Wang Huimin really wanted us to be able to get some beautiful photos of the tea fields to share, and Master Zhang and I really wanted to make it through the drive without flying off the road. Light hearted, Wang Huimin took off her Buddhist prayer beads and invoked the Buddha to clear the road of clouds and mist. We all thought it was a little funny, Wang included, but within ten minutes, the clouds broke, revealing a sweeping mountain landscape dotted with houses and terraced tea fields, bright green against the receding white mist.
At every turn Wang Huimin would exclaim over the beauty, and ask if these were Master Zhang’s fields. At every turn, he would say, “We still have to go higher.” At the very peak of the mountain near Daping, Master Zhang pulled the van aside, smiling as he showed us his fields. The leaves on his tea plants were so green and plump, they looked like they could burst. We all took a handful of fresh Tieguanyin leaves and ate them raw, tasting the naturally intense sweet green floral nature of the plant.
Master Zhang and every other farmer on the Daping mountainside practices traditional organic farming. When you are in the fields, it is so clear, as wildflowers grow between the hedges of tea, and the leaves are clean enough to eat raw. Farmers as lucky as Master Zhang to cultivate tea grown on perfect mountain soil fed by sweet springs don’t need to worry about the same things conventional farmers do. Just getting the tea picked and brought out is the biggest challenge.
We drove on to Master Zhang’s family home and workshop. His mother was outside, washing sweet cabbage that she grows alongside the tea to keep the family well fed. His tea withering room and roasting room are perfectly organized and immaculately clean. The top floor of his house consists of a balcony overlooking the sweeping mountain range, a tasting room, and a laboratory. Master Zhang has invested in equipment to confirm the moisture levels in each harvest, and chemical analysis equipment that helps him track the way the mineral content of the soil changes over time and confirm that his tea is completely clean and pure. The lab is his scientific way of keeping an eye on the environment and safeguarding the precious soil for future generations.
After sitting for another round of tea and talking about our shared goals, Master Zhang decided that he would be willing to work with us. He is excited about the prospect of sharing his tea across the world, and bringing honor to Anxi. His vision for pure hand picked and processed high mountain Tieguanyin is strong and unwavering. For him, the chance to spread that vision westward is a chance to create a stronger demand for “true” Tieguanyin, and in the process, strengthening the future of Tieguanyin grown with care.