Master Zhang and his family grow tea on the highest peaks in Anxi, past Daping Village. Getting up to his home and workshop is a long and winding drive, first through a series of long mountain tunnels – a modern convenience to cut down on the trip – and then up narrower and narrower roads with blind turns concealed by the morning mist. The first stop is lunch at Master Zhang’s favorite restaurant, a roadside family establishment where you claim a table and then walk straight in to the kitchen to see what ingredients they gathered for the day. After a fifteen minute chat about bamboo shoots, taro, and whose local rice they brought in for that day, lunch was set.
There is no food like tea country food. Every tea growing region in China enjoys some great advantages for their cuisine- the water and soil is some of the best in the world, and the people in villages like Laoshan or Daping make it their job to have the most refined palates in China for tea tasting. Those entrepreneurs that can make a countryside kitchen into a business are some of the most talented chefs in the country. The humility, talent, hospitality, and perfect growing conditions that surround teas like Anxi Tieguanyin cannot be contained and influence the food, the architecture, and daily social life in their villages. Our mountainside lunch was a welcome reminder of this and a transition from the big city into the world we love.
Continuing up into the mountains, the roads switched to gravel, and we stopped every time we passed someone on the road to say hello. They were all friends or family of Master Zhang. Finally, we broke through the mist to the highest peaks where we stopped the van. Master Zhang got out and picked some wild citrus for us to snack on while we hiked.
Master Zhang is both one of the most serious and most relaxed tea farmers we know. As soon as he is out of the city and off the road among his tea, he becomes a different person. He stops to smell the tea flowers growing around him, and feels at ease looking off into the distance for minutes at a time without trying to carry on conversation.
Master Zhang’s family has been growing tea in the mountain peak we stood upon for hundreds of years. He showed us tea plants that were three hundred years old. Unlike the wild trees of Qianjiazhai, Master Han remembers who planted these three hundred year old trees and who cared for them. He made sure that we could see the thick and gnarled trunks of his tea, explaining how deep the roots go. The deeper the roots, the more rocky mineral soil they can tap for nutrients, and the sweeter the water they can absorb from underground mountain springs.
Among the tea plants were wild flowers and medicinal herbs of all kinds. While the tea grew on terraces, it almost seemed to burst from its constraints, sending up new branches and shoots among wild trees, vines and flowers. Master Zhang is tending a delicate balance of wild and cultivated. The more wild he can allow his land to be, the more biodiversity and thus complexity of flavor. His job is to maintain the balance, and help the tea thrive.
We asked Master Zhang about organic farming techniques. He was almost puzzled by the thought. “Of course, everything is organic here. We take care of our plants.”
When your family has been tending the same land for three hundred years, you are in it for the long haul. Sustainability is not a buzzword for Master Zhang. It is the obvious and only way of life that will benefit his family. He allows flowers to grow to distract insects. He grows yellow beans for the insects to eat instead of tea, and mulches them into natural fertilizer each season to replenish the soil. He practices harvest rotation, allowing plants to rest unpicked for a season to gain strength and grow even deeper roots.
As he explained all the techniques he used, his tone was patient, like talking to children. For him the very question is puzzling. His entire livelihood is attached to producing some of the best tea in the world. To jeopardize quality for slightly increased yield would devastate his family, lowering the worth of their harvests, and making all the work they do hand picking and processing their tea a waste of time. Indeed, walking the slopes of Anxi, tasting the sweet water and breathing the clean air, Tieguanyin is growing in a true oasis. The flavor and aroma of the tea reflect this purity.
After hiking the fields, we walked to Master Zhang’s home. The first floor is his workshop and the second floor is where he lives. He apologized as he prepared tea for us. Normally he would make tea for customers in his shop down the mountain in Anxi. Very rarely do people visit his fields and his home. That means that he only had very simple, affordable Traditional Tieguanyin to brew. We asked him how it compared to the more nuanced Traditional Tieguanyin he sends us.
What he said stuck with us:“I love all my teas equally. The price doesn’t tell the story of the land, the water or the labor. All of my teas reflect this special place in very different ways. It is my responsibility to only produce what I love.”
Master Zhang’s passion for Tieguanyin is inspiring. No matter what he makes, if it comes from his workshop, he stands behind it equally, drinks it equally and enjoys it equally. It reminds us that one reason we fell in love with tea in the first place is because it helps reveal beauty in the smallest things. Tea is a humble plant, growing from the dirt. Yet the circumstances that must come together for tea are beautiful indeed- perfect soil, clean air, spring water, dedicated and passionate labor, and finally, openness and joy in the tasting experience.