Hand Picked Tea Leaves And Stems
Two separate conversations this past week brought up questions about the stems of hand picked tea leaves.
First, we talked about how necessary or beneficial it is to remove the protruding stems after the leaves are dried and tightly rolled. I have always appreciated a sort of natural aesthetic of letting the stems remain attached - similar to stems of vegetables that are quite edible and flavorful. My friend who participates in virtually all Taiwan tea competitions supports the removal of stems however, not only for cosmetic/appearance purposes, he says - but also because it maximizes the density or richness of the brew. I guess the most prestigious chefs would only use the nicest tips of broccoli flowers for their gourmet dishes as well. I still maintain that it is a matter of aesthetic preference that may be influenced by formulated standards of quality.
The second question was about what determines the length of the stems to which the tea leaves are attached. This question was prompted by brewing some High Mountain Oolong Tea that was harvested at a later date this past winter. The length of stems is determined by the weather conditions during the growing season. Typically, summer produces the longest stems, when the plants are growing the fastest. This past winter, the weather was unusually cold and dry early in the growing season. So farmers who harvested their crop relatively early (late October) got slightly immature leaves with short stems. At the end of the growing season, we got some rain followed by weeks of warm weather. So farmers who waited to harvest until mid-late November picked fully grown leaves with stems that were unusually long for winter tea due to this late growth spurt. Both harvests have their strong and weak points in the characters of the tea produced. As with all agriculture, we can learn to acknowledge and appreciate the variations that result from nature in constant flux.
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The medium oxidized leaves have undergone extensive, repeated roastings that have resulted in a very balanced, integrated character. The initial steepings offer a freshly cut wood aroma with a toasted nutty flavor. This proceeds to open up into a sweeter, more complex profile that is strikingly reminiscent of roasted winter vegetables, including parsnip, caramelized onion and butternut squash.
Mr. Zhang's father cultivated tea on their homesteaded land in Xiaobantian, on the southside of Lugu Township, where he grew up in the midst of traditional tea making. At 20 something, he decided to embody his local tradition by clearing land to cultivate his own plot of tea. For the last 20 years, he has managed his own humble, privately owned plot of tea. Throughout this period, he also acquired seasonal work in tea factories in Lugu, Shanlinxi, Alishan, Fanzaitian, and Lishan. In a word, he learned the ropes of tea making in a comprehensive way, like most tea farmers of his generation. Lugu hosts the highest concentration of tea makers in Taiwan, and is a hub of specialty tea making culture.