Above is a close up of the tea leaves in their final moments of wilting and oxidizing. The significant level of oxidation required in making a Traditional Dong Ding Oolong can be seen in the discoloration of the younger, more tender leaves, and the kind of matte finish on the surface of the leaves. The degree of wilting is directly correlated to the degree of oxidation. This spring's growing season was during a drought. So the new leaf growth was particularly slow, resulting in thicker, more leathery leaf material, with significantly less water content.
During the final step of withering and oxidation, the leaves are piled on these woven bamboo trays to set for at least four hours. The chemical transformations in the leaves emit heat, which further accelerates the chemical process. At this point the leaves are exuding a heady, fruity/floral aroma that is inimitable (i.e. it's what we live for!).
This is an example of the level of oxidation that Traditional Dong Ding Oolong Tea makers are aiming to achieve. The tender new buds have almost completely wilted and oxidized, and the older leaves have a uniform coloration and texture to them. The stem has become supple, and evenly withered along the lower section. Again, this crop was challenging to process, given the weather conditions in the growing season, but experience and finesse have turned them into a quality batch of tea.
Our friend chose to only use one pot, or tumble heater, for the fixing stage. This would make it a slower and more relaxed tea making session, while allowing the leaves that were picked later in the day to oxidize more — resulting in a more uniformly cured batch of tea.
After the leaves are tossed in the tumble heaters at high temperature to deplete them of moisture and cease the oxidation process, they are gently wrapped in cloth, and stuffed inside the steam box. This allows them to redistribute their moisture, and become supple enough for primary rolling.
After they are sufficiently "steamed", they are wrapped more tightly in to a ball shape, and put into the "half moon roller" to gently bruise the leaves and evenly distribute the remaining sap throughout the surface of the leaf, and facilitate uniform oxidation.
In the far left corner, we can see the elder craftsman spreading leaves across the conveyor belt of the drying machine. At this stage, this machine simply serves the purpose of airing out the leaves and cooling them off before being wrapped in big bundles to redistribute their moisture fully overnight, before being rolled and dried the next day. The same drying machine will be heated the following day to fully dry the leaves as they are compressed and rolled repeatedly until they become little nuggets of whole leaf tea.
Our friend, who is sitting at the right, is a fourth generation Dong Ding Oolong Tea maker. He also manages large plots of tea in the Shan Lin Xi High Mountain Tea growing region, and cooperates with a friend/colleague to produce competition grade tea for the Lugu Farmers' Association. He has been a professional tea judge in this competition for over 20 years. He is one of the most skillful and qualified tea professionals we know. We feel very grateful to have become good friends with him over the last 20 years.
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