In general, the leaves are collected during the day and are processed in the evening. For practical reasons, some producers might prefer to keep the leaves overnight and process them in the morning. Here is an example of what happens every morning in Banpen, just near Lao Banzhang.
In this village, there are only three processing units. They buy fresh leaves from other farmers, process them in their structures and sell the mao cha to tea factories. This organization allows a better control of the processing to ensure a consistent quality.
The fresh leaves have been waiting for whole night, their time has come...
First of all, the wok are heated up. The fire control is very important, too much and the leaves would fry in the wok, not enough and the reducing will be too slow and inefficient. This moment of the day is purely magic, the birds are singing, the morning dew slowly evaporates under the rising sun. Many people are still sleeping, and the cracking of the fire announce the beginning of a new day, a new Shaqing session.
The leaves are processed in batch of 2-3 kg. It takes a few minutes to reduce the leaves in the wok. The intensity of the fire depends on the operator, those who have strong arms prefer to work at high temperature and shake the leaves energetically to prevent them from being stuck in the bottom of the wok.
A fantastic fragrance seize the atmosphere, the kind that can be found in very young teas. It smells green , chlorophyll, vegetation. Timing is important, too much time in the wok and the tea could have be a reddened, with muffled aromas and maybe a roast taste, too short time, and the microorganisms responsible for oxidation wouldn't be eliminated, which means the tea would acquire a weird taste and gove a sour liquor.
Here, the operator does not use gloves, I'm wondering how he can stand the heat. The wok is burning hot and you almost have to touch the bottom in order to shake all of the leaves. Even with gloves, it is not easy, you need experience to avoid burns. Hand processing tea is quite demanding for the body, you need good arms and a strong back, the operator often end up the session soaking in sweat because of heat and fatigue. A good tea requires care and effort, you really need to do it with heart.
When the leaves are out of the wok, they are a little bit sticky, we must ensure that the water evaporates well. The leaves are spread on large bamboo mats. After a few minutes laying there, it is time for the rollling process. In this workshop, they are first rolled with a small machine and the work is finished by hand. The machine avoids the effort and the final hand process gives a good aspect to the leaves.
Once the rolling is over, it's time to dry the leaves. In Banpen, a building is dedicated to this step of the process. Before being spread on large bamboo bowls, they are rolled for a last time in order to give a good look to the future mao cha.
The leaves stay in the greenhouse until they have dried out. The time required heavily depends on the weather. Under direct sunlight, it can take just a few hours, during the rainy seasons, they can stay more than three days.
Now, the sun is high in the sky, the cicadas are singing, the villagers queue up for the morning soup, the first cigarettes are being shared... another day has come in Banpen.