Pu-erh tea processing

Written by William le 14 january 2012

After plucking, the fresh leaves are collected until the evening. In the big factories, they are spreaded on an aired surface to avoid fermentation and to keep the leaves clean. In a tea farm, the leaves are just spread on bamboo mats.

Once enough leaves have been collected in the tea factory, the main step of the process can start: sha qing (aka kill green process). The leaves are ''reduced'' in a large wok. The goal of this operation is to neutralize the enzymes which, otherwise, would cause the leaves to die, like autumn leaves. the operator can control the fire and the way he shakes the leaves in the wok. It is important to keep shaking the leaves during the whole sha qing to prevent the leaves from frying.

If the leaves have not been reduced enough, the tea will be sour and weak. If the leaves are left too much time in the wok, they will start to fry and tea will have a roasted taste.

Hand processing tea is very much like stir-frying vegetables. The basic concept is simple but it takes times to get it perfect.
To shake the leaves in the wok, the operator can use brushes, but 
most of the time, they use only gloves to stand the heat.

A machine can do the sha qing, it is faster and gives good results. This machine is called a sha qing ji. It's a rotative cylinder heated by wood or coal. The tunnel, in the cylinder, is threaded. The leaves are automatically pushed from on side to the other of the machine. They pass through very hot air and are reduced in a few seconds only.

Hand process is still widely used in the producing areas. It allows a better control than using the machine. That means quality can range from perfect to very bad. The machine can give more constant results although it can be harder to set up. Some people argue that a good machine can give same quality as a wok firing.
After Sha Qing, the leaves are smaller but there's still a lot of water in the stems. The next step of the process is called Rou Nian (rolling). The goal is to break the stems to liberate the water, and to give a good shape to the leaves. It is a crucial process for the development of the aromas. The rolling process can be done by hand or with a machine.

Hand-rolling gives a beautiful shape to the leaves but it is very tiring to do it. Tea producers prefer to use a machine when they can. Some do most of the rolling with a machine and finish it with a hand massage to give a good look to the leaves.

The leaves are then ready for the next step: drying. They are spread on bamboo mats and left under the sun for drying. When the weather is good, it only takes a few hours. When the sky is covered with clouds, it can take more time. The worst of the case is during the rainy season, in summer. When it's raining, the leaves are put to dry under a roof, in a small greenhouse or inside the farmer's house. In rainy conditions, it can take up to a week to obtain a dry leaf. Of course, it will have bad consequence on the quality. Summer tea, also called ''tea of the rain'' is often weak and have off flavors.

Once the leaves have dried out, tea, now called mao cha, is put in large bags and are stored in the factory. The farmer must make sure the wharehouse is clean and exempt of strong smells. Unfortunately, some farmers, in remote areas, can only stock tea inside their house, in the unique big room of traditional houses. Poor storage conditions can result in smokiness in the tea.  

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