From terraced fields to teapot: a journey through Hangzhou's Longjing tea production
The harvest season for Hangzhou Longjing tea officially started on March 13, which means the tenderest leaves must be collected within two weeks. The peak picking time is expected to arrive on March 20.
"Last summer, the higher than average temperatures and rainfall caused difficulties in growing Longjing tea. We immediately rushed to trim the trees and lower the impact," explained Shao Jinghua, a tea expert from Hangzhou Agriculture Bureau. "This spring, moderate rainfall and favorable weather will increase the production, and the quality will be better than last year."
The first crop of tender leaves comes from Longjing 43, a national-level variety that is selected from the vast Longjing production area. The pre-Qingming tea, or Mingqian tea, picked before the Qingming Festival is said to be the best of its kind.
Mingqian Longjing tea is often treasured by tea connoisseurs, as it is characterized by tender leaves and a mellower taste. The tea picked between the Qingming Festival (which falls on April 5) and Grain Rain (which falls on April 20) is the next highest grade and is known as Yuqian, literally meaning tea before Grain Rain. The quality is better than the leaves picked after Grain Rain, but not as good as Mingqian Longjing.
Longjing is considered one of the best green teas in China. Hangzhou has rigidly designated the production area of authentic Longjing tea, extending to Hupao Pagoda and Maojiabu Village in the east, Yangfu Temple and Longmenkan and Hejia villages in the west, Shejing and Fushan villages in the south, and Laodongyue Temple and Jinyujing Community in the north.
Last year, Hangzhou produced more than 502 tons of Longjing tea with a production value of 560 million yuan (US$82 million). However, the COVID-19 pandemic hindered many local tea plantations from recruiting labor, which increased the cost. This year, personnel recruitment is no longer a problem for local plantations. In the production area, about 1,600 pickers have already started plucking tea leaves. During peak days, about 8,000 to 9,000 will be busy in the terraced tea fields.
"My plantation has recruited 15 pickers now. The first batch of packaged Longjing 43 is priced at 2,000 yuan per kilogram," said Sun Jianwei, who grows over 6,000 square meters of Longjing tea. Most villagers in Hangzhou's hilly areas earn a living from growing Longjing tea.
To promote efficiency, some farms are using drones to transport tea leaves from picking sites to processing workshops, instead of waiting for pickers to carry them down hill slopes. This can cut transportation time by about two hours and, in return, help maintain the freshness and aroma of tea leaves.
Local departments have dispatched about 2,000kg of free oil for frying tea. Temporary logistics spots have also been set up in communities in efforts to deliver the freshest tea to customers. To enhance efficiency, automatic machines have been used to do some fixed procedures, including drying, softening and shaqing (杀青).
Shaqing is an indispensable step. An enzymatic oxidation process triggered by the plant's enzymes causes the leaves to turn progressively darker as their chlorophyll breaks down and tannins are released. This darkening is stopped at the shaqing stage, which deactivates the enzymes responsible.
"The whole processing combines machines with manual frying. Machines cannot replace the frying by veteran farmers," said Yao Bo, workshop manager of Hangzhou Longjing Tea Co.
As a key procedure during the processing, the skills applied to frying impact the aroma of the precious tea leaves. In Hangzhou, all the plantations adhere to the practice of frying tea leaves by hand, instead of using machines, as hands can better sense temperatures and adjust the frequency of stirring. This method is considered the core in maintaining the natural fragrance of the tea.
The harvested tea leaves go through 10 hours of processing before being packaged in tins. Without careful moisture and temperature control during manufacturing and packaging, the tea would lose its natural aroma.
"Our workshop can process about 1,000kg of fresh tea leaves and produce about 200kg to 300kg of packaged tea," Yao noted.
To protect the authentic Longjing brand and ensure farmers' profits, officials have launched a digital management platform and linked it to Hangzhou's City Brain system. All statistics are shared among different authorities, ensuring that every production and sales procedure is under the government's supervision.