In the extreme south of China, only a couple of kilometers away from Burma, lies beautiful Jingmai Mountain. From the top of its 1600m elevation, the villagers wake to the rooster crowing and admire a sea of clouds covering the valley. As the sun rises, the village square comes alive. It’s early Spring in Jingmai; the skies are blue and the mornings are chilly. Some street vendors serve rice noodles to folks gathered along the busy streets.
7 AM. The tea pickers are ready to go to work. They carry a large bamboo basket on their back that contains a couple of cloth bags in which they will put the harvested leaves, water bottles, packs of cooked rice and pickles. There’s no time to waste, the tea season has come, so the pickers climb in a truck or ride a motorbike uphill. In no time they will be in the tea gardens and will head home at sunset.
Jingmai is primarily populated by the Dai minority group. In a typical Dai house, sleepy folks put on a tired face. The sun is rising and they have to spread the leaves on bamboo mats before it’s too hot outside. It’s time for them to work, but it’s hard to wake up because they worked until one or two in the morning, processing batch after batch of tea. Tea is typically processed in the evening, the leaves rest for one night and are dried on the next day.
In Jingmai, the farmers traditionally make Puer tea; the leaves are processed the same way as green tea, but one major difference is they have to be sun-dried to retain their capacity to age. Some family members pick the tea while others process the leaves; it’s hard to do both during the busy seasons. Often, the villagers rely on workers from the valley during peak season; otherwise, they wouldn’t have enough workforce available to harvest all of the tea gardens.
10 AM. It’s getting hot outside. In the factory, typically on the bottom floor of a Dai-style house, it’s time to clean the mess made the day before. Hours of intensive tea making have left plenty of fresh tea leaves on the floor, and the dry air brings in dust.
At this time of day, friends might visit, or a quick nap is welcome. Those living along the main road might pause and have a look at the flow of ‘tea bosses’ driving up the hill in their SUV. They come here to admire the ancient tea gardens, the largest of their kind in the world. According to anthropologists, the tea plants were established about 1800 years ago by the Bulang tribes.
Twenty years ago, Jingmai was a secluded area only populated by ethnic minorities; very few Han Chinese would go there. From 2003 on, more and more tea buyers came to Jingmai in search of the precious old-growth Puer tea. A new road was built in 2010, and the local government applied for UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2013. Tourism has been on the rise for years.
12PM. While the tea pickers have a rest for lunch, it’s a good time to visit them and collect the leaves they picked in the morning. A flow of motorbikes go back and forth between the tea gardens of the central plateau and the small tea factories in the village, bringing back 50kg of fresh leaves each trip. It’s also an opportunity to bring drinks to the tea pickers (and have one for yourself): sweet milk for the ladies and Red Bull for the men.
Once the fresh leaves arrive at the factory, there’s no time to waste. The leaves have been tightly packed in large bags for a long time and they are heating up, which accelerates oxidation. It’s important to limit the oxidation process until the evening. If the leaves turn red, it will have an impact on the taste of tea. The fresh leaves are spread on bamboo mats in the shade and cool breeze of the factory. They are now entering the first controlled step of Puer tea processing: withering.
At this stage, the leaves are swollen with water, but after a couple of hours they will soften, which will make them easier to process. The withering time is controlled by touch and smell; the scent changes over the hours and an experienced tea maker just knows when it’s ready.
This time of day is quieter for the tea makers; they only have to keep an eye on the drying leaves and collect them once they have dried enough. Too much drying can have negative consequences, and the temperature under the full Spring sunshine can be quite high.
In the afternoon, the pickers are still harvesting the tea gardens. In Jingmai they have the chance to work under the shade of tall trees. The ancient tea gardens of Jingmai Mountain are almost entirely forested. This is an advantage for the tea pickers but also provides many beneficial services for the local ecosystem; among others, it prevents pests and disease from spreading.
6PM. The sun begins to set and it’s time for the tea pickers to head back. By the end of the day, they will have harvested about 50kg of tea leaves. The competition is fierce between the older ladies of the village. They’re the ones who wake up early and go back late, they’re used to picking tea, and they do it faster than younger people.
The tea makers wait along the road with a bag to collect the fresh leaves in one hand and a weighing scale in the other. It’s a bargaining game for everyone, at least for a short moment, and friendship is put aside. The most treacherous tricks are allowed in order to get a good price. But not to worry, the game is equal between the tea pickers and the tea buyers; it’s more fun than real competition.
Once everybody is home, it’s time to cool down and have a shower. Hot water is provided by solar panels, which means there is no hot water in the morning. Some heroic family members find the motivation to prepare dinner, usually delicious Dai-style food, spicy and sour. Fermented cabbage is a must-have, pork is a staple. Dinner is one of the only moments when the whole family is gathered together, to debrief on the day and gossip a little bit.
Just before dinner, the tea makers have taken care to start up the fires under the woks. These large cast iron pots can take up to an hour to heat up, so better to prepare in advance because the tea factory is filled with fresh leaves and some of them are displaying their first signs of oxidation. The withering leaves, spread out on the large bamboo mats, exude wonderful scents.
8PM. The first batches of fresh leaves wait in their bamboo baskets beside the tea makers who rinse the woks with thick gloves. It’s time to do the most important step in Puer tea processing: the kill-green process.
Also known as Sha Qing, the kill-green process consists of stir-frying the leaves for a duration of fifteen to thirty minutes. The purpose of this step is to cook the leaves, which helps release water content, and more importantly to heat the cells to stop oxidation. That way, the leaves will stop turning red. This process is used in green, oolong and Puer tea making. When making Puer tea, the leaves are fried at a relatively low temperature to allow some of the enzymes to stay active, allowing this type of tea to age over time. Puer tea will continue to oxidize and can be aged potentially for decades.
Processing tea in a wok takes a long time. Nowadays, many factories use kill-green machines which accelerate the process almost tenfold. However, the most precious leaves of Jingmai — those picked in the ancient tea gardens — are still processed in woks in most of the factories. This allows more control over the final result but also requires more mastery.
Performing the kill-green process feels a lot like being in a sauna. The woks are hot, the leaves are puffing steam in your face, and you cannot stop shaking them. It’s quite a demanding job physically, but the reward lies in the pride of making great tea.
In the back of the factory, a worker is in control of the rolling machines. The leaves are rolled for about ten minutes to help further release their water content and enhance their flavor. This step used to be done by hand, or more often by feet! Nowadays, machines have entirely replaced man for rolling. It’s a hard job that requires applying constant strength over several minutes; the machines seem better than men on all points for this job.
Once the tea is processed, it’s spread over more bamboo mats in the factory. In Spring, factory processing will typically run from 8 PM to 2 AM. A small tea factory with two woks can process about 100kg of fresh leaves per day, which results in 20-25kg of dry Puer tea. Once all of the fresh leaves have been processed, it’s time for the tea makers to call it a night and get well-deserved sleep. The day was long, and the tea farmers have to keep running in this two-month long marathon, every year, from March to May.
This story is only a glimpse of life on Jingmai Mountain. We have a lot of fun making tea in this beautiful place. Maybe one day you’ll have the opportunity to visit, and when you do, don’t forget: sweet milk for the ladies and Red Bull for the men.