Making Bi Lo Chun tea
If you are familiar with Bi Lo Chun (green snail spring) tea you know it has a wonderful, big, sweet aroma and a distinctive snail-like curl to its dried leaf shape which gives it its name.
A few years ago I took an unforgettable trip to China for a guided tour of their tea industry. It was led by knowledgeable and gracious Tao of Tao Tea Leaf and my fellow travelers included two of my fellow tea sommeliers with whom I’d studied. We were only five altogether plus a driver so we were pretty light on the ground allowing intimate, low-profile visits wherever we went. The small group also meant we could be nimble in our schedule and respond to invitations and spur-of-the-moment opportunities.
This was the case the April evening we arrived at Dong Ting Shan on the east side of Lake Tai in the province of Jiangsu where Bi Lo Chun originates. This was our driver, Mister Goo’s, home town and during dinner he took a phone call which alerted him that his father was about to process the last of the Bi Lo Chun from the family plot. Mister Goo promptly invited us to come and watch.
We were told that it is usual for the local farmers to plant their plot of land with a variety of cash crops and food so that they will always have something in season. The tea trees were often over-planted with taller fruit (?) trees. Notice how they are interlaced with bamboo poles which allow the pickers easy access.
The Goos have two pans — one gas-fed and one wood-burning. Mr. Goo’s father runs the wood-fired pan. It takes about 45 minutes to make the tea — here the fresh tea leaves have just been put in the pan. At the beginning of the one-month picking season it takes less time because the leaves are smaller and have less moisture after the dry winter.
The pan is the hottest at the start — note his gloves — and the tea leaves are kept in constant motion being tossed and turned until enough moisture is lost and then the hand-rolling began.
Daughter-in-law loads wood into the stove to keep the pan hot
A few minutes later we tasted the fresh Bi Lo Chun tea. The wood-fired brew has a fuller, thicker mouth-feel, and more baked popcorn on the nose. Definitely a difference between the gas and wood fired. Is that because Mr. Goo’s father is a more experienced tea maker or that the wood fire allows for more character?
The Goo family tea plot produces 15 kilos of finished tea a year. It takes about 6 kilos of fresh leaves to make one kilo of finished tea.
The Bi Lo Chun season had just ended, but the next day we were able to visit one of the local tea factories to see their set-up, now quiet until the next tea harvest. Tea is harvested most of the year but made into different kinds of tea.
The wicker drying racks for the fresh tea.
A line of wood-fired baking pans. The square holes in the walls allow the baker to converse with the person putting the wood under their pan.
Attached to the baking room was the sorting room. Under each bowl the paper was numbered to indicate which baking pan they came from.
Bi Lo Chun is a spring tea made from the season’s first, tender, very small and delicate leaves. It’s manufactured to seven different grades in decreasing order of quality and this factory made five of them. I want a set of these mugs!
Even at the factory level, making the tea involves alot of hands — there is very little mechanization.
Sunset over Lake Tai near Dong Ting Mountain.