Wuyi Mountains, China. I am in the Far East to buy from the new harvest for my tea brand. In this area literally everything has to do with tea. Just about everyone in the region grows, sorts, picks and/or sells it. Young and old together. Tea is number one, then comes tea, and then once again, tea. Everything else in the world follows a distant fifth. And despite it being such a big deal, people here are, funny enough, not as serious about their beloved leaves as we western tea makers.
When I taste tea samples at our office to make a recipe, the kitchen is just like a laboratory. There are scales, thermometers, pots and water cookers everywhere. I experiment with various extraction times and examine how many infusions each tea can make. Then I write on paper all of the flavours, aromas and fragrances that I discover. Sometimes I fill three full sheets of discoveries. While making the recipe, I don’t allow anything in the oven. I don’t want any distractions of other scents. The day before I also don’t drink any alcohol or eat any spicy food. On the “taste” morning I even skip breakfast. I want to start as “taste neutral” as possible. No one is even allowed to say anything to me during the testing. Once in awhile I stoically shove a bowl of tea under the nose of a colleague, “here, taste this.” I communicate as a caveman. After a few hours I emerge, completely drained, and I gulp down litres of coffee and croissants with jam and butter.
And cigarettes, too
What a difference in the way the Chinese approach it here in the Wuyi Mountains! They take boiling water from the fire, wash the tea once with it, pour once more and then they start to taste. No thermometer, no measuring scale. Nothing. All they say to one another is: colour? Yes. Taste: Yes. Ah, sweet is back.” And then they know enough. There I sit with my tasting form, on which I even write down the time of the tasting and the temperature of the room where we sit. It gets even crazier. Two Chinese tea buyers join in next to me. It is a man and a woman who stock serious amounts of tea. They buy up entire harvests. Dozens of teas come by at a killing tempo. My tongue becomes numb from it. These two don’t seem to notice at all and in between tastings they happily light up a cigarette. At home I consciously avoid this type of practice, here they just sit puffing away!
A carpenter’s specialist eye
After a few weeks in China, I begin to understand people here better and become more comfortable with loosening the grip on my measuring and weighing equipment. At the same time I realize that it is important that at home I need to keep spending as much attention to the description and experimentation with my teas. That is necessary. Not here. The tea people are sitting next to the source. They feel the tea. After all, a carpenter doesn’t need a spirit level to see whether a window frame is level.