Blog 30: Why Do Tea Makers Flip Baskets of Tea Leaves During Roasting?
Updated: Oct 19, 2018
A couple days ago, we posted a video of our tea master Mr. Xue flipping and stirring tea leaves during roasting on our Instagram page. Some of our followers have asked us if we can provide more details about this procedure. In our last tea blog, we talked about the heat control during Wu-Yi Oolong (Yancha) roasting. The flipping and the stirring in the video below also has a lot to do with heat control. Today, let’s look more closely at this unique procedure in Wu-Yi oolong tea-making.
In the video above, our tea master Mr. Xue showed us the entire procedure. It’s rather short compared to a round of 2-hour roasting. The whole process looks pretty straightforward, too. An experienced tea maker would use his bare hands to flip tea leaves from the bottom of the bamboo basket to the top. Although this might look simple, it is actually a nearly unbearable task. First, tea leaves in the roasting basket are extremely hot. Lower the tea leaves in the basket, hotter they become. Only the most dedicated tea makers can tolerate the burning feel during the hand-flipping. This is why many young tea makers, including most apprentices, choose to do it the easier way by pouring all leaves out of the basket, then pour them back in. (Despite this practice is permitted, the simpler way has its own downside, which we will explain later in the blog. ) Second, charcoal roasting relies on a tea maker’s experience of adjusting the charcoal heat based on the fragrance, the temperature, and all other senses. If the charcoal temperature is too high, a tea maker needs to lower it by covering the heat with more colder charcoal ash; if the temperature gets too low, a tea maker needs to skim the charcoal surface to release more heat. (See video below).
To achieve a balanced heating for all tea leaves, tea makers must flip tea leaves upside down multiple times during the roasting. Low temperature and slow roasting is the basic principle in tea-making. High temperature could destroy the surface of leaves. This would result in carbonized leaves that taste dry and bitter. During roasting, the heat source is the charcoal ash below the bamboo basket. If we simply put a basket of tea leaves and roast them for hours, tea leaves in the bottom of the basket would ultimately get burned. The time interval between flips is about 30 minutes. So, in a round of roasting, there are at least 4 flips.
Charcoal roasting is the traditional process in Wu-Yi oolong tea-making. It is also crucial to Wu-Yi oolong’s rich and thick flavor. The success to charcoal roasting relies solely on a tea maker’s own experience. When it comes to roasting, there isn’t a specific guideline or standard. Different tea makers have different criteria, theories and skills. Good tea-making skills often share many similarities. For example, the meticulous care of tea leaves in every step of the tea-making. Our own Mr. Xue always tells his apprentices that tea leaves are like infants, and they need to treat them with extra care. Young tea makers often lack the understanding and the feeling of kinship for tea leaves. This would eventually lead to mistreatments of leaves. By just pouring leaves out and back in, tea makers are disconnected from many senses like the sense of touch. Without it, tea makers cannot make accurate adjustments to charcoal temperature.
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