As promised in my last post when I wrote about Bi Luo Chun tea, this time I will write a bit about how that tea is actually made. The tea leaves are plucked in the early morning hours each spring starting from the beginning of March. The earlier in spring the tea is picked the higher its quality. The harvests grade lowers gradually throughout spring as the tea buds get bigger. Only the terminal bud with an adjacent leaf is being picked and usually less than 2cm in size.
One kilogram of very high grade Bi Luo Chun can consist of up to 15,000 tea shoots.
Once the sorting process for the day is finished the roasting process is being done the same evening. The roasting starts at a high temperature of about 200°C (390°F) to stop the fermentation process. This step is called kill-green or shāqīng (殺青). The heat deactivates the enzymes which would otherwise change the teas flavour. The longer the leaves are allowed to oxidize the darker they get until eventually it would become black tea. Our Bi Luo Chun of course is not allowed to ferment that long and gets in the wok right away. It only takes about 3-5 minutes.
In the next half hour step the leaves get their distinctive shape. Bi Luo Chun making requires some practice to master the technique and so there are even competitions for it, as you can see in the picture. The wok temperature is now only at about 70°C (160°F) and the moisture in the leaves is reduced to around 30%.
Over the next 15minutes at 50°C (120°F) the moisture reduces further to below 20%, the tea leaves spiral up and lump together and the little white hair starts to show.
In the last step, at only about human body temperature, the drying is completed and the colour of the tea has changed quite significantly. It looks rather gray and hairy by now, but only until you use it. Once in contact with hot water the leaves will unfold, brighten up and develop an amazing fragrance.
The name Bi Luo Chun was given by Emperor Kangxi and means “Green Snail Spring”. Of course this is a purely descriptive term for the spiral form of the tea which resembles cooked snail meat. This variety is often described as smooth and fresh tasting with a sweet aftertaste. Unusual for green tea, it has a floral aroma and fruity flavor. In several plantations the tea bushes are grown between fruit trees which enrich the Bi Luo Chun tea with its floral and fruity note. The fruit trees also shield the tea plants from sunlight and elements, keeping the bushes small and its leaves tender. It is an ideal tea to be brewed in a zisha clay teapot.
Good quality Bi Luo Chun has downy white hair and is sorted and roasted the same day it is picked. Young tea leaves are naturally covered by little hair which will show if handled with care during the tea making process. The better grade Bi Luo Chun tea you have the lower the brewing temperature you start with. Normally around 80-85°C (thats 175-185°F) increasing the temperature each time you brew. It can be brewed several times from the same leaves and similar to oolong teas it improves with reuse. It is common to brew the same leaves three to five times, the third or fourth steeping usually being the best. Bi Luo Chun is regarded very highly by Chinese tea connoisseurs. Zhen Jun who lived in the late 19th century, author of tea encyclopedia Cha Shuo, ranked it first among Chinese green tea, before Longjing tea and Liuan Gua Pian. The best Bi Luo Chun is cultivated in Jiangsu province on Dong Shan (East Mountain) near Dong Ting, about 20km south-west of Yixing. Similar tea is also grown in Zhejiang and Sichuan provinces but hey differ in taste (more nutty than fruity) and are generally of lower quality. If you use a zisha clay teapot to brew a fine tea like this it is best to only use the pot for one kind of tea as it is porous and ‘remembers’ the flavor. If you are interested in purchasing authentic Bi Luo Chun tea have a look on the right hand menu under shopping. In one of my next posts I might write some more about the roasting process and how a tea like Bi Luo Chun is made.
As promised, the result of my first attempt at making a Yixing zisha teapot.
I made this pot together with my wife, and although the result is rather unsophisticated and ugly, making it was loads of fun. As you can see, just knowing how it’s done is not enough to make a beautiful teapot and it takes years of practice before ones objects reach a sell-able level. The teapot has not been burnt yet which is when most pots show their flaws and crack, especially if they are made by amateurs like me.
If this one survives the oven and still holds the tea afterwards we shall keep it despite its appearance. We made the pot in one of the workshops where local artists teach students their craft and I might well write about those workshops in more detail another time. If looking at the pictures in this post hurts your aesthetic perception try the shopping links on the right hand side. The pictures in there are easier on the eyes.
Since our pot is still completely closed and has neither nozzle nor handle it is now time to attach them. Holes are punched which later allow the tea to pour out as well as hold back the leaves. The prepared nozzle is placed over the newly punched holes and aligned with the handle.
The tool to cut out the hole for the lid can later be used to cut a piece for the lid itself which will fit exactly. Our pot is ready, it just needs to dry out for a while and off it goes to the oven.
I hope you enjoyed reading about how to make a zisha teapot. The hands in these last posts are not mine and neither is the pot, so in one of the next posts I will show you how a teapot looks like if one already knows how its done but is as clumsy as myself 😉
Stay tuned to see the result of my first pitiful attempt at making a zisha clay teapot.
In the last post I showed you the tools used to make zisha teapots, now I’d like to give some impressions how that is actually done. It of course all starts with a piece of zisha clay, also known as purple clay which is portioned. For most classic teapots at first two pieces are flattened and shaped, one will become the teapots wall and the other the bottom.
In the next steps the wall and bottom pieces are aligned and brought together and soon thereafter the individual shaping starts. Whilst the pot is rotating the wall is supported with one hand from inside whilst shaped by continuous hits with a paddle from the outside. The paddling is also what keeps the momentum of the potter’s wheel.
…but more on that in my next post.