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A Day with a Chinese Tea Farmer

What is the average life of Minzhe, a tea farmer in China, like?

Tea plantation under the limestone hills in Guilin, China

Tea plantation under the limestone hills in Guilin, China

For a tea plantation farmer, the cultivating process is a way of life that involves arduous work, laborious days, and an unmatched commitment to tea. Harvesting and processing must both be done in timely manners to yield quality tea.

Farms stay in families for generations — a tea plant can only be picked once it is about 3 years old and develops new buds after being picked. After the harvest season, pruning enables the tea plant to remain in the early stage of growth. Farmers can keep plants at this stage for generations with careful pruning.

Meet Minzhe

The day begins early at the Guilin Organic Tea Plantation in Guangxi Province, China for Minzhe (pronounced mean-jer) — a seasoned tea farmer. He hand selects the young shoots at the tip of the tea plants at dawn, when the morning dew is still settled and has not yet dried off the plants.

Picking tea leaves (China Photos/Getty Images)

Picking tea leaves (China Photos/Getty Images)

Minzhe carefully presses the leaf between his thumb and index finger and gently plucks the leaf from the plant. Some leaves have a serrated texture, others feel bullate, some smooth. The leaves may also be stiff or flabby; pendulous or upright. Another variability is the density of small hairs on the leaf’s epidermis, which is used as a marker for the quality of tea.

Despite the varying biochemical characteristics of the leaf, all varieties of tea originate from the Camellia sinensis plant. Considering that only a few of the top, young leaves are picked from an individual plant at each picking, we can begin to see the attentiveness, patience, and time requirements of tea harvesting.

Minzhe knows that classification of tea is not according to the tea plant, but rather the picking and processing of the tea leaves. Centered in a subtropical climate with a misty atmosphere and elevation of several thousand feet, the farm he works on is an ideal location for growing the tea plant.

View over the Guilin tea plantation (Guilintea.com)

View over the Guilin tea plantation (Guilintea.com)

Minzhe cannot rely on the ease of machines for harvesting; the varying heights of the bushes and specificity involved in tea harvesting requires that all the leaves are hand selected. Thus, as a tea farmer, he is knowledgeable about when to select which leaves, and which leaves are to be selected and used, depending on the type of tea to be processed.

Fresh Pickings

It is early April on the plantation. To make white tea, Minzhe only picks the shoot. White tea production peaks two weeks a year: during the last week in March and first week in April. To make one pound, he says, it requires picking 90,000–100,000 pieces of the tender shoot by hand.

Similarly to white tea, Minzhe picks young and light leaves for green tea processing. The month of April will be the busiest month for him, since it is the best time for harvesting premium green teas. His picking method determines the class of green tea; first class tea is higher in quality than second class tea, and so forth. For the best quality tea, he picks one sprout and one leaf.

Other classes of tea can be made by picking the sprout with additional leaves. White and green tea are the most popular — in the West, these teas have been lauded for their antioxidant properties, and demand for them is rising.

Minzhe walks through the rows of bushes, which sprawl over 86 acres. The lighter leaves to his right, he gestures, are perfect for green and white tea. The darker leaves are ideal for black tea, which require significant oxidation. These darker leaves are larger in size and more mature, leaving them with a more robust and slight bitter flavor, ideal for making oolong and black teas. Once the leaves are selected from these darker bushes, they require oxidation of up to thirty hours, which changes the tea leaf from green to dark red or black.

Tea farmer hard at work (National Geographic)

Tea farmer hard at work (National Geographic)

The farmer further explains that the larger leaves are of lesser quality and thus are generally used for tea bags and fertilizer only. “The larger leaves are too tough with no flavor” he notes, while carefully examining the leaves in his hands. The smaller, young leaves are harvested to produce the most flavorful and delicious teas.

Processing

Shortly after plucking the leaves, Minzhe begins processing. The techniques he uses deliver the unique flavor of each tea. Within the tea processing facility, the leaves are withered and dried.

The leaves may then be rolled and shaped. A heavy aroma of the cut leaves fills the air as the tea is sifted and shredded in the highly humid environment. Among the darker teas, enzymatic oxidation activates the antioxidant polyphenols changing the flavor, color, and chemical makeup of the tea.

Rolling and shaping tea leaves (Guilintea.com)

Rolling and shaping tea leaves (Guilintea.com)

For Minzhe, a full day’s work brings a sense of pride and accomplishment, generating about 46 pounds of leaves to be processed into delicious and high quality tea. A day in the life of Minzhe involves a lot of hard work, but for good tea, it is always worth it.

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