Friday, May 28, 2021

Tea processing and demand shifts in China


photo credit Suzana, as usual

that one cup has an interesting story, here

This is really about input from another meetup, but since the points I found most interesting relate to tea processing and demand shifts in China the focus is on that.  Cindy Chen, the Wuyi Origin producer--also ran by her husband and family--talked about these issues mostly related to Wuyishan (Wuyi Yancha "rock oolong") and Chaozhou (Dan Cong) production, but really more related to Wuyi Yancha.  Earlier discussion on other themes was interesting too, and I'll add a little about infusing tea in oil and alcohol at the end, another main point.  To back up a bit related to this meetup context, we invited a number of people we've talked to in small previous group discussions to join together, which included one session with Cindy.  Eight people attended altogether; not bad.

Cindy started telling us about their business, about volumes produced, general background, how specialized orders work out, tied to general processing themes, and about changes in tea awareness and demand in China over the last decade.  Truly fascinating stuff!  Some of it was familiar but the part about a shift in demand and awareness was not.

we saw just a little tea sorting going on

She mentioned some production issues related to different teas, about how Wuyishan growing areas are laid out, and how micro-climate, especially in terms of sun exposure, changes final tea character a lot.  I wrote an interview post about those factors--Making Rock Oolong--based on her input awhile back, which overlaps, and shared some pictures of a harvest season since then.  

The short version is that not only do plant types and ages matter, and rainfall and other local climate issues, and local soil conditions, but sun exposure also does.  The same plants growing on a small valley floor and on ledges, or at the edge of that valley, would produce different character tea.  An example:  initial intensity varies, and the more forward oriented aroma notes, with those ranges more pronounced with greater sun exposure, with tea with more depth and subtlety resulting from partly shaded conditions.

Josh was trying to place this in relation to Japanese green teas, but we never really made a clear connection in discussion.  For those, per my understanding, partial shading prior to harvest greatly increases chlorophyll production, increasing flavor intensity across one range, and to some extent increasing bitterness.  But Wuyi Yancha oolongs are not bitter, at all, given how processing changes compounds that probably would come across that way if you chewed a fresh leaf.  It seems to contradict, to say that sun exposure increases oolong intensity, but restricting sun exposure increases Japanese green tea intensity, but it all must map out in a more complicated form than that.

Onto the awareness changes part.  It's my impression that Cindy was talking about awareness and demand shifts (increases) among a very limited subset of Chinese tea drinkers and consumers, her own customer base.  They are becoming more knowledgeable, and making more specific demands.  I think that the "average Chinese person" doesn't see tea so differently than they did 20 years ago, beyond more young people drinking coffee and bubble tea now.  

I'm basing that on visiting China three times (which is very limited input), and knowing three Chinese families, living here in Bangkok, as more in-depth feedback.  All three were close friends of my kids, and all three we joined for dinner parties, sports outings, attending local Thai holiday events, and to restaurants and the local zoo.  Those kinds of contact give you more time to talk about daily life.  All three drank tea but essentially knew nothing about the subject. They drank whatever local types were in a grocery store or local market, and couldn't describe those types in much detail.  The same was true of a Japanese friend, again the father of my daughter's best friend; he may or may not have been familiar with the concept of "sencha," and drank whatever he happened to buy at a grocery store.

two of those friends; they are missed, back in China now

looking like this isn't about cultural immersion, in the normal sense

Cindy's customers are at the other end of the scale; they know tea.  According to her it has went beyond just ordering much better versions for gifts and such, or liking those for daily consumption, some are onto special ordering very specific versions.  I'll get back to that gift idea, which ties to a broader transition theme.  In some very limited cases Cindy's family do produce "single bush / tree" tea versions, but that makes a lot less sense for Wuyishan oolongs, which tend to be from relatively small plants, that never grow to a size that supports that.  We've discussed how that works in relation to Dan Cong before but I'll stick to what was covered yesterday.  

Over time a limited set of her customers have learned how varying growing conditions inputs can change tea, and can specify which exact type they want.  Not just in relation to oxidation and roast level, but related to ordering specific versions from limited range growing areas, eg. from a certain growing field location.  On the broader scale a lot of customers are appreciating better tea too, without taking those kinds of next steps. They can seek out the types and higher quality levels from producers like Cindy, replacing earlier preference for well-known and mass-marketed volume production blended teas.  

my favorite picture of Cindy, showing one growing area

Cindy said that the status of giving main commercial brand teas as a gift has at least partly been replaced by giving better quality tea. That seems a positive step.  For those unfamiliar with truly high end Wuyishan oolongs, or Dan Cong, it won't work to describe what Cindy sells.  It's so good that I recommend that people exploring such oolongs don't start there, that they experience more moderate quality versions first, to identify the range, and experience some flaws, then move onto what the true potential is.  It doesn't work as well exploring in the other direction, and there's learning involved with drinking medium quality or even flawed teas.

All of this reminds me of some interesting input from a Chinese-Malaysian friend about tea service in a business context, more a formal entertainment theme than related to gifts.  It might seem like I'm jumping the track a bit, changing countries, shifting from personal preference and gift-giving to a third tea drinking context, but Cindy did actually bring up that tea can also play an important role in business interactions.  I'll cite part of what that friend said, a lawyer in Kuala Lumpur, William.  

The tl;dr version is that in business it's normal for higher executives to make an elaborate show of preparing tea for guests; it's expected.

In this message, I would like to share something about the various settings Chinese in mainland China drink teas.

Setting 1:

This setting is deemed to be the most elaborate form, favoured by the chairman, the chief executive officer 'CEO' of a corporation, for having a large room for workplace. The office is usually divided into two section, one part is for work, the other is designed into a room that resembles a teahouse. There is a desk, the height of and shaped like a dinner table, a seat is placed at one side, whilst two more seats are positioned on the opposite side of the desk. A thorough accessories, complete with a hot water kettle, tools and equipment for gongfu tea preparation is placed on the table.

The chairman or the CEO would be the host, serving tea via gongfu style, when meeting another colleague, discussing company matters or seeing a guest to talk over business partnership. It is through such reception with another entrepreneur or industrialist that business deals are entered into. Besides opting for a game of golf or to meet in a restaurant over a six course meals with tea or red wine, both outings are well-liked in Malaysia, as well, inviting another captain of industry for tea into this section of the office of a highest-ranking person in the company is also a very popular form of arrangement, allowing a formal dialogue be serenely engaged between both the host and his guest in the most private manner.

A man who holds directorship in his guest's company would also entertain his guest in similar environment if he himself is also the head or owner of his own company located elsewhere, away from his guest's home or workplace and has similar detailed set up for tea drinking, too, making conversation and even giving of advice and imparting his knowledge to his guest if his visitor is his junior or a newly appointed figurehead. The tea brewing could be put together, simply for the exchange of ideas or brainstorming for business planning and development between an 'uncle' and his 'nephew'.

not even close to the same theme, a corporate presentation I attended in China

This clearly ties into an elaborate gift-giving culture common in China.  There are three other cases (settings) that he described, extending to lower level managers hosting much less elaborate versions of the same process, onto tea house or cafe forms and expectations.  Suffice it to say that the elaborate nature of the forms and device use is only scaled down, but expectations about very particular types of experience remain in place, just in more casual forms.  The most informal form he describes is what goes by the name "grandpa style" brewing in Western enthusiast circles, coined by an influential tea blogger:

In China, the ongoing and trouble-free tea infused in a flask or teapot at home would be '龍井茶' or 'Loong Jeng Cha', also known as 'Dragon Well tea', a renowned roasted green tea from '杭州' or 'Hong Jau' or 'Hangzhou', using a huge wok for '殺青' or 'Saat Cheng', a process literally means 'to kill-green' those tea leaves with bare hands. It is observed that Loong Jeng tea has been a leading tea variety and a household name in China, prepared and served in many a Chinese home. I had personally witnessed Chinese strolling all over the streets in Guangzhou, China, carrying glass canisters of all shapes and sizes made for seasoning paste and sauce, being recycled into drink container, all filled with teas.

Of course we know that green tea type as "Longjing."

Rest assured that my friend is immersed in a form of sub-culture that's much more Chinese in origin than Malaysian, with plenty of direct contact within China.  He communicates that in every such message about those cultural issues.  We last discussed traditional Chinese medicine approaches to healing bone fractures, related to a US friend breaking her ankle recently.  He passed on a version of the Guan Yin origin legend in this post about reviewing two traditional Tie Guan Yin versions (which he gave me, along with a good bit of Liu Bao; he's both generous and informative).

Back to Cindy's input, I'm missing some ideas that connect these themes, about processing steps, and other broad demand shift details.  She mentioned that the main shift seemed to occur beginning about 10 years ago, when better tea uptake really took off, which has gradually increased ever since.  Kind of off subject, she said that the latest spike in demand seems to relate to white tea instead, with prices in Fuding-produced white teas shooting up about 30% this year.  For growing up so embedded in the tea industry and culture she would tend to hear about other areas and types, beyond producing both Wuyi Yancha and Dan Cong herself (her husband and his family is from Chaozhou).

This post is already running long, and heavy on tangents, but I wanted to share a description of Cindy I ran across awhile back, from Jeff Fuchs' Tea and Mountain Journals.  It will help fill in the part I can't do justice to, about how Cindy is, which I very much appreciate every time I interact with her:

Cindy is made of tea it seems. Rampant energy, talking of nothing else, she knows tea from the soil to the very skin of the leaf and through the various stages it is a subject that is part of her. Her entire family for generations has produced Rock teas (called ‘yen cha’ locally), named for the fact that the teas generally grow in small terraced plots amidst stone and shadows where the teas must struggle to find a root-hold in the soils...

She's like that, energetic, and a very pure and humble soul.  She shares this experience and information from a place of shared interest, not as a vendor promoting products, and not as an expert passing down wisdom from on high.  Jeff covers that context too:

On this morning Cindy uses a simple white ceramic gaiwan, or flared cup vessel, for ease of examining colour and rapid fire infusions. Rapid fire they are, but with Cindy every serving is something fresh and perfect, though she in all of her modesty claims that she is “only someone who knows tea a little”.

She was born into knowing and experiencing more than a little of tea.  Her young daughters could teach me about tea right now, a lot more than we could cover together in a lengthy span of time.  It's probably as well to move on to touch on a second sub-theme.

learning about roasting oolong as a toddler, with an unrelated boo-boo

Infusing tea with oil and alcohol

Josh--that Canadian tea somellier--and Suzana discussed this more than the rest of us, for Josh attempting repeated trials along this line, and Suzana experimenting with it just a little.  You can infuse tea in oil; who knew?  The tea cocktail theme, and infusing tea in alcohol, is familiar enough, even though I've never actually tried it out myself, since I really don't drink.  This is a nice summary interview article on the alcohol infusion / tea cocktail theme by Tony Gebely.

The main idea is that you can actually infuse tea leaves in oil, and get slightly different results than using water.  Of course that would relate well to cooking, but they seemed to be discussing it more as a way to just check how it works out.  Knocking back a small gongfu cup of tea infused cooking oil would seem a little strange though, and drinking a dozen probably wouldn't digest well, no matter what you ate with that.  They really did go into detail about which aspect notes came out the most related to using different oils, teas, and approaches, but I suppose I was tuning in and out of that for not planning to try it.  I'll just stick to using hot water.  

Josh mentions where he sees this approach going, which is a novel vision:

In my mind how I see my process working is that the taster will begin a session with an infused oil made from the tea leaf their session will be based on. They move it around to coat their mouth and swallow it. Then I make the tea, and using an atomizer to mist the alcohol essence onto or in the vicinity of the tea or taster I can combine the every soluable aspect of the tea in one sitting.

Infusing tea with alcohol seems more promising to me, if someone already drinks alcohol, I'm just not so sure about using it to scent the air.  It could add a lot of potential flavor range to cocktails, and I suppose the caffeine could be a positive input, like drinking Red Bull and vodka, which came up after my drinking days.  Earl Grey is described as suitable for that use, in Tony's article, and gin is described as a popular alcohol input.

Huyen mentioned trying tea infused alcohol in a separate message discussion after that meeting.  She was having some technical problems with sound coming through; not including it in the session may have related to that.  I don't have much to add about that but a picture she shared tells part of the story.  She claims that wine is used as in input in at least one of these, which would explain why the "gunpowder" version is amber, instead of the yellow-gold one would expect from a green tea infusion.  Then again the liquor used in these isn't specified, on the bottle labels.  Sugar and alcohol content are specified. 

photo credit Huyen; that tea infused alcohol she discussed

It's not as if we only talked about tea themes in China and the oil and alcohol infusion issue.  This session ran long, and Narendra provided thoughts and discussion related to other tangents, especially as they related to Nepal teas, which he produces.  An interesting sub-theme came up about how family production and sales seem common in China, with tea production based on a plantation / large-scale model in places like India instead, and in Thailand and Indonesia.  Tea just seems better integrated in Chinese culture, beyond forms like masala chai being prevalent in India.

Only Alexander Zhiryakov also joined, beyond my set of friends and the others I've mentioned, but he was balancing attention with some other demand. We never drifted onto Russian oriented tea issues, or Laos Tea, or the Tea ID testing program theme we talked about in that other session.

Alexander is really pulling off a pandemic look

I haven't mentioned that Ralph was married in the last week; congratulations to both of them!

I'm not sure where this meetup form will naturally evolve next, but this was a cool step, expanding range to include more participants and broader discussion scope.

Huyen wasn't in the other photos.  Teams mixes framing formats when people use phones.

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