I felt a little disappointed upon leaving Yiwu this year, despite learning a lot. I guess this year, being able to speak the language a bit better and with the novelty of a new place wearing off, I began to see the cracks of commercialism that had gone mostly unnoticed last year. This year I went during the peak of Spring and the town was awash with fancy jeeps as tea producers from all over China, Korea and Taiwan made their yearly trip to collect tea.
The farmers we stayed with were busy pressing cakes and buying maocha from neighbouring villages to fulfil orders from people who didn’t have the time or wish to stay around and oversee their production. The tea was good but not great and, having agreed to press some bings for a London tea shop, I didn’t feel comfortable buying this tea to ship half way across the world.
Since the farmers we were staying with were busy we decided to strike out alone and head for Mahei village, about 15km from Yiwu town. Since there was fairly regular traffic of tea producers and locals on this road I felt comfortable walking to the road and sticking out my thumb. Sure enough, within 10 minutes there was a tractor with a couple of locals passing. He slowed long enough to allow us to jump on and our slow and bumpy journey to Mahei began.
I learnt some interesting things – in Mahei, they have many old trees, but most have been cropped to make the tea easier to pick. I was told an interesting story, it may be true or not, but apparently a government representative’s family member was climbing the old trees to pick tea and fell, breaking her back. An order went out for all farmers to crop their trees. Most families complied, but a few were lazy and now have the remaining large trees in Mahei.
Mahei tea is interesting. despite being close to Yiwu town, the tea displays different characteristics. The leaves, when dried, turn a very dark colour, almost black, and the leaves are amongst the healthiest I’ve seen with complex sub-veins branching though the leaf.
I wandered through the village stopping at various houses to try the tea. With the dryness of the weather this spring, the leaves have little moisture in them, making it all too easy for farmers to over fry the leaves in the shaqing stage and leaving a burnt taste to the maocha. Also with less quantity of fresh leaves on the trees and farmers having to walk further and longer to pick a full basket it meant that more of the leaves at the bottom of their baskets were getting bruised and oxidised.
These drawbacks aside, I eventually found a family with great tea who seemed honest and open. We had lunch and then discussed purchasing some of their tea. Actually it was all of the tea they had, yesterday’s pickings – apparently there’s no trouble selling their tea with the daily jeeps of tea producers visiting.
A piece of advice I’d gleaned from the farmer I was staying with was to compare the tea they were selling to the tea that they had drying outside, since that was certainly processed by them and not many people bring bags of fresh leaves from other places. It all looked good, but more importantly, it tasted good. And so I began the journey home with a large bag of tea, hoping for one of those jeeps to be making a journey back.
Luckily after not too far, two motorbikes stopped and offered us a lift. Kathy got on one with the tea strapped behind and I got on the other and they quickly ferried us back to Yiwu town. We had an interesting chat with the guys driving the bikes – they were from Gua Feng Zai – a village close to the Laos border. Apparently they live quite quietly keeping a lot of their old customs, occasionally venturing across the border into Laos and even marrying Laos natives. They extended an invitation, which we quickly agreed to, for us to come and stay with them for a while next year. They have some great tea there!
Getting the tea back home, we retasted the tea and were very happy with the tea, making a mental note the next day as we picked out the yellow leaves that we also need to be more careful about checking the quantity of yellow leaves in the maocha before purchasing. The maocha was about 5-10% yellow leaves. At least we now have a couple of great quality yellow leaf cakes to drink alongside our pure bings.
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