Master Luo is the youngest winner of the Long Jing Tea Firing King (Chao Cha Wang) competition and also the youngest of the Long Jing Grand Firing Masters appointed by the government to pass on the traditional methods to the next generation. In 2007 he was asked to fire the tea from the famous 18 tribute Long Jing bushes selected by the Emperor Qian Long in the eighteenth century.
Before I went to China to meet Master Luo, Tim and I prepared many questions for him. Xi Hu Long Jing, as the Chinese call West Lake Dragon Well, is the most famous green tea in China. It has been always in a huge demand, culturally and economically. After many years of chaos in Xi Hu Long Jing market, China has come up with fairly strict rules to identify and to define the brand “Xi Hu Long Jing”. But still, there is much confusion about this very well-known tea. We hoped that Master Luo could help us better understand this secretive world.
Q-Question (by Tim & Lu)
A-Answer (by Master Tea Maker Luo)
In our very first meeting at Master Luo’s home, the conversation was like a chat more than a serious interview. The information may not be perfectly accurate and like all our interviews any mistakes are likely to be our mistakes in understanding what was said. If you have any questions about anything, you are very well come to send us your questions and we will collect them and pass them to him at a later date.
Q: Could you please describe the whole process?
A: First you pick the fresh leaves, and lay them out on bamboo mats, lift and keep the bamboo mat in the air. In this process, it will dry 70% water out from the leaves. There are a few steps during the fire process after drying the leaves. One is called “Qing Guo” (in Chinese, if I translate directly, it will be Green Wok), the temperature is about 230-240 degrees. Each time you fire about 100 grams. In this stage, you save about 20% water in the leaves. The main purpose of this step is to make the colour right. After this, is to make the shape. This step is called “Hui Guo” (in Chinese, if I translate directly, it will be Waving Wok). It is about 80 degrees, you will need to change your hand movements depends on how the leaves grow. The last step is called “Ting Chang Tou” (it will sound very strange if I translate this word, maybe it’s better to keep it like it is), which means “to sort out”, you will need to sift the tea leafs and reduce the water content to about 3-4%. This step will improve the glossiness of the leaves.
Q: How do you judge a West Lake Long Jing?
A: Colour, fragrance, shape and taste, there are four most important things to remember if you want to judge a Long Jing Tea. The best colour I think, it should be green with slightly yellowish. If you fire too much, the colour will be too yellow, or grey, if you fire too less, it will be tasteless. And of course, you always have to check the wet leaves and to see if there are broken ones.
Q: Who did you learn your technique from?
A: My grandpa from my mum’s side, he was from Long Jing Village, and later move to Mei Jia Wu in the 1940s.
Q: What was his name?
A: Ying Zhi Sheng.
Q: Tell me how it is like during the picking season every year, please?
A: Of course. Normally the first two days, you only can make a half to one kilo. The third and the fourth days, I have 8 to 9 people to help with picking, maybe 2 and a half kilo fresh leafs you can pick per person. I can make 2 and a half kilo per day. I don’t have time to sleep, maybe only 2-3 hours rest every day for the 20 days or so I fire every year.
Q: Why no time to sleep?
A: The leaves are changing every day. You have to compete with time. It terrifies me now when I think about it. I am actually getting more and more nervous and scared when the time comes closer and closer to the picking season. It will be a great physical challenge for every firer.
Q: Are there any differences technically between firing “Old Tea Tree” and “No.43”?
A: “Old Tea Tree” needs more time to fire, about 40 minutes each time. “No.43” needs less time to fire, only 25 minutes. “Old Tea Tree” is tastier, less distance between the two leaves. “No.43” is quite tasty, bigger distance between the two leaves. And you normally start picking “Old Tea Tree” 10 days after “No.43”.
Q: How big are the fields you have? Do you have both varietals?
A: Yes, I do. I have one Mu “Old Tea Tree” I got from my Grandpa. This piece of land is on the top of the hill beside Long Jing village. It produces about 10 kilos a year. I also have about four Mu of No.43 cultivar, and they produce about 100 kilos a year.
Q: What is the difference between a “Firing King” and a normal Long Jing Firer?
A: Everything is different, especially the taste of the tea. I normally don’t sell my teas to “Shi Feng” (Lion Hill – the top brand of West Lake Long Jing).
A: (he laughed and then turned into a shy smile) because if they receive a top grade tea from one Long Jing firer, they will use it as a standard and the teas from the other firer will have to match that level. Unfortunately if I sell them my teas, it will be difficult to find other Long Jing to match my level as the teas are graded by how they look. The big Long Jing companies take tea from different firers and grade and blend them all together.
Q: Tell me a bit more about the fire process every year.
A: The leaves from the first day is the easiest to fire, anyone can do it well. The fourth to the sixth days, it’s most difficult to fire the leaves, the leaves are changing so much, and you will have to change your technique every day. From field to field, the leaves are different as well. If the soil is rich, the leaves are strong. If the soil is poor, the leaves are weak of course.
Q: By watching the firer firing, can you see who is better?
A: When it is the stage “Hui Guo”, you can put your hand into the wok to touch the leaves, if the leaves are hard, then it means a bad fire. The leaves only should get hard in the moment when they are taken out from the wok. If you can hear loud sound from the leaves rubbing against each other, then it is a very bad sign.
Q: Tell me more about “Hui Guo” please.
A: In this step, everybody has their own individual style and technique but one thing in common is, a crucial “30 second” period. Within these “30 seconds” the colour is the best, you will have to take the leaves out as soon as possible. If you are late, the colour will turn into grey. Therefore you often see the firers keep on checking the leaves during this process, which is because they are waiting for these “30 seconds” to come.
Q: Tell me about the “King of Firing” competition you joined please.
A: I was lucky. The leaves were just right for me to fire. Normally we choose 4 firers from every village to join the competition which happens every two years.
Q: How many times did you win the title?
A: Two times.
Q: Then it’s NOT just luck!
Q: Tell me more about your technique please?
A: I use the very old, traditional technique from Long Jing Village, because of my grandpa of course. The bud is slightly longer than the leaf if you look closer. And I don’t close the edge of the leaves like other firers normally do. The other firers’ leaves are normally round. The firers who can do the same as I do are normally over 60 years old. There are 7 or 8 of them. I am the only young firer who carries on this tradition from Long Jing Village.
Q: Could you please tell me more about the differences between the Long Jings from Long Jing Village and Mei Jia Wu?
A: There are some differences in the leaves. If you look at the final Long Jing, you will find the Long Jing from Long Jing Village is green with slightly yellow in it. The Long Jing from Mei Jia Wu is more yellowish, less lively, because of the overfiring.
Q: Any differences between West Lake Long Jing and Zhe Jiang Long Jing?
A: There is a big difference! West Lake Long Jing is from the area that is only 5 kilometers long (Shi Li Long Jing). Zhe Jiang Long Jing can never achieve the same quality. If you have two Long Jings in front of you, put your hand into them, the soft one is from West Lake, the hard one is from Zhe Jiang. The ones from Zhe Jiang are thick and hard, they prick your hand. The Long Jing leaves from West Lake are small and cute.
Q: How about machine firing?
A: It does the work, but it’s not so easy. Machine made Long Jing lacks fragrance. It won’t give you a nice feeling in your hands. The machine cannot change the pressure for different leaves, it will press the water. It is completely different compare to the hand fired Long Jing.
Q: Does anybody use machines here in your village?
Q: How many Mu are there in your village?
A: 160 Mu in total, we are 165 people. Every year the village makes about 2500 kilos of top grade Long Jing.
Q: How many people help you during the firing season?
A: 8 to 9 people help me to pick the teas, they all have to follow the rule – two leafs and one bud. The only firer is me.
Q: Tell me about the fertilizer you use please?
A: Pressed rapeseed cakes. Each one weighs half a kilo. You bury them deeper than 25 cm in the soil near the roots. The roots are normally about 20 cm deep. By burying the rapeseed cakes deep, it will help the roots to grow deeper. When the roots grow deep enough, the bushes will not be easily dried out in the summer. We use compound fertilizer once per 2 or 3 years.
Q: Any pesticides?
A: Chinese Academy of Sciences is responsible for all the West Lake Long Jing area. They use low toxicity pesticides, mainly chili pepper water, and spray it about 10 times a year. West Lake Long Jing has been grown this more environmentally friendly way for the last 5 years.
Q: Tell me about Long Jing in different solar terms please.
A: To be honest, the day, the very same day as Gu Yu, Long Jing taste the best to me. Only on that day, the tea I fire on Gu Yu, I never sell it. I share it with my friends and important customers. I also blend some of it with dried sweet osmanthus, it tastes delicious.
Q: Tell me more about Pre- Qing Ming Long Jing.
A: I can guarantee you all the “Pre- Qingming Long Jings” you see on the market before the 20th of March are NOT West Lake Long Jing. We normally start our picking around the 22nd of March if the weather is good. On Gu Yu, I only make 3 to 3.5 kilos, as I said, I never sell them. The Long Jing after Gu Yu is more full bodied, cheap, I don’t drink them.
Part 2 coming soon……………