It all started with a canister of tea (containing 75 grams) in a hand-beatened/hammered tin container.
Tea leaves enclosed in calligraphy rice paper, sealed with a sticker with an image of a handsome, scholarly chinese man.
It was a tea brought back by my student, the price tag was hefty, and always, such prices always hit my “skepticism” nerve, and also made me worry that my student might have been ripped off.
Carefully weighing out six grams, into a thin walled Jingdezhen egg shell porcelain gaiwan, fresh water off the boil, intense and hurried steeps, and as the first gust of the tea’s aromatics hit everyone……..
It was the first Cliff Tea I had ever had, that had an intense siberian musk note, leading on complex florals and heavy mineral notes. For the “qigong” practitioners and others whom had greater sensitivity present at the tasting, the tea was a powerful gust of “qi”, steep after steep it delighted. This is Ban Tian Yao, planted at the side of a rocky precipice at 悟源涧 Wu Yuan Jian (Passage of Origin Enlightenment) in the San Keng Liang Jian region, and supposedly handmade by the man pictured on the sticker.
Surprise, delight, astounded, energized, everyone was awed in different ways, but a consensus was reached amongst all, we needed to find this guy and we need to understand how he could make a tea to this level, and why couldn’t we find equivalents on the market. In the interim, the tea was shared in various sessions that included a well respected master-taster from one of the oldest tea merchants in Singapore, he nodded his approval, and commented that nobody makes tea like this anymore. This further fuelled our quest for knowledge and information further, which took several trips myself and by my teammates, and half a year before this article could be put together.
Disciple of the Taoist Priest of the Horse Head Cliff Temple, the tea was made by a gentleman by the colloquial name of Ah-Wei, he is not unknown in the Wuyi Mountains for being the crazy guy whom only believes in making wuyi cliff tea fully by hand, and by traditional methods. Recently, he was also featured in a Wuyi Tea Issue from Cha Dao Life publications, which is one of the most concise and informative publications on Wuyi Cliff Tea to date (highly recommended for all tea lovers!) .
Through our many exchanges, we learnt a lot, and sometimes find it hard to put into words a summary of everything.
Ahwei, a gentleman of Chaozhou Origin, a master painter whom taught at a school of fine arts, had decided one day, 7 years ago, to drop the comfortable life, and go to the Wuyi Mountains to make tea. When asked whether he missed painting or a stable job, or the carefree life of an artist, he doesn’t, and instead feels that making tea is a similar, possibly more advanced form and way of artistic expression.
There are countless tea makers and factories in the Wuyi Region, what made Ahwei different and stand out from the rest? The relentless pursuit of wanting to making the truest cliff tea of them all. How did he qualify to be one of those whom could make the most “true” cliff tea? By his philosophy, that the tea, in a cup, must be a reflection of the livelihood of the tea plant and how the environment and microclimate affects it. The Way of the Tao.
In order to achieve this, Ahwei only processes raw leaves that are from “wild” conditions in good microclimates in the Wuyi Mountains. That is tea plants that are located in the right places in the Wuyi Mountains, together with no artificial irrigation, no human input on fertilizers, just living naturally by the conditions and circumstances available to the tea plant due to their microclimate location.
To do this is something that most tea makers would consider to be illogical and unwise, that is because with sufficient irrigation and strong fertilizer use, the amount of raw leaf obtained can be many times more, giving good profit. But not for Ahwei. The Ban Tian Yao patch at the Wu Yuan Jian region is one that had been maintained by him for many years, it used to be well tended, producing over 400 jin of raw leaf each season, but once allowed to go wild and natural, the yield was only 90 jin of raw leaf (which eventually can only give 10-15 jin of completed dried yancha).
It is only through this method that the tea can developed its own natural character based on the microclimates, and not because of human action. Over 99% of the raw leaves from the Wuyi Mountains do not qualify for Ahwei’s processing.
The precipices at Wu Yuan Jian
Hand picking of tea leaves
Hand picking leaves often results in the pickers having permanent calluses.
Manually carrying down the tea leaves picked down the mountains to the processing point, this is a rush against time before any uncontrolled fermentation or oxidation occurs.
Upon the harvest of the fresh leaves, the leaves are immediately processed by hand, and the process from beginning to end is at least over 25-28 hours, non-stop, as any missed timings would means ruined precious tea. Each tea picking season, Ahwei puts himself through “hell-month”, where he goes on for almost 28 days without proper sleep. Each time a batch if tea is done, it is about time for fresh green leaves to come in and the processing cycle repeats. Ahwei is also very particular about fine details, even the clothes he wear tend to be made of natural fabrics so that he does not bring anything potentially “chemical” into his workshop.
The starting of the charcoal fires for tea processing, both at the killing green step, and at the final baking steps.
Six pits of charcoal are prepared for the roasting. The charcoal room had particularly a very low ceiling to keep the heat all in, but puts the tea maker at risk of asphyxiation…
Hand tossing the leaves, often has to be done every ten to twelve minutes for many repeated times. And there are many bamboo trays to tend to, it is often very intense and stressful for the tea maker.
Assessing the oxidation state by the scent which will allow Ahwei to determine when it is sufficient.
Hand kneading and rolling of the tea leaves to bruise them. Almost nobody uses such trays and methods anymore, everyone does machine kneading today.
Even the “killing green” step, to the final moisture reduction step, everything is done by charcoal fire, no electrical baking was ever done.
And after the “killing green” step, which quenches the oxidation process, the tea is transferred to be charcoal baked for moisture reduction. Ahwei takes a final whiff of the tea and beams. “Now this tea is perfected” he quipped, it was almost 5am in the morning, before he slumps into a corner of his tea workshop, to take a brief nap.. before the arrival of the next batch of fresh leaves in an hour. The finished tea is sealed stored and then subjected to repeated gentle charcoal roastings up to 6-8 times over the next half a year to 1 year with resting in between. As such the produce from one year, can only be reaped 12 months later.
The incessant records of each individual batch of raw leaves that make it to the workshop. In the interview below, there were times where Ahwei had to take medicine just to “stay alive”.
A Tea Farmer that cannot be helped.
Some might ask.. has KZ met his match and finally found someone that he is unable to help??
Why is KZ unable to help Ahwei? That is because Ahwei has chosen the difficult path himself, not the path of making quick money, but the path of recreating history, preserving tradition, and bringing into existence what Wuyi Cliff Tea truly is. The type of Wuyi Cliff tea that reflects the real microclimates of the Wuyi Mountains, the tea plants that had spent the year absorbing the essence of the heavens and earth, and the tea that had the ability to inspire countless scholars for the past millenium.
He has put his life, health, wellbeing and everything that he has into the Wuyi Cliff tea that he makes The hours are long, the costs are high, the toll on his health irreversible, the yields are low, but the motivation is real, the intent is pure, and the tea, the very most true. His mission is huge, a legacy recreated, definitely beyond the scope of what KZ can help with.
As for whatever little amounts of Ahwei’s tea we could get our hands on, every leaf, every broken fragment is deeply cherished for it beholds the spirit of the Wuyi Mountains.