The Uniqueness of Taiping Houkui Tea: From Harvest to Storage

Tai Ping Houkui tea (太平猴魁) is distinct among green teas for its delicate, rolled-out flat shape, which is the result of its unique processing. Because of the specific steps involved in crafting this tea, many of which can only be done by hand, this batch was made entirely by hand to create a soft and clean-flavored heirloom cultivar with a sea mineral aftertaste and signature fresh bamboo aroma.

Even within the constraints of its unique style, small adjustments in processing make an enormous difference in the final character of the tea. Hand-frying the tea in a hot iron wok results in a slight blistering of the leaves that develops a deeper flavor and more complex aroma. This version of Tai Ping Houkui is also traditionally flattened by hand into its distinctive shape with a small roller, better preserving the integrity of the leaf. Even under the stress of infusion, the leaves maintain their whole shape and deep green color, making it a fascinating tea to look at as well as drink.

The result of these processing techniques is a tea that is lighter yet also more complex than other versions of Tai Ping Houkui. The flavor of its clear brilliant green infusion is richly layered yet delicate, and its aroma blends notes of cornsilk, orchid, and fresh grains with the green impression of a bamboo forest breeze. Even if over-steeped or too many leaves are used in its infusion, it will never go bitter. Tai Ping Houkui is best enjoyed in a tall glass to appreciate the beautiful green tea leaves.

Image: Tai Ping Houkui is a Chinese green tea with flat leaves. Its shape is referred to as “flower-shaped” in China, as it resembles the unopened petals of a flower bud.

Production Process of Tai Ping Houkui Green Tea: From Harvest to Storage

Harvesting Tai Ping Houkui

Tai Ping Houkui, a unique variety of green tea, has relatively large sprigs that take longer to fully develop. Therefore, farmers must wait slightly longer to harvest it than other early spring teas. The harvest begins around April 20th, during the Gu Yu solar period of China’s traditional agricultural calendar. The plucked leaves adhere to a standard of sprigs of one bud with three open leaves. This particular lot of Houkui was specifically chosen from the earliest picking in the season, when the flavor of the leaves is at its softest.

Sorting and Withering

After the tea leaves are harvested, they are sorted by plucking the oldest leaf off the sprig, further refining the plucking standard. During this process, the fresh leaves get a chance to rest and wither for a while, making them more pliable for processing.

Frying the Leaves

Tea makers then fry the leaves at 110°C in an iron metal wok, constantly moving the leaves for about three minutes at a time. This heat denatures the enzymes in the leaf that cause oxidation, thus allowing the leaves to remain fresh and green in color, flavor, and aroma. This step is known as sha qing or “kill green.”

Shaping the Leaves

After the tea leaves are fried, they are shaped using very complicated hand movements to squeeze the buds and leaves together. This step takes place at a lower temperature and makes the tea leaves very soft.

Roasting the Leaves

Next, the tea leaves are roasted in a wooden four-drawer cabinet-like structure with a charcoal pot underneath as a heat source. Workers carefully adjust the charcoal to make each level of the cabinet a different temperature, removing moisture from the leaves with different levels of heat. The roasting process takes about an hour.

Shaping the Leaves Again

Once the leaves finish roasting, they are laid out flat and pressed into their distinct “bookmark” shape using two layers of fine steel mesh screens.

Final Roasting and Storage

After roasting and shaping, the leaves are allowed to cool down for a few hours before they are consolidated into large batches and roasted one final time to reduce their moisture content to a stable level. Tea makers will wrap the finished Tai Ping Houkui in cloth or paper and place it in a big ceramic pot. The ceramic pot has powdered limestone at its bottom to absorb moisture. The leaves rest over the limestone upon a wooden plank padded with large bamboo leaves. This traditional storage is the final and most subtle step in Tai Ping Houkui’s production. As the leaves rest in this container, they are imbued with the gentle aroma of the Tai Ping County’s bamboo.

The Origin and Legends of Tai Ping Houkui

Tai Ping Houkui, like many other famous teas, is named after its place of origin in Tai Ping County, which is located northeast of the Huangshan mountain range in China. Despite being situated in a mountainous region, the tea gardens are only about 300 meters above sea level. Despite being a relatively recent invention in the early 1900s, Tai Ping Houkui has quickly gained a reputation in China as one of the country’s most prestigious teas.

There are two local myths associated with Tai Ping Houkui. The first myth is about a flock of birds that brought the first tea seeds into Tai Ping County and scattered them among the hills and crags where they sprouted. When the villagers saw that the tea bushes had grown, they found it too dangerous to pick the tea. So, they used local monkeys and hung cloth bags around their necks, sending them up the cliffs to pick the tea. While it’s an entertaining idea, no monkeys were used to pick this tea.

The second myth also involves the monkeys of Tai Ping. According to this story, a mother monkey died of grief after losing her child, and a local farmer kindly buried the animal on his land. The farmer then had a dream in which the monkey guided him to a place deep in the forest where there was a tea garden. Upon awakening, the farmer followed his dream and found a hidden garden of tea bushes, which he plucked to make this tea.

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