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Learning how to produce traditional Dong Ding tea - Part 1

Producing tea can be very, very difficult, but as consumers, we rarely realize all the work that is behind it.


Iris and me wanted to take an intensive course to learn how to make one of the most famous teas in Taiwan, Dong Ding tea. Along with being famous, this is one of the most difficult teas to make... below we will see why and we will tell you how this one week course went!




What is Dong Ding tea?

This is, perhaps, one of the teas from Taiwan with the most extensive tradition.

It began 150 years ago in the area surrounding the now-a-days city of Lugu, when a farmer brought tea plants (Cultivar Qingxin Wulong) from Wuyi, China.

It is named after a hill called Dongding ("Frosty Peak"), which is located in this area, and originally this tea was produced as "Qing Cha", with medium oxidation and roasting.

But recently the preference of consumers of this tea has slowly evolved towards less oxidation and more roasting, generally reaching deep aromas such as caramel or ripe fruit. Which is what is commonly looked after today while producing Dong Ding tea.



During the first week of August 2023, we joined the second version of the "Advanced Course for the Preservation of Traditional Nantou Tea", organized by the National Taiwan University of Arts, in collaboration with Yoshan Tea (a company with more than 140 years of tea history in the region) and the cultural office of Nantou County, supported by the Ministry of Culture.



As the name suggests, this course seeks to teach traditional tea making techniques in order to preserve this invaluable knowledge. It was a remarkably well-organized course, where they teach both the techniques of making and roasting tea, as well as how to professionally distinguish a true traditional Dong Ding tea.


The best part? Each participant makes their own Dong Ding and takes home approximately 400g of it!


The day-to-day of the course was:

  • First day - Withering and Fixation in Lugu

  • Second day - Rolling and drying in Lugu

  • Third day - First roasting in Zhushan

  • Fourth day - Second roasting in Zhushan

  • Fifth day - Tasting and evaluation in Zhushan


We divided the article into 2 parts. In the first one we will show you the first and second day where we processed the freshly harvested tea leaves. In the second part we will tell you how the roasting and evaluation of the tea went.


Let's begin!


First day - Withering and Fire Fixation

But first the induction...

The induction of the course took place at the museum of the Yoshancha company, which has been in the traditional Taiwanese tea market for over 120 years. It is located in the city of Zhushan, Nantou.


Here, the organizing professor (Maggie Su) from the National Taiwan University of Arts, together with the owner of Yoshancha, explained the basic concepts of the technique that we will use during the following days. For example, she told us that each group of 5 participants will be guided by one experienced master (each master comes from long family traditions in Lugu area) + an assistant who is also a tea master. In addition, at the end of the course, a committee of experts will come to evaluate our work!


In summary...

We will spend the first and second day in the mountains, in the Lugu area, which is where this type of tea was born. Yoshancha provides a tea factory along with the leaves that we will use to make our precious Dong Ding Wulong.


Then on the third day we will return to the museum where for 2 consecutive days we will bake the tea and finally on the fifth day we will taste the tea of the 20 participants. A committee of experts will evaluate them to award prizes just as they do in a competition.


On the way to Lugu and the tea factory

Between Zhushan and Lugu there is only 15-16 km, so after the induction we drove to the tea factory located a few steps from the center of Lugu.



We arrived at a small, but well-organized factory ready to produce Dong Ding Wulong. There we are greeted by its owner who will also serve as the master of our group, he is Mr. Chen (陳喜農), very cheerful and from a family with a long tradition in Lugu and in the preparation of Dong Ding.



Let's get to work, the withering process begins


The freshly harvested leaves arrive at noon and we get to work. We quickly separate them so that each group of 5 students has the same amount. Each student is responsible for 15斤(jīn) or 9kg of leaves.


Sun withering occurs quickly due to high temperature and time of day. We combine direct sun exposure with partial shade and gently move the leaves every 10 to 20 minutes for a period of 2 hours.

This stage and the next are key in tea processing. The quality of the leaves during this step will dictate the quality of the final product.


During withering, the leaves release "green" aromas such as freshly cut grass. Each time we turn the leaves, we feel this "green" aroma, which decreases over the minutes until it is almost imperceptible. So to speak, under this strong "green" aroma are the floral aromas that we want to highlight in the tea.


While traditionally the perception of these aromas is done using the senses of the body, there are new machines that measure the compounds released by the leaves during this process. And you can see at the moment you turn the leaves.


In addition, as the minutes go by, the leaves lose moisture, become slightly more flexible and change slightly to a more bluish color.


Indoor withering, patience patience


From the 15斤 we had at the beginning, the leaves were reduced to approximately 13斤due to moisture loss during sun withering (-14%!).


During the beginning of indoor withering, we essentially keep the same process that we used during sun withering, but this time we must wait 2hrs to 2:30hrs to turn the leaves. We are attentive to the loss of the "green" aroma, which is still present with its constant "ups and downs".


One of the aromas I remember smelling during this stage is hortensia.


Something important that we must achieve during this process is for the leaves to lose moisture and at the same time gain elasticity. If you are not careful when turning the leaves, their internal cells may break, blocking the moisture from coming out, which will ruin the final product. This can be seen as dark blue lines or veins, which will later turn reddish.

Each master has his or her own recipe, so each tea will have its own characteristic profile

We repeat this process until approximately 8pm, when we perform the "turning of the leaves". That is the last step of shade withering and it is when we stir the leaves continuously for enough time so the aroma settles down and the leaves become soft and flexible.




Time to stop oxidation, fire-fixation


We will not stop to analyze this stage of the process in detail since it is similar to that of high mountain Wulong processing.


The important part of this process is to consider what the desired level of oxidation point we want to reach during the previous steps (withering), in order to stop the oxidation at the moment we transfer the leaves to the oven.


The image corresponds to the ovens used in Lishan, we add it as a reference.


The heat fulfills 2 functions, the first is to stop the oxidation of the leaves, and second to help them lose as much moisture as possible. What you see coming out of the oven is steam from the leaves!


This is how the first day ends, a very long day! Already out of the oven, we let the leaves rest for what tomorrow will bring them, the rolling.


Second day - Rolling and drying


Very early on the second day, we met with our group and teacher. Now comes the most

arduous part... rolling the Wulong tea leaves... Forming them into balls or pearls is very difficult, but doing it by hand without the help of machines is even more complicated.

The good thing is that we had very dedicated and patient teachers to guide us through the process.


Rolling


Our teacher explained in detail each step we had to follow to gradually shape our tea into the desired "ball-shape". Since it was the first time we were doing this process, he and his assistant patiently accompanied us throughout the day and intervened whenever we needed it.


The sequence we will see in the video is the following. These steps are repeated over and over again to gradually give the tea its final shape:


  1. Form a ball by hand with the first cloth bag. The forearm is used to give it a spherical shape.

  2. Cover with the second cloth bag and this time the foot is used to continue shaping and applying more pressure.

  3. Use the machine to massage the ball and start extracting the tea oils.

  4. Squeeze the ball again, but this time using the iron rod as shown by the teacher in the video. This technique will squeeze the leaves with more pressure.

  5. Use the machine again to massage the leaves.

  6. Untangle the leaves and repeat from step 1.


Every 2 or 3 repetitions, after untangling the leaves, they are taken to an oven at medium temperature to continue with the gradual drying of the tea.


Here is a video for you to see how complex it is:



The following images show how the leaves change during this process

Do you see how they gradually get tighter and tighter?


Final Drying


To finish the first part of the process (which takes almost 2 days), we use an oven to dry the tea. After this step we will have a tea ready to be consumed, although we still need the classic Dong Ding tea baking that we will do in the following days.


This is a classic oven for drying tea leaves in Taiwan. It is not used much today, as there are now larger and more efficient ovens. But it was good to learn how to use this precursor to the current model.

As you can see, the oven is divided into 6 trays. The leaves are spread on the first one and after about 5 minutes we open the tray to move it to the second level. Then a new batch of leaves is spread on the first tray. After 5 more minutes the second tray is opened, closed and the first tray is opened. We now have tea on the third and second trays, so we spread tea on the first tray again. And so on until all the tea has passed through the oven and is finished drying.


This oven is kept at approximately 110°C.

In the following video you can see how one of our teachers uses the oven. He opens each tray and then takes out a batch of already dried tea.



This was the first part of the traditional Dong Ding tea production workshop.

We will soon publish the second part, where we will tell you about the baking of this tea and some surprises that the organizers had prepared for us.



 

Do you want to try the real Dongding Wulong?

(One made by real masters, not ourselves haha)



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