Nepal has been producing tea for nearly two centuries. Originally, the culture and organisation of its plantations were based on the model that existed in Darjeeling. But since then, things have evolved considerably. Just over 10 years ago, a number of enthusiastic tea producers wanted to see how things were being done elsewhere, and brought back from Taiwan and China various small-capacity machines that offer a different and much more artisanal solution for processing tea. Today, these machines are widely used in most of the country’s tea co-operatives. Thanks to their introduction and the dedication of the people who use them, we can now enjoy all sorts of teas from Nepal: white, semi-oxidised, shaped into balls… And from a tasting perspective, they are of a remarkable quality.
This revival of Nepalese tea that we’ve seen in the last decade stems from a break with the old British system.
Black teas are oxidised; green teas aren’t: that’s the difference. With oolongs, it’s more complicated. They can be oxidised a little, a lot, or zealously. Their oxidation rate can range from 10% to 70%. Of course, a lightly oxidised oolong will have a more vegetal aroma, while a more oxidised oolong will develop woody, fruity notes. Whatever the level of oxidation required, the processing steps are the same: withering, sweating, roasting, rolling, then drying. The sweating stage is essential. It involves alternating periods of stirring the leaves with periods of resting them, as illustrated by this photo. The aim of this stage is to encourage oxidation while removing the natural moisture from the leaves.
The world’s finest jasmine teas are produced in August and September in Fujian province (China). They are made using a green tea base, and as the best green teas are harvested in April, the necessary quantity is reserved at the time. The jasmine flowers on the other hand, are picked at the end of summer. Jasmine flowers open in the evening, when they release their fragrance. When this happens, they are placed in layers with the tea leaves, impregnating them with their heady scent. Throughout the night they are mixed together to ensure the leaves have absorbed as much of the fragrance as possible. When day breaks they are separated, before the jasmine flowers turn bitter.
It takes a lot of manual work to produce a high-quality tea, except in Japan, where they have designed incredibly sophisticated machines.
Tea leaves are sorted one by one, like here, in China. This is done for any tea worthy of the name; in other words, whole-leaf, good quality tea. This leaf-by-leaf sorting eliminates tiny pieces of stem, as well as any coarser leaves. It is also an opportunity to remove the occasional insect: tea plantations are living environments, and the presence of weeds and insects can be a sign of good farming practice.
It is difficult to find good tea in Sri Lanka, and here is a photo of the guilty party. Known as a rotorvane, it puts the leaves under enormous pressure and can roll three times the quantity of freshly withered leaves as a traditional roller. The oxidation time can then be reduced to a few minutes because the leaves have been squashed so much.
This procedure is widely used in the mountains in the centre of the country. It has the advantage of increasing yield, but what is the point when you gain strength in lieu of any subtlety of flavour and aroma.
While you’re brewing your tea, you can’t always imagine how much work has gone into it already, with the harvesting and processing of each little leaf. The manual sorting, done leaf by leaf to remove any stems, is just as painstaking.
It is difficult to imagine what tea processing involves in terms of expertise and refinement. Here, for example, the production process has been completed, and this woman is going through the leaves one by one to remove tiny stems and other imperfections.
When you read tasting notes on Darjeeling teas, you learn that the leaf can be more or less rolled, depending on the batch. This is what the rolling looks like. As soon as the leaves have finished wilting, on the upper level of the building, they are dropped (see photo) into this container, which has a press. Rolling, as it is performed in Darjeeling, takes just a few minutes. It prepares the leaves, by lightly crushing them, for the following stage: oxidation.
Jukro from South Korea is one of the finest quality teas in the world. I know just one farmer who produces it. He can only do so in the first days of May, using his best leaves. The quantity obtained is so small that only a few customers are able to enjoy it. I think you can imagine how eagerly I anticipate his new plucking every year. The richness of the tea’s flavours and its complexity and length in the mouth are worth tasting at least once in a lifetime.