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Brewing up a career

By Yang Feiyue | China Daily| Updated: 2023-05-19 Print


Zhang Ziquan shows a child how to tell the quality of tea leaves at his tea plantation in Pingyang village, Duyun city, Guizhou province. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Endless rows of tea trees have been competing to sprout new buds since March, and Zhang Ziquan and his staff members have been adeptly picking tender, green tea leaves and placing them into baskets at the foot of a mountain.

The scene is from Zhang's plantation in Pingyang village, Maojian town, Duyun city, Qiannan Bouyei and Miao autonomous prefecture, Guizhou province. There, he practices an ancient art, innovates, follows his dream of being a tea maker, and contributes to the maintenance of China's cultural heritage.

As the tea leaves accumulate and the sun comes down, Zhang starts the frying process. The first step in frying tea is to remove the grassy taste from the tea leaves, he explains.

The emerald green tea leaves crackle as they come into contact with the burning pot. Zhang then stretches his hands into the pot, stirring up the leaves.

"The temperature of the pot needs to reach 250 to 300 C," says the Maojian native, who is in his 50s.

More than four decades of tea making has granted him the capacity to pull off the feat of sensing the high temperature through his bare hands.

"If I feel it is scorching, it is the right temperature," he says.

Zhang's hands have long been accustomed to high temperatures, and he can accurately sense the different temperatures required for frying tea, just like a thermometer.

After the frying, the rolling and kneading start. At this point, the temperature of the pot is maintained at around 80 C.

Zhang quickly rubs the tea leaves in his palms. After the process is complete, the astringency of the tea begins to fade, giving way to a pleasant, ripe flavor.

The third step is to roll the tea leaves into tight strips. Zhang then spends about five minutes pushing the tea leaves in a centrifugal motion around the pot until the leaves turn into a fishhook shape and all moisture is removed.


Making tea with hot water is a routine test for Zhang to assess his products. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Next comes the tricky part, in which the pot temperature is rapidly raised to 120 C to continue roasting the tea.

"The first 60 seconds of roasting is the most critical step," he says.

A layer of white fuzz (tea hair) will appear on the green tea leaves. The hair is considered an essential characteristic of the tea and is the main standard for evaluating its quality.

"If you stir-fry them over high heat and don't pay attention, the tea leaves will easily spoil," Zhang says. "It's just like stir-frying vegetables — the rhythm and the temperature of the pot must be coordinated, which requires a lot of experience and skill from the tea maker."

After the cooking is done, the temperature is dropped to 60 C, after which the tea leaves are pressed together in the palm and twisted into balls. While twisting, the leaves are continuously roasted for five minutes, which enhances their aroma.

At the end, Zhang fully dries, and then shrinks the tea leaves.

Zhang amazed everyone present at a recent Duyun Maojian tea demonstration event, as he had all the steps down to a fine art. With the simple tools of an iron pot, a mud stove and firewood, he could finish the whole process of making Duyun Maojian tea, whose production technique was put on UNESCO's intangible cultural heritage list last year.

"Tea leaves picked from the bushes must be processed on the same day, or else the aroma will be affected," he says.

Zhang's family has been making Duyun Maojian tea for four generations.

At the age of 5, he started following his grandfather to pick tea leaves during the day and roast them at night.

"I was not even as tall as the stove, but whenever my grandfather roasted the tea, I would stand on my tiptoes and watch carefully," Zhang recalls.

He then memorized all key operations, such as how to grab, shake, twist, knead and flip tea leaves.

At the age of 12, his grandfather encouraged Zhang to try his hand at the art.

Under his grandfather's instructions, he successfully produced the tea's characteristic white hairs for the first time.


Zhang stirs tea leaves with his bare hands over a hot pot, which is an essential step to get rid of the grassy taste of tea. [Photo provided to China Daily]

"I was both nervous and excited," he says, adding that this childhood tea roasting experience has made him proud and planted the seeds of desire for him to make a career out of it.

When he was young, tea made by Zhang's family sold at high prices. Such recognition reinforced Zhang's confidence in making the tea.

In the 1980s, many of his fellow villagers went outside to seek jobs with better incomes than what could be obtained in a rural setting, but Zhang stayed, contracting a 1.3-hectare plot of land where he applied his family tea growing skills.

The first year saw him make a profit of more than 1,500 yuan ($216.3), which was a lot of money at the time.

This outstanding performance soon brought attention to him, including from the head of the local tea processing plant.

He was soon recommended to be director at the processing plant, where he worked for the following 16 years.

"My biggest dream during the years at the tea plant was to have my own tea garden," Zhang recalls.

He acted on the dream in 2008 when Duyun came up with policies to develop the tea industry and encourage tea farmers to expand planting.

When Zhang heard the news, he was overjoyed and discussed with his wife his dream of building his own tea garden.

He then leased 25.3-hectare plot of barren land in Pingyang village and started planting tea. In 2009, Zhang joined forces with 38 rural households to establish the Shili Tea Fragrance Cooperative, which contracted more than 45 hectares of tea land.

A tea processing plant was established, and ever since, Zhang and his team have been highly successful in the tea business.

In 2018, the cooperative achieved a production value of more than 4 million yuan.

Local authorities have also vigorously developed tourism based on tea culture, which has brought Zhang's craft more public attention.

Liu Qian, a visitor from downtown Duyun, got a good measure of the tea's charm at a tea festival during the May Day holiday.

"It was my first time experiencing the production of Duyun Maojian tea, and I found it very interesting," Liu says. "At the same time, I also see the difficulty of making it, and I will better appreciate it when I drink it."

According to Zhang, tea roasting looks simple, but to do the right thing at the right time is not easy.

"The key to successfully frying Duyun Maojian tea lies in precise control of the pot temperature," he explains.

Although Zhang has stuck to the traditions of his craft for decades, he has also innovated based on his experience.

For example, in the past, locals could only pick Duyun Maojian tea for a month every year starting from the Qingming Festival around April. The short-term income was far from enough, forcing many villagers to work away from home.

After seeing the problem, Zhang bought books to study fermentation and experimented over subsequent years, developing his signature "Golden Maojian" black tea with its unique aroma, rich taste and long shelf life.

The new tea has enjoyed brisk sales and greatly increased the utilization of local tea resources, bringing more income to local tea enterprises and farmers.

As Zhang's first dream of owning his own tea plantation has been realized, he has set his sights on a new dream – to have more people learn about tea roasting and share his love of it.

Since 2017, he has worked with the Qiannan Polytechnic for Nationalities, inviting students from the institute to come every spring to the tea mountain to do fieldwork, including picking and roasting tea leaves.

Zhang has made a point of demonstrating the key steps for the students. "I am willing to teach as long as they are willing to learn," Zhang says.

He says he hopes that more students can combine textbook knowledge with practical experience, inheriting the ability to make Duyun Maojian tea.

"This way, more people can taste happiness," he says.

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