The Tea Detective
Uncovering and Exploring the Facts About Tea
China's Unique Artisan Style
Basket-Fired and Pan-Fired Green Teas
With more than 3000 different styles of China green tea said to be available, it
can seem like a daunting task to choose from.  Probably the best way to learn
about green tea is to try different styles to see what you like.  Also, learning
about the manufacturing process of different varieties and how they are made,
will give you an insight into the qualities, flavors, and characteristics of various
styles of green tea.
Two popular methods of manufacture of
China artisan style green tea are basket
firing and pan firing.  Each style of processing
gives the tea its own unique flavor and
character, distinguishing it from the other.

The first four steps are basically the same for
most
China green teas.  The fresh leaf is gen-
erally plucked in the morning and brought
down the mountain in baskets or cloth bags
that provide good air circulation and protect
the leaf from being crushed under its own
weight.

The leaf is then given a quick sorting,
removing twigs and rocks, and is left to air
dry for a short time, a process known as
primary drying, that helps prevent oxidation.

Once the leaf reaches the factory it is spread on mats on the floor,
approximately two to five inches deep to air dry, reducing the mois-
ture content by several percent.  The goal is to go from a moisture
content of about 75 to 77%, down to between 65 -70%.  This step
may take anywhere from a few minutes to over an hour, depending
on the leaf, time of day, and air temp.

This completes the first four standard
green tea processing steps, and now the particular style of
green tea being manufactured can begin.
China Artisan Style Basket-Fired Green Tea
                                   To begin the processing of basket fired green tea, a small amount of fresh
                                  leaf (about 2 lbs.) is placed in an upright bamboo or reed basket, usually
                                  made of two pieces, resembling an hour glass.  The upper part of the bas-
                                  ket that is heated usually deteriorates after two or so days and is re-
                                  placed.

                                  The tea leaf firing basket is between two to four feet tall, with the top
                                  portion looking like an over size cone-shaped hat with a wide brim.  After
                                  the initial drying the leaf is placed in the top part and the entire basket is
                                  placed over the heat source, usually a small brazier or charcoal embers.
                                  The heat needs to be low enough not to burn the bamboo basket.

          The basket is placed over the heat for
          about a minute before being removed,
          placed off to the side while the tea
          master "fluffs" the tea by gently tap-
          ping the basket causing the tea to
          jump about and be tossed.

          The basket is then placed over the heat
          for another minute, then removed and
          fluffed. This process of heating and fluff-
          ing is repeated for about 15 to 20 min-
          utes.

          Once the proper amount of moisture
          has been removed from the leaf, it is
          taken from the basket and piled on
          bamboo mats on the floor. Here the tea will rest and air dry and be added to other
          similarly processed leaf, ready for the final firing and sorting.

          One popular tea made with basket firing is Bi Lo Chun or Green Snail Spring, a famous
          green tea from China's Jiangsu Province.

                                                           Rather than tossing the leaf, though, Bi Lo Chun is manu-
                                                           factured with unique handwork.  Five motions repeated
                                                           three times that combine a gentle twist and roll result in
                                                           the tea leaf assuming and maintaining the classic shape
                                                           of
Bi Lo Chun, neat little spirals that resemble the shape
                                                           of a snail (thus the name Green Snail Spring).

                                                           The goal of the tea maker is to gently coax the leaf into a
          natural relaxed shape, and then "fix" it there with a finish firing.  Later the re-hydrated
          leaf will return to its natural fresh leaf shape when brewed with as little effort as possi-
          ble, ensuring the energy, or what is known as "chi" of the tea is released into the tea,
          rather than being wasted by shoddy manufacturing. This is known as the "tai chi" of tea.  
China Artisan Style Pan-Fired Green Tea
          Pan firing accomplishes many of the manufacturing steps in just
          one process. It fixes the juice in the leaf, reduces moisture content,
          seals in flavor, and dries the leaf to the proper moisture content
          before finish firing, and adds a unique toasty flavor to the tea.

Longjing or Dragon Well, one of China's most famous teas is pan fired.  Even though every pro-
vince in China, as well as every green tea producing region in the world has tried duplicating the
unique pan fired style of Longjing or Dragon Well, no one has ever been able to replicate its fla-
vor and style.  That is because of the unique
terroir of the region in which Dragon Well is grown.

There are many different styles of firing pans used throughout
China, from simple wok like pans,
to large factory sized units specially made for tea processing.  Two common versions are the
wood-fired double pan and the electric-fired single pan.

As with basket firing, the leaf has been completed through primary drying. About two pounds of leaf is scooped into
the pan.  Even, gentle heat is needed for firing green tea, so small electric pans work perfectly.  The temperature is
controlled by a thermostat or built-in controls that are close at hand.

                                               When using a wood-fired pan, two pans are connected in the same housing and often
                                               paired with a second set of pans.  Each set of pans is operated by a tea artisan, with
                                               a third person minding the fire.  The fire must not get too hot or the tea will burn, but
                                               if it gets too cool, the tea won't fire properly.

                                               A secret of pan fired tea is that a minute amount of solidified tea seed oil is used to
                                               help the tea glide around the pan and prevent it from burning.  The solidified oil comes
                                               from the seeds of tea bushes so no foreign flavor is left on the leaf.  The tea seed oil is
one reason for the distinctive toasty flavor of pan fired green teas.

One of China's Ten Most Famous Teas, Tai Ping Hou Kui, from
Anhui Province is also one of the most unusual and
unique because it is both pan fired and basket fired.  After the initial steps it is first pan fired in twin wood-fired pans
and set aside.

Next it is blotted using rice paper from nearby mills, then refired in a traditional one-piece
basket over a low fire to "fix" the tea.  After resting, the leaf is finish-fired, with the end
result a large, flat, bright green
whole leaf tea, with the distinctive pattern of the rice
paper embedded in the surface of the leaf.

Once only reserved for Chinese emperors or leaders or as special gifts for dignitaries,
diplomats, or heads of state, it's available today for all to enjoy, even the mere mortals like you and I.  
Enjoy.
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