Mr. Dai is a master producer of green teas, particularly for the most prestigious hand fired Dragonwell green teas in Hangzhou, China. He also manages some of the top gardens at Lion’s Peak, the most sought after hilside for Dragonwell. Originally, we sought him out for his superior Dragonwell, but upon learning that he is also the last remaining keeper of the Yellow Tea tradition, we have decided to support his efforts to keep Yellow Tea alive by importing almost his entire crop each year.
Q: Mr. Dai, how long have you been making tea?
A: I was originally from Jin Zhai, Anhui, and making Yellow tea was my family tradition. I have done that since I was a kid. When I was in my early 20s, I went to Hangzhou in the hopes of making a better living. I got hired because of my tea skills to make Dragonwell (Longjing). I have now been making Longjing for over 25 years.
Q: How long does it take for someone to master the art of firing green tea?
A: Hand firing green tea is an art and skill that also depends a lot on experience, since the hand has to be able to feel each batch of leaves and their moisture content. That can not be simply learned by theory and must come from thousands of batches fired. Originally I apprenticed with the other tea masters who specialized in tossing the Longjing leaves on the wok, and I would handle portions of it, like the 3rd or 4th time called ‘Return Wok’, which are further drying and finishing the tea. But the most difficult is the first wok, during which the fresh leaves are dried and shaped for the first time. I was not allowed to do first wok until at least five years after I started, even though I already had substantial experience working on Yellow tea before that.
Q: How does Yellow tea making differ from making Dragonwell?
A: Yellow tea is much more laborious, as most of it involves moving the leaves out of the charcoal-heated basket and preventing them from scorching, squeezing the leaves out of its acrid juices, and a long two week process of smothering the leaves. The making of Dragonwell is over a period of two days only, and 20 minutes at a time per wok. But because my bare hands are on the 100 C hot wok, blisters would be the norm. In fact, the blisters were so severe that I would not be able to sleep, and I can not apply ointment or risk contaminating the tea the next day. It is a brutal process.
Q: Can you make an adequate living firing Dragonwell?
A: Barely. I have to work all year on the management of the gardens also, tending to the roots and the cultivation of the plants. I am paid for the quality of the Longjing that is fired, by the batch. Nowadays, I am the one who fires the top most quality batches of fresh leaves that are harvested, and the level of leaves given to the Communist party officials. Yet still, I do not make enough to buy property, only to send my kids to school. The money is made by the owners of the garden who sell my finished teas to the corporations, who then gift the teas to the government officials at very high values.
Q: What about selling your Yellow tea?
A: There is no market for my Yellow tea, my mountain is very remote, there are fewer than 1000 people left in the village, and up until recently, we did not even have a paved road going into the mountain. In fact the Yellow tea enjoys a unique process — one that makes the driest, most non-perishable of all green teas. In the ancient days this was for the purposes of walking the tea out of the mountain, which takes a long time. I have no way of really selling my Yellow tea except to people who are in the know, like yourself.
Q: What happens when you retire?
A: Currently, there is no next generation of tea artisans. I have no apprentice, all the young people want city jobs. Tea making is too hard. As soon as they see hand processing the tea, they either go to the machine-made versions, or they don’t want to do it. The machine-made teas do not fetch very high prices so they don’t want to do that either. As for Yellow tea, my brother and I are the last two people in the village who know how to make it, and willing to. After us there will be no one. I am not sure what will happen. I guess there will be no more Yellow tea, and Dragonwell will become machine-made versions.
Q: Would you make tea again if you had to do it all over again, with such a hard life?
A: Although I complain, I love making tea. I still study it all the time. I study the varietals mutating and changing every year due to climate changes, and figure out tweaks to my tea firing methods in order to meet these changes. I try to study more tea history, and all the local varietals in the area and how they differ in taste. I study the times of the months in the year for the perfect days for harvest, and how to predict it even better. I continue to enjoy studying tea very much, and what I know, I love to share.