The puer that we produce under our brand "Cha Ren" 茶仁 is entirely hand made. Not just hand picked, but hand processed, from wilting, kill-green & rolling, to steaming, pressing & drying. Whilst a hand made tea is not guaranteed to be better tasting than a machine made tea, there is something inherently beautiful about tea made by experienced hands. We should not take it for granted, especially when you consider that most teas these days are machine made, even high end Japanese green teas, Chinese Wulongs, and Darjeelings.
Recently Belle and I have been watching the fabulous BBC series Victorian Farm, in which 3 historians go back in time and live a year on a farm, using only Victorian era breeds, crops & farming technology. The show brings home how much tedious manual labor was required before electricity & machines, but it also celebrates traditional handicrafts that are now in danger of becoming forgotten. A key element of the show is how the industrial revolution changed the farmer’s way of life, mechanizing production and forcing many to look to new ways of making a living.
There are many similarities with what is happening in China today. I believe that the cottage industry of farmers picking and processing their own tea by hand will gradually decline, as small land holders have to consolidate to compete with the bigger factories. Each year more maocha processing stations and factories are setup, to centrally process tea leaves at scale, with consistent quality and lower costs. But in that process there is something lost, something personal and magic, which comes from a more direct connection to the land and the hands that work it.
2011 Spring Mangzhi by Tea Urchin X Gao Fa Chang
Last year we collaborated with Yiwu school teacher & puer scholar, Gao Fa Chang, to produce a limited run of 50 Spring Mangzhi and Autumn Yibang cakes for us. These cakes were completely hand made, and wrapped in hand made Dai paper. Before steaming & pressing, Mr. Gao sorted the maocha by hand, using tweezers to inspect each leaf one by one, and discarding 15% of the maocha to create an exceptionally high quality 精品"jing pin" product. This labor intensive process, took him 4-5 months to complete, and you can see and taste the quality in each cup. As a mark of his pride in this production, each cake bears Mr. Gao's seal, stamped in red on the wrapper, and his hand-written signature on the neifei.
These 2011 cakes sold out surprisingly fast. So we travelled with Mr. Gao to his home range of Xikong and Yibang, as well as nearby Gedeng & Mangzhi, in the end producing two new Gao Fa Chang cakes for 2012: a Spring Xikong, and a Spring Mangzhi.
A cake produced with so much craftsmanship & care, deserves a wrapper to match. So this year we took some of the Dai paper we hand made in Yunnan, and sent it to my sister,Elaine Su-Hui Chew, who is a talented artist & print maker in New York. She carved two lino cuts for us, and printed them herself.
Tasseography by Elaine Suhui Chew
Her first design is inspired by the symbols used intasseography- the practice of reading tea leaves to divine your fortune. Each symbol reveals something of the fate that awaits you. Visit Elaine's blog to discover what these symbols mean.
The second design is a variation on a peony motif that my sister often uses in her artwork. You can see agiant peony lino-cut on her blog.
You can see the care & craft Elaine put into each print. She also signed each sheet, which is a nice personal touch. Collaborating with my sister & Mr. Gao has infused these cakes with special meaning. Whilst we live on opposite ends of the earth, together we’ve produced something rare... a completely hand crafted tea, made with love, and wrapped in art.
The pressing pad looks similar to a bamboo tong wrapper
Like the moon in the night sky
Peony in Red
The final result looks magnificent, and we’re very proud to share it with you. These 2012 Spring Xi Kong & Mang Zhi cakes are the realisation of our vision for Tea Urchin. Not to sell tea like a commodity, but to add something of ourselves to it - creating something playful yet wise - a meaningful tea, that increases your appreciation of life.
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