Our story of making red tea

This story tells how we started experimenting with making red tea. Spending nights by the
dryer, withering and re-withering. Our great expectations and what we finally got.
10 June

When Roman saw freshly picked tea leaves for the first time, he said: «It would be great to make red tea, we can get really good one!» It was in the middle of March, the weather was sunny — the best time to fry tea in cauldrons as well as to dry it in the sun. Therefore we had to say: «Sorry, Roma, but now it’s time to make green tea, shen. The time for red tea hasn’t come yet. We’ll do it later." And besides we were still waiting for our dryer and tea roller: they were on travelling somewhere in the middle of the ancient tea route.

We were lucky to finally get our equipment in the beginning of April. It was the time of big drought and we could get very little of fresh leaves. But it was such a pleasure to mess about with the new roller, oiling it. A roller is absolutely necessary to make red tea — for proper fermentation tea should be well rolled for 30–40 minutes, sometimes more. Unlike shen, red tea is impossible to roll by hand: the structure of leaves should be changed properly, otherwise tea won’t discolor to brown and won’t get the right taste. Our first red tea was ready by the end of April. Roma was very excited about the result of this experiment. Is it a success? What taste have we got? In the morning we tasted the tea and we were satisfied by the result. To make sure we gave it to the guys at the factory at lunch time. It was definitely a success: everybody liked it!

Our first red tea.

In May we were busy with red tea for most of the time. We liked what we got. The process of making red tea is quite complicated, it requires constant attention. We brought freshly picked leaves and spread them on a wooden tray for withering. Water should vapor out, the leaves should become soft but not dry. At this stage the smell of leaves markedly changes, you can feel their natural aroma. It’s delicious. In every location tea has its peculiar flavor.

Tea withering.

Time of withering depends on weather conditions. We used to leave the tea indoors for the whole night, then, in the morning; we moved part of it outdoors to be withered in the sun while the other part was left in the shade. The whole process took us 15–20 hours; in case of cloudy weather it could take even more. The ability to predict how the process of withering would go is very important because one should start rolling tea in time. So we checked the trays with leaves every 10–20 minutes.

A roller, a drying oven and wicker trays — those are the things, which are necessary to make red tea.

Once we had such an accident: fresh tea had been withering for too long, it became dry and light, and after rolling it looked like popcorn. Yes, this tea looked very unusual. I went to the office, brewed it up in a gaiwan and felt at once: the tea was definitely not tasty. The aroma wasn’t nice as well. As a result we had to reject 30 kilos of tea. That was «an education fee», as we call it.

Tea withering in the shade.

As I’ve already written, tea rolling takes 30–40 minutes. If the stage of withering isn’t long enough, the tea will tear and you can notice it at once: many tiny pieces to be seen. This isn’t nice. In general the process of withering red tea is much more complicated and time-consuming, than green tea withering. Besides it should be kept in mind that withering depends on the quality of raw leaves. For example, leaves picked from big trees are not easy to wither evenly in the sun: half of the tea gets torn or overdried. When there are many buds in raw material, it’s better to dry the tea outdoors. In this case you can get brighter aroma. We hope to continue exploring such nuances year after year, so that we could know exactly what to do with the tea just looking quickly at the leaves picked.

Tea from big trees is not only difficult to pick but also not easy to cook.

We roll withered tea in a small roller, for the juice to exude and for the process of fermentation to begin. For fermentation we spread the tea on trays, spray it a little with water and cover it by light cloth.

The tea prepared for fermentation.

The process of fermentation is perhaps the most «high-tech» stage of making red tea. Tea juice interacts with oxygen and turns brown. When you bite an apple and leave it for some time, the same thing happens. It’s very important to stop this process at the right moment when the tea has already opened and is ready for drying. This isn’t easy. If you make a mistake and ferment tea for too long, it gets sour taste and smell, and you have to reject it. But if you start drying too early, the taste will be «empty», not bright. Time of fermentation may vary depending on air temperature and type of leaves (leaves from bushes or leaves from trees). You should not only catch the right moment, but more than that: you should be able to predict this moment 20–30 minutes before it, because the process of fermentation continues while the tea is being put into a dryer and while the temperature is beginning to rise.

The color of tea during fermentation.

So, as you may see, making red tea is not easy. The Lao didn’t succeed in doing this: they used to get tea, that was bitter and sour. But if you do everything right, there will be no bitter taste, even if the tea stays in a teapot for too long.

This is another way of tea fermentation.

After fermentation tea should be dried. Then we finally have fragrant tea which is ready to drink. Oh, those long meditative evenings by the dryer! And feeling like a stoker by a wood stove. And then the long-long process of tea sorting.

A small kit for tea production.

The drying oven, which we have bought, is relatively small; it’s enough for eight trays, that is about 20 kilos of rolled tea. To start using it we had to solve one problem: such devices usually need the voltage of not less than 380 V, that is not easy to find in Phongsali. That’s why we asked the guys at the factory to readjust our dryer for working with the usual 220 v. As the result the oven worked, but the voltage was obviously not enough for its normal work: it took 5–6 hours to raise the temperature up to a hundred.

When time is crawling soooo slowly.

This slow process of drying limited us, because while one portion of tea should be well dried, the next portion shouldn’t be overfermented. So we couldn’t produce more than 10 kilos of tea a day. But in compensation the tea, we got in the result of this slow drying, was extremely tasty.

The tea, which has been produced within several days.

I don’t know how to describe this feeling. Just imagine: in the evening, after it gets dark, you leave the house and start a motorbike. Lighting the way by the head light of your bike you get to the stadium and enter the factory. It’s dark, everyone is sleeping, but the night watchman leaves the gates unlocked, cause he knows, you’ll come.

Our dear «uncle Vanya», a night watchman and a very good person.

You turn off the head light of the bike, turn on the flashlight and go into the factory, straight to the dryer. On its display control you see three figures, glowing in the dark. These numbers are very important, it’s the temperature inside the oven, and according to this figures, you can conclude, whether the tea has already dried or not yet. As a rule temperature doesn’t reach 85 °C until the tea is ready. And when the dry steam is beginning to go up, it’s time to turn off the dryer.

New moon in Phongsali.

The display shows 76 °C. You open the oven, touch the tea on the trays, and yes — it hasn’t dried yet. The tea on the upper trays is almost dry, while the trays in the middle and below need more time. I go to the street, I watch the stars there and listen to the silence and peace. I’m a little sleepy, but it’s not the time to go to bed. I check the tea, that’s being fermented: everything is ok. There is no sour smell, I can feel the pleasant aroma. I open the dryer again and take out the two upper trays — the tea is ready, I should bring it upstairs to cool there. In the morning we’ll make it in a gaiwan and taste it.

In the morning I brewed the fresh tea and took a picture of it.

The dryer continues working, and I go to my favorite pile of sacks filled with tea made by the locals to take a nap there (forgive me, my Lao friends). I have to wait about an hour. If I’m not sleepy, I can sit on the steps and watch the night. Moths gather around the flashlight, and, to tell the truth, at this moment there is only one thought in my head: I hope the temperature in the oven is not too high and the tea is ok. Finally the tea is ready. I take it out of the dryer and spread the next portion of tea on the trays. Then I lock the doors, start the bike and go back to Vipaphone. Now it’s time to go to bed. At 6 o’clock in the morning we’re at the factory again.

A rainy morning with the view of Phongsali.

Perhaps an attentive reader will ask: «Why is it dark? The dryer works, it means you have electricity. (???)». Well, this is the specific mindset of the Lao guy, who helped us with the wire. He arranged everything so that if you turn on the dryer the light at the factory turns off. For this reason we had to turn off the drier for a short time in order to check, how the tea was being fermented. So it goes.

«What? Who? Electrician? Yes, we used to have one here, but he has left our place. You should go to the capital».

It happened sometimes that we got more perfect freshly picked leaves than we were able to dry in one day. Sometimes, if the weather was clear and warm, we dried them in the sun after withering, rolling and fermenting. We spread the tea on wicker trays and then we moved these trays according to the sun. This «sunny» tea was very different from the tea, dried in the oven. It was somewhat bitter, but still good enough. This sort of tea got number 106. Later the descriptions of all our sorts of tea will appear on this website.

Red tea dried in the sun.

Many times we were asked by local people about our tea: they wanted to know, how we made it and were especially interested in our drying oven. For some reason they thought, this was more important, than the time of withering and fermentation. But in the process of tea making none of them could tell, if it was the right moment to start drying the tea or not yet.

I hope, they’ll make perfect tea, when they grow up. And we’ll help them.

On the whole we’ve got four sorts of red tea that vary notably: 105, 106, 108 and 110.The results of many experiments have been rejected while on some of them we plan to work later. We are going to continue our research next year.

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