Cultivar and Plucking:
The local cultivar, called Shi-da Cultivar (Shi-da Pin-zhong) is carefully selected at Anhui Province, and seed breeding is carried out.
This rare cultivar is specifically bred for this tea and not used for other types of tea product.
The tea leaves are big, oval shaped, thick but soft and covered with a white down.
The young leaves are pale green in color, but more mature leaves turn to dark green in color and are shinny, with uneven surface, and wavy edge.
The bud grows up to 2 - 2.5cm (length).
Hand-plucking of tea leaves are carried out under extremely stringent regulations.
The set criteria must be strictly followed based on the four principles as below:
1. Select the mountain (Jian-shan) of high altitude, with shade, fertile soil condition, and where the well-grown tea trees are planted facing to north.
This is to ensure excellent growing conditions of tea leaves which contain high level of amino acid
and other substances which contribute to the taste and flavor of tea produced.
2. Select individual plant (Jian-ke). Pick the tea tree of Shi-da Cultivar which is growing exuberantly.
3. Select the branch (Jian-zhi). Select the branch that is thick and strong, robust and not infected by plant disease.
4. Select the leaf ( Jian-jian). This is the primary factor determining the standard of finished product.
Early in the morning, one bud and three leaves are hand-plucked and sent to the factory by 10am.
By then, all the fresh tea leaves will be carefully picked one by one.
In addition, the tea leaves that fall into following 11 criteria should not be plucked:
1) Tea leaves without bud on top,
2) Bud and leaf that is too small or too big,
3) Bud that is not straight,
4) Leaf that have grown and stretched excessively,
5) Bud and leaf which is not well-grown,
6) Found to be purple in color,
7) Looks very pale in color,
8) Skinny bud,
9) Bud damaged by plant disease,
10) The burl (Ye-jie-jian) between leaf is too wide (as shown in the drawing below),
11) The tiny leaf attached to the bud, which indicates malnutrition is due to over-plucking or the first bud in spring comes with.
Taiping Houkui must be made using the leaf with correct length, color, size and shape.
Thus, any leaf which could not meet the aforementioned criteria must be discarded.
It is said that the best time to harvest the best quality tea leaves for Taiping Houkui is only 14 days in total throughout a year,
which falls between Grain Rain (Gu-yu, the 6th Solar Term of the 24 Solar Terms of in traditional East Asian lunisolar calendars) until the beginning of summer (Li-xia, the 7th Solar Term). During summer, the lower grade of tea produced is called Jian-cha.
Processing Tea Leaf:
(Jian-jian) - Picking
When all the tea leaves have been plucked, they are sent to the production area, the stringent picking is carried out to select every twig in a meticulous manner.
The standard of picking is to select the twig (one twig=1 bud and 3 leaves) which is robust and well grown, and from every twig, only one bud and two leaves remain-at 1/3 of the distance below the second leaf from bud, the third tea leaf is plucked and removed.
The first and second tea leaf must be almost the same height as the bud on top, i.e. 6 cm in overall.
In any event, one kilogram of product consists of 20,000 buds.
In such a strict manner, the picked leaves with even length and appearance resemble the finest tea of its group (i.e. the sharp-shaped green tea Jian-xing Lv-cha).
(Sha Qing)-Pan Frying-Inactivation of Enzyme (Blanching)
The purpose of is to inactivate oxidative enzyme such as polyphenol oxidase (PPO) with heat. Pan frying is literally frying tea leaves in a metal pan when the temperature of pan reaches 120-130 degree C. With high temperature, it takes a very short time to heat the tea leaves and inactivate oxidative enzyme. In the production of other type of Chinese green tea, pan with sharp bottom base ( Jian-di Guo) is prevalently used.
This type of pan is suitable for the formation of tight and slender shape tea leaves while frying.
In making Taiping Houkui, the distinctive appearance necessitated is rather rough (Chu), loose (Song) and flat (Bian-ping). Thus, a deep flat bottom base pan (Shen-di Ping-guo) is used.
Beforehand, make sure the pan is thoroughly cleaned until smooth and shinny. When the temperature reached 120 - 130 degree C, place about 75-100 g of tea leaves into the pan, and fry it for 3-4 minutes. With fingers slightly curved，lightly stir-up the tea leaves from bottom to edge of pan, then quiver for 2-3 times, and let the tea leaves evenly spread out and drop back into the pan.
In every minute, fry and stir for about 30 times. After 3-4 minutes of frying, when the leaf turn soft while the edge of leaf is slightly crispy, leaf changes to dark green in color, loses it lustrous appearance, and begin to emit their own pleasant fragrance, this indicates the frying is sufficient.
Thus, the tea leaves will be removed from the pan at once, and transferred to the bamboo plate and shiver for several times to cool down (San-re) which will strengthen the tea leaves and allows vaporization (the moisture content of tea leaf is reduced to about 70%), and then immediately proceed for heating.
(Chu Hong)-1st Heating-The formation of shape
This is the most critical stage to form the acuminate-sharp shape of Taiping Houkui.
Each pan of fried tea leaves will be served with four bamboo basket (Hong-long) heated at different temperatures.The first bamboo basket is heated up to 110 degree C, subsequently the following basket is heated to lower temperature progressively, i.e., 100 degree C, 85 degree C and 60 degree C, respectively.
The blanched tea leaves on the bamboo plate are placed on top of the first bamboo basket, and then lightly knock at the edge of bamboo plate to disperse the leaves over the plate and heat for 2-3 minutes.
Then the leaves are transferred to the second bamboo basket and heated for 2-3 minutes. While tea leaves are still warm and soft, they are lightly pressed (Na-ya) using both palms that shape the leaves. Following that, they are again transferred to third bamboo basket and the same steps are repeated. When the leaves are transferred to the last bamboo basket and heated for 2-3 minutes, the moisture content of leaves are reduced to about 15%, and at this stage, the partially dried leaves harden and no pressing is applied as not to cause damage to the leaf.
Overall, the first heating takes about 12 minutes.
Finally, the leaf is transferred to a bamboo plate for cooling (about 1 hour).
The re-distribution of the moisture from the stem to surface leaf is underway; this conditions the leaves for the next stage of heating.
The main purpose of the first heating is to vaporize moisture from the leaves as soon as possible, halt remnant enzyme activity, preserve the green color of leaves, and at the same time, forms the shape of Taiping Houkui.
(Er Hong)-Second Heating
About 4-5 plates of tea leaves from 1st heating are gathered together and proceed for the second heating. The temperature of bamboo basket (Hong-long) is about 80 degree C. After placing the tea leaves on the plate, lightly pat the plate several times, until all the leaves evenly settle on the plate, use palm to lightly press the leaves thoroughly; this is to strengthen all the leaves. Leaves have to be turned in every 5-6 minutes, repeated for 5-6 times, thus, the overall process takes about 25-30 minutes. Remove the leaves from the bamboo basket when the moisture content is reduced to about 10%. Before proceeding to the next heating, the leaves would be left on the bamboo plate for cooling down. It takes 5-6 hours to re-distribute the moisture.
(San Hong)-Third Heating
After sufficient cooling, the leaves (0.5-1 kg) will be placed on top of bamboo basket for the 3rd heating at 60 degree C. Again, tea leaves have to be turned in every 5 minutes, repeated for 6 times, thus, the overall process takes about 30 minutes. During the heating with Wen-huo (mean smoldering fire), lower temperature used generates identical fragrance called(Qing-xiang, means greenish refreshing flavor). After the moisture content is further reduced to 5-6%, the tea leaves will be removed from the bamboo basket, and left on a bamboo plate to cool down (0.5-1 hour), and then packed.