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The tea kiln was spinning blindly, the hands of Tan Cuong tea artisans were right at the right moment to decide on incense, quickly and slowly, for a minute, they were all thrown away.
The Tan Cuong commune official took me to Hong Thai village, looked for Mr. Le Quang Ngan’s house, and said that the oldest remaining Tan Cuong tea tree in that house, the oldest tea-making household is also that house.
The first tea-picking season in Xinjiang begins in January, when the spring weather is cool and gentle on the hills. That’s when the tea gardens, which had endured the torment of frost all winter, now met the gentle spring sunshine, and were able to race each other to pop the buds. The tender green buds sprout like billions of sharp green nuggets reaching out in the golden sunlight. Fortune of heaven. Mr. Ngan picked the young tea buds that still had the morning dew on them and brought them to his mouth to sip while telling us interesting stories about the tea industry in Xinjiang.
Compared to several hundred households living on tea in the commune, Mr. Ngan’s origin is somewhat special. A rare person who is not originally from Hung Yen, Nam Dinh, Thai Binh, is said to be the Ngai ethnic group in Lang Son, who migrated here before the whole army saluted. Mr. Ngan listened to the old people recount that the wandering trip in 1918 of that group of Ngai people initially consisted of hundreds of people, divided into two directions. A branch goes to the Lo River in Tuyen Quang and Phu Tho, later washed away by flood water without any trace. Another branch led each other to live in the middle of the Xinjiang old forest today. Over the years, there are now more than a dozen roofs, all of them doing tea.
The old tea tree in front of Mr. Ng’s house dates back to 1928. That was the time when Mr. Doi Nam divided tea seeds among several households in Xinjiang to plant. Mr. Tuong Nghiem, Mr. Cuong But, Mr. Ty Trom…, each of them occupied a few hills. In that day, tea was planted in the forest, did not cut branches like today, but let it grow naturally, after decades of years, each tree had a stump as big as a thermos, a canopy as wide as a pine, sitting under the rain without getting wet, looking far away. indistinguishable from the forest. It is not until the period of cooperation that the state pays. Several decades later, the cooperative disbanded, and the land was contracted back to the people.
It was also a period of many changes in the tea industry. The old-fashioned farming method had low productivity. In 1979, there was a border war, and the Chinese side stopped providing star-drying technology, so the traditional tea industry gradually declined.
“The ancient midland tea variety is grown from seeds, has a longer lifespan, is more nutritious, but it is difficult to make and not productive. Before 2010, people dug all to switch to growing hybrid tea. The old tea hill has been scooped up by machines. Only this tree remains. Mr. Hau A Lenh, Minister – Chairman of the Committee for Ethnic Minority Affairs, came to visit the precious treasure, he had to attach a name to preserve it,” said Mr.
Mr. Ngan is now one of the most famous tea-making households in Xinjiang. Certificates of merit for good economic performance from central to local levels, certification of clean tea, high quality tea up to hundreds of pieces, and often go from place to place to compete for talent. He shared that, since 2011, when the Thai Nguyen Tea Festival was successfully held for the first time, tea making in the Xinjiang region also turned to a new page. On a larger scale, science and technology are applied more to meet the increasingly strict standards of the market. Supporting machines, gas stoves, electric stoves instead of wood burning stoves, shredders, and replica machines gradually replace limbs… Of course, the work is easier, labor productivity is higher, but not because of that, the value of the hands of tea artisans are underestimated, on the contrary, increasingly show traditional values that are rarely comparable anywhere else.
Profession chooses people. Mr. Thousand summed up. There are few traditional crafts as elaborate as tea making. Whether by machine or by hand, Tan Cuong tea must go through at least seven steps. New varieties of tea are planted after about two years, then they begin to ban buds, can be harvested, and can be skillfully done each year for about 8 to 10 generations. Depending on the purpose of making tea, it is picked in different ways. For bud tea, pick a young bud with 2-3 old tea leaves, hook tea to pick a two-leaf shrimp, young tea to pick a single-leaf shrimp, and to make Dinh tea or other high-class teas, only pick each tea bud. ..
After picking tea in the early morning, it is immediately put to dry by putting it on the floor or putting it in a pot to keep it under the shade, avoiding sunlight, the purpose is to make the tea no longer sticky with water before bringing it to the teapot or teapot. Also called the head star. In the past, the Xinjiang people used cast iron pans and cooked with firewood, today there is a revolving iron oven to cook tea. Withered tea is put into the oven to rotate at a sufficient temperature, not too hot to avoid burning the tea, only at the level of soft tea buds, the pungent smell is blown away, leaving only the characteristic aroma of tea.
The next step is the eradication of yeast. This is the difference of Tan Cuong tea as well as of Vietnamese teas compared to many other countries. Tea makers in Xinjiang use high temperatures to inhibit enzyme activity and reduce tannins, reducing bitterness and locking in the tea’s flavor and green color. “This is a very important first step, just overdo it a little, then the batch of tea will be thrown away, because by the time the tea is crushed, all of it will be crushed,” explained Mr.
At the end of the yeast eradication process, it will be time to crush the tea to remove the shredded tea and then put it in the mortar. Mr. Ngan said that this is a very difficult stage, in the past, tea villagers had to rub directly with their hands and feet. There is a girl in Xinjiang who works hard with tea all year round, her legs and feet are eaten by tea sap, and she went to the doctor to see that she might have to be amputated because her legs were completely rotten. Nowadays, having a shredder is less difficult, it only takes about 20-30 minutes. After washing, bring it to dry, beautiful or ugly tea wings are in this step.
The quintessence and characteristic of Tan Cuong tea lies in the steps of drying and making mold and getting incense. Star drying is a way to reduce the amount of water in the tea buds and make the tea buds tight, beautiful in appearance, green in color and pleasant in fragrance. Although most of the tea people have invested in machines now, how much temperature is already displayed on the electronic board, but the whole process must be felt by hands. In a few moments, the tea has not reached the moisture content, leading to rancidity, and if it is slow, it will lead to burning, the whole batch of tea is considered to be thrown away. Experience and feelings of good or bad tea makers are at this moment. Mr. Ngan said and put his hand on the unfinished batch of tea. Only 2-3 seconds to feel before making a decision to continue or stop. A good tea star is when regulating the temperature, the time to make the finished tea reach the moisture content in the tea buds to 3-5%, when the tea cools down, put a few buds in the palm of your hand and gently press it to crumble. only then.
With the stage of marking mold, taking incense, too, is even more important because this is the final decisive step in the success or failure of the whole batch of tea. The tea maker must adjust how to make the flame not too big but not too small. The high fire causes the tea to overheat, crumble and burn. Small fire is not enough temperature to break the essential oil texture inside, making the tea not up to the flavor of nuggets. The fire is both large and small, causing the tea to be hot, suffocating with incense, and having a bad color, but drinking is not round, not good. All decisions are made within half a minute, therefore, it is often necessary for a master to take on the step of turning this landmark. Skill is a part, you have to put your whole mind into it. Listen, touch, smell, feel, judge. When meeting the day when high-ranking people like Mr. Ngan had a cold, his ears and nose were not standard, the whole cooperative group “hanged” the tea there, waiting to be healthy to dare to do it.
“It is okay to call good tea makers artisans, even though the State has not had a policy of conferring gifts. Because in addition to the element of heirloom from generation to generation, it is not only trying to make good tea but also having the gift of feeling, the heart with the profession in it. There are people who have studied for 5-7 years and are proficient in the profession, but there are also lifelong learners who are just ordinary tea makers who cannot pass the stage of marking the mold, so they cannot “go down the mountain”, “said Mr.
In addition to the ancient tea tree grown from the grandfather’s time, Mr. Ng’s family is also a rare household that still retains the midland tea hill planted by his father in the 1960s. On the occasion of the tea festival of the commune or the province, the tea hill of the province. his family is the place to organize golden hand contests such as tea picking, tea star, tea beauty contest… All three Thai Nguyen Tea Festivals take place here. Watching Mr. Ngan demonstrate the techniques of tea industry, domestic and international guests both admired and admired.
The land of Tan Cuong tea has many noble people. There are young, there are old. From their hands and brains, Xinjiang has more and more excellent teas, not everyone can make.
Farewell to the master Le Quang Ngan, we reached out to Mr. Nguyen Thanh Duong, Director of Tan Cuong Midland Tea Cooperative, the first person to participate in the Project on Conservation and Development of Midland Tea varieties to preserve and develop geographical indication Xinjiang.
As a person who is immersed in traditional values, especially for ancient tea varieties and hundred-year-old tea profession in Tan Cuong, sometimes the director of the cooperative of An Duong Tra brand often complains, even though he has gained a reputation as the world leader. It’s the most famous tea, but the honor for Tan Cuong tea is still not worthy compared to its quintessential value. The quintessence here is the hands and brains of the workers. Tea making is inherently hard work, but it is from that hard look that the value and talent of the laboring hands of the people of Xinjiang are revealed.
Mr. Duong’s Tan Cuong Midland Tea Cooperative was established in 2018 with 8 members, 75 affiliated households and an area of more than 20ha. In addition to the perennial midland tea hill of Mr. Ngan’s family, this cooperative is the place with the largest area of tea varieties that make up the name of Tan Cuong.
“The specialty tea area now mainly grows two main varieties, the LDP1 hybrid tea variety and the traditional midland tea variety. Wanting to make high-class teas is mainly based on these two varieties, the rest are like Bat Tien and Kim Tuyen, now people don’t grow them anymore”, Mr. Duong revealed.
An Duong Tra brand of the pioneer cooperative builds high-class tea products to serve upper-class customers such as: high-class Tan Cuong midland tea, Tan Cuong tea marinated with West Lake lotus, and Tuoc Thiet Tan tea. Cuong, tea to the king… Aspiration, Mr. Duong shared, is to make specialty teas in Xinjiang that can’t be found anywhere else. For example, Tuoc Thiet tea is currently being made by the cooperative. It’s the kind of tea that right from the selection of raw materials has been different. Tea making tea in Tuoc Thiet must be a midland variety grown on hills with a slope of no more than 30%. The hilly land must be gravel soil, mixed with buffalo liver stone that is unique to Xinjiang. The soil that rains, drains very quickly, but the sun retains moisture, like an air conditioner that helps tea plants grow best.
The process of taking care of this premium tea is also very special. In addition to organic fertilizers and microbial products, each cycle of the tea plant is cared for with a nutritious mixture of honey, eggs and milk so that it is time to collect all the essence of the tea tree. The tea plant concentrates all on the bud.
The process of harvesting must be completely manual, picking at dawn when the dew is still on the tea buds. And also select the highest tea spikes on the tea tree to pick. To make it easier to imagine, the top class Dinh tea currently sold for 5 – 8 million VND now only takes the “nail” part of the tea tree, making Tuoc Thiet tea only selects about 40% of it. The picker must have the right technique, ten tea nails must be the same. You don’t have to pick them and put them in the basket as usual, but gently put them in porcelain bowls, just the “nail” mark of the tea is not definitive, a little bruised, it will be removed immediately. Meticulous and very time consuming, so the wages alone have reached millions of dollars per kilogram of fresh. Everything is twice as expensive as Dinh tea, so the price of Tuoc Thiet tea is also double.
Mr. Duong said that the quality of Tan Cuong tea can completely improve, there is no reason why we have to worship tea from this country or other countries.
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