There are lots of tourist tours that let you touch the leaves at various stages of the process. But working 2-3 weeks shows a lot of commitment and perseverance. And you'll need a lot of that! Because the work of a tea maker is hard, very hard. And it takes a lot of skills that you can not pick up within weeks.
This job is so hard that you mostly see young guys performing it in the mountains. Most of them chew betel nuts, smoke cigarettes and drink very strong tea to stay awake. During the production season, they have to adapt to the leaves and can't have a regular day of work anymore.
|Changshu Hu, Alishan area|
|Outdoor withering, under the sun and in the shade|
Most plantations have these big racks now. It's much easier to control the indoor withering of the leaves this way. The leaves are not shuffled anymore. And since the temperature can be kept constant with AC, this means that the quality of the leaves is more stable. Even the plantation on Fushou Shan has these! It makes sense if the leaves that have been harvested are of high quality and come already relatively dry (like this year). Such leaves are like a great piece of meat or fish: it's so good that it doesn't require much transformation.
One of my tea farmers in Changshu Hu uses both methods. He acknowledges the advantage of the big mats for the first batch of leaves that arrive quite dry. But he'll use the round bamboo racks for leaves that have more moisture, so that he can better control the withering process and add more taste (oxidation) through the gentle shuffling of the leaves!
The big indoor withering rack system is a popular innovation that is now even spreading to the Wenshan (Bazhong) area! It allows for very lightly oxidized Oolong to be made in a more consistent manner and at a lower cost, by young guys with less experience and skills than older farmers.
However, there are also certain flavors that won't appear with this method. The characteristic of Oolong is to be be partially oxidized, not just very lightly oxidized. The first skill of an Oolong maker is to find the right oxidation level that brings out the flavors and preserves the spring freshness of the leaves. Such leaves are then also more suitable for roasting and long storage.
The paradox is that you this cost effective method makes most sense with expensive leaves from the highest elevations! And while I tend to prefer more traditionally made high mountain Oolongs, I don't think this is necessarily a bad innovation. It's a tool that is very suitable for certain conditions. Anyway, it's up to us to find the teas that suit us the most.