Hengxian (Literally Heng County), in Guangxi Province is a four hour drive from our green tea farm. It’s famous for its jasmine fields. And here we are. But we’re early...jasmine isn’t harvested until the summer when the heat from the dry season smashes up against the rain of a coming wet season. It’s then that the flowers are in full bloom and the fields fill up with brilliant white flowers.
But we aren’t here for the Jasmine (though our jasmine does come from here). Instead it’s (finally) time to do some proper cuppings and evaluate our green tea lots for 2016. It’s like peeling an onion. You don’t show up at a tea farm and charge right into cupping tea. There’s too much conversation that has to happen first—and dinners to eat and beers to drink. Cupping is serious. Cupping is judgmental. The relationship must first be strengthened before get critical.
So we find ourselves at our green tea farm’s packing facility. It’s common for tea farms to package and store their tea for export in a separate space away from the farm. It’s here that buyers will typically do a “cupping”, not at the farm. Farms are for processing raw tea leaves a select number of days throughout the year, and rarely in the winter. They’re typically quiet places. So business often happens at the “office” as it’s called—typically in a larger, hub city.
The cupping is, admittedly, uneventful. What is there to say? The 2016 crop of our green teas are delightful with a trademark creamy sweetness that we look for and a distinct umami note that is a characteristic of quality, fresh green tea.
The workers here don’t have much going on today. There’s no tea to pack, but they’re still here, hanging around and playing basketball (it’s always basketball). One gent is fishing in a tree with some sort of stick. His friends are heckling him. Whatever he’s doing, he’s not doing it right. An older worker comes behind him and takes the tool from his hand. After a few swift twists of the wrist and some jabbing, a cheer comes from the crowd.
It’s fruit. In Chinese it’s called a pipa (枇杷), in English it’s called a loquat. The man has detached a healthy chunk of the tree, bringing with it dozens of pipa fruit which are shared around the group. Everyone eats. And of course there’s plenty of good tea on hand to go with it.
The day goes away. We eat dinner and it’s good. Beers come out and we play zuìdà zuìxiǎo (最大最小), a drinking game. In China, and most Asian cultures, drinking games are an integral and normal part of both fun and business. And games are universal. Even if you can’t understand a language—games make sense. There are winners and losers, and rules to follow. Here’s how you play, if you have some beers and friends around in the near future:
The game uses a standard deck of cards, no jokers. Everyone is dealt a single card which only they can see. The dealer proclaims that either the smallest (zuìxiǎo) or the largest (zuìdà) loses. Going counter-clockwise from the dealer, players consider their own card. A player will either surrender and admit they have the smallest or largest card (whichever the dealer specified as the loser) or pass. If you surrender, you take a few sips of beer and the round is over. Here’s the catch: If every player passes (no one surrenders), everyone shows their card. Then the true smallest or largest will drink their entire drink.
It seems terribly simple, and it is. But there’s some interesting strategy. For example, if you are the person who goes first you may bluff and say that you don’t have a large card even if you are holding a King. Why? Because someone else, toward the end, may have a fairly large card and they may surrender, getting you off the hook. It becomes fairly nerve racking if you have a bad card and you need to decide whether to bluff (and hope someone else surrenders) or whether to bite the bullet and take a small drink.
Two (or is it three?) hours into zuìdà zuìxiǎo I’m thinking about flights and buses and cars we still need to take. Tomorrow we will travel further west, to Yunnan province—the very edge of China. Then further west still, to the very border of China, Burma, and Laos. Think elephants. This is the genetic birthplace of tea and the site of our black tea farm.
--Hengxian, April 19th 2016