Mao Cha is leaf tea that has gone through the initial production steps that include plucking, wilting, firing, bruising, and drying. Mao Cha, which translates to "rough tea" is the base leaf material from which all Pu-erh tea is made. The quality of a good Pu-erh correlates directly with the quality of the Mao Cha used. If the base raw material is only average, then the final product will likewise only be average.
During production, a key to good quality Mao Cha is that the five initial steps are carried out as quickly as possible one after the other. The implication here is that the best quality Mao Cha is typically processed close to where the tea is harvested -- on the mountain.
Quality tea is hand plucked and packed into woven bamboo baskets with extreme care being taken not to bruise the leaves and to keep them as whole leaves. Packing is a very delicate task and must be done with care; pack the leaves too tightly and they will be damaged to an extent that good quality Mao Cha cannot be produced.
An additional complicating factor is that old growth trees can sometimes reach heights of 30ft or more, requiring tea pluckers to climb into the limbs of the trees in order to procure the harvest. This is very different than the photographs you may have seen of neatly pruned low growing tea estates being harvested by colorfully clad tea pluckers meandering through the waist deep tea bushes. While these teas are used for pu-erh, they produce much inferior tea often referred to as plantation tea.
The objective during this step is to get the pu-erh leaves pliable with a minimum of oxidization. Excessive oxidation that may occur during this stage shows up in both the appearance and taste of the final pu-erh tea. Once collected and back at the village, the fresh harvest is spread onto mats in well ventilated rooms and left to wilt just a little before the next step of the process. The purpose of the wilting is to immediately reduce some moisture in the leaves. This step makes the leaves a little more pliable to insure that they are damaged less during the next stages of the processing. This stage requires an highly-skilled expert to determine how long to leaves must be left to wilt. Too little wilting and the tea leaves will still easily be damaged and too long will mean they have started oxidization to an excessive degree.
The firing process in making Mao Cha has also been called "killing green" and it is at this stage that enzymes are removed from the leaves by a gentle and carefully controlled firing process. This step is carried out by a pan firing technique that is typically done in a large wok. The heat is carefully controlled and experienced village tea artisans use their bare hands and special hand movements to keep the leaves constantly moving within the wok in order to ensure that no leaf is in contact with the hot pan surface for more than a few seconds. Any longer and the leaf would burn. It takes an experienced person to tell when the leaves are just right and the firing process should be stopped. There are no computers checking the process only the many years of experience to judge the heat, the aroma and the feel of the leaves when they are ready.
Bruising of the leaves in the next step and this is done after firing of the leaves and will breakdown the cell structures within the tea leaves. The fired leaves are gently kneaded and rolled using special techniques passed down from generation to generation. These special techniques ensure that the tea leaves and buds are bruised without breaking them and ensuring the uniformity of the finished product.
The last stage of the process is sun drying. The leaves at this stage are separated into the lower grades and broken leaf (even with all the care and experience some breakage of the leaf is inevitable) and higher grade special pluckings. The different grades are given different treatment at this stage with the lower grades being dried on large mats in courtyards whilst the higher grades are placed on raised platforms and dried more carefully in special flat baskets. Both grades are carefully monitored and are only allowed to dry for a specific amount of time, so that they may dry but not dry-out and thus become brittle.
The finished Mao Cha product is now ready and awaits a multitude of factories and independent tea makers who will take this "rough" tea and turn it into a further more refined work of Pu-erh tea art. No matter what they do though, it remains a fact that the quality of the Mao Cha will determine the maximum quality of the end product.
Mao Cha is also quite good for consumption in this "rough tea" state. We usually have a few varieties on hand here at JAS-eTea.com.