Lessons of Shifu

I guess it’s clear that being newbies in the tea field, we need some help from experts. We were in contact with a few and we researched and read a lot ourselves as well, but already at the beginning of the season, we felt that we need someone with a wide experience to come and see our plants, the soil and the climate to give us more specific advice and feedback. So, we invited Sonam Paljor Lama from Nepal to consult us, mainly for 2 reasons – to get a better understanding of our plantations and plants and to learn the basics of making tea.

Sonam Paljor Lama Sonam Paljor Lama - we called him Shifu :)

Firstly we headed to our plantations, prepared to see the shocked face of Sonam when he sees how much fern and how little tea is seen. To our surprise, he wasn’t surprised at all and claimed that this was exactly what he was waiting for. Well, either Sonam didn’t want to frighten us on the first day or we were just a little overwhelmed ourselves with the never-ending fight with fern and thereby prepared for the worst.

After long walks in the plantations, we got a confirmation that everything is actually ok and our tea plants are happy and healthy. Huh, we breathed a little easier from then on. He confirmed that the majority of the things that we had thought so far were actually valid. For example, that once the tea plants are big enough, they will start to dominate again and all kinds of weeds, including fern, will start to disappear. Just have to keep on pulling the weeds out until the tea gets its strength back...

But we also learned a lot of new things. For example, that we have a wide variety of different cultivars in our plantations – in addition to the Chinese one, we also have Assamica, Cambodian and a mixture of all of these. This is an opportunity and a challenge at the same time. It definitely makes a good foundation to make some interesting teas with a unique character which you can’t find anywhere else, but it also creates some challenges in production. But hey, we don’t like easy stuff anyway, so we see it more as a positive challenge.

Sonam explaining the differences of tea cultivars.
Sonam explaining the differences of tea cultivars.

How much can we produce this year?

As soon as we made the decision to actually start this project we have been discussing and trying to understand, how much tea we are able to produce this year. We asked many experts, both local and foreign, but opinions were very different because there isn’t much experience out there with rehabilitating a fully abandoned plantation. It was clear, that it will not be much since the bushes were cut down to zero. Though, we have also some forested areas, which were not cleaned and some people said that we could still produce up to 20% of the eventual volume of Renegade Estate already this year. 

We were a little sceptical about this amount, so we were waiting for Sonam to come and evaluate the situation on spot. Because tea is growing almost everywhere, but at vastly different speeds. The growth is very much affected by the sort of the cultivar, genetics and the plants’ reaction to changes in its living environment. In some areas there are proper meter high bushes already, in other areas there are just 10 cm shoots barely getting out of the ground. After making a few first harvests together with Sonam, while he explained which bushes and how we should pluck to have a nice and healthy bush in the future, we finally got a more concrete understanding of the amount of leaves we will get this year.

Harvesting in Renegade Estate 2018
At the moment we can pluck only tea bushes that are 60-70 cm high, so they would be nice and healthy in the future.

The total harvest will be very limited, but we are reasonably sure that we can produce enough from our plantations so we could fulfil our promises to all of our Indiegogo supporters. Maybe there will be a bit left for ourselves and to send out as testers to new people as well, but a regular supply of fresh leaves from our own lands we are able to get only next spring.

But even if our own lands give us very little at the moment, then we still want and need to test and learn as much as we can this year. So, we have cooperated with people from nearby villages to use their fresh leaves to make test batches in our factory. Although the leaves are not from our own plantation, then the characteristics are still very similar to what our own leaves will have. If it works out, then we plan to build a long-term relationship with a few local small-scale tea farmers, so they would also be part of the Renegade story. Time will tell :)

Purchasing leaves from small scale farmers from nearby villages.
Purchasing leaves from small scale farmers from nearby villages.

The first week of production

So, after evaluating our plantations, we got to production. Well, the first day was hectic...to say the least. We had a goal to make some first test runs with Sonam in our brand-new factory to understand the machines and processes, but since the building was a little bit behind of schedule, then it was a close call.

Construction of Renegade Tea Estate factory
There were more construction workers than tea makers in the building on the first day of production.

Eventually, we were still able to produce, but it was a nightmare. Why? Well, because of the way I imagined making tea could be described as calm and creative. The reality was that there were still a lot of construction workers running around, drilling something every step of the way, so instead of a calm process, there was a lot of hassle and noise going around. There were more construction workers than tea makers in the building on the first day of production. Somehow we still managed to make some tea in the midst of this chaos. When the 18-hour work day ended, we were tired and frustrated, but we were also really excited and happy, because we made tea for the first time in this factory, which was the biggest quantity we had made so far (35 kg of fresh leaves) and we made oolong, which also the first one for us. The following days were already much more of what I imagined and we could actually focus on learning from Sonam and experiencing the process.

What did we learn?

I’m sure Hannes and Tomas have a more in-depth answer to that since they are our main tea masters. But for me, the main thing that I learned was that there’s no plan in tea making. These were the first words of Sonam when we started to make tea. Well, being a plan kind of a person and a total rookie at tea-making at the same time, some alarm clocks started to go on in my head. But it turned out you still have a plan, but you just have to be creative with it, which is fine 🙂 The plan is established at the moment you see the leaves that come into the factory- are they dry, wet, a little moist, hard, soft etc. - all these characteristics set your steps for this specific batch. You see the leaves and you think what and how you will make from them. It contains a lot of improvisation. So, making tea is a little bit like painting – you have an idea in your head, but when the brush touches the canvas you will go with the flow and your idea evolves in time.

Sonam teaching the basics of making tea.
Sonam teaching the basics of making tea.

So, learning from Sonam was kind of like looking a master painter paint while you try to make notes on what to do and try to scrabble something of your own as well, but at the same time you realize that you can only learn techniques, you can’t master another person’s improvisation.

But we did learn the basics and after doing more and more runs of production, we have a little more confidence that we do know what we are doing. I’m sure, it will take years for us to reach the potential, but it was reassuring to get a confirmation, that all the critical components are there. After all, we are rookies in the tea field and every time an expert with a good knowledge base confirms that what we have thought and planned ourselves, is valid, we get an extra boost to move forward. So, back to making tea now!

Renegade Tea Farmers