Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Lost Art of Oolong

Interview with He Jian (何健), [1] owner of the Yeh Tang Tea Culture Research Institute
Article by Yan Jie (顏婕)
Photographs by the Editorial Department

Imagine yourself savoring a cup of aged Wenshan Baozhong tea from 1979. The tea leaves have witnessed the passage of more than thirty years to bring you this sweet, mellow tea liquor with its warm, clean fragrance. As you breathe in, your nostrils are filled with the scent of tea, soothing away life’s stresses and anxieties. Our search for this traditional Taiwanese oolong flavor brought us to the Yeh Tang Tea Culture Research Institute on Taipei’s Yongkang Street, where we listened attentively over the teacups to veteran tea master He Jian as he tirelessly recounted the stories behind Taiwan’s traditional oolong tea varieties: Wenshan Baozhong, Muzha Tieguanyin, Dong Ding Oolong, and Oriental Beauty. Through his words we were carried along on a journey through time, following the rise and fall of that traditional oolong flavor, in pursuit of a fragrant curl of steam that wafted, dreamlike, through history.

Wenshan Baozhong (Pouchong) [2] 文山包種
Wenshan is situated in the southern and south-eastern regions of the Taipei Basin and was Taiwan’s earliest tea-growing area, with tea first being cultivated there in 1810. Wenshan Baozhong tea originated in Taipei’s Nangang district in the late 19th century. Its founding fathers were two natives of Anxi County in Fujian Province, Wang Shuijin (王水錦) and Wei Jingshi (魏靜時). They established a tea plantation on a hillside of Neihu Village in the Qixing region (near the old Nangang Village), and started to produce tea. From that point on, two distinct styles of Baozhong tea gradually developed: Wenshan style and Nangang style.
Of the two tea growers, Wang Shuijin represented the Wenshan Baozhong tea-making method, using a technique borrowed from Wuyi tea that involves twisting the tea leaves. With the existing Wuyi method as a starting point, he developed a process with a more thorough oxidization and roast, resulting in a stronger fragrance and a deeper, reddish-colored liquor. Because of its distinctive flavor, some people are still quite enamored of this stronger-scented, Wenshan style Baozhong tea. Wei Jingshi, on the other hand, modified the Wuyi tea-making method used for the Wenshan style, changing the whole process right from the withering stage to produce a more lightly oxidized tea with a greener liquor and a lighter, sweeter fragrance. This was the Nangang style of Baozhong tea—the predecessor of the Wenshan Baozhong tea that is commonly seen today.

The term “red water” (referring to the color of the liquor) that dates back to the period of Japanese occupation was in fact used to distinguish the Wenshan style from the Nangang style of processing. In 1921, the Baozhong Tea Institute was established in Nangang to promote tea production and pass on knowledge of tea-growing and manufacturing techniques to the local tea farmers. At that time the bulk of the tea leaves were exported, together with those produced in the neighboring areas of Pinglin, San Xia, and Dadaocheng, with whom Nangang enjoyed close and mutually beneficial business ties. Later on, due to several factors such as mining and urban development, tea production in the mountains of Nangang slowly began to decline. The center of Nangang Baozhong tea production gradually began to shift toward Pinglin, where the environment was more favorable. From 1975 onward, the tea market gradually became geared toward domestic consumption, and these two villages that had sprung up because of the tea industry—Nangang and Dadaocheng—slowly went into decline.
Baozhong tea has a light, elegant flavor and a distinct fragrance, and is well-regarded in the market. Furthermore, the price of Baozhong tea is completely determined by the quality of the tea itself. The difference is obvious, unlike with tea leaves from most tea regions where the price is relatively uniform, but there’s no way to distinguish the quality. In my opinion, Baozhong tea’s distinctive flavor makes it the most classic example of Taiwanese tea, and one of the best teas to represent the small and refined character of the Taiwanese region.

Muzha (Mucha) Tieguanyin木柵鐵觀音
During the period of Japanese rule, tea masters Zhang Naimiao (張迺妙) and Zhang Naigan (張迺乾) imported Tieguanyin tea seedlings from Anxi and planted them on Zhanghu Mountain in Muzha district (also spelled “Mucha”). Due to the favorable soil quality and climate, the area of the plantation expanded rapidly and Muzha became the main Tieguanyin-growing region. The main features of the manufacturing process included using leaves from the original Tieguanyin bush variety, followed by relatively heavy oxidization, repeated cloth-rolling, and hand-roasting. This created a unique flavor with a rich, strong fragrance and a hint of tart fruitiness, and led Tieguanyin to become famed as a regional specialty tea that’s representative of the traditional art of Taiwanese tea making.
In recent years, the characteristics of Tieguanyin, from the aroma to the mouthfeel, have all changed a lot from that early style. So what were the main factors that contributed to the evolution of Tieguanyin’s flavor? The external factors include the development of tea plantation in Maokong in the 1990s that was aimed at sightseers. After Maokong became a tourist attraction, many businesses sprung up in the area, and the influx of labor and resources changed the face of the local industry, causing the tea industry to decline. The main internal factor, on the other hand, was that as the farmland was passed down through generations of tea growers it was continually redistributed and divided into smaller and smaller sections, dramatically decreasing the area available for planting. Because of these core external and internal influences, it was inevitable that Tieguanyin would undergo a fundamental change.
In addition, the advent of tea competitions also had an influence on the flavor of Tieguanyin. The authorities hoped to stimulate the tea economy, so from their perspective, the more tea varieties entered in the competitions, the better. In order to keep the competitions running, they needed to expand the area of origin of the raw tea leaves, so the tea growers then moved to Pinglin to grow their tea there, and started to make Tieguanyin using tea leaves from the Pinglin region. Tieguanyin teas from areas of mainland China also entered the arena alongside Muzha Tieguanyin, and the distinctive traditional flavor of Tieguanyin slowly became diluted.
I believe that the rarer the production of traditional Tieguanyin becomes, the more we need to highlight the few remaining great tea artisans, tea bush varieties, and tea-making methods, to set a benchmark for the industry. I hope that this high benchmark will become the pride of Taiwan and set an example for Anxi; so that once it has gained prominence its uniqueness will be better recognized. To truly capture the “Guanyin spirit” that is so sought after in traditional Muzha Tieguanyin tea (named for Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Mercy), you really need the genuine Tieguanyin tea plant variety, plus the traditional manufacturing method. If we can promote the proper appreciation of Tieguanyin, then people will recognize its true rarity and worth, and there will naturally be a market for it. Once demand is established, it will have a stimulating effect on the wider industry.

Oriental Beauty東方美人
Oriental Beauty tea is also called Peng Fang tea, or Baihao (“White Tip”) Oolong. It’s mainly produced in the Taoyuan, Xinchu, and Miaoli areas of Taiwan. Its most recognizable characteristics are its delicate, lingering honey aroma, and the way it combines the traditional taste of oolong with the richness of red teaof all the oolongs, it’s the closest in flavor to red tea. In 20th century England, Oriental Beauty’s distinctive taste and vigorous, energizing liquor was received with great enthusiasm and became very popular.

Oriental Beauty can only be produced in one season of the year (global warming has meant that that the quantity able to be produced in winter is diminishing). This makes it very difficult for small-scale tea farmers to make a living from growing it, and the production of Oriental Beauty tea in Taiwan is gradually decreasing. The tea plantations are small and the resources concentrated, which makes it relatively easy to hand-select the choicest tea leaves that have been bitten by the small green flies whose saliva gives the tea its characteristic sweetness. [3] Because of this, the same few people tend to take out the top prizes in the tea competitions. Add to this the importing of teas from outside Taiwan, and other factors, and the result is that over time this type of tea has also lost some of its unique characteristics. The level of oxidization has become lighter and lighter, and environmental changes have meant that the unique quality resulting from the green flies’ saliva is less and less prominent. [4] The tea that is now produced can easily fetch ten to twenty thousand New Taiwanese Dollars[5]  per half a kilogram,  yet the brewed tea is a very pale golden yellow color, and lacks that traditional amber color and robust flavor that it had in the past. So the fundamental quality of the tea has slowly changed. However, how could we allow such a distinctive tea to simply disappear? Being among Taiwan’s most recognized specialty teas and an important Taiwanese export, with a flavor even appreciated by Queen Victoria of England. Though we may not have the opportunity to experience Oriental Beauty as it once was we cannot lose sight of its worthiness of our appreciation.

Dong Ding Oolong凍頂烏龍

Dong Ding Oolong is produced in Lugu Township in Taiwan’s Nantou County, at an elevation of 500 to 800 meters above sea level. It’s quite heavily withered and oxidized, and goes through several rounds of rolling in cloth bags to give the leaves their ball-like shape (one of the traditional skills involved in making Dong Ding Oolong is to roll the tea with one’s feet). After that it’s slowly roasted over a charcoal fire to give the tea its characteristic rich, mellow fragrance. The craftsmanship involved in making the tea is very delicate and complex, and represents the art of Taiwanese tea-making at its finest.
The Lugu Township farmers’ collective that sprang up around Dong Ding Oolong tea made a very significant contribution to the local industry: the volume of tea that they submitted to competitions each year represented two-thirds of the total volume of all entries. Every year the volume of spring and winter tea samples that they submitted to the competitions totaled several thousand dian (a measure equal to 11 kilograms). This had a big influence on the tea industry and established Dong Ding Oolong as the leading player in the Taiwanese tea competitions, and the most well-known and influential of Taiwan’s traditional oolongs.
These days, a situation that’s worth pondering is this: in the competition categories for such a large-scale tea as Dong Ding Oolong, majority of the best-performing teas are in fact made from raw tea leaves sourced from very high-elevation tea plantations, and not from Dong Ding itself. Of course, this is because highly elevated plantations have particularly favorable growing conditions, so the tea they produce has a pleasantly soft, sweet taste. But because of this, the original purpose of holding a competition for local tea varieties has been lostthat is, to promote and bolster the local tea-growing regions. To draw a comparison; in a sporting event, athletes should be judged by their skill on the sports field, and not forced to dress up and enter a beauty pageant instead! Although the high mountain teas are indeed very sweet and fragrant, Dong Ding has a richer, more full-bodied taste, and deserves to shine on its own stage. When making tea it’s important to work with the natural character of the tea, for only then can you achieve the traditional local style and flavor that Dong Ding Oolong should display.
I truly hope that the Dong Ding tea region will be able to slowly recover, and that after the ecosystem and soil have been sufficiently cultivated, it will once again look just as it used to. Unfortunately, though understandably, no-one is willing to reproduce that traditional flavor of days gone by because of the time and effort involved—the road to the past is a hard road to travel. Some time ago I had the chance to go to the mountains and experience tea making for myself. You couldn’t even go to sleep at night, because you had to get up every two or three hours to process the tea—it was very hard work. Throughout the tea-making process, every time you turn the tea leaves over, every time you gather them up and spread them out, you can feel the subtle changes in the tea, in its appearance and scent—it’s a moving experience. How many tea lovers get to experience that these days? It’s become very rare—now you just put the leaves in a tea-turning machine that rolls them for you. Likewise, after washing machines were invented you rarely see anyone hand-washing their clothes, and we all use electric rice cookers to make dinner—the taste of that crunchy rice that you fondly remember eating from the bottom of the pan is now just a childhood memory. You can’t go back. These days, tea lovers are even more sincere and profound in their interest, and more numerous, than we were back then, but there are so many things that they have never had the chance to experience, and probably never will. It really is a great pity.

The “small and beautiful” culture of traditional oolong
The most outstanding features of Taiwan are its beauty and small size. In the past, our greatest source of pride was the purity of Taiwanese tea: the entire process, from production, to export and local consumption, the development of tea from an everyday drink to one of life’s most refined pleasures…every aspect of this development has been very complete, and has established a very high standard for tea in Taiwan.
Take the sudden rise of aged puerh, for example. Aged puerh tea had been around in Hong Kong for a very long time and was a dime a dozen there; however, once it reached the palates of the Taiwanese people and they recognized its excellent qualities, it soon became very valuable. Taiwan had a taste for the tea, mainland China had the capital, and Hong Kong had the goods—so aged puerh really highlighted the characteristics of all three places and created a fully-formed supply and demand relationship. When others provide a market, we need to establish the right standards for appreciating tea, instead of just blindly swaying with the market. Once we’ve really mastered this “small and beautiful” quality, and established our authority in appreciating and critiquing tea, we’ll have a much bigger platform to make our voices heard. This will bring about many positive changes, and enable Taiwan’s traditional oolong tea to forge its own path in the world.

I’ve suggested that the characters be included for the names of people and the main tea varieties. I’ve kept names in the Chinese format with surnames first, and have  used the Mandarin Pinyin system for Chinese words except for names with established alternate spellings, like Yeh Tang.

I’ve included alternate spellings when they appear to be commonly used. I’m not sure whether this will be necessary for your readership – do you have any thoughts on this?

I’ve extrapolated from the original text  a little here based on my own research, as I felt more context surrounding the green flies and their saliva would be helpful for an English speaking readership.

As above.

I’ve assumed that this is the currency being referred to – it’s not specified in the source text.

The History of Dong Ding

Text and figures by Lin Xianzheng, editorial department

In the undeveloped old mountain forests, where the clammy mountain air easily results in patches of frost, the early residents plowing on the mountainsides had to cling to the road with their toes to keep from slipping. With its tendency to freeze the tips of visitors’ toes, the peak known in Taiwan as “Frozen Summit” (Shan Dong) makes for a rugged walk. The top of the Dong Ding[1]  work platform is 800 m above sea level. Over time, residents began calling it Shan Dong Ding which can be translated asFrozen Summit” or “Icy Peak”, from which Dong Ding oolong tea also takes its name. Records show Dong Ding was intially a small village. The earliest census was conducted in 1887 CE, the year Taiwan was elevated from its previous administrative status as a part of Fujian province and established as a separate province.  This shows the village population was merely some 438 residents. While things may have grown since then, Dong Ding still remains a small country village in  Nantou County.

Traditional Dong Ding
Some still remember with longing the cups of thirty-some years ago: thick with a sweet aftertaste; bitter but not astringent. They had the familiarity of Chinese medicine but with a sweetness and lingering flavor that started a life long love affair. Dong Ding tea was a gift to early Lugu Township village by one of its residents, Mr. Lin Fengchi. In 1855 CE, during the Qing Dynasty, Mr. Lin journeyed to Fujian province to sit the provincial-level imperial examinations. To thank the villagers for financing his trip, he brought 36 oolong tea tree seedlings from Wuyi Mountain. Of these, 12 were planted in the early village, another 12 were planted in Zhu Lin village, and the remaining 12 were given as a gesture of gratitude to my ancestor, Mr. Lin Sanxian, who also contributed to fund the journey. These seeds where successful planted and propagated, becoming the beginning of Dong Ding tea.

Dong Ding tea is produced in Lugu Township. It grows at elevations of 600 – 1800 m, and flourishes in the cool climate, abundant rainfall, fertile soil and gentle sunshine present especially in the Dong Ding foothills, which stretch from Yonglong Village to the foothills of Phoenix Mountain. Day and night, it is often shrouded in clouds and fog with humidity regulated from Qilin Pond (known in Taiwanese as the Great Reservoir).  All these natural environmental influences come together to create an terroir ideal for for producing high-quality tea. In fact these natural ingredients are  essential to the strong and sweet liquor of Dong Ding tea, giving it the unique  bitter flavor without the astringencey – which has become  popular around the world.

Challenges Facing the Industry

The traditional Dong Ding industry faces several challenges, including broader demographic trends and [2] an aging population engaged in tea production. Job opportunities in tea production have been reduced, while few young people wish to return to their villages or remain in the area. Family-owned cultivation areas face segmentation among three generations: the old, the middle-aged, and the young. When this happens, a family property spanning three to five hectares becomes splintered into production areas of less than a single hectare. On top of all of this there is a severe shortage of workers[3]  in the region. This means when the highest annual yields come during the spring season and each tea production area reaches the same point in the harvest simultaneously, small-scale family producers find it difficult to compete for workers when they cannot offer the stable workloads of large-scale tea factories. This difficulty in hiring workers leads to labor shortages, which often delay the harvest past its prime. The resulting variations in  quality has caused many small-scale producers to gradually lose their clientele.

As time passed, farmers started outsourcing the various stages in tea production. People became experts in roasting and machinery developed for rolling tea. These processes began to change the original flavor of Dong Ding tea. There was then a  movement away from sun withering and instead implemented  heavier shaking followed by another light [4] shaking. This meant the it retained much of its green flavor and freshness, which is key to showing the variations in  Ding Dong tea.

With this series of changes in production, Dong Ding tea fell from its pinnacle. The wholesale price also began to drop from its original price of 1600 yuan. The advent of continuous picking also significantly impacted high mountain tea region after region,  mountain after mountain. For example, in areas like Shanlin Creek, Yang Zai Wan (Lamb Bay), Alishan, Shi Zhao, Rui Li, Tai He, Zhangshu Lake and elsewhere, tea leaves were made from nascent tea trees. As the quality of Dong Ding dropped so did its popularity. Consumers are also slow to come into contact with this delicately fragrant type of high mountain tea. However, its small yield is the main reason Dong Ding is slowly being forgotten. There has also been a movement towards using tender tea buds that insufficiently mature to withstand the picking methods in high mountain teas.  This has led to alterations in the external appearance of Dong Ding tea, from half-shaped leaves into compact, hemispherical knots. The more popular tea merchants misled consumers to believe that tea with more buds yielded a better appearance, as it could form more compact, solid spheres with a density like rice. In fact, the main reason for this change is that the tender buds picked to make tea are more vulnerable to being compacted into tight spheres. Demand for this in tea competitions has only added fuel to these flames.

After nearly ten years of picking these underdeveloped buds, tea competition evaluations moved from judging based on appearance and structure to the tea infusion’s internal qualities[5] . This almost ruined the gold standard Lugu Farmers’ Association world-renowned tea competition. While there were calls to protect the Lugu tea growing regional tea competition and also care for the Lugu township tea industry more comprehensively, this never happened. As the teas quality diminished, many of others that had been drinking Dong Ding for years were no longer satisatisfied.  

A hundred years ago, tea was Taiwan’s primary export. Taiwan produced 17,000 tons of tea, of which 14,000 tons was oolong tea. Guarding the ancient method of traditional Dong Ding means looking to the taste of our grandfathers’ tea: strong with a sweet aftertaste, bitter but not astringent, with a depth of flavor and a aroma that e remains present to the bottom of the cup.

High Mountain or Traditional?

High-mountain styled production has trended towards greener teas with a a weaker liquor and slightly sweet taste. When it is steeped strongly it has a bitter astringency and can cause nausea. People often find they have stomach pain and these teas should not be drunk in excess.  These issues stem from the production method with lighter withering, shaking and oxidation being the main culprits.  These changes also mean the finished tea does not age as well, often becoming unstable over time. In contrast, traditional Dong Ding production methods use appropriate withering, sufficient shaking, and suitable oxidation. This gives the tea the fragrance of ripe fruit and a scent of fermentation. It has a depth in the after taste which is strong, sweet and moist.  The liquor warms the stomach.  Unlike the modern, greener, high mountain oolongs it improves greatly with age. The longer it is stored, the more valuable it becomes. Taiwanese believe this tea benefits both the mind and body. Many people consider it a drink of vitality, and the more you drink the greater the gains!

Due to advances in modern technology, it has become difficult to retain the true tradition of semi-manual, semi-mechanical processing. So much of the process has been replaced by machines. Fresh tea leaves are kept in air-conditioned rooms, and workers no longer sweat or easily fall sick. Just like the elevator replaced stairs, turning the basic steps of daily life into mechanised action undertaken by machines, all of the old processes have been replaced. With this, the modern maladies of civilization have also increased. As we see these manual elements of tea production disappear it seems only a pretty appearance remains. We have lost the depth of the tea and are merely left with a fresh green exterior, a distant sweetness and faint  fragrance. This is the greatest fear of those of us that love Taiwan’s traditional tea. Greater output, less skilled workers, larger farmed areas, more factories… All of this leading to a movement away from the fine teas we care so deeply for.  

Returning To Traditional Processing

Returning to traditional processing methods is possible. To do this though we must rely on tea farmers, tea manufacturers, and tea industry self-regulation to correct the habits of the consuming public.  It would need to be an industry wide effort, with tea competitions and venors all placing importance on the traditional flavors of Dong Ding tea. For many years Dong Ding tea has maintained a reputation as the standard-bearer for quality, establishing the tea industry’s deep cultural foundation.While this will always be an improtant Taiwanese tea, there must be a desire to preserve this cultural heritage of its traditional processing before it disappears completely. The question is not so easy though as in recent years, imported tea has continuously entered local tea markets, and manufacturing technology has also continuously been modified to imitate Taiwanese tea flavor. The price of finished tea, which is relatively low, means there is considerable pressure facing Taiwanese tea in the markets, a pressure that is also impacting the entire tea industry. On top of all this, we are seeing being teas being sold under the flag of “Taiwanese tea”. Even a certain well-known hundred-year-old shop in the northern part of the island fell victim to a scheme that has been illegal for many years, involving masquerading overseas tea as Taiwan High Mountain tea. This mislabeled teas have spread to the majority of consumer groups, causing confusion with genuine made-in-Taiwan tea.

The Future of Dong Ding

Looking to the future, refined tea from Taiwan will see the world, playing to our geographic advantage. In 160 countries around the world, there are 300-plus millions tea drinkers. Taiwan’s climate conditions paired with its altitude are among the advantages that Taiwanese production masters are best able to grasp, developing the special characteristics unique to Taiwan’s particular conditions. Whether looking to the past, present, or future, we will also continue to see people drinking traditional Dong Ding tea. With its strong feeling and aftertaste that plays across the lips and lingers in the mouth, it brings a rosiness to the cheeks and leaves the drinker with memories of its sweet, charming taste[6] . Let us protect and promote our traditional processing methods in the hopes that the fragrance of Taiwanese tea drifts around the world. [7] 

Traditional Dong Ding Oolong and the Development of the Taiwanese Tea

Text by Kuo Kuan-fu, Graphics by the Editorial Department

Lugu Township in Nantou County is known as the birthplace of Dong Ding Oolong tea, as it’s where traditional these leaves were first grown. In recent years, however, the rise of emerging high-altitude tea-producing zones, changes to consumer tastes, and the development of other types of tea have not only caused Lugu to gradually slip from the popular consciousness, but has also forced it to adjust to the consumers expectations.

As soil fertility declines, tea trees age, and tea farmers are forced to leave the area, the tea plantations of Lugu are sadly falling into decline. Many plots used for growing tea have been converted into vegetable fields, fruit gardens, or horticultural farms; some left to lie barren. While agriculture by any means is a provision to the land it is still unfortunate should Dong Ding trees continue to lose their birth soil.  Dong Ding tea's most representative taste has given in to the prevailing trends: the degree of oxidization has been lowered, its slightly rolled and fluffy semicircular shape has been replaced by clear-cut tight curls, the orange-red with a slight golden tint of the liquor  is now a bright golden, the traditional fragrance created by a combination of the oxidation process and a charcoal fire have been replaced by an electric roast , and a brisk and clean flavor has taken the place of the gentle and lingering depth the liquor once held. . The changes to both Lugu's production zone and the tea's taste have aroused strong nostalgia and sentimentality  for the Dong Ding of the past, especially so  for those with a penchant for tradition.

Apart from high-quality tea leaves, which is a essential, experience and techniques are the most decisive factors for producing traditional Dong Ding tea. For Taiwan's partially oxidized  teas, quality is connected to a plethora of fast-changing traits unique to the leaves, the weather, and the environment. These traits render a quantified procedure impossible, and puts personal cultivation of the tea in a supremely important position. As sunlight withers and dehydrates tea leaves, careful consideration must be given to the degree to which they have been dehydrated, and what state they are now in. Dehydration causes changes to their fragrance, color, and shape. Such changes are the basis for deciding how to proceed with the next step, which is an extremely complex problem to solve. These decisions require the guidance of an experienced master to offer their guidance,  and this kind of technique, which relies on experience and intuition, verges on an art form, and explains why good tea is difficulty to produce, rarely seen, and is often expensive.

Partially oxidized  tea requires a lengthy production process. Any minor alteration to the process or change to the raw materials, weather, or environment, will lead to a difference in quality. The higher the degree of oxidation, the harder the techniques involved. Taiwan's tea-producing zones have a sea island climate, which is a geographic advantage and aids in the cultivation of tea leaves that are unavailable in inland areas. The high quality and unique characteristic of Taiwan's tea leaves are best manifested by a high degree of oxidation. I always advocate raising the degree of oxidation for partially oxidized teas as a means to accentuate the quality and taste unique to tea grown in Taiwan. . This is also an effective and vital way to protect the reputation hard won by the previous generations of Taiwanese tea farmers.

Many types of partially oxidized teas are produced without using tea leaves exposed to enough sunlight. The leaves are prematurely moved into the withering room, where the temperature and humidity are controlled to build a desired environment and are forced to dehydrate with little or mild shaking. Tea produced this way, albeit fresh and free of bitterness, tastes muted and dilute. When superb tea leaves are processed with advanced equipment, the final product ends up with a lesser sense of "technique" than in the old practice of producing tea under natural conditions. Because a fixed procedure is being followed the resulting product is bereft of craft and the ambition to make the finest tea.

Taiwan's local tea is plagued  by a number of issues, including inadequate farmland, low yields, insufficient labor, and high wages. As a consequence, Taiwan is poorly positioned to compete with major tea producers on yield and price. In terms of market competiveness though, Taiwan's tea has always maintained an esteemed position and sold at high prices, thanks to Taiwan's geographic location, its highly competent workforce, laborious  producing techniques, and its positive overall image. Partially oxidized tea stands out as its most valuable product, because the techniques to make such tea are reflected in the industry’s accumulated experience. From the withering of tea leaves under the sun to finishing the product, what is best for the tea leaves is  the primary concern every step of the way. Taiwan is unique in this way of pioneering tea making with nurturing and authentic techniques.  It is never enough to just complete a procedure.

In recent years, Taiwan's tea researchers have organized technique processing workshops at agricultural academies and regional farmer associations. All these have taken a pragmatic approach to teaching or tutoring, which enable us to practice more hands-on tea-producing techniques and to accumulate even greater experience. The degree of oxidation is on an upward trend, which can be seen from the fact that significantly fewer products now taste of green tea leaves, and that the subtleties are higher than before. In the past, other tea-producing zones in Taiwan used to influence the oxidization and taste of traditional Dong Ding oolong tea. But as times passes and the memory of things from long ago return, traditional Dong Ding  tea is now again influencing the tea world.

These changes  illustrate both the past and future of Taiwans specialty teas.  Because of changes to the environment and other circumstances, we may not be able to reproduce the exact taste of traditional Dong Ding teas produced in the past but there is still much to be hopeful about, as tea farmers continue to learn and practice these arduous yet authentic techniques.

The Current Situation of Traditional Oolong Tea

Oral account/Lizhen Lu (former president of the Association of the Promotion of the Art of Chinese Tea General Meeting and owner of Zhen Wei Teahouse), Writing and organization/Yunying Zhang, Illustrations/Editorial Department

In Taiwan's development, tea was deeply impacted by society and history. At the beginning of 1971, Taiwanese raw tea exports for sale abroad were converted into delicate domestic trade routes. Following the elevation of the fragrance and flavor of Chinese tea, tea gained the affection of more and more people. The number of people drinking tea gradually increased, but at that time, Dong Ding Oolong tea, also known as traditional Oolong tea, received the most attention in Taiwan.

Properties Derived from the Environment
A plant should be in accord with the environment in which it grows, as that determines the substance content and results in the proportions of various components contained within. Just as terroir is stressed for red wine, so are the terroir and local flavor and style characteristics balanced for tea.

Among the quality, region, and production method of a type of tea, a different environment will result in variance and will influence the flavor of the tea. Take Mushan Iron Goddess of Mercy, for example: its environmental characteristics are a northerly latitude and an elevation of about 350 meters. Since it receives long periods of sunshine, the caffeine and tannin content of the freshly picked tea is quite high. The tea has a heavy quality on the tongue, and bitterness and astringency are high.

However, Gaoshan tea's growing environment is greater than 1000 meters above sea level. Atop the mist-shrouded peaks, it often gets foggy after noon. The duration of sunshine is short, and the caffeine content from the freshly picked leaves is low, it contains organic matter, is highly aromatic, and the pectin content is high. The tea's bitterness is low when drunk, and it has good sweetness. The mountain environment gives the tea nourishment for growth, but is its Achilles heel when it comes to processing. Due to insufficient sunshine, there are often problems with the fresh leaves during withering. There isn't enough moisture elimination and the tea's raw flavor is brought out.

Some tea merchants attribute these leaves' flavor to the alpine air, but this is misleading. From this phenomenon, we can discover that in the past and present, there is a difference between the manufacturing phase and consumer knowledge of the tea, and that the tea forms a fault line between the two.

Processing - the Missing Link
What we normally call traditional Oolong tea refers to tea that is heavily oxidized during processing. For example: Mushan Iron Goddess of Mercy and Dong Ding Ooling teas. In earlier periods, Dong Ding Ooling tea was highly oxidized and roasted and is in relative contrast to the "flavor" of present Gaoshan tea.

In 1971, the traditional Oolong tea produced by tea farms underwent withering in the sunshine for oxidization. A preliminary roasting, shaking, and other processes made the tea highly oxidized; during rolling, it was pressed in cloth by hand or foot. The tea took on a hemispherical shape and was called hemispheric Oolong; for drying, they would wait until the raw tea flavor had left the raw tea leaves, then perform the next step; the schedule was adjusted in accordance with nature, making the production process echo changes in nature.

These complicated but reliable production techniques lowered the moisture in the tea leaves to an appropriate degree. Not only was aroma stabilized, but the mouthfeel, flavor, and hardiness were also greatly increased. Moreover, it was suitable whether the tea was to be drunk right away or stored.

However, due to the conditions and characteristics of this type of tea, the flavor of traditional Mushan Iron Goddess of Mercy is intrinsically rather bitter. Thus, tea farms used a relatively high degree of oxidization, they were rolled quite a few times, and the roasting period was fairly long. In the end, that gave expression to Iron Goddess of Mercy's "aggressive" varietal flavor and transformed its original production shortcoming into its special characteristic.

However, Gaoshan tea currently only undergoes light oxidization, and most of the movement during processing is done by machine. Furthermore, some people believe that small farmers using traditional production techniques should be phased out and that large-scale mechanical tea production methods should be adopted instead. For example: factory-farm cooperation (small farmers don't have to set up factories, production is done by large factories).

This method not only can save on wages, but can mass produce the tea leaves, and is advantageous to the development of the tea industry, market, and economy. However, when tea leaves are machine-pressed, they do not acquire natural flavors. Manufactured tea is only mediocre and lacks any special characteristics.

I think the key lies in letting tea "be revealed." This doesn't refer to the degree of oxidization, but rather to every phase of the production process being in place, such as: the greatest taboo of traditional Oolong tea is the flavor of freshly picked tea, but "revealed" tea won't have a green tea or fresh-off-the-tree flavor, and is more conducive to subsequent tea craftsmanship.

However, besides needing to let the tea "be revealed," there is yet another key point, which is the tea's dryness. The moisture content must be less than five percent. When the tea broth has a freshly-picked or green flavor, that indicates the tea leaves have a high moisture content, and the tea will be bitter when drunk (the surface of the tongue will have a slight astringent feeling), and it will not be suitable for storage.

Roasting Preserves the Aroma
The main reason that nowadays tea mostly undergoes light oxidization and is not thoroughly dried is that at present, the "aroma" of the tea is emphasized. There are crude teas and raw teas that have a very apparent aroma when smelled.

Then how to stabilize the aroma? Tea that hasn't been sufficiently oxizised can be roasted directly after drying. The tea's fragrance will change with the high roasting temperature and will be preserved layer by layer. This changes the "evenness" in the original aroma into "hardiness." In other words, it reduces the shortcomings of the tea, decreases the acerbity, and increases its supple smoothness.  
Thus, when a tea farm performs roasting over a long period, the aroma is transformed from an obvious, richly charming flavor into a mellow rhyme. Take Lishan spring tea as an example: it has a clearly floral fragrance as a raw tea, but after roasting, it is transformed into a mellow floral and fruity scent, making it smell gentle and pleasant. The tea seems to cling to the mouth after entering, adheres and lingers, and takes the flavor to an even higher level.

I think the true characteristic one experiences when drinking tea is "flavor," not aroma. I have heard of something called "throat rhyme" in the past. In early times, tea was produced "in accordance with the heavens," and it was good for storing. I have some Taiwanese Oolong tea here from the year 1916. The depths of the tea soup have a burgundy translucence. After the tea enters the mouth, the sweetness instantly floods the oral cavity. There is a bit of acidity in the sweetness. Different levels of flavor dance upon the tongue and bring a feeling of numbness, also melting the body and mind.

Only vintage tea can have this flavor. It is like the properties contained within the tea are opened up. This is a feeling with which tea that has only fragrance can't even compare.

Industry - Things are no longer as they were
To date, along with changes in technology and the environment, people's demand for tea has also changed. The market has been influenced in accordance with these changes. For example, because modern people drink tea with increasingly light flavors, lightly oxidized teas have gradually gained popularity, such as the new Jinxuan varietals or Four Seasons Springtime.

In addition, tea information is basically guided by tea merchants. When consumers don't have objective information to compare with, it's very easy to feel that a certain tea suits you, and to then grow a preference for it - and after a while, to become accustomed to this type of flavor. In addition, there are still many issues around the sale of Taiwanese teas, such as that Taiwanese sales have a low profit margin. The same tea sold after 20 years still has a comparable or even lower price. These issues are not guided by a reasonable system, resulting in a chaotic market and tea farmers unable to maintain a livelihood.

Taiwanese tea's specialty lies in high quality. If quantity is demanded, how to preserve and maintain quality? Traditional craftsmanship pushed Taiwanese tea toward a peak and offers people memorable flavors. In comparison with the modern environment, I think the key factors were attitude and views toward tea.

This can't be achieved in just a few words. Based on my many years of marketing experience, many people like Taiwanese tea after coming into contact with it. I believe that with correct views and attitudes, Taiwanese tea can achieve another peak.

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