Every tea farmer’s association in Taiwan holds competition. Some of these are huge – the Lugu one, for example, attracts over 6,000 samples per competition (twice a year). Smaller ones get hundreds or a thousand entry. Every member of the association could enter a certain number of samples (often 10) per competition. Then, they are judged in groups with a panel of judges tasting them quickly and eliminating ones that are not good enough. Finally, there’s one “Special Prize”, which is the top prize, a tier of “First Prize” (number of which depends on the size of the competition), “Second Prize” and “Third Prize”, and also “Three Plum Blossom” and “Two Plum Blossom” for the competitions that have these grades. For Lugu, for example, you send in 22 jin of tea. 1 jin is used during the competition – tasting, etc. 1 jin is basically payment to the farmers association. The rest, the 20 jin, is tea that you’ll get back whether you win or lose. If you win, they get packed in the competition packaging of the right class. A “Special Prize” will sell for something like $3,000 USD a jin. The others are a lot lower in comparison, but still represent a markup compared to normal tea prices. So, entering and winning is good money.
The competitions are also there to reward skills. They began during the colonial period as a way for the government to encourage better quality production – to publicize people who made good tea, and to get farmers to strive for higher quality product. This purpose continued after Taiwan was returned to China in 1945. These days, it’s less of a quality issue and more of a marketing scheme, but there’s still an element of rewarding skill that’s involved – if you win the higher grade prizes, for example, you’ll get a plaque that goes with it saying what year, what competition, and what prize you got. A farmer who can hang a bunch of them in their shop (or, as is sometimes the case, has so many that they start stacking them up against the wall) can claim to be a better tea maker than others and sell their teas for more.
These days some vendors love to tell stories, almost more than selling tea they’re selling the farmer, especially when it comes to vendors who face a Western audience. So here’s a guy who you should probably at least try tea from:(Source)
Two young punks? Yes. Well, the guy on the right is called Zhuang Rongpu and is barely 30 years old, and he’s been in the tea production business for five years. His dad was a mushroom farmer, but he wanted to be a tea producer. So his dad helped him set up a brand new factory, which I visited on my trip this time. He’s won a number of “Special Prizes” in the last five years – at least one a year, from what I gathered. Considering that there are producers who never win one in their entire career, this is pretty remarkable.
Granted, he’s not in a hyper-competitive area like Lugu – he’s in Yuchi, a black tea production area. In terms of production procedures, black tea is really quite simple – withering, rolling, oxidation, drying. That’s it. As the local farmer association secretary said to us, “you can make it too”. He’s not wrong. We could. It won’t taste good, but we could.
If you ask a tea farmer/producer how to do something, they can tell you in great detail. They’re also often willing to tell you too – there really aren’t any secrets, so to speak. The devil is really in the details, and with something as simple as black tea, it is no exception. When we visited, for example, they just harvested some new leaves and were withering it.
The tea is just sitting there on a bed with air blowing underneath, and it’ll sit there for almost a full day. Unlike oolong, there’s no need to disturb it – in fact, you shouldn’t disturb it. The real trick, of course, is how to manage this – how much leaves to put on? How long do you wilt it for? When is the right time to move them to the roller? How long do you roll them for? At what speed? When do you stop the rolling and re-wrap the tea to roll again? How much longer? When do you stop rolling all together and move to oxidation? How long do you oxidize it for?
All of these have a simple answer – “depends”. They can give you ballpark figures, but precisely when is dependent on so many variables, it’s impossible to say with any kind of certainty. For example, in the trough above, they didn’t fill it to capacity – it is designed for a maximum 150 jin of raw leaves, but they only filled it about half full, because it’s easier to control the withering process. Since they had room anyway, they spread the leaves out on multiple troughs. It’s the tea producer’s job to assess when the tea is done withering and move on – and there’s no real objective measure that you can use to tell when that is. There’s no machine, at least not yet, that can replicate a human touch for these determination. So, our man here decides when it goes downstairs to the rollers. And his judgement at multiple steps along the way determine the quality of the final product.
Of course, this isn’t just about the producer – with bad leaves no matter how good a producer you are, the tea is still going to come out inferior. Farm management is also crucial. These guys don’t own any farms – they contract with farmers whose job is to grow the tea trees. They work together on a plan for managing the plants, and to make sure they get what they need as raw materials. It’s a collaborative process. They’ve obviously got something good going.
Still, this is a producer with five years experience and no family history of tea making. It doesn’t sound like he should be making great tea, but he obviously is. While skill is something that accumulates over time as you get more practiced at doing something, there is also another factor – talent. Mr. Zhuang clearly has it in spades.