Talent and skill

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.

Tea Geek Paradise

I spent the past three days in central Taiwan doing fieldwork visiting tea farms and such. Once you’ve seen a few tea farms, they all start to blend in – farms on their own are not particularly interesting unless the farmer is doing something really interesting, or there is something weird about the farm. Likewise for tea production facilities – the machines are mostly the same, the processes similar, and the only real difference lies in things you can’t see – the producer’s skill, timing, weather, leaf conditions, that sort of thing.

And then there are places like this:

This is one of the five tea research stations of Taiwan, official units of research into all things tea – from developing new tea varietals, to cultivation techniques, to production improvements. This place isn’t open for public – you need to have a valid reason to request a visit in advance.

The tea station is quite large – they only use about 10% of the land they have because they don’t really have enough manpower to use any more. This is the place that developed Taiwan tea #8, #18, and #21 – the station was originally set up in the Japanese colonial period for developing technologies related to cultivation of assamica varietal imported to Taiwan. #8, #18, and #21 are all black tea varietals, with the #18 being the most popular these days for a variety of reasons.

The station is quite interesting – they don’t use any pesticides and herbicides, and only organic fertilizers from what I understand. The point, after all, is to test the plants’ abilities to withstand various growing conditions and select the strongest trees for selective breeding. Using pesticides and such will mask their weakness. In the above picture you see how there are lots of random plants growing under the trees – that’s what a farm that uses no herbicides look like. In most pictures of tea farms you’ll see the soil around the tea trees are barren and brown. Likewise, the leaves are full of marks of insect damage. This is of course because they don’t spray pesticides. They do use something called “tobacco water” – a natural concoction with an infusion of tobacco (leftover bits from the cigarette industry). The nicotine helps repel insects a little, but only lasts a couple weeks and spraying is a lot of work. Most farms wouldn’t use it, but they do because it helps control the insects somewhat without any chemical pesticides.

They also do all kinds of tests with production methods. This is necessary because for each varietal of tea the processing may be different – a certain tea may come out better with longer oxidation cycles, or needs slightly less time during withering, or so on. The Tea Research Station might not know what is the best method of making a certain tea – after all, that is dependent on a lot of factors – but they certainly do try to figure out new ways of production that will help farmers along. Different varietals also have different growing characteristics that changes production methods. #21, for example, has buds that will grow too old quite quickly, so the harvest window is relatively short. If it happens to be raining on those days, then a farmer may be forced to harvest in sub-optimal weather (normally, nothing is done during harvest on a rainy day). Those teas will be inferior. For someone who has a smaller field who wants a tea that is easier to work with, #18 is preferable.

They also offer classes – introductory, intermediate, and advanced ones on tea making skills. Unfortunately, sons and daughters of families of tea farmers have priority, and leftover spots (if there are any at all) are filled by people in the tea industry. Younger people in the tea making business I talk to generally have done some of these courses at some point – they learn the basics and use those skills at home when they help out. In many ways, this is probably their most important active service to the tea production community, even though it may be underappreciated.

As one of my colleagues said, this is the “Tea Geek Paradise.” It was very interesting visiting and talking to the staff there, surrounded by tea trees while geeking out about tea history. Doesn’t hurt that they have an amazing view of the Sun Moon Lake as well.

Nowhere to buy tea

A few days ago a group of Korean students came as a delegation, and during lunch we somehow got on the topic of tea, and specifically, where one could buy some Chinese black tea in Hong Kong. Funny enough, after thinking about it a little, my answer was basically – nowhere.

It’s of course not really true that there was nowhere to go. You have your choice from supermarket tea to specialty food stores to specialized tea shops, but a place that I can truly recommend for good, reasonably priced, Chinese black tea? It doesn’t really exist.

That in and of itself is sort of odd – after all, Hong Kong is big on tea drinking. However, people here don’t drink much Chinese black tea. When drinking black tea (hongcha) they generally prefer “western” teas – usually from the Indian subcontinent, but often probably mixed in with stuff from Africa or elsewhere. They are drunk in more formal settings, such as afternoon tea service at cafes and hotels, or they are drunk in the Hong Kong style mixed drinks – in which case the teas are blends created expressly for the purpose, and are usually devoid of origin. They also come in containers meant for food service, like these guys. I doubt anyone wants 2 packs of 5lb teas for home use.

So when you want to buy loose leaf black tea, other than the usual suspects at the supermarkets, you have your choice of overpriced foreign vendors and overpriced local vendors. Buying keemun from, say, Whittard of Chelsea, seems exceedingly silly when you’re in Hong Kong. Local stores either don’t stock very high grade black teas, because there’s no real market for it, or they stock reasonable quality ones but then charge you through the roof for it. Also, Hong Kong tea stores are not great for packaging. It’s fine when you want it for yourself, but if you were going to gift it, it’s not so good.

Similar dynamics are at play when looking for tea elsewhere in greater China as well. When you’re in Taiwan and you want green tea, you either buy Japanese green tea or you go home. Chinese greens in Taiwan, from what I’ve seen anyway, are in pretty much the same position as black teas in Hong Kong – you can either get really low grade stuff or you can be prepared to be charged through the roof for teas that are often not that great anyway. Local taste is not in it, so there’s no real market demand. You can say the same for puerh in Shanghai, for much the same reason – much of the puerh I’ve seen there is not great, or too expensive. I’m sure there are more private vendors in Shanghai who deal in this stuff, but as a visitor looking for stores, it’s terrible.

In the end, I took the students to a local tea shop that I like and they were quite happy to buy some white tea and some tieguanyin instead. Everyone went home happy.

Tea fair in Kyoto

While I was doing research and waiting for my books at the Urasenke School‘s library, I discovered that there was, that day, a tea fair across town at the Yoshida shrine near Kyoto University. Since the library closed at 3 anyway, I decided to hop over and take a look.

The tea fair was a decent size – about 20-30 booths from various sellers. What was perhaps the most surprising was that about half of them were selling Chinese teas of various sorts. Like these guys:

Or something like this:

The Chinese tea they sold and were pushing were mostly oolongs of various sort, with some greens and puerh thrown in. Many are Taiwan based or Taiwan inspired. But I wasn’t here for Chinese tea.

The Japanese tea sellers were mostly from the area – selling Uji produced tea. I tried some and bought a few bags, although given my glacial rate of drinking Japanese greens, I don’t know when I’ll ever get to them. More interestingly though, I ran into a stall with sellers from, of all places, Miyazaki prefecture. Miyazaki is next to Kagoshima, which is now a major producer of Japanese teas, but Miyazaki, relatively speaking, doesn’t do much tea. These guys claim to be organic and all that, and more importantly, they make black tea. The few I tried were quite good – one almost reminiscent of Darjeelings. Needless to say, I came home with quite a few bags of tea.

Having a tea fair at a shinto shrine has other advantages too. It’s nicely shaded but still feels like a park, it’s got a hill behind it and I actually hiked over the hill to get to the fair, and it’s reasonably accessible. There was also a sho performance while I was there.

There are also some things that I’m reminded of as someone who doesn’t drink a lot of Japanese tea – first, that Japanese greens are brewed strong, and the idea is to coat your mouth with the taste, at least when they make it for you. It’s a sharp contrast with Chinese greens, which emphasize that refreshing lightness. Second, these people shake their teapots violently to get every last drop out. No such thing as a gentle tip – they literally hold the kyusu with two hands and shake the thing like it’s going to drop you money to get every last bit of water out, usually stopping when the last shake produces a lot of tea leaves. Finally, Japanese greens, in the grand scheme of things, are pretty cheap, even decent grade shincha. This partly has to do with the yen dropping like a rock in the past few months, but also reflects how prices have really risen in China, which is the other main source of green teas. They are also so different that direct comparisons are basically pointless.

Aged Margaret’s Hope Darjeeling

A few years ago, Mr. Rajiv Lochan of Lochan Tea sent me a few really big bags of samples.  I’ve had some in the intervening years, but never quite finished any of them despite my best attempt, mostly because I don’t drink black tea very often.   Since I’m on the road today, I pulled out the bag labeled Margaret’s Hope Black Tea, and had it grandpa style.  The tea, I must say, has aged very gracefully in the four years that it’s been under my possession.  I’ve always known that blacks often taste fuller with age, at least in the first year or two, but this tea, drunk in this way, was just really, really nice.  Long gone are the aggressive notes that you get with Darjeeling — that bitter bite that comes with the territory of drinking Darjeelings grandpa style is not to be found.  Instead, a very welcoming sweetness pervades the tea, coats the mouth, and slides down the throat.  The sweetness is not too different from the type of taste you get from a good, somewhat (but not very) aged puerh — a 5-7 years tea that’s turning the corner.  You can still taste the typical Darjeeling scent underneath, but this is much better than, say, a young 2nd flush.

This makes me wonder if I should stock up on some Darjeelings and just let them age.  Might not be a bad idea, actually.

Black tea headache

I had some keemun yesterday in a mug. Nothing harmful, I thought, but at the end of that, I could start to feel a little of that same headache creeping in. It was not yet a major concern, nor the rather annoying headache that I’ve had recently after drinking blacks, but nonetheless… it’s there.

It’s a strange thing. I’ve never had a problem like this before, where drinking one type of tea leads to a headache. I deliberately used less leaves than usual and maybe that’s what allowed me to avoid a full on headache, but the mere presence of it is disturbing, to say the least.

Then I drank some of my aged baozhong, which always serve me well in a pinch….and no problems.

What could black tea have that causes this? Pesticide?

Headache…

It’s odd. I had some Yunnan gold today, and a slight headache showed up a little after I drank the stuff.

That is, in and of itself, not too interesting. Afterall, there are lots of things that can cause a headache. What’s odd is that I normally don’t have headaches, and I noticed that last time when I drank a bunch of black teas (i.e. when I was drinking those Keemuns) I was suffering from headaches during the day.

I have no good explanation for it, except that they seem to be correlated — and drinking those teas seem to precede the headache. Too much caffeine too quickly? Too concentrated a dose? Something else?

Caffeine overdose

I’ve had caffeine overdose exactly once in my life. I remember it was early in my college years, and I was staying up writing some paper. I had some rather nasty jasmine pearls, and…. well, long story short, I woke up in the middle of the night and my legs were shaking uncontrollably.

These days when I drink too much tea, I know, because my heart starts feeling like it’s pounding and I feel as though I want to throw up. It’s not a pleasant feeling, and nothing will really get rid of it. It doesn’t usually happen when I brew tea myself, but sometimes when I go out, it happens. I had to go out and get some things done today, and had two cups of tea while out. The first one was fine — a keemun that was fairly tasty, but not too interesting either way. The second, however, was a killer. It was one of those places that put loose leaves into the paper filter bag, and then brew in a paper cup for you to go. Nothing’s wrong with that, except that he must’ve put about 10g of tea (darjeeling) into a cup that’s about 100ml.

Needless to say, after that cup (and I wisely took it out after realizing, 30 seconds in, that it’s too much tea) I was rather buzzed. The uncomfortable feeling showed up, and I spent the next three hours shaking it off.

I hope that guy wasn’t paid to try to kill me.

Aged darjeeling

I have, with me, a 10 years old tin of Darjeeling

I bought this quite some years ago in New York city, some first flush stuff that I never really drank much of. I carried it with me to many places, and after numerous moves (and multiple times considering whether or not to throw it away) it is still there

Having had some fresh first flush recently from Lochan tea, I can say that the muscatel from this aged darjeeling is much more subdued. There’s a different character that shows up early in the cup — some form of sweetness. The tea is still bitter if you overbrew it, but there’s less of a bite and a little more rounded, I think, than fresh stuff. It’s not quite as aromatic, and will certainly taste a little strange to someone expecting the usual. I do wonder though… are these things ageable?

Keemun from Taiwan

I drank the same tea two days in a row, a rarity for me. The reason is because I completely misjudged the amount of tea I should use in such a small pot for blacks, so I ended up with too much tea (and not enough water). So eventually, I just dumped the leaves out into a mug and drank it that way yesterday.

The tea in question is a Keemun I got in Taiwan. No, it’s not a Taiwanese Keemun… just sold in Taiwan.

Keemun, like Lapsang and a few other blacks from China, are generally better grade when the leaves get smaller. I remember, almost two years ago, I tried two Lapsang from the same guy but of slightly different grades. The difference between the two was subtle but very present. The differences in price for higher grades of black usually isn’t that much more than the lower ones, and since I drink this stuff only very occasionally, I figured it’s a good investment.

I like Keemuns because they are sweet. I think brewing them English style is a complete waste of tea and time — Indian blacks are probably better for that purpose. Using a gaiwan might work best. I am using a yixing pot simply as a way to experiment. It doesn’t work terribly well with the small leaves — the pot gets clogged. I should actually find one of my gaiwans and brew the same tea (again!) in it and see what happens.