In Memoriam: Kihara-san

About ten years ago when I first got back to Hong Kong, I was wandering around in the pre-children days and went to Lau Yu Fat to see if they had anything interesting to sell. When I got there someone was already sitting there with old Mr. Lau, drinking some tea. It was a Japanese couple and they were having some tieguanyin. I joined in, wanting to try some puerh or another. The tea was not very remarkable. I don’t even remember if I bought anything that day – I may have out of politeness. But as I was just doing research that ended up in the article A Foreign Infusion, I had a fun and exciting conversation with this Japanese aficionado of Chinese tea. Afterwards, we exchanged contact info.

I didn’t expect much from it, to be quite honest. While I’ve met many people over the years over tea tables, the number of people I’ve actually kept in touch with any regularity is small. Kihara-san, though, was different. He loved traveling, tea, and good food. Hong Kong was a frequent stop for him and his wife, and they would visit at least a couple times a year, always staying for just a night in the same hotel. I also happened to go to Japan every year or so. Before I knew it, I would be meeting him a few times a year, over food, tea, or both, and inviting him to places that I know. We even once met while we were both in Taiwan, with him taking me to a place he knows near the Taoyuan airport. Good times.

Before the pandemic hit, we had plans to go out for sushi together next time I visited Tokyo. While the Sukiyabashi Jiro is world famous for the documentary and the three Michelin star, Kihara-san thought it was “too old fashioned – too conservative.” This other place, he said, would be more exciting. I had also wanted to finally see, in person, his heirloom teapot that he inherited from his grandfather, who was a trader in Nagasaki. It’s a zhuni pot, Siting shaped, and beautiful. I’ve seen many such pots on sale before, but it’s always special to handle one that’s got family history.

A year ago on June 18th, as he often did, he posted a photo of a sukiyaki place that he went to. It was the same place he recommended me to go almost exactly two years prior that served up some good beef in some basement in Ginza. 好食, he said, which is Cantonese for tasty. I implored him not to taunt people like me who were, at the time, locked down and unable to travel anywhere. The next morning, I received a reply – this time from his wife, saying that he had suddenly passed away in his sleep that night.

The news was shocking – while he had been having health issues, he seemed to be on the path to recovery. The passing was sudden. The loss, irreplaceable. A year later, I still haven’t been able to go to his tomb and pay my respects. I haven’t quite reconciled with the fact that I’ll never see this friend again, to enjoy discussions with him over good food and tea. My heart goes out to his widow, who had to navigate this awful year coupled with the passing of her husband. I know I’m not along in mourning for our friend – he had many friends all over the world, and it’s a testament to Kihara-san’s magnetic charisma.

On this memorial day of his passing, I am having some roasted tieguanyin, something I know Kihara-san would very much like. I hope that, in the great beyond, he could be enjoying as much good tea as he would like to have. Kihara-san, you’re very much missed.

Restaurant tea service

You are at a beautiful restaurant, the dinner was very good, and you’re satisfied. Dessert is coming, and the server comes around and asks you “coffee or tea?” Being a civilized person, of course you said tea. Then, they come right back and bring you what I call the box of doom

And your heart sinks, because, well, you know.

Now, granted, if you’re at some fancy place, chances are they won’t do this kind of injustice to you. Instead, they’ll have a few menu options for you to choose from. But more often than not, as a non-flavoured, caffeinated tea drinker, the options are usually English breakfast, and maybe Earl Grey. If you’re lucky, the place has a few other options, such as an Assam, Ceylon, or even Darjeeling. If not, it’s going to be some random green tea, chamomile, and a really dodgy puerh.

It’s interesting to me that this happens often enough. Restaurants that spend a good deal of time and energy worrying about their food, their alcohol, and their decor, frequently pay too little attention to literally the last thing you’re likely to taste before leaving. Yes, it’s a First World Problem, but then, that’s what this whole blog is about isn’t it.

I’ve never worked in a restaurant or run one, but I recognize that tea service is difficult and fussy. I’d imagine it’s a costly exercise having to deal with brewing tea – you need a teapot, a cup, hot water, leaves, someone to deal with all that gear, plus sugar and cream. Compared to coffee, where you just present the drinker with a cup of coffee and cream and sugar… tea is annoying.

Yet, it doesn’t really make sense to me how neglected it is among restaurants. Take, for example, this tea menu:

The eagle eyed among you probably noticed a few weird things. Puerh listed as a black (1993 too!). A Zealong premium, which doesn’t seem to exist anymore on their own website, also black (why buy a Zealong black tea?). Yushan oolong from the national park – pretty certain anywhere with tea farms isn’t actually in the park itself – most likely it’s an area next to Yushan, more like an Alishan tea. Da Ya Qing is probably Dayeqing, a typical name for a yellow tea. Yuzu Kikucha, not kikicha. Now, what if I told you this is from the last page of the 100+ pages wine menu from Per Se, a Michelin three star restaurant in NYC owned by Thomas Keller? I’d imagine their wine list doesn’t have this many question marks on one page, so why is it ok with tea?

Now, typos aside, this tea menu is actually ok – it has nine options for those of us who want unflavoured, caffeinated tea, which is a lot more than most places offer. Of course, at a restaurant charging you hundreds of dollars per head, this is the least I’d expect. But then, even at super fancy places, the tea service can be underwhelming.

“Per Se is dated” I hear you say. Ok, how about the menu at Le Bernadin, a half dozen blocks down Broadway?

If you want caffeinated, non-flavoured tea, you’re stuck with Keemun or Dragonwell (not Dragon’s well). I guess you can drink sencha… but you know, there’s a reason nice Japanese places in Japan generally give you hojicha after a meal and not sencha. Sencha is not an after-meal drink, at all. Especially after heavy French food, you’d want something with a bit more weight. Le Bernadin’s tea menu veers too much on the light side – even Keemun might be too light. A malty Yunnan black would do much better (or, better yet, a heavily roasted TGY).

Which also gets me to the second part – the teaware. The teapots used are often impractical, looking more to impress visually than be good practically. They’re usually too big, which I understand – you want to avoid having to refill. But it also means there’s a lot of room for error for the drinker. Use too much leaves, and it comes out super strong. Use too little, and the tea is insipid, especially if it’s something that sells for $8 at a place with a tasting menu at $275. If the teapot has a mesh element, they’re impossible to clean properly, and after a few months or a year, will take on the smell and taste of whatever flavoured teas that are most commonly ordered at the restaurant. So then, when you order that sencha, it’s going to come with free vanilla and lavender flavour, whether you like it or not. And don’t get me started on baskets/infusers that are too small for the job.

Carrying tea is costly, just like any kind of inventory, and unlike wine, it goes bad. So it’s fairly understandable why you’d want to avoid having too much variety or just too much stock in general. I think for a restaurant menu, flavoured vs unflavoured should be about half and half. Easy to brew teas should be prioritized – blacks, roasted oolongs, hojicha, that sort of thing. Sencha, pan fried green teas, and other more delicate teas like light oolongs should be treated cautiously – if carried at all (and they also go stale very quickly). For example, that dancong on Per Se’s menu looks like a disaster in the making – I can imagine it being fragrant but also nasty bitter if brewed the normal western way in a big pot. How is that a good idea?

Look, I get it, tea isn’t something you can easily charge thousands of dollars for, unlike wine. While there’s a market for expensive-ish tea, these restaurants aren’t where you’d go for that. I’m not asking for home quality tea here, I just want something that isn’t nasty and leave me with a bad taste in the mouth as the last thing I ingest before standing up and walking out. For those of us who don’t drink coffee, there’s often no alternative but some bad English breakfast blend that taste like Lipton yellow label. For restaurants that supposedly care about things like taste, food source, sustainability, and all that other good stuff, you should care about the tea that you serve your customers.

Hadong

I’ve never been to Hadong, Korea’s tea producing area. A couple months ago I got to go with a group of researchers as part of our collaborative research project, Making Modernity in East Asia. Our little sub-group specifically looks at food technologies and how tranformations of these basic elements of food production in the 19th and 20th centuries changed East Asia – as well as sharing commonalities through the borders of East Asian countries in traditional food-making techniques.

Tea of course is one of these elements. Going to Hadong was, well, interesting. The area is situated between Jeolla and Gyeongsangnam-do, where there were a fair number of Buddhist temples and a more mountainous area. Driving from Busan it’s a few hours, and once you arrive there you really see the sort of landscape that is typical of Korea – it’s hard to describe, but seeing the way the hills are silhouetted against the landscape, traditional Korean landscape paintings make more sense.

We visited a small local farm. The first thing interesting is that the trees are tiny – I’m used to seeing tea trees in places like Taiwan, Southern China, and Japan, and they’re all a lot bigger and taller. Perhaps this is a regional preference, but I also suspect it has to do with the climate – it’s a lot colder in Korea and plants would grow slower as a result. This is sort of like how lower elevation teas can produce more compared to higher elevation ones.

The really interesting thing about the farmer is that for his roller, he’s using Taiwanese machinery from a factory in Sanxia. Sanxia, of course, makes green tea. This makes perfect sense, really.

But the kill green is done on a wok custom made to order by the farmer

The wok is ceramic. It’s heavy, and it’s deep. You can smell a little of the tea residue while you’re near it. The farmer claims that he tried a few different shapes and settled on this one.

We, of course, had some tea. Korean green tea… well green teas in general are not really my thing. I started out drinking dragonwells back in the day but nowadays I almost never touch greens, mostly because it’s something that physically doesn’t agree with me all that well, and I also don’t find interesting. In Korea, when they brew greens, they do it in a style that is somewhat similar to Japanese brewing – low temperature, a few infusions, but the taste, because of its wok kill green process, is closer to Chinese style greens. The farmer may also have been brewing on the lighter side, but for someone like me it doesn’t hold a lot of interest.

The cardinal sin of Korean greens, though, is the cost. The teas are fine as they are – and if you’re interested in greens they can be pretty decent. However, the good stuff is quite expensive. On a per gram basis, Korean greens are really high priced, at least among all the ones I’ve encountered before. I think this is partly owing to the relative small scale of the farmers and the limited amount of production in the local area. There is also the typical preference for local tea, so they’re willing to pay more for domestically produced teas than others. What you end up having is teas that are too high priced for foreigners to consume, relatively speaking. There are, I believe, some larger scale farms that sell cheaper varieties, but those aren’t all that interesting either.

Memorable places

Let’s face it, a Darjeeling teabag from Dammann Freres is never going to be that great, nor is it remotely worth the price of admission. I had some Dongding in my backpack that I would infinitely prefer to drink instead, but that would be rude. Their water wasn’t really hot enough anyway, and adding Taiwanese oolong to water (instead of pouring water over the leaves) is a loser’s bet. The overly aggressive pigeons trying to eat my apple pie were also not particularly welcomed, with me having to fend off their attacks while attempting this photo three times. I gave up trying to take a better one, lest I lose my pie to the indomitable birds.

I still thoroughly enjoyed my tea. The pie was good. The tea was serviceable. The view was excellent. The weather was almost perfect, if only it were a little bit warmer. I won’t remember this tea session for the tea itself, but it’s hard to beat St. Mark’s Square for location. The where and when of a tea session is often just as important as the what.

I’m in town for a colloquium on tea, which was organized by the Ca’Foscari University and the Confucius Institute here in Venice. As an academic with a research project in tea, it is rare to actually meet others similarly interested, more so as almost everyone was coming from a different disciplinary angle. Maybe I should’ve posted about this before the colloquium actually happened. But then, if you are from the area you might’ve already heard about it, and not rely on some long dormant blog to tell you. If you’re passing through like me, don’t waste your time in this gem of a city by spending a day listening to some academics talk about tea. Besides, the Italian Association of Tea Culture’s YouTube channel has posted the 2016 and 2017 renditions of their colloquiums for all to see. So maybe if you wait two years the 2019 one will be there too.

Free tea

It’s been quiet around here. Like I’ve said before – I don’t have much that’s interesting to say these days, other than random snippets from my research. Drinking has been… pedestrian. Lots of teas that are just sort of daily drinkers, and nothing too special. Granted, I say this while sipping my 30+ years old baozhong as a daily drinker… but what’s there to say? It’s a bit sweet, a bit tart, tastes like old baozhong, and getting harder to find than ever.

However, recently I went back to my hometown and received a large amount of tea there as a gift. It was a nice gift, but it’s not tea that I drink – it’s green tea from Yushan, the local mountain in the city. It’s a green tea, although they call it Yushan white tea, supposedly because the teas are on the whitish side. I had some while I was there – it’s nice, sweet, and typical greens from the region.

But, as I said, I got too much of it. I only need a can, maybe, for my own consumption needs. So here they are, I have 8 of these to give away. If you want one, email me at mail at marshaln.com. I’ll pay for shipping.

EDIT: Aaaaand they’re all gone. Thanks for the emails folks.

Wuyishan

Last time I was here in Wuyishan was about twenty years ago. I had only just started drinking tea more seriously back then, and it was also a much calmer place than now. This time, I know a little more about tea, and the place is a lot busier – it’s like a giant tea mall now, with almost every single shop in town selling yancha of some kind.

On some level, most tea producing regions are the same in East Asia. They mostly work on a small farmer model, where individual farmer has a smallish holding of land with a limited production capacity. Calling them “plantation” would, for the most part, be a misnomer. These are family held farms, and most people here produce tea for their own sales.

This is, however, also a big tourist attraction because of its nature, so there are a fair number of stores in town that have nothing to do with any farm – their trade is the tourist one, and they’re here to make some money selling people tea. Well, everyone’s here to make money selling tea, but in these cases they’re traders. Nothing wrong with that, although, as per the Longjing rule, one ought to remember that just because someone’s in the production area, it doesn’t mean they’re here making tea or have direct access to teas.

I’m here to do research for my project. Thankfully, I have some contacts here through friends, and I’ve been to some tea farms and factories. Like I said, some things are about the same no matter what area you’re in. The Wuyishan area though has some unique properties.

The thing is, Wuyi tea is divided roughly into three areas – zhengyan (proper rock, literally), banyan (half rock), and zhoucha (island tea). The names don’t make a lot of sense in translation. Zhengyan means teas in the proper Wuyi areas – inside the valleys and hills of the Wuyi mountains national park area. Banyan are the stuff right around the area – like the photo above, basically on the outskirts of the national park. Then you have zhoucha, which is now a term generally meaning stuff all around even further away. Zhoucha is regional stuff made in the style of Wuyi teas, whereas zhengyan stuff is the “real deal”. Prices, of course, are according to these regions. Run of the mill zhengyan stuff will easily run over a couple thousand RMB for 500g, more of course if you’re buying from someone who sourced it and is selling to the Western market. Better stuff would be multiples of that.

Then there are these so called “special” areas – Niulan keng, Huiyuan keng, etc. There’s a lot of hype here, typical of the Chinese tea market these days. Prices can be sky high for some of these teas – like 20k USD a jin (500g) for some really special ones, even though these are sort of one of a kind trades. The more “regular” stuff can still run above ten thousand RMB a jin. It’s frankly pretty silly. Can the difference really be that great? Yes, I suppose, but in general, once you go above a certain price point… the incremental improvement in your experience is going to be marginal.

Then of course there are the fakes – cheaper stuff faking to be better ones, usually. Nobody would believe you if you sell a non Wuyi tea as a top grade one, but a banyan being sold as zhengyan? If you’ve never had a bunch of both, you probably can’t tell the difference. Banyan is still good tea, but you’ll pretty much never see people advertise it as that, unfortunately. As always, tea is pretty anonymous, and it’s quite easy to try to dress up a tea as something else.

It’s raining cats and dogs outside, and it’s 2:40am. Time for bed. Hopefully the rain stops and so I can go see some more teas tomorrow deeper into the park.

2018 Shenzhen Global Tea Fair

I haven’t been to a mainland Chinese tea fair in quite a few years. Back in the day, I’d go when I get a chance, although in general, they’re all rather samey – a lot of big displays from big producers, plus a whole bunch of smaller stalls from smaller, no name sellers and producers that seem to exist on the sidelines just because. This year I got asked to give a talk at the 2018 Shenzhen Global Tea Fair, originally by Livio Zanini to be part of a panel. However, as that fell through, I figured… why not, I’ll go anyway, so I ended up going anyway to give a talk based on A Foreign Infusion.

One thing to note is that all these tea fairs around the country are done by the same company – Huajuchen, who have a rotating schedule of tea fairs all around. So there really is something to the idea that once you’ve been to one, you’ve been to all – because they’re all organized by the same people who travel around China to do these. Shenzhen is one of their biggest, and it’s big – about six halls worth of tea stalls. This is what parts of one looks like

I got there early, before they formally opened, so I took a quick walk around before any customers showed up. Tea fairs in China are part trade show, part consumer expos. For the bigger producers, I think it’s a branding exercise. For the smaller guys, it’s an important retail outlet. Last time I went to a Chinese tea expo, probably ten years ago or so, it was mostly puerh. These days, there’s a lot more white tea and liubao, although puerh is still quite important. Interesting to note though, some of the biggest brands in pu, like Dayi, don’t seem to be there – perhaps there’s no real reason to splash a bunch of money on what has to be a lavish stall (because they’re the biggest brand after all) and the return on such a stall is minimal, since everyone already knows who they are.

For someone like me, the more interesting stalls are always the small ones. The big brands you can find everywhere, the small ones you never see. Unlike in the past, however, when I’d happily spend hours sitting at stalls drinking this year’s production, these days I’m really not very interested in new-make puerh. Instead, I looked around for older stuff – there isn’t much that is interested in the older puerh category, since they look kinda like this

Which are stalls that claim to sell “old tea, dry storage”, mostly pu from the 90s or 2000s, at pretty inflated prices and questionable quality. I can find cheaper or better elsewhere, no thanks.

There are also some interesting, new concepts like this one

What the hell is “Tea York Hub” you ask? Well, the Chinese name makes more sense – “Haochacang” or “Good Tea Storage”. Basically, this is a rent-a-storage service. They’re not aiming to make money from selling you tea (although I think they dabble in that too) but they’re there to sell you tea lockers where you can store your tea in a climate controlled environment. Pretty brilliant, actually, capitalizing on people’s collections without taking on the risk of actually holding onto 1000 jians of Dayi 7542s. Dayi prices in recent days, for example, having been taking a bit of a dive.

After I gave my talk I ended up doing a few more rounds and ended up trying out some aged oolongs at a few stalls. Whereas I have a lifetime supply of old Taiwan oolongs, aged Wuyi, good ones anyway, are much harder to come by. I did end up at a guy who had some decent 15 years old aged Wuyi, and I bought a couple small cans. He’s one of these smaller producers with a store in Shenzhen. Maybe I’ll talk about the tea another day.

Changing modes of production

Back in the day, farmers in Taiwan all produced their own tea – up to the point where the tea is dried and technically drinkable. The teas would then be sold to tea buyers whose job was to go to the villages and gather these teas. They would then sell the teas to wholesalers in places like Taipei, who would then blend, further process (mostly roasting), package, then sold either locally or, more likely, overseas.

Then, Taiwan’s economy changed, and with it the target market for their teas. While it was exporting to places like Japan, Taiwan was also consuming increasing amounts of their own tea. In fact, by the 1980s a majority of Taiwan’s teas were locally consumed, and now they’re actually quite significant importers of tea from other Asian countries, because the overall demand for tea is no longer satisfied by locally produced teas.

At the same time, things changed internally as well. For one, transportation is easier. Nowadays, for example, driving up to the tea mountains is just a weekend trip, whereas back then, going up takes real effort. If you have a car and you just want a weekend trip, well, the tea mountains are right there. Farmers started selling direct to consumers, instead of just to wholesalers. The old middleman stratum of traders no longer exist – wholesalers in big cities tend to buy direct from farmers, and farmers often sell to consumers directly as well, acting as retail as well as producer. Blending is no longer nearly as important as it used to be, replaced by individualized productions done by farmers or substitute processors – people who are paid by the kilo to do processing for other farmers. That tea you buy from farmer X directly is quite likely produced by processor Y (while farmer X works on his own competition tea, but that’s another topic).

Some consumers like this, because they feel like they’re buying direct from the farmer and so the tea is somehow more “authentic”. Even though often times these more entrepreneurial farmers who also retail tend to not only sell their own teas, but also teas of their friends – to provide enough variety for the consumer to buy from. Still, it’s an attractive model.

One of these guys that you might have encountered before is TeaHome, which has been active online for years now. You may have seen their oolongs on eBay, for example. I buy from them from time to time for very dependable teas – prices are reasonable and quality is decent. I’ve visited them before on a previous trip – the owner is an interesting guy with no background in tea prior to entering the business some 10+ years ago. He said he was a civil servant but due to one reason or another decided to become an organic tea farmer. He’s doing fairly well, as far as I can tell.

Another tea farmer I visited this trip that is also doing direct sales now has their own little brand called “Xin Cha Nong”, with an interesting url of teaez.com. Their family story is quite typical – two generations of tea farmers now. The dad (you can see his picture on the site) entered the tea business from farming other stuff because tea was far more profitable in the early 80s for farmers in the Dong Ding area – so like a lot of people he learned how to make tea and has been doing it ever since. The younger generation in the family is going to inherit the tea business, but are also branching out and are responsible for the sales/website part of the business. Learning how to do all that, while mastering these new skills, is part and parcel of how these tea farming families can stay alive.

Despite this though, there are a lot of upcoming problems that everyone is aware of. There is the typical East Asian problem of aging rural communities – young people generally don’t want to stay in the villages, and would prefer working in some higher prestige jobs in the cities instead. There are plenty of farmers with no one interested in taking over. Because of the downward pressure in prices for tea, lower elevation teas are becoming less lucrative, and many farmers have instead switched to farming other things – fruits, for example, which pay more and involve less work. There’s also labour issues – finding enough people to pick teas by hand is getting more and more difficult. These days almost all tea pickers during harvest season are foreigners from places like Vietnam and Burma. Give it another ten years, and many farmers have told me that they think they would have to figure out some way to make decent tea with machine harvest, because there will not be enough people to pick teas anymore. It’s a real crisis.

There’s no real telling how things will develop from here on out. Tea farms will surely still exist in Taiwan, as there are some young people willing to take up the mantle and others join in. The question is – what will that tea industry look like, and what kind of products are going to come out of it? That’s a much harder question to answer, and all we can do at this point is speculate.

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.