A little while ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a unique experience, the kind that is so unexpected and amazingly interesting it might be best labeled as a “Special Fulbright Experience”. With that hook, let me tell you about making tea.
Wait what – don’t I make tea every day? Well, yes that’s true. But I am going to talk about the time that I helped make tea (the fermented, dried leaves that can be brewed) from fresh tea leaves (straight from the tree).
These past couple months, I have spent time working with researchers from the Taiwanese government research branch that is specifically dedicated to researching tea, the Tea Research Extension Station (TRES). TRES has been around in various forms for the past 100 years, and are the obvious people to be in contact with when it comes to researching anything related Taiwanese tea, so getting connected with them is probably what is going to allow me to answer the questions that I originally wrote about in my proposal for this Fulbright. I have mostly been communicating with the TRES station in Taoyuan, which is in the north eastern part of Taiwan. The researchers there have been friendly, knowledgeable and excited about collaborating with me, which has been incredible by itself.
One day, after a long discussion of science, research directions and potential project logistics, I was getting a ride back to the train station to return to Taipei. The researcher who was driving me said something along the lines of, “Oh, by the way: on Monday we’ll be having a competition/exercise to make tea. If you’re interested, you can come.” Making tea? Really? Of course I was wanted to see how tea was made! Although I knew some things about the process, it was hard to understand what something like “the leaves are half fermented” truly means. Plenty of tourists pay money to go to try their hand at tea making. Here was a free invitation, from people who talk about tea as their job, to join them to make tea. I was definitely going!
I showed up on Monday not quite sure what to expect but excited nonetheless. We gathered around 10 am in a large building equipped for tea making on the grounds of the research station. Some older men, (whom I later realized are tea masters of a sort and were invited to judge the results) gave short speeches about the day’s activities, including advice on what they sought for the winning tea and how it could be made (more on this later). The various departments around the research station had split up into teams and each team was going to make a batch of the same kind of tea. Then they would be judged and the winners would receive a cash prize, but more importantly, bragging rights for the year. There were 20 teams, which seemed to have from 2 to around 6 members. And while there was an air of friendly competition throughout, it was primarily a training exercise so there was plenty of cooperation as well.
Everyone started with the same material: freshly harvested tea leaves. The tea leaves had been collected that morning by machine clippers from the tea fields that the researchers at the station maintain. Each team grabbed a large bag of leaves and got to work. Our assignment was to make Baochong (包種), which is a Taiwanese specialty: a lightly fermented, very fragrant oolong made in the lower elevation regions in northern Taiwan.
We started by spreading the leaves out to wilt in the sun and start picking leaves. Actually, at every step of the process we picked through the tea, separating out lesser-quality components: stems, bug-bitten leaves, dead leaves, leaves that were too bruised, old leaves… At some point I remember saying that I was sure that I would be dreaming of picking through tea leaves in my sleep and everyone around me agreed heartily.
During this stage some of the folks on my team decided to have some “fun”, so we started separating out some of the youngest, freshest leaves (嫩芽) to make a different type of tea. I learned later that this special batch would become Oriental Beauty (東方美人), which is another specialty tea from Taiwan. We adopted even stricter standards for selecting these leaves – they had to be the tiniest sprouts that were still covered with silvery hair (which gives rise to another one of the names for this tea: silver hair oolong 白毫烏龍).
After letting the leaves wilt for a while (probably around an hour) we brought them inside to begin fermenting. For these steps, timing was key. Because each stage represents a chemical process occurring in the leaves, the rate that it occurs is dependent on variables that are going differ every time one might try to make tea: temperature, moisture content in the leaves, air humidity, sunlight intensity, etc. These differences in temperature and humidity during tea making conditions can give rise to differences between winter and summer tea (as well as different growth conditions for the leaves, which also influences chemical composition and therefore flavor). Thus, each time one makes tea it is important to be in tune with how fast the processes are occurring to know when to move from one step to the next.
Once inside, the leaves were left to ferment, or oxidize. (Personally, I prefer referring to this stage as oxidizing because unlike other “fermenting” processes, there really aren’t any bacteria involved. Look forward to a blog post all about the chemistry of tea – because I’ve been reading about it and will probably want to write a synthesis of major ideas…) As I have mentioned, the differentiation of many tea types depends on the extent to which they are oxidized. For Baochong, a partially oxidized tea, this process is therefore quite complicated.
During the oxidation process, the leaves are periodically fluffed. Leaf fluffing turned out to require a particularly artful technique. If the leaves are bruised and the cells cracked open, oxidation happens very quickly and leads to development of chemicals that are characteristic of black teas. Yet it’s also important to fully turn over all the leaves and mix them up to expose all of them to the air equally. (Okay, actually I haven’t ever seen or heard an explanation for this now that I think of it, but that’s what I’m pretty sure the point of this step is.)
As I said before, timing is key. During our intro pep talk, the head judge/tea master stressed to us that there were several aromas that the tea would go through in cycles: grassy, flowery, grassy. We were supposed to turn the tea leaves at specific times during the cycles in order to imbue the tea with these flavors. [Well that’s my understanding of what he said, but maybe you don’t want to follow this the next time you make tea without first consulting an expert. Please do not try any techniques based on this blogpost at home.] Most teams adhered to 3 rounds of this, waiting for around an hour and a half between each repetition, although we made adjustments based on how far along the cycles the tea leaves were. Judging where in the cycle the leaves were involved walking over and given the tray a good sniff to try to gauge grassy vs. flowery smells.
For the final tossing of the leaves, we switched to a mechanical roller. I don’t remember the exact reasoning for this but I think it was because for the last cycle, more tossing was better. It was much easier to set the machine for 10-20 minutes than have someone do that by hand. (Although there also seemed to be confusion about whether the timer on this machine was working, so I think some groups got treated to some extra time before anyone noticed…)
Finally time for a different process: the leaves were then baked for a short time. Properly judging time and temperature while in the ovens was also emphasized. When each group was ready, they turned on the cylindrical oven. When the oven reached a specific temperature, the the tea master dumped the tea in, and then removed before it reached another specific temperature (I think it was 200C and then 600C). Again, the type of oven, the length and the heat of the firing can all give different characteristics and therefore lead to different types of tea. One of the members of my team later reflected that our tea may have lost some of its fragrance during this stage. He recounted remorsefully how strong the smell was until and through the roasting process, but then how it diminished afterwards.
Then the leaves were shaped. Again we used a machine (although this process can be done by hand). Baochong is partly rolled, each leaf is twisted into a strip but not fully twisted into a ball. The rolling was quite quick, requiring what seemed like relatively few passes by the large pestle-like appendage of this machine.
The rolled leaves were then dried. These machines were much lower temperature than the roasting oven, and employed various methods to equally expose the tea leaves to hot air. This one pictured has a series of racks that can be successively dumped lower (towards more hot air). Another one also included a conveyor belt that cycled the tea leaves through the region of hot air.
The last step was a final cleaning process, during which more undesirables, which now included leaves that hadn’t fermented, rolled, or dried, as well as all of the previous undesirable leaves, were removed. Everyone helped with the final picking for all the teams. I left early – that is 10:30pm – but I heard that people stayed until 2 am picking.
What I failed to document in pictures were some of the other activities that occurred during this long process. While waiting between each step, we returned to the office to drink tea and chat or milled around and smelled other teams’ work-in-progress and compared it to our own. Food was also served while people rested between steps – bento boxes for lunch and dinner and a late night giant vat of soup. The atmosphere was a little manic, yet also playful in between stretches of somewhat frantic work.
Throughout this process, several side-project teas were also being made, including the Oriental Beauty and a black tea. Each of these, although they started with the same materials, went through variations on the process which changed the outcome. The Oriental Beauty tea was oxidized very slowly and for a very long time. By contrast the black tea leaves were bruised early in the process (fairly intense mashing seemed to be occurring from what I saw) before being left to oxidize.
I returned the next day for the judging of the teas. As in any tea competition, the teas were all brewed in a uniform fashion: using a regulated tea cup, amount of tea, and brew time. The judging was blind – team that made each tea was unknown during judging – but this does not mean that the tea was not looked at; it was displayed next to the brewed tea as to be judged. The color of the tea liquid and quantity of “dust” in the brew (fragments of tea leaves in the bottom of the cup) is also considered during judging. In all, there were 6 third place prices, 3 second place, and 1 first prize. Considering the 20 total contestants, it was a generous awarding of prizes. Unfortunately, my team failed to place. But at the end of the day, I got to take home samples of several of the different entries – including tea that I helped make! – and the whole experience to remember, which was plenty exciting in itself.
Furthermore, everyone got to try the teas and then contribute to a popular vote, which was recognized along with the judge favorites. Tasting the teas was incredible. While many were not so easily distinguished (not too bad, not too good), others were entirely flavorless, while few popped with fragrance, bitterness, grassiness or all of the above. It was impressive variation, given that we had all started with the same material and gone through essentially similar steps. Somewhere in the process, however, good tea, better tea and some truly awful teas were created.
Anyone who has ever bought loose leaf tea has realized that it can get expensive. Plenty of teas are more valuable than gold by weight. Now I really have an appreciation for some of the components that lead to that price. For starters, good tea requires good ingredients, which requires specific farming conditions and practices. Furthermore, making tea requires skill. What separates the margin of “good” from “great” tea lies largely in the finesse of the tea making process – this is where the true skill of a tea master is required.
I asked my friends at the TRES as well as other folks in the tea industry what they worry about most for the future of Taiwanese teas. Several people have expressed concern about the loss of skill in making tea. A tea maker does not have easy work – when it is the season to make tea, they must work long hours, possibly not sleeping at night for several days. While they can make a decent salary by Taiwanese standards, it is not an appealing profession for many Taiwanese. Not only does the profession promise arduous labor, it lacks respect in society. As the younger generation strives to move upwards with their hearts set on white-collar jobs, recent years have had few young people entering the tea making industry because it is considered manual labor. I’m not sure the extent to which lack of interest in career tea makers will impact the industry. But I can see how lack of skill is a valid concern, given that the Taiwanese tea industry drives profit from quality over quantity. My research project, (should it ever get results) will be starting to address whether the natural environment can sustain the tea industry in Taiwan. Yet, I realize now this is not the only condition required for the longevity of this industry. Availability of skilled human resources presents another important factor to consider in the outlook of Taiwanese tea.