Last week, I paid a visit to 山外山有機生態茶園農場, (roughly translates as Mountain Outside Mountain Organic Ecosystem Tea Farm. I will refer to it as SWS for the remainder of this post). As my experience with tea farms and organic tea farms continues to grow, I am starting to appreciate the individual stories that each has to tell, yet how they also come together in a more generalized narrative of the industry’s trends. SWS is one of the largest and well-established organic tea farms in Taiwan.
SWS is a particularly beautiful place and the evolution of the farm to its current state is a good anecdote for discussing organic farming in Taiwan. Located in a remote part of the low mountains outside Taipei, members of SWS generally claim that they are on the highest point of elevation between Pingxi and Pinglin. While I couldn’t actually confirm this, I think it is a close enough approximation. SWS is on top of a ridge, high enough to be well-shrouded in the mists that hugged tight to the mountain tops the day that I visited.
Many farmers struggle with finding an appropriate location, or cannot convert to organic farming due to the location that they already have. In order to use organic practices, the land must be protected from influences of regular farms – pollution of non-organic fertilizer and pesticides will disrupt the aim of a more balanced “ecosystem” cultivation method. Pests that are ousted from the neighboring farms may all cluster in the non-pesticide organic region, stretching the ability of “natural” methods to curb their numbers (traps, encouraging predators). Direct pollution may also contaminate the organic crops, and if high enough levels are detected, they may not be able to pass “organic” certification standards. When it comes to Taiwan, and tea farming in Taiwan, the most common way that organic farms find a way to do this is often by positioning on a mountain top – thus avoiding run-off from farms upslope. In areas that are less steep, farmers may use distance and plant buffer zone trees.
SWS got its start more than six years ago (although I did not get an exact year from anyone, nor do they provide one on their website), and registered with the government in 2009 as having completed the transition period to become fully “organic”. Today’s successful organic farms often got their start at least 10 years ago. Successful organic agriculture takes time in order to get established, including the required “transition” period before they can obtain certification. Crossing through that initial transition threshold requires no small amount of determination. At the time that these first farms were getting started, the concept of “organic” was often laughable or unheard of. At 16 hectares, SWS is the second largest plot of land certified as organic and dedicated primarily to tea farming. The true heart of the organization in not a business venture, but love and devotion to a cause. Like many other aspects of the organic and environmental movements in Taiwan, SWS is actually deeply connected with Buddhism and the core members are Buddhist monks.
However, not everyone involved in the success of SWS is Buddhist monk, nor even a practicing Buddhist. The evolution of the farm to the relatively successful and productive organization it is now required years of trial and error. During those years, a community of volunteers interested in the cause provided manpower to set up and maintain the farm. Those who wished to escape the bustle, noise and pollution of Taipei and donate some time to SWS would carpool for the hour-long ride out to help pull weeds and till soil. As the first crops came in from harvest, SWS members sold door-to-door. After hearing the story of SWS, buyers generally pitched in to help support its cause, as opposed to being enticed by the quality or price of the produce.
Currently, a staff of about 10-12 people live on the farm. Their days are comprised mainly of the manual labor tending the farm (which is usually more intense for organic than non-organic techniques), and studying Buddhist teachings. Along with tea, SWS also had plots of a variety of other vegetables mainly for subsistence, but some crops produce enough for external sales as well.
Overall, organic production rates continue to be much lower than regular farms. Someone quoted some estimates for me a while ago and I remember it being a reduction by about half, if not more. While the increased market price of organic products is set to compensate for low yields, crossing the line into profit and long-term success is still tricky. Organic teas, from my experience and the opinions of others, are not as good in flavor qualities as other Taiwanese teas. A more expensive, lower quality product is simply bound to face difficulties in the competitive market of the tea industry. Furthermore, the unpredictability of harvest seems to be even higher for those employing more natural methods, as the ecosystem-based cultivation may be readily influenced by other environmental cycles. I spoke with one company that said they did not make any tea this past winter because the weather had not been suitable for the plants (I believe their farm is near Alishan).
Yet people that I spoke with connected to SWS seemed to accept the precariousness of their situation without great concern. Firstly, the primary purpose of the farm is not to make a large profit. Of course, while I have not seen the bank accounts of SWS to verify the sources and destinations of their money, having largely moral, (as opposed to for-profit) motivations would relieve certainly relieve pressure for financial success. Secondly, as I mentioned previously, support for SWS is spread out over a wide network. These supporters provide the promise of faithful future customers, and should things really take a down turn, likely donations of money and time. Thus, maintaining and expanding this support network is an integral part of the work that SWS.
Within the past few years, SWS has opened their farm up to the broader community, hosting visitors of all kinds. This is not a strategy unique to SWS; from what I can tell, many of the larger organic farms are open to visitors. This helps provide an alternate source of income (charging for services related to visitation) but probably more importantly expand their customer and support base. Again, the success of organic agriculture currently seems to lie mostly on support from consumers who believe in the cause. For SWS, summer is the busy season, which may have groups coming every weekend. Usually, SWS hosts classes for tea culture and Buddhism and pairs them with meals and tours of the farm.
The big question, of course, is the future of organic tea farming. I don’t have a good answer, nor even a good guess yet, but here are some of things that I am continuing to think, ask and write about: advancements in technology, spread of skill and technique, the growth of support for the organic movement, the potential for market beyond those “converted to the cause”. This post brushed on lots of topics that I hope to explore in more detail soon.
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.
When I wrote my application to come to Taiwan, I said that I was coming to study tea. My proposal was primarily to conduct scientific study of environmental impacts of tea farming. However, the logistics of conducting a meaningful study of anything related to environmental science appear to be quickly withering away my time in Taiwan – a mere 10 month period. A project to do fieldwork in a place that you’ve never been before simply requires lots of logistics. Questions of what is where and where to go, followed by unfamiliar regulations, such as where you are allowed to do things and when… Some of these can be navigated by simply having a local walk you through the basics, or arrange things for you. But that, too, presents more complications: building the social network to do the work there. Who are the right people to talk to and are there people whom you should avoid? Who works on similar things and might have insight? I’ve been gradually stepping through all of these things as I’ve been here and learning from the process.
I’m now going to look at sites to sample for doing a comparative study of nutrient cycling in organic and non-organic tea farms. Finding farms that are comparable is an important and difficult step. Many things will affect the soil qualities in a region (here’s where I could insert the introduction of my undergraduate thesis) so it is important to try to minimize these other factors so that I can focus on how the alternate farming practices may be responsible for differences. Once good sites have been found, I will take samples and analyze them, (there is still ongoing discussion about which samples exactly we will take because this will depend somewhat on the final locations that we choose).
But that wasn’t the only part of tea research that I intended to conduct while in Taiwan. I first became interested in tea because of how much I enjoyed drinking it. Yet, enjoying tea is not all about how delicious, complex, elegant and clarifying it can be to drink it (I ranted about this in more detail in an earlier entry…) It is also a large part about being able to share the appreciation with others – an appreciation that has hundreds of years of history. Tea is steeped in culture and tradition, literally and figuratively. The plants that are grown today are cultivars that have been meticulously cultivated for generations for specific tastes. The methods of making and brewing tea have also been carefully honed, practiced and passed on.
Understanding the modern presentation of tea in Taiwan was also one of my goals in coming here. So far, I haven’t adopted any particular methods for this. Instead, I’ve simply been keeping my eyes and ears open, asking questions, talking to as many people as possible, taking pictures and learning what I can.
To begin with, the forms of tea are varied. This is, itself a phenomenon worth mentioning. I’ve experienced tea in all sorts of forms:
street bubble tea
tea oil used to flavor cooking
careful “microbrews” of high-quality teas
fried tea leaves
tea bottled drinks of all kinds
tea donuts & cakes
Tea is clearly a part of a common person’s culinary existence in this part of the world. While it is possible that some people avoid it altogether, such people would likely have to be actively working to maintain this state.
Why bring this up? Obviously there is a lot of tea drinking – tea is supposedly the most-widely consumed liquid in the world excluding water (though I am somewhat skeptical as to how such a statistic is obtained). Yet, I have found myself wondering about a disappearance of tea from Taiwanese and Chinese culture. I should look for more resources to help me understand this, but I am confident that this is occurring.
Considering that Taiwan is generally even more Westernized than China, I was not sure how large of a hold tea would still have in the daily lives of people here. And sometimes when I observe my Taiwanese friends, it is apparent that tea really isn’t any more important to them than it is to many of my American friends who don’t drink any tea.
However, the multitudinous forms of tea keep it omnipresent. There hasn’t been a disappearance of tea here at all; instead there has been an expansion of the realms that it can occupy. It’s not exactly the same as it used to be, but despite whatever changing identities and economic pressures it may be facing, tea has not been edged out of Taiwanese society. The traditional forms also continue along quietly alongside the new interpretations that strive keep up with the interests of modern consumers. Tea is alive and well in Taiwan.
For years I have carried around a hot water thermos, usually filled with tea but sometimes water. Sometimes the water is hot, sometimes it is cold. It ranks just below my phone and my wallet for my essentials when leaving the house.
In reality, these habits are fairly strange for an American. Instead, they are characteristic of my experience of daily life in mainland China, when I lived in Beijing. Even though it was summer, almost everyone carried around a thermos for hot water, and more often than not, this thermos had some tea leaves thrown in the bottom of it. I don’t think anyone would claim that these were high-quality drinks, but carrying around some hot water / tea was just how one stayed hydrated whilst going through daily life. In general, the assumption in China is that water should be drunk hot (first, all water must be boiled to decontaminate it, and second because it’s generally thought to be better for the body to drink hot or warm liquids instead of cold), so when water was served in a restaurant or other places it would also be hot. I thought this was a little strange at first, considering how hot the weather was. But after I tried letting boiled water cool and unknown substances precipitated out of it, I decided that I might as well also drink my water hot so I didn’t have to think about what was dissolved in it. I guess I’m also pretty laid-back about the temperature of my water; by comparison some of my American friends refuse to drink hot/warm water. After living in China, I would say that I drink hot water more than I used to, but I’m not exclusive about it and like a cold glass pretty often as well.
It turns out that this culture of hot-water drinking is far less prevalent on the island of Taiwan. I don’t think I’ve been served hot water in a restaurant. I very rarely see other people carrying around hot water thermos (and of course no one really does this in the States). One of my Taiwanese friends even commented on my habit of carrying around a thermos as “more Chinese than most Taiwanese people”. Strangely, though, I still see that hot water dispensing machines are prevalent like drinking fountains (obviously in every convenience store), but I think I’ve only seen another person use one once.
I also drink tea. I like to drink loose-leaf, tasty tea. Especially when I am sitting in one place, but I also like to carry it around in my thermos. It seems that while everyone drinks tea here, it’s not beverage that people take time to think about and seek out, especially in the younger generation. Milk tea is probably the way that most young folks drink tea on a regular basis, and then maybe some generic barley tea offered along with a meal in a restaurant. Young folks are more likely into seeking out good coffee, if they have a beverage of choice.
Young Taiwanese women are not athletic. This is a broad generalization, of course, but one that I think most people will agree with. Idealized images of women are thin with perfect skin, gentle curves and slender limbs. They are never muscular. Sportiness, athleticism, physical strength – these things are not “in”. In reality, I think that many young Taiwanese women do like physical activities – but I think they are kept to moderate level, and would never be broadcasted as part of their general identity. Engaging in physical activities leads to all sorts of states that are generally unseemly (sweatiness, dirtiness) so there isn’t much desire to associate with them. This generally contrasts to the American concept of a “sporty” woman as a desirable role-model/identity. Toned women dripping sweat (in cute work-out gear, of course) are common icons. When I was in college, I think most of my female friends wanted in on that image (at least sometimes). And of course, oftentimes my friends were simply into sport for the love of the activity and not afraid to show it.
I really enjoy pushing the physical limits of my body and have fun doing such things even though they often involve sweat, dirt and unseemliness. Compared with the average Taiwanese girl, I am very athletic – overtly willing to climb on things and bruise my knees and try to run up mountains.
I am partially inspired to write this whole post because I just completed a marathon – ok, so past the 30 km mark, I walked as much as I ran, but I still finished it – and was struck by the lack of other young women in the event. Now that I have access to the stats, I can see in numbers what I had a feeling for yesterday. There were only 48 people registered in my division (women, age 20-29). By contrast, there were nearly twice as many women registered for the bracket of 30-39, same for 40-49, and the bracket of 50-59 year olds had almost as many as 20-29. There were also 500 men in the registered for the age bracket of 20-29 years old – more than an order of magnitude in difference over the number of women. But we might as well hop to the overwhelming difference in numbers: for the whole marathon , there were 4279 men and 295 women registered. Interestingly, this discrepancy doesn’t hold for all of the events. In the half marathon– there was still an extreme difference, and it holds for all categories (totals ~3000 F registered, ~13,000M). But for the 9km, particularly in the age bracket of 20-29 the numbers are almost the same: 2105 F, 2684 M!
And while looking at the registrants for one athletic event is far from scientific, I think that it provides at least some anecdotal support to my feeling that young women generally aren’t athletic. However, for many, it may not be that they are actually entirely uninterested in sports, but instead keep to such activities “in moderation”.
(Also, if you were curious – in last year’s New York City marathon, ~30,000 men finished and ~17,000 women finished. While that is still a big gap, it’s not a gap of an order of magnitude… )
Eating on the street
I already mentioned this, but it’s still true. I haven’t changed my ways – haven’t gotten more patient or civilized and I continue to munch of food as I walk, even though adults eating on the street is only common at nightmarkets. One of my Taiwanese friends brought this up as an indication of a state of unhealthy rush that a person might be in that they need to eat while walking. I agree somewhat, but what’s wrong with a little multitasking sometimes? I like eating, and I like walking and sometimes I’m really hungry. Also, they’re relatively compatible activities…at least for some foods.
Eating fruit whole, all the time
While we’re on the topic of eating (one of my favorite topics), I have a habit of munching through whole fruits that I have yet to observe another person do while I’ve lived here. It seems that fruit here is meant to be sliced or blended. And that’s fine by me, but sometimes I am hungry, or I am walking down the street (or both!) and thus stopping to slice up my fruit is too much effort. Also, I eat fruit all the time. Sliced fruit is usually served as a post-meal dish, or as a part of entertaining guests. But in addition to after meals, I like to eat fruit before meals, between meals, and as meals. Nomnomnom.
To be honest, it had been a long time since I had had really good tea.
The kind of tea that is so good that it makes you stop thinking about other things. Tea so good that, for fleeting, existential moments, there is nothing else in the world but the million, minute sensations relating to the tea. Grassy, sweet, bitter, bright, earthy flavors and smells coating your tongue making your mouth dance with the complexity. The feeling of the delicate cup in your hand. The heat that the freshest sips leave on your lips.
Drinking tea can be an amazing experience.
I realized this when I was studying abroad in China three years ago. Within one of our first weeks in Beijing, some of my friends who were also studying Chinese and I happened to stop at a tea shop nearby campus. I was excited by the idea of loose leaf green teas that were better than in the States, and I needed the caffeine for the early morning classes. I had been a tea-addict since early high school, and had upgraded to the general American version of “aficionado” with loose leaf teas a while back. I was delighted to explore the great world of Chinese tea, which seemed to promise a greater appreciation for delicately-processed green teas which I knew little about, but sounded exotic (jasmines and dragonwells and gunpowder…)
We ended up returning to that same humble tea shop several times throughout the summer, and passing many hours with the shop owner while she brewed us countless cups. Her patience and her smile were encouraging, despite our occasional failures to communicate. Between telling us about the tea that we were drinking, she gave us snippets of the culture of tea and told us classic stories, demonstrated traditions. Of course, she also asked us questions, and we did our best to keep a dialog (despite language skills of varying levels). Sometimes her son of about 5 would run through the shop while we would be sitting and chatting. Sometimes she just taught us how practical know-how of how long to brew this tea, how to pour it, how many times it can be brewed. The ever-present bustle of Beijing was only separated by a glass window pane, but the way we drank tea made it easy to feel serene and focus on the simple conversation.
My friends and I happily purchased a great deal of teas from her, not out of obligation but because they were delicious. Drinking them with the shop keeper had rendered them ever better. I had never derived such pleasure from tea, never known such complex flavors and satisfaction. I thought that the Chinese teas in China would be cheaper, but even though they weren’t, I realized now that the experience was worth it. I spent more money on tea and tea accessories than I did on any other souvenirs that summer (including a skateboard with light-up wheels) . I brought these things home, and quite a few times recreated for myself the joyous experience that it was to sit and drink tea this way: the tiny cups, fresh brews, delightfully bright flavors. At some point, a friend of my parents also gave me some very high quality tea from Taiwan, which I treasured and drank in small batches on quiet weekend mornings when I needed a treat. One of my friends who shared this experience with me went to Taiwan the following summer and brought back some excellent teas and a nice clay teapot as well, and my love for tea this way was sustained through these things.
But the teas got old, and I was busy with life as an undergraduate and it was seldom that I found someone to sit and drink with me in this style. (I also realize now, that I rarely asked anyone.) By the end of last year, my carefully-selected teas from China and Taiwan ran out, and the time spent in a small tea shop in Beijing was a distant memory. I have, of course, continued to drink teas of all kinds in the past several years. It had been a long time, however, since I had really sat and savored a tiny cup of tea the way I had in the past.
On Sunday, I had a chance to once again sit and drink tea slowly with someone who knows far more about tea than I can even guess about. David and Austin of Tearroir were gracious enough to take me and several others along to one of their favorite tea houses in Muzha, where we drank tea for several hours with Master Gao-Que (more on him in Austin’s post here).
I remember again why I love tea. It’s sometimes for the caffeine and the powerful kick of bergamot oil in Earl Gray in the morning. But I also love tea for the nearly unimaginable richness of culture and flavor that can be appreciated in a tiny cup of oolong brewed by a tea master.
Chinese tea culture is as mystical and ancient and complicated as you might imagine, but you can take some relief in that it’s also just as obscure for a modern Chinese person as it is for a modern foreigner. It is also pleasurable this way. There aren’t very many how-to books written (certainly not in English, maybe there are some in Chinese, but I don’t know) that one can use to self-educate about this mystical world. It seems to me that the best way to learn about tea is to share it with people who know more than you. And that is an excellent way to spend some time.
Perhaps I have waxed on a little bit more romantically about this than you care to read. In sum, I am happily re-inspired to chase the experience of drinking good tea, and I look forward to this exploration while I’m here in Taiwan.
All tea comes from a tree called Camellia sinensis (that is, all true “tea”; other herbal brews are more properly called “tisanes”)
There are two different species of this tree, and then many different cultivars that are used to produce the variety of teas sold throughout the world.
Tea is produced by plucking off the freshest leaves from the tree and processing them by varying methods of oxidation, drying, roasting and fermentation. These processes give rise to the major differences between types of tea. For example, black teas are thoroughly oxidized whereas green teas are less so or not at all.
Obviously, the processing methods have large impacts on the outcome of the teas, such as the clear differences in flavor and caffeine content. But did you know that the exact weather conditions of when the tea was picked from the trees does as well? The season? Clearly the location also plays a role: soils, altitude, aspect – these all influence the productivity of the plants, and thus the compounds and thicknesses of the leaves, which give rise to the flavor. Appreciating these nuances are what one can do one takes the time to carefully brew a tiny cup of tea and savor it.