When both the hand of nature and the human hand care for the tea evergreen, it is said that all of the bushes are smiling. When green leaf-hoppers are offered environments ample in organic nutrients, it is said they are the little angels in the tea garden – responsible for Oriental Beauty. And when Spring arrives, duly followed by flushing tea-buds, it is said that some farmers, hand in hand, sing together among their garden.
The Taiwan Oolong Study Tour (TOST) is an intensive week long tea sojourn. This was the 4th year for this TOST program. We visit Taiwan’s tea gardens, factories, museums, tea-houses, farms and farmers, scientists, and tea enthusiasts alike. It is sponsored by the Taiwan Tea Manufacturer’s Association (TTMA) and led by Tea Specialist, Thomas Shu of ABC Tea and organized by Taiwan Tea Ambassador, Josephine Pan. Along with the volunteer help of Tommy Tang and Sunny Tang from Tea Talk – this year’s tour was outstanding!
Each day is packed full without a moment to lose – and day 1 was no exception. Beginning at 8am, we departed for WenShan Tea Farm. We met a representative farmer who geared us up and showed us a number of cultivars growing on the farm grounds. We strapped on a tea-leaf collecting bamboo basket and hat. While we did pick some tea, we mainly dressed up just for fun, but tea pickers still wear this apparel, along with longs sleeves and other sun protection. Depending on where you are in Taiwan, you either lie just above or just below the tropic of cancer – meaning it’s hot!
To clarify what I mean by cultivar, let us begin by saying the tea evergreen falls under the species Camellia Sinensis with two main varieties: Sinensis and Assamica (China bush and India bush). So there is Camellia Sinensis var. Sinensis and Camellia Sinensis var. Assamica. From the cultivated varieties, there exist cultivars, of which there are hundreds (and counting). New cultivars are ongoing in creation due to cross pollination of varieties and cultivars and experimentation. This is why farmers use cuttings for propagation to retain the qualities and strengths of a particular cultivar, whereas propagation by seed can lead to inconsistent resultant cultivars. This has the advantage of potentially generating new and strong cultivars over great amounts of time, but also the disadvantage of generating weak and less desirable outcomes. When consistency matters, cutting is the way to go.
After picking some leaves in a small garden, we took part in our first cupping. I should mention now that cupping tea is quite different from tasting tea. Cupping is more standardized in terms of the quantity of water and weight of dried leaf, as well as the temperature of water and the steeping time. The same cupping perimeters are applied to all teas. 3g of tea, 5 oz (150ml) water, steeped for 5 minutes, decanted without a fine filter to observe any leaf deposit. Usually one will smell the steeped leaf and proceed to sample the liquor with a very petite cup, slurping to aerate the tea over the palate. Technically, one could also view the loose leaf, smell it, and even shake it in such a way as to reveal any crushed leaf – using that in the infusion to better gauge what the real product will look, taste, and smell like. This technique is used when buying tea; it brings out everything the tea has to offer, from astringency to aroma, bitterness to color, sweetness to body, and everything in between.
Cupping and discussion concluded our time at WenShan Tea Farm, but not before a group photo!
Surely not the end of the day, however; onward to Tsu-xin Organic Tea Garden for a power point presentation followed by lunch. The people at Tsu-xin help conventional farmers convert and make the transition to organic farming. The transition is time-consuming and costly, so farmers need support to make the effort because as it stands in Taiwan, going organic for the sake of health and sustainability isn’t enough of a motivating factor like it is in the West. Yield will almost always take a blow during the transition from conventional to organic because pests will accumulate in the absence of pesticides until equilibrium naturally takes place. Ruined soil has also shown to take about three years to reach a natural healthy state. That’s where the members at Tsu-xin come in, which is a great to see!!
A tea-infused meal was prepared for lunch. We had rice prepared in tea, tea powder for topping, and oolong tea jello, among an array of many more outstanding dishes! Some of the best food of the tour, and it was only the first day!
Our time wouldn’t be over without another cupping session and group photo.
Off to two more tea gardens where we dressed up again. I’ve forgotten, but I believe we were looking at examples of conventionally farmed gardens and transitional gardens (becoming organic). This one’s for you, Mo!
Then we finally made our way to one of many: Taiwan Research Extension Stations (TRES), a center where scientists and tea masters conduct study, research, and experiment with the intentions to improve tea plantations, develop new and better cultivars, and to educate consumers within the tea industry.
That was about it for day 1, minus the last cupping and group photo which I will leave out of this post. If I thought I knew anything about tea before, I learned quite a few more lessons on this day, and other things I “knew” were either confirmed or thrown out the window! Amazingly, the tour only got better from here – MUCH better.