Posts Tagged ‘oolong’

Reflecting on Taiwan – Drinking Intention

In retrospect, I never gave my Taiwan travels a proper closing blog entry. After all, I was literally chased out of the tea village I had come to know so well by a great force of nature: the Typhoon! I actually had to scurry up to the mountainside tea factory, pack all my belongings in about 15 minutes, and flee back down into the valley – 5 days before my date of departure. This was all due to the heavy typhoon passing over Taiwan, of course, and had I not evacuated then, I very well may have been stranded due to road damage and landslides. It was difficult as it was what with vehicle sized boulders blocking sections of road and a 100-foot section of road was already washed away by the time I returned to the village. Luckily, an alternate gravel road had been opened up that connected back to the main road. Also luckily for me, I was welcomed with open arms at the Tea Sage Hut for the duration of my stay in Taiwan until returning to Canada.


In case you don’t already know, essentially I went to Taiwan as a student of the Leaf to learn about where my tea comes from, how it’s grown and processed, and who’s making it…and I wanted to gain that knowledge through first hand experience and community involvement. I offered my support in a tea factory and farm in a small tea village in returns for food, accommodation, and the experience to learn about the industry that is Taiwanese Oolong Tea.


This short documentary gives you an idea about what I was doing. In all my excitement in the first week (which is when the video was shot) I fumbled with words, but you get the idea. In particular I like my goofy comment on the smell of tea (which really is the greatest aroma I can think of), and my corny motto at the very end. Even though this video was shot only a few months ago, my outlook on tea has changed drastically. Much thanks to Wendy Wang who directed and edited the film, along with her crew.



This experience, as exhilarating and thrilling as it was, was actually quite challenging and draining. It wasn’t so much the long work hours, the extreme language barrier, or the complicated processing techniques that made things difficult; it was experiencing, first hand, farming practices that were in direct conflict with my love of tea as a natural product, a spiritual medium, and a connection with Nature. I was defining tea for myself by learning about what it didn’t mean to me. I was searching in the dark for the true light of tea. I really struggled at times, and wanted to make people aware of what I was learning about, but at the same time, I didn’t want to tarnish the image of tea, the image of any individuals, or the image of a country for that matter. As you can tell, I’m still being quite ambiguous about it all. I found there was no one to blame, not the farmers, not the salesmen, not the entity that is the chemical industry – it all came to no avail.  In fact, it is the farmers who are the first victim.


I now ask myself, is it more important to let people know that the tea they’re drinking probably isn’t raised in the spiritual  or natural manner to which they drink it (thus raising awareness), or to let them go on drinking it with such genuine spiritual intention, reaping the benefits inherent in their belief about the beverage they’re consuming. Either way, I feel damned if I do or damned if I don’t.


In some respects, I think people deserve to know what goes on behind the scenes of a large tea industry, behind the labels that vendors use to sell a product. And, I believe this can be done in a balanced and constructive manner. In another respect, I think certain information should be withheld because it’s the “knowing” about it that can exacerbate the “problem.” I’m not to say that ignorance is bliss, or that, what they don’t know won’t hurt them.  I’m kind of saying that, but from a very different angle, one that places great significance on the intention behind an action. In this respect, we’re no longer talking about drinking tea, but drinking intention.


The worst tea served with the best of intention is better than the best tea served with the worst of intention.

I once asked my teacher, what is the most respectful way to use conventionally grown tea. I didn’t want to throw it out, but I wasn’t sure if I should serve it to others? He told me that tea served from the heart and received in the same manner will transform the tea. This is drinking your own intention. If you receive this tea with your heart and fully intend for it to be a joyful, nourishing, meditative occasion, then your physical experience will follow accordingly, and that alone will generate a therapeutic energy of well-being. I believe the benefit in approaching (any) tea in this manner is of more importance than raising awareness about what’s going on behind the scenes. This is a form of empowerment. Approaching a conventionally grown tea with this intentional manner is of more use than not drinking it because you became aware of the conventional practices employed in raising it. Of course, there is a fine balance between some level of awareness and cultivating a mindful intention with respect to consuming tea.


I’m not to say you should just forget all about farming practices and their role in society and carelessly sip away with fairytale intentions. Nor am I saying you have to spend 3 months in the mountains of Taiwan getting to know the factory laborers or field workers on a personal level, or to witness the livelihoods behind the thousands of hands involved in the process of bringing tea from the soil to your cup. That’s not practical or necessary – or sufficient. While it might not be practical to source a farmer who’s tea is raised in a spiritually-like manner to which you drink it, it is practical to suggest that you source and buy Organic and environmentally friendly tea, which is the next best option – and a good one at that (like the Global Tea Hut’s Tea of the Month, for example). Then you can be confident that the tea you are drinking is not only inherently healthy for you, but healthy for the environment, and the manner in which you drink it is more closely aligned with the manner in which it was raised. Your intention in this case will even further the therapeutic benefits of a tea drinking occasion.


So in reflecting on my time in Taiwan I learned that tea can be perceived in many different ways; as a commodity, a beverage, a ceremony, a science, a cuisine, a livelihood, a spiritual medium, a garden, a monoculture, an art, a culture, an evergreen, a medicine, etc, and all of them have their place within certain boundaries. My perception is constantly shifting and changing to accommodate a blend of those ideas about tea. For now, tea is for me, prominently: a social art, a connection with Nature, an opportunity of transformation, and a Way. This is what I really learned about tea in Taiwan.


An old Tea Sage with Great Intention



Workings of a Tea Industry

In addition to my last post, I would also like to share some observations about large, established tea industries.

While it is fashionable in the West to think any type of tea (green, oolong, black/red, puerh) can be processed from the one and only species: Camellia Sinensis, this is only true to a limited degree. Particular tea varieties and cultivars have become very suited to certain growing regions and processing techniques over great amounts of time and adaptation, which in a major tea industry, largely dictates what tea will be processed and where. It is true that you could make a green tea from a cultivar suited to making oolong, or that two completely different varieties can be processed exactly the same, but this isn’t taking into account the countless and volatile factors associated with terrior (soil, climate, elevation, sun exposure, cloud cover, rainfall, latitude/longitude, etc.) and farming practices (organic, biodynamic, conventional, intentional, etc) which will greatly determine the quality and taste, and in a well-established tea industry with lots of history, you’ll be hard pressed to find the support needed to maintain such unconventional business practices such as making BaoZhong Tea in Meishan Township, for example. While it could technically be done, most people here would say that doesn’t even make sense?

In a large tea industry, you can’t just set your own price based one what you think the market will endure. There’s a lot of people growing tea here, that would be too crazy. Instead, they enter their tea into major competitions for at least one main reason: to determine a legitimate price within a standardized system. When you enter a tea competition, the price at which your tea can be sold is in accordance with the rank it receives. Your tea is sealed and certified by a third party based on the results of the competition so that consumers can be confident the price matches the quality. This quality, however, is an assessment of a standard, which doesn’t take into account the emotional experience often associated with tea. It’s a scientific approach to tea versus a natural enjoyment of tea. It’s someone telling you this tea is good so you can enjoy it, instead of cultivating the skill to create an environment conducive to the enjoyment of any tea.

In the picture above, you’ll notice the boxed-up tea, which after being ranked in a competition was packaged, sealed, certified, and ready to be sold to the public at a market where everyone is doing the same thing.

So a large tea industry, while very restricted in one sense, is very refined in another. Everyone plays by the same rules, which means fair-play, but possibly at the expense of creativity. Not to say people here aren’t creative. Taiwan is known for its beautiful tea ceremony where visual presentation, skill in preparing tea, and experience outweigh any rank in a competition.  My arguments here are definitely askew because I’m learning about tea within the industry, and not as a student of preparing tea in ceremony, for example.

Let’s look at Hawaii as a counter example, where a large ingrained tea industry doesn’t exist, but rather, a cottage tea market in its nascent infancy. Farmers can generally set their own price within certain realistic boundaries, not based on rank in a competition, but based on what they think of as quality, the time of harvest, cost of living, volume of tea, experimentation, etc. There is no well-defined market to tell the farmers how much their tea should cost or what tea “can” be made, so they are in the process of setting the market price and establishing tea’s of a regional terrior (I call this terrior status), essentially telling consumers how much they should be paying and where to go to buy it. And let’s face it; consumers don’t know how much tea “should” cost yet, which is fine. I’m sure most tea industries started out like this. I’m sure there are so many other factors that I’ve overlooked; I don’t mean to insult any of the hard working Hawaiian tea farmers out there! I’m no business student, so please correct me if the information I present here is drastically off.

And again, these are only my limited observations after spending over two months in Taiwan now, and collectively spending six months on tea farms in Hawaii. There are exceptions to everything I’m saying and everything is changing.

I only have a couple more weeks left in Taiwan before returning to Canada. I’m off to visit a teacher of tea, art, and meditation this coming week, and will thoroughly enjoy my final week in the tea-mountains of Taiwan. I have a couple more blog entries I’d like to address; one on being a tea-driver, and another on all the wacky adventures a language-barrier sets you up for!


Meishan Tea

Quick update here from the tea-mountains of Taiwan. It’s going on two months that I’ve been living here in a tea factory, tending to the leaf, running my hands through volumes of Camellia, both before and during harvests, all through processing, packaging, tea competitions, promoting tea – the works. Nothing has compared to the intensity of the Spring Harvest in my first two weeks, but work has maintained at a steady pace nonetheless. While I have come here to learn all that I can about tea through hands-on experience and volunteerism, I have basically just been involved in the day-to-day workings of a tea-family, at times helping with chores that might at first seem unrelated to tea, and yet, as a family whose livelihood revolves around this brew, everything is interconnected with the leaf in one way or another.

After helping with a short video promoting tea in the Meishan Township area the other morning (different from the documentary made when I first arrived), the producer told me that every township has to make a film promoting their tea. Each township and each community relies on the promotion of tea in order to bring in the revenue necessary to keep their local economy and status stable. This reveals a very strong tie between people of a particular area and the tea in that area. Tea affects everybody, to the extent that people’s livelihoods are completely reliant on it as a commercial product, which indirectly means everyone is reliant on the farming practices conducted here. So as one grows up in a certain township, they drink the tea from their area. Period! This is very different from North America, where we want to drink tea from around the world and where our local economy isn’t reliant on our consumption of any one tea. In areas of Taiwan, you drink, promote, process, grow, and in one way or another, support the local tea culture because your community depends on it. In that sense, you enjoy the tea on a very different level, not necessarily because it’s the tea most suiting to your palate, but because it’s the tea most suiting to the stability of your village, for example. It’s not as if you are forced to enjoy it, but you make sure to enjoy it because it’s a part of your local culture’s identity. And in that sense, you do enjoy it, just very differently from enjoying a tea based on taste and experience alone. When you ask someone here what their favourite tea is, it’s the local tea in their area, not Maccha from Japan, not White tea from Hawaii, not Masala Chai from India, not BaoZhong from Wenshan – it’s Oolong tea from the Meishan Township because that’s where you live. Of course, there are always exceptions: some people don’t even drink tea! Haha, which is fine; I’m just speaking from my own observations in one small village in just one area of one mountain range in all of Taiwan.

*btw, if you watch the tea video linked above, the connection between “My Sunday” and “Meishan Tea” is that when pronounced in Taiwanese, “Meishan Tea” sounds very similar to “My Sunday.” It’s actually pretty catchy.


Tea Livelihood

Well, my tea escapade continues! I’m going on three weeks here at the tea factory, but I’ll backtrack to the first two weeks for a brief summary of what life has been like in a tea village where I can’t speak the language, and where I stand out so much that locals actually take pictures of me.


Here at the factory, there is a pervasive sense of community. The tea makers’ mother and grandmother live and offer their support here in the factory and out in the fields. There are four generations living in this factory. Both tea makers (Mr. and Mrs. Wang (pronounced more like Woughng, not Wahng, not Wong)) work directly with the laborers in the factory and field. They do everything the workers do, not to mention they feed them and care for them in other personal ways. It’s all quite seamless and natural, on a large scale, but not so large that Mr. and Mrs. Wang don’t take part in every small detail of labor, production, quality control, and distribution. Not to mention they have two young children to care for! I don’t know how they do it all – oh wait, yes I do – they work countless hours every day and night for weeks on end during the harvest. This is the life of a tea maker.


It would seem, not only is my name difficult to pronounce in Japan, but so too here in Taiwan. “Shane” has become a marriage between “Chen,” “Shin,” and a french dog. At least no one is calling me Sean for once. The offspring of that marriage has matured into a sharply pronounced, rising toned, “Sheen.” And if I don’t respond to that, “hello” is often used as a substitute (because that always gets a foreigners attention, right?)

Tea Charades

While I do speak the universal language of Tea, my Taiwanese is limited to searching for words in my pocket phrasebook, which is actually in Mandarin. This has lead to a lot of funny scenarios as one might imagine. I had predicted a lot of handwaving and laughter – and it has been so. About five main words are used to communicate with me, my “name,” “one,” “yes,” “no,” and “hello.” That combined with hand gestures has been all I’ve really needed to get by. It might seem a little arrogant of someone to go to a country – for three months – where they don’t speak the language, but I go with the best of intentions and no one seems to mind, plus I’m studying the language while I’m here of course.


Little did I know (because no one could tell me) that a documentary was scheduled for my 3rd day here – and apparently I was to be the highlight of the film. I felt pretty lucky, but the film director told me that she was the lucky one to have such an interesting story to cover. Thinking back, documentaries and books were the only mediums through which I knew anything about tea and tea production, until I began tea farming in Hawaii and taking a tour to Taiwan in 2011. I’m not sure when the documentary will be finished, but I’ll be sure to post it here when it is.


I put a question mark after “pictures” because usually when foreigners travel to a foreign land, they’re the ones taking pictures. In my case, however, it’s the locals taking pictures of the foreign white guy working in a tea factory on the mountainside of Taiwan. It’s quite humorous; some people just can’t believe it. Actually, I could hardly believe it in the beginning either; the experience was just so over the top it hadn’t really sunk in during the first two weeks.


One theme that became prominent in my first two weeks was that tea is livelihood for so many people, particularly in a tea village. When you grow up here, you’re sure to be involved in the tea industry in one way or another, which is why so many people find it strange that I would come here to experience that livelihood. I too would think it strange of someone to travel halfway across the world to volunteer in an apple orchard or a wine vineyard in the Okanagan.

We have this fantasy image of farming, harvesting, and making tea, but it’s not nearly as glamorous as it’s made out to be, unless you choose to adopt the perception of glamour even in its rouged-ness. It’s not all green rolling gardens, spring harvests, and fantasy mountains in far off Asia, although those images are real. I myself am guilty of selling and perpetuating that incomplete and ideal tea image because until now, I had not experienced what tea life was really like – and I still have much more to learn. While I’m sure everyone involved in the tea making process is happy on some scale that this infusion can offer a spiritual and relaxing experience to so many around the world, I think more prominently they’re just like you and I, trying to make ends meet and pay the bills through means of work. (that’s a lie; I don’t pay any bills).

Anyway, don’t get me wrong; harvest time can be very sacred and making tea is an ancient tradition and a beautiful art with a rich and cultural history, but it’s also a commercial product at the end of the day, grown unnaturally in massive monocultures to meet the market demand and fast pace of our current times. I’ll elaborate more on that in a future post.

In my next entry, though, I’ll be elaborating on what it takes, physically and mentally, to make Taiwan Oolong Tea during a major harvest.  It’s an amazing process and there are many facets involved that we don’t often hear about in the West.


Taiwan Tea Life

Tea Life

It’s 4am right now, and we just finished withering and tumbling the last of the raw tea material for the day. It’s oxidizing and waiting for the next step – but I’m going to bed. My bedroom lies next to the baking room and adjacent the withering, tumbling, and oxidizing room. One can only imagine the layers of aroma. Yes, I live in a tea factory – it’s difficult yet rewarding work, and it’s a good life, but not for everyone. For me, if money were of no concern, and I had all the time in the world, this is what I would want to be doing right now.

Anyway, I’m at roughly 3300ft elevation in the small tea village, Taiwan. Here I have dedicated myself to the laborious task of working in a tea factory and out in the fields – and let me tell you, it’s backbreaking, nail grinding, and finger callusing work. I’ve been here for one week now, spending day and night – literally – helping with the various steps of Oolong tea processing. I’ve seen thousands of pounds of raw leaf move through this factory, from the field to the vacuum-sealed bag, and every step in between.

It’s been a real blessing that I be accepted to volunteer here. In just one week, I have volumes of insights and stories to share (and some to withhold). It would seem we are sold an ideal image of tea in the west, but from my intimate experience in this one small tea village, I would like to portray a much more realistic and raw picture, one that is less fantastical as we see it in books and documentaries, but one that nonetheless portrays why Tea is a Beautiful and Spiritual Art.

I’ll be posting new updates slowly for a number of reasons; it will be worth it to address certain facets of tea life in great detail. For now: know that when you are waking up (PST), we are here in the mountains of Taiwan, making tea.


Amatuer Tea Processing: A Day In The Life

Huh, well wordpress has implemented a new gallery interface, that apparently doesn’t show the descriptive text associated with each picture… Here is a link to my facebook profile with the same album and all of the descriptions for each picture.



Taiwan Oolong Study Tour – Day 6!

All right, this was the second to last day of the tour. Since I haven’t directly mentioned it already, or if my blog hasn’t already persuaded you, or if you’re highly interested in Taiwan tea, tea farming, and tea processing – attend this tour! The experience offered by Thomas Shu, Josephine Pan, and volunteer staff far out ways the cost, in fact after attending the tour myself, I would pay double. As mega-ambassadors of Taiwan and Taiwan Tea, Thomas and Josephine have the connections and the heart to take you places and reveal information to you that would otherwise be strictly off-limits as a tourist or even as a resident in some cases!

So off we went, over to the Oriental Beauty Tea District. This higher oxidized oolong tea is particularly well-known for its naturally occurring symbiotic relationship between the tea evergreen and a small green leafhopper. In the summer, this tiny hopper chews on the buds and upper tea leaves causing a chemical change in the structure of the leaf. Notice the pictures above with the various amounts of discolouration. As a result of this change, the processed leaf imparts sweetness like honey and plum-like flavour with a matching aroma. Oriental Beauty is a tea of many dry-leaf colours and equally as many names, such as White Tip Oolong, Five-colour Oolong, Eastern Beauty, and of course the associated mandarin translations of these. The cultivar, Chin Sin Dah Pan, is well suited to tailor this oolong, growing in Miao-Li and Hsin-Chu areas in northwest Taiwan.

We had a chance to tour around an Oriental Beauty Museum in Beipu and here are some images capturing the exciting experience.

Is he real?

This antique cupping counter was made in 1956!

We also had the chance to learn about traditional pomelo tea baking!

And, of course, it wouldn’t be a trip an Oriental Beauty Museum without a cupping of five different grades of Pon Fon Cha.

As well, everyone tried their hand at making Lei Cha, a ground up medley of nuts, seeds, and grains traditionally drank by the Hakka people of Taiwan. Some ingredients included peanuts, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, dry oolong leaf, puffed rice, and green tea powder (different from Japanese Maccha). These ingredients are ground together using a mortar and pestle. The trick lies in the use of the pestle (and I think the course interior of this particular mortar). The grinding requires two hands on the pestle, one on top acting as a static pivot point, and the other holding the pestle from the side rotating it. After about 15 minutes of continuous grinding, the ingredients take on a paste-like texture. At this point, the green tea powder can be safely blended in, to which hot water is finally added, along with puffed rice. This hearty broth is actually quite enjoyable and filling.

After our Lei Cha, Pomelo, and Oriental Beauty experience, we made our to the Sha Keng tea storage facility. This was a real eye-opener for me. Coming from a small-scale tea farm where about 15lbs of tea is produced annually to this facility was juxtaposing to say the least. One of the members from G.S Haly and Company (a sort of tea broker) couldn’t really comprehend tea in pounds because he’s used to thinking in crates – which can hold 15 thousand pounds (correct me if I’m wrong here Mo!). I think he was a little more comfortable around all of this tea, saying, “Now this is what I’m talking about.” Haha, my eyes just kept saying, that can’t all be tea, can it? And apparently, this storage building used to be Twice as big, not to mention the half that still remains was only occupying about half of it’s potential!! That means, at one point, Sha Keng held more than 4 times what you see in these pictures, and these pictures can’t reveal it all either!

The family and staff from Sha Keng treated us to one of the most delicious homemade lunches of the entire tour along with pomelo and citrus tea.

And if you thought we were done now, we still had TWO more tea museums to visit! First was the King Tai (Chin Thai) Tea Company. Located in the Guansi in the Hsinchu County, the Lo Family (a very common name in that area!) has preserved this museum so that we may witness the history of Taiwan Tea in this once-bustling tea township. Full of old and large machinery, the hustle bustle rhythm still clunked on when Mr. Lo started up some of the weathered hydraulic units and proceeded to run the machines. There were production lines with mega panning units, rollers, dryers, shaker-screens, and other large-scale tea processing equipment. These were the old day of tea in Taiwan, or Formosa Oolong.

If that wasn’t enough, we then went to the Formosa Black Tea Museum managed by Mr. CS Lou, an energetic old tea professional carrying on the tradition of his fathers company. This museum hosts an outstanding display of historical photos and beautiful antiques. This place acts as both a museum and a tea production company, located under one roof. Really an amazing place to step into; knowing that major deals and cuppings took place in that very vicinity many years ago, and that tea is still being produced to this day.

While the name might suggest an array of classic black teas, they actually produce Japanese-like green teas – who would’ve guessed? Mr. Lou focuses on a steamed green tea similar to Japanese Sencha and a ground up powdered green tea similar to Japanese Maccha. Interesting.


After enjoying some of the green tea, the antiques, and the amazing history we held an open discussion on promoting the image of Taiwan Tea. Followed by a traditional Hakka dinner, and just a few more tastings of tea – we called it a day!


Taiwan Oolong Study Tour – Day 3 – the journey of tea leaf

Wow, it’s going to be tough to even start this entry. Why? because somehow I have to summarize this: the day we made tea – which took until 2am – in Rui-Li, a small tea town on the famous AliShan range.

Our day began with clarity in sky. At 11oo m above sea level, the mountain range view breaks free from the ubiquitous haze that surrounds the lower valleys. Before any serious tea processing of our own, we first witnessed some nearby tea pluckers and introduced ourselves to the little angels in the tea garden: the green leaf hopper.




In this small mountain tea village, we need not travel far to see row upon row of tea evergreen. It’s similar in experience to looking out over the ocean with no land in site, but where the horizon once met the waters’ edge, it now blurs with the undulating flow of flushing tea leaves.

– If you’ve never seen smiling tea plants before, now you have –


It was time to do something most of us had never done before: process tea – all day. We walked back to the Dong Ding Tea Garden factory where two bamboo trays of freshly harvested tea leaves awaited each of us. We were about to begin making our own High Mountain lightly oxidized Oolong tea from the Chin Sin cultivar.


Meet Mr. and Mrs. Wang, the award-winning resident tea makers at Dong Ding Tea Garden. They’re young, open-minded, and hard-working enough to run this full-time factory while caring for their two children on a mountain range that requires 36+ complete switchbacks to drive up! Mr. Wang, at age 18, started to take over the factory for his father and now has 20 years experience as a farmer and tea processor. It’s interesting to note that most farmers don’t process their own tea, but rather pick it and sell it to a tea manufacturer for future processing. From the farm to your cup; making tea is more of a compartmentalized system of specialists; farmers, pickers, manufacturers, bakers, blenders, brokers, wholesalers, retailers, and finally, the consumer. This is the difference between a large-scale commodity like Taiwanese tea and the cottage industry of Hawaii-grown tea where farmers do everything themselves on a very small, manageable scale.


Blessed by light sunny weather, we gathered our tea trays and set them out to wither, but not before Mr. and Mrs. Wang showed us their electronically controlled shade and rain protection. Based on the heat of the sun and the feel of the leaves (gauged by the tea master and on-site Scientist), we shuffled our trays of tea leaves back and forth from sun to slight shade.


Withering (and singing)

This process is known as (outdoor) withering. The leaves gradually lose moisture and start to wilt because of the heat. The leaves initially lose moisture through the pluck of the stem and also pores on the back and edges of the leaf. The leaves become more pliable, lose their luster, and take on a noticeable change in aroma. Even more subtle are changes that only the tea master is experientially aware of.

To coax the leaves as they wither in stillness, our fearless leader and Taiwan Tea Ambassador extraordinaire, Mr. Thomas Shu, sang a beautiful Taiwanese tea song. Thomas Shu writes songs for each Taiwanese tea. Not only does he have a great voice, but he sings with all the warmth of his heart. I’m not sure I’ve met anyone as passionate about Taiwan and Tea as this gentlemen among gentlemen – possibly only his wife, Josephine Pan can rival him in devotion to Taiwan and Tea! As well, Thomas carries on the traditional name of “Tom” as the derivative of many famous names in the world of tea.

Once the leaves have reached a certain stage (maybe after an hour of outdoor withering, weather-depending), we “rock” the tea leaves. Back and forth, top to bottom, then we spread them out again. The tea master makes it look much easier than it actually is…

I believe such a step hardly bruises the leaves and more importantly shuffles them for uniform withering. After two sessions of “rocking the green” we took our leaves indoors and out of the direct sunlight.

This is an example of an outdoor withered leaf. It has become more pliable and the glossiness has faded, a sign that a new stage of processing is approaching.

I might mention here that the times for each withering and each step in between can vary greatly, so while in general it would be somewhat helpful to label the time intervals, I have left those details out because each step is ultimately subject to change by the variable factors that exist. Remember: Tea is about breaking down preconceived notions.  It’s really up to the tea master in that moment to choose what to do and when to do it. When Mr. Wang says rock the green – we rock the green.

And when Mr. Wang says, “hey, lets go visit my awesome smiling tea garden while the tea withers indoors,” we do that too!



I’ve always seen images of tea gardens like these (well…maybe not quite like this), but I didn’t actually think they existed like this. It was truly a joyful moment.


Indoor withering and tumbling

But, back to reality! we had tea that needed tending to. This was the process of indoor withering that I call tumbling. Actually, I missed something: first we did ANOTHER cupping and then Dr. Steve proceeded to show us how to properly tumble our leaves by hand. It’s a very meditative process involving circular graceful motions – like massaging each leaf. In a more scientific description, tumbling apparently ruptures the cells on the back face of the tea leaf, closing off one more of the three points of moisture loss. The first was the plucked stem, which oxidizes soon after plucking and naturally prevents moisture loss.

Nothing smells better than freshly harvested and partially processed tea leaves, except maybe the final product. I liken the smell to crisp apples, un-ripe bananas, and high sharp sweet notes. The aroma changes throughout, deepening here, softening there.


After three sessions of tumbling, each with increased amounts per session, we were ready to stop the withering process and CUP MORE TEA.

Now, if you’re still keeping track, and I don’t blame you if you’re not, but there is only one more point of moisture loss – the edges of the tea leaf. In order to stop withering, we amalgamated our tea into a slowly rotating bamboo chamber for some twenty minutes or so. This is an important step that distinguishes the difference between withering, not withering, and oxidation – with respect to tea. Chemically speaking, this tea is already oxidizing. Withering has to do with resting and moisture loss. Naturally, to stop withering, one would set the leaves in motion and stop moisture loss. This is where the bamboo chamber comes into play. It slowly rotates and tumbles the leaves continuously. This lightly bruises the edges of the leaves, causing them to brown, which prevents moisture from escaping. Thus we are putting a stop to withering!


I know this picture is not focused but notice the precise browning around the edges. It’s a very controlled and gentle process. The leaves are still fully intact and not torn at all.

oh yea, I forgot a session of cupping and dinner somewhere along the timeline…



Most people were pretty tired and restless by this time, but tea never sleeps! Onto Oxidation. Once the leaves were emptied from the bamboo chamber, they were weighed and stacked densely on bamboo trays to promote the build up heat which greatly speeds up the oxidation process. If you imagine cutting into an apple, this is the affect of oxidation, synonymous with enzymatic browning. There are enzymes and organic compounds found in tea that in the presence of oxygen, react to generate this browning effect.  This also required some hand tumbling (and more cupping…) before moving on to the next stage. The tea master decides when the tea leaves have oxidized enough to yield the desired outcome, in this case, a low oxidized, high mountain Oolong tea (Jade Oolong).


De-Enzyming, Panning, Rolling & Drying

Similar in concept to putting a stop to withering, so too we must put a stop to oxidation. In fact, this is possibly the most crucial of steps! The two main factors in defining a tea are the processing methods and the level of oxidation. You’ve either got a non-oxidized tea (green), partially oxidized tea (oolong), or fully oxidized tea (black). White and Yellow teas are a little more tricky to define, but still fall under the green or oolong category. Puer is also another animal all together, as it can be fully oxidized or not oxidized at all, and both go through a post-oxidation step called fermentation.

Since the enzyme catalyzes oxidation in the tea leaf, one must rid of the enzymes to stop oxidation. This is done fairly easily by simply heating up the leaves beyond a certain degree, effectively killing the enzymes. There are various ways to do that, as there all with all of the steps I am describing, but in this case, the farmers at Dong Ding use a panning machine. This machine heats the leaves to a very high temperature for a short period of time (~5 minutes). The leaves are removed and quickly taken to a high-pressured rolling machine that spreads and coats the exterior of the leaf with its own juices. Again, this is carried out for a relatively short time before being thrown into another panning-like machine but without any heat to aerate and separate the leaves. Finally, the leaves are taken to a drying machine that slowly heats the leaves on a series of conveyor belts. The first drying takes a couple of hours whereas the second drying is much slower to really drop the moisture content below a certain percentage.


Now, while one might think the tea is finished after the second drying, this particular tea still has to go through 36 hydrolic-pressured rolling steps. It was nearly 2am by this time and we didn’t actually conduct these steps in the processing. It was carried out for us the following day:)

The tea is packed into a large cheese-cloth like bag, twisted, rolled, and separated, twisted and rolled, twisted and rolled. The frequency of such high pressured steps is what gives the tea its final balled-like shape so common to Oolong tea. It slowly transforms from the twisted style as seen out of the dryer, to the tightly packed condensed style you see below.

You may have guessed it, and yes, you were right, we had ONE FINAL CUPPING of the night. It was nearly 2am about now.

This time around, however, we were cupping our partially finished product versus the farmers partially finished product. You couldn’t see it in most of my pictures, but while we were processing our own personal batches of tea, the farmer and his workers were also processing LARGE volumes themselves. The main difference in our teas was the hand tumbling step, which simply couldn’t be replicated on such a large scale for the workers. Ostensibly, the hand-crafted effect yielded a superior tea, but it’s all subjective I suppose! It’s funny; this post took almost as long as the tea processing itself and I still haven’t sampled the finished product!!


I’ll mention once again that all of the detail in this post is ultimately subject to change and could never be exactly replicated. I only went in depth this much for my own personal fancy (and to help recollect the whole ordeal that seems like a blur from the past now)


And if you thought the events from this post were outrageous, just wait for tomorrow (day 4)…seriously.






Taiwan Oolong Study Tour 2011 – Day 2 (part 2)

Black Tea Production

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After sampling Ruby 18 at the TRES branch (in my previous post) we had the chance to hand-roll our own black tea using leaves from the Ruby 18 cultivar! Assisted by the beautiful Angela, we hand-rolled for about 45 minutes. Occasionally we broke up the rolled ball to cool the leaves down as heat can build up which speeds up the oxidation process and we don’t want that to happen too rapidly. Usually, the leaves are rolled for 1.5 hours but we had a tight schedule, of course. The rolled leaves rested for further oxidation in a controlled environment before drying and other pre-packaging steps.

The final product was a Brandy Oolong, named for its colour and to distinguish it from a black tea (or red tea). Brandy Oolong’s differ from Black tea in that they aren’t quite fully oxidized, but rather, 85% – 90% oxidized. This is quite a classy and new category of Taiwanese Oolongs. As each of our hand-rolled tea leaves remained separate from everyone else’s, we all received our own personal canisters of the Brandy Oolong that we made; they arrived a few days later – what a treat!

In Taiwan, the organic farming movement isn’t nearly as big as it is in the West. Conventional farming stills dominates agriculture where pesticides, fertilizers, and other harmful farming practices are implemented for various reasons. Some tea gardens have been left to the weeds or wiped out to re-plant the betel nut palm trees (above left). Due to their shallow root system and fast rate of growth the betel nut palm, in large numbers, poses the problem of erosion, not to mention chewing on their nuts is an unhealthy habit. Some farmers, like the gentleman (above right), have taken ruined areas of land (bottom left) and turned them into flourishing tea gardens (bottom right). Not only is he promoting the organic movement, but he’s clearing out old abdondoned betel nut plantations in the process.

After all was said and done, we finally made our way up AliShan range. This required 36 complete switch-backs!! They are actually labelled as you round each narrow corner. The switch-backs only took us part of the way to our final destination, however. It took about three hours to clime a height of 1100 meters (3300 ft) where we took rest for the night in a quaint little tea town.

Some of us actually drank tea well into the night with the local farmer and manufacturer. He served us gong fu style. The following day, he would teach us how to make high mountain jade oolong – from start to finish. Check out the next post for all the details!


>> Taiwan Oolong Study Tour 2011 (Day 3) – the journey of tea leaf >>



Taiwan Oolong Study Tour 2011 – Day 2 (part 1)

In Taiwan, people are growing tea everywhere. You can see farms and plantations in all different stages. Before heading up to AliShan (Ali Mountain range) we stopped at a tea plantation in it’s early stages of development. On this farm, small plastic bags are filled with well-draining soil where tea-cuttings will take root. The farm workers fill thousands of them!




As the farmer at WenShan addressed, cuttings from a mother plant are used to maintain consistent propagation. The farmer here pointed out a key feature of cuttings: that being the tiny little shoot between the leaf and the stem (it’s difficult to see, but it’s there in the picture above). As well, when choosing a cutting from a mother plant, a bottom portion of the stem should be brown and matured, while a top portion should be green and young. Only one leaf is required along with the visible shoot for growing to occur. Cuttings are usually shade-grown so the cuttings establish a root system instead of flowering.

We stopped by at another farm in the area where part of the farmers plantation was organic. Here are some good indicators that a farmer isn’t using pesticides!

I like being on tea farms. The bugs, the fresh smelling soil, the elements of nature, the flush, the fluctuations, the uncertainties, the honest work, the reward; it’s all appealing to me. As you sow the seed, so it shall grow. I’m not sure where tea will take me yet, or how it will influence my livelihood, but vocation or not, I’m just happy to drink tea, run soil through my fingers, and contemplate how those two things are interconnected. Sometimes, just drink tea for the sake of drinking tea, not because it’s healthy, not because it warms you when your cold or cheers you when your down, but for one moment, just drink tea and let it speak for itself. There need not always be a reason to drink tea – it can be that good.

Off topic! Here we go…back on the road to a TRES (Taiwan Research and Extension Station) branch above Sun Moon Lake. This branch has the only driveway I’ve ever seen  lined with tea evergreens – and a lake view! We explored the center, cupped a large number of different teas produced at the branch. This is actually amazing, why? because at centers like TRES, they are creating new cultivars that offer new flavors, aromas, colours, and environmental adaptability – amazing, I say! For example, TRES No. 18, otherwise known as Ruby 18, is a cross between a large-leaf Assamica variety and a wild growing Taiwanese tea plant. It can take about 21 years of research and experimentation before the cultivar-to-be goes through registration and appellation. Ruby 18 took more than 50 and was named in 1999. It has an outstanding spicy flavor profile with strong notes of mint, cinnamon, and even pepto bismol?

I’m going to leave it here and start the second part of Day 2 with some slideshow action.

>> Taiwan Oolong Study Tour 2011 (Day 2, part 2) >>