The figure in the foreground of the photo above is the matriarch of this family of Traditional Dong Ding Oolong Tea makers. This pic was snapped a few years ago, and she is now in her late eighties, so she is not the tea picking queen she once was, but she is as talkative and friendly as ever! If only we were fluent in the local dialect! We could learn so much about the history of this community just from chatting freely with her. Of course we could ask her son the same questions in Chinese, but it just doesn't quite work the same way as when idling away an afternoon with a local elder.
This is the home our friend was born in, and grew up in the midst of Dong Ding Oolong Tea production through 1970's, 80's, and eventually inherited his family trade. His older brothers moved away to pursue their own careers, and he took on the family tradition.
These traditional 3-sided homes were designed for agriculture. The open space for drying and processing produce has as many uses as things that can be grown. This home courtyard has almost exclusively been used for tea processing for a full three generations. Prior to that, there were lots of things to reap and cure for livelihood in a remote, rural area.
Traditional Dong Ding Oolong Tea is a name given to a processing method that was developed in a few small neighboring communities around Dong Ding Mountain in Lugu, Nantou County, Taiwan. Dong Ding Oolong is perhaps the most renowned name among traditionally made Taiwanese specialty teas. It involves using relatively mature leaf material, and processing it delicately, but extensively for up to 20 hours before exposing it to high heat to cease oxidation of the leaves — in other words, fix them in their degree of turning brown, basically.
This offers a ripeness and complexity that is unique to traditional Dong Ding Oolong. And we find it to be the most consistently satisfying brew we've experienced. We are only qualified to speak professionally about Taiwanese Tea. But if we had to choose only one tea made in Taiwan, it would be traditional and/or roasted Dong Ding Oolong Tea. (OK, we kinda just stretched it into two types, but they're intimately related!).
In addition to the adjacent larger space in this home factory where the indoor withering, shuffling and and tumbling are done, the above photo shows the (Made In Taiwan) simple machinery that is used in the making of Traditional Oolong Tea of this region. There are the tumble heaters to the right, the concave (half moon) rolling machine in the middle, and the conveyer belt dryer on the left. Everything else is done manually — over a 36 hour procedure. In sum, traditional tea making is extremely labor intensive, as well as costly. Our friend who owns this factory just told us today that its generally feasible to make twice the profit growing vegetables with the land these locals inherit. TWICE! And this is why this tradition is threatened. We are here to do what we can to keep it alive.
We've known this local tea maker for over 20 years, but we only have developed a professional relationship in the last 10 years or so. Sometimes friendships develop slowly, but substantially. This guy has conveyed more about the local tea making scene than anyone else we've known in the history of our research — simply because he's continually involved in local tea production. He not only produces his family tea, he provides oolong processing services in his own factory for the community, manages large scale high mountain tea farms, has been a professional tea judge at the world's largest Oolong Tea Competition, and sells his tea internationally. He's got game, and we get to share the fruits of his inheritance and expertise!
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