Dana Ter, freelance writer and staff reporter for the Features section of the Taipei Times, recently approached Eco-Cha to be a subject of a piece she wrote on Taiwan's artisanal tea culture. We happily cooperated, and responded to her request to visit tea farms in the Taipei area by taking her to meet two tea farmers whom we've befriended in recent years. It turned out to be just what Dana was looking for — tea producers who represent the boutique artisan tea culture in Taiwan.
As a singular tea type, we just keep coming back to a well made Dong Ding Oolong for one of the most reliably satisfying character and flavor profiles. And this batch was selected and roasted by a friend who happens to be the most respected professional competition player and master roaster we know. Due to his continued success in virtually all of Taiwan's competitions within the roasted Oolong category, he has been invited to conduct seminars for tea makers from all over Taiwan. He is a leading professional in the art of roasting tea. And we are lucky enough to be offered his award winning batches to share with our Tea Club members.
Beyond the fact that the standard of quality in this competition represents our personal favorite — Traditional Dong Ding Oolong, we determined this batch especially worthy of sharing based on its source. The same batch of freshly made tea was divided into several smaller batches and roasted separately. The subtle differences in the outcome of each separately roasted entry batch were tasted by leading professionals and ranked at 4th place, top 2%, and top 8%. We see this as testimony to the decisive finesse involved in the roasting process. On a given day, each roasted batch from the same harvest will have a different outcome. And it is the skill of the master roaster to determine how to navigate each individual roasting process.
The leaves shown above were harvested in the Shanlinxi High Mountain Tea growing region last spring, and have undergone 8 separate roasting sessions. The first three preliminary roastings were done in a conventional oven in preparation for the traditional method of using charcoal made from the Longan fruitwood.
These leaves have undergone 8 separate roastings over a few months, for a total roasting time of about 50 hours. Our friend first prepared his tea leaves for charcoal roasting by roasting them 3 times in a conventional oven roaster at low temperature of 80 -100°C. This provides a "base" roasting level that the charcoal roasting can proceed from more efficiently. The leaves were then handed over to a specialized charcoal roaster who charges a standard fee, regardless of how many roastings are needed to achieve the desired results. In this case, it was 5 roasting sessions of incrementally increasing heat, starting from about 90° and finishing at 120°.
So we invite you to join us as we continue on our endless journey to seek out and discover singular seasonal batches of tea that are one-of-a-kind specialties, not available anywhere else. We will continue to tell the story of each batch of tea we select, sharing photos that offer windows into this rich world of Taiwanese teas and the culture in which is flourishes. We tell you all about the tea, where it comes from, how it's made, and share a sip-along-with-us tasting video with each unique batch. Come along for the adventure with the Eco-Cha Tea Club as we make another cycle around the sun, drawing us to remote mountainous regions around the beautiful island of Taiwan!
The tea leaves shown above are from a rare batch of winter tea that was affected by the Green Leafhopper. This is the insect that is responsible for the existence of the renowned Oriental Beauty Tea, and the more recent innovation of Concubine Oolong Tea. The presence of this insect indicates that pesticides were not administered during the growing season to deter it. And the effect it has on the bug-bitten leaves is a distinct honey like character prominently in the aroma, but also in the flavor.
Bug-bitten leaves are tricky to process, and have relatively unpredictable results, so the artisan must rely on experience and understanding of the unique condition of the leaves when harvested to achieve the desired result. Our friend decided that heavier oxidation of the leaves would produce a more balanced composition, which proved correct. He then decided not to risk losing the elusive "honey fragrance" by roasting the leaves to the degree of a more standard Concubine or Dong Ding Oolong. The final result is a batch of tea that is similar to a Hongshui Oolong, but with a distinct "honey fragrance" character that puts it in a flavor profile of its own.
In many cases, traditional styles of tea making involve much more "curing" of the tea leaves that has the dual purpose of bringing out a strong, distinct character, and stabilizes the tea leaves to maintain its flavor — giving it a prolonged shelf life as well as a discernible profile. In this sense, Tieguanyin Oolong is a prime example of a traditional product of regional origin. Initially brought from mainland China, this tradition took root in Northern Taiwan in the 1800's, and it has survived to this day.
This farm is the only place we've seen the baskets shown above still being used in Taiwan for harvesting tea by hand. They are now typically displayed as a memoir of generations past. This in itself is a symbol for the tradition that this farmer has made his vocation to preserve. At the young age of 20, he inherited his family farm in the historical tea producing area of Muzha in Taipei County, and has dedicated the last 30 years of his life to keeping the tradition alive by making the type of tea for which this place name has been renowned for well over 100 years - Tieguanyin Oolong.