Mr. Su's Legacy As A Traditional Oolong Tea Pioneer
We were introduced to Mr. Su by our friend who has been his customer for over 30 years. He brought us to Mr. Su's home in Lugu on New Year's Day, five years ago — and introduced him as "Representative Su". This title was due to Mr. Su's position on the advisory board of the Lugu Farmers' Association at the time. But in retrospect, after the last five years of visiting Mr. Su regularly and hearing his stories while tasting his teas, we see a lot more in the name. We have come to know him as the pioneering elder craftsman of traditional Taiwanese Oolong tea that he is — a leading representative of a tradition.
These photos were taken during the spring harvest a few month's after that initial New Year's visit five years ago.
We stayed up all night in the factory the night before, processing the prior day's harvest. Here are Mr. Su's son and grandson — whose duty we got to relieve upon his dad telling him to go to bed. Hands in fresh, semi-dried Oolong leaves all night was more pleasure than duty!
Mr. Su arrived at the factory just after sunrise, and just as we had completed processing yesterday's harvest. He managed the tea picking, and his son did the processing. After a morning nap, we went to see the harvest from the garden above brought back to the factory for another day of an almost 24 hour cycle of harvesting and processing the leaves. The grandson, whose English name is Andy, was 12 then, and he knew every step of the harvest process and had hands-on experience in most of it. He would go back down the mountain that afternoon in order to go to school the next day. His weekend help in the factory was how his father was passing on the tradition — the only way, direct experience.
Here's Andy Su emptying a hefty bag of freshly harvested leaves to be spread out to undergo solar withering, where the leaves begin their long slow dehydration in preparation for oxidation.
A couple months ago, we got a reality check when we visited the factory during this most recent winter harvest, and we saw Andy for the first time in a while. He just turned 17.
For the last few years, Andy has been attending a school where he is training to become a professional baseball player. As a lefty pitcher who has filled out and grown up a whole lot, he's doing quite well! It had been a couple years since we last hung out and made tea in the factory, and it was really nice to reconnect and catch up (when he wasn't texting his girlfriend!) So here we were, five years later, with a distinct measure of that time passed by Andy's transformation from a boy to a young man. The father and son team working fluidly, with comments and timing calls determining the work flow. It's all so real and simple in its embodiment of the work. And yet there is so much know-how and instinct being used — all learned from direct experience gotten from a young age.
Batch #2 of the Eco-Cha Tea Club is the latest expression of Mr. Su's pioneering work that began we he completed his army duty as a young man. That is when he returned home to use the skills that his father taught him and develop them into the production of a premium product. His dedication and his self-refined skills have led him to being a champion prize winner in the largest and most prestigious Oolong tea competition in the world. His adventurous spirit and deep understanding of tea production based on some 60 years of experience have made him a living legacy in his tradition, however humbly this is embodied.
In the time we've known him alone, he has planted and successfully cultivated two different strains of tea plants that were both the first plots of their type to be planted in this area. This plot of Tieguanyin large-leaf strain is his latest innovation, and in our perception, highly significant. In other words, we predict other farmers will follow in his footsteps once they taste this tea. We feel so privileged to know this man and to share in his world-class achievements as well as his humble lifestyle. The sentiment shows in Andy's grin as he snaps a spontaneous selfie of he and Mr. Su on their way around the back of the house to where the plot of Tieguanyin grows.
And here again as they pose for a shot taken by another grandson, Andy Su's older cousin, in Mr. Su's original factory where he still does all his roasting.
This is the source of Batch #2 of the Eco-Cha Tea Club. We feel simultaneously proud of and humbled by the opportunity to share this rich culture and premium quality tea with you.
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The medium oxidized leaves have undergone extensive, repeated roastings that have resulted in a very balanced, integrated character. The initial steepings offer a freshly cut wood aroma with a toasted nutty flavor. This proceeds to open up into a sweeter, more complex profile that is strikingly reminiscent of roasted winter vegetables, including parsnip, caramelized onion and butternut squash.
Mr. Zhang's father cultivated tea on their homesteaded land in Xiaobantian, on the southside of Lugu Township, where he grew up in the midst of traditional tea making. At 20 something, he decided to embody his local tradition by clearing land to cultivate his own plot of tea. For the last 20 years, he has managed his own humble, privately owned plot of tea. Throughout this period, he also acquired seasonal work in tea factories in Lugu, Shanlinxi, Alishan, Fanzaitian, and Lishan. In a word, he learned the ropes of tea making in a comprehensive way, like most tea farmers of his generation. Lugu hosts the highest concentration of tea makers in Taiwan, and is a hub of specialty tea making culture.