Eco-Cha Tea Club: Dong Ding Tie Guan Yin Oolong
Our monthly missions to find exceptional singular batches of tea to share with the Eco-Cha Tea Club have led us full circle back to where we were exactly 2 years ago — in the workshop of our favorite elder artisan Mr. Su. On the day we stopped by and snapped the photo above, we found him tasting his batches of tea one last time before entering them into the world's largest Oolong Tea competition, where he has won Champion Prize. But we were visiting him with another type of tea in mind — the tea we sourced from him and shared with the Eco-Cha Tea Club in January 2016, which we named Dong Ding Tie Guan Yin Oolong.
The pure glee shown in the expression on Eco-Cha's sourcing director Andy's face above was undeniable when he procured that first batch two years ago. And it was a repeat of that elation when Andy discovered that Mr. Su had crafted a batch of tea from his recent winter harvest of his small plot of Tie Guan Yin tea trees that was quite similar to the first one we tasted two winters ago. This is the first time in two years that we have sourced Mr. Su's crop of Tie Guan Yin tea leaves, because it wasn't until this recent harvest that we found a batch that matched that first one. Below we see Andy with Mr. Su just last month, when he picked up the batch of tea we are sharing with our tea club members this January 2018.
Mr. Su was the first farmer we know of to plant a crop of Tie Guan Yin Tea trees in Lugu Township — the home of Dong Ding Oolong Tea. Historically, Tie Guan Yin (Iron Goddess of Mercy) is a traditional type of tea that has been produced for generations in a very small tea growing area just outside of Taipei, called Muzha. This traditional tea is perhaps the strongest character of all Taiwanese Oolongs. It is heavily oxidized, and undergoes an extensive drying and roasting process that gives it a very distinctive flavor profile.
Some large-scale plots of the Tie Guan Yin Tea strain have been planted in the last decade or so at high elevation in the Lishan tea producing region. But these crops are processed as High Mountain Tea, i.e. minimally oxidized and unroasted, and therefore have been given the name Lu Guan Yin (Green Goddess of Mercy) to distinguish it as a contemporary tea type made by modern tea processing methods.
After attempting to meet the demands of his long-term customers to process his Tie Guan Yin in the way they wished, Mr. Su has once again taken the liberty of processing this recent winter's harvest in the way that he sees fit, and we absolutely concur with his take —gleaned from some 60 years of experience in making traditional Dong Ding Oolong tea. In short, he processed this tea in basically the same way he made tea more than 30 years ago. Using pre-modern tea making experience to process a crop of Tie Guan Yin tea leaves offers us a tea that simply is not to be found on the market.
We only came to fully realize the level of esteem that Mr. Su's expertise in traditional tea making is recognized by the local industry when he was asked by the Lugu Farmers' Association to be one of five elder masters to supervise a traditional tea making seminar in the fall 2016 harvest that followed our initial winter batch we sourced for the Eco-Cha Tea Club two years ago. Above is a snapshot we took while observing the event. It was the first time a workshop like this was held, and we see it as a truly momentous occasion. Our mentor Tony Lin conceived of this workshop as a way to educate the younger generation of tea judges in the competition that he has developed over the last 30 years. Tony wanted the judges in his competition to gain a hands-on experience of what is entailed in the making of traditional Dong Ding Oolong Tea. He called upon Mr. Su and other elder artisans to transmit this knowledge.
This is the heart of Eco-Cha's mission — to share what we perceive to be a unique, local traditional culture — while simultaneously encouraging these artisans to keep their local tradition alive and thriving. Mr. Su's appreciation for our acknowledgement of his skill, and excitement over sourcing a batch of tea that he himself is proud of, is what propels us. We are honored by our role in supporting this tradition and sharing it with tea lovers around the world.
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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.