Above we see a local tea picker turning in freshly picked leaves to be weighed and recorded for commission. These new-growth, tender leaves were harvested on a beautiful sunny day at about 1500 meters elevation in the Shan Lin Xi tea growing region in southern Nantou County, central Taiwan.
The sun was strong, but the air was cool, especially when a random crisp breeze swept upwards, across the easily navigable slope. The team of experienced local pickers worked efficiently, only harvesting the leaves that have sprouted within the last 60 days or so. The new leaves that sprouted in late August have grown slowly, with shorter stems due to the change of season. It is this slow and steady growing season that distinguishes winter tea. And this season's crop turned out beautifully.
It was clear that these folks were mostly older generation locals when I ventured to make small talk in the local dialect, but they refrained from responding — keeping their faces hidden as I snapped this photo. On the other hand, I might sit down and taste the finished product of this harvest with them in the days following and they'll be happy to chat freely. Such is the unique local culture in the midst of being discovered by the world at large.
Unable to be there for the final phase of processing the leaves that were harvested that morning, I went back on the final day of harvest to stay for the duration of the night shift. It began by determining that the leaves had reached the proper stage of wilting to be tumbled in the large, rotating horizontal bamboo basket for 20 minutes or more, then weighed and hand-shuffled onto bamboo trays.
The guys in the above photo are cousins who grew up in the same village and have worked together in tea production since childhood. The guy on the right is the current chairman of the tea judging team at the Lugu Farmers' Association. He is also arguably the most sought after tea maker in the region who has become known for crafting award winning batches of tea in the world's largest Oolong Tea competition.
The leaves above have just been tumbled and are subsequently shuffled and spread evenly by hand on this bamboo tray where they will undergo their final stage of oxidation before being tumble heated in the dryers seen below. The leaves are doubled up, two trays of leaves are put onto one tray for the perfect amount to be "stir fried" at one time in the dryers seen below.
At about 11 pm, the tumbling in the bamboo cylinder stage was complete and all the workers went home except the boss. I kept waiting for the night shift crew to arrive, but the boss casually mentioned that, since the last day's harvest was so small, he would do all the remaining work by himself.
This meant that he not only had to operate the tumble driers in one of the most crucial stages of the tea making process, but he would also wrap the stir-fried leaves in cloth, put them in the "steam box", then the rolling machine, then the drying machine, only to be wrapped in cloth again! I immediately appointed myself to manning the dryer and the final wrapping of the leaves in preparation for their rolling and drying the next day.
As we both swept and tidied up the factory while the last of the leaves ran through the conveyer belt dryer, I reheated the pot of soup that we all shared after the tumbling stage at around 11pm. It was now nearing 4 a.m., and I had a good half hour ride home down the mountain. I wanted something warm in my belly before the ride!
Finally, the last of the leaves were out of the dryer and the last cloth wrapped bundle was added to by pile. Tea makers often work 20 hour days, albeit with rests along the way. It's a painstaking process, to put it mildly. But they take pride in their work, and there is a positive camaraderie in the factories throughout these long shifts. I, after all, am inspired to stick around and lend a hand for free, year after year, just to learn a bit more each time!
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We recently visited Mr. Liu when we hosted a visitor from Italy who was keen on experiencing the local tea culture. Our guest was truly elated to be served tea by a true artisan of the trade. Mr. Liu served us three different teas that were all locally harvested this past spring. They varied only in their degree oxidation and roasting. And the one that was sufficiently oxidized, but only lightly roasted, immediately impressed us.