Taiwan produces some of the world’s best teas. Learning when, where and how to procure them only comes from many years of involvement in local tea industry and culture. Here we give you an inside look at what's entailed in bringing you some of the best of Taiwan's teas.
Based on over 20 years of immersion in Taiwan's tea industry, we've developed our own standards of determining sustainable tea sources. This essentially involves an assessment of environmental impact and quality produce.
On this trip, we sourced our early spring batch of Bi Luo Chun Green Tea in Sanxia, a historical tea producing district in northern Taiwan located southwest of Taipei. We've been sourcing tea from this factory for a few years now, and have discovered a model of sustainability that we had not seen before. It is the proportion of tea farms to factories in this area. The resource of processing facilities is maximized, and the investment in building them is minimized by utilizing only a couple of factories to process most of the tea grown in this region!
The Long Drive
Most of our tea sources are located within 50km of where we are based and some farms are just 15 minutes away. But the speciality Green Tea called Bi Luo Chun is exclusively produced in the Sanxia region, and is made from a particular cultivar called Qing Xin Gan Zai. So we have to make the trek to northern Taiwan for this particular type of tea.
We hit the road early for the two hour plus drive to Sanxia. It was Saturday of Peace Memorial holiday weekend in Taiwan. Traffic going north toward Taipei was ok, but coming back south was a nightmare through the afternoon.
As expected, it was smooth sailing all the way to Sanxia.
The Sanxia district has historical roots in tea production going back to the Qing Dynasty (1800's), and it experienced a modern renaissance in the late 1970's. The economic development in Taiwan created a demand for specialty tea that brought back an era that had diminished in the tumultuous changes that this island went through in previous decades. Now it is a flourishing industry that supplies specialty teas to the Taiwanese market as well as Europe and North America. We are happy to be a part of this cultural propagation!
Processing the Tea
The Sanxia tea producing district is somewhat of an anomaly in that most of the famers sell their raw produce to just a couple of local factories that process most of the tea grown in this area. This is how the tea industry was established during the Japanese era. Farmers were required by law to sell their raw produce to factories. The factories in turn were required to sell to registered brands (monopolies?). These laws were lifted when the KMT established the foundation of the current regime back in the 1950's and onward.
This historical form of tea production stands in contrast to all other tea growing regions in Taiwan that developed in recent decades. While a portion of tea farmers all over Taiwan opt to sell their raw produce, most tea farmers prefer to maximize their profit by making their own tea and selling it themselves. This requires a lot of investment, skill, and risk however — and some farmers just want to be farmers! It's a logical rationale and perhaps even a wise lifestyle choice.
When we arrived, they were still processing the previous day's harvest. The tea leaves wilt overnight on bamboo trays and then are fed by a conveyer belt into the tumble heater to cease oxidation and reduce moisture content to less than half. Then they are gently rolled in"half moon shaped" rolling machines.
Below is the finished product of freshly picked and cured early spring Bi Luo Chun Green Tea.
It was quite a refreshing moment to sit down and sip the tea as it slowly brewed stronger and stronger. The flavor was vibrant and substantial. The most minimal amount of oxidation caused by overnight wilting alone mellows the grassy notes into something softer and more balanced, with body. It's still very fresh green in character, but not at all harsh. It's actually soothing as well as amazingly revitalizing!
Weighing the Goods
We were lucky to get the remaining 20kg out of the total 80kg produced from the harvest the day before. The freshly cured leaves are packaged in huge plastic bags like these, then brought to packaging facilities to be bagged sealed.
Because of the long weekend, we knew traffic heading back south would be horrendous, so we decided to stop for lunch and enjoy the hot springs in Wulai, just south of Taipei. Wulai is an aboriginal village of the Atayal indigenous tribe in Taiwan.
The streets are lined with vendors selling all sorts of locally grown produce and prepared foods. Wulai is most famous for the naturally occurring hot springs that run alongside the river running through the town. Many bed-and-breakfast operations opened up here to offer guest a nice hot spring soak in the comforts of a private facility.
Despite the fact we were able to enjoy a nice long soak in hot spring water, it apparently wasn't long enough. We ran into a traffic jam leaving Taipei on the way back, but still made it back in less than 4 hours. Had we not delayed our return, we would have spent the whole afternoon on the road instead of Wulai Hot Springs!
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