A meaningful article was recently published on the World of Tea site about the challenges of verifying the authenticity of tea via the use of geographical indicators. The author made a valid point about how the methods of employing geographical indicators are not foolproof, particularly when tea is exported outside of its local industry and market. His article prompted us to research geographical indicators here in Taiwan, which we have observed the development of over the last decade or so, but have not been directly involved in the use of them. Here's what the indicators look like on packaged tea:
Eco-Cha believes that our commitment to transparently representing the local industry here in Taiwan is actually more effective and trustworthy than this standardized method of verification. However, we were impressed by the standard methods of verification that are employed here in Taiwan, which we will briefly explain here.
Geographic indicators are managed by local governments who register a product and place name with the national Intellectual Property Office and cooperate with the Tea Research and Extension Station (TRES), a subsidiary of the Dept. of Agriculture. When tea producers register their farm and produce for the use of geographic indicators, the local government inspects the farm to verify the quantity of tea that can be produced from a given farm, primarily determined by the size of the farm. This step alone is perhaps the most effective in the overall process, as it regulates the authenticity of a regional product by knowing how much tea a registered farm can produce seasonally.
A sample of tea from each seasonal harvest is tested for chemical trace residue of pesticides to ensure that it is responsibly produced and passes European/North American export standards. This also helps to prevent the use of imported tea from less regulated origin. A separate sample of each harvest is sent to the TRES to be inspected for quality and processing methods to ensure that it meets the standard for a given tea type. For example, a batch of tea receiving authorized geographic indication for Dong Ding Oolong must be Qing Xin Oolong tea leaves that are sufficiently oxidized and roasted, and of a quality and character that represents this regional product. If the samples of tea are approved, the government will apply stickers to the approved batch of tea after it has been packaged for sale.
Primarily these geographic indicators are used by farmers' associations in tea producing regions to market their local specialty tea. The farmers' association is a trusted source that the tea represents the local produce. Beyond this, many tea farmers who produce tea in large quantities and aspire to market their own brand have determined it worthwhile to invest in this government certification. In recent years, of the hundreds of vendors at the Nantou County Global Tea Expo, a significant percentage of the privately branded tea for sale had certified geographic indicators on their packaging.
In the final analysis, there is no way to prove that tea leaves packaged with certified geographic indicators are indeed from the farm that is registered. But it is highly unlikely that a private brand will take the risk and the trouble to use tea from another source. There simply is no good reason to do so. Having said that, as the article on the World of Tea site stated, Taiwan has not yet made use of the geographic indicators on the international market. It appears to be for domestic use, or at least for the Chinese literate population, which includes China and Japan — a considerable portion of the consumer demand for Taiwanese tea. Below are all of the geographic indicators currently in use in Taiwan, starting in the north and going south.
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The appearance of the brewed tea has gained substance, and become a deeper yellowish gold in comparison to the thinner, lighter unroasted brew. This coincides with the flavor profile in that the roasted version is heartier, with a more balanced character. The aroma coming off the leaves from the initial rinse is reminiscent of buttered carrots or yams. After the first brew, the aroma is more like grilled corn, cooling off into freshly baked scones. The second pour brought on stronger roasted vegetable notes, but again cooling off into a pastry aroma.
Red Oolong offers a smooth, balanced, mildly sweet, rich but not quite bold flavor profile, with elements of fruit compote, pumpkin pie, and a hint of dried flowers. This ultra-friendly character, combined with the fact that almost all Red Oolong is cultivated naturally on the southeast coast of Taiwan, facing the wide open Pacific, where the sky reminds a North American of the northern west coast, is no wonder why it is rapidly gaining popularity on the international market. Once again, Taiwan leads the way in Oolong Tea innovation!