From Taiwan, With Love – Part 1
Hilda traveled to Taiwan to meet with our tea farmers and discover how our best oolong teas are made. Join her on the journey.
It may be the middle of autumn, but here in the subtropical climate of central Taiwan, the humid mid-morning air is already thick and warm with the heat of the climbing sun. Cicadas chirp from the shady spots where they’ve taken refuge beneath the tea bushes, singing their song as industriously as the tea pickers hard at work across the hillside.
Today, like most days, Katie was up with the sunrise, picking up takeout breakfast in town before driving into the countryside. When we arrive at the plantation, the workers – all women – join us to take a break over cups of warm, fresh soy milk and flaky buns stuffed with minced beef or sweet adzuki bean paste. We’re soon met by Katie’s elderly father, who rides in on his scooter every day, rain or shine, to look after the property. That’s them below:
In contrast to Katie’s other tea farm up in the mountains, where high-elevation teas like P & T’s Mountain Orchid and Oriental Beauty oolong teas are grown, here we’re only about 600 m above sea level. The lower altitude means warmer, more humid temperatures, perfect growing conditions for teas like our Wild Purple Bud and Four Seasons of Spring. The tall, thin trunks of betel nut trees spike up amongst the tea bushes, and on the neighboring property, a farmer is raising bananas.
Katie grows her tea not in measured rows but scattered across the rolling hills. The informality of the farm reflects its all-organic philosophy, the plants given over to nature rather than a pesticide-controlled plan. It spells a lot more work, but it’s worth it, Katie believes, not only for the quality of the tea but the environment, too.
Tea plants treated with fertilizer grow at a steady, predictable rate and need to be picked only every few weeks, but her untreated, organic bushes need to be picked every 14 days in the autumn, or every 2-3 days in the spring – high season. It also means tougher working conditions for the tea pickers, because no pesticides means more insects. The expert pickers, who have been doing this work for decades, swaddle themselves from head to toe to keep out bugs, leaving only their faces exposed.
After our breakfast break, we join in the harvest in the hot sun, gently plucking two leaves and bud and adding them to our baskets. It’s from the pale-green, silky-to-the-touch new growth at the tips of the top branches that the world’s best teas are made. It’s tiring work, and we soon take another break to peel and eat the sour oranges that grow amongst the highest tea bushes.
We empty our baskets into large sacks which I help Katie load into the back of her van. We need to drive quickly to her family’s tea factory, about 30 minutes away through winding back roads, where the tea will be spread out to wither and dry. Time is of the essence: the freshly plucked tea leaves are still holding the warmth of the sun, and they begin to oxidize and darken with every minute they spend waiting in the sack.
Continue to Part II to read the story of how the finest teas in Taiwan are made.
Text and photos: Hilda Hoy