From Taiwan, With Love – Part 2
After plucking dewy tea leaves with one of our Taiwanese tea providers, Hilda got a crash course in how the best teas are made.
It’s late in the morning, and the sun is nearly directly overhead as Katie winds her van through the back roads of rural, central Taiwan. We’re on our way from her family’s organic tea farm to their production facility in the nearby town, the trunk loaded with several sacks of tea that are filling the vehicle with their subtle yet intoxicating fragrance. The tea is fresh off the bushes (read about our morning harvest in Part 1 here) and time is of the essence: With every minute the dewy, sun-soaked leaves spend in the sacks, they begin to oxidize, throwing off the time-sensitive production schedule.
We’ve arrived. In spring – peak harvest season – Katie hires a driver to transport the tea from farm to factory, but otherwise, this is essentially a family operation. Everything is done personally, and in house. At this moment, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work. Taking up fistfuls of the silky leaves, we quickly and methodically spread the morning harvest across shallow baskets. These are then stacked onto racks where the leaves will wilt overnight, the air in the room kept fresh with the gentle stirring of electric fans.
Exactly how long the wilting will take is hard to say. In every step of tea production, there are no hard-and-fast rules or formulas. Depending on the season, the day’s weather, and numerous other factors, the timing of tea production varies greatly. Katie relies not just upon learned expertise but also on the kind of instinct that can only be honed with a great deal of practice – in her case, decades’ worth. Much of the time, touching the leaves and feeling their moisture or texture is the only way to tell if a batch of tea is proceeding properly, she says.
Once the leaves are resting safely in their racks, we have another important consideration: lunch. It’s been a full morning of hard work, and the platters of homemade pork and chive dumplings Katie’s sister has prepared disappear quickly.
The tea leaves will be left undisturbed until evening, when Katie will go give them a stir to ensure they wilt evenly. In the morning, she’ll toss them gently in a drum to bring on the next part of the production process: oxidation. This is the step that ultimately transforms raw plant material into tea, breaking down chlorophyll and releasing tannins. Once ideal oxidation has been achieved (from 5-70% for oolongs, or 100% for black teas, for example) the process is halted with careful application of heat, the leaves are shaped into curly tendrils or tight little pearls, and the tea is dried in an oven. The exact details in this complex recipe are a closely guarded secret.
For now, though, the afternoon lies before us, and it’s time to while away a few hours in the nicest possible way: tea time. Katie brews up one of her tea creations after another for me to sample, and soon the table is crowded with gaiwans. From light Sweet Dew to smooth, amber-colored Gabacha to rich, heavily oxidized Wild Purple Bud, each tea has its own character – it’s impossible to pick just one favorite.