On a summer afternoon, I stepped into Lee’s Tea Estate to interview its owner, Mr. Lee, an experienced tea artisan in Lugu, Taiwan. When the interview was finished, it was dark outside. Only then did I realize how long we had been talking.
It is really amazing that two people who met each other for the first time felt like old friends for many years.
There is an old Chinese saying which best describes this, “A thousand cups of wine would not suffice when two confidants meet.”
Mr. Lee clearly knows in his mind what qualities a premium tea should have. He is one of the few tea artisans nowadays who still use a traditional approach to make oolong tea. Most people would not understand why he insisted so strongly that he stay up all night just to make a batch of tea right.
To find the best location for tea growing, he searched all round Taiwan and finally found a place in Chi-Lai Mountain, which is above 2,000 meters altitude and 4 to 5 hours drive away from his home. Our interview follows:
Our family has a local tea farm in Lugu. Therefore, I learned about tea making as a child. However, to be more specific about taking it as a career of a lifetime, it goes back to a decision made by my father in the 1970’s. I was still a high school student, studying at an agricultural school away from home, when my father decided to name the family tea factory in my name, “Ming Zheng Tea Factory.” Although my father did not say much to me, I understood that he wanted me to come back and take over the family business. So I learned tea making from my father after graduation, and eventually took over the tea factory. It is important that I mention is that I am the youngest child in my family. Before me, there are two brothers and four sisters at home. Little did I expect my father would actually pass his lifetime business into my hands. My father did not discuss with anyone in advance, including my mother or my brothers and sisters. Even I was notified later. Maybe it’s due to my Father’s instinct, and his observation that made him think I was capable of this job. So he decided before asking my willingness!
What I make is mainly based on the method of traditional Dong-Ting Oolong tea, which requires sufficient fermentation of tea to produce strong flavor in the mouth. This approach is inherited directly from my father and is the formal method used by tea masters in Lugu in his generation. However, there are fewer and fewer people willing and able to make tea in the traditional approach (highly oxidized teas). One of the reasons is the market’s preference for delicate fragrances of tea which is achieved by decreasing the oxidation level. For example, Taiwanese high mountain tea, Dai Yu Ling, is notable for its delicate fragrance and sky-rocket price, but it is very popular in the market. So tea makers pursued this trend by making almost every tea using a lightly oxidized approach, which inevitably sacrificed many characteristics and flavors compared to its original version. We call this “the danger of green,¨ because the lower the oxidation level of the tea, the greener color it will have. Lugu, also had this “danger of green” a few years earlier. This trend is not only in Taiwan. In China in recent years, Tie-Guan-Yin is being called Green-Guan-Yin to reflect its greener color.
The second reason is that the traditional method takes more time and effort to be completed as it is more complicated in process, and requires a higher skill level. Generally speaking, tea makers could finish one day’s work at midnight if he uses the light oxidized method.
3. What makes you insist in the traditional approach?
It has been 30 years and I’ve always adhered to the traditional method. One reason is to preserve the old skills inherited from our ancestors. The other reason is that I think the traditional way makes the best tea. It is true that high mountain tea has excellent aroma in nature, but the most popular high mountain tea in the market is processed by the light oxidized approach, which relies much more on the quality of tea leaves, not the skills of the tea maker. If it could have a higher oxidized level from an experienced tea master’s hand, it will take the aroma of high mountain tea to the next step, and the tea will be more balanced and even better. I apply this approach in my tea garden in Chi-Lai Mountain with altitude of 2,000 meters. What I do is use high quality high mountain tea leaves as a foundation, processed by the traditional method, and then we have rounded tea body and strong flavor, which helps bring out the fragrance and the after-taste lasts longer.
My main tea garden is located in Chi-Lai mountain, just opposite to the Cingqing farm. Its altitude is 2,000 meters. It takes 4~5 hours drive to get there from my house in Lugu. Why would I plant tea at such a distance? Many years ago, I took a chance to make tea in the region and almost instantly I liked the tea grown there. It is a mountain sloping field with gravel. The characteristic of the tea is very different from other regions.
If Shan-Lin-Xi tea is like a young, slim beauty, the tea from Chi-Lai mountain is more like a male warrior, muscular, and has more strong characteristics.
5. Describe a working day of a tea artisan.
Since it takes 4 to 5 hours drive to the tea garden, I attend to the tea garden three to four days in advance in the tea harvest season. Generally, I will hire 20~30 plucking workers nearby. The average harvest amount will be 800~1,200Kg. 1 kg gross tea can be made from 5 kg of tea leaves. The tea making is a continuing process. Plucking workers will start by 7:00 AM, and by 08:00 AM, the first batch of tea leaves are coming in. After that, it is a non-stop sequence till 05:00~06:00 AM the next day. I get only one or two hours to rest – or no rest at all. Those long days continue for one to two weeks during the harvest season. So the day of a tea maker, especially in tea season, is extremely exhausting.
Images provided by the author