The challenges of farming tea are similar to farm challenges everywhere, but how do those variables affect the brew in my cup?
Tea farming, like all agriculture – depends directly on the environmental and seasonal conditions of a given place and time. This is something that tends to go unacknowledged in our modern global supermarket age. We may hear about regional irregularities that make a certain commodity more or less dear in a given season, but we blithely go on about our business, relatively unaffected by seasonal shifts. On the other hand, tea connoisseurs, merchants, and most acutely, farmers – pay close attention to these conditions, along with their consequences.
Seasonal conditions, and even daily weather, can more or less make or break a crop – or at least a day’s harvest of tea. While most of the daily weather conditions can be overcome by modern indoor climate control during the processing of tea leaves, they still have a significant effect. Traditional tea factories do not use indoor climate control, but simply work with the daily conditions, relying on their experience as their resource.
Starting with the bigger factors and moving on to some of the more subtle influences, we’ll take a look at how these variables result in different characteristics in our daily brew of Oolong Tea from Taiwan.
Virtually all high elevation tea farms in Taiwan have no systemic irrigation. They rely on rain and fog for water. When there is no rain for any significant amount of time, new leaves do not grow. This was the case early in the growing season last winter. It was unseasonably cold and dry for the first half of the season. Then it rained, stopped, and became warm late in the season. This produced a very scarce crop that grew somewhat erratically, with long stems that grew when the plants finally had water and warmth later in the season.
For low elevation farms, this is much less of an issue since most have irrigation and relatively warmer temperatures. So, second to water, cold temperatures can stunt growth of new leaves. These two factors have the most obvious impact on a growing season – as they directly affect the amount of yield.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, too much rain during the growing season will produce a weaker, less substantial brew from these harvested leaves. If the rain is consistent for long enough, it will damage the root systems of the tea plants. When this happens – even if there is clear weather as harvest time approaches – the leaves will lack the essential ingredients to give character to the composition. When the weather is too hot, a more astringent brew is often the result – making the tea more fickle; difficult to brew a balanced composition of astringent, bitter, and sweet qualities.
Beyond the seasonal conditions, let’s consider factors that affect the leaves on the day of harvest. If leaves are picked when they are wet, it is more difficult for them to oxidize properly, which results in an unbalanced bitter brew. A farmer friend in the Shanlinxi region of central Taiwan recently mentioned that if the conditions are the least bit wet during harvest, he will process the leaves as a lightly oxidized High Mountain Oolong as opposed to a more heavily oxidized leaf that can be roasted in the style of a Dong Ding Oolong.
When tea leaves are picked on a sunny day, they are easily oxidized at the first stage of processing – solar withering. This results in a more fragrant, complex aroma in the brewed tea. If it is a cloudy day, the leaves will benefit from more shuffling and oxidation time during the indoor withering stage of processing Oolong Tea.
Becoming familiar with tea on this level brings a deeper connection to its source. Remaining aware of seasonal conditions and their effects on the tea that we enjoy daily connects us to the earth and the farmers that produce it. Knowing where your tea comes from and how the changes in weather that affect its quality and character is one aspect of a deeper involvement with tea culture. It grounds us in the reality that the farmers live with day to day and year to year. Each sip of tea that we take can bring us back to the land and the people who provide us with our daily pot of tea. The more we understand and acknowledge these factors, the more aware we are of how each brew is unique and contingent on a complex array of influences.
Images provided by the contributor. Notes regarding the main image: The photos of the tea plants being watered by hand are of a newly planted plot where the young plants require special attention during the fragile initial vegetation stage. He is using water siphoned from a nearby creek and collected in the big barrel in the photo to keep his plants alive during this critical phase. Early spring this year remained cold and dry, but is turning out to be fairly ideal growing conditions, after a slow start. These photos were taken on Chinese New Year’s Day, in the morning, before I joined this farmer friend of 20 years and his family for the holiday meal that afternoon. This spring will be the first (minimal) harvest from these plants that are now two years old.
You’re absolutely right that I go through my shopping experience without conscious regard to the challenges of weather and seasonal shifts that are increasingly occurring due to global warming. I also had no idea that “most of the daily weather conditions can be overcome by modern indoor climate control during the processing of tea leaves”.
Thanks for helping to bring me to a new level of awareness. I know I will appreciate each cup of tea on a deeper level from now on.
Yes Michelle, I think it’s part of an exploration into anything we find interesting – our appreciation deepens with the details we accrue in our understanding.
The point about modern indoor climate control brings us back to the modern vs. traditional artisan methods of tea making.
We strive to support those farmers who process small batches of daily harvest without mechanized indoor climate control for two main reasons: We respect their skill and dedication to maintaining their artisan tradition. And it is a more ecological and sustainable practice within the modern tea industry.
Great article, Andy!
I enjoyed your post on Kevin Liang at TRES a while back as well. Nice to see someone else sharing our wonderful world of Taiwan Tea!