3 Masters and 5 Generations on Wenshan
Taiwan was hot yesterday. Very hot, until about 2 pm, when the clouds rolled over and the sky opened up with a crack. This looks like a typhoon, I said, never having seen this quantity of rain come from the sky at this pace. No, just summer rain, said my host. We arrived in Pingling, a small village community on Wenshan mountain, famous for Taiwan's signature tea: Baochong. We visited three tea farmers at their shops, learning from each. The first tea farmer we visited talked to us about this year's growing season: It was colder this winter, he explained, and then it warmed, the tea grew faster. We had heard this had a seriously negative effect on white teas from China, but apparently, it was beneficial for baochong. We also talked about altitude. Many teas on Wenshan are grown between 300-800 meters. Higher than 800, and you begin to lose the fragrance, he said. Later when we were driving up the mountain to visit another tea farm, we saw proof of this. High peaks were lush with trees, palms, and vegetation of all kinds except for tea. This year, the top grade of tea offered to us had gentle notes of aromatic orange flower blossom, but an astringent finish that overpowered it.
The next farmer we visited was the man we bought our baochong from last year. He was quite happy to see us, and we were glad to have the chance to meet up with him again. Last year, we chose two baochong teas from him, a premium grade and a competition grade. This year, he explained, he harvested from new plants. He planted them last spring. He picked in the winter to prime the plant for a better spring harvest, and this spring was the fruit of his labor. This year was tricky, he explained, because the window of time he had to pick was shorter. According to the Taiwanese Farmers Almanac, there is usually a window of about 7-10 days in which a farmer begins to pay close attention to the sunrise, the time of morning at which the fog lifts, and the intensity of the heat for that day. I was told by one farmer that if he has to cover his feet at night, it will be to cold to consider picking the next day, if it is warm enough to leave his feet uncovered, the plants will be ready for picking starting the next day. Within this window is the right time to harvest. Each farmer chooses a specific day according to the weather, intuition, and expertise. This year, he told us he picked one day earlier than last year. This year's baochong premium was just as good as last year. Strong, bright, notes of lilly and cucumber with a perfect calcium finish. But we were looking for competition grade. His competition grade was not so good. Astringent and too bright, top notes of grass and hay, and an astringency that left my mouth dry made it hard to break the news to him, that this year we would not be able to say yes to his tea.
The next farmer we visited had been featured in magazines and on TV and frankly, all that commercial attention had kept me from visiting him before. We stopped in anyways, just to see what all the fuss was about. We found a warm and welcoming person who was a 5th generation farmer. He remembers when he was little that his father asked him to take 29 days off from elementary school to help with the harvest, and felt even at his young age that farming was a waste of time, and would keep him from getting a better job later in life. Later, he was educated in Taipei, and went into the army for 2 years. When he returned he worked at a computer component factory for a little while until his father fell ill. He returned to Pingling to care for his father, resuming the farming life once again. As the only son, his father asked him to take over the farming business, and he agreed. As an educated man he dedicated himself to perfecting the craft of tea farming and tea processing and as a result,he has won 5 of the last 9 competitions in Pingling. We asked him about how he tends his soil, how he cares for his tea gardens, and he offered us a book with dozens of chapters, each written by farmers telling their own stories of coming into the tea business, and how the believe they can best care for their land.
We also had a chance to taste tea with him. We asked for top grade teas, and in true tradition we were offered tourist grade tea instead. Tea for those unfamiliar with the nuances and beauty baochong has to offer. Interestingly, it had a lovely aroma and nice top notes of citrus,but an astringency to the finish . We asked for a higher grade, and were offered a better tea. a lilly aroma and and juicy notes of a lemon drop candy (not sour) , a better thickness to the tea and yet still that dry finish. One more, we asked, one higher grade. He explained the price, that this was not a tea he had a large quantity of, and if we were interested in it, it could not be a "commercial" tea, but a connoisseurs tea. With a perfect thickness to it and the best top notes of any tea of it's grade we had tasted, the barest hint of astringency and a depth that lingered even when the tea cooled, this was the tea we had been looking for. This was the best of the 12 teas we had tried from three different and highly skilled tea producers in this region and we were proud to purchase it. This tea he explained is also one of this year's competition winners. It took third place at the Pingling Tea Competition. On our way out, he expressed his feelings about how people come to try his teas all the time. You, he said, you came to taste my tea and you took it seriously. Thank you. He dedicated his life to his tea farm and to his family's business and he was glad to have guests who taste the difference in his tea, and recognise his life's work.