One 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 already 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 being old friends for many years. There is an old Chinese saying which best describes “A thousand cups of wine would not suffice when two confidants meet.”
Mr. Lee knows clear in his mind of what a premium tea should be like. He is one of the few tea artisans who are able to use a traditional approach to make oolong tea nowadays.
Most people would not understand why he insists upon staying up all night just to make a proper batch of tea. To find the best location for growing tea, he searched all around Taiwan and finally found a place in Chi-Lai Mountain, which is above 2,000m altitude and a 4-5 hour drive from his home.
Lawrence Lai: How did you start your tea making business?
Mr. Lee: My family and I are local tea farmers in Lugu. Therefore, I learned about tea making when I was a child. As far as making tea a lifetime career, I should go back to a decision made by my father in 1970s. 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 after me– “Ming Zheng Tea Factory”. Although my father did not say much to me, I already understood that he wanted me to come back and take over the family business. So, I learned from my father about tea making after graduation and took over the tea factory.
I am the youngest child in the family. Before me, there were already two brothers and four sisters in the house. So, little did I expect that my father would actually pass his lifetime business to me. My father did not discuss with anyone in advance, including my mother, my brothers, and sisters. Even I was notified later. Maybe it’s due to the instinct of my father, and his observation that made him think I am capable of this job. So he decided before asking if I was willing!
Lawrence Lai: What are the features of your teas?
Mr. Lee: What I make is mainly based on the method of traditional Dong-Ting Oolong tea, which requires sufficient fermentation of tea and strong flavor in the mouth. This approach is directly inherited from my father, the formal method used by tea masters in Lugu in his generation.
However, there are fewer and fewer people willing or able to make tea in the traditional approach (highly oxidized teas).
One of the reason is the market’s preference to delicate fragrance of tea which is achieved by decreasing the oxidized level. For example, Taiwanese high mountain tea, Dai Yu Ling, is notable for its delicate fragrance and sky rocketed price, very popular in the market. So tea makers pursued this trend by making almost every kind of tea in a light oxidized approach, which inevitably sacrificed many characteristics and flavors compared to its original version. We call this “the danger of green” as the lower oxidation level the tea is, the greener color it will have. We, Lugu, also had this danger of green few years earlier. And this trend is not only in Taiwan. In China, Tie-Guan-Yin in China is being called as Green-Guan-Yin to reflect its greener color in recent years.
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 higher skill level. Generally speaking, tea makers could finish one day’s work at midnight if he uses a lightly oxidized method. But if uses a traditional method, we need to stay up all night and could only complete one day’s work at 5:00 ~ 06:00 a.m. These are the reasons why few people use a traditional method now.
Lawrence Lai: What makes you insist in a traditional approach?
Mr. Lee: 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 I think the traditional way makes the best tea. It is true that high mountain tea has excellent aroma in nature, but most popular high mountain tea in the market is processed with light oxidized approach which relies much more on the quality of tea leaves, not the skills of 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, which has an altitude of 2,000 meters. I use high quality high mountain tea leaves as a fundamental, processed with the traditional method, and then we have a rounded tea body and strong flavor, which helps bring out the fragrance and the after-taste could last longer.
Lawrence Lai: Can you please explain the terrior of your tea garden?
Mr. Lee: 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 to get there from my house in Lugu. Why would I plant tea in such a distance? Many years ago, I took a chance to make tea in the region and almost instantly, I liked the tea grown in there. It is a mountain sloping field with gravel. The characteristic of the tea is very different from other region. If Shan-Lin-Xi tea is like a young, slim beauty, the tea from Chi-Lai mountain is more like a male warrior, more muscular, and has more characteristics.
Lawrence Lai: Can you explain a typical working day for a tea artisan?
Mr. Lee: Since it takes 4 to 5 hours to drive to the tea garden, I will attend to tea garden 3 to 4 days in advance in the tea harvest season. Generally, I will hire 20~30 plucking workers nearby. The average harvest amount is 800~1,200Kg. 1 kg gross tea could be made out of 5 kg tea leaves.
Making tea is a continuing process. Plucking workers will start by 7:00 am and by 8:00 am, the first batch of tea leaves usually come in. And then, it is a non-stop sequence until 5:00~6:00 am the next day. I have only 1 or 2 hours to rest (or no rest at all). Those days will continue for one or two weeks in the harvest season. So the day of a tea maker, especially in tea season, is extremely exhausting.
Lawrence Lai is the Founder and CEO of Easy Tea, Hard Choice.