Sourcing teas is the best part about what we set to accomplish as we get to venture and explore the tea farms around the globe. This is a look into our travel journal as we visited an Alishan farm in which we absolutely feel in love with its peace, tranquility, people and tea.
The Ride Up
We begin our journey in a car as we slowly ascended up the mountain in between Nantou and Chia Yi county. The road was enshrouded by greenery as the lush forests seem to grow denser and denser as we drove on. There was a lot of traffic as the roads were packed with family sized SUVs for weekend getaways into the mountains. Our farmer spoke of what to expect as they were harvesting and processing tea on the day we decided to visit. She was exclaiming about how she makes the drive up there daily to visit and help her team with chores on the farm. They use organic fertilizer to promote the longevity of her tea trees and limited harvests to 3-4 times per year in order to have the trees mature slowly from all the fog and sea breeze they were surrounded in. Trees are grown side by side and evenly pruned, or cut at a certain height, so that it can maintain a certain size while helping to distribute the nutrition to the remaining branches so that the leaves exude those classic aromas and flavors.
Once we arrived on site, it was incredibly gorgeous as we had the sun peak out of the clouds during harvesting hours. Tea trees sloped up at ascending levels and we were surrounded by mountains while being above the clouds at 1800 meters. I’ve noticed that the organic fertilizers have a clear effect on their trees, compared to neighboring farms, as our farmer seemed to have greener and more densely populated branches on her trees. The leaves were definitely brighter as it reflected back the sun. Seasoned tea harvesters were spread out on the mountainside slopes, in bright attire, as they moved from level to level to hand pick tea leaves.
Luckily, we were able to participate in the picking process with these dedicated women, and took advantage of the sunlight that was still above us. They were all focused on imperial plucks at the time which consisted of one bud and two lower leaves. The smallest blooming leaf at the top is called the heart and provides the astringency found within tea. The lower two mature leaves form the flavors within the tea. We spoke with a harvester and she educated us on how certain seasons provide different sized harvests. She was comparing the winter harvests as it yielded less leaves so they focus on one bud and one lower leaf below it. This is due to the colder temperatures which in turn have trees grow slowly during winter seasons; providing less leaves. Pickers use small blades on rings attached to their fingers to quickly pick off tea leaves and insert into their baskets. The more experienced picker has blades on each hand. Similar to most farms in Taiwan, the harvesters and processors leave the stems in tact to show the authenticity of hand picked tea.
The Processing Center
Entering their processing center at the bottom of the farm, our noses were welcomed with a wave of magnolias. Usually, after half an hour of withering out in the sun, floral aromas of the leaves intensifies. Most farms in Taiwan have the processing plant right next to the fields in which they harvest to be able to control the oxidation process effectively after harvest. This is to ensure more consistency of the flavors and aromas experienced throughout each season of tea.
The processing procedures was pretty simplistic as their 8 team crew had each step down to the tee. After having the leaves wither outdoors in the sun, they are divided into bushels to be taken into the center for further oxidation. The leaves are rolled and compressed in a machine and then thrown into a cylindrical panner for a few minutes to slowly remove its water content. The panner is is a massive tumbler that slowly heats the leaves on its edges as it quickly rolls around within the tube. The final stage of processing consists of a large dryer that has sifting tray for de-clumping teas. Remaining rolled up oolong tea are then transported into the interior of the machine which bakes the tea. This step stops the oxidation process and the dryer consists multiple conveyor belt levels to slowly drag the tea along as it is being heated. Eventually the leaves are left with 3-5% water content and piles into a bin where it is inspected before packaging. The final stage consists of an expert conducting quality control before approval before packaging.
We ended our tour in their tasting room as we sampled oolong that was just processed! After inspection, the oolongs had a stronger aroma coming out of the dry leaves and tasted more subtle. The head processor was explaining to us that newly processed high mountain oolongs were generally more fragrant, but as time passes on, they taste more flavorful when steeped. I brought out my bowl, tea cup, and a ceramic spoon to begin tasting. It was very exciting as it was the first time we’ve ever experienced Alishan oolong after it had just processed! The harvest had a good astringency that caught my attention more compared with their spring harvest. The liquid was a golden yellow hue and had a grainy, vegetal and sweet melon node at the end. Our spoon that was used to scoop tea into our cups gave up an insanely pungent floral smell as we inspected its aroma. The tea experience made us sink into our chairs as we stared out through the window at an incredible mountainside view with a big smile on our faces.
We stayed for a bit longer until we brewed our sample up to the 9th infusion. Our farmer gave us some mountain grown cabbage to stir fry during that nights meal. It was the sweetest tasting cabbage we’ve ever experienced in our lives! On our drive down, the tea leaves we picked gave off a nostalgic magnolia smell and remained in the car for the next few days.