28 August 2009

No More Da Yu Ling High Mtn Tea?

The tragic typhoon that struck Taiwan earlier this month may possibly lead to the passage of an earlier-proposed law to prohibit commercial farming at elevations above 1500 meters.  Such a law would affect the high mountain tea plantations at the highest altitudes.  Dayuling oolong around Lishan and the various types of high mountain oolong produced around Taiwan's highest peak of Yushan, as well as some Shanlinxi and other types of tea would be impacted. 

One statement in the article, quoted from an interview with the executive manager of the Meishan farmers' association, put the loss of Alishan tea's winter crop at 30%.  Quantity aside, quality will probably also be affected, as I hypothesized in a previous post.

This news snippet came to me via tea friend Michael Coffey of teageek.net, and the full article can be found here:

                                High Mtn Tea Article

I don't think it's a high probability that this law, first proposed in 2005 and stuck behind a backlog of other legislation, will pass.  Even if it does, it affects a small amount of tea produced in Taiwan, but that effect would be to some of Taiwan's premier-grade high mountain oolong.

When I visited tea farms in Nantou County earlier this year, specifically on Fenghuang mountain (Taiwan's Phoenix mountain), there was evidence of soil erosion in many areas.  I was taken to locations higher up in the mountain where rock and mudslides had caused extensive damage.  The culprit?  Land that had been cleared of trees and been improperly terraced for tea production.  We had to re-route along the roads we were traveling on several times due to them being washed away.  Several other roads that we traveled on that appeared to be relatively new had major fissures across them and some appeared to be sliding down the side of the mountain as well.  Shoddy work and natural weather conditions have created potentially hazardous conditions.  There should be more oversight to ensure that tea plantations and public infrastructure are correctly built, but in the face of a monster like Typhoon Morakot, the destruction would still have been severe. 

Tea farmers that I've talked with alluded to questionable government dealings that have led to expensive and low-quality public works projects.  I was shown roads in various areas all over northern Taiwan that were in a perpetual state of repair, as well as random structures, like pagodas and tea stalls, with exorbitant price tags.  In a country that is no stranger to corruption, one must wonder how greed and shoddy work may have led to unnecessary loss of life from natural disasters.

27 August 2009

Can't Fight My Sweet Tooth


If it tastes sweet, especially if it's naturally sweetened, I'll probably want a sip or two.

A reader commented recently that she loves black tea with milk and sugar.  You know what, it does indeed taste good with milk and sugar.  It can also taste really good on its own, with honey, or mixed with juice.

I had some Louisiana-style southern food last week and was offered an all-you-can-drink glass of sweet tea for $1.50. 

"We make it with the best tea bags you can buy!" the lady behind the counter joked.  Yes, probably the best tea bag you can buy from the grocery store, but with all of the high fructose corn syrup that's mixed in, I don't care what kind of tea it is, or if there's any tea left in it at all.  Sugar is MSG for beverages.

"You look kinda drunk, son," said the owner as he rolled up next to me in his truck.  I was staggering out of the joint after my meal, red in the face (from eating too much hot sauce) and hollering loudly with my friend after finishing off some fried gator. 

Yup, I was sugar high.  Nearly as good as a tea high, but not quite.

18 August 2009

Pay Attention and You'll Feel Its Spirit

How deeply have you looked into the leaves and the brew of your favorite tea?  Can you pick out some of the characteristics that make it unique? 

I believe that every master tea maker leaves behind a part of their identity in their product.  Drink enough tea from a single producer and you will know that maker's signature taste.  There is a taste and beauty in each tea that is testament to the maker's passion and craftsmanship.  The taste can tell you a story as you sip it.  The ability to communicate ideas, skill and emotion through manipulation of air, heat and leaves is what makes tea an interesting art to me.

My friend, whom I'll call Dean, is a reflective tea drinker.  Drink tea with him and you'll know what he thinks of the tea by how he drinks it and what he doesn't have to say about it.  I think that in his mind, excellent tea doesn't need to be announced; it just is and one should know as much.

I see my friend only on occasion, but we spend hours chatting and drinking tea together until we turn red.  I like to bring him my favorites to try.  On my last visit with him, I brought tea that I had finished myself.  There are technically 4 tea seasons for Dong Ding tea, but only Spring and Winter are really sold (whether some producers mix these with Summer and Autumn teas I cannot say).  I had some decent Autumn tea to hone my roasting skills with.  The tea is harsher and more astringent than the main harvest leaves, but cheaper and less heart-breaking for me if I screw up the roasting.

As we sat drinking some Korean green tea, I pulled out a bag of my own creation, #603, and let him sniff it.  A curious smirk appeared on his face - the smell reminded him of something.  He brewed the tea in a porcelain gaiwan and continued to smirk. 

"I did the finishing roasts on this tea, it's not my best work, so tell me exactly what you think.  It's an Autumn harvest oolong tea." 

"Hmm."  Dean played with the leaves and brewed again.  "You were anxious and bored when you made this tea, weren't you?  But your Gong Fu is better than mine, I gained all of my knowledge from books and never had a teacher.  Not bad."

"Wow, you're awesome, I'm really impressed!"  I was indeed anxious.  Dean could smell my mood in the tea and he also tasted my hurried nature as I made it, due to too much heat applied too quickly.  The base of the tea was harsh, but my first finishing roasts had tempered it quite a bit.  Afterwards, I got impatient and tried to bring the taste back out, resulting in the over-application of heat.  Not perfect, but it has my signature taste in it; sweetness with a hint of something that can remind a drinker of anything from roasted marshmallows to dry twigs.  As both my own self-nature and roasting technique improve, so will my taste. 

Ultra-expert tea drinkers can also track the changes in the taste and technique of master tea roasters as the roasters themselves change, grow and explore new ideas.  My Dong Ding teacher once said that only good people can make good tea, and good energy in the tea comes from good inputs, like the right water, environment and care.  The essence of each tea maker can be found in the leaves that he touches and crafts.  Take time to connect with the spirit of your brew and another level of insight and understanding may open up.

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

14 August 2009

Typhoon Morakot's Destruction

The recent typhoon that struck Taiwan has caused a lot of damage to the island, mainly to the south, as it hit Taiwan and headed NE to China and Japan.

Taipei and most of Northern and Western Taiwan were spared the bulk of the wild weather, but they did receive a lot of rain.  Central Taiwan was mainly ok, although Alishan seems to have been hit pretty hard.  A lot of people are still trapped in various pockets where heavy rains and mudslides washed away roads and bridges.  I was watching a broadcast from a Taiwan news channel last night and it doesn't seem like the government has enough resources or equipment to help everyone.  Taiwan's government just requested some heavy lifting helicopters and industrial equipment from the international community, and the US military should already have arrived with supplies and support.

I called my teachers earlier this week to see how they were doing.  My Dong Ding master's wife puzzled me during the first few minutes of our conversation - she seemed completely fine, like nothing had happened.  I anxiously requested the status of her health/husband's health/family/home and she said everything was fine on the mountain and "very beautiful."  But those weren't her first words - all she could keep asking me when I called was, "When are you coming back?"  Ha!  I told her I wasn't calling all the way from the US to set up a travel schedule, I was worried that she had been washed off of the mountain!  She said it was nice for me to be concerned, but I didn't need to worry.  She also said the tea is good, and I didn't need to worry about that either.

Dong Ding is in Nantou county, though, and not too far away from Alishan.  Alishan had a lot of rain and destruction.  There was one story about a quick-acting tribal chief in a remote village on Alishan that got all of his villagers together and packed them into the tribal lodge to get away from the typhoon.  The village was destroyed, but the government commended him for responsible leadership that saved the villagers. 

The tea crop of high mountain oolong from Alishan may be limited this year, and the massive rains may have caused damage and affect the quality for a season or two.  There hasn't been an extraordinary crop from Alishan for several seasons, and I don't think that we'll see one anytime soon.

In the meantime, Taiwan is still dealing with the aftermath of the typhoon.  Thousands have died, thousands more are missing, and tens of thousands are stranded with few supplies.  The destruction in Taiwan is the worst from a typhoon in decades.  The government recently announced the acceptance of donations to help with the recovery effort.  You can visit the Taiwanese Economic and Cultural Office's site to view instructions on how to send donations via wire to their recovery fund.