04 December 2009

Cutthroat High Mountain Tea

"Young man, Taiwan tea is complicated." 

The Alishan tea producer sat next to me, with a few of his cohorts sniffing his competition-grade teas.  Such is the tea life in Taipei; walk inside a random tea shop and you might get to meet some of Taiwan's most famous producers.  To the Alishan tea producer's left was the descendant of the first Pouchong farmer in Taiwan.  Pouchong because he's old-school.  Way before Baozhong made its way to Pinglin, it was grown in Nangang (now a fairly industrial neighborhood).  Quantity nowadays is extremely limited, to the point where most people have never even heard of Nangang Baozhong, but some producers there still make it in the traditional style that I like - higher oxidation with strong mouth-feel and some smokiness.

Mr. Waha the Alishan maker (I'll call him that; he chuckled uncontrollably several times when I told him about teas I like) thinks I'm an old man with old-school tastes.  No doubt.  High mountain teas, especially Alishan, are expensive, he says, not just because of an accepted market price.  He explained that prices are high because labor, for one, is scarce and expensive. Pickers band together to price gouge.  Prices of picking have more than doubled since a few years ago.  It's hard work that increasingly few want to do, and understandably so. 

There is a schedule for picking as bands of pickers move from one plot of land to another.  The problem is that it's difficult to plan and schedule in advance what day to have pickers come, since conditions change every day.  On your scheduled pick day, you may find that the leaves just aren't quite ready yet - maybe they need another day or two on the bush.  But if you call off the picking, you might not get another slot until quite a bit later.  Mr. Waha said that this leads to all sorts of persistent problems, like ongoing feuds between farmers (I imagine some sabotage as well), possible bribery of pickers and worst of all: good crop that is left on the bush because no one is available to pick it off. 

"Problems and fighting happen every year.  Very common.  Tea is a business after-all."

I sat and admired Mr. Waha's samples of tea that he will submit for the competition judging next week.  As usual, the oolong balls have the stems removed so that the brew will highlight only the best aspects of the tea. 

After trying Mr. Waha's tea, I'm relieved that there is good Alishan tea this year, and hopeful that the same is true for the other high mountains as well.


Drink good tea and enrich your life.

No comments:

Post a Comment