Taiwan Tea Plantation Exploration

I wouldn’t do that for all the tea in…. Taiwan?

That’s right. Taiwan grows some of the best teas in the world. Tea cultivation only really began there in the mid-19th century. But it spread like crazy, thanks to strong domestic demand.

Taiwanese teas are also greatly sought after by foreign tea connoisseurs.

I recently spent a week on the island, and I took a day to tour around one of the best tea growing areas in the country: Dong Ding mountain in Nantou County.

[…yeah, I had a hell of a time not calling it “ding dong”— and if you read the Ometepe section of my book Vagabond Dreams you’ll know why…]

The first thing that struck me about Taiwan was that it didn’t come anywhere near my expectations. I thought it would be a lot like mainland China. Instead, it reminded me of Japan. People were incredibly polite, and also very fashionable. Taipei was clean and modern, with an efficient subway system and more great restaurants than you could dine at in a lifetime. And the only people I saw shoving, spitting, shouting or otherwise behaving like boors were tourists from the mainland.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Taiwan, and I would welcome another visit.

So anyway, yeah, let’s talk tea.

I used to think that Taiwan only grew their famous oolong tea. And that each of these varieties of tea came from a different plant. But I was wrong on both counts.

Taiwan produces oolong, green tea and black tea, and they all come from the same bush. The difference is in the method of processing after the leaves are picked.

I needed to know more about this industry. I rolled out of bed very early one morning to hop a high speed train south, so I could drive up to Dong Ding mountain and see this process for myself. I was fortunate to have been given access to the tea plantations of a local family, who spent most of the day showing me around their rather impressive operation.

First stop was their tea house in a small mountainside village, where I discussed the art of tea with Chen Nenghui, whose ancestors have been involved in the business for several generations.

“The quality of the tea changes from one season to the next,” he told me. “We have four different picking seasons. Summer tea has a stronger scent. Tea picked in the rainy season grows quickly, so the leaf is thinner. There’s less scent, and a milder flavour. And winter tea is more expensive, because it grows slowly and there’s less of it.”

Getting an education in tea from a true master...

Getting an education in tea from a true master…

The weather is also important, as his wife, Tsai Baimei, interrupted to tell me. “Tea leaves need sun,” she said. “If there’s no sun or if the weather is constantly overcast, it makes for very poor tea.”

The other big factor when it comes to pricing tea is the height at which it is grown. The length of time the leaves take to grow changes depending on the altitude above sea level. Tea grown at a higher altitude grows more slowly, and is believed to have a smoother taste.

Mr. Chen prepared a pot of their tea while we talked. He first poured the tea into a tall narrow cup. I was instructed to pick this up, pour it into the wider-mouthed drinking cup, and then stick my nose in the smaller cup to appreciate the scent of the brew before drinking it.

“This tea was grown at a height of 1,800 meters,” he said. It tasted almost buttery, with clean grassy notes.

Preparing to taste some of Taiwan's finest teas...

Preparing to taste some of Taiwan’s finest teas…

Dong Ding means “Frozen Summit” or “Ice Peak”, and the region is known for producing a tightly rolled tea with a light, distinctive fragrance. Some people believe it’s distinctive flavour is due to the almost continuous fog that blankets the region for much of the year. Whatever the reason, teas from Dong Ding fetch premium prices. And I was beginning to understand why.

When the sipping was done, we hopped into a car to drive further up the mountain and see the processing plants in action.

Our first stop was a smaller field on a terraced hillside right next to the road. Carefully manicured bushes filled the entire area, evenly spaced, right up to where the hillside dropped off into a gaping void.

Tea plants will grow into enormous trees if left alone, but cultivated plants are pruned to waist height to make harvesting easy. They do this because only the top 1 or 2 inches of the plant are picked. It’s these new leaves that become the tea you steep in your store-bought Tetley bags.

A field of tea on the edge of Dong Ding Mountain

A field of tea on the edge of Dong Ding Mountain

After the tea leaves are picked, they’re trucked straight to the oxidation facility. We were fortunate to arrive just as a fresh load of tea came in, so I could pitch in with the work and help spread the leaves out in the sun.

Hey, it wasn’t so bad. I earned a couple bottles of beer with the workers.

The newly picked tea leaves would be exposed there for about an hour, which causes the oxidation process to begin. The leaves are then gathered and taken into the drying house, where they’re placed on racks. The racks are shaken about once an hour to bruise the leaves and encourage continued oxidation. This is also when they begin to turn brown.

Freshly picked leaves are spread in the sun to oxidize

Freshly picked leaves are spread in the sun to oxidize

Spreading the newly picked leaves in the sun to begin oxidation

Spreading the newly picked leaves in the sun to begin oxidation

Sharing a beer with some very cheerful workers...

Sharing a beer with some very cheerful workers…

We were all pretty hungry after spreading that fresh harvest in the sun. And so we took a quick break for lunch, where Mrs. Tsai — a culinary as well as tea master — served us a full meal of tea-based cuisine. That’s food where actual tea leaves are used in the dishes. Check out that photo! Yeah, it was as incredible as it looked.

An incredible lunch of tea leaf based cuisine

An incredible lunch of tea leaf based cuisine

Our final stop was a processing facility where the tea leaves are roasted and dried before being rolled and packaged for sale. This roasting brings the oxidation process of the leaves to a stop. Just as in the case of fermenting wine, the decision of when to stop the process and roast is made by the tea master, based on his years of experience and on what sort of finished product he wants to create.

Each sack of tea leaves is dumped into a cylindrical tumbler, tumbled for a few minutes, taken out and checked, and tumbled again. In between tumblings the leaves are tightly packed in a canvas cloth and placed in a rolling machine. This repeated cycle of tumbling and rolling is repeated up to 20 times, and it’s what gives the tea leaves you see in the package that neat tightly rolled appearance.

Roasting tea leaves in the cylindrical tumbler

Roasting tea leaves in the cylindrical tumbler

The leaves are tumbled many times...

The leaves are tumbled many times…

...and rolled each time they're removed from the tumbler

…and rolled each time they’re removed from the tumbler

So that’s it! I was amazed to learn what a labour intensive process it is to make a simple brick of quality tea. That’s why the finer varieties fetch such high prices. And that explains why tea from a region like Dong Ding has such a delicate, refined taste.

Tasting black teas processed on-site

Tasting black teas processed on-site

Further Info on Tea Varieties

Here’s a quick rundown of the 3 different types of tea grown in Taiwan, and the main differences between each.

Oolong tea — This is the variety we spent the most time exploring, and my personal favourite among the Taiwan teas. Oolong is considered a “half fermented” tea. It comes in an enormous variety of flavours. I’ve tried stronger, darker oolong varieties from mainland China. But I found the higher altitude teas from Taiwan to be quite delicate, almost buttery, with very green, fresh aromas. These are subtle teas that should be sipped slowly and with attention. Oolong teas are reputed to aid digestion, and they’re popularly marketed as “weight loss” teas in the West.

Black tea — Black teas typically undergo a longer period of open air fermentation than oolong, which turns the leaves dark brown to black and produces a stronger tasting tea.  These are considered “fully fermented”. The black tea I tried at the oxidation facility on Dong Ding mountain was rich and nutty, with an almost malted aftertaste. I should also note that these teas are not the same as what we commonly refer to as “black tea” or “English tea” in the West.

Green tea — Green tea is not oxidized, and is considered an “unfermented” tea. The leaves are processed very quickly so they don’t have a chance to turn brown. They are also heated to “fix” the chlorophyll, which keeps the leaves green by destroying the enzymes responsible for oxidation. You’re pretty much tasting what it’s like to consume these leaves straight from the bush.

This stuff really IS good for you — look at those pipes!

This stuff really IS good for you — look at those pipes!

 

Photos ©Tomoko Goto 2013

 

Comments

  1. Andrew Laird says

    Hello,
    I like your interesting site
    Is it possible to have the contact information for Mr Chen Nenghui as I will be in Taiwan for the next two months and would really like to visit a good plantation
    Andrew Laird
    Montreal
    Canada

    • Ryan Murdock says

      Hi Andrew,

      My wife did the photos on that trip. I’ve asked her to dig up contact details and pass them along. Hope you enjoy your time in Taiwan! I really liked it. It was an unexpected surprise, and nothing like mainland China at all.

      • Thomas T says

        Hi Andrew,

        I stumbled across your site while searching for Taiwanese tea plantations. If the contact details are for sharing I’d be interested too, for the same reasons as my predecessor.

        Kind regards
        Thomas/ London

      • Dear Ryan, it is so inspiring! May I also ask for contact to Mr Chen? I will be visiting Taiwan in January. Thank you very much for your blog!

  2. Hi Ryan,
    I’d also like to receive the contact details, if it is ok for you. I am in Taiwan and would really like to visit the plantation.
    Kind Regards
    Fabio / Italia

    • Ryan Murdock says

      Hi Fabio,

      My wife arranged the plantation visit through a Japanese agent based in Taiwan. I pasted her contact details below. I’m sure if you told her you’d like to do something similar to what we did, she could arrange it. But it does seem to depend on the season. We happened to be there when some tea was being processed.

      The English translator they provided wasn’t very good. I actually got more from the driver, who spoke Mandarin and Japanese. His Japanese was basic enough for me to follow, and he was much more knowledgable than the English interpreter.

      No one at the plantation spoke English.

      Hope that helps! Please let me know how you make out.

      Ryan

      Contact:

      Tung Hung Travel Service
      Masae Fujii (Japanese)

      taiwanmasae@hotmail.com
      http://www.t-holiday.com (available only in Japanese)

      ☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆
      藤井雅恵 (MASAE FUJII)
      東鴻旅行社 (台湾 台中市)
      T:+886-4-2325-7005
      F:+886-4-2328-2898
      携帯:+886-978-167739
      taiwanmasae@hotmail.com
      東鴻旅行社HP 
      http://www.t-holiday.com

  3. can you share the name of the tea plantation you went to? Name in Mandrian will work too. Thank you

    • Ryan Murdock says

      Hi Angela, I don’t remember being told the name of the plantation. But the owners were called 陳能輝 CHEN NENGHUI (owner of tea shop)
      蔡白梅 TSAI BAIMEI (the lady who took us around the plantation).

  4. Hey Ryan, it was great reading your blog. If its possible, can i have the contact details. i will be visiting taiwan soon and hoping to visit the tea plantation you visited. Thank you!

  5. Noah Lee says

    Hi Jasper, excellent and insightful read! Can i trouble you to share with me the contact details of the tea plantation you visited as well? Will like to drop by in Sep. Thank you!

  6. Noah Lee says

    Hi Ryan, apologies, i got the wrong name in my earlier comment!

  7. Vincent Pressoir says

    Hello Ryan

    Would it be possible to have the email of CHEN NENGHUI and TSAI BAIMEI please?

    I go to Taiwan next November for few months. Passionated by tea I would really like to meet tea producers, especially in Dong Ding area.

    Thank you so much!

    Vincent Pressoir from France

  8. Hey Ryan, this is exactly what I’m looking for

    . If its possible, can i have the contact details. i will be visiting taiwan soon and hoping to visit the tea plantation you visited. Thank you!

    Do you get to pick out tea leaves? Would be a great experience.

    Pauline from Australia

    • Ryan Murdock says

      Hi Pauline,

      Sent you an email with the contact details that we used. Very nice people. Hope you’re able to check it out. Safe travels.

  9. Hi Ryan,

    This is amazing. May I also have the email addresses of Chen Nenghui and Tsai Baimei please?

    Many thanks,
    Divya

  10. Hi Ryan,

    Love reading about your experience and would love the have the contacts of the tea farm too! Appreciate if you could drop me an email with it (:

  11. Alicia Colmenar Ocha says

    Hi Ryan,

    Such a nice experience, thanks for sharing!!
    We will be visiting Taiwan in 2 weeks and we would very much appreciate to also have the contacts for the tea farm.

    Many thanks in advance and nice summer to you 🙂

  12. Hi Ryan! This looks like a fantastic experience. Will be traveling to Taiwan soon and would love to do this myself. Can you please send along the contact details of the family/plantation? Many thanks in advance!

  13. Hi Ryan,
    This is a bit late but we will be visiting Taiwan in mid June and would love to set up some sort of tea tour at the farm you visited! What is the best way to do that and who should we contact to make arrangements?

    Thanks so much!
    Kia

    • Ryan Murdock says

      Hi Kia,

      I sent you an email with the contact details I had. Please keep in mind that I went there in 2013. I have no connection with the plantation or the guide who arranged our visit. No idea if they’re even still in business. Good luck!

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