Recently, a reader asked me how I choose from which tea producer to buy my tea. There are thousands of farmers in Taiwan. A majority of farmers are producing low to medium quality oolongs like a commodity, for the masses, while a smaller number is focusing on high quality and are making teas for the ultimate drinking pleasure. It's quite similar to the wine industry in France in this regard: the output of high quality grand crus is dwarfed by the huge output of 'vin de table', the lowest wine quality. So this is a very good question.
Actually, in Taiwan, most retailers tend to be relatives of tea farmers. This is how most (small) businesses are still integrated here. That's why it's so important to have connections in the Chinese world. Business has a lot to do with trust, and who can you trust more than your brother or cousin?
So, being a foreigner married to a Taiwanese, I first contacted the 2 or 3 farmers with whom my wife is connected (through her best friend, a friend of her sister-in law and through her uncle). But the tea from these 3 sources went from sometimes good, but expensive, to average and even to very disappointing.
Now, my method to find a skillful tea farmer is to use my tea connections instead of my 'blood' connection. And that connection is my tea master, of course. For Oolong from Taiwan's heartland, he pointed me in the direction of Master Zhang, a rather young tea farmer. His skills are recognized in the Lugu tea association as he is one of its active members and acts as one of the judges for its tea competitions. He can taste over 300 different oolongs per day during such competitions!
This connection works also well the other way around for Master Zhang. Since he knows my teacher, he already has an idea of what kind of quality and teas I'm after. He also quickly found out that I'm very knowledgeable about tasting oolong and we wasted no time introducing the various teas he had. We just let them speak for themselves. This made the selection process a real pleasure.
One of the other important reason for driving to Lugu to meet Master Zhang is, of course, to see the actual tea fields where the tea I purchase is growing. The goal is to smell the soil, the air, to feel the environment where my tea is harvested. Like this, I can better understand what smells to look for in my cup. It also clarifies how much pesticides and fertilizer is used (little in can of classic Oolong and none for Guei Fei Cha, in case you were wondering)... On the way to his fields, we passed next to this famous lake between Dong Ding and Feng Huang:
This is the view from Dong Ding village looking at Feng Huang village, on the opposite mountain. What strikes me is that there are not that many tea plantations to be seen on the slopes of these mountains. It's mostly planted with beetle nut palm trees.
Of course, there are other ways to select Taiwanese Oolong. You could wait for the end of the spring tea competition and purchase the winning tea. This year, it reached another record: 2 million Taiwan dollars (61,000 USD) for 600 grams!