Friday, November 30, 2018

The gift from Taiwan's high mountains

Qingxin Oolong from Tsui Feng, Lishan, spring 2017
 One of the most baffling and annoying thing about tea is the labeling. When farmers produce their tea, they use very big, standard plastic bags. A low elevation farmer can purchase a big bag where it's written 'high mountain Oolong'. Farmers in China and Vietnam can purchase bags where it's written 'Taiwan Oolong'. Farmers in Alishan can purchase bags with the name 'Da Yu Ling'. Everything is permitted and (almost) nobody is controlling. And these bags don't come with any mention of production year, season or date. Some farmers write this information on the bag, while others just write a batch number. When a tea farmer sells tea to a wholesaler, a tea shop or directly to a tea drinker, there is no way to tell from the packaging what tea you are buying.
 Once in a while, there's a public scandal in Taiwan when investigators find that companies selling Taiwan Oolong have been importing tons of (cheap) Oolongs from other countries... But the practice continues, because it's simply part of the modern history of tea. Let me develop this point. Until the mid 19th century, tea was mostly a beverage for the upper class around the world. These few customers insisted on top quality and were ready to pay for it. With the industrial revolution, however, a new middle class emerged. This new market had limited funds, but its potential demand was huge if the price was affordable. So, tea became one of the first product that became outsourced. Instead of only producing Oolong in the original Wuyi mountains, Chinese tea farmers planted tea in the surrounding regions. The conditions were less ideal. There were fewer rocky hills, but they could harvest more in the plains, at a lower cost. Some Fujian emigrants to Taiwan planted tea on this island, because export taxes were lower than on the Mainland! Western trading companies like Jardine Matheson or Tait had offices in several coastal towns in China and Taiwan and would look for the best prices.
 Scottish botanist Robert Fortune also traveled to Wuyi shan in the mid 19th century in an operation of agricultural spying. He brought tea plants to British controlled India so that China would loose its monopoly on the production of tea. This competition led to lower prices and innovations (CTC process, tea bags) that again led to lower (but still acceptable) quality and prices. This trend continued after the second world war: fertilizer and pesticides helped produce even more tea cheaper. And if the tea had a weak smell, cheap artificial scents replaced real flowers.
In terms of marketing and tea names, there were 2 cases:

1. a tea was imitated in a new region and the original name was kept, because this name is very famous and popular. The best example for this is Da Hong Pao. The original 5 bushes are now protected and can't be harvested anymore. But the name is in the public domain and all tea vendors in Fujian sell some of their leaves under the name Da Hong Pao.
For almost any famous tea, you can find hundreds (thousands) of copies of varying quality, price and origin. Sometimes the same tea is made 10 km away, or 100 km or 1000 km. Or it's made in a cheaper season. Or it's made with a different cultivar, or with a less skilled technique...

2. Some new teas and new origins become famous on their own merit. This became the case of 'Formosa Oolong Tea', a brand promoted by the Japanese during the first part of the twentieth century. Or Darjeeling in India, promoted by the British. In more recent times, in Taiwan, we have Dong Ding Oolong, Alishan and Lishan. These names are much more famous than Yong Lung, Shizhuo or Tsui Feng respectively. (Yong Lung is part of the Dong Ding area. Shizhuo is a village at the center of the Alishan area. Tsui Feng is next to Lishan, which is why it's considered part of the greater Lishan area). 
The pictures illustrating this article show a brew of my 2017 spring Tsui Feng qingxin Oolong. Like yesterday's Jinxuan from 2017, it is vacuum sealed and still tastes totally fresh. I had these similar high mountain teas back to back. The brews look very similar. One could say that the Alishan Jinxuan is a cost down version of the qingxin Tsui Feng. Or you could say that the qingxin Oolong from Tsui Feng is a cost down version of a qingxin Oolong from Lishan! Of course, since it's made of qingxin Oolong and comes from an elevation of 1800 meters, and a location that is very close to Lishan, most of the vendors in Taiwan would simply sell it as Lishan Oolong.

At the end of the day, the only thing that prevents a tea farmer (or seller) from exaggerating (lying) about the origin and quality of his tea is the knowledge of the buyer. If you can't tell the difference between a Jinxuan or a Qingxin Oolong, between a roasted Baozhong and a Yan Cha, an Assam and a Hong Yu, a spring and a summer harvest... you run the risk of purchasing a cost down version of the tea you had in mind. That's why it's so important to educate your palate and test similar teas from different sources and learn to judge their quality. 
This Tsui Feng Oolong does a great job in terms of bright flowery fragrances, sweetness and freshness. And it's very nicely priced compared to a Lishan Oolong. And from now on, a 25 gram sample is my new gift for orders above 200 USD! (Plus free EMS, my 3 free eBooks and a free tea post card!)

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