The tea roaster who sleeps with tea
The last procedure in traditional tea-making is the further refining enhancement, primarily relying on the roasting skills and techniques to transform the fresh green tea leaves into premium tea. This procedure is also one of the most difficult phases to grapple with and it is the hardest to pass down those skills and techniques to the future generation. Because it does not only depend on natural talents and cumulative experiences over the years, it also relies on the most critical characteristics – that is, courage.
Suyu Chen is the head of the third generation. At the tender age of 18, she had decided to carry on her family business. When she was 26, she started to learn the roasting skills. To date, more than 30 years later, when she has been asked about the secrets of tea roasting, she said, “Besides grappling with the flame intensity and the time management, the rest will largely depend on whether you are courageous enough!” During the roasting process, the quality of the tea leaves is fluctuating like the peaks and troughs of the surging sea waves. In order to capture the peak of the fragrance at the right moment, one must be prepared to fail, attempt at all costs and keep on trying. And often, the constant trying will lead to late nights. “My husband always says I only sleep with the tea leaves”, she laughed. “Nevertheless, when you sip into that tea, you will experience the refreshing aroma of the tea leaves themselves as well as the sweet honey, fully ripe fruity, … flavors brought about by roasting. Yep, you will feel this is real life.”
The tea plantation supervisor who speaks with tea trees
The tea plantation has around 4 to 5 times of harvesting seasons in each year. And each tea-making season requires approximately 2 to 3 weeks. All tea employees will be working non-stop from day to night and vice versa. Besides the harvesting season, the tea plantation is required to be delicately taken care of in normal days.
Mocking at herself, Huang Lihong, a Alishan aged woman transformed from a young Alishan girl in the blink of the eyes, is the spiritual woman responsible for the management of the tea plantation regardless of big or small matters. In other words, she is simply the chief supervisor for the tea plantation. From a very young age, she worked hard in the tea plantation for a living. Later, the work became her passion. To date, she has often been taking care of the tea plantation as if it is her children. “I would always talk to them every day: Hi tea ~ Hi tea ~ You must grow up quickly – We all depend on you!” At the same time, witnessing her working colleagues transitioning from black hair to white hair and the successors are nowhere in sight, she abruptly sighed with relief: “These hardworking and old-fashioned tea farmers have only few years left in their working careers. I really hope the tea culture in Taiwan can be continually passed down in eternity!”
The tea master who doesn't have the SOP for tea-making
During each tea-making season, it is as though a period of upheaval. At this moment, if there is no experienced fighting commander, that is the tea maker responsible for the withering process to control the overall situation, it is almost impossible to make good tea.
A Jishi is considered an expert in this area. From capturing the right moment to start plucking tea leaves and monitor the climate, sometimes when a fleet of mountainous mist drifts across the sky, he would know that it will rain 30 minutes later and the tea leaves collection must be quickened. Thereafter, he will make a judgement on the withering time according to the status of the collected fresh green leaves, the temperature and humidity of the weather on the day. If the water content in the fresh green leaves is high, then they will leave them under sunshine for a little longer; the processes of tossing and fixing (fixing is the correct word to use, I’ve verified it from various sources) the green tea leaves must allow them to ferment and dry in the right proportions. If the green tea leaves are too moist, the quality will be affected; likewise, it also must not be too dry else the fermentation will be affected. And it must allow the aromas to maintain at the peak level. All these would require cumulative and robust experiences … … … “The sky is a living creature; the green tea leaves are likewise”, he said. “Many tea farmers have been asking me how to make good tea? This type of work has no SOP ~ You must use your heart to feel the condition of each moment so that you can make the best judgement.” It is never sufficient to have experiences; the key is to use the heart.
The local tea explorer who stations at the tea cultivation regions
The tea leaves grown by ourselves can be assured of the final quality in the overall tea-making process. However, Song Yi also collects tea leaves from other vendors. The tea explorer standing in the frontline is particularly important in this moment. If the quality of the fresh green leaves supplied by the tea farmers is inferior, it does not matter how good the tea roaster is, even with her outstanding skills and techniques, it is rather impossible to bring those inferior tea leaves back to life.
Hsu Mengyi, the tea explorer that stations at the tea cultivation regions, is very familiar with the conditions of each tea plantation over the mountains. “I run about every day. Even from the start of the supervisory work, I constantly test the tea during the tea-making process and repeatedly ensure that the quality of the tea leaves is up on par to the requirements prior to collecting those tea leaves.” Many tea brands are using the contractual basis. Consequently, it is extremely hard to ensure consistent quality among different batches of tea leaves. Especially the fresh green tea leaves which are sold by weight. The higher the water content, the heavier it will be and thus, a higher selling price. Nevertheless, if the degree of dryness is inadequate, the tea leaves will be easily oxidized and the quality changes. Although the aromatic scent is abundant just after roasting, the speed at which the fragrance scatters away and disappears is also very alarming. “There are many tea brands that do not store their tea leaves after harvesting. Moreover, they also do not refine the collected tea leaves and just sell them away in the form of fresh green tea leaves. Most often when we take a sip, we would shake our heads, finding it rather wasteful for such premium tea leaves.” Finding premium tea leaves is still insufficient. To turn them into really good tea, it still requires to store them for fermentation coupled with the skillful techniques of the tea roaster.
The weed exterminator who lives in contentment
The weeds are critical threats to the tea trees. They will compete for the nutrients in the soil; and on the other hand, a plethora of weeds will also enhance the propagation of plant diseases, insects and pests. As such, the caring of the tea plantation after the harvesting season including the weed removal job which seems so trivial yet command a great deal of time and effort, is the most important link of the whole tea-making process.
Mei Hua is the aborigine that lives in contentment. Despite reaching 60 years of age, she is still as serious and beautiful as a bouquet of flowers. She is the fundamental pillar of the weed exterminator gang in the tea plantation. Furthermore, she always sings to the tea trees while pulling out the weeds. “Sometimes you would pull out bird eggs, and there was an instant where I pulled a snake instead – OMG! I was so frightened,” she narrated with a burst of energy in her eyes. “In the morning, we are the poor women that kneel to pull out the weeds; and in the afternoon, we are the rich women that sip tea. We are the women of all.” Looking around and seeing that the tea plantation is as tidy and clean as herself, she smiled with great satisfaction.
The quiet and calm tea plantation keeper
In recent years, working in exchange for food and accommodation has been rather popular. And Song Yi has long been involved. Mr. Black Boy has been in this trade for over 6 to 7 years. At that time, he was not invited; and as of now, he would never leave the tea plantation. From the younger days of immaturity and naivety, he has been completely transformed such that he can now independently entertain and lead a group of customers for a tea plantation tour. In each tea harvesting season, he is the caretaker for the whole trip and he does not dare to slack, fearing that any unexpected mishaps will … … … Mr. Black Boy, that is both loyal and direct, has been an integral part of the whole team in the tea plantation. “Woof ~ woof, woof, woof, ~ woof,” Mr. Black Boy cited that he is very happy to be able to become the caretaker of the tea plantation.