A 20-minute drive from Taipei’s Muzha MRT station (木柵) into the mountains, Chang Fu-chin’s (張福欽) tea farm looks nothing like the vast and manicured plantations in Nantou (南投) or Alishan (阿里山) — Taiwan’s “Tea Country.”
Lesser-known to some, the low-lying Wenshan District (文山) is steeped in tea-growing traditions, too. Tieguanyin — a type of Oolong — was transported to the area in the late 18th century from China’s Fujian Province. It is still grown today in Wenshan by small, independent farmers like Chang.
“They didn’t distinguish between different types of tea back then like Tieguanyin or green tea,” Chang says, gesturing to the small tea farm that once belonged to his grandfather. “Tea was just something to be enjoyed with family.”
HIGH MOUNTAIN MYTH
It’s a common perception that the best quality teas are the high mountain teas (高山茶) found in Nantou and Alishan. Grown at an altitude of 1,600m or higher, the colder weather, cleaner water and constant mist are said to provide optimal growing conditions for plants.
But high mountain teas also raise the question of unethical farming methods. Following the commercialization of tea in the ‘70s, the next two decades saw over-development in high mountain areas. Foliage was chopped down and roads built to reach rural places, and slash and burn methods were used to clear the land in order to produce tea bulk to boost profit.
The plot of land that Hansheh Tea House (寒舍茶坊) sits on has been in Chang’s family for generations. He remembers his grandfather growing tea (though not commercially), and says that the type of tea he specializes in growing, Zhengchong Tieguanyin (正欉鐵觀音), employs cultivation methods that have remained essentially the same for generations. The result is a drier, toastier brand of the normally fruity Tieguanyin.
Brushing aside branches and examining a few dark green and wrinkled Tieguanyin leaves, Chang muses: “I’m lazy. I don’t keep my farm as neat as other tea farmers.”
He’s being modest. Being able to pick a tea leaf and tell if it’s ready to be harvested takes a lifetime of experience to master. Plus, it’s reassuring to see where my tea is coming from — in all its untamed glory.
If it weren’t for Andy Kincart, I probably wouldn’t have found the farm. Hansheh Tea House has no social media presence (it has three check-ins on Instagram and one of them is mine), but I can see how it’s characters like Chang that drew Kincart to the tea industry. The American expat fell in love with the beverage while studying Chinese in Taiwan in the early ‘90s and now runs Eco-Cha (一口茶), a company which exports small batches of handmade artisanal tea sourced from small, family-run farms around Taiwan to connoisseurs around the world.
While the environmental situation is improving, Kincart is not interested in working with big tea factories and companies if he thinks they are in the industry solely to make money.
“High elevation farms are generally for one purpose only,” he says. “High volume and high profit.”
On the other side of the globe, a tea shop in Manhattan’s West Village sells different varieties of Taiwanese Oolong. The owner, Taipei native Elena Liao (廖梓君), doesn’t tell her customers about how high mountain teas are held in high regard in Taiwan.
“I don’t want to encourage development or the building of roads to reach these remote areas,” Liao tells me over the phone from New York.