For decades, Lin Tsai-pan has tended his tea fields in the misty green hills of central Taiwan with a devotion bordering on obsession. It is not just a job. It is a passion and a question of honor.
It is exactly 30 years since he first won a prize for his Oolong leaves at a prestigious contest held by Luku Farmers’ Association in Nantou County, 20 years since his second prize and 10 years since his third — and so far last.
“I feel I have a good chance of creating another miracle this time,” he said on the eve of this year’s summer competition, which was held in May. The stakes are huge. The winner of the competition can expect to sell his product at a steep premium — thousands of US dollars per kilogram — in part due to newly affluent Chinese connoisseurs.
The impact of demand from China demand was dramatically illustrated two years ago, when that year’s winner was able to sell his harvest of 12 kilograms at NT$6 million (US$200,600), twice the previous year’s price.
“Some of the nouveaux riche from China think it worthwhile spending hundreds of thousands of Taiwan dollars,” said Tony Lin, a senior staffer at the farmers group who recently returned from a China fact-finding trip. “After all, they get to taste the world’s best Oolong tea, which is how they see it.”
Tea is a science in Asia. The categories are measured in terms of the fermentation process, with fully fermented black tea at one end and green tea at the other.
Oolong tea, in the middle of the two extremes, has emerged as a must-buy for a large number of the more than 1.8 million Chinese tourists who visit Taiwan each year, following an abrupt thaw in relations.
Taiwan got a late start with Oolong and was only introduced in 1885 from southeast China’s Fujian Province to Tungting, a 700m mountain in Luku Township (鹿谷).
However, the nation has caught up and locally produced Oolong tea is outperforming China-grown Oolong.
Oolong prices vary sharply, but medium-priced tea weighs in at about NT$3,000 per kilogram.
“Taiwan tea has a special flowery fragrance which China-produced tea doesn’t,” said Hsu Rung-chun, a third-generation merchant based in Lungtan Townsh (龍潭), Taoyuan County. “Its quality may be dictated by a wide range of factors including weather, soil, the way the tea tree is treated — and finally the tea manufacturing techniques.”
Taiwanese tea developers are working hard on different flavors. One example is “Oriental Beauty,” a tea with a complex aroma and a rich aftertaste of honey and peaches.
Growers are forced to constantly upgrade and develop. Taiwan’s tea industry peaked in 1973 when it produced 28,000 tonnes of tea leaves, with 23,000 tonnes being exported.
However, since then, the sector has been gradually losing its competitiveness due to labor shortages, rising labor costs and the appreciation of the New Taiwan dollar.
The total area of tea farms on the island has dropped to 15,000 hectares, less than half its post-World War II heyday size, with more cheap tea being shipped in from abroad.
However, Chiu Chui-feng who works as a senior researcher at the Tea Research and Extension Station, shrugged off the threat.
“The imports are simply to meet the low-priced demand and have posed no threat to Taiwan’s high-priced tea,” he said.
The imported low-cost tea leaves are mostly used in the manufacturing of cheap bottled tea drinks, which are popular among young consumers, he said.
However, experts and tea industry workers are alarmed by the “invasion” of Oolong tea grown in Southeast Asia or even in China, but packed in Taiwan.
“The hard-won credit of Taiwan tea may be eroded by the imported Oolong tea sold in the name of Taiwan-grown tea,” Hsu said.
While calling on the government to adopt counter-measures to regulate the prevailing malpractices, tea farmers, with the aid of regional associations and local governments, have been pulling all the stops to develop new aromas.
Taiwanese tea traders have also worked with farmers to set up tea production in Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and China, introducing Taiwanese tea trees and Taiwan-developed manufacturing techniques.
However, quality comes first and contests like the one attended by Lin are essential in ensuring that the producers keep evolving.
This time, however, he did not make it in the competition that drew a record 5,729 samples of Oolong tea leaves harvested in the spring from hundreds of farmers island-wide.