Friday, September 27, 2013

Dong Ding

We climb through a patch of camphor laurel at early dawn. It grows chilly as we go; the tea pickers are out gathering the day's harvest. The cold bites at our fingers and toes. Ascending from the west we climb steep passes following the ravine of deer valley. Up and up we travel, inland and away from the sea to Lugu ("Deer Valley"), the special township saddling this mountainous region. The mineral rich soil here was once an ocean crust. Now we stand in the only landlocked county of Taiwan. Nantou County maintains its connection to the ocean through its soil. Dong Ding is a mountain within a range of mountains. Here, amid the consistently thick fog and spider-managed insect systems grows "Frozen Peak Tea."  

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Journal Entry: April 8, 2013

Ah Li! For a couple of days now, we've been checking the weather and there is a break in the rain that will prove we can buy some good tea. Tea isn't picked in the rain; it wouldn't pass inspection. So we are waiting for this break in the weather. The smart phone, with a great app, is showing a gap in the rain that should last two to three days.

Rounding the traffic circle, setting out for the mountains, some rays of sunshine broke through, and I realized, I was about to begin a vacation within the vacation. If ever there was a time to relax, it would be now. I stretched out in the passenger seat and started riffling through the glove box. I pulled out all of the CDs, three, and one looked like some music, so I put it on. My friend observed from the driver’s side, impressed with my new sense of comfort. I'd just gotten over the bad cold, and energy levels were still a bit low. We pulled over in Taizhong to look at a roadside sale of junk, mostly: incense holders, ugly tea gear, ugly carved buddhas. At this point, we still hadn't decided which way we were going, because from here we could either go to Dong Ding or Tai He. I've been to Lugu and Dong Ding several times, and Mt. Ah Li is safer for driving when there might be rain. We settled on Tai He, which is located in the interior of the Ah Li mountain range. But it was already late and we had to make haste if we were going to make our way up the mountain before the farmers go to bed. We turned to get into the mountains as fast as we can, and in our rush, we failed to eat dinner. We bought fruit at the outset, but it looked like dinner was not in our near future. I think it was at this point that I fell asleep.

Waking as we stop for gas, I realize that we have gained quite a bit of elevation. The air felt different, colder. “Food?” I ask, and the gas station attendant offers to make instant noodles. I politely decline. We come upon some buildings, twinkling in the inky night, and the wheels whine in a different tone as we cross the bridge to pull over to a parking lot. We cross the road just in time to see all of the food vendors closing up for the night.

Starving, we double back over the bridge to the first buildings we passed. We head inside, again to find that the food service is over. Finally, the bridge is crossed a third time, as we continue up the mountain. Several physical states were traversed to achieve the current mental state. This bridge we crossed three times to find a meal, yet none was found. Hungrily, we continue on in search of tea.

Journal Entry 4/8/13 Continued: Ah Li Oolong

Eventually, up in the mountains, we found some food and I bought a Mt. Ah Li post card at the 7-11. We were warmed by the meal, but chilled by the night when the restaurant owner learned that I sell tea in the States. He was excited and really wanted to sell me some tea. He made us some tea, and we were onto the farm. We tried his tea, because you never know what you might find, but we were on our way to the source. It was strange, because we could smell tea only for a bit. We drove with the windows down trying to smell the tea. Wafts of high mountain fog assaulted us as we rounded corners. I stuck my nose out the window trying to smell the tea .“We've had it. It doesn't smell like tea here. They aren't making tea.” That was a bad sign. It wasn't raining, but there was no tea smell. “If they were making tea here now, this whole place would smell like tea. No smell of tea means that the tea hasn't been picked yet, so even if it is picked tomorrow, it won't be ready until we are back home.”

So it really seemed like we might not have any luck. Dark, cold, steep, sharp—these are the backroad conditions. And I just wanted to smell the tea. But all that I could get was the damp, fluffy mountain air—that in its darkness, hid everything—even the smell.  

Tea! Mt. Ah Li - The Journey Continues

We were pushing it for sure. Early in the season, trying to catch an in-between-the-rain harvest, and on the heals of a drought that lasted most of the season. Off the beaten path, on the small mountain roads, and we are lost. As long as everyone has their cell phones, this isn't usually a big deal in Taiwan. We call the guy, a local tea maker, and he comes out to meet us. He is on a scooter and we follow behind him in the four door economy car. It turns out we were close. After following for just a short stretch we are turning down a steep paved driveway. When I see the tea processing center, a large building with a steel frame and corrugated steel walls, I jump to grab my bag. I wanted to document any and all tea making in progress for my own tea education. We are invited through a sliding door into a room that has a brew station with a few modest chairs and a small fish tank with one fish. This place was not fancy, but it was professional. We drink some high mountain green oolong tea and then are invited through another set of sliding doors into a huge tea processing room filled with tea. This was the indoor withering phase of oolong production. The entire room is filled with racks upon racks of tea in the withering stage of production. I am ecstatic. Filled with joy. I am so happy, I feel like I could spit.

The tea leaf as it oxidizes in the withering stage of processing

The racks upon racks of leaf, oxidizing in the temperature and humidity controlled environment
Everyone working in this tea factory wear matching uniforms of army camouflage clothing. Pants and jackets. It gets cold up here at night. These digs seem to be all the rage amongst tea processing teams. The tea processors' movements seem like a choreographed dance against the backdrop of tea drying in round racks, with the tea stacked level after level, well over head. This is Tai He First Stop. A huge AC, and I mean huge, like the kind that is used for an entire shopping mall, is built into the wall. The ceiling was a series of slat style vents that delivered the dry cool air that the leaves reportedly love. “Today's tea likes to feel the cool air, so we turn on the AC.” This is common practice nowadays, but I'm not sure about the origin or history of this use, other than I know I've seen it since at least 2004. The effect of AC on the leaf is more even oxidation throughout the entire leaf vs. segmented off to the edges.

The farmer, Mr. Jian, showing us the tea leaf

The tea leaf is transferred to the tumbler. The tumbler bruises the leaf, resulting in consistent and even oxidation.  

This part of the tumbler keeps track of how many rotations the tumble completes.  It also has a timer, and can be set for a specific amount of time.
We checked out the tea, but nothing was finished yet. It would be another day or so until the Tai He First Stop would be ready. Tai He First Stop reported that Ah Li Shan Golden Lily tea picking started 10 days ago, and the Mt. Ah Li Green Heart Oolong started today. We are in luck!

It is midnight by now. Luckily this guy knew a place where we could sleep. It was late and we were so road worn by this point that I don't really remember much, just that the rooms were large. The windows were huge as well, making up nearly an entire wall that overlooked the magnificent tea growing landscape. I think we meant to get up early, but after the late bed time, 8 AM was about the best we could do. After asking about breakfast we are shown to the kitchen, and then we ask about tea. The man said he had some, to which we asked Jin Xuan or oolong. Oolong, we have oolong, he replied. He showed us around the kitchen and left us to eat.  

This Mt. Ah Li First Stop Tea is available on our website here: Mt. Ah Li First Stop link.

Mt. Ah Li - Farm2

After sleeping and the ordeal of trying to find food the night before, we woke up hungry. But we also woke up late for breakfast on the farm. Still, we humbly asked for any type of breakfast service. Our host looked over his shoulder for a quick glance. He was showing a bit of reserve as if to say, “It might not be good enough for you.” Then, he kindly showed us to the kitchen after we demonstrated hunger in earnest. I knew that drinking loads of tea on an empty stomach would not do me any good.

Over breakfast of rice porridge known as “zhou” or “xi fan,” we discuss the plan for the day. The food was fresh, but cooled after sitting out and the chill was still strong in the early morning air. Who knows what time this food was originally prepared, but it was cold now. I wanted to eat a lot. Not only as a big fan of the breakfast, but also because tea was in the air. We had no formal plan for the day, so it was over breakfast that my friend said, “Listen, that tea from First Stop won’t be ready until well into the day, so let’s drink and see what kind of tea this guy has.”

With time to kill in the tea mountains, let the slurping begin! One bowl of zhou for the better and I am staggering down another set of stairs, into the out-of-doors, but only for a second. The sunlight feels good and the mountain air is light and calm. This courtyard leads to the main hall where the tea is brewed. From our room to the kitchen to the main hall…we went from one large room to another, all of which had ceilings at least forty feet high. Trophy plaques commending best regional tea adorned the walls. Most tea growers have such artifacts on display, but I'd never seen anything like this. Wall after wall, covered with the trophy plaques and it seemed as if they had kept building halls just to have more room for their growing award collection.
View of tea plants when entering into the main hall
As we entered the main hall, our host invited us to sit at the tea table. It was a modest table, clearly an understated and well loved tea station. The glass brew ware contrasted beautifully on the carved black stone brew plate. Glass is a confident choice as it is the material least prone to enhancing the tea flavor. Our host isn't interested in deception, rather as the glass would indicate, relying on transparency. Exciting! He invites us to sit in this informal setting, across from him and apologizes for having such simple brew ware. Then he proceeds to make us tea with no explanation of what type of tea he is making. It is assumed that he will be making us what he has harvested recently. The oolong is a green heart varietal and the oxidation is light. We drink the tea and after a while, and finally I am reminded. “Have you come to your senses yet? Are you buying this tea or not?” This sounds so much better in Chinese. I do come to my senses and say to myself, “I should buy this tea.” If you would like to buy this tea, it is available on our website here: Mt. Ah Li Tai He Sun link.

Our host's brew station

Monday, September 09, 2013

Like a Slug

Journal Entry: April 6, 2013
It was a fun day walking through the alleys of Tainan. I channeled the energy of several life forms. An eagle, aloft alone in the clouds; a snail, dragging snot over everything it comes across, with this damn cold I have; a tiger, catnapping lazily in the sun. I've got to entertain myself somehow while waiting for all other conditions to align. Biding time, conserving energy...waiting, waiting, waiting. Watching as things change, concerned both that they change too fast and that they are not changing fast enough, like watching leaves fall. Small fortunes change hands and mountains of tea travel over the ocean, eventually to be appreciated one sip at a time.

At a small temple that’s more than 300 years old, I stumble across a man with 11 fingers and my luck is changed.

Like a slug, pulling its line of slug juice over each surface it covers. The transformation from slug to bird happens with a flash. With instinct intact, the lone tea traveler looks for teachers, putting his faith in those he trusts. And through their eyes, he learns of himself. “Everything always works out for the best, though ultimately all roads lead to the same end.” He reminds himself of this and knows he is lucky. People help him, yet he manages to maintain a level of solitude, enjoying his experience as a recluse. And while he takes the world as it appears, he knows that there is more than he can see. The paths that unfold let him know this is true. His friends and teachers, alike, help him understand. Though it is nothing he can prove, his heart glows in the light of a feeling the energy of the universe. Love is a renewable resource that knows no limits.

Like a sleeping tiger, lazy in the sun, the hours pass by without a care. Soon everything will come. More sleep, and then another lazy afternoon. At some point, something will happen. It will happen very fast, as if with the blink of an eye. Full again, satiated, as blood lingers in the back of his throat. There is only this...blood, lust, affection, and lazy days spent in the sun. Tomorrow, another meal will come, as everything works out for the best.