We hit the road at 3:30am. All of Taiwan was sleeping and we quietly drove towards a wall of mountain and fog. A few hours later the first rays of sunshine were peeping across the mountain ridge.
Off the highway, the towns started to become more tea-centric. Massive teapots marked different gardens, and most shops were advertising tea for sale. We started winding up and up, and soon enough rows of tea trees became visible. Although beautiful, we were going higher to reach the top tea gardens on the highest peak – because that was where top-shelf tea was going to be made.
By the time we got to the factory near the top, we were just in time to hop out of our car and onto the back of a small flatbed truck, carrying tea-pickers, baskets, and us to the higher fields. The back of the truck had about an 8-inch high wooden plank around the edge to keep us all together. I noticed that the only thing keeping the wooden plank stuck to the flatbed part of the truck was a simple slide lock. Something you’d see on the back of a bathroom stall. There wasn’t much time to contemplate safety measures, because at the next hairpin turn, the driver charged forward into the bushes, then started gunning it up the slope in reverse. Thank goodness for simple slide locks. My fingernails probably left dents in that wooden plank.
And once you think you’re there, you look up and realize that you need to start climbing.
It’s hard work, tea-picking in high mountain areas. It’s not for the faint at heart, because you need to make sure you always lean in to the mountain. Fall backwards, and who knows how long you’ll keep tumbling down. The ladies worked fast and efficiently. I was drinking in the views while they worked. They are old, and I am young. Guilt set in. As Taiwan slowly restricts the amount of high mountain land allocated to farming, and as tea workers age with no replacement work force coming in, I wonder how long high mountain teas will be produced. But again, there wasn’t time to contemplate much, as it was time to get those freshly plucked leaves down to the factory to begin the whithering process.
Tea is on a time limit. The fresh leaves need to whither and wilt evenly. As soon as the truck returns, everyone mobilizes and spreads the leaves out onto a thin layer.
Every step of the process takes place under Tea Master Fu Chen’s direction. Merely being grown on a mountain doesn’t make a tea fabulous. The other half of tea-crafting shines through during the processing, and by knowing how to coax the best taste out of the leaves. Now it is time to wait. Depending on the weather and the conditions, we wait for the leaves to soften and lose some of their water content. The leaves are gently shaken and turned, to allow for even interior water distribution. How well the leaves are shaken will effect the final taste of the tea, how astringent, how green, how fragrant, and how bitter it could be. When the time is right, the leaves are heated to stop the oxidation process, and that is called “killing green.” Watch the video to see how it’s done! At this point, we taste, but it doesn’t represent the final product. After oxidation has stopped, the tea goes through more rolling and rolling, and finally roasting…and we taste every step of the way, until Tea Master Fu Chen says, “好!” (Good!) After sleepless days and hours in front of an oven the size of a big truck, we are all waiting for that sign of satisfaction!