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Our Artisanal Tea Growers
Our mission at Teance is to seek out the most skilled tea farmers and producers in each region, and support their craft by bringing their teas to the Western world. We want to bring their hard work to the forefront of our business and introduce you to these inspiring people.
Mr Yan - Anxi, Fujian, China
The rolling mountains of Anxi can sometimes reach 2000 meters, with 80 degree grades growing a Tieguanyin they called Monkey Picked, because only monkeys or very nimble humans can harvest under such conditions. No industries or even other agriculture exists amidst these mountains, which, even with a car, can take an entire day to get into. Over 150 years ago, Tieguanyin was discovered to be the king of all Oolongs, and so, the inheritance of the skill set required to grow, harvest, and process these bushes, are carefully supported. Mr. Yan, an artisan tea master from one of the mountains in this range called Bao Shan (Treasure Mountain), is one such inheritor.
Mr. Yan recounts how, as a youth, he used to get water for his tea bushes when there was drought. Two huge pails would hang on either side of a bamboo pole, and descending from the top of the mountain took around 6 hours, and coming back on the ascend full of water, a little slower. He started learning to harvest tea at age 8, help dry and toss the leaves by 10, and apprenticed with the uncles and older brothers by age 15 to process by wok fire. By 18, he was allowed to learn to judge and grade the finished product. For Tieguanyin, one of the most prized Oolongs in the world, requires a skill level and expertise that only a lifelong practice can sometimes beget. Now in his late 50s, Mr. Yan is training his grand nephews and the next generation of tea masters in the meticulous nuances of judging and grading the Tieguanyin. Unlike the West, where even teabags are called premium™, the grading system in China is taken very seriously and correct grading and pricing ensures respect from the connoisseurs and reputation for your farm.
Mr. Yan's family now sub-contracts out large areas of their tea plantation at Bao Shan, to other local farmers or relatives to harvest, as the immediate extended family are much more needed at the judging and selling aspects of the business. Being able to export these prized Tieguanyins, participating in auctions and competitions, will ensure that the farmers survive and thrive, furthering their cultivation techniques.
Mr Zhou - Fuding, Fujian, China
For Mr. Zhou, from 3 generations of farmers at Fuding, growing tea is part of his heritage. His father confided that most of his tea fields laid fallow during the years of the Cultural Revolution because tea consumption was largely frowned upon. Having nowhere to sell their tea, the families drank everything they grew.
Since that period of hiatus, White Teas have enjoyed a renewed recognition and elevated status. Part of that is due to local government support from the city of Fuding, a northern city in Fujian relatively close to the ocean. The mountains there enjoy year round mist and fog as well as an open vista to the ocean. The city government of Fuding has decided to recognize tea as its treasure: today, 75% of all of its citizens are involved in tea in one form or another. In addition, international certification and standardization are expensive and which most farms cannot afford. The local government has provided subsidies towards the professionalism and standardization of white tea production, as well as a place of origin certificate for what is true, authentic white tea.
Behind this movement of combining the best traditional methods with technology that ensures modern standards, are professionals like Mr. Zhou. His farms are situated on the hills that his family's white teas have always grown. However, they are mostly certified organic by the China standard that conforms with the EU. His production facilities are also ISO 9002 and organic and green certified. "White teas are recognized to be one of the healthiest teas," said Mr. Zhou. "Its environment of creation should reflect that."
Mrs. Su - Tung Ting Village, Taiwan
Mrs. Su, Shu Jen, is one of the hardest working tea growers we've worked with. She is the daughter of 3 generations of tea farmers and married to Mr. Su, grandson of one of the founders of Tung Ting Village. When tea was first found to grow well in Taiwan, Tung Ting Mountain was deemed extremely suitable. The villagers are extended family members and help each other harvest, process teas, working together as one unit.
Mrs. Su is one of the exceptions among tea processors, for women usually hand pick the leaves and the men handle the finishing. Processing tea is meticulous and difficult, requiring great skill and experience, as well as much strength and endurance. Mrs. Su married Mr. Su when she was 16 or 17 years old, but her husband left for mainland China to develop a market for Taiwan Oolongs shortly afterward.
Oolongs originated in China, but during the dark years of cultural oblation, little advances were made to the cultivation and care of tea. The Taiwanese, however, thrived and refined technique and machinery, setting up research centers and farmers' cooperatives to study better varietals and accentuate that signature Taiwan tea fragrance. The results are lighter, floral, and intensely rich and very sweet complex oolongs. These greener Oolongs were prized by Oolong connoisseurs around the world, and when the Taiwanese businessmen travelled to China in the early 1990s to do business for the first time, they brought their preferences to the mainland. The mainlanders quickly found it fashionable, and new techniques of making more fragrant and lighter oolongs were sought. That is the reason Mrs. Su took up tea processing in addition to harvesting, and raising 3 boys on her own, to support her husband's venture, providing him with the great Taiwan Oolongs for the China market.
In addition to her tea processing work, she selects and tends the charcoal pieces for her roasting, ages her dowry Oolongs (since the day she was married), gives tours to visitors to the mountain, and of course fret over her sons. "Just bring yourself", she always says when I visit, "I'll go collect some fresh bamboo shoots to make soup for you. But my boys would sure like some chocolates!"
Mr. Liu - Nantou, Taiwan
Mr. Liu is a tea judge, grower, tea historian, tour guide, devoted tea professional, and owner of a roadside restaurant serving the best mountain bamboo rice our buyer has ever had.
He alternates between judging tea and experimenting with new varietals and entering those tea competitions himself. For example, in his nursery of young Jin Shuan bushes, he has grafted the older and better quality Tung Ting branches, so that the Tung Ting may enjoy the hardier root system of the Jin Shuan, a varietal developed to better suit the climate of central Taiwan. He has tended his Four Seasons and Jin Shuan crops carefully, making sure that the tiny green leaf hoppers who love to eat the leaves only chew the small edges of the leaves, sucking out the acrid juices and leaving only the sweet. All the teas are technically organic in his gardens, he said, though whether he bothers to certify them is another matter. Because the Nantou valley is at a slightly lower elevation than Tung Ting or the highest peaks at San Lin She, many other pests do come besides the beneficial leafhoppers, and so, ecologically, Mr. Liu must make sure that the right "pests" are invited. Mr. Liu takes extreme pride in giving tours and reciting the history of Taiwan Oolong. In his spare time, he marinates plums in his left over oolongs and experiments with aging oolongs in the shortest amount of time.
Mr. Lee - Wenshan, Taiwan
In Green Tea, it is said, one is tasting the weather. In a Pu-Erh, one is connected to the earth and the contemplation of the passage of time, for Pu-Erh teas are best appreciated aged. But oolongs, semi-oxidized, variably baked, and all reliant on the skills of the maker's oolongs fit the Chinese adage: To take action depends on mankind, but to succeed depends on the heavens. With years of experience and devotion, the tea master, like an olympic competitor, will do his very best to achieve the most perfect oolong possible, but it will be the heavens which determine his success.
Mr. Lee of Pingling, Wenshan Taiwan, is one such tea master. One of four sons of a tea master who grew and created Baochong oolong teas, he is the only brother remaining at the farm. Nowadays, more glamorous occupations abound. Mr. Lee points to the cuts on his hands; having to manage four hillsides' worth of teas on his own is next to impossible. Mr. Lee's father's grave remains carefully kept in the center of one of the hillsides, as do all the groves of bamboo, tree size gardenias, and wild ginger flowers that grow all over his farm. He laments the state of affairs. For example, there is a shortage of labor. The best tea harvesters are women over the age of 60, and they are growing fewer, obviously, and more demanding as to the quality of lunches and other perks expected.
Whenever I visit with Mr. Lee, I ask him how his children are doing. "I force them to help me pick tea," he says with a grin, "during summer breaks from college studying engineering." But none will take care of this generational farm when he retires. What will he do then? "Make it a tourist resort," he said.
One might assume that with the slight bitterness with which Mr. Lee talks about his hard days growing tea, that the teas produced would reflect a lack of enthusiasm. Not so. Four years ago, Mr. Lee's Baochong won first place in the Spring Oolong competition, an extremely prestigious event. He was so excited he drank some alcohol, and not the ones he makes with tea. In subsequent years, he would win second or third place each year. Undaunted, he entered himself in the first ever Tea Producers Competition, 2007. This was a contest of pure processing skill, as all the tea masters were given the same raw leaves. Mr. Lee beat out over a thousand competitors to win Silver, and for someone just over 50 years old, this was quite an honor. Winning competitions for one's tea ensures a good auction price for that lot of tea, but winning for one's production skills ensures prestige for the entire farm.
Mr. Shimo Oka - Uji, Japan
Mr. Shimo Oka, who produces the Gyokuro that is sold at Teance, is certainly considered the best tea producer in Japan. He won the Emperor's Cup in 2013 for his tea. In the past 50 years, there has only been 5 awards for tea, and he is one such recipient. That was extremely prestigious, it's sort of like beating out all the Oscar contenders from music to costumes to acting to directing to win just one prize, for the Emperor's Cup usually goes to a sports event and not agriculture.
Gyokuro is literally 'the dew of jade' and when you infuse it at the proper temperature, which is about 45 degrees C, it is rich, viscous, slightly savory, and finishes sweet as morning dew. It is a sentiment producing tea. Mr. Shimo Oka has a photo with Mr. Koizumi the former prime minister as well as a house completely taken over with plaques, awards, medals, gold cups. Mr. Shimo Oka says it's never appropriate to pour boiling water to Sencha. But, he said, you can pour boiling water if you wish to quickly filter out the good and bad Senchas, the bad ones will turn bitterly sour instantly. However, for the proper enjoyment of what the Sencha (called Sincha in the early Spring) was intended, to get the right balance of astringency and rich flavour, the proper temperature should be between 60 to 70 degrees C. You heard it here from someone considered the best tea producer in Japan!
Mr. Shimo Oka asked us very politely to please make sure that people in America enjoyed his tea, not only as a beverage (and, please, he said, don't make gyokuro lattes with them), but within the context of the great Japanese culture as well. In other words, DO NOT make his tea in tetsubins, cast iron pots meant for hot water only!