In a summer afternoon, I stepped into Lee’s Tea Estate to interview its owner, Mr. Lee, an experienced tea artisan in Lugu, Taiwan. I was so immersed in the talking (and teas as well) that I failed to keep track of time. When the interview was finished, it was already dark outside. Only then did I realize that we have been talking for almost 3 hours. To be honest, I did not expect it would last so long. I am never good at long talking, guess neither does Mr. Lee. But, it was really amazing that two people who met each other for the first time felt like being old friends for many years. There is an old Chinese saying which best describes this “A thousand cup of wines would not suffice when two confidants meet.”
Maybe because I am a stubborn person and stubborn people tend to appreciate each other. What I saw from Mr. Lee is exactly stubborn or (I should say) persistence. He insists to make Oolong teas in a traditional method which only few tea artisans are able use nowadays. He is very clear in his mind of what a premium tea should taste like. So he goes all for it, no matter how much additional effort/cost. And no matter how market preference changes, he is not going to change his mind.General people would not understand why he adheres to traditional method so much so that he would stay up all night just to make a batch of tea right, while other tea masters would rest early. Furthermore, in order to pursue the ideal tea plantation place, he searched all round Taiwan and finally determined to grow tea in Chi-Lai Mountain, which is above 2,000m altitude and 4 to 5 hours away drive from his home.
It is easier for me to understand since we all insist to preserve something valuable. In the middle of interview, Mr. Lee asked how do I want to expand my tea business? I am just smiling. For me, I started as simply as a tea enthusiasm who wants to introduce the world with the exquisite tea in Taiwan. Tea is not merely a simple product/ business to me. It is an heritage and life style established upon complete and comprehensive culture through thousands of year. I still remembered the smell of Oolong my grandpa brewed when I was little (and still miss it!). For me, it is all about people. That’s why I insist to interview with farmers when sourcing tea, and it’s the origin of the series of farmer interview.
In this visiting, I tasted the following 3 teas, which I will publish detailed tea reviews in the Tea Tasting section in my blog soon.
- High mountain Oolong with delicate fragrance
- High mountain Oolong with traditional method
- High mountain Gui-Fei Oolong
為什麼會有這種感覺? 我想是因為我在李大哥身上看到相同的特質，就是執著!一般人大概很難理解，就在市場上一片倒地擁抱清香型烏龍時，怎麼還會有人堅持用傳統的方式做茶? 明明用清香型的做法，工序簡單，在市場上也好賣，可以輕輕鬆鬆地做，早點收工，早點休息，他偏偏要用傳統繁複的做工，做茶做到隔天早上五~六點才能睡，怎麼會有這種人?
1. How do you start your tea making business?
Our family is local tea farmer in Lugu, therefore, I learned about tea making since I was a child. However, to be more specifically about taking it as a career of lifetime, it should go back to a decision made by my father in 1970s. I was still a high school student, studying at an agricultural school away from home, when my father decided to name the family tea factory in the name of mine – “Ming Zheng Tea Factory”. Although my father did not say much to me, I already understood that he wanted me to come back and take over the family business. So I learned from my father in tea making after graduation and took over the tea factory.
There is something needed to special mention is that I am the youngest children in the family. Before me, there are two brothers and four sisters in the house. So little did I expect my father will actually pass his lifetime business into my hand. My father did not discuss with anyone in advance, incl. my mother, my brother and sisters. Even I was notified later. Maybe it’s due to the instinct of father, and his observation that made him think I am capable of this job. So he decided before asking my willingness!
2. What’s the features of your teas?
What I made is mainly based on the method of traditional Dong-Ting Oolong tea, which requires sufficient fermentation of tea and strong flavor in the mouth. This approach is directly inherited from my father, the formal method used by tea masters in Lugu in his generation.
However, there are fewer and fewer people willing to/ be able to make tea in the traditional approach (highly oxidized teas).
One of the reason is the market’s preference to delicate fragrance of tea which would be achieved by decreasing the oxidized level. For example, Taiwanese high mountain tea, Dai Yu Ling, is notably for its delicate fragrance and sky rocketed price, very popular in the market. So did tea makers to pursue this trend by making almost every kind of tea in a light oxidized approach, which inevitably sacrificed many characteristics and flavors compared to its original version. We call this “the danger of green” as the lower oxidation level the tea is, the greener color it will have. We ,Lugu, also have this danger of green few years earlier. And this trend is not only in Taiwan. In China, Tie-Guan-Yin in China is being called as Green-Guan-Yin to reflect its greener color in recent years.
The second reason is the traditional method takes more time and effort to be completed as it is more complicated in process, and requires higher skill level. General speaking, tea makers could finish one day’s work at mid night if he uses light oxidized method. But if uses traditional method, we need to stay up all night and could only complete one day’s work at 5:00 ~ 06:00 a.m. These are the reasons why few people use traditional method now.
3. What makes you insist in traditional approach?
It has been 30 years and I’ve always adhered to the traditional method. One reason is to preserve the old skills inherited from our ancestors. The other reason is I think the traditional way makes the best tea. It is true that high mountain tea has excellent aroma in nature, but most popular high mountain tea in the market is done with light oxidized approach which relies much more on the quality of tea leaves, not the skills of tea maker. If it could have a higher oxidized level from an experienced tea master’s hand, it will take the aroma of high mountain tea to the next step, and the tea will be more balanced and even better.
I apply this approach in my tea garden in Chi-Lai Mountain with altitude of 2,000 meters. What I do is use high quality high mountain tea leaves as a fundamental, processed with the traditional method, and then we have rounded tea body and strong flavor, which help bring out the fragrance and the after-taste could last longer.
我做茶至今有三十幾年了，一直到都是堅持傳統烏龍茶的做法，除了是為了保存上一輩傳承下來的技藝，也是因為我覺得這樣的所做出來的茶最好喝。高山茶的清揚香氣 如果能配合足夠的發酵程度 那麼茶湯的醇厚底蘊 將會更加的寯永。
高山茶我也是有做，我的茶園在奇萊山區，海拔約有兩千多公尺，但我是用高山茶的茶菁 加上傳統的作法 求得更圓潤香醇的滋味，也讓香氣更持久而平衡。這樣的做法，不管是在成本或是製茶師傅投入的心力，都遠比製作單純的清香型來的高。因為清香型的高山茶，主要是依靠茶本身的資質，對於製茶師傅的技巧要求是比較低的，但是就像我之前說的，以高山茶優質的茶菁，再加上凍頂傳統的製茶技藝，可以為高山茶的香氣增加底蘊，使整體的茶感覺更加協調，也更好!
4. The terrior of your tea garden
My main tea garden is located in Chi-Lai mountain, just opposite to the Cingqing farm. Its altitude is 2,000 meters. It takes 4~5 hours drive to get there from my house in Lugu. Why would I plant tea in such a distance? Many years ago, I took a chance to make tea in the region and almost instantly I like the tea grown in there. It is a mountain sloping field with gravel. The characteristic of the tea is very different from other region. If Shan-Lin-Xi tea is like a young, slim beauty, the tea from Chi-Lai mountain is more like a male warrior, more muscular and has more characteristics.
5. The art of tea making
Making tea is an art. There are too many factors to determine the quality of tea, including the weather, the harvest situation, the tea garden management, and withering , fermentation process. Even though I have been doing this for more than 30 years, I am still learning. The situation changes every time when making tea. There are too many variables to be controlled. If any of this goes wrong, the tea is defected. How to manage these? Mainly relies on the experience of tea artisan and keen sense of smell.
Even today, I still do not dare to say I am 100% satisfies with every batch of tea I made. However, if there is a satisfactory tea, I will smile as matter how tired.
6. A working day of an tea artisan
Since it takes 4 to 5 hours drive to the tea garden, I will attend to tea garden 3 to 4 days in advance in the tea harvest season. Generally, I will hire 20~30 plucking workers nearby. The average harvest amount will be 800~1,200Kg. 1 kg gross tea could be made out of 5 kg tea leaves.
The tea making is a continuing process. Plucking workers will start by 7:00 a.m., and by 08:00 am the first batch of tea leaves are sending in. And then it is a non-stop sequence till 05:00~06:00 am in the next day. I have only 1 or 2 hours to rest (or no rest at all) Those days will continue for one to two weeks in the harvest season. So the day of a tea maker, especially in tea season, is extremely exhausting.
7. The Tea Camp
In this July, we host a tea camp for some of our tea lover friends. The camp is in our tea factory located in Dong-Ting tea region in Lugu. The participants were running through every process under the instruction of Mr. Lee. Although it is only 1/6 work load of a common tea maker, everyone was exhausted. After this experience, they all know how difficult it is to have a pot of tea, and thus more cherish of it.
8. About the Vintage Tea
My father started to storage Dong Ting Oolong when its price was still very high about 30~40 years ago. For example, it iron can was sealed with wax very carefully. It was a very advance thought at that time. However, my father was only doing this for sentimental value, not expecting that the price of vintage tea will become so high. We, now, also storage some teas, especially in the year which meant a lot to our family, for our precious memories.
專訪 李明正先生 於鹿谷李家茶莊
Brief of Mr. Lee, Ming Zheng
- Owner of Lee’s Tea Estate
- Founder and Chairman of Junior Chamber International, Lugu
- Appraiser of Dong Ting Cooperative, Lugu
- Special Award of Tea Roasted Skill Competition, Lugu, 2011
- 李家茶莊 負責人
- 鹿谷國際青商會 創會長
- 鹿谷凍頂合作社 評審
- 鹿谷鄉100年茶業烘培技術競賽 特等獎