Government R&D Aids Private Enterprise
The Aroma Returns to Yuchih Tea
Researchers at a government-run tea farm in central Taiwan are using a long-forgotten variety of black tea to revive a farming town's former glory.
The Aroma Returns to Yuchih TeaBy Hsiao-wen Wang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 393 )
From bananas, tiger prawns and eels to current hot-selling farm products like butterfly orchids and groupers, the effort and innovation of agro-technology researchers have been behind Taiwan's many agricultural successes.
Since 2000, new species and new technologies developed by the 16 agricultural research and extension stations under Taiwan's Council of Agriculture have generated economic benefits of NT$170 billion. During the same period the government spent less than NT$20 billion on agro R&D, which amounts to a return on investment of more than 900 percent.
In former times farming held no promise in the eyes of young Taiwanese, but thanks to the continued progress of agro-technology, it has now become a respectable business with good potential. Today, investing in agriculture means investing in the future.
Disheveled betel palms line both sides of the mountains along Provincial Highway 21 to Sun Moon Lake in Nantou County.
If you turn right 100 meters beyond Dayan Tunnel, you will arrive in Dayan Village. Strolling along the area's winding mountain paths, you will discover a piece of land where betel palms have just been felled to make space for the seedlings of Ruby Assam Black Tea bushes.
The tea seedlings strive to catch the sunlight that shines over the top of the nearby betel tree plantations. Liu Ming-sheng, an experienced tea picker in her fifties, happily sings a song as she plucks the tender, green tea sprouts by hand. At the same time she presents some of the freshly plucked tea leaves to Lin Jin-chih, the director of the Yuchih Branch of the Tea Research and Extension Station (TRES) under the Council of Agriculture, and discusses with him the young tea bushes' growth.
'Betel nuts don't fetch a good price these days. The harvest from one hectare of land can be sold for NT$200,000 at most. Now that we are planting Taiwan Tea No. 18 or Ruby Assam Black Tea, we can easily make NT$300,000 per hectare,' tea farmer Yeh Chin-man says proudly as he busily handles fresh tea sprouts.
For Yeh and his tea-picking wife Liu Ming-sheng, the new black tea variety ?V which goes under the official name TTC_TTES No. 18 Black Tea and was developed by the Yuchih Station ?V was the key for turning Taiwan-grown black tea from a cheap beverage ingredient into a high-quality specialty product.
Sun Moon Lake is shrouded in mist, and the scent of tea fills the air at verdurous Mt. Mao. Nestled between the lake and the mountain, the Yuchih Station dates back more than 70 years. A European-style building made of juniper and once used to process black tea gives testimony to the rise and fall of the local tea industry in years gone by.
At the beginning of the 20th century when Japan operated Taiwan as an agrarian colony in support of its own program of industrialization, a young teamaking technician from Japan's Gunma Prefecture named Kokichiro Arai moved with his wife and children to Yuchih, which was still malaria-infested at the time. Thanks to Arai's efforts the Japanese introduced black tea varieties from India's Assam region and from Indochina. The tea bushes thrived in the local climate, so that black tea could soon be mass-produced.
In 1928 a batch of black tea from Taiwan was sold in London and New York. At the tea auction in London, European tea experts rated the Taiwanese black tea's flavor as comparable to top-grade Indian black teas. As a result, black tea from Yuchih became famous over night. At the time the asking price for one kilogram of tea equaled two days' wages.
Building on the foundation laid by Arai, exports of black tea from Yuchih helped the government accumulate a large amount of foreign currency in the 1960s. At the time more than half of Taiwan's tea exports were black tea.
Unfortunately, private tea traders later ruined the high-quality image of Taiwanese black tea, because they blended Yuchih tea with inferior varieties. On top of that, new varieties of partially fermented tea such as Golden Lily Oolong and Jade Oolong became fashionable in Taiwan. In time, Yuchih's black tea bushes were gradually replaced by betel tree plantations.
In 2002 Lin Jin-chih and Chwi-feng Chiu, then a researcher at the main Tea Research and Extension Station in Taoyuan, were reassigned to work at the Yuchih Station. Both are top tea tasters with highly honed senses and are considered walking dictionaries on Taiwan's tea industry. By slurping just a spoonful of tea, both are able to tell whether the tea has been brewed with water from mountain springs or tap water, whether the tea leaves have been damaged by the tea green leafhopper, or whether tea leaves of inferior quality have been blended in.
At the time Chiu felt that in order to achieve a renaissance, Yuchih's black tea industry would have to not only be innovative in the cultivation of new tea varieties, but also set itself apart from the international mainstream in terms of manufacturing methods and connoisseurship as well.
Suddenly an idea hit him. He recalled a unique Taiwanese variety of black tea, long forgotten for nearly half a century ?V Taiwan Tea No. 18 ?V which he felt would serve as a potent tool for reviving Yuchih's dormant black tea tradition. This variety of tea ?V also known as Ruby Assam ?V is a hybrid of Burmese large-leaf tea species and Taiwan's indigenous wild mountain tea. In addition to the flavorful quality of traditional black tea, Ruby Assam also has the fragrance of Taiwan's high altitude teas, with a hint of mint and cinnamon.
With the keen instincts of true experts, Chiu and the Yehs could tell they were on to a winner when they came across Taiwan Tea No. 18. As the town worked to revive its black tea tradition and industry, the variety's star began to rise.
Soon the Yehs cleaned up their long abandoned tea plantation and began to plant Ruby Assam Black Tea, while Chiu developed a new approach to brewing it for refined appreciation, hoping to reverse the trend of black tea being used as the main ingredient for bubble milk tea and other cheap tea beverages.
Technicians at the Yuchih Station advised Yeh and his wife, who had used machines to harvest the tea, to hand-pick the tea leaves instead and to pluck only the end bud and the first two leaves of the shoot. The tea leaves were then rolled into strips, which allowed them to fully unfold when infused, releasing the distinct flavor of Taiwanese wild mountain tea.
After Ruby Assam tea made its debut, Chiu went to central Taiwan to promote the new product to tea art organizations. At first many tea masters outright refused when they heard that Chiu wanted to brew a new black tea variety for them. They argued that black tea was good for nothing but bubble tea and that it was out of the question to serve it at the sophisticated gatherings of tea connoisseurs.
After Chiu's repeated prodding, some tea masters eventually brought themselves to give the new tea a try. The first sip of Ruby Assam converted most doubters. They were surprised to find that a black tea could taste so good without sugar and milk. News about the Ruby Assam miracle quickly spread, so that one catty (0.6 kg) of the tea soon sold for more than NT$2,000 and became as sought-after as before.
Inspired by the success of Ruby Assam Black Tea, Yuchih tea farmers launched a wide array of top-grade black tea brands within just three or four years. Meanwhile, tea drinkers in Taiwan are again jumping on the black tea bandwagon.
Felling Betel, Planting Black Tea
'One kilo of imported black tea sells at just US$1, while farmers who plant Taiwan Tea No. 18 can sell one catty for more than NT$2,000 [about US$65]. A tea plantation of one hectare can yield some NT$2-3 million per year. That's much more than betel nuts,' notes Lin in explaining why more and more farmers have cut down their betel plantations to grow black tea.
The revival of the town's black tea culture has also enticed the young to return to the countryside. This is helping to make the local black tea industry more sophisticated and leisure-oriented.
On a tour of Sun Moon Lake in November last year, Chi Mei Group founder Hsu Wen-lung also visited the Yuchih Station, where he paused a while in front of the cenotaph for Japanese tea master Arai.
Given that many Chinese tourists are crazy about Taiwanese tea, buying up what they can get at local souvenir shops, Hsu is now considering commissioning a bronze statue of Arai to commemorate his contribution to internationalizing Taiwan's tea industry, and pay homage to the countless unsung heroes of the Yuchih Station who improved the lives of Taiwan's small farmers and made a name for Taiwanese tea around the world.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz
Chinese Version: 魚池茶改場 找回消失的茶香