The tea culture of Taiwan

It’s winter harvest time in Phoenix Village near Dongding Mountain.

This area, Lugu, is one of the main centres of oolong tea production in Taiwan. Uniform rows of vibrant tea plants, like leafy ripples upon a terrestrial ocean, are waiting to be picked. Harvesters spread out amongst the crop. Brightly coloured long-sleeved shirts and bamboo hats protect them from the sun.

Here at higher elevations, where the tea is grown on mountain slopes, it is not possible to use machines to harvest the leaves. So the tea is picked as it was for much of history, by hand. The owner of the farm follows a process developed by his grandfather, albeit with a little help from more modern machinery.

Tea harvesters at Phoenix Village (Photo credit-Andy Kincart)

The Taiwanese tea shop is as ubiquitous as the 24-hour convenience of 7/11 and Family Mart and an essential part of the urban landscape. The block where I live in Taichung has no fewer than six, offering a dazzling array of icy treats: flavoured with fruit pieces, syrup, sago, jelly, aloe vera, boba, matcha, and milk, many more dessert than drink. But Taiwan’s relationship with tea pre-exists these modern-day caffeinated creations. The island has a long history and tradition of tea making and it is this rich culture that expat Andy Kincart, co-founder of Eco-Cha Teas, wants to share with the world.

Although Taiwan grows other varieties, it is oolong, the “champagne of teas”, that the island is most famous for. Oolong tea evolved during the Tang dynasty in China’s Fujian province and was brought to Taiwan in the early 19th century. The mountains and foothills of this teardrop island had the ideal climate for tea cultivation and from the late 1800s Taiwan began growing and processing oolong tea. Since the late seventies the industry has flourished. Much of the tea produced here is from small-scale farmers, following traditional family recipes developed over generations.

Tea crops producing Alishan High Mountain Oolong (Photo credit-Andy Kincart)

It was this rich culture that Andy fell in love with when he first arrived in Taiwan in 1989. His interest in Eastern philosophy and tai chi inspired him, fresh out of University, to come to here and study Chinese. Taiwan had just emerged from almost four decades of martial law that ended just two years earlier. The industrial skyline was a far cry from his “beautiful and liberal” Santa Cruz home but the culture shock was exhilarating and exciting. More than anything he was most fascinated with the culture of tea drinking. Many homes had a tea table and followed intricate brewing methods. The tea was to be savoured while sitting and sharing with friends. 

It wasn’t long before Andy was jumping on the back of his motorcycle in search of the best tea. He would return from these trips into the mountains with a backpack full of tealeaves to share with his friends. This earned him the nickname Tea Andy, a moniker he holds to this day. It’s a fitting one for someone who has turned his passion for promoting Taiwan tea into a full-time vocation. Andy has been selling Taiwan tea online since 1997 and in 2013 he co-founded Eco-Cha Teas, along with Nick Fothergill. The majority of Eco-Cha’s producers are small-scale farmers and many have been tea growers for generations. In comparison to larger-style industrial tea farms, the family style tradition embodies sustainable practice. It is where, Andy believes, the intricate and gourmet aspect of tea making sits. 

Andy surveying the tea during its processing (Photo credit: Kyle Merriman)

Unlike green tea which is completely unoxidized and black tea which is fully oxidised, oolong is everything between on this spectrum. It requires the most skill and finesse and can be tweaked in many different ways. Every farmer has a different perspective and every harvest is different due to the growing season. And this is what makes oolong tea so distinctive and appreciated by tea connoisseurs.  

Andy connected with many of the farmers that Eco-Cha represents by simply driving around tea growing areas, knocking on doors, and having a chat over a cup of tea. One such serendipitous meeting happened while Andy was relaxing in the hot-spring town of Dongpu. Sitting in the steaming waters Andy had for years looked down on a mostly fallow tea farm that lay next door. He eventually met the owner Edan Takistahiian Islituan and his wife and they formed a close friendship. Over the years Andy has seen the family develop their tea farm, has watched their two sons grow up and get married and for the past two years Eco-Cha has been making a documentary about the family. This is so much of what the a lifetime dedicated to tea is. Relationships formed and developed over years, and, over many cups of oolong.

Andy and Edan (Photo credit: Kyle Merriman)

Edan is part of the Bunun people, the fourth largest of Taiwan’s many indigenous tribes, who carry an ancestral link to Māori. Now, it is his tea that is making the voyage across oceans. Eco-Cha has loyal customers in Aotearoa and New Zealand ranks among their top five consumer bases. For the less well-seasoned tea drinker, however, it can be hard to know where to start. Those wanting to learn more about the wide variety offered by oolong can always reach out to Eco-Cha for questions. They also produce a regular newsletter and their website offers tasting guides to all their teas.

Andy describes himself as a “wannabe tea farmer” who continues to learn and be inspired by those at the heart of things-the farmers. He feels honoured to have been adopted into the professional milieu of tea making. “There are no hipsters here,” he says. “Just a humble community willing to learn from one another.” Andy is proud of the pioneering role Eco-Cha has played in bringing Taiwanese tea to the world. These days he tends to traverse the countryside on four wheels instead of two, his vehicle of choice growing along with his business. 

But some days still find him on the back of his motorcycle driving out into the wilderness in search of tea.

- Asia Media Centre