Saturday, May 5, 2012

Shan Lin Shi

In the early spring of 2010, we had the good fortune to stay with the Chang family in Lugu, Nantou County, Taiwan.  We met the family through WWOOF Taiwan, a branch of the well-known organization that links organic farmers with folks interested in working in the dirt in exchange for room and board.  The Chang family has a plantation on Shan Lin Shi and a small organic oolong grove near their place in Lugu.  We were early for the tea harvest (and probably wouldn't have been much help anyway with our clumsy laowai picking fingers), but the Changs kindly invited us to visit for a couple of days anyway.  We shared some delicious meals and fabulous tea sessions and we deeply enjoyed the company--especially that of the hilarious and mischievous Miss Chang.

On a bright morning we drove out of the dewy valley where Lugu perches and entered the crystalline realm of Shan Lin Shi.  

Those spindly forms among the tea shrubs are ginkgo trees said to be planted at the behest of the Taiwanese government to mitigate erosion.  Our tea friend and guide, Miss Chang, told us that farmers plant ginkgos because they grow slowly and therefore do not compete with the tea plants.
Shan Lin Shi is one of Taiwan's major high mountain oolong production areas and tea farms are tucked into the folds and contours of the mountain.  The tea plants were dark green, waxy and sleeping.  At the Chang's quiet processing center, we saw where fresh stem-and-leaf sets are sun-withered.  Lines above the withering area held a transparent awning that could be drawn to shield the tea in case the sun's rays become too piercing.   

           Indoor withering room where leaves are stirred and rested after outdoor wilting.
Indoor Wilting Baskets
I do not recall the intricacies of the wilting, drying, rolling and roasting process these tender leaves are put through.  I do know that creating a fresh tea with the proper oxidation level and moisture content is not a simple endeavor.  We also got a look at ovens that remove moisture from the leaves.
Drying ovens 
How do they get those leaves and stems into such tight little balls?  

Rolling press
While in Taiwan, we got the sense that large-scale high mountain oolong agriculture can be hard on the land.  (Like industrial agriculture in the central United States and elsewhere) It depends upon the approach of the grower.  Some farmers apply a lot of pesticides to their tea plants and have installed permanent structures that hold applicator tubing.  

Wish I had a better photo of it.  The  line dangling between two poles on the top right of the knoll is a hose that carries chemicals.
We spent a week with another WWOOF family in Zhunan (Miaoli CO) and our host, farmer Lin, a dedicated coffee drinker and skilled roaster, relayed his reservations with the gao shan oolong industry.  (He did so over a pot of Alishan)  Since Taiwan's mountainous core is so steep, he said, the pesticides used on high-grown tea wash downslope and contaminate the island's streams, valleys and the densely populated outer lowlands.  Add to this an increased tendency to erosion brought about by replacing native vegetation with relatively shallow-rooted young tea plants, and it is easy to see that many of the fresh teas I love to drink come with a cost.  Farmer Lin's notion seemed quite plausible to me, especially after taking a bus from Chiayi to the interior and seeing the effects of the August 2009 typhoon that sent mountains sliding everywhere.  

Farmer Lin's artfully rendered and conscientiously sourced oolong alternative.

Where does that leave the helpless gao shan oolong addict?  Trapped between the leaf and his conscience?  As a North American and a denizen of a region most suited to growing wheat, hay and black cherries I consider it a luxury to have access to Shan Lin Shi tea.  I am far from perfect in this department, but after visiting Taiwan and China, I feel compelled to try and support tea vendors who pay attention to how the tea they sell is grown.

In addition to stunningly delicious teas, the flanks of Shan Lin Shi produce other, equally scrumptious fruits of the soil.

Bamboo shoots!
Miss Chang's grandmother digging shoots on the mountainside.
Thanks to the Chang family for such fine days.                                          


  1. Wow, too true in all aspects. I've been working here in Taiwan in a Tea factory for two months now. Did you happen to find out what "Organic" means in Taiwan? I imagine the specs are a little difference from the West, but I'm not sure. As well, how have you fared with sourcing environmentally conscious tea farmers since your experience with chemicals in Asia?



    1. Shane,

      Sorry not to have replied earlier. I've been out of town. My only experience with the concept of "organic" in TW was on a small farm in Zhunan. The farmer there took the practice of growing without chemicals VERY seriously. He'd become impassioned about organic farming after becoming quite ill. He then sought a means of regaining his health and the farmer who became his mentor was deeply influenced by Fukuoka. We visited his farm and it was quite weedy and the vegetables from there were lovely.

      Our language instructor in Tai Pei told us that since the organic "movement" is nascent in TW, many agricultural products that are labeled "organic" are far from it. She seemed very skeptical of the whole thing.

      Since visiting Asia, I've tended to lean toward buying from vendors who I trust to pay attention to growing conditions and chemical use. That is not to say that I do not sometimes overlook these matters when tempted by some luscious-looking lu cha or the like. Not knowing personally any tea farmers who are strict about organic agriculture, I have to trust vendors who have more access to such farmers than I do.

      The fundamental disconnect between western tea drinkers and the constellation of conditions that go into creating the tea they drink is, thankfully, mitigated by folks like you who send information across the water. Thanks for your blog. We need stuff like that. Keep it up!