Taiwan, in modern times is famous for its Oolong tea, but in the first half of the 20th century was a major producer of Black Tea (since the middle of Japanese Era 1899-1945). By the 1970's the labor costs were rising quickly, and the political significance of Republic of China was decreasing. During the 70's and 80's the once prosperous black tea industry had all but disappeared. But thanks to the resurgence in Black Tea consumption both in and outside of Taiwan of recent years, some of the oldest black tea factories are back in the game!
Our journey began at 7:00 AM so we could arrive early enough to see the work done by our master Black Tea processor. Our hope was to witness the entirety of black tea processing done in the traditional manner. Although the drive was not as crazy as the Da Yu Ling trip, waking up early is still not an easy task. After driving for about fifty minutes, the once glorious Black Tea factory was finally in front of us. The whole compound looks very old, and it somehow feels a bit abandoned due to the lack of restoration.
However, despite being rather old and somewhat dilapidated, the factory is in reality a historical treasure! What's more, the factory is active again, producing some great large-leaf varietal Black Tea!
The raw ingredients were in the withering trough when we arrived. In the old days, withering was a process that could be mostly ignored when processing commercially produced Black Teas. The tea we were seeing today will go through the withering process first, which allows the acceleration of hydrolysis inside the tea leaves to transform the micro-elements like polyphenols and carbohydrates.
The withering trough we were seeing here would allow warm air to blow from below if the overall environment it is too humid.
This withering process would not take too long. After it was done the withered tea leaves would be "sent" directly through the tunnel which was installed on the floor sixty years ago. Most of the tea factories today still use the similar method to transport their tea material to the next stage, just with newer material such as metal.
The shiny wizened wooden floor is quietly indicating the age of this place......
This long cloth was the tunnel for our tea so that it could be sent down from the second floor conveniently.
The tea material drops into the tray of the huge rolling machine, and began the rolling process. This process crushes the cell walls of the mesophyll (the "tea muscle"). This rolling process allows the soluble substance inside the tea leaves to released more easily when it's brewed with hot water!
To give you a better idea of the size of this rolling machine, here is a full picture.
Here is a clearer picture of the whole process in the case the description is still confusing. The tea is continuously pushed down through the cloth tunnel and drops into the rolling machine as it spins. This is how the Black Tea was made more than seventy years ago (this processing style could be even older than that), and this is how the revived tea factory still does it today. Quite magical, isn't it?
The rolling process will be divided into two parts, and it will take quite some time until it was fully done. Simply sitting there watching it would be time wasting. This tea factory has a lot of little corners to visit. Many decades ago this tea factory was one of the biggest Black Tea exporters in Taiwan. As such, the scale of the compound was quite astonishing even for today's standard.
Here is another rolling machine in front of the still broken window. This one is currently unused.
More waiting to be used machines in the other section. The morning sunshine shooting in will slowly revive the place totally one day as long as more people start drinking more tea.
Here are some very old filtering machines at the rear section of the factory. Most of the wall and roof were gone, so the metal hut became the best replacement for it. Well, for now.
Let's get back to the rolling machine. After the tea leaves were properly rolled during the first stage, the bottom part will open which allows the tea material to be dropped into the cart below.
The rolling process will crush the cell of mesophyll, but will also create the "tea mass" or "tea ball". Larger tea leaves will take longer time to roll compared to smaller and tender tea leaves, and it will also wrap all them together. To avoid uneven rolling and oxidation in the material, separation and classification was needed. As a result, we are sending the material to the mass breaking machine with that cart.
Our tea maker is preparing to throw the teas into the machine.....
Off we go......
This machine continuously shakes the tray, moving the tea forward to the end of the tray while the rest of the smaller tea leaves will naturally dropped through the filtering tray. The design and the execution are simple, and this decades old machine works perfectly! In fact, most of the machines in this tea factory are 40 to 60 years old!
The smaller tea leaves and buds will be filtered to the bottom part, while the larger leaves will make it to the end of the conveyor tray.
A closer look at the sticky tea mass.
The machine will help the "mass breaking" process, but eventually it still requires human labor to break the mass. The tea at this stage will carry a scent that is very is similar to the scent of cherry skin, and since all the juices have been release by the rolling process, it will have a sticky texture. This will form a mass of tea material that sticks together, which then requires hand separation.
At the end of the conveyer tray, our tea maker is breaking up the tea by hand.
The more hands the better! The owner of the hand at the back of this picture has been working at this place since the existence of this place. He is the uncle of our tea maker today, and according to him this was how tea was made back in the old time. He is quite happy to see things going again!
So what will happen after the tea is hand separated? What else could be found at this magical place? And where did all this tea come from? The answers will be revealed in our "Trip to a historical black tea processing site - Part II"!
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