Touring a Historical Black Tea Processing Facility - Part II – Taiwan Sourcing

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Continued from our previous post "Touring a Historical Black Tea Processing Facility - Part I - Reviving Past Glories!"  The author recommends listening to the "Memoirs of a Geisha" Soundtrack while reading this article!

 Tea material would be sent to another rolling machine which has the function of applying downward pressure.  Since the tea leaves were already properly crushed at the first stage of rolling, it would be difficult for the machine to crush the cellular structure in the leaves without applying quite alot of pressure. As a result, applying pressure from the top down is the best solution.

Since everything was antique at this place, we didn't find an automated method of doing this, instead we saw a very ancient "chain drive" mechanism that was hanging from the ceiling. 

 

The transmission will drive the pressuring mechanism in the most classical way. 

 

This factory name we saw on this machine is said to still exist, but who knows?  It has been more than sixty years since this machine was manufactured!

 

After the rolling process another mass breaking would be commenced again. As you might notice in the picture, the tea material at this stage had turned darker in its appearance taking on a brown and yellow-gold color (yellow-gold being the buds).

 

If that was not clear enough, here is a picture of the "blacker" tea. 

 

 

Clean hands were still required for the final stage of the mass breaking.

 

The tea tray would be placed on a rack like this, which is very common in most of the tea factory in Taiwan.The adequate amount of moist would be applied to the material, this is the stage probably most people were most familiar with - the oxidation.

The oxidation will again take quite some time until it was ready for drying.  So we decided to explore the other corners of the factory while the daylight sun is strong enough to illuminate even the darkest corners of this near-ancient tea factory. 

This place was the only Taiwanese established and run factory in the Japanese Era, and was the only factory that was able to compete with the Japanese-run factories (in Taiwan) .  Tea was mainly exported to the US, the UK, and even Japan.  More than 580 tons of black teas were exported annually, which is still an astonishing number even for today's standard.  Before 1965, this factory was not only the largest private company in Nantou, but also collaborated with the Nantou Agriculture Academy to educate talented students by providing internships. 

After 1965, due to the competition from Ceylon and India, and Taiwan's exit from the United Nations, the export market shrank dramatically, leaving only Taiwanese and Chinese consumers.  Unfortunately, at this same time the local Taiwan tea drinkers were increasingly enamored with the "High Mountain Oolong" teas,leading to a further decline in the consumption of Black tea. The whole company was forced out of business in the early 1980s, only making its revival in 2012.

 

And now here we stood, the old past was still waiting for its glory. This was the filtering machine for the final product. 

 

After years of stepping, the edge of this stair finally collapsed.

 

It's hard to imagine this place used to have more than 100 employees working 24/7 and 400 others working in the tea field. Now only the structure was left for most of the place, while the third generation of the Guo family was working diligently below.

 

A corridor to another part of the compound.

 

 

This place suffered from a devastating fire in the 1950s which burned down a lot of the structure, but thanks to the founder's patience and love, it was rebuilt to an even better condition. Today what we saw were mostly covered by steel sheet. Since the cost of repairing and renovate this place would be extremely high. A single window would not cost a lot, but with over 200 windows to repair, that's where the costs began to skyrocket.

 

 Some people might be wondering how did the tea get to the second floor in the morning  (see Part 1 of this article)?  As the fresh leaves are brought from the adjoining plantation in the morning, the bags are loaded onto the mechanical "stairs" which allows the bags of tea to be transported to the 2nd floor without too much effort.

 

The tea will go directly to the withering room on the 2nd floor.  To ensure proper withering conditions the room is large and full of windows.  The newly installed fan will accelerate the process as well. This was probably the best improvement for this historical place so far. 

 

 It was already afternoon by the time the tea was done with oxidation, at which time it was sent to the specially designed "automatic dryer" to dry out the tea. The machine was not only big, but also noisy and hot when it was running.  This is the final stage of our tea processing today. 

 

With the tray moving inward and the teeth-like wheel rotating, the tea would be evenly distributed on the tray while being dried up by the heat. Another machine on the right served as the purpose of final drying. 

 

Now we see the tea has turned black with some golden or white bud on it.  Ruby 18 would not have this character due the it being predominantly leaf (with few buds).  The tea we see in the picture below is Wild Elephant

 

 At this stage, the tea is completely dried and is ready to packaged and sold to the public.  It took us around 7 to 8 hours to complete the batch of black tea today. The more the tea the longer time it takes to finish the tea, so apparently there was not much to material to process today.

The tea plantation adjoining the tea factory was abandoned more than thirty years ago and only reclaimed in 2011.  We decided to have a look around to see how "organic" it could be.  No weed killers or other herbicides have been applied to this land for more than 30 years.  The result is a superbly organic tea garden, with tons of bio-diversity, which makes harvesting and picking a little slower.  Good things require patience!

 

After 30 years of.....well, not managing anything, this place has decided to be its own master.

 

And the tea trees simply decided to grow sporadically in the field. Might look unprofessional, but definitely happy and healthy!

 

After another drive we reached the other side of the mountain and encountered the plantation for Ruby 18. This was also once the experimental field for Ruby 18 development as well, but thanks to the shifting taste of the market 30 years ago, Ruby 18 was a failed product to the market, and hence most of the Ruby 18 planted back then was demolished. Today only a few of them were left in the field - like the proud survivors.

 

 The recently developed tea plantation was of course more orderly looking. This was the Ruby 18 organic tea plantation.

 

Here is a happy Ruby 18 with a sad and dead tree behind.

 

After we left the Ruby 18 plantation we drove further on to find the Wild Elephant tea trees. The Wild Elephant was at the other side of the mountain where there were nothing but tea trees and the forest birds chirping delightfully. 

 

A closer look to the Wild Elephant tea tree. It features the primitive tea vein appearance like the old Yunnan tea trees. 

 

Deep in the woods, there were tea trees to be harvested.

 

After our tour of the tea factory and adjoining wild plantations, we were both excited and hopeful for the future of this operation.  This old tea factory thanks to the growing Black tea drinking population was back producing these Black teas again!  However, despite our optimism, the Taiwanese are facing a harsh economic environment that is (arguably) tougher than that faced 40 years ago.  With extreme competition from the outside world and a weak national economy, it's a uncertain whether this very special place and it's teas will be able to survive financially in the coming years.

Our hope is that people continue fall in love with Black teas from Taiwan, and that this historic tea factory and plantation will be able to continue improving its facility and teas with the support of customers worldwide.  The path to full restoration is still long and rough, but with your help and support this age-old tradition will be preserved for generations to come!

 

The glorious past might return one day, we just have to drink and wait.

 

 

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