Taiwan Oolong Study Tour 2017

Rows upon rows of pineapples, growing on Dr Turmeric's eco-farm in Taiwan.

Rows upon rows of pineapples, growing on Dr Turmeric's eco-farm in Taiwan.

 

Here, on the tarmac of Taoyaun International airport in Taiwan...  remnants of snail serum are still bathing my face, after passing my time at an airport spa... which, was just past the spot where I devoured eight sublime dumplings.  "Why not try this super snail slime for my face?" I thought... I'm a curious soul, whose fave phrase is:  "Live a little."  OK, I am still a teeny bit tea drunk, too...  I'm satisfactorily steeped in the blissful aftermath of a week-long oolong adventure in Taiwan, where I was tea tasting with new friends, all over the countryside.  But ya know, there is something to that snail facial...

I was in Taiwan, partaking in a fall Taiwanese oolong study tour (TOST), designed for tea professionals to further their knowledge of Taiwan and its prestigious oolongs.  The program was beautifully hosted and curated by JT&T and we were also welcomed by the Taiwan Tea Research and Extension Station ... TOST was attended by a dozen tea professionals from all over the world... including Nepal, Australia, Kuwait, Argentina, and the US (Baltimore, Portland, Omaha, Los Angeles)...  I was fortunate to join the tea party-bus last minute, as a couple of people dropped out, just when I reached out to Josephine Pan of JT&T...  She and I immediately bonded over the fact that we were both moms to baby boys...  mine had just turned two, and hers was in his twenties.  I signed up a couple days later.

Now, the wonderful adventure is complete and I'm returning to the states one day earlier than planned...  I tried making an excuse about why, particularly as I did have some real family scheduling issues that came up, but no one bought it - especially not Josephine - "Rebecca misses her son!"  I, on the other hand, refused to admit that - I wanted my new colleagues to take me seriously...  #Momboss style?  But, I did - I do miss my two year old son, so much...  and he's feeling it, too...  "Mama, come home right now!" he said via FaceTime video...  hot damn, modern day technology...  modern mom'ing...  modern love...  Lucky for me, EVA, my airline, let me change flights without a fee!  I'm convinced, they are the best airline - good food - the cutest flight attendant outfits - I know, I'm a nerd for saying so, but it's true - and the in-flight entertainment included excellent educational videos about Taiwan (enroute, I learned so much about their advanced agriculture practices, all of their unique fruits and vegetables...  and the fun cultural past-times!)... in conclusion, I'd add that the economy seats were pretty cushy.  (My technique, by the way, for sleeping upright on long flights is to go double-decker neck pillow style - aka two neck pillows stacked - yes, that's a teddy bear on one of them - cozy is my jam...)

 
My "double-decker" neck pillow technique, for long overnight flights in economy.  It really works!

My "double-decker" neck pillow technique, for long overnight flights in economy.  It really works!

My single pluck of the tea plant, for bao zhong oolong, up in Alishan...

My single pluck of the tea plant, for bao zhong oolong, up in Alishan...

 

It feels like a year ago that I landed...  I've absorbed so much...  about oolong tea, which I already 'loved oolong time' ;) ... it's many varieties, the Taiwanese eco-farming practices, Taiwan life in general...  And then of course, travel to new places always lends itself to both getting outside of one's self, and introspection...  Regarding Taiwan tea-life, I guess the best summary would be... well, if it had a theme song, the hook would be:  always stay humble, and out of ego, whenever possible.  The tea masters and farmers were so multi-faceted and talented...  and pleasantly, through and through - humble!  Happy hearts, amazing energy...  I fell in love.  And the nature in their beautiful country...  of Pinglin...  Nantou...  Rui-Li, Alishan...  Sun Moon Lake...  combined with the art of simple living, in full appreciation and passion...  Was all encompassing: heart warming.  At one point, we were enjoying freshly picked persimmons from one of the tea master farmer's eco gardens in Ali Shan - the Wang Ding tea farm - along with tasting their amazing tea, of course.  The gratitude of that moment - in our senses, the joy of friendship through tea - was felt by all of us in the room.  It truly is an art, this life.  And this, echo'd in tea and in tea practice...  

I was very impressed by the knowledge of Thomas Shu, from JT&T as well as Steve Huang, of the Taiwan Tea Research Extension Station.  Steve, alongside Thomas and the tea farmer masters, led us through a couple of days in processing our own oolong, from pluck to finish, at the top of Alishan...  Steve is a kind, passionate man with a great sense of humor and a deep wellspring of tea science and knowledge.  He and Thomas Shu really got into the brass tacks and nuances of the various cultivars of the tea plant, camellia sinensis.  We had touched on cultivars in my tea sommelier training at ITMA, but we went into great depth, here.  And, without TMI (too much info), I'll tell you that at the very basic level, we covered major cultivars like Chin Sing (a staple!) and Jin Suang (good for jade or milk oolongs, with the lighter golden green leaves), Si Chi Chun (these don't stop growing, all four seasons, so larger companies aka 'Tea-giant ;)' utilize, for volume...), Jin Ju, Jin Sieng, Chin Sing Dah Pan, and Ruby 18 (outstanding taste! wavery assam leaves...)...  and we went well beyond this...  Thomas stressed to our group that, particularly in Taiwan tea making, cultivar was of the utmost importance.  After each of our seminars, this became more and more abundantly clear!  I left with a much stronger perspective on the importance of each cultivar as it related to the land, the finished tea's profile, and of course we touched on Qi (energetic quality).  However, I've got to go back and repeat this program again to absorb more...  like so many of the TOST members, who repeat it year after year...  True tea people, are indeed students for life...  it is certainly a rabbit hole, and lifetime of learning.

 
 
Our TOST crew, in the bamboo grove, adjacent to the tea garden in Alishan.

Our TOST crew, in the bamboo grove, adjacent to the tea garden in Alishan.

 
Steve Huang and Thomas Shu explaining the various Taiwan tea cultivars.

Steve Huang and Thomas Shu explaining the various Taiwan tea cultivars.

Myself, with the tea leaves we were processing ourselves...  this was from the first stage, where they were out for withering and "fluffing".

Myself, with the tea leaves we were processing ourselves...  this was from the first stage, where they were out for withering and "fluffing".

New tea friends late-night tasting with tea master, while our leaves are processing!

New tea friends late-night tasting with tea master, while our leaves are processing!

A flower from camellia sinensis, in my hand... (they flower once a year, in the fall!)

A flower from camellia sinensis, in my hand... (they flower once a year, in the fall!)

 

Every day on our trip, there were several new adventures waiting...  but I'll never forget the start... after all, so many times in life I find that the first impressions are the most vivid and everlasting... day 1, I arrived at the airport 5am...  It wasn't busy at TIA...  in fact, it was peaceful, clean and super chilled out.  This sort of international airport vibe was a first for me... in all my years of extensive travel from my previous life as a TV commercials producer...  this airport was so relaxing!  Customs was a breeze.  And my driver, Mr. Deng, was waiting with a blue sign, just as Josephine promised he would.  I said my best 'hello, nice to meet you' in my beginners Mandarin...  As we drove away from the airport and into Taipei, sunrise was starting to peek through the dark, faintly, welcoming.  By the time we arrived at Dong Wu, I had a nice understanding of the city, its various subdivisions, and a local point-of-view on it's history, thanks to Mr. Deng.  And then, in the most jet lagged and touristy way possible, I was in hazey awe of all the motorbikes...  Daniel reminded me that it was a result of city's parking being too limited.

Arriving at the hotel, with my "Nihao" and "Xiè-Xiè" (hello and thanks) in full practice, I was greeted by friendly staff, and upgraded to a tenth floor view.  Now, what I thought was a balcony to climb onto (covered in fake grass), turned out to be a fire escape.  And the cool red triangle graphics on my window, I was told a few days later, meant 'danger do not enter'!  Maybe it was my jet lag, but I assumed it was a balcony to go out and sit on.  Ha - to each their own - oh well, I was tired and I survived...  I forced myself to stay awake, since there was only an hour until breakfast began...  I looked at photos of my son.  I checked social media.  I glanced at my watch.  I congratulated myself for actually getting there, being a toddler-mom, and all...  (thanks grandma, super-nanny, and super-dad!)  I got my twenty minutes of transcendental meditation in.  And then I went off to find out what's next.

 
Dong Wu Hotel room, 10th floor.  Red triangles mean caution, not enter...  Ha!

Dong Wu Hotel room, 10th floor.  Red triangles mean caution, not enter...  Ha!

Josephine, Vix, and myself, on the Taiwan subway.

Josephine, Vix, and myself, on the Taiwan subway.

 

On the dot 7:30a, I commenced to the buffet.  There was a white guy in front of me who seemed to know what the hell he was doing, amongst the rice porridge, pickles, salad items, etc - I was fairly confused about what paired with what - freestyling...  So, we began to chat, and discovered he also had no idea what he was doing, and that we were both there for the oolong study tour.  Hooray!  Paul had a warm and friendly smile, and lived in Portland with his wife, where they co-owned a tea room.  He was attending TOST, as he was to be his company's oolong expert.  After breakfast, I was still delirious...  but with a renewed energy, I could not resist the urge to go outside for a brief explore.  Paul already knew of a cool tea room nearby, so we went off to find it.  After walking several blocks, we discovered not much was open yet...  instead, we went into a temple.  It was magical - so intricate - I took a little video of it, here...  Spinning glowing yellow columns of deities, incense, fruit offerings, the alters...  a beautiful new world...  yet it all felt strangely familiar.  Walking around, I felt at home and at peace...  I went back to nap for a bit, and then came downstairs for a welcome ceremony by Josephine Pan and Thomas Shu, of JT&T.  What a beautiful, enthusiastic, and thoughtful couple, who care so deeply for Taiwan tea.  Josephine, particularly, thought through every last detail, down to providing us with our own stainless steel chopsticks (which she washed!) - "the ones they give you have bleach in them!" - Who knew!?  In our welcome package there were aprons, cupping and tasting sets, and a tote bag for carrying all of the tea and wares we were to purchase, along the way...  After introductions, we were off to the program...

 
 
 
Life in a tea garden, it's lovely.

Life in a tea garden, it's lovely.

And so it began... A weeklong adventure in Taiwanese oolong tea...  We learned so much and made beautiful new friendships...  here, are few of us say cheers, one late night of tea making... (Vix Bisogno and I, particularly hit it off - what a warm and passionate, inspiring human being, and a highly accomplished tea professional, at that!  Check out her school, El Club Del Te, and her books!)  I even managed to convince her to dubsmash with me a couple times ;)  SHHHHHHHH, NEVER HAPPENED, NOT TO ROBYN, NOT IN A TEA FIELD )  And, I'll never forget the first eco tea farm we went to visit, specializing in bao zhong, where this cool young surfer farmer dude, Jacob Bai, and his family had an impressive operation.  As well as the eco tea farm we visited, 'Dr Turmeric' farm, which co-planted turmeric alongside young tea plants as a natural pesticide.  After the father died of cancer, his wife vowed to go all organic, moving forward...  I thought the turmeric was a very nice, and serendipitous touch, there.  Then there were our friends at TRES, and the nature surrounding their station...  I captured several clips, one here, another here...  And, of course there was Norman Shu, a Taiwan tea legend, whose curated wholesale operation offering was ever so impressive...  Our lunch at Sun Moon Lake, and the long walk around it, was also particularly memorable...  the water, nature's beauty... and even though it was a bit more "touristy", the vibe was so serene...  And speaking of peace, in Taiwan in general, those temples...  here is one I visited early morning in  Ali Shan (also from Ali Shan, another moment I captured up there...  breathe deep...)...  And then overall, tasting all of the teas across the various gardens' terroir, and the unique Tea Masters' processing techniques...  those oolongs were certainly some of the best that life has to offer... so much love...  amazing Qi...  My favorite part of the adventure, by far though, was wayyyyyy up the windy roads at top of Alishan, where we spent a couple of days at the Wang Ding ISO22000-certified eco farm.  There, they nurture and create one of the most outstanding milk oolongs...  and there, we learned (hands-on!) to process our own tea over 20 hours.  We were taught the art and craft of withering and "fluffing"...  tumbling...  rolling... baking...  it occurred to me during that time, how tea making is so much like mothering (at times!)...  it requires such careful attention to detail...  even five minutes in the process, can really make or break the essence of the finished batch...

 
Young tea, coplanted with turmeric, which acts as a natural pesticide!

Young tea, coplanted with turmeric, which acts as a natural pesticide!

Jacob Bai and Thomas Shu, sharing wonderful bao zhong tea, and others!

Jacob Bai and Thomas Shu, sharing wonderful bao zhong tea, and others!

A corner of Bai's tasting room, with a window looking out to the gardens.

A corner of Bai's tasting room, with a window looking out to the gardens.

 

This attention to detail...  this calm persistence...  gong fu cha (tea with effort!)...  is a lesson to carry through in our every day life.  Pay attention, be calm, be persistent, make an effort...  most importantly...  have fun, while you do it... be alive...  breathe deep, be mindful, sip slowly...  and "be humble!" Thomas Shu reminded us.

I cannot wait to go back, for another TOST program - autumn 2018, here I come (please, Josephine?!)...  I earned my certificate of completion, from the Taiwan Tea Research Institute...  but in tea, there is always more to be learned, from the tea masters, from nature, the leaf, from each other...  hopefully if I'm lucky, I'll get to go back again, next year...

xx RR

 
Getting my Taiwan Oolong Certification, with Thomas Shu, in Taipei.

Getting my Taiwan Oolong Certification, with Thomas Shu, in Taipei.

My cup of oolong at the serene Sun Moon Lake... what a beauty...

My cup of oolong at the serene Sun Moon Lake... what a beauty...

Our TOST 2017 group, at the top of Alishan, in tea master's beautiful eco garden...

Our TOST 2017 group, at the top of Alishan, in tea master's beautiful eco garden...

Beautiful tea eco-garden at the top of Alishan...

Beautiful tea eco-garden at the top of Alishan...

 
AdventuresRebecca Razzall