An afternoon with Mr Chen.


A recommendation of ex Melbourne, Taiwan based tea guru Scott Writer, The E Syan Tsun Co. Ltd 意翔村茶葉有 限公司 is located in an alley way above Daan Park in Central Taipei. It’s a humble room staked on one side with large sacks and foil bags of tea, on the other are two tables the first, Mr. Chen was sitting at, with sixteen tiny yi xing teapots, a ceramic tea tray and 3 kettles on a small table behind him. At the second a more elderly gentleman was making tea for a group of four young people, in the wonderfully relaxed social aspect of Gong Fu.

The timing of the trip, early June made me focus on the one style of tea that is being processed at that moment; Oriental Beauty, knowing Mr. Chen was an authority of Taiwanese oolong having written a couple of books, at this stage and sadly for me, only available in Mandarin, and having many long standing relationships with growers throughout Taiwan, I asked to start with a mid range Oriental Beauty to get my bearings on where my pallet was located in relation to his. He produces a beautiful looking leaf, full of soft white curly tips with good levels of green, yellow and reddish brown open leaf and string stems. He explained this was a perfect looking example of Oriental Beauty, it was also a delicious soft infusion with an unexpected citrus note that I had not detected in this style of tea before. We drank 5 or 6 delightful infusions.

Then he brought out what looked like the runt of the litter- mostly reddish brown with very few small white tips and no yellow. He explained this was not a good looking example of Oriental Beauty, but in the cup it is a far superior tea.

This was the first of many myths to be debunked in the four hour tea session.

When Chen brewed the tea, the liquor was rich, structured and yet far more refined than the previous tea. Full of dried apricot and lychee flavours with a caramel roast that played off the richness of the tannins, here was a wonderful tea!

Then Chen explained he was actually not a massive fan of Oriental Beauty, his heart lies with the higher altitudes of Nantou County, especially the Dong Ding region. Lets drink that then.

He  rummaged around in his back room and came back with a tightly rolled, shiny dark Dong Ding that drank beautifully and I’m happy to say, the one we have a Storm is every bit as good! Then he brewed an Alishan or very high mountain oolong. At an average of 2500mt Alishan is the highest region in Taiwan. It was through the drinking of these two teas that we unraveled the myth of higher altitudes producing better tea. The Alishan was a superiorly structured tea, as in that flavours, aromas and mouth-feel presented themselves perfectly, but they just weren’t as pleasing as the richness and warmness contained in the Dong Ding. Why is this Mr. Chen?

He explained that the higher altitudes have better growing conditions. There is more mist and cloud, the tea grows slower producing a finer and more concentrated flavour. The issues come with the processing; dense weather like this isn’t great for controlling the withering, oxidizing and drying of the tea.

A few hundred meters lower at 1500-1800mt there is a bit more sunshine, this produces a bolder leaf but it is much easier to control the processing. Due to the odds of the weather you have a much better chance of producing a top-notch tea.

‘Can’t you just pick the tea and drive it down the mountain to process the tea where there’s more sun?’ he laughed at me. Every little bump in the hand picking and short drive from field to factory damages the flavour of the tea. If you were to drive for 90 mins bumping the tea around in the back of a truck you would loose all the subtlety the leaf had in the first place….. So it seems there are a few days each year when the conditions on the top of the mountain when the sun shines at the right times and if you’re lucky enough to have leaf ready to pick on those days you will make some of the best tea ever. But the teas that most of us can get our hands on and afford are not from these days and thus in Taiwan, according to Mr Chen and now myself, teas produced around 1500mt will generally be a better bet.

Sadly for this post I was a little tea drunk and overexcited so I forgot to take a single photograph of Mr Chen and his tea shop. The photo here is of the runt of the litter Oriental Beauty. If you swing past the shop ask for a cup, I’ve got some stashed under the counter.

June 26, 2014