SANXIA ARTICLE FOR MR. HSU - Austin Yoder, 17th Sep. 2012

We were fortunate enough recently to travel to Sanxia, Taiwan with Mr. Hsu of the May Zest Tea Co. ( Mr. Hsu has been in the tea industry in Taiwan for decades, and is connected to the major players and producers in nearly every region of the island. Sanxia being no different, Mr. Hsu was able to introduce us to both a 100 year old tea old factory owned and operated for four generations by the same family.

The most common type of tea produced in Sanxia is 青心柑仔 ( Chin Shin Gan Tze), a cultivar not grown elsewhere on the island which is used to produce the full range of fermented teas, from white to black. The most remarkable thing about being in Sanxia is learning that the soil is so fertile here that tea farmers can harvest one crop every seven days. Most places, including all high altitude regions, teas are harvested two – five times per year. A harvest once per week, one every seven days, is astoundingly fast growth for the tea plants in Sanxia!

- 青心柑仔 ( Chin Shin Gan Tze), a cultivar which is originally from Taiwan and which the Japanese fell in love with during their occupation of the island, is now grown in Taiwan almost exclusively in the Sanxia region.

When we set off with Mr. Hsu, our destination for the day was the Jian An Tea Company (Jian An for short). Jian An was founded by the current owner Mr. Wang’s Grandfather before the Japanese occupation of Taiwan began. The company has stayed in the Wang family for four generations, developing and adapting to market fluctuations and changes of government and policy, through most of the complicated history of Taiwan.

The Jian An Tea factory, a 100 year old, four-generations family owned and operated company.

Generations of history hang thick in the air at Jian An. The walls are made of old red brick, and the rafters of the factory are good local wood. Jian An’s land is home to a host of fruits like pomelo, bitter tea fruit, oranges, longyan (kind of like a lychee), and assorted other citrus fruits. All of the factory equipment in use at the facility is from the 50’s, and is still completely operational. True to its historical roots, Jian An makes use of a host of traditional tea manufacturing equipment from the 1950s, all of which is still completely operational.

- Mr. Wang, stands alongside his historical factory equipment.
Mr. Hsu has known the Wangs for over a decade, and has been doing business with them for about as long. Pictures adorn the walls of other foreign guests which Mr. Hsu has brought to Sanxia in an effort to promote Sanxia’s best products to the world outside of Taiwan.

Mr. Hsu pointed out a host of awards hanging on the walls of Mr. Wang’s factory, explaining that they have won a host of first prize medals and coveted “special awards.”
The staff in the factory brings out some white ceramic bowls, and begins to prepare a cupping for us. They lay six different teas out inside of the bowls, and lay a soup spoon (to analyze the aroma of the teas), down in front of us. As they prepare a full spectrum of locally produced teas from white to honey-red, Mr. Hsu and Mr. Wang begin to discuss the history of the company.

“During my Grandfather’s time, we used to focus on quantity over quality. That’s where my family felt all of the profit was at the time, and my grandfather was glad to have the chance to export such a unique product from Taiwan to the rest of the world. He wanted the rest of the world to have a chance to love some part of Taiwan.”

Mr. Hsu nodded in assent.

Tea farmers in Taiwan were only allowed to produce very small crops of green teas for personal consumption, but were not even supposed to sell it at their local corner markets. Consequently, all tea produced at Jian An during the first generation of the Wang family was black tea. It was produced in bulk, and mainly for export.

After the Japanese occupation came to an end with the Cairo Conference in November of 1943, farmers in Taiwan were more free to experiment with and produce a variety of loose leaf teas. At that time, the Wang family grew Baozhong teas, Jasmine teas, and Oriental Beauty teas. The teas which Taiwan farmers had been making and perfecting for personal consumption during the Japanese occupation became more widely available to domestic markets. After the 1950s, the Wang family began to alter their style of production, shifting away from Jasmine and Oriental Beauty tea production towards Long Jing and Jasmine tea with a focus on bulk production for local consumption. At the time, the Taiwan Tea Corporation had a monopoly over tea export. Any foreign buyers wishing to source tea from the Ilha Formosa had to deal with the Taiwan Tea Corporation. And so many of the smaller producers began focusing on domestic markets.

Mr. Hsu asked about Mr. Wang’s thoughts on the future of the industry.

“Consumers have become more picky.” He explains. “The coffee industry has grown quickly in the last few decades, and now coffee drinkers dislike bland and watery coffee. They want unique, high quality coffee in their cup. They want to be able to taste the fact that coffee is a fresh fruit. And you just can’t achieve that with mass production. So we’re also focusing on high quality, and smaller batch tea production.”

Mr. Hsu then explained to us how weather in different seasons will affect the end product’s flavor.

“Spring teas tend to be sweeter, because the weather during the late winter and early spring is cooler. Because the weather is cooler, the tea leaves grow at a slower rate, and the water content becomes more concentrated, more packed into a relatively smaller leaf. Summer teas tend to be more consistent because the leaves are growing rapidly all the time, and fall teas tend to be more heavy, and potent.”

- Mr. Hsu standing inside the 100 year old Jian An, owned by his long time friend and business associate. Mr. Hsu was able to explain to us how the factory equipment is used, and that the factory equipment we saw in person is unique enough that it cannot be found anywhere else on the island. Simply no other farmers have maintained it in good enough condition that it is still functional. Mr. Hsu nodded again, explaining that many farmers in Taiwan are beginning to follow this unique method of production. In order to deliver a healthier product, one packed with more EGCG which will nourish the body, and one which is more pleasing to the tongue, farmers take the necessary time to prepare teas which bring out natural seasonal flavors. We are amazed that so much history, and such unique stories are sitting less than an hour’s drive outside of Taipei city. And we feel extremely lucky to have met someone as connected, and knowledgeable, in the industry as Mr. Hsu. The fact that we are able to meet up with him and experience so much of the history of our favorite beverage, cha, in a single afternoon is like a dream.