Foreigner in Taiwan on the Future of the Taiwan Tea Industry

Foreigner in Taiwan on the Future of the Taiwan Tea Industry
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Sanxia is one of the lower altitude tea producing regions in Taiwan, less than an hour’s drive outside of Taipei City, with tea planted at altitudes from 200m to 600m above sea level. The hills of Sanxia are dotted with tea, and second and third generation tea farmers working hard to pluck the tea off the bush. The soil and weather of Sanxia are intensely fertile. So much so that certain cultivars of tea can be harvested, in season, once every seven days, as opposed to the traditional two to four annual harvests common higher altitude tea regions of Taiwan, like Lishan and Fushoushan.

The most common type of tea produced in Sanxia is 青心柑仔 (Qing Xin Gan Si), a cultivar not grown elsewhere on the island which is used to produce the full range of fermented teas, from white to black. In addition to Qing Xin Gan Si, Sanxia is home to a host of fruits like pomelo, bitter tea fruit, oranges, longyan, and assorted other citrus fruits.

As a foreigner in Taiwan’s wonderful tea industry, I’m fortunate to be able to travel around and learn from farmers about the history of tea in Taiwan, about tea culture in Taiwan, and about how people in the traditional tea industry do business both domestically and internationally.

When I got to set off on a trip to Sanxia to visit the Jian An Tea Company (Jian An for short), I was delighted to spend the day with the family behind the company, which has been around for more than 100 years.

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.

When you walk in the door at Jian An, you can’t help but feel you are stepping back in time. Generations of history hang thick in the air, like a heavy mist over a tea field at dawn. The walls are made of old, sun-beaten hand-made red brick, and the rafters of the factory are made from good, hard, Sanxia wood. 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.

The Wang family is proud to have won multiple competitions for tea from the Sanxia Regional Tea Producers Association, winning a host of first prize medals and coveted “special awards.”

Mr. Wang, the current owner, told us how his company’s business strategy and methods of production have changed over multiple generations of his family.

“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.”

Taiwan Tea During The Japanese Occupation Era

During the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, the government put restrictions on all tea producers throughout the island. All farmers were restricted to production of black, fully fermented teas. Specifically Eastern Japan Black Tea, or (日東紅茶). At the time, the Japanese saw Taiwan as a “little Tokyo,” an island add-on to their nation that was just a hop, skip, and a jump away. Because of this, they began using the country to produce a whole host of consumer goods, like tea, at low cost. The Japanese didn’t want to teach Taiwanese tea farmers how to produce green tea, intending to protect their domestic producers from foreign competition.

Tea farmers in Taiwan were 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. Due to the political situation of the era, 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. There just wasn’t any other economically feasible strategy.

Taiwan Tea Post World War II

After the Japanese occupation came to an end with the Cairo Conference in November of 1943, tea producers 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 (東方每人). The teas which Taiwanese farmers had been making and perfecting for personal consumption in micro-batches during the Japanese occupation became more widely available to domestic markets.

Taiwan Tea During 1960s to 1970s

During the 60s and 70s, 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 Nong Lin Tea Company in Taiwan had a government backed monopoly over tea export. Any foreign buyers wishing to acquire tea from Taiwan had to deal with the Nong Lin Tea Company, so many of the smaller producers began focusing on domestic markets.

Taiwan Tea in the Modern Era

Nong Lin’s government backed monopoly eventually came to an end, and foreign buyers are slowly beginning to rediscover the vast, vast array of high quality teas which can be exported out of Taiwan. Forming relationships with local suppliers, and the language barrier can be tricky for foreign companies wishing to source unique teas from Taiwan. However, those in the know see that the international tea industry is growing faster than the coffee industry, and are putting in the time and effort to form relationships. Mr. Wang predicts that in the next five to six years tea farmers will have shifted towards small-batch production of healthy, organic teas, paralleling the development of both the wine and coffee industries in the West.

The Future of Tea, According to Mr. Wang

Mr. Wang is taking the family business in a new direction to match up with the trends he sees shaping the future of the tea industry.

“Consumers have become more intelligent, and consequently more picky,” He explains. “The coffee industry has grown massively in the last few decades, and now coffee drinkers are sick of bland and watery coffee. They want unique, high quality, interesting coffee in their cup. They want to be able to taste the fact that coffee is a fruit, a berry, and pick up on many different flavors in a cup. And you just can’t achieve that with mass production. It’s just how things will be in the future. So we’re also focusing on high quality, and smaller batch tea production.”

Ultra Healthy, Seasonally Variable Micro-batch Tea Production

International competition from China has made Long Jing tea impossible to produce for most farmers in Taiwan, including the Wang family. As such, Jian An has shifted away from Long Jing teas, a previous staple, and is emphasizing seasonal variation in their tea. They use a method whereby tea farmers concentrate on the weather conditions that go into making each seasonal harvest of tea unique, and prepare the tea trying to give the most authentic experience of that harvest possible. They are focusing far more on their unique terroir as a market differentiator.

“Spring teas tend to be sweeter, because the weather during the late winter and early spring when the leaves are growing is cooler. Because the weather is cooler, the teas 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. We try to bring out the character of each seasons’ harvest now, because consumers want a unique experience of our product.”

As a foreigner who has grown up exposed to wine marketing and participated personally in the growth of the high-quality coffee market in the US from a consumer side, the type of language that Mr. Wang is using to describe how he is positioning his company is exactly what I am used to and what I expect to hear from tea companies. With that said, almost no tea farmers, and very few tea companies that I have met in Taiwan seem to be making the mental shift towards small-batch production that Mr. Wang has articulated.

Whether or not Mr. Wang’s predictions about the future of the tea industry, and micro-batch production will be accurate or not remains to be seen. The Jian An tea company has proven itself successful through a variety of economic and political situations over the past 100 years, so we have strong reason to believe that they will be able to adapt to emerging trends shaping the tea industry at present, and continue to thrive for generations to come.

Factors like global warming and international competition will place Taiwan’s tea industry as a whole under increasingly high pressure to adapt to modern trends, like Jian An is preparing to do.

Personally, I believe that the tea industry in Taiwan, and everywhere else for that matter, could benefit from examining how the wine and coffee industries have grown in the west. I am excited to see the direction the tea industry in Taiwan takes in the next five to ten years, and don’t think there could be a more exciting time for foreigners interested in tea to come and check it out.

Edited by Olivia Yang