Glass floored gondolas crawl across the sky of Muzha mountain. As I slid into my seat watching the station set under the gondola, I turned around to see the highlands sprawled out in front of me. A quiet remark in Mandarin drew my attention back inside. A whisper came from across the steel, “What’s in it?” A fair skinned woman asked pointing to my wooden backpack. “Tea,” I replied, “I am a tea maker; I came looking for tea.”
This was well into a week of exploring Taiwan by foot. I had too many cups of tea to count from over a hundred producers and shop owners. Yet, finding a tea whose quality was decent and made traditionally eluded me even here, the birthplace of the new oolong movement. I had met a Cha Dao tea teacher on Dong Ding mountain who after hearing of my plight afforded me an audience with her traditional tieguanyin maker. I prefer to scale mountains myself, but watching the mountain fold underneath my feet renewed my sense of adventure.
The rain drummed on the foreign wood of my backpack. I clutched the dry pocket of my raincoat and darted off straight into the woods to escape the rain. I finally came to the tea house tucked away past a narrow bend in the road. My feet were sopping but I was glad to finally sit and have tea.
A wife and her daughter were expecting me. They knew what I was looking for but gave me a different kind of tea to start with. Traditional tieguanyin leaves made completely green, frozen, and dubbed “wenshan” in allusion to baozhong tea. The cup was too cooling for me. I was looking for something specific. I noticed a canister perched on the shelf. I recognized it immediately as their competition tieguanyin tea from a couple years prior. I pointed and told them that I tried that at a couple’s house on Dong Ding mountain. I did not like it. The wife then proceeded to bring me their aged tea, knowing full well I was not here for the cheap, mass stuff.
Her husband has taken over the family business of making tieguanyin. A booming man with a deep voice and deeper set eyes. I showed him my own tieguanyin and asked if there’s anything similar. I was really only interested in the traditional tieguanyin he had.
The man certainly has his preferences. For traditional tieguanyin, the practice is to set the tea at an exceedingly high roast. But given the preference between my tea and his, he would have roasted my tea less. Intriguing concept, but his teas did have guan yun, that coveted salivation at the sides of the tongue that only comes from a high roast traditional tieguanyin. What was more intriguing were his prices. The highest quotes I have seen were partly driven by his family’s popularity as traditional tea makers within the Taiwanese community. It was the first time I had to negotiate prices for tea. I hate the business side of things. My Taiwanese brother was with me so I had to show him the side of tea that we are too sheltered from (given our positions at tea houses). Tea houses filter out so much negotiating and fix their prices accordingly. Coming from backgrounds like this, we both left feeling guilty for diving into it.
The master maintained eye contact with me only once, long enough to tell me that traditional tieguanyin is dying in the market. Not many ask for it and those who do have to pay the price.
The traditional tieguanyin with quality to match its traditional processing was quoted at an initial $1000 USD per jin (600g). I was content bargaining a tea that just crossed my threshold for quality instead of that. I don’t think of this tea as good quality but I don’t think the quality of that was that much better. But the one I received is just okay. A tea with a deep amber color from its medium oxidation. Leaves that are full and thick, sap trunked red stems of the Muzha tieguanyin cultivar. I wish the coveted aftertaste lasted a bit longer, but then again, I wish my stay in Taiwan were longer too. I would love to continue combing through the mist of mountains, searching for tea.