Making Tea, Coming to Life: A Forgotten Farm in Taiwan

Written by Ken Cannata, DRBU staff and MA '18 graduate

I'm on the high speed rail going back north to Taipei after a rather intense few days making tea in the far southeast of Taiwan, a place called Manzhou. The towering Taiwan central mountain range tapers off into the rolling hills of Kenting National Park. Utterly stunning.

I've always wanted to make tea. I don't mean brewing tea, although I seem to find myself doing that quite often. I've been imbibing the mountains of Taiwan for over 15 years. Tea has evoked an (over) abundance of imagination from me these past years, and Taiwan holds a predominant station in my hierarchy of magical terroir.  Now it is a few years after my MA at DRBU and we are slowly but surely creating space for practicing the art and skill of tea brewing and serving.

A dear Taiwanese friend, 常行深, started making tea in 2015. Ever since then I've been able to savor and share the fruits of his rather ridiculous feats of labor. Seasons change and so too the teas, reflecting the totality of interactions between the powers that be. Human hand and heart, soil and sun. Here in Gangkou, it's the ocean breeze and historic hills. I've finally been able to squeeze into a tea processing trip with my friend. A wish come true.

Not many years ago, I was working on Mauna Kea Tea farm on the Big Island. From that experience I've been garnering a respect for the vitality of the natural. The depth of the simple. The joy of tea (or veggies) grown and made by nature, with human as harmonizing element, with no sprays or excessive fertilizers, born from commitment to stewardship, are life changingly good.

I'll save the Big Island glory for another story, as this journey continues further east(in)ward.

We arrived and the tea was freshly picked. I won't recount the details of the waving and withering, other than to say, I was and am humbled by the micro moments of transformation that take place continually. With each decision directing the course to whatever end. With a clear intention, perception and effort, the tea takes shape. Effort pays off when there is clarity from the start and goodwill in the heart. “This is the way.”

After hours of work we went into the hills at sunset. Breathtaking is an honest statement in describing the tea plants terracing the hills of Manzhou. Mr Zhu's ancestors began planting tea there in the late 1800s. Even so, it's really not well known or admired. Into the night we worked until finally we could rest as the tea sat for fermentation.

I woke up early with my friend to observe the transformations that had taken place before the “killing green 殺青” and rolling stages of processing. All I can say here is that the tea so beautifully encapsulated and preserved the feelings and flavors of this small region. As I drank the draft tea, the sun was rising on the ocean with a breeze picking up dragon fruit and palm. It was all there in the leaves, albeit in preliminary form. Naturally farmed teas are oftentimes less potent and have less extreme flavor, especially if one is used to many classic Chinese teas. I'm happily looking forward to brewing the final version after the custom charcoal finishing process.

All in all it's like a poignant dream. Fleeting, yet lingering in mood. Slow living among the rolling hills and sweet tropical breezes by the ocean at Gangkou. Lots of deep breathing and sensing, observing changes in aroma and texture of tea leaves. Gloves off, flavors of destiny playing with palates, permeating. The true joy of growth within one’s self through doing something well. 

This was really quite the special experience.  We brought so many different aspects of ourselves to life through the historic practice of making oolong tea, on an almost forgotten tea farm in southern Taiwan.  There is so much depth and richness in our human inheritance, and it feels like that ancestral knowledge had a chance to come out to play through our hands over these few days.  I look now to the horizon and wonder who might imbibe this tea, and hope they might taste a sense of peace and pristine nature within themselves.