The 88th Day Taiwan, Spring 2005
Our first full day in Taiwan we left the city and headed into tea country. We had planned to visit a tea museum in the town of Muzha, but when we arrived it was closed and didn’t look like it was opening anytime soon. So instead we started exploring the mountain roads around the museum and to our surprise we stumbled upon some men withering tea leaves on tarps in the street just around the corner! The road we were on ran across the mountain, and down the hill below the road were tea fields as far as the eye could see. The women of that area were in the fields with big baskets harvesting the tea and bringing it up to the men who were spreading the leaves out and withering them in the sun outside of their houses. Through our limited knowledge of tea-related Chinese words, we learned that they were making Tie Guan Yin, an oolong tea typically produced in China. It was a warm and hazy Taiwan day, butterflies were everywhere, and the air was sweet with tea and juniper berries. After exploring the fields we went into a restaurant across the street to get some lunch. There was no one in the simple restaurant, besides what appeared to be friends and family. As soon as we walked in an older grey-haired man, who seemed to be the proprietor, came up to us and was very excited to see us. He didn’t speak a word of English, but he had seen us walking in the fields and he knew we were there for tea. Before we knew it, the old man had taken us up the hill behind the restaurant into his house where he had all sorts of tea processing machinery.
Apparently, besides owning the restaurant, he also owned some of the tea fields and produced tea. He demonstrated for us how he takes the withered tea, wraps it in cloth, and tightens it into a ball about the size of a bowling ball. This ball is then pressed and rolled in a machine that moves like two hands making a ball of clay. This process squeezes some of the liquid out of the leaves and promotes some of the fermentation. The leaves are then emptied out of the cloth balls into long spinning dryers. After a few minutes the leaves are taken out and put back into the cloth balls. We later learned that they repeat this process up to 50 times. In the final step the leaves are spread out on large baking sheets and put into large ovens for the final dying. The final result is a small unevenly rolled ball that when brewed open into one to three full leaves. The old tea man explained what he could of the process through demonstration and gesturing and when he was done he took a handful of the freshly finished tea, a handful of half-done tea, and a plastic bag of frozen leaves from the freezer and motioned for us to follow him back to the restaurant. He had us all sit around a table while he brewed for us a pot of each of the three teas. He brewed them Gong Fu style, which uses a hefty portion of leaves and short infusions and is the typical way of making tea in southern China and Taiwan. The tea was outstanding. The finished tea was a golden color and had flowery aroma reminiscent of the juniper berry bushes that shared the fields with the tea bushes. The unfinished tea had a much greener color and taste, but was unmistakably from the same harvest as the finished one. The frozen tea was also good, but different, partly because even when brewed with boiling water, the tea was only room temperature. None of us knew why one would want to freeze tea leaves but it tasted good and communication was limited so we went along with it.
Finally someone who the old man knew spoke some English came into the restaurant and he was quickly ushered over to our table. He explained to us that the old man was very excited that we had come on that day. It was the 88th day of the lunar calendar; the day of the year on which the best tea of the year is produced! He explained to us that 8 is a lucky number in Buddhism, and that the 88th day after the Chinese New Year falls during the spring tea harvest and is thought to be the best day to produce high quality tea. He further explained that the finished and half finished teas we had drunk were picked and processed that very day. And the frozen tea? The frozen tea, he said, had been picked and processed on the 88th day of the lunar calendar last year. The owner had taken it out and brewed it for us as a celebration of our visit on that special day. After a while of tea drinking and talking, through our new translator, to the old tea producer, it was time to go, but they would not let us walk back down the hill. Before we knew it, one of the men from the restaurant flagged down a bus, paid our fare, and told the driver to take us to the train station. We thanked them gratefully, boarded the bus and drove back down the mountain roads through the tea fields of Muzha. -Matthew Frayer