Jordan Scherer • January 09, 2022
Exploring the Mi Xiang 'Honey Aroma' 蜜香 of Hualien County, Taiwan
When navigating the tea regions of Taiwan it's hard not to notice the wide spectrum of harvest yield. Some areas experience only two harvests a year, while others see a multitude. Many factors can play a role in this: the garden's business model, the specific cultivar, garden elevation, weather conditions, picking standard, and the processing methods employed. Each one of these is instrumental in determining the final, finished yield.
If the yield is too small this presents some challenges for tea farmers. When it comes time to harmonize a specific flavor profile, producers have to be clever in finding ways to realize consistency in the resulting cup, without sacrificing volume.
Perhaps no region of Taiwan has a more difficult time with this equation than the farmers of Mi Xiang 'Honey Aroma' 蜜香 black tea within Hualien County. Maybe as a result of circumstance, residents of the valley seem to embody a patience that corresponds to a truly symbiotic relationship with the land around them. So it is here in Ruisui where we begin our journey in October 2021.
Nestled between the Chungyang and Haian mountain range lies the beautiful East Rift valley along the eastern shores of Taiwan. The topography is absolutely stunning here, and the mountains to the east act as a proverbial cloud generator which exhale rich fluffy formations blanketing the horizon with a transformational aura.
The Mi Xiang teas of Hualien are notoriously difficult to source as the region has an incredibly limited amount of finished product. Over the past five decades of production, the style has become very popular domestically. As a result it has become customary for importers to reserve the tea well in advance of harvest. This can be a risky proposition as you often have to commit without tasting first.
We started our journey in Hualien with Mr. Hsieh who is a relative newcomer to the area. When we first requested samples from Hsieh he was a bit hesitant as he knew that the stock would most likely be unavailable by the time we tasted. Kevin of our sourcing team was already planning a visit to Hualien, and perhaps as a result of his efforts, Hsieh agreed to the proposition.
We decided to spend the first few days learning about the picking and processing of Hualien teas. The gardens here are in flat rows and sit just two hundred meters above sea level. It is common practice for producers to blend together multiple months of production to garner volume. The skill of the producer is important in realizing a specific flavor profile through their keen sense of taste in the processing and blending steps. This year has been a particularly difficult one for farmers as an extended drought made the yield for the first part of the harvest season particularly small. He credits the resilience of the Da Ye cultivar for surviving the abnormal weather patterns.
This area is often shrouded in cloud cover, and most farmers will have a much longer solar withering time as a result of not having access to direct sunlight. In processing Hualien black tea, the producers must have a keen sense of the bruising step to gently damage the cell wall of the leaf to reveal a complex aroma profile as a result of the enzymatic breakdown.
Watching Hsieh at work is mesmerizing—you can see the muscle memory he has in getting the leaves bruised just right.
For this year we selected a batch Hsieh made for us that is a combination of August, September, and October harvests. Due to the season, this particular batch is not as bug bitten, but we were captivated by the primary flavor notes of maple syrup, pumpkin bread, and honey.
Our second objective on this sourcing journey was to find a batch that was bitten by the small aphid which brings Mi Xiang's innate character to the surface. Ms Wu is literally next door neighbors with Mr Hsieh. Despite being only twenty feet apart, Wu's garden had a high prevalence of the tiny aphid this year, while Hsieh did not: a testament to the true lottery of agricultural good fortune.
Wu has been embedded in tea production within Hualien county since 1973 (the year tea planting in this region began). For the past forty-five years she has been perfecting the art of Mi Xiang production. The value of the tea increases in tandem with the prevalence of bug-bites.
As you may have noticed we have many teas on our current compendium that feature a degree of aphid reaction. This aroma, a defensive reaction, comes off the plant in the fight against the small aphid, creating a thought-provoking cup.
Pickers aiming to identify whether a particular area of the garden was bug-bitten must have a keen eye. It is possible to identify aphid stress it by the color of the picked leaf. As a quick comparison see below:
Similar to Mr. Hsieh, Ms. Wu had to be very intentional in blending together a lot of pervasively bug-bitten harvests. While the base is similar between the two teas, the bug bitten lot has an extraordinary orange marmalade quality as a high note in the finished brew.
We are truly honored to share both of these tiny lots with you and hope you enjoy the exploration as much as we have. We hope to make both of these producers a staple on our compendium each year.