Like most days, we’d been driving all day. We’d just left Taipei earlier that morning, trading the scenes of the towering haze-filled metropolis for soft, marshy lowlands and gently rolling hills. Hsinchu is one of the lowest specialty tea growing regions in Taiwan for a very particular reason, which we’ll come to shortly. We were now on day three of criss-crossing Taiwan, making friends, seeing tea harvests and meeting everyone we could in the hopes of building our first tea menu.
The gold-colored, seventy-meter-tall Buddha statue of Emei Lake loomed in the distance. This is the largest wetland area in Taiwan and the sulphuric, swampy miasma is one of the first things you notice. Our car ground down the gravel road, kicking up a plume of dust behind us. Ahead at the corner, there was a woman in linen robes and a bright blue sun hat hunched over a patch of flowers, picking. We slowed the car, so as not to hit her and drove the remainder of the drive to a delightful earthen cottage. Even though it was April, the subtropical humidity that day was palpable. We stopped and got out by a little red brick wall that enclosed the courtyard of the house.
We waited for a while in the quiet humidity, fidgeting with our gear, when we saw the vague outline of a figure coming down the dusty road. It was the same woman we had just passed. Before we had a chance to introduce ourselves, she handed us the flowers and said “Happy Earth Day.” We had no idea this was our contact, Rebeca, the producer of the esteemed, competition-grade tea called Dongfang Meiren, or, colloquially, Formosa Bai Hao.
She and her husband, a Buddhist priest, produce a tiny amount (i.e. as much as two humans can pick and process) of organically grown Bai Hao from their free-seeded tea plants in a nearby garden. Bai Hao tea is unique in that it depends on a tiny aphid, Jacobiasca formosana, to bite the leaves of the tea plant to induce its signature flavor. This aphid is regular here, and the still, swampy lake water is the perfect breeding ground. When the bug bites the plant, it causes a stress reaction so that the plant releases a sweet, honey-like, rosy aroma. You might think of it as a toxin, but the smell is meant to attract spiders and other predators to the plant to come eat the aphid off of it. Because tea is so sensitive to smells and moisture in its environment this aroma persists even to the moment we steep the tea. In order for it to be present, the plants must be bitten by Jacobiasca formosana.
Rebeca gave us a brief tour of her rustic, beautiful home. A kitchen wall was composed of hand-painted mosaic tiles; copper pots and pans hung from a wrought iron fixture suspended from the ceiling, and curtains billowed in the empty doorway to the sound of wind chimes. Small bamboo baskets of tea leaves were withering in the long light of the living room and in the pebble stone courtyard. Her husband was rolling a ball of freshly withered tea leaves in a burlap sack.
We hiked down to her garden, maybe a quarter mile up the road. She told us to be careful of snakes and spiders—this is an organic garden under the spell of the sweet-smelling hormone, after all. The field was tiny and, unlike commercial tea gardens, very overgrown looking, with shade trees interspersed among the tea bushes. There were indeed all manner of reptile and insect. We stepped carefully to avoid disrupting their day’s business. Rebeca told us that when she’s plucking the tea, she does so mindful of each pluck—I think she described it as something like a little prayer of thanks to the earth. Plucking with intentionality and gratitude each time she makes a pick. Knowing how particular the plucking style of Bai Hao is, I don’t doubt that it’s true.
Back at the homestead, she lit some incense and made us tea. We tried her productions from 2010, 2013, 2014 and last year. All the while, her husband rolled yarn-ball-sized batches of tea leaves on a nearby table. Normally, in these meetings we’re talking—trying to eke out every little detail of the purchase, a producer’s ethos and methodology, but here I remember we were all dead silent. It helped that she spoke English, so we didn’t require the extra efforts of Kevin. It’s hard to describe, harder still to remember exactly what happened, but we were filled with peace, awe and love.
She showed us a model of a tea house she had designed in remote Eastern Taiwan. This was also in a swampy lake, and the structure was a small thatch-roofed house that stood on long, long legs above the water like a Dali (painter) elephant. One has to row to get to the comically crooked ladder that leads up into the house. I wish I could remember what it’s called, but I think it’s something like “The Too-Tall Treehouse.” It has a sister piece in Japan.
Though her tea is competition tier—she doesn’t enter in competitions, because she loathes the culture of them. And yet, here she is making Bai Hao more handcrafted, more instinctually and elementally than many of the winners.
Indeed, though we wish we could have, we weren’t able to afford her tea that year. I’m eternally grateful we had the day together, though. She left a mark on us forever. Her way of tea was something so far in the blue distance ahead of what we dreamed of doing that it captivated us—it still captivates us—to do better and to build tea culture as big heartedly as possible.
I rarely recommend spring water. Too often, you end up with something muddy and, if the mouthfeel is compelling, the flavors are wildly out of balance. Even charcoal-filtered water is superior. But for a tea of this magnitude, good spring water is necessary. It is not only her recommendation, but, because of the fastidiousness in craft from her and her husband and the symmetry of the leaves, the tea's extraction curve is gentle, even, forgiving, and will not overreact to the relative hardness of spring water. Do not scrimp on the water source.
I've included a few different interpretations of her tea below, including her own recommendations she passed on. Each is superb. It is difficult to find a bad way of infusing this tea. Look for ripe peach flavors, white flowers, and mead. The tea carries sweetness like certain orange wines. It is very mellow, with plush mouthfeel and unfurls slowly, steep after steep.
Bai Hao Gongfu Style (from Rebeca herself):
- Pre-warm your teapot (I used a porcelain gaiwan) and all vessels.
- Dose tea at a rate of 1g tea leaves to 30g water into your vessel.
- Pour 185-190F water in a circular motion over leaves.
- Steep for as long as you feel. "It teaches you how to be patient for it."
- For beginners, start with 1m 30s.
- Let it cool.
- Re-steep for a few seconds shorter with the same temperature.
- For each successive infusion, add a few seconds. Can steep "30" times.
- Prewarm all vessels and shiboradashi with a splash of hot water, discard.
- Scoop 3.5g of tea, place in tea pot.
- Fill tea pot gently, in a circular motion, with 190F water.
- Let steep for 4 minutes.
- Pour tea into decanter.
- Let cool.
- Sip and enjoy!
- For a second infusion steep, repeat 4 minutes.
Bai Hao Western Style:
Pre-warm your teapot (I used an Earthenware Teapot) and all vessels.
- Dose tea at a rate of 1g tea leaves to 50g of water into vessel.
- Pour 190F water gently in a circular motion over leaves.
- Steep for 3 minutes.
- Pour (strain) into decanter of choice.
- Let cool. This is one of the most essential steps, the tea gains clarity and sugary sweetness the longer it cools.
- Sip and enjoy!
- For each successive infusion, add an additional thirty seconds infusion time.
- Dose 15 grams of the tea per liter into vessel
- Sprinkle, and I mean sprinkle, some hot water over the leaves to open them up, release some aroma and get them ready for cold infusion.
- Fill the bottle with cold, filtered water (spring water preferable).
- Put lid on the vessel and invert it (or stir, or shake) 2-3 times to begin infusion.
- Store in refrigerator.
- Tea is ready to drink in 8-12 hours.