By Ralph Jennings
Lin Yang-you, owner of a Taipei teashop for more than 30 years, labels his brick-sized packages of dried leaves with the names of places around the island where the stuff is grown. His sellers’ association requires this detail on sacks of retail tea because repeat customers know which parts of Taiwan produce the best-tasting, most expensive leaves and can tell the difference if a vendor lies.
“Teas from China or Vietnam are very different: they lack local flavor,” said Lin as he sat in his one-room shop using sieves, decanters and sipping cups calibrated to maximize the honey-like scent of a batch of tea from the prestigious Alishan tea-growing region.
“We sell mostly to locals, and they know that flavors vary by place or elevation. If you want tea from Alishan, it will cost you.”
In the latest issue for Taiwan’s small, isolated but fast-changing tea industry, Lin faces a profusion of vendors who mix local leaves with lower-grade stuff imported from Vietnam or China. Those competitors bill their blends as high-end Taiwan tea but sell it for half price, for example TW$250 Taiwan (US$8.11) instead of TW$500 for a quarter kilo, without telling customers why.
“Imports are cheaper, so if sellers in Taiwan mix that in, consumers should become suspicious,” said Lin Mu-lien, director of the Tea Research and Extension Station under the Taiwan government’s Agriculture and Food Agency.
At the same time, shops such as Lin’s have lost control over Taiwan’s prestigious “high mountain” label. That stamp of quality once described mostly oolong teas grown at more than 1,000 meters above sea level. Now it’s used all but randomly to make buyers associate any tea with the flavors born naturally from higher elevations.
Truth-in-labeling issues are starting to spill into the margins of Taiwan’s 8,000 mostly family-run growers, and thousands more vendors, who all have little to offer but their credibility as competition lurks literally on just about every block.
Taiwan’s tea-growing region lacks the scale to vie with China or India for an export market, and has anyway been eroded over the past 30 years by a perceived lack of government support for processing factories. Political factions on the island have instead courted small growers to maximize votes, telling them in essence that selling top-end tea in Taiwan will earn more than selling processed mid-grade tea overseas.
“There’s no way for the industry to develop,” said Ted Fan, secretary general of the Taiwan Tea Manufacturers Association. “It can only do so as an art.”
Today’s Taiwan officials also have slacked -- they even admit it -- in their attention to the labeling of tea. They have backed away particularly from enforcing a minimum growing elevation for the “high-mountain” distinction, although the label remains hugely popular on sacks of tea sold in urban shops.
For that reason, private associations of growers and sellers are laying down strict rules for their members as the volume of falsely labeled tea grows. The idea is that picky or scam-wary customers would buy teas only from members of those associations. Some local governments, increasingly keen to promote native produce all across this island of 23 million people, are also working on schemes to certify homegrown teas.
Location is everything, as varied soil types and dozens of microclimates cover the rugged island. Elevation, season, soil type and anomalous weather all determine tea flavor, and these factors are crucial to determining if a freshly brewed pot of tea from each grower’s plot of land radiates a bouquet or smells like a used teabag. Prime tea growing regions in north and central Taiwan with the most cachet have the best of all these variables, driving up retail prices. Among the best names to have on a label: Alishan, Lugu, Wenshan and Dongding.
Stronger labeling is also considered crucial to any serious revival of tea exports, which came to just 2,375 tons last year out of an approximately 17,000 ton total tea harvest
“If Taiwan wants to sell tea abroad, it’s going to need to go through inspections and more management,” according to Lee Yuan-hsun, a self-employed tea seller from the southern city of Kaohsiung. “There is no single standard, so it can be troublesome. Tea is like wine. Each type has its own special flavor. There’s an issue of elevation, also of latitude and how far to the west or east the tea plantation sits.”
Local producers are looking to mainland China as an export growth market due to the liberalization of two-way trade since 2008 after six decades of icy relations. The Taiwan Tea Exporters Association has predicted a 30% growth in the volume of exports to China following a free trade-style pact approved by the island’s parliament in August, the island’s semi-official Central News Agency reported.
China currently leads Taiwan’s tea export markets with 791 metric tons in 2009, about a third of total overseas shipments, followed by the US and Japan, the news agency said, citing official statistics. But while Chinese consumers think highly of Taiwan farm products, China grows similar types of tea in addition to its own unique strains, limiting the long-term appeal of imports from the island. Strict labeling of Taiwan produce, however, would give China’s numerous and enthusiastic tea drinkers a quality guarantee seldom found at home.
Taiwan’s own younger generation is a more likely long-term market as exports struggle to come to a boil. Elders who habitually drink loose-leaf tea while playing cards or hashing out business deals can often tell from a single sip where a tea comes from. Most Taiwan youths prefer coffee or flavored teas sold by the bottle and often made from imported leaves. But with tastes always in flux and Taiwan’s unique identity being pushed by politicians, young consumers are expected eventually to give loose-leaf local teas another chance.
Taiwan’s youth-targeted chain coffee shops are shaping up as the first wave of tea buyers to insist on certified labels. Starbucks sells certified grown-in-Taiwan tea at many of its stores in Taipei. The local 85º Bakery Cafe chain, with 326 outlets on the island, has sold about 100,000 cups of a branded tea certified from Mingjian, a region of central Taiwan’s Nantou county known for flavorful leaves, said company publicity director Kathy Chung. Most of 85º’s customers are younger Taiwanese.
“Sales are good, for a tea,” Chung said. “The certification is visible. Everyone knows it’s from Nantou. You can use that as a key to sales.”
But as labeling rules take time to mature, merchants remain edgy. For every one of them, a rival might be setting up a low-rent public market stall to move big volumes of cheap foreign tea leaves in sacks that say “Grown-in-Taiwan”.
A tea shopper need do little more than point at a half brick of tea on someone’s shelf before the proprietor’s eyes bug out and he starts swearing that it’s real, not like some stuff sold somewhere else. Whether even they are telling the truth is impossible to say without a taste test.
“A few people follow the laws, but most don’t,” said Fan. “High mountain tea, that’s something that the farmers will say on their own, to say, ‘hey, look at me.”