Tea DB Eco-Cha Q&A
This information was originally posted as a featured vendor profile on TeaDB. Check it out here: http://teadb.org/eco-cha/
Our history of sourcing tea began in 1993, when Eco-Cha co-founder Andy Kincart returned to Taiwan after having lived abroad for a couple years. He returned to Taiwan determined to source tea directly from farms that he knew were only a short distance from his residence in Taichung County. This was motivated by his experiences living in Los Angeles and combing the city for a source of quality Taiwan tea. In LA, all Andy could find was over-priced, mediocre quality tea. Thus, he was compelled back into the world of tea.
Andy was introduced to a family in Lugu, Nantou County (Editor’s Note: Dong Ding/Shan Li Xi) during their winter tea harvest of 1993. They quickly became his adopted Taiwan family (he is writing this from their dining room table!). He began visiting Lugu and hauling backpacks full of freshly harvested oolong back to Taichung on a seasonal basis to share with his friends. Andy ended up returning to the States a few years later, and began importing tea from Taiwan as the sole proprietor of one of the first English websites to export Taiwan tea, Black Dragon Teas. He visited Taiwan during spring tea harvest from 1997 to 2000 and had tea shipped to him during winter harvest time. Eventually in 2001, Andy returned to Taiwan for good. Eco-Cha was founded by a group of friends to support the artisan tea industry in Taiwan and to share this life-long connection to Taiwan tea culture.
What are your principal goals of Eco-Cha?
Our principal goal is to support the artisan tea industry in Taiwan. As Taiwanese tea gains popularity and the demand for larger volume increases, family-run farms are struggling to survive. We are compelled to support the artisan tea industry by creating a foreign demand from an educated tea culture. We hope to participate and develop this community by sharing our perspective of the tea and the tea culture here in Taiwan. This is something our team has been a part of for the past 20 years.
What advantages does being based in Taiwan give Eco-Cha and Eco-Cha’s consumers?
There is no substitute for being here on the ground in terms of immersion in and representation of contemporary Taiwanese tea culture. We have an ongoing direct involvement in some of the most progressive aspects of the tea culture and industry here. It’s the level of ongoing contact and relationships formed with families of tea farmers and representatives of tea culture that is the foundation Eco-Cha is built upon.
These connections allow us to source unique, small batches of some of the best tea available here that typically do not make it into stores even here in Taiwan. We have been visiting the homes, farms and factories of tea farmers in central Taiwan for 20 years and have developed life-long friendships and observed generational shifts within the industry. This is not just a business connection, it is a cultural orientation that has been sought out and absorbed by a deep yearning for traditional culture. Eco-Cha aspires to share this rich culture by documenting video, images, and writing about our own experiences. We want to share the tea, its origins, and its ever-evolving culture with the world.
SUSTAINABILITY & ECO-TEA
On Eco-Cha’s website you talk a lot about sustainability and purchasing from responsible farmers. What exactly does being a responsible farmer entail?
- Privately run farms.
- Relatively small-scale production.
No chemical weedkillers.
- Use of only natural fertilizers (some exceptions).
- Conscious, knowledgeable individuals who take pride in their production methods and expertise.
- Tea producers that have recovered their family heritage from previously unsustainable methods and are dedicated, responsible, and innovative tea farmers.
Eco-Cha’s Sources (farmers): Typical farmers inherited their family farm and learned from the trial and error of previous generations. They’ve witnessed the misuse of their land due to uneducated acceptance of chemical products promoted by large multi-national enterprises. These farmers have experienced the repercussions of unsustainable agriculture and realize that it is a short lived prospect. They are now actively seeking out and utilizing progressive methods and innovations. Some of these innovations have been government subsidized by TRES (a government organization).
The Farming Community: There is a communal mentality amongst contemporary Taiwanese tea farmers to share experiences and assist each other in the challenges they meet. In recent years, individual farmers have formed co-ops to integrate their methods and gain support from each other in production and promotion of their produce. We see all of this as a healthy and sustainable trend within the local tea industry. However, it is also threatened by larger commercial establishments that do not share these values or limitations that family-run farms face. This has inspired us to seek out and support what remains of a more traditional and natural source of tea cultivation.
Artisan Farmers: Eco-Cha was founded on the tenets of sustainable agriculture. However, we realized that by promoting the dwindling population of artisan tea makers, we are supporting sustainable methods of agriculture. There is something much more special and unique to represent than a certified, standardized “green product”. Eco-Cha supports artisans of tea who run private enterprises based on tradition, hard work, and skills gained from experience. This, we fully believe is so much more precious than a product that simply meets the running definition of “sustainable”.
What are commonly occurring practices that you would describe as ecologically irresponsible?
(1) Perhaps the most obvious controversy in the modern tea industry in Taiwan has been the development of land at high elevation on steep mountain slopes that impact the environment – most significantly the threat of landslides. This has a somewhat complicated history involving corporate development that threatened local industry. This is all tied to the rapid economic development and political freedom beginning in the 1980′s combined with a lack of preexisting infrastructure and regulation.
(2) Any use whatsoever of chemical weed killers. This is a lesson that many farmers have had to learn the hard way by unknowingly acidifying their soil. This is the most obvious “Don’t” in terms of a farming method.
(3) Farmers who chronically administer unnecessary amounts of chemical fertilizers to save time and money in the short term are being irresponsible. All the farmers we know use natural fertilizers unless there is a deficiency in the soil composition that can be remedied by administration of a scientifically manufactured nutritional supplement to balance soil composition.
(4) The purchase and administration of lesser quality or unauthorized chemical pesticides is both unnecessary and irresponsible and amounts to nothing less than unwise cutting corners, equivalent to unsustainable methods of agriculture. This is remedied to a significant extent by import and export regulations that require chemical testing. In response to the use of pesticides, local tea competitions have instituted random testing of entries for trace chemicals. Any farmer who is wisely promoting their produce is now working well within the standard regulations. Documented failure to meet these regulations can seriously jeopardize the livelihood of a farmer.
(5) The use of growth hormones in agriculture. This is only hearsay in our experience, and in the tea industry is only known to be present in the highest elevations of tea cultivation (high-mountain tea grows slow!). Growth hormones in general are somewhat of a controversial issue, and we are neither exposed nor well-informed enough to provide a definitive statement on this issue.
Taiwanese high mountain tea is a relatively new venture (last 30 years). Tony of Origin Tea mentioned rumors of environmental and ecological damage done by this climb up the mountain. To our knowledge, this information is really difficult to come by for English speaking audiences. Is there anything that you think the foreign audience to Taiwanese teas should be made aware of?
Tony is right. The rapid development of the tea industry that occurred in the 1980′s into the 90′s involved unregulated deforestation in considerably untenable mountain terrain – namely, steep slopes that are susceptible to landslides. It should be mentioned that this involved little or no virgin growth, as that had already been removed by the Japanese and the KMT (Kuomintang) decades prior. It was primarily bamboo forest second growth jungle that was cleared. The most unfortunate aspect of this development is that it was unregulated and unplanned. This is probably due to the stage of a developing “nation” and unestablished legislature and jurisdiction in Taiwan at the time. Had there been an existing infrastructure and effective means of regulation, much of this environmental hazard likely would’ve been avoided.
The economic growth spurt that occurred some 30 years ago along with the political freedom and capitalist progression through the 90′s brought the onset of corporate development in a previously small/family-business dominant industry. Here’s a story that encapsulates what I have learned over the years about the industry.
A 75 year old tea farmer and oolong artisan spontaneously gave me a history lesson last week as he brewed and tasted the tea leaves he was roasting that day in preparation for this winter’s Dong Ding oolong tea competition. I sat in an old household tea factory that is now a roasting facility and warehouse, I tasted the tea with him and prompted him with questions. He spoke of how tea was suddenly in great demand and how farmers who cultivated rice, fruit and other crops quickly switched to the more lucrative prospect of tea cultivation (this likely occurred in the 70′s.
Some History: People got rich quick for the first time in this previously peasant culture and things happened fast. This was catalyzed by the complex history post WWII with the US presence following the Japanese occupation. Western corporations moving in to develop the industry – triggering the promotion distribution of chemical agricultural products and the short-term high-yield results they produced. This rapid development resulted in an agricultural wildfire that spread higher up into the mountains as roads were built and private ownership of previously undeveloped territory was attained.
Dong Ding: As Dong Ding oolong tea gained fame (peaking in the 80s) and a standard price was established in the local industry, a corporation suddenly started advertising their product with the famous name of Dong Ding, selling it for a fraction of the locally established price. The corporation had volume that no independent farmer could compete with, and they utilized a locally branded product name and misrepresented it by offering a lesser quality product.
High-Mountain tea: It just so happened that the climate at higher elevations was ideal for tea cultivation on this island (Taiwan). The result: a newer and better tea leaf. Together with the presence of corporate development and economic opportunity was born the latest incarnation of oolong: High-mountain tea.
TAIWANESE TEA CULTURE
Having lived in Taiwan for ~10 years you have a more in-depth of the tea culture in Taiwan or Asia than the vast majority of the western world. What has been your experience with Taiwanese Tea Culture?
Tea is everywhere in this society, although in the last decade or so – it has taken the form of freshly made iced tea drinks for a growing majority of the population. While the all-pervasive tea table that seemed to be an obligatory fixture in family households 20 years ago has diminished significantly, tea culture has also persisted and even progressed. Initially it was the ornate array of tea paraphernalia that was impressive and intriguing. This is charming in its old school element, but the aesthetic has become much more refined and tasteful since our introduction to this world.
There has been an enriching development of reintegrating more natural and traditional art form into the tea culture. An art of tea that includes handmade tea ware – traditionally wood-fired, and simple, nature-based implements and decor with a Chan (Zen) influence has reincarnated and continues to be creatively developed and expressed. This is a basic outline of experiencing Taiwan Tea Culture for the last twenty years or so.
How does Taiwanese tea culture differ from Western tea culture?
The Western perception is that tea culture is blossoming for the first time along with this contemporary renaissance of traditional tea culture in Taiwan. Andy returned to Taiwan in the early 1990′s due to the lack of good Taiwanese tea in Los Angeles. It was the tea, but also the culture. Contemporary Taiwan culture where tea plays an integral part.
Had our interest in tea started within the last ten years, we may not have had to travel so far. Especially on the west coast, but all over North America and evidently in Europe – there has been a brand new incarnation of Asian Tea Culture. All kinds of tea enterprises have sprung up since we started as one of the first internet sources in English for Taiwan oolong tea in 1997. More than just tea, there is a tea culture manifesting in a post-modern, almost instantaneous (non-traditional), fashion that is sweeping the West. Stylish teahouses, tea tastings, conferences, publications, seminars, the list goes on. It’s all happening – and in a progressive manner with both substance and validity.
Eco-Cha’s impact overseas in the west.
Ironically, we came to Asia yearning for traditional culture, and now Asian culture is manifesting in the world from which we came. Several Western friends have contacted us since the launch of Eco-Cha expressing interest in holding tea tastings, events, and offering to represent our teas in their favorite local venues. These are friends we met in Asia, who share a fondness for tea culture as a result of accompanying us on tea adventures 10,15, 20 years ago.
The most personal aspect of how Taiwan Tea Culture coincides with Western Tea Culture: A fellow American citizen who introduced Andy to tea while studying the I-Ching here in 1991 and is now a visiting professor at a university in Oregon. He has relied solely on Andy’s seasonal supply of Taiwanese oolong for more than twenty years while pursuing his career as a Chinese scholar in the US. Tea culture is in a global renaissance. The current popularity of Asian culture in the West can be seen as being primarily represented by tea. The new age fusion of culture that is manifesting around tea is truly inspiring and fascinating to be a part of.