Growing up surrounded by Dong-Ding Oolong (凍頂山茶) tea leaves, Su Wen-zhao began to learn how to process tea leaves by hand as a teenager under the tutelage of his grandfather and father. Some 50 years have passed, but his house still retains a complete set of traditional, hand-operated equipment for processing tea leaves. In March 2019, the Cultural Affairs Bureau of Nantou County recognized him as a cultural heritage preserver for his ability to produce Lugu Dong-Ding Oolong tea by hand.
Su stressed that the handcrafting process is very complicated, with each step requiring stringent attention. Only by fine-tuning the process and temperature to their optimal levels based on details gleaned from years of invaluable experience can handcrafted Dong-Ding Oolong tea leaves achieve their full potential, he added.
Roasting the tea leaves by stir-frying is the most crucial step in the process. Traditionally, the masters stir-fry raw leaves with their hands in a massive wok that is heated on a traditional hearth fed with burning charcoals made from longan wood. The wok temperature needs to be high enough to turn out pleasant-tasting tea. Otherwise, the tea will taste bitter and astringent. Whether the temperature attains its optimal level will all depend on a pair of experienced hands.
In the early days, the entire process relied on human hands because no machines were available. Even today, the traditional roasting process is still very laborious, making more and more tea farmers reluctant to stay in this field. Along with the evolution of times, the handcrafted tea industry is shrinking while old-time tea-frying masters fade away.
Su still remembers how his village bustled during the tea-harvesting seasons when Taiwan was still an agriculture-based economy. The villagers were busy picking tea leaves by day and frying the leaves by night. And they all helped each other.
Seeing how the production of Lugu's Dong-Ding Oolong tea has become increasingly mechanized, Su has sensed that his set of skills will completely die out soon. So, around 10-some years ago, he began working on what he could to perpetuate this artistry with his son, Su Ban-yi (蘇邦怡), cultivating the Lugu variety of tea with eco-friendly farming methods while applying for registration as a form of cultural heritage with the Nantou County Government.
The father-son duo has since successfully cultivated approximately 100 bushes of native tea plants, inspiring hope that one day the Oolong tea from Lugu will come with its original flavor and flair.
The junior Su pointed out that handmade Dong-Ding Oolong tea and mechanically processed tea differ in color, fermentation and roasting process, and fragrancy, with the handmade tea presenting rich amber hues in comparison to the light golden colors of machine-made tea.
He added that handcrafted tea leaves are roasted with wooden charcoals, a process which he believes can make the tea drink more digestive friendly with internal cleansing properties. Such a healthy product, he said, makes the traditional techniques even more deserving of preservation and promotion.
Comprehensive knowledge on Lugu's handmade tea production was developed and passed down in a very systematic manner due to the region’s established farming and tea-manufacturing history, making such traditional techniques convenient to perpetuate and preserve, he concluded.