The tea that began it all: 'That pouchong...'
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Just why did we start a specialist tea company back in 2008? In the teeth of competition from giant corporations, when the profound disinterest of the food sector meant loose leaf tea stood for hassle and health bores. So why did we do it?
Er, that’ll be the Pouchong – the enigmatic green/oolong tea from Taiwan that led us into this world.
Taipei 1988: ‘It’s just green tea’ said Professor Lin, as the large dark green leaves lurked, unfurling in my cup. I knew I was tasting something special. At once sweet and dry, mineral and floral, rich and light, complex yet direct. Sometimes we don’t know what the music is but we like it anyway.
And why wasn’t everyone drinking tea like this? Because the Pouchong we were first introduced to was Prof Lin’s special reserve. To buy, ship, pack and sell this grade of tea in a top London hotel, the customers would have to pay something like £550 a pot. Sure attitudes to tea are changing – but not that fast. We had 20 years of drinking Pouchong before we took the step to share it.
Pouchong is an oolong grown around Pingling, Wenshan County just outside Taipei. It’s so lightly oxidized, the locals call it a green tea. It’s easy to brew, easy to ‘get’ – a great gateway into green tea – but very hard to actually get hold of.
so, how did we get our hands on it?
We travelled up into the mountains. Visiting Wenshan County is a weird and wonderful experience: several hours drive from the suburban jungle of Taipei into a volcanic, subtropical world of impossibly steep twisting roads, small, high tea plantations, and tea farmers, who are delighted to see you. So keen to share tea and press you with ‘special country dishes’ and the oh so fiery local firewater.
Professor Lin’s cousin, Farmer Xu and his aged parents are a joy to meet. Sun-baked like their tea, delighted to show you their wares, their many wooden plaques proclaiming their victories in the tea-grading competitions, their sensational vegetable patch and their stunning views.
The harvest happens suddenly, when the confluence of biodynamic elements and the rather crazy weather is right. Then the email comes within hours – at least 15 grades – from $90 a kilo to $5,600. The merest delay means disappointment as the more earthly-priced grades are quickly snapped up by wholesalers, who then mix it with inferior teas. We have to move fast to capture the single estate grades. Can we negotiate the price? No, this is true Fair Trade, Taiwan-style: ‘You want it, or not?’. We do. The rest, as they say, is history.
So try our Pouchong. Dump it in a mug and keep topping up with hot water. Or get your stopwatch out and brew it gong fu style (literally, making tea with skill) to explore the range of flavours and textures as you go through the infusions. Pouchong has that indefinable, elusive quality of everything good. It is an expression of the producers' unbending will to create something fabulous. That Pouchong, it's that good.