Just why did we start a specialist tea company 10 years ago? In the teeth of competition from giant corporations, when the profound disinterest of the food service sector meant loose leaf, green tea stood for hassle and health nuts. 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. It took us 20 years of drinking Pouchong to realise that we wanted to share it.
Pouchong oolong is 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.
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’ – don’t ask – 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 $50 a kilo to $3,600. 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.
Drinking it takes me straight back to the start of my tea journey, when we were given tubs of Pouchong by Prof Lin and we shared these big beautiful leaves with friends and family. How could anyone not like green tea? Why wasn’t everyone drinking tea like this? Because the Pouchong we were introduced to was Prof Lin’s special reserve. To buy, ship, pack and sell this grade of tea into a London hotel, they would want to charge their customers something like £150 a pot. Attitudes to tea are changing – but not that fast.
Drink it like the locals, pop the leaves in a mug and keep topping it up with water just off the boil. Or get your scales, thermometer and stopwatch out and brew it gong fu style to explore the range of flavour and texture as you go through several infusions. Pouchong has that indefinable, elusive quality of everything good. It is an expression of the producers’ unbending will to create something fabulous.
Canton Pouchong is available for businesses to buy wholesale through our website.