I have a few books on tea that I got in Taiwan. One in particular has really nice illustrations and a wealth of information on cultivars, and growing and processing tea. At first glance, it seemed like every other book on tea. It had all of the prerequisite information. All of the fundamentals were covered. This one happens to be a signed copy, so it caught my interest. Over the years, I’ve grown fond of this particular book on tea. It presents the information in a fun and playful way that expands into demonstrating the amazing untellable nature of tea. In the end of the book, there is a flow chart of processing oolong tea. The last step of processing is packaging. I have looked at the book countless times in the past fifteen years. And one of the times, the fact that packaging is listed as the final step of processing clicked. Because at first, I didn’t think they needed to include packaging as part of processing.
It wasn’t until years later that I made the connection.
It started with love. And ended with a huge business success. The place, Nantou, Taiwan, the year 1964. When Sue married Bo, she didn’t know anything about the tea industry. But she soon learned and what she saw, she couldn’t accept. Tea harvest was in full swing resulting in a few tons of oolong. So the family went out and sold what they could, but the rest came back for storage. There was already tea sitting in storage, and when Sue saw all of the tea, she grew concerned. The tea in those days was heavily oxidized and heavily roasted, resulting in what the elder tea experts of today nostalgically refer to as “red water oolong”. Sue asked her Bo if she could help sell the tea. This was a long standing tea family with relationships that had been cultivated over generations, so the husband agreed on the conditions that he could train her regarding what was and wasn’t ok to say. He wanted to make sure that she wouldn’t accidentally misrepresent the family. She agreed. As Sue was telling me the story, I noticed that she was smiling while she was talking. She had the ability to make people like her. I knew that she was the secret to this family's success.
She told me how each year, she went to more and more places and sold more tea than the year before. Until the store house was empty.
Tea, in those days, was stored in bags that were not airtight. So it had to be processed in a way that ensured stability in flavor, ie. heavy oxidation and heavy roast. With the innovation of vacuum sealers and airtight tea packaging material, the industry had another option. Now they could respond to the market and process lightly oxidized oolong with a light roast, vacuum seal it, and maintain its flavor integrity for a much longer time. Packaging is the final step to ensure that the tea tastes and smells as it was intended to, by the tea master.