I met Ren Zhi Deng at his Tianyi Tea Garden and Minsu (homestay) in Shizhao, Taiwan the day after a typhoon had veered from the island at the very last moment. A sense of joy was palpable. The sun was beaming, and everywhere people were smiling, happy to have dodged a natural disaster. Over rounds of tea under the veranda, Deng patiently explained the nuances of Alishan Zhulu tea. Known for its elegant aroma and sweet lingering aftertaste—floral, and when at its best, accompanied by a ripe fruity note—this high-mountain wulong is appreciated by tea connoisseurs worldwide. Not until he responded to my question of whether his ancestors were already in the tea business, did I realize that this soft-spoken gentleman, who referred to himself humbly only as the collective “us tea farmers,” was in fact a catalyst in transforming his hometown into one of the most revered tea-producing areas in Taiwan.
A fighting chance for a dying town
“It was purely by chance that we started growing tea here,” explained Deng. When he was a child, a handful of families in Shizhao tended a few wild tea trees, but people considered the area too cold for tea cultivation. When he was 24, a neighbor’s daughter, who had married and settled in a town at a lower elevation, told him that the inhabitants there were making a good living growing tea. By contrast, Shizhao was in dire need of revitalization. Its farmers could hardly make ends meet with their traditional crops of bamboo shoots and lily flowers. Young men such as Deng had no choice but to move to the cities. To help farmers find alternative crops, the government also started to encourage them to experiment with planting tea at higher altitude.
“We learned that we could get technical assistance from scientists at Taiwan’s Tea Research and Extension Station,” said Deng. “My parents thought they were too old to embark on something so drastically new, but they told my brother and me, ‘You two are young. It would be a shame not to give it a try.’ Basically they entrusted us to give it our best shot.”
A winter that felt like an eternity
Shizhao’s farmable lands are situated at an elevation between 4,000 and 5,000 feet above sea level (1,200–1,500 meters), much higher than more established tea farming communities at the time. No one knew how the experiment would turn out. The Deng brothers set a goal: “To see if we could survive the first winter.”
Deng remembered, “In hindsight, the winter of 1984 was no colder, nor longer, than any other winter here. But to me, it felt like an eternity.”
Tea trees are sensitive to cold and frost; young tea plants are even more fragile. That winter, every day Deng sought ways to protect the young saplings, checking if any had been damaged by frost, hoping they could make it through another night.
Ever since the age of 13, Deng and youngsters in Shizhao and further up the Ali Mountain had to travel to big cities such as Chiayi to get an education. Back then, the main form of transportation was the Alishan Forest Railway, a relic of colonial days, built by the Japanese to transport the prized cypress wood used to construct Shinto shrines. It took three hours for the slow train to cover 50 kilometers, and another hour by foot to reach home.
Deng fondly recalled: “That train was so slow on the mountains that we youngsters could jump off, take a leak, and run fast enough to chase it down and hop back on. By the time we reached Fenqihu Station, our faces were blackened with soot from the coal-burning steam engine.”
The half-day journey meant Deng could return home only during long school breaks. At 24, he had graduated with a degree in mechanics from a technical college. His diploma afforded him the opportunity to leave Shizhao. The delicate tea saplings held the slither of hope that he might be able to stay. “I was rooting for them to survive that winter but also rooting for myself,” said Deng. “I love the mountains; I hoped my friends and I wouldn’t have to leave.”
Trial and error, friendships and teamwork
The little tea bushes rode out the first winter. Success, however, wasn’t instant and didn’t come easy. It took another five years of experimenting before Deng and the handful of tea pioneers in Shizhao could, with confidence, inform their fellow villagers that “yes, tea can be our future.” Deciding on which cultivar to use was an early challenge.
“The scientists advised us to start out with cultivar Tai Cha #12 because it’s newer and more resistant to cold. ‘If #12 can’t survive, then there is no hope for other cultivars,’ they told us. However, the tea we made initially didn’t sell well. We realized that to make the best-tasting tea in Shizhao, we should try planting Qing Xin (Green Heart) instead,” he said.
Originating from Wuyi Mountain in China, Qing Xin is a cultivar traditionally used to make Dong Ding wulong, another famous Taiwanese wulong tea.
“We tried, but most Qing Xin plants died, and we could barely keep the remaining ones alive through the frosty winter. Luckily, scientists found another solution: planting #12—using it as the stock—then grafting the scion (Qing Xin) onto the strong rootstock. To this day, we carefully trim off the newly grown #12 branches around the base of the tree trunk, so that only Qing Xin leaves are left for plucking. This is more labor intensive, but we get the best of both worlds: the cold-resistant, pest-resistant #12 with its strong roots, and Qing Xi, with its aromatic leaves,” he explained.
Collectively, the farmers voted to move onward with this method, even if Qing Xin grows slower and for each harvest, the production quantity is smaller, about 20% less, than #12. According to Deng, about 90–95% of Zhulu tea today is made with Qing Xin leaves.
Cultivar was only one hurdle. Among many others was being able to afford the right equipment.
Deng remembered: “My family was the first in our town to acquire the necessary machines. In the early days, very few neighbors could afford them, so I’d let the neighbors use mine. Or else several families would pull together resources to buy one then share. That’s how eventually we could all have the right equipment. We also shared tips about production techniques and garden management—and still do.”
“People making teas here are locals,” said Deng. “We grew up together, played together— it’s natural that we help one another on our tea journey.
Sweet morning dew
Zhulu means “pearls of dew” in Chinese. For anyone who has traveled to Shizhao and tasted authentic Zhulu tea, it’s easy to understand why this tea is so named.
Tea masters in Taiwan and China believe that good leaves depend on the harmonious workings of three essential elements: sky, land (soil), and man. Of the three, Shizhao and the adjacent villages near the Alishan mountain range are blessed with a one-of-a-kind “sky” due to their unusual microclimate.
“We only get half a day of sun,” as the locals would explain, apologetically, to the puzzled tourists wondering why the sun had suddenly disappeared. However, the “half-day sun,” along with final roasting, is precisely what gives this tea its special characteristics of subtle sweetness and smooth finish.
In Shizhao, by mid-afternoon on a typical clear day, one can see a white dot begin to form in the distance toward the direction of the sea. This fluff of cloud then grows, slithers like a white snake, first along the lowlands, then makes its way between the mountain ridges leading to Shizhao. By 4 p.m., the entire village is enshrouded in waves of dense rolling fog. The thick gray mist, often mixed with droplets of rain, lingers until the morning sun lifts the mist and licks the dew off the leaves. Around 10 a.m., the sky reverts to clear blue.
To understand the effect this reduced light intensity and accompanying lowered temperature has on tea, the closest analogy I can think of is the highly regarded Japanese tea, Gyokuro (Jade Dew). Gyokuro is shade-grown: about three weeks before harvesting, farmers erect a canopy over the tea plants to shield them from direct sunlight. Why? To improve taste. It turns out that while warmth and sunlight are important for increasing the rate of photosynthesis that helps a plant grow faster, photosynthesis also slowly converts a key amino acid in tea leaf, called L-theanine, into the bitter-tasting catechins. Shading preserves more L-theanine, which adds to Gyokuro’s savory light sweetness. It also reduces the amount of catechins produced, which tempers astringency and bitterness.
In Shizhao, instead of farmers erecting canopies, the daily blanket of fog shades the plants and brings in the moisture that tea plants love and need. The resulting abundance of sweet morning dew inspired the tea’s name: Zhulu.
Learn from the elders
Tea was something Deng remembered fondly from childhood: “My grandma’s younger brother had a few old tea trees. It was great fun for us kids to go pick tea at his place. He had a woven bamboo tumbler. I thought it was magical, how he would turn that thing periodically, and the leaves inside would become more and more fragrant—so much so that it was as if we were surrounded by flowers in full bloom. They fried the leaves in a wok in the kitchen. Rolling was done, like a traditional winemaker, with their feet. Watching them making tea made me realize that old folk possessed interesting knowledge that I didn’t yet have.”
Years later, that same respect for the elderly and tradition propelled him to learn from an old tea master how to roast wulong, “to give my tea more character,” explained Deng. “A good Zhulu tea roasted in an electric oven can be steeped seven times. The traditional way of roasting— with special charcoal and a layer of rice husk ash to filter out the smoke—can extend that by two to three times and offer a more exquisite, longer-lasting aftertaste.”
In Deng’s tea garden, grass clippings and leaves from pruning are used to make plant-based fertilizer. Tea seeds are pressed for aromatic oil favored by the locals; the leftover powder is repurposed as natural detergent and as an additive in soap. “We didn’t invent any of this; we learned from the elders,” he said. “Yes, modern technology can be useful, but it’s equally important to learn from those who came before and listen to what nature tries to tell us.”
He grew up at a time when Taiwan was transitioning from an agrarian into a modern industrialized society, and along came the understandable romance with technology. “At school, we were taught: man can conquer nature,” he recalled. “Not until I started growing tea did I realize it’s far from that. For example, here the winter tea is the most valuable—the colder the weather is, the better the taste will be. I can delay and optimize the winter flush by pruning strategically. But if a strong cold front comes early, the tea will stop growing, and my winter harvest easily halved to a meager 300 jin (180 kg). So us tea farmers can only do our best, be thankful for what nature gives us. The rest,” he smiled and pointed upward, “is up to the sky.”
Tea encompasses more than just the taste—that’s a key reason why us tea enthusiasts are so enamored by it. Deng’s Zhulu tea is one such example. It’s about a father and a mother’s belief in their children. It’s about a man’s love for his hometown. It’s about the beauty of people from diverse backgrounds working together to overcome challenges. It’s about—and for anyone whose career path has ever intersected seriously with the world of business would understand how rare and precious this is—friendships that last. And it’s about the mighty sky over a small town, its morning dew and the half-day sun. All that, in a simple cup of tea.
Photos by Arris Han.