Life is simple on Shuang Ji Niang mountain as it's very remote.
Even by the standards of tea-growing regions, Shuang Ji Niang mountain is remote. As Yong Luo described it to me, “Life here is very simple. There’s no internet, and only a few areas even have telephone signal. Our tea mountain is far away from town and the roads up are challenging, so there are hardly any cars here. The diet is simple, there is only nature – and lots of tea plants to keep us company most of the time.”
The remoteness is why this interview was conducted by email over a period of a few weeks, but it’s also why Luo can dedicate himself to a life of continual learning. “There are so many different plants on the mountain, especially since I turned the tea estate organic. The different varietals of tea plants alone bring me so much joy! I love studying the botanical characteristics of each variety, observing them in each part of my tea garden – seeing how they are affected by sunlight, for example.” And besides, “Who could say life’s dull when they live somewhere where the sky fills with the stars every single night?”
How did you come to be the master of Shuang Ji Niang?
“It all started with my grandfather. He loved tea and from a young age I remember him always giving me tea. I didn’t like the astringency of the drinks he gave me at first but, as I grew up, I began to crave it.
“It wasn’t until I was taking – and failing – my college entrance exams that I realised how strong this craving was. A light switched on when I saw the option for a major in tea science on the college application form – and I quickly smartened up.
“Of course, I was still naïve and thought I could get away with taking a college major in drinking tea. The first class was a rude awakening. There was so much I had to learn – understanding soil, cultivation, planting, processing and evaluation. It was extremely tough. Learning interspersed with lots of tea drinking meant I gradually discovered the fun in tea science and, after graduation, I headed straight to the Phoenix mountains.”
What has your work as a tea farmer taught you?
“Being a farmer is a tough job. You work regardless of the weather and depend on the weather to earn a living. It’s rewarding, though. Working organically with my plants allows me to experience the unyielding spirit strength of what can happen when humans and plants work together. I feel a great sense of achievement whenever I see them growing vigorously and thriving.
What has changed at Shuang Ji Niang since you took over?
“Like all of the tea masters I know, I integrate my personal preferences into my tea processing. For me, having a clear fragrant nectar is the number one priority for my tea. Freshness in the taste is the next. Lots of other oolongs from this area are roasted for longer, so the lightness and freshness in my tea is special.”
How does the taste of the tea reflect the place it’s come from?
“Shuang Ji Niang mountain has a subtropical oceanic monsoon climate, which basically means it rains a lot! Millennia ago, the main peak here would have been a volcano, so we have rich, volcanic soil. A primeval forest surrounds the tea garden, as if it protects and isolates us.
“To protect our place, I’ve chosen organic and ecological planting methods. It means I can’t produce as much tea and that my costs are higher, but my tea feels full of life. This is the only way to capture the appeal of Shuang Ji Niang mountain and its original flavours for drinkers. I don’t want them to taste something generic produced with pesticides and fertilisers; I want them to taste Shuang Ji Niang mountain with its wet days, lush forest and volcanic history.”
Is climate change affecting the garden?
“The influence of the climate is inevitable. It struck me most during a spring cold spell 16 years ago. The tea plants had just budded. Basically, the tea leaves turned red overnight. Fortunately, it was only for a night, so it didn’t affect more tea plants. We used a light processing method that year, but the tea tasted sweet like rock sugar.
“Perhaps this was a blessing in disguise. With the climate continually changing each year, we should analyse objectively and implement modern methods to make up for the impact of the climate. For example, we have a sun room to prevent the influence of cloudy or rainy days on the tea leaves. Climate change has always had an important influence on our tea leaves. It is necessary to maintain the ecological balance of our tea garden, the diversity of species, and natural cultivation, as well as to have an objective analysis of certain situations when we make tea.”
Finally, how do you like to drink tea?
I drink tea in the morning and at night. In the morning, due to time constraints, I can only use a purple clay teapot and a large cup. At night, I have more time. I set up a charcoal stove and arrange the tea set. I follow the gong fu brewing method to make lots of concentrated cups. I love the first sip, when the aromas are so abundant in the mouth, and the flavours of the tea can be clearly experienced – it’s the only way to relieve fatigue at the end of the day.”
Try Luo's Phoenix Honey Orchid here.