The first time we’ve heard of Ching-yuan was during our first few years of tea sourcing in 2009. Through the grapevines of tea connections (how all great teas are sourced) we learned about this non-profit organization’s ambitions in promoting organic teas. Their ideals were lofty but sincere. At the time, their roadmap looked strenuous because “certified organic” tea in Taiwan was more of an idea than a marketplace.
After a short visit, we learned something else about them. Like how we started Té, Ching-yuan founding members were tea industry outsiders, coming into the world of Taiwanese tea with a genuine idea, a big heart and a whole lot of hope and dreams. We didn’t have a tearoom at the time to support them with purchase orders, but we knew we’ll be back one day when our own lofty dreams bring us a tearoom and an audience of tea lovers here in the US.
2023 was our first year heading back to Taiwan for sourcing post pandemic. We spent some extra time in Pinglin to visit a few organic tea makers, including Ching-yuan, of course. Over the last decade, Taiwanese tea industry has put organic tea cultivation front and center. Certified organic is not longer just an idea. You can now purchase competition grade organic tea – yes, the era of organic tea marketplace has arrived.
Ching-yuan today is the one of the main players in organic tea production and remains the cheerleader of organic tea making here in Pinglin. It has been more than ten years since our first meeting, and we were thrilled to see how much they’ve accomplished. In 2009, they only had seven partnering farms moving from conventional to organic cultivation. Today, there are more than thirty in Pinglin alone, just over 130 acres. Growing organic tea sustainably is a complicated and difficult road to navigate. Taiwan organic certification is strict (vs the US). To be certified organic it’s not only the tea gardens, but all the machines and equipment that touch the leaves. The factory needs its own organic certification because using the same machine to produce organic after it came in contact with conventional harvests is not acceptable. No amounts of toxic chemical are “tolerable” in the tea sample, the lab report for certification requires “not traceable” for a list containing hundreds of chemicals. It's also labor intensive, (hand-weeding, anyone?) and expensive. Most small tea farmers need support and guidance to produce organic sustainably.
The phrase sustainable is a multifaceted concept here. Not only farming and cultivation should be sustainable for the land but the production and retailing need to be commercially viable for the chain of command (growers, makers, sellers) in order to stay course. This is where Ching-yuan comes in for extra support. In addition to provide knowledge in organic farming and certification, they also serve as a collective and buyer for the organic tea harvests. In the first three to five years of land conversion, tea harvest can be inferior in quality with heavy bug infestations when the tea farm still lacks a complete ecosystem, dragging down pricing in the commercial market. As practical sponsors, Chin-yuan purchases this harvest at market rate (regardless of quality) while nature itself rebuild its food chain. This provides a security blanket for the farmers who can still earn a steady income to continue the effort.
Ching-Yuan also built a certified organic tea processing facilities and made them available to smaller organic farmers who may not have the resource to build their own organic processing facility. They hired and trained tea makers onsite to process the collected tea harvest and made into finished products for retail or wholesale. Ching-yuan is not the most experienced tea makers in the industry, but they try the hardest. In the short time we were there, we met two (young!) tea makers who are firm believers of organic tea’s future themselves. They travel often during off seasons to different parts of tea producing regions, learning from other generational tea family to accumulate priceless knowledge. We sampled a few teas in their line up this year and they show vast improvements compared to our first visit back in ‘09. Most delicious GABA, beautifully roasted Frozen Summit, a perfectly lovely Baozhong (a specialty to the local terroir in Pinglin) and juicy black tea made with TRES #18.
Organic tea leaves are typically harder to make delicious compared to their conventional counterparts. Think about chef without sharp knives or spices, growers have less tools in their toolbox to manipulate their harvest - in this case, no chemical pesticides or fertilizers. It's also significantly more expensive to produce, and the higher production cost makes it difficult to price their tea competitively in the marketplace. In the early days, Ching-yuan relied on believers and volunteers to purchase their tea to sustain operation.
It was helpful to explore Ching-yuan’s origin story to understand their mission. They actually started promoting organic farming for religious reasons - they are a sister organization of Tse-Xin Organic Certification, or TOC, a group of devout Buddhists on a mission to preserve every lifeform. Tea is a key agricultural production sector that occupies a significant chunk of land here in Taiwan. Plus, Pinglin is a historic tea region situated around the Feicui Water Reservoir responsible for distributing drinking water to local communities, including the capital city, Taipei. Reducing any toxicity where teas are cultivated in this region is a no-brainer. TOC is one of 19 government approved official agencies that certify organic in Taiwan. They also certify other agricultural products, fruits, vegetables, and others. We were told they are the strictest agency by many tea farmers. In case you were wondering, Taiwan's organic certification is recognized by the EU and USDA.
The Feicui water dam in Pinglin is one of the largest in Taiwan. It was named Feicui, or Emerald, after its vibrant and colorful ecosystem, resembling the highest grade of jade. This is where we take the name Emerald Leaf for this collection of organic tea. It’s a tribute to the effort of Ching-Yuan to protect this beautiful ecology and keeping the land as toxic free as possible.
Pinglin is part of my childhood memories. We passed by this town when my family made the journey from Taipei to Yilan to visit my grandparents every weekend in my elementary school days. After spending the day with Ching-yuan and discussing ways of organic tea cultivation, we saw clouds floating into the tea gardens after a giant rainstorm. It was so beautiful! The scenery fills our hearts with joy as we make a commitment to help promote organic teas stateside.