The vendor profile for Origin Tea is a part of our Taiwanese Tea Vendor Series, covering a number of Taiwanese-tea specialized vendors that sell to the west. Much to my dismay, Origin Tea has since closed.
At Origin Tea we have one goal: To make high quality teas available worldwide at reasonable prices..
An easy statement to make, but a far more difficult one to backup (especially given Origin’s premium high-mountain specialty). Based in Taiwan, Origin Tea is owned and run by Tony. Origin Tea opened up shop in late 2012, using Taiwan’s 2012 Winter Harvest as their initial selection.
Origin Tea’s High-Mountain Spring 2013 Lineup
|Tea Type||# OT Offerings||~Elevation (m)|
|Shan Li Xi (included Long Feng Xia)||2||1,600|
|Lishan (included Fu Shou Shan)||3||2,300|
|Da Yu Ling (included 104k Da Yu Ling)||3||2,500|
The number of Origin Tea offerings increase as elevation increases. This indicates not only a specialization in high-mountain teas, but a specialization in premium high-mountain teas.
Like many Taiwanese-specialized vendor, Origin Tea offers the standard Taiwanese affair (Alishan, Dong Ding, Oriental Beauty, etc.). Origin Tea’s high-mountain tea selection is far more uncommon. High-mountain Taiwanese teas are generally named and marketed under their mountain region, making two teas from the same region difficult to distinguish online (i.e. tea is marketed as Alishan, Shan Li Xi, etc.). This presents a marketing problem, creating a situation where the majority of vendors are afraid to offer more than one tea from each region. Let’s take a quick look at Lishan tea. The Lishan tea-growing region is huge, ranging from 1,500-2,500 meters with major differences in terroir. There are many different types of tea produced on Lishan (many of them excellent), yet most vendors will pick only one tea to market and sell as their Lishan selection.
Origin Tea throws this convention out the window. In Spring 2013 they sold several different versions of Taiwan’s most premium tea. This collection featured three different Lishans and three different Da Yu Lings, giving the consumer a unique opportunity to not only choose their personal favorite style (oxidation, roasting levels) but to also compare the different styles of gaoshan without having to purchase from multiple vendors.
In my discussions with Tony, he outlined two different types of tea people. The first type see tea primarily as an agricultural product and focus on tea farming, the craft of tea-making, and tasting. The second type see tea primarily as a medium for art and spirituality. The distinction is not necessarily mutually exclusive, but there is often a clear and distinct gap between the two parties. After talking with Tony or even simply glancing around the minimal but efficient design of Origin Tea it is crystal clear that Tony and Origin Tea fall into the first category.
ABOUT ORIGIN TEA
It seems to me that Origin Tea was created by someone who understood the hardcore tea audience very well. Origin Tea offers great prices (1,2), sample sizes, showcases only the important information and is active in the western tea enthusiast community. Is this an accurate picture of yourself and Origin Tea?
Yes and no. Though Origin Tea does build relationships with those you would call “hardcore western tea enthusiasts”, Origin is intended not only for enthusiasts but for anyone interested in tea. Origin does however like to keep things as much as possible focused on tea itself, and that, I suppose, naturally appeals more immediately to ”hardcore tea enthusiasts”.
Originally when doing research on vendors for the Taiwanese Oolong Compendium I had Origin Tea slotted as a higher-end, premium tea vendor similar to high-end Taiwanese vendors like Teamasters. Over the course of doing price research and calculations for several of TeaDB’s price comparison articles it became clear that Origin Tea’s price per quantity were actually significantly below the westward-facing market price. How does Origin Tea offer such low prices?
Being based on the ground in Taiwan means that Origin doesn’t have all the high overheads of a teashop based overseas — for instance, making trips from the US to Taiwan, shipping tea in bulk back to USA, extra storage and logistic costs etc. Also, as many would have noticed, Origin keeps its packaging minimalistic and never includes any printed promotional material (Quality doesn’t need a fancy wrapper).
Editor’s Note: All these costs inevitably ends up being reflected in the price tag the consumer ultimately pays)
Editor’s Note #2: It should be noted that lower prices on their own are entirely meaningless if the tea is bad. Consumers should be careful about hunting for the lowest price while ignoring vendor reputation and other key factors.
What’s unavoidable is that the US and European market price will be higher than the Asian market, regardless of where the vendor is based (this is due to market size and higher-shipping costs). The western market’s demand for high quality tea is just about non-existent compared to the local demand.
What are your biggest sources of overhead simply to operate beyond tea and shipping?
Origin Tea is a full-time shop, whereas most of the the online shops providing high quality teas to the west have become part time side projects. While not necessarily the biggest, a significant overhead cost is the constant sampling of tea.
Would you say that the time and money spent sampling allows you to source better and more interesting tea?
Yes. There will be two or three 2013 Winter Da Yu Lings in the Origin 2013 Winter lineup, and we have already sampled through about 15 Da Yu Lings. Vendors quite often get to sample teas for free. However, if you want to conduct thorough tastings and extensive comparisons, you’ll have to buy it. Being based in Taiwan helps a lot. There’s no 1-2 week sourcing rush (or additional international shipping cost). Origin is basically sourcing every day of the year.
If you were just looking to get into tea, specifically Taiwanese tea. What teas would you include in that order? Any specific advice you would give this friend?
I would try to cover as many different specifications as possible to try get an idea of what minimal oxidation and minimal roast at Origin Tea is like (order a ton of variety!). This would give you an idea of the general styles out there, and it would also help with future orders at Origin.
There are many different ways in which Taiwanese Oolong is processed. If you prefer gaoshan with stronger hui gan (sweetness returning and attaching to the throat), you’d want to steer towards relatively higher oxidized oolongs. And of course the major low elevation teas as well, Baozhong, Dong Ding, Oriental Beauty, etc.
Editor’s Note: One of the nice features with Origin Tea is the small minimum size (37.5g), allowing you to order a variety of teas.
When is the ideal time to order Taiwanese tea? What about drinking it? Alot of vendors hype up the spring and winter harvests, trying to get buyers to purchase immediately. Is there merit behind this or is this merely a marketing ploy?
If you’re extremely picky and only drink nuclear green (very low-oxidation, minimally processed oolong) then you’d do well to buy as soon as your tea is out… But even then these days Taiwanese vendors store nuclear green oolongs in vacuum sealed bags and stick them in the fridge. So, even if you buy nuclear oolong a few months down the line, it makes very little difference.
The rush to buy the new harvest is a reality (for vendors) in Taiwan. Especially for higher grade teas. If you snooze, the tea will be gone before you know it (another advantage of being based in Taiwan).
If you had to recommend a western-facing vendor besides OT, which vendor would you recommend?
Teahome, but they’re only sort of western-glancing. They’re Dong Ding experts and source their gaoshans (high-mountain oolong) via other means.
You’ve also been involved in a couple really cool community events. Tasting of Wistaria cakes and aged Baozhongs. Origin Tea also did a very well-received OTTI event on teachat. Any future plans either associated or disassociated from OT?
Disassociated from Origin Tea, there were plans for Project Origin Tea round 3 of Aged Sheng. But we’re stuck at the moment on how to do a survey on how many would be interested especially given the formidable cost. We were looking at working with some rather well known names on this one.
As far as Origin Tea goes, the line up is going to just about double what it now and it will happen pretty soon.
TAIWANESE TEA CULTURE
What are the most commonly consumed teas in Taiwan?
Probably Vietnamese or Thai teas or very low grade red (black) tea from bubble tea stands.
What types of Vietnamese and Thai teas?
Ones that say Taiwanese oolong. Taiwan imports 2x more tea than it produces. Most of what is consumed in Taiwan are cheaper versions of what Taiwan itself produces. Some of the teas Taiwan produces simply can’t be faked. Specifically the top grade stuff that’s very dependent on the extreme environments which they grow in. Some western buyers are quite worried about not receiving genuine Taiwanese teas from vendor. The same worries are here locally.
Does most of the premium high-mountain tea stay in Taiwan or get shipped out?
A significant amount still stays in Taiwan, but export to Japan and China have been rising real fast, especially after 2008.
What is your opinion on nuclear green oolongs? It seems like both Chinese Tieguanyin and alot of Taiwanese teas have moved heavily in this direction. Is this just a trend?
The style has been around for 20, 30 years and the demand (for extremely low-oxidation oolongs) has certainly been growing and not diminishing. There has been a lot of good teas (and a lot of bad ones too) produced in this fashion. The problem comes when this green style starts to take over even in teas where it is simply out of place.
Editor’s Note: Tony has told me before that most of Origin Tea’s consumers prefer a higher-oxidation style, making Origin Tea a great place to explore the less trendy higher-oxidation high-mountain style. It should also be noted that Origin Tea’s low-oxidation oolongs are also excellent.
There have been rumors of Da Yu Ling tea shutdowns for a few years now. Luckily we still have access to this tea! What is the latest news in Taiwan?
As far as I know, there’s been this no-expansion policy in effect for certain high elevation tea regions like Da Yu Ling, i.e. it will only get smaller.
But no big shutdowns or anything?
No, unless you’re illegally growing on land that’s not supposed to be occupied but there’s been problems in those high elevation regions for ages.
In terms of zoning?
There are rumors about the government claiming the land but also environmental damages caused by over-cultivation. Forest areas turned into tea farms causing mudslides collapses. But as usual it’s just stuff they say. It could just be rumors to make people rush to buy more tea. Ultimately in Taiwan, unless someone important is not getting their money, don’t think they care all that much about environmental issues.
ON STORING PU’ERH IN TAIWAN
While Origin Tea still primarily focuses on sourcing Taiwanese oolongs, they have slowly created a diverse lineup of raw pu’erh.
How do Taiwanese tea people store their pu’erh? Do they follow closely with any of the other storage methodologies, i.e. wet/dry storage?
There is ‘wet’ storage which is improperly stored puerh that got wet, then there is traditional HK storage (Marhsaln: Traditional, Not Wet). There is no traditional HK storage in Taiwan. There is Taiwanese natural storage which is simply storing pu’erh without any artificial attempt to modify temperature and humidity. Then there is Taiwanese dry, which requires an air conditioned warehouse.
ON BREWING OOLONG
For your Da Yu Ling teas you recommended a very interesting and strong brewing method to me. What is the thought process for this. What other teas would this work for?
Strong Brewing Method: 1g/10ml (or more tea). Boiling water. Quick Rinse. Steep for a relatively long steep time. A pot can be used to retain the heat.
The thought process is the same as brewing gyokuro or making koicha. Not many Taiwanese teas work for this, only the highest and cleanest gaoshans. Nuclear green gaoshan are actually good for this brewing technique.
If you brew high grade gyokuro or matcha at a low or normal ratio, it will taste quite bland. Certain palettes might like this, but those who prefer upfront or bold flavours won’t. Koicha grade matcha is a good parallel. It is very expensive, and when most people have it, they find it bland and boring and more often than not, they have made usucha (thin tea) with it. Does that mean koicha is all hype? No. Though this of course doesn’t mean that everyone will like the intense version of Da Yu Ling. Do not try this with anything less than a real high-quality high-elevation gaoshan, or you’ll be facing a cup of pure nastiness.
Brewing at this strength also exposes all the flaws of a tea. Everything is amplified. In the end it’s about tweaking the brewing parameters to get the maximum amount of flavor out of a really clean and high-quality tea.