In pursuit of an unforgettable taste
Lin Fa Chao was only ten years old when he met the love of his life.
"I had never had any drink like that before. The sweet aftertaste just lingered on and on. The sensation remained there like forever," the 62-year-old recalled.
It was a cup of tea prepared by his grandmother who lived in a rural village - not a particularly expensive or special tea, but a simple brew of some tea leaves the villagers picked from a wild bush in the mountains nearby. The locals named it "sweet tea".
"I was completely captivated. It was a delicious sweetness, so natural and so pure that no other beverage can compare."
From then on, Lin's rendezvous with tea became more intimate.
At the age of 19, like most other fresh graduates who became known as the "rusticated youth" during Chairman Mao's "Down to the Countryside Movement", Lin was sent down to cultivate new tea plantations in southern China. After that, he went on to study tea science at Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University, where he acquired specialist knowledge about the entire tea profession, from choosing seeds to tea processing and merchandising.
In 1984, after graduation, Lin got a job as a technician at the Tea Production Bureau in Fujian's Qingxi County. He travelled up and down the county, visited more than forty tea-farming villages, tasted hundreds of cultivated tea, and yet, he found the teas grown in the wild to be the best of the best.
"I remember I went into this rather unimpressive looking monastery. There was barely anything but some tea bushes scattered around in the backyard as if no one was taking care of them. But then two elderly monks turned up and served me a cup of tea - ha, it was beautiful!"
It sounds almost like a mythical encounter, but for Lin, it was the pivotal moment.
"The monks said they never used fertilisers or weed-killers on the tea plants. They just let them grow naturally, and they harvest only once a year. They confirmed what I have been thinking. Eco-farming is the way to go."
Being a tea specialist, Lin had to taste a broad spectrum of teas, including the most premium ones. On one occasion when he and his colleagues were sampling a very expensive blend of Oolong tea, they had a sobering observation.
"The tea smelled and tasted wonderful at the first sip, and everyone was about to give it a five-star. However, after a while, we all went quiet. Something was wrong. The tea seemed to have left an astringent residue in the throat, and was causing a dryness."
Lin later found out, through his incessant experiments, that tea, as a fresh leaf, doesn't carry an astringent aftertaste at all. The bitter tone emerges from the manufacturing process. Only when tea growers improve on the refining procedure can they revive the very original and pure sweetness in the tea.
In 1988, Lin decided to rent 300 mu of land in San Ming, Fujian and run an eco-friendly tea farm, commencing the quest for the "cleanest" tea. On this piece of land, no weed killers, no pesticides or fertilisers are in use.
"It is not a pleasant job. Everyone has to pull weeds under the sun. It is a tedious, dirty and laborious undertaking, and we actually have to pay a lot for manpower," said Youlan, Lin's daughter.
Without pesticides, some venomous pest larvae will be active near the end of the spring season.
"Oh yes, I remember this. My uncle and the weeding crew came back with bites and stings all over their hands! It was painful and very itchy, " Youlan said.
Lin finally decided to abandon every summer crop to avoid encounters with the larvae. To Lin, there is apparently something more important than the matter of yields and profits.
"My childhood memory of my father is that he could always pull out some tea leaves from some mysterious bags and brew a tea that would have a slightly different taste from the others,” said Youlan. “He seemed to have uncountable bags of these tea leaves; all carried some illegible handwriting no one could read.”
It turned out Lin had been experimenting for his "purest" tea. These bags recorded how the changes in temperature, fermentation duration, the order of the procedure and other factors can result in taste variations.
His daughter calls him a modern-day Don Quixote, for devoting almost his entire life to achieve a goal so fantastical. The fact is, Lin's peerless search for the purest taste of tea has also been successful. His speciality tea "Gao Shi Cun", named after the tea farm’s village, has already won many national awards.
"The sweetness in the tea is so unique that some of my customers thought there is sugar in it! Let me remind you, the purest tea is the sweetest tea. We only need to grow them with care and the tea will bring out its best for us," Lin concluded.