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Tea 'ambassador' on a mission to revitalize Taiwan's tea sector

2017/11/12 10:51:37

Thomas Shu (許正龍, back center)

By Shih Hsiu-chuan

CNA staff reporter

Taiwan's tea industry has faltered in recent decades, plagued by stiff global competition, a steep fall in the acreage devoted to tea cultivation and the number of people interested in growing it, and quality scandals.

Thomas Shu (許正龍), honored as an "Ambassador of Taiwan Tea" in 2007, has been intent on changing that, hoping to revitalize a sector that to him represents the country's historical, cultural, ecological, social and economic "backbone."

In his own eyes, success will not be measured in sales or numbers but rather his ability to keep the industry viable and leave a promising future for the younger generation.

Shu's years of effort to achieve his rather ambitious goal started with his steadfast commitment to the product itself.

"Taiwanese oolong is not tea," Shu told CNA in an interview on Oct. 30, a statement reflecting his belief that local oolong is so "unique" it deserves its own brand instead of being categorized as just another tea.

It's also an attempt to highlight its importance to Taiwan and prevent it from being seen as a commodity that Taiwan should no longer produce because it can't do so competitively, Shu says.

"If you look at how the tea industry has evolved in Taiwan, it is inextricably intertwined with the country's history; it is a cultural industry," Shu said. "Value-added by-products from tea plantations also make it a biotechnology industry."

Tea was one of Taiwan's most valuable exports before its agrarian economy was gradually replaced with light industries under an import substitution policy in the 1950s and a policy to promote exports of manufactured goods in the 1960s and 1970s.

Between 1946 and 1982, up to 33,000 hectares of land were used to cultivate tea, and 20,000 metric tons of tea, or about 80 percent of Taiwan's production, were exported a year, Tsai Hsien-tsung (蔡憲宗), a Council of Agriculture (COA) Tea Research and Extension Station (TRES) official told CNA on Nov. 1.

Since the 1980s, however, Taiwan has experienced a sharp decrease in tea production because of industrialization and urbanization, and only 12,000 hectares of land in Taiwan are now devoted to tea cultivation, producing 14,000 tons a year.

Of that 80 percent is for the local market, with exports dropping to around 3,000 metric tons a year, Tsai said.


A tea plantation in Guanxi, Hsinchu County

For Shu, the third-generation of a tea-planting family from Guanxi in Hsinchu County born in 1953, the decline of Taiwan's tea industry shook him to the core.

Shu emigrated to the United States in 1977 and later set up his own tea business in California, JT & Tea, but he was compelled to take action back in Taiwan after being honored by the Taiwan Tea Manufacturers Association (TTMA) as a tea ambassador in 2007.

Taiwan's tea industry was then at a crossroads, Shu recalls. "I had discussions with the TTMA and COA. They were uncertain that the industry ought to be preserved," given the issue of comparative advantage, Shu said.

Since seeing the very survival of Taiwan's tea sector threatened 10 years ago, he and his wife Josephine Pan (潘掬慧) have "felt a strong sense of duty" to uncover sources of future market growth for Taiwan's tea industry.

He has only one goal in mind, he said -- for any company that manufactures, distributes, or sells tea products, including bubble tea shops, to have a category of "Taiwanese teas" displayed in its catalogue or on its menu.

Only recently has he been able to say with confidence that "we are ready" to explore niche markets worldwide, Shu said.

For the first five years of his endeavor, he simply hoped to get Taiwanese tea farms and manufacturers to raise their standards and secure ISO 22000 certification, the internationally recognized standard for food safety, to dispel food safety concerns.

The industry has been plagued by unscrupulous vendors passing off cheap imported tea leaves as "Taiwanese tea" or using excessive amounts of pesticides in locally grown tea, and Shu is hoping to bring such practices to an end.

Only more recently, he said, have local tea vendors been capable of "supplying affordable and available teas that produce constant character."

Shu has adopted a two-pronged strategy to build the reputation of Taiwan's tea overseas -- arranging for Taiwan's tea connoisseurs to showcase premium Taiwanese teas in an exhibit he sets up at the annual World Tea Expo, the leading tea trade show in the U.S., and conducting a "Taiwan Oolong Study Tour" program, or "TOST," in Taiwan every year.


Thomas Shu (front row, third left) and his wife Josephine Pan (front row, first left) with the group of TOST 2017.

Under the annual TOST program launched in 2008, Shu and Pan give tea professionals from around the world the chance to experience Taiwan's tea culture through visits to oolong tea farms, the hands-on processing of tea, discussions with tea scientists at TRES, participation in tea cupping, and visits to tea shops and tea bars.

Only holders of "ISO 22000" certification can be included in the study tour's itinerary to promote and ensure food safety.

"It literally sows the seeds for ambassadors of Taiwanese tea," Shu said, noting that his exhibit at the World Tea Expo was "the only one to have a mix of nationalities demonstrating Taiwanese teas."

The 10th annual TOST program just concluded on Oct. 26, and one of the participants, Tania Stacey, the owner of Cuppa Cha in Australia, described TOST to CNA as an educational program of the highest standard "and the tea industry should be very proud."

Ahmad Aleidan, owner of Bayan Artisan Tea in Kuwait, told CNA in an email exchange on Oct. 31, that he was impressed with the scientific research conducted by the TRES and the effort people in the tea industry made to get ISO certification.

"This portrays the Taiwanese tea industry in a very positive way to the international market," Aleidan said.

People in Taiwan's tea industry also find they benefit from the visits because they rarely have the chance to receive so much feedback from people involved in overseas markets, Shu said.

To ensure that the program's itinerary is based only on each host candidate's merits, TOST remains an entirely self-funded program without any government support, Shu's wife Pan said.

"We haven't done this for the money. And there were times when we weren't able to make ends meet," she said.

The passion and support tea farmers and manufacturers have shown TOST members is also a driving force in the continuation of the program, Shu said.


TOST members visit the tea plantation owned by Wang Hung-cheng (王宏誠) (front row, first right) in Chiayi.

Wang Hung-cheng (王宏誠), who grows high mountain oolong tea in Alishan and Meishan townships in Chiayi County, was introduced to Shu by TRES researchers, and he has hosted TOST visitors for about five years.

He praised TOST as "an opportunity for potential foreign customers to get to know our products" and introduce high mountain oolong tea to the visitors because of the unique qualities of Alishan natural elements, or terroir.

But Wang acknowledged that to expand his business overseas will require more than exposure; it will mean overcoming the even more daunting challenges of the lack of capacity and funds.

Even with such obstacles, Shu remains undaunted.

"We are not doing this for any individual but to help the entire tea industry," Shu said, because keeping the industry viable can also help create jobs, restore degraded land, ensure food safety and lead to a promising future for younger generation.

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