Have you ever tried Taiwan’s “stinky tofu?” it’s usually deep-fried and is sold at night markets in most of Taiwan’s larger cities. It IS stinky and it IS an acquired taste; one that I have yet to master. Not certain I ever will; or really want to.
The past few years, however, have seen another kind of “tofu” in Taiwan. It appears as a result of a new machine that has taken its place in the manufacturing of the country’s famous oolong teas. OK, there really isn’t a new kind of tofu but rather a new way of processing the leaves. And this has not always been for the best.
The “tofu ” machine
This machine is a hydraulic compacting machine, colloquially called “the tofu machine.”
It gets that nickname due to the cube shape that the mass of compressed tea leaves assumes after compression. The tofu machine often is used in place of the traditional ball rolling process. It can also be used as an adjunct to that process by doing the first few pressings before the traditional process takes over.
The tofu machine is both a labor saving and a time saving device for it presses the leaves quickly and efficiently. With declining numbers of skilled laborers in the tea regions, the labor-saving benefit of the tofu machine is evident. But it is really its function as a time saver that has made the machine so popular.
The traditional ball-rolling process is long and laborious. In order to achieve the desired ball shape, tea leaves must be bound in muslin, rolled and dried up to 40 or more times. Using the tofu machine this can be reduced to just a dozen or so times at most. This means that the laborers who work in the tea factories are able to complete their tasks and return to their families much sooner than would otherwise be the case. And this makes for a happy workforce.
But what of quality? Chen Kuan Lin (Andy is his English name) has studied some of the major differences in the components of tea leaves using the traditional process and the modern one employing the tofu machine. The differences are striking and important.
The first thing Andy noted is that the water content of the leaves is much higher in the tightly compressed modern method than it is in the traditional method. This is very important because this water content does not become much reduced during roasting as the heat does not easily reach the center of tightly rolled leaves. With higher water content, the “shelf life” of the tea is considerably shorter and the risk of mold is significantly increased.
Chemical analysis of the tea produced by the two methods showed that, although there was no difference in the total polyphenolic content, there were reduced post-roasting soluble components in the tea produced using the modern method. Andy also noted that the caffeine level of tea produced using the tofu machine was lower than that using the traditional method. Similarly, during the roasting process, catechin content increases in traditionally produced tea across three measures whereas this happens across only two measures for the modern method.
Organoleptic analysis revealed the traditionally produced tea tasted better; there was a distinct astringent taste that persisted despite long roasting periods. As to leaf appearance, the tea produced using the tofu machine produced a much tighter roll and the leaves had a wrinkled appearance when brewed.
What is the future?
This sounds pretty grim for the tea processed using the tofu machine; it exhibits lower quality on just about every measure. Given how wide the adoption of the tofu machine has become in just a short while would seem to bode ill for the future of Taiwanese tea. Late last year, two and a half years after his original study, I asked Andy for his view. To my surprise, he was relatively optimistic.
Further study had revealed a compromise that did not result in lower quality tea. Andy claims now, that using the machine during the first two or three passes and then switching to the traditional method is just the ticket.
As for me, having tasted both the traditional method and modern method teas, (and I’m sure, the blend of the two methods) I’ll withhold final judgement for now although I do find I prefer tea with the looser roll of the traditional method. Despite the near ubiquitous presence of the tofu machine, these older type teas can still be found. When you purchase ball-rolled oolong tea, examine the dry leaf; is it tightly or more loosely rolled? Are the infused leaves smooth and unwrinkled or are the noticeably creased? Ask questions for sure but above all, be guided by your palate.
That’s my take. What’s your view?
 For this article I have benefited from the research of Chen Kuan Lin, 球形包種茶整形工序差異對茶葉品質之影響 (Effects on tea quality influenced by different Ball-Rolling Processes) Taichung, Asia University, Master’s thesis, July 2016.
 I thank Philip Brook of Taiwan Tea Crafts for this observation.
 Roasting tended to reduce astringency in traditionally rolled tea.
 Remember too, that the “tradition method” is already a change from the “original method” which was done without the use of machines at all. This original method was really used only in Dong Ding and Muzha. High Mountain tea, for all practical purposes, always has been produced with the aid of machines.