Hidden within the mist-covered forest on the slopes of the Batukaru mountain range in Jatiluwah, central Bali, lies D’Wan Tea, Bali’s first tea garden.
The region of Jatiluwah is better known for its stunning, instgrammable rice terraces than for its tea. Nominated for designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Jatiluwah loosely translates to ‘real, beautiful’, and driving through the lush, vibrant green rice fields, it’s easy to see why.
I visited D’Wan Tea at the end of a seven-night stay at Zen Resort in Northern Bali. I wasn’t sure what to expect before arriving at D’Wan Tea as the rudimentary website didn’t give much away and, while Bali is famous for many things, tea isn’t one of them.
But as soon as I was greeted by the exuberant D’Wan Tea owner, Wawan Setiawan, I knew I was in for a treat.
Wawan started D’Wan Tea almost a decade ago, importing tea plant cuttings from China, Taiwan and India and planting his first tea bushes in 2011. There are now around 20,000 tea plants in small plots nestled in and amongst the forest and he plans to double this over the next few years.
Wawan is committed to natural growing methods, authenticity and artisanship when it comes to growing and crafting tea. He labels his tea as ‘biodynamic’. He doesn’t use any chemicals, but, like many small tea makers, can’t afford formal organic certification.
Because of his Chinese and Taiwanese ancestry, Wawan told me he feels that tea and tea making are in his blood. He has a huge passion for tea and, I found out, an intrinsic ability for tea artisanship – perhaps due to the echos of tea-craft in his bloodlines.
Nine years is still very new in tea estate terms but Wawan’s enthusiasm and dedication is seeing him produce some excellent teas. I tasted six of his 2019 harvest teas – one white, one green, one light oolong, one dark oolong and two black teas. What felt immediately obvious to me was how the terroir of Bali came through so strongly in each cup. The white had a strong fruity aroma – reminiscent of the abundance of native fruit trees - mangosteen, guava, rambutan, bananas for example - that grow locally. The black tea had an intense smokey/tobacco flavour – the same hints I detected when I tasted the dark chocolate bars at nearby Pod Chocolate Factory, which sources all of its cacao beans from Bali.
This is one of the reasons I love single origin tea so much – its incredibly exciting when you can taste a tea’s habitat in its flavour.
Central Bali’s unique environment – volcanic soil, high rainfall, high humidity, tropical climate and mist cover – create an ecosystem that tea plants love. The only downside is that there is no winter period of dormancy for the plant, which is said to enrich the flavours for the first harvest of Spring. However when tasting Wawan's teas, Bali’s terroir seems to infuse more then enough flavour into the leaves to make up for this.
D’wan Tea represents a growing and welcome trend in the tea industry – a kind of circling back to the time hundreds of years ago in China when tea was grown and processed almost exclusively in small quantities by families running their own tea gardens. Since the introduction of large-scale tea production in India by the British in the 1800’s, the international tea market has been dominated by foreign-owned companies producing tea on a massive scale. Following a relaxing of rules in India in the 1990’s, small private farmers were allowed to grow tea plants and sell their ‘green’ (freshly plucked) leaves to large factories. Over the past 10 years, these small growers have turned their hand to full production – giving them full creative rein when it comes to processing techniques and therefore the shape and flavour of the final tea product. Wawan’s tea's unique flavour reminded me of the small batch Indian teas I have tasted.
Wawan continues to experiment with his tea, meaning each batch is unique and different to the one that came before it. I found it completely delightful spending time with Wawan, strolling through his gardens, sitting down for a tasting with him and listening to him talk about tea. After I said goodbye to Wawan, my experience reminded me of Italy, where food preparation is regarded as an expression of love and how food made with love is said to taste better. If we translate this to Bali, where the inherent happiness, peacefulness and generosity of people in Bali and Wawan’s enthusiasm and dedication to quality and authentic tea making, combined with Bali’s beautiful growing environment, its no wonder Wawan’s teas tasted so good.
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I took the photo at the very top of this page from Wawan's terrace. It shows the forest covered by mist that his tea plants grow in.