The central part of the island of Taiwan, Nantou and Chiayi counties, is where high mountain teas are grown, on the following mountain ranges: Hehuanshan, Alishan, Lushan, which is where our black and green teas come from, Wu She, and Lishan, Shan Li Xi and Da Yu Ling, the last three all on the same mountain range. Lishan oolong is grown at around 2,200m above sea level (7217ft), and produced the most expensive tea in the 2000s at around $200 per 600g. 600g or 1 jin (斤) in Taiwan is a traditional unit of measurement for weight. Each mountain has its own flavour from differences in the terroir, which includes things such as soil, drainage, weather and mist that relate to the location. When I was first learning about teas and heard the names of these mountains I thought that they each stood on their own, but actually they are more like interconnecting mountain ranges, as we could drive from one to another without going down to sea level. A few years ago on ground level in the town of Puli, I remember that I was surprised to see signs pointing to these different mountain ranges. When we actually got there, the mountains looked very similar to each other with narrow roads, and the same almost jungle-like vegetation coating the sides of the mountain ranges, as well as stunning views over valleys to high, distant blue-green peaks in the distance and white rocks on river beds, with small villages and farms at the bottom.
There are two main harvests for high mountain tea, are winter and spring. Winter teas have a lower yield as they are harvested in November and December during the middle of domancy and are rich, full-bodied and balanced. Spring teas are harvested between March and May and have a larger yield. They taste more aromatic and floral after the dormancy period. However, the nature of the teas seem to be increasingly decided by factors that occur during each individual growing season, rather than simply defined by whether the tea was harvested in winter or spring. However, Spring teas seem to be more naturally popular for their fragrance and flavour whereas Winter teas are more expensive due to smaller yield but in demand in Taiwan for Chinese New Year gifts.
High mountain tea gardens tend to be small as tea farms go, at under 5 acres (217,800 square feet, around 2 hectares, or 20,234.3 square metres). As a result of a high altitude and small farms with a selective picking style, which is 2 or 3 leaves on the stem, there is a low yield of high mountain tea each year, and so they tend to be expensive.
The processing of high mountains teas is characterised by their being shaken on trays much less than for traditional oolongs, the heating step to stop oxidation (kill-green) is completed sooner and they have little to no roasting. High mountains teas are still hand-picked however, with three or four leaves and the stem. Some people think that any stem found in tea is a bad sign and will lead to bitterness, but for an oolong, it is important to include the stem so that the water can escape. It also allows you to see the picking style when the leaves expand on being brewed.
The tea farms are grown on the side of the mountain, and so tend to include steep paths on either side of the levels of rows of tea bushes, which grow on their own flat strip, so the effect is a little like a staircase. I was surprised when we first sourced tea that the farms were so steep as I had thought that all tea farms were flat, or on gently undulating ground. At a high altitude in Taiwan the reality is that the farms are very steep. You need a bit of a head for heights and occasionally for climbing too, as there don’t tend to be stairs and occasionally not much of a path between levels . Stairs have been built at Alishan but I suspect that those were built for the benefit of tourists.
One of the most famous teas in Taiwan is gao shan cha 高山茶 (káu.ʂán tsǎ), literally high mountain tea. High mountain teas refer to oolongs that are grown at a high altitude, at over 1000m (around 3280ft) above sea level, shaped into a ball, lightly oxidised. Although they are very well known, they only became popular in the 1980s. Farmers growing tea at high altitudes produce their teas in this style as it takes less time and skill to make. However, if they are made well, the high altitude produces very good teas.
In the case of Taiwanese high mountain tea, the tea farm will be on a mountainside at over 1000m (approximately 3280ft) above sea level. A high altitude in Taiwan is conducive to many factors that go towards a good tasting tea: high humidity; high precipitation; a lot of mist; thin, clear air; cooler temperatures and a big temperature difference between daytime and the evening. Mist aids tea as it helps to dapple the sunlight, thin air encourages the tea bushes to grow slowly, which produces a better flavour, and the big temperature difference in a day produces complexity.
High mountain teas can be described as having a crisp, fresh, clean, complex, floral and slightly sweet flavour, that lingers in the mouth, a sweet and fresh aroma, and a creamy texture. To tell that the tea is of fine quality, look for a fresh and fine taste that lasts a long time after drinking, and for the creamy texture. These indicate mineral content in the leaves and well-processed tea respectively.
I wrote an article a long time ago on how to do Gongfu Cha Tea Brewing but I have decided to write another updated version.
small brewing vessels (teapot) – 75ml (2.5oz) is about the right size for one person, 150ml (5oz) for two etc.
correspondingly small teacups
high leaf to water ratio
short brewing times
repeated infusions using the same tea leaves
If the teapot is too big, each person will drink more than one cup per infusion, too small and they will drink less than a cup per infusion. Gongfu cha works best if you have one or two cups per infusion.
In effect, it is drinking many small cups of tea, and tasting how the infusions develop over time. Drinking in this method, you will also drink a larger quantity of the tea liquor or tea soup as it is sometimes called, than if you were to drink the tea in a mug. It shows you how the leaves release their flavours gradually rather than all at once.
The minimum equipment that you will need:
high quality loose leaf tea
small tea brewing vessel: teapot, gaiwan – Chinese lidded cup with a saucer, something that is small, heatproof and that preferably has a lid.
small teacups: Chinese teacups, espresso cups
a bowl to dispose waste water into
a serving jug, called a chahai in Chinese
optional: sieve if the teapot does not have a filter. This is placed onto the chahai.
Gongfu cha can be done in many different ways, and made quite elaborate, decorative, and precise, by adding more equipment, decorations and steps. I am presenting here what I consider to be basic brewing technique, using minimal teaware.
Step 1: Preheat all the teaware. Pour hot water into the teapot, then from the teapot to the chahai, then into the cups, and finally dispose of it into the bowl.
Step 2: Put the tea into the preheated teapot. The quantity of tea that you use will depend on the category of tea and how strong you like your tea. I used about 1/6 of the capacity of the teapot, you can use more or less if you wish. A smaller teapot will allow you to drink stronger tea using less leaf. As this point, you can give it a shake and smell the aroma. I used our Roasted Honey Black Tea, and the aroma was dark chocolate and baking spices.
Step 3 (Optional): Rinse the tea. I did not rinse this tea because it is organic but if you wish to rinse your tea: pour hot water into the teapot and immediately discard into the bowl. You can use this to preheat the chahai and cups again if you wish, before discarding.
Step 4: Brew the tea: put fresh water into the teapot, and brew the tea. The temperature of the water and the time to wait for will again depend on the category of tea. In this case, a relatively long brewing time is recommended, around a minute or so for the first brew.
Step 5: Pour out and enjoy your first cup. Pour the tea out into the chahai, and then into the cups, and enjoy your tea. A sieve will catch any small fragments of tea leaves. The taste of this tea is toasty at first with the flavour of the roast, which then is replaced by a complex and fruity tastes as the infusions progress.
Step 6: Repeat steps 4 and 5 as many times as you wish, adding 30 seconds to a minute to the brewing time. If you find the tea too strong, you can reduce brewing time for the next infusion, and likewise if you find it too weak, you can increase brewing time, or even add more leaf.
The Chinese Tea Ceremony, or gongfu cha is often thought of as being an ancient ceremony, performed throughout China and then passed on to the West relatively recently. The truth is that it originated in the Chinese south-eastern province, Chaozhou, and it was relatively unknown outside this area even in the 1950s.
Gongfu cha was the most elaborate method of tea brewing in China, using more utensils and smaller utensils than tea brewing in other parts of China.
What made gongfu cha better known was its popularisation in Taiwanese tea houses during the 1970s and 1980s. In particular, Wistaria Tea House and the Lu Yu Tea Culture Institute both made important contributions to the popularisation of gongfu cha, as well as with standardising it and making it more elaborate. Zhou Yu, the founder of Wistaria Tea House is credited with having done research into historic tea brewing and contributed to gongfu cha combining Japanese, Korean and British traditions with the Chaozhounese brewing technique.
Taiwanese tea houses formed the Chinese Tea Art Friendship Association of Tea Houses in the late 1970s. In 1982, the Republic of China Tea Art Association was formed by the government in Taiwan, with the aim of promoting Chinese tea culture in Taiwan and abroad, and to educate about Chinese Tea Arts. There was a sense of responsibility in Taiwan to safeguard Chinese culture in the face of the Cultural Revolution.
As the tea bushes that began commercial tea cultivation in Taiwan came from Fujian province in south-eastern China, gongfu cha was also adopted as it came from the same sort of area, Chaozhou bordering Fujian.
All of these factors combined as well as the tea market beginning to sell domestically enabled gongfu cha to be widely practised in Taiwan, and certain additions were made: an aroma cup, to pour the tea into and smell the aromas from before drinking the tea from a second cup and a serving jug, to pour the tea from the teapot into, and from which the tea is poured into the cups. This jug ensures that the tea is of equal strength throughout the cups.
As well as a desire to preserve Chinese culture, tea houses wished to have a ceremony equal to that of Japan’s chanoyu matcha tea ceremony. Chanoyu has aesthetic elegance, Buddhist and philosophical ideas behind it and there is a strict set of rules that differ from one school to another in how each movement is performed and what role each person has to play in the ceremony. It is used to brew matcha, a powdered green tea. However it was another tea ceremony in Japan, called senchado that more directly influenced gongfu cha. Senchado is used to brew sencha, a loose leaf green tea. The teaware in senchado is Ming Chinese in origin, while Japanese aesthetics and philosophy underpin it. One impact of senchado on gongfu cha was the chaxi, an elegant and composed arrangement of teaware and decorations. As steps were added, some were for philosophical or aesthetic purposes, some for practical purposes, producing a ceremony more similar to senchado in its aims. An example of the former would be drinking the tea in three sips to represent heaven, man and earth. An example of the latter would be smelling the tea leaves and handing them around for observation. Although it is not necessary to do this, it does give some information on the tea to the person brewing and anyone drinking with them.
Tea brewing methods and ideas have been passed amongst Mainland China, Taiwan and Japan, adding to their history and making each ceremony or way of brewing more interesting along the way.
Sources: A Foreign Infusion: The Forgotten Legacy of Japanese Chadō on Modern Chinese Tea Arts by Lawrence Zhang (Marshaln), Gastronomica, Spring, 2016.
A Quintessential Invention: Genesis of a Cultural Orthodoxy in East Asian Tea Appreciation by Loretta Kim and Lawrence Zhang (Marshaln), China Heritage Quarterly, No. 29, March, 2012.
I have written before the similarities between wine and tea, but it is surprising how many words that we use to describe tea are borrowed from wine tasting, such as “softness” – low tannins in the case of wine, and no unwanted bitterness in tea.
Although this can be pretentious, this kind of terminology makes it easier to learn about indicators of quality and to learn to develop the palate to recognise different characteristics of wine and tea respectively and enjoy them more.
Tea tastings are quite similar to wine tastings, in that the aim is to observe the appearance, taste, aroma and finish.
The “finish” is the sensation that comes after swallowing. A good tea will make you salivate, returning a sweet flavour to the mouth, and will feel smooth on swallowing. I prefer teas that do not leave a sense of dryness when you drink them, although some people are not averse to that. “Complexity”, or exhibiting many different flavours is also desirable in both wines and teas. “Viscous” teas are often pleasant to drink and some teas have greater viscosity than others. This quality differs from tea to tea however, so a tea lacking viscosity is not necessarily bad.
In ageing tea as in wine, people will talk about particular years that produced good teas, and the characteristics of particular harvests, caused by the weather conditions of that season. Again, in a similar way to wine, you will hear people talking about how tea’s flavour and colour is affected by ageing. Tea gains complexity but also becomes more mellow.
A lot of individual flavour descriptors can also be the same such as “vegetal”: having flavours that resemble vegetables. “Floral” and “fruity” are terms that can be used in contrast.
Similarly, flavour wheels can be used with both wines and teas to try to describe flavours more precisely, from saying that a tea tastes floral, to saying that it tastes like jasmine.
This detailed way of describing teas derived from wine tasting does not seem to be so prevalent in East Asia, although our tea farmers will also describe teas as being too “rough”.
These terms can be fun to use, and useful in identifying flavours, if a little bit pompous. Ultimately, taste is quite subjective at the same time, so I would suggest not holding too tightly to flavour descriptors as being definitive.
The photo shows the same tea brewed with different waters. The cup on the left was brewed with tap water, and on the right with bottled water. Although I shall probably do a similar experiment in future to make sure, in this instance the bottled water performed slightly better than the tap water. The buttery and nutty aroma and taste of the tea was more pronounced whereas the tap water actually presented a subtle but unpleasant aftertaste. However, this did show that the water that you choose to brew tea with makes a difference.
The area where water comes from changes its taste. There are people who claim that all water tastes the same, or that all water is tasteless, but I find that when I go to different places, my tea tastes different, and as I brew it in the same way, the difference must come from the water. Some areas have harder and others softer water, and this affects the taste of tea. Surprisingly, soft water is actually not as preferable when it comes to tea. When I was in Vienna, I noticed that the water is very soft, which actually didn’t bring out the flavour of tea as well as water with a higher mineral content. However drinking the water on its own does taste very nice.
Some people recommend filtered water for tea. Filtered water tends to produce sharp tasting tea. I’ve come across the recommendation to blend together mineral water and filtered water, that while mineral water will give good flavour, the additional filtered water will keep the mineral sediment from affecting the kettle too much.
In Lu Yu’s Tea Classic, the oldest and most famous work on tea, written in the 1st century, it says that the best water for tea comes from a spring, and ideally flowing over stone, while the worst comes from a well, though a more frequently used well is better. River water meanwhile should come from the less used part of the river.
I recommend that while travelling, you take with you some tea that you know well, and see whether it tastes different, or alternatively, you could do a bit of an experiment with bottled waters as I did above.
Taiwan has a number of different tea competitions, that take place throughout the year,
90% of competitions in Taiwan are for oolong teas, but there are also competitions for black tea, such as the one in Yuchi, and for special Taiwanese teas such as Oriental Beauty and Muzha Tieguanyin. Competitions can have hundreds or even thousands of entrants.
The incentive for farmers to enter their teas for competitions is that their teas are more marketable for quality, and if they score highly, will allow them to sell their teas for several times the original price.
Competition winning teas are assured to be of high quality, as they have been tasted by experts who have verified that they are better than many other competitors. In addition, they preserve regional teas, tea culture, and traditional techniques.
The first major one of which was the Lugu Farmers’ Association Dong Ding Oolong Tea Competition, in 1976. It has since served as a template for other tea competitions around Taiwan.
How do they work?
Judges carefully evaluate and taste the tea entrants, for criteria such as dried leaf shape, brewed colour, brewed aroma, brewed flavour when hot and when cooled down, and brewed leaf shape.
Naturally, all teas have to be brewed using the same parameters: 3g of tea for 6 minutes in a 50ml cup, with the water at near boiling point. They are also given a code before judging so that the entries are anonymous and they are repackaged so that it is clear when resold that the tea was entered for competition.
Processing a tea for a competition is challenging, as the teas to either side of yours can influence the evaluation as the teas are judged against each other as well as according to criteria. In addition, the conditions of the day of competition will affect the nature of the tea, and have to be taken into account.
In stages, the tea is tasted by different judges and given different gradings, whose prices change accordingly.
Not trying to be cheeky, but if you would like to try a tea that was awarded a high grading in a competition, try our Honey Black Tea.
In a previous post, I described a technique for tea brewing that uses bowls and spoons.
This technique is used in Taiwan for tea evaluation and has many advantages:
the tea can be left for a long time while still drinking to see how bitterness comes in, and how the tea develops
several people can drink together at their own pace
one can observe the leaves very easily in an open and wide container
it is very convenient. There are other methods for evaluation such as competition brewing, but this is one way in which brewing can be roughly standardised to drink teas side by side.
brewing in bowls also cools the tea down very quickly. This could be a disadvantage as well depending.
I use gong fu drinking cups, as this is effectively a continuous gong fu session, as the tea is constantly brewing as it is drunk.
You can refill the bowls with more water as you wish.
To brew tea in bowls is excellent to compare and contrast flavours, aromas etc. The only drawback is that if one tea is drunk directly after another, the flavour that you already taste affects how the next is perceived. Perhaps a palate cleanser could help.
I do highly recommend this technique however for its ease and because it does help when comparing teas and is an easy way to test for bitterness and observe the leaves for their colour, shape and texture.
In tasting tea, every aspect of how the tea affects you is important, not only the aroma and flavour but also the texture of the tea, and how it affects you after drinking.
In order to effectively taste tea, it is important to brew it carefully. Although I enjoy drinking tea without brewing parameters, there are advantages to using them, including getting the best out of the tea, and being able to compare different teas. Brewing tea at different “strengths” can help to emphasise different aspects, and bring out good and bad points. As you become more experienced, you will become more sensitive to what makes good tea. This method is based heavily on Mei Leaf’s 10 step tea tasting.
This tells you about the processing, whether the leaves were machine picked or hand-picked. If they are in fragments, it can indicate that they were machine-picked. It also shows how heavily oxidised the tea is: the darker, the more heavily oxidised. A darker tea can also be a fermented tea or a roasted tea.
These leaves are black in colour as this is a fully oxidised and roasted black tea. The leaves are twisted and there are some smaller and some larger leaves. There appear not to be any buds. The leaves appear whole and you can see the odd stalk.
Warm the teapot and put in the leaves, and smell them.
I recommend using porcelain for this, as it’s neutral. Use hot water to warm the teapot, pour out the water and add the leaves. You can give them a little shake, which also helps to even out the leaves so that you can the quantity. Cold leaves will not usually leave an aroma.
Do a rinse and smell the lid of the pot, and the wet leaves.
The leaves are quite steamy for a few seconds after the rinse, but all the aromas should now change and bring out other aspects of the tea. In the case of Nantou Honey Black tea, a rinse is not really necessary.
The rinsed leaves (or the leaves on the first infusion after the tea is poured) have a honeyish aroma and the smell of baking spices is fresher and brighter.
Brew a cup of tea and look at the colour of the tea soup or liquour.
The colour can tell you about the nature of the tea as well, for example a roasted oolong can have a deep yellow colour, a green tea should often be green. It can also tell you about the brewing. If it’s a green tea, and it’s yellow, this can mean that the temperature of the water is too hot. If this black tea comes out yellow instead of red, then that means it is being brewed with less tea leaves compared to water, or that the water is not hot enough.
Taste the tea
You can choose whether to slurp the tea or not. Slurping the tea puts air into it which can help to taste more flavours. Tea should not be rough or overly bitter, but should be strong and smooth. Good tea will be complex. Hold the tea in the mouth and breathe out through the nose.
This tea is very floral, has notes of a honey-ish sweetness and a there is a hint of cinnamon.
Observe the texture
Is the tea thick or thin?
Nantou Honey Black Tea is slightly viscous, but very smooth in texture.
Smell the empty cup
Tea which leaves a good aroma in the early steepings in the empty cup is of good quality. This can show that the tea was grown slowly on a high altitude or a low temperature; or picked in spring after absorbing nutrients during the winter. It may also mean that the tea trees are older or grown in better mineral rich soil.
The tea leaves a mild aroma on the inside of the cup.
What are the effects after drinking the tea?
How does the tea affect your body? Do you feel a warming or cooling effect? Does the tea dry the mouth and throat or moisten them? Sometimes there can be a drying followed by a moistening effect. I like teas that have a hui gan or returning sweetness after you swallow them. Does the tea make you feel more energised? Do the flavours linger? If so, this shows that the tea is of good quality.
This tea has a warming effect, and is slightly tannic, so it slightly dries the throat. After drinking a lot of the tea, I started to feel the caffeine. The finish is very smooth.
Observe the wet leaves
Some buds are now visible as well as whole leaves. The picking style was a bud and two leaves. The colours are olive green and brown. The leaves are fairly small, which is a testament to the farmer’s rallying call “Pick higher! Pick higher!” on the tea bush.
I thoroughly recommend drinking tea outside, it’s very liberating. All the used leaves and the rinse can just be poured away.