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.
Image: Copyright © 2018 Chessers Tea
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.
Image: Copyright © 2018 Chessers Tea