This summer we made our long-awaited tea trek to Taiwan. We had been itching to go there for quite a few years, but first had to finish writing our book, The Story of Tea A Cultural History and Drinking Guide.
It had been two years since we last inhaled the fresh, sweet fragrance that lingers inside of a tea factory working round-the-clock ‘ in-season, ‘ so we were glad to be heading back to tea country. We made sure that we had plenty of empty suitcase room allocated for carrying back special teas for our customers.
We chose June as the time to visit as we were told that this would be the perfect time to observe production of all of Taiwan’s famous teas - Bai Hao Oriental Beauty, Baozhong Oolong, and of course, the high mountain semi-balled jade oolongs from LiShan, Shan Lin Shi, Alishan and the Dong Ding mountainous regions.
Despite it diminutive size, the island of Taiwan produces exceptional oolong teas that offer inquisitive tea enthusiasts a delicious array of leaf styles, oxidation levels, flavors and aromas to appreciate and enjoy. Taiwan is a land of lush mountains that are blanketed with gently-swaying bamboo forests and verdant pine groves. Mountain ranges are condensed on this small island in a more dramatic way that I could ever have imagined. One mountain range unfolds into another, and quite often, from a distance, several mountain ranges can be seen stacked one against the other, like an imprecise row of dominoes. It is difficult to know exactly where one is without the local knowledge companion well-traveled through these tea mountains.
As we journeyed through the tea producing counties of central and northern Taiwian, we visited many tea farms and tea factories that manufacture these famous oolong teas. Winter 2008 teas and spring 2008 teas were already plucked and made; we were observing summer tea production.
It is always a joy for us to spend time in tea producing areas – the tea gardens are alive with activity and the tea factories work overtime to keep up with the quantities of fresh leaf coming in from the gardens. Tea is the main topic of conversation and everyone has something new to show us and new ( or aged ) tea for us to taste. All of the tea that we tasted was from the current 2008 spring harvest. A few choice offerings from the 2008 winter harvest also appeared.
Taiwan only produces a tiny quantity of tea for export compared to the vast quantities manufactured in neighboring China. Taiwan also specializes in just one class of tea - oolong tea. A little green and a little black tea is also made, but just a little bit.
The native aboriginal Taiwanese, who tended and produced tea from a scattering of indigenous tea bushes, eventually came to learn the Chinese-style of tea production and tea manufacture from Mainland China refugees from Fujian province who settled on the island. From this intermingling of tea culture and the successful cultivation of tea cuttings that were brought from Fujian, a unique style of oolong tea developed and flourished.
It is difficult to find high-quality, hand-processed and organic Taiwan oolong tea in the USA. The very finest ( and most expensive tea ) is bought by Taiwanese and Japanese residents who received packages of tea in the post from their favorite tea farmers throughout the year.
We were hoping to locate some delicious hand-processed, high-mountain semi-balled style oolongs, and purchase a reasonable quantity for the store. Our friend knew just how to make that happen. He made a phone call then took us to visit a friend of his who works at an organic food certification plant.
Here, tea is checked for pesticides, and, if it passes, an employee from the certifying company will visit the farm in person to make sure that the sample is truly representative of what the farm produces and that nothing is amiss.
If the farm passes muster, then the tea farmer will send quantities of his or her tea to the certifying company to be weighed, packaged and sealed. The tea farmer will be paid for his tea, which is then sold by this company. We were introduced to Lisa, a very friendly and knowledgeable tea lady, who asked us what type of tea we were looking for. When she had a good idea of what we wanted, she began to pull out various samples for us to taste.
She showed us many teas in the style we wanted that were grown in the high elevation levels that we were interested in. Also of consideration was the price – some of these Taiwan high mountain teas are astronomical !
As we tasted the teas we found teas that were nice, very nice, but not what we were looking for. Maybe she was testing us. But eventually she brought out a 2008 Li Shan ‘Da Yu Ling’ winter pluck, and like love at first sight. Bingo, that was it.
Soft, sweet, floral and snappy and fresh, like a brisk winter’s day. A simply beautiful tea with irregular shaped balls of leaf and connecting stems. Next came a 2008 Li Shan ‘Da Yu Ling’ spring pluck and we fell in love with that too. A bit headier and more aromatic, fruity and more youthful and green in flavor.
Li Shan ‘Da Yu Ling’ tea is only produced for two seasons – winter and spring. It makes us very happy to not only have one of these teas but to have both a winter and a spring tea from side-by-side harvests. Opportunities like this to taste the same tea from two seasons is something that is possible in Asia but rarely does the opportunity present itself in the USA.
This tea is grown at one of the highest elevations of any tea in Taiwan ( approx. 2600 meters or 7500 feet ) and it is hand-plucked, not machine harvested. The thin air of a high-elevation location does wonderful things for tea – it slows leaf growth, resulting in better quality and less quantity; provides the bushes with daily moisture from clouds and mist; and keeps the temperature from getting too hot and dehydrating the leaves.
So we brought as much of both as we could afford and packed it safely in our carry-on bags, saving on the shipping costs. Which is one of the reasons why we are selling these teas for substantially less that they usually fetch.
You will not be disappointed in these teas – they are aromatic, buttery, not astingent and they have a clean, crisp mineral-like quality that reflects the high mineral content of the soil the bushes grow in.
Both of these teas can be brewed gong-fu style for at least 7 infusions – perhaps more depending on the ratio of water to leaf. When you think of it that way, it means that you can enjoy one of the world finest teas for less than you would pay in a cafe or restauant for mediocre tea.