Hand-carried Tea from Tea Farms in Taiwan

How much tea can two suitcases hold ? Not as much as what you see Mary Lou surrounded by in this picture, but enough to return home with two new winter oolongs that were made just two weeks ago and announce their arrival. Now that is service and that is FRESH!

Yes….Mary Lou has just returned from a tea buying trip to Taiwan to select our 2013 winter oolongs. She visited several tea producing regions and went high into the mountains to visit each of the tea farms that make our oolong teas. She carried back our high mountain ( gao shan) Shan Lin Xi and Tung Ting oolong – more tea is on the way but it is being shipped.

Winter teas are our favorite oolongs – they are rich, creamy, and seductively aromatic. Spring tea brings the gaiety of youth and the flush of a new season to its flavor while winter tea is confident and more assured. After their summer resting period, these tea bushes, coddled by constant daily moisture from the weather phenomenon known as clouds and mist that develops in the afternoon, produce large, juicy, leaves that experienced hands turn into the deepest and fullest tasting teas of the year. The tea bushes will soon be ready to enter their winter dormant period, but for now they still have vigor and good energy for this last seasonal production.

Winter oolongs are plucked and processed from late October to mid-November. The winter harvest and the spring harvest are the two most important harvests of the year – the summer and fall harvests do not yield premium oolong tea, although the summer is the time for a small quantity of excellent black teas to be made.

The mountains of central Taiwan are tall and steep, and home to an assortment of birds and wildlife, lush forests and several temperature zones. During the winter harvest ( late October to mid November ) the temperature can be warm during the day but bring crisp, cold nights. Tea covers much of the land in certain areas of these mountainous regions. During the day moist blankets of clouds and mist rise up from the valley floor and roll and tumble over the tea gardens bringing a layer of nourishing moisture. Because of this, the leaves on the tea bushes grow thick and juicy, and mature slowly.

The terroir of these mountain tea gardens and the weather create tea that is fragrant and sweet and thickly textured in the cup. Our tea farmers/producers are humble men who are proud of the quality of their tea. These are small family tea businesses – third, fourth and fifth generation tea makers who are intimately involved with the cultivation and manufacture of their tea.

We treasure opportunities to meet the people who make our tea as we believe that it is essential to form and maintain these relationships, and we think that it is important to the tea makers, too. For they know that we will promote their tea to our customers, and that we will share with our customers an appreciation for the hard work that it is required of small tea farmers/producers. In essence, we scratch each others backs – we get the opportunity to select the tea we want for our store from their best batches and they in turn are happy knowing we can deliver increasing sales to enthusiastic tea drinkers.

No matter how often we have watched tea being made, every experience gives us new insights into fully understanding the processes and techniques that are unique to each style of tea making.  The four Taiwanese tea farmer/producers who supply our gao shan and other oolong teas are very hands-on tea makers. They are fully invested in their tea – their pride is evident in their conscientious work and in the taste of their tea.

While they have others working alongside them in the tea factory, it is their hands-on involvement with the crucial oxidation portion of the process that will ensure a successful batch of finished tea. Taiwan semiball-rolled style oolong production is a 2 day process, and the fresh leaf undergoes many processing steps. Each step builds on the previous one to reach a successful end product.

Initially, the fresh leaf undergoes both outdoor and indoor leaf withering ( 6 -10 hours, weather depending ). Then the fresh leaf is put into a bamboo cylinder tumbler/dryer multiple times, and rested in-between each tumbling. As the fresh leaf loses moisture and begins to wilt, the tea farmers spend much time turning and shuffling the leaf by hand and watching its progress. From experience, they are able to tell by feel and smell how well/quickly/slowly the oxidation is proceeding and when it is time to stop it with initial drying.

We truly believe that the tastiest and most well-made teas come from small tea farmers/producers who maintain the health of their tea gardens and care about he end result – the tea. Simply put, there is no substitution for the hands-on supervision of experienced tea makers. In essence these men are the tea, and without their skills something unique would be lost in the world of tea making. So we applaud the craft of these artisan tea makers, and encourage our customers to experience these stunning and delicious oolongs – each is a wonderful expression of the terroir of their mountain locales and the craft of experienced Taiwanese tea making.

In addition to the Tung Ting and the Shan lin Xi, look for the arrival of our Alishan and Jin Xuan in the next few weeks.

Oh, yes….Mary Lou also purchased a few other special and less well known Taiwan teas that we eagerly look forward to introducing to our customers. More on those teas later…..

Cheers!

Bob

Tea Buying in Taiwan: On the Way

I am very excited about my trip to Taiwan for 2013 winter oolong teas. I have my fingers crossed that the weather holds out and that the timing of the harvest will co-operate with the timing of my visit. We will have tea sent even if I cannot bring it back with me, but how much more fun it will be if I can stuff my suitcases full of new high mountain gao shan oolong!

First, and not tea related, I am excited about the fact that I would be touching down in both Hong Kong and then Taiwan in the morning, which gives me hope for some excellent views of Hong Kong harbor and the island of Taiwan.

P1050342-003As it turned out, the weather was partly cloudy but the viewing was the best I have ever had flying into Hong Kong. The threat of yet another typhoon was over ( the typhoon moved away from HK ) so It was mostly clear flying.

But I had a reason to be so keen on clear weather. I knew that the big rubber ducky that has made the news media over the course of this year was no longer in HK harbor, but had moved just a few weeks ago to Taiwan for a nesting period there, and was NOW in the harbor in Taoyuan, Taiwan.

So this was to be my big score – a sighting of the18-meter (59-foot), 2200 lb yellow rubber ducky from the air as the aircraft skimmed the coastline of Taoyuan at a low elevation on the way to the airport. (For those who are not up on the big rubber duck, this adorable yellow fellow with the big eyes has reached icon status in Asia and has pulled in millions of tourist dollars – yes, millions – for the cities who have allowed it to float in some of the biggest and best bathtubs – oh, I mean harbors – in Asia, The duck is the brainchild of Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman, master of playful installations in cities all over the world who is intent on his work “spreading joy around the world.”)

duck_2552566bBut alas, it was not meant to be. I read this heartbreaking story in the South China Morning Post on my flight, so I had the bad news as soon as I left HK and realized that my hopes for a sighting were dashed. Hopefully I will have better luck with the tea harvest!.

P1050361-001P1050362-001Oh, well, at least I still have the views!

P1050354-002As I waited for my bus at the airport to take me into Taipei city, this bus pulled up and stopped in front of me. Ahhh, just think what I missed – those eyes, that beak!

P1050356-001

The Real Milk Oolong

 

ool-jin_xuanThere is quite a bit of misunderstanding about what milk oolongs are, and sadly there are many low-quality examples of this fine tea dogging about, too. Milk oolong is really a buyer-beware situation, and as premium tea retailers we usually avoid walking right into the eye of the storm when it comes to tea controversy and confusion. (Perhaps the popularization of bubble tea, a Taiwanese milk and tea  drink that features the addition of colorful and sometimes flavored balls of tapioca may somehow be adding to the confusion).

But real milk oolongs are so good that we wanted to shed some light on what milk oolong is and what it isn’t and introduce the real-deal to our customers.

Simply put, milk oolongs are lovely, sweet, lightly-roasted semiball-rolled style oolongs produced in different regions of Taiwan from a particular tea bush cultivar – Jin Xuan (Tai Cha #12 ). This cultivar is sometimes referred to as Golden Lily.


All of Taiwan’s great oolongs begin with specific tea bush cultivars that, in conjunction with the unique terroir of each location, influence the flavor of the tea. Although Jin Xuan is a relatively new cultivar (developed in the 1980’s) it is now one of Taiwan’s four main tea cultivars (dozens of cultivars and varietals are grown throughout Taiwan) and the cultivar behind the marketing of milk oolong tea.

It is the flavor of the fresh leaves from these tea bushes that is transformed into the soft, creamy, ‘milky’ flavor which makes this tea so desirable. Try our milk oolong and you will see that it has very little astringency and an abundance of natural sweetness. This tea has been given a very light roasting, which enhances the milk fragrance – nai xiang – of the tea. It is from the same tea garden as our 2012 spring Alishan gao shan, and we highly recommend it to anyone looking to taste a delicious, easy-to-love Taiwan high mountain oolong.)

Real milk oolong tea is very appealing and delicious, and very popular in Taiwan and abroad. However, it is important to understand that absolutely no milk is involved in the production of real Taiwan ‘milk’ tea.

Spend 30 minutes searching the internet for a definition of this tea and you will end up with many rather silly explanations of what it is, such as:

  • tea that is plucked from tea bushes that have been irrigated with milk before being harvested
  • tea made from tea leaves have been soaked in milk
  • tea made from tea leaves have been steamed with milk in the manufacturing process
  • tea made from tea leaves have been dried with milk
  • tea leaves that were hung over a steaming milk bath before drying

Really? Milk….really? Milk is not abundant in Taiwan (or any parts of Asia, in fact), so how does this make sense?

Anyway, our customers can rest assured that our milk oolong is the real milk oolong, and should not be confused with Chinese imitations of milk oolongs or low-quality teas that have been artificially flavored with a so-called ‘milk’ flavor. Real milk oolong is a natural Taiwan original, and has never seen the white-soul of the inside of a bottle of milk.

This tea farm was awarded 1st Place for their 2012 Spring Jin Xuan tea at the Alishan Village Farmer’s Association tea championship in May. This is one of three prestigious competitions that are conducted by the National Agriculture Council and sponsored by the Taiwan government. Our Jin Xuan Oolong has been certified by the Agriculture Council and the County of Chia-Yi to be true to its origin and also to be free of pesticides. Each package features a certifying stamp to verify this.

Please visit: www.teatrekker.com for more information

2011 Winter Taiwan High Mountain Tea

High mountain oolongs or gao shan are Taiwan’s most distinctive teas. These teas yield rich, juicy, full-flavored and high-fragrance teas. Gao shan teas are hand-plucked and grow in high-elevation tea gardens (4,000 to 8,000 feet ) located in the mountains of central Taiwan.

There are two seasons for gao shan tea: spring and winter (winter plucking begins in October). Tea from each season brings its own delicious characteristics to the cup; spring begins the new harvest year and winter tea brings it to an end. Spring teas possess the vigor of renewed growth at the time of bud-break and winter teas reflect the rich maturity and high-fragrance of the final crop of the season.

The yield for gao shan is small, due to the high elevation, thin air at high altitudes, and the small size of the tea gardens (under 5 acres). Also, each pluck is comprised of the complete stem end of the branch with 3 or 4 leaves attached. This style of plucking effectively eliminates the ability to pluck a greater yield or to use different leaf plucks to make other teas. This combination of factors, coupled with the difficulties of farming on nearly vertical, steeply-sloped land, and the challenges of a short growing season is not conducive for large outputs of tea.

But happily these conditions are conducive for crafting small-batch teas from tea bushes that are well-adapted to their environment. While gao shan does not have a long growing season, it does have, more importantly, a long dormant period. Dormancy, or winter hibernation, provides essential rest for the tea bushes. Rest is necessary for the plants to adequately absorb minerals and nutrient from the soil, and to gather plentiful energy before the growing season begins anew in the spring.

Careful cultivation, and an enviable terroir ( the effects of soil composition, weather and micro-climates on flavor and aroma ) yields teas brimming with concentrated, abundant, sweet flavors and intoxicating, floral aromas.

The Signature of a Good Gao Shan

These teas are comprised of the complete stem end of the branch with 3 or 4 connecting leaves attached. These clusters can be strikingly large, and the presence of stem and their connectivity is one of the signatures of a good gao shan (do not remove the stem!). Our teas are clean and whole, and do not contain broken bits. The amino content of this leaf is high, giving each tea a rich, chewy mouth-feel and a persistent, pure, clean vegetal taste.

Winter gao shan is believed by many to be the finest, purest, most concentrated expression of this style of oolong.

 

Comparing the Flavor Characteristics

Comparing different gao shans from these famous tea mountains is an astonishing way to understand the effects of terroir.While gao shans have much in common one to another, each region and each tea mountain produces a unique tea.

We are thrilled to offer our tea enthusiast customers the opportunity to taste a well-chosen selection of gao shans from Taiwan’s famous tea mountains:

  • Ali Shan
  • Li Shan
  • Li Shan, Da Yu Ling   ( a region of Li Shan)
  •  Shan Lin Xi .
  • and a delicious new Tung Ting, too, for good measure.

Please also note, a comparative tasting of these teas will give you a very true picture of their flavor characteristics and personalities as the tea is all from the same plucking season. Also, we have asked for un-roasted, or modern style teas, which allows the fresh, natural vibrancy of the flavor and aroma to be savored. This also keeps the comparison within the same parameters.

It is not often that such a choice selection of gao shan is found in the US – even in Taiwan a selection of gao shans can be difficult to source. Despite the small production and the high cost, many tea farmers have waiting lists comprised of tea lovers hoping for a small quantity from the next seasonal batch. Sometimes people wait several years before someone drops out and they are able to purchase some tea.

We suggest purchasing a 10-gram pack of each tea ( or a larger quantity if you wish! ) and share the tea drinking experience with your most enthusiastic tea loving friends.

Each 10 gram sample will yield multiple pots of tea, in quantities varying depending on the size of the teapot and the amount of leaf and water used. But essentially, each 10 gram packet, re-steeped accordingly, will yield about 90 ounces of tea. See the detail page for each gao shan for steeping instructions.

Visit www.teatrekker.com to view our selection of gao shan and to order from our limited supply.

 

 

2011 Was a Great Year

2011 has been great 2011 for us at Tea Trekker, and it is all because of YOU, our dedicated and enthusiastic tea customers, readers and blog followers. Our customer base tripled in 2011 as has the numbers of readers following Tea Trekkers Blog. This is a statisticians dream, and it makes us giddy just thinking about it.

We wish to THANK YOU all for your business, but most importantly for….. your trust. We love that you send us earnest questions via email and share with us how much you enjoy the tea and teapots that you purchase. And come into our store excited to be there. We hope we never let you down and that our tea always exceeds your expectations and excites your palate.

2012 is shaping up very nicely. Our first new tea of the season is a sampler of a trio of delicious, high-fragrance Baozhongs plucked from the same tea garden last spring. Keep your eyes open for a stellar selection of winter gao shan from Taiwan’s famous mountains later in this month.  Three new 2011 autumnal dan congs have just arrived and a pair of unusual and interesting yan cha, too. All of these teas will have the educational component of ‘comparative tasting’, and all will post up to the website in the next few weeks.

Our tea travels will most likely take us to India, Nepal and China throughout this year, and possibly Taiwan, too. Japan is on the docket for 2013, and hopefully, Korea as well.

It’s the quiet time of year in the majority of tea gardens around the world. Dormant plants are resting, gathering vigor from the earth into their roots. This energy will begin to circulate throughout the plants as bud-break stimulated leaf growth in the spring.

So, until then, we too rest, and drink tea.