Fragrant Tea from a Beautiful Isle
In 1557, when the Portuguese first came to the island now known as Taiwan, they were so moved by the beauty of the place that they named it "Ilha Formosa", (beautiful island); and from then, Formosa became then name by which most Europeans referred to Taiwan.
"Beautiful Island" then was the first name by which Taiwan was known among the international community, and the origins of this name represent the unspoilt state of the island, and its opening to the world. Over the centuries, the Spanish, Dutch and Japanese have fought for ownership of this island, and finally Chinese culture took root in Taiwan's soils.
Han Chinese settlers brought different cultural ideas and customs, permanently altering the original culture dt the island. Tea drinking is an important part of Chinese culture, wherever Han Chinese emigrate to, they take their tea with them, and if the climate is suitable, take tea seedlings and plant them. In the case of Taiwan, tea was planted by early Chinese settlers.
The Evolution of Tea
Early Chinese settlers in Taiwan came from Fujian and Guangdong provinces, both places with historically rich tea cultures. According to historical documents, during the 18th and 19th centuries, individuals including Ke Chao, Lin Fengchi, Zhang Naimiao and his brother Zhang Naigan brought tea seedlings and tea processing equipment with them to Taiwan from Fujian, setting up tea gardens along the Danshui river system, Lugu in Dongding, planting Tieguanyin on Zhang Hu Mountain, in Taipei's Muzha district, growing Qangkou tea in Pingdong county's Manzhou township and later expanding the northern growing districts of Yilan; then furhter south in Xinzhu and Miaoli.
With Taiwan's economic takeoff, demand for tea in the domestic market soared, the volume of semi-oxi-dised Oolongs produced in Lugu (Dongding) did not meet market demand, so development of tea growing areas climbed higher up the mountains, and this new generation of high mountain teas became representative of a new style of high quality Taiwanese tea.
The Rise of High Mountain Tea
Taiwan is a mountainous island; mountains cover two thirds of the island. The rest is flat land and river basins. The mountainous areas compromise the five major mountain ranges: central mountain range, Xueshan mountain range, Yushan mountain range, Alishan mountain range and the east coast mountain range. In ancient times, Taiwan was sometimes called "Kun Dao" (The Kun is a huge, whale-like mythical fish) and Tainan county still has areas named after the huge back of this fish. The central mountain range stretches from the north to the south of Taiwan, linking the entire length of the island, just like the back of the aforementioned whale, a fitting name for the place. Land that can be developed is limited in area. High mountains and the ocean are Taiwan's biggest resources, so it may be said that Taiwanese people rely on the mountains and seas for their food.
In 1975, Longyan Forest in Meishan, Jiayi county was the first location to experimentally grow high mountain tea. First sold in 1978, the teas were a pleasant surprise for all who tasted them. No one had thought that such fine tasting teas could be produced. In the early days, people in the Meishan area lacked tea making experience, so they invited tea masters from Lugu (where Dongding Oolong is made) to come and teach them. Traditionally, Lugu tea making techniques demand ample oxidation of raw tea leaves in order to ensure that the teas are fragrant, so the first teas from Meishan bore the influence of Dongding. With time and practice, Meishan tea makers came to realise the individual characteristics of high mountain teas: the bitterness and astringency was quite low, and that lighter oxidation would give light to the true nature of the tea. Furthermore, Dongding roasting techniques were not suited to these lighter high mountain teas. The delicate, refined fragrances of high mountain teas offered a new experience on the market, and high mountain teas were duly embraced by the mass consumer market, with delicate flavours gradually becoming the characteristic with which people would associate high mountain teas. Meishan's high mountain teas can be seen as the teas which first spread the renown of high mountain tea, also leading to the development of other tea producing areas along the Alishan range.
According to the research of Taiwanese tea expert Dr. Wu Zhenduo, the best places on our planet for growing tea are high altitude areas along the Tropic of Cancer; Taiwan, as well as Guangdong and Yunnan in mainland China are all located along this geographical zone, and the biggest similarity shared by these places is that they are all important areas of tea production. Places along the Tropic of Cancer mostly have hot and dry climates, the three areas mentioned above are anomalies, green belts of humid, rainy terrain.
For many people, the first thing that comes to mind when they think of Taiwan is Alishan: with its sunrises, sea of clouds, old railway and forests; the landscape is scenic and beautiful. The Alishan mountain range stretches for around 250km, with averse elevations of 2500 metres, and the Tropic of Capricorn passes through the range. The mountains are high, resultantly there are tropical, warm, temperate and frigid climate zones.
The true cause of Alishan's beauty can be traced to the ample sunlight provided due to its location on the Tropic of Cancer, the ancient cypress trees are the most concentrated of Taiwan's giant tree groupings, with abundant plants growing in the surrounding forest, proving that Alishan's geographical environment possesses all kinds of important elements necessary for flourishing flora. This can been seen as a secondary reason for Alishan's ability to produce fine tea.
Of all Taiwan's high mountain tea districts, Alishan is the closest to the Tropic of Cancer. The tea gardens are mostly distributed between elevations of 500 and 1600 metres. Visitors wishing to take a trip to the Alishan tea gardens have two main routes to choose between: the first is to take Route 18 into Alishan, along this road one passes Longmei, Xiding, Weitou, Dabang, and Shizhuo tea districts. The second is to take the Ruishiu road, passing Jinshi, Guanghua, Taiping, Longyan, Zangshu Hu, Biluo, Taixing, Ruili, Ruifeng and Taihe tea districts. The tea districts seen along the first route are referred to as the Eastern side of the mountain range, thus they receive the sun rise and lengthy periods of sunlight, creating highly fragrant teas with intense flavours. The tea gardens along the Ruishui road belong to the western side of the mountain. The mountain blocks the morning sun, and the arrival of afternoon clouds and mist limit the average daily sunlight for this area. The teas display more restrained flavours, with gentle finer notes. Tasting teas, one can discern between the different growing areas, both of which have their own unique characteristics. Those from the east chosen for fragrance, those from the west chosen for flavour.
Alishan is a developing high mountain tea growing district, and the tea making infrastructure is nearly perfect. In 1973, Mr Chen Baishou, a native of Lugu announced his invention of rolling machines for tea; and in 1984, Chen Qingzhen invented an automatic bundling machine: new styles of equipment thus began, replacing traditional hand-production methods, increasing the speed and efficiency of production, and truly carrying Oolong tea into the industrialised world. Thanks to hand-picking techniques, and the tightly curled balls of tea produced, the tea leaves are not damaged or broken when they are vacuum packed, and brewed leaves retain their green hues. By staying in line with the traditional high mountain tea picking techniques, the value of Alishan tea has also risen greatly.
Alishan is Taiwan's premier producer of high quality high mountain tea. Although it is not the highest of Taiwan's high mountain tea producing areas, its biggest advantage is its moderate elevation, providing ample sunshine for sun withering and suitable warmth tor oxidation. Apart trom maintaining a good tea garden and possessing consummate tea making skills, an environment suited to tea production is also required to make good tea. Tea making can be compared to the practice of martial arts: every phase is equally important, the slightest error will result in failure.
The Influence of High Mountain Tea on Other Teas
In most tea shops in Taiwan, if a customer asks for high mountain Oolong tea, the proprietor would likely ask them if they preferred "sheng (raw)" or "shou (ripe)" tea in order to decide which tea to brew for the customer to try. The level of oxidation in high mountain tea can be divided as follows: original flavour (9-15%), lightly oxidised (15-20%), with both of these levels constituting the rawer, greener tasting sheng tea; while medium oxidised (20-30%) constitutes a shou (ripe) tea. Most tea merchants stock high mountain teas from 2-4 different growing areas, commonly not reaching beyond the renowned districts of Alishan, Lishan, Yushan and Shanlin Xi. Since the birth of high mountain teas, the altitudes at which the teas are grown have been considered as a measure of the quality of the tea, namely the higher the better. In truth this is not the case; the fragrances, bitter and chemical qualities of high mountain and middle and lower elevation teas axe dissimilar, and all have their own suitable methods of production.
A phenomenon has appeared on the Taiwanese tea market: tea growing areas at both high and low elevations axe producing lightly-oxidised, delicately-fragrant teas. In the past, teas grown in different districts strove to distinguish themselves, but now the lines of definition have become more and more blurred. In the past, teas grown at lower altitudes had pronounced bitterness in their leaves, necessitating sufficient oxidation and possibly roasting to transform any bitterness into finer tastes; but since the rise of high mountain tea, its fragrant flavour have become a market standard, compelling lower altitude tea makers to produce lightly oxidised teas to accommodate the market, clearly at odds with the logic of tea production.
When making tea, apart from obtaining fine fragrances, the maker must consider methods by which they can reduce the bitterness of the tea; but the majority of makers today are swayed by market factors, making their teas in line with whatever tea is popular at that moment. I believe that this is caused by the situation of the domestic market for Taiwanese tea being larger than the export market. The minute a certain style of tea is popular among the citizens, tea makers all rush to make that style of tea. However, if low elevation tea growers are forced to meet the market demands by using high mountain tea production techniques to make low elevation tea, and if the oxidation of the raw leaves is insufficient, there is no way to fix the bitterness and astringency of the tea, and this so-called high mountain tea lacks the mild nature of true high mountain tea, and can be rough on the stomach.
Taiwanese tea gardens cover an area of around 20,000 hectares, with annual yield of around 20,000 tons; and according to Mainland Chinese government statistics, in 2011, 1.97 million hectares of Chinese tea gardens produced 1.45 million tons of tea. Side by side, clearly Taiwan's tea production is far smaller, but this also points to the fact that Taiwanese teas are precious. There are around 25,000 tea producers in Taiwan. If we divide this by the 20,000 hectares above, each of these growers tends an average garden of 0.8 hectares, and thus can be classified as fine agricultural produce. In the production process, Taiwan has retained many fine traditional techniques, and in turn developed several improved methods of tea processing. Regarding the growing environment, many Taiwanese tea gardens are located in high mountain forest areas, greatly benefiting tea quality. All of these factors have pushed Taiwanese tea to being on top of the world as far as tea quality is concerned, with a bright future over the mountain.
As exchanges over the Taiwan Strait become more and more frequent, Mainland Chinese demand for Taiwanese tea grows, and the Mainland has drinkers of all kinds of teas, presenting a seemingly infinite market for the various teas grown on the island. Every tea should have a balanced development, so it is unfitting for every tea growing area to start making so-called "high mountain tea." Places of low elevation should return to producing teas that suit their geographical location, each area making teas according to suitable production techniques, giving each tea its own individual local flavour.