The Taiwanese tea industry has around two hundred years of history. Taiwanese high mountain tea has only really come to exist in the past thirty years. These thirty years have markedly changed the face of Taiwanese Oolong tea, provoking profound influences on the development of the Taiwanese and Chinese tea industries.
Taiwan is a mountainous land; only one third of the island is flatland. Until the 1970s, Taiwanese agriculture was centred on flat and hilly areas. High mountain areas were not easily accessible. Furthermore, legal restrictions prevented most regular citizens from entering such areas as they pleased.
After 1970, in step with developments in the Taiwanese economy, the roads in mountainous areas were greatly improved, and laws controlling access to these areas were relaxed. One by one, the breathtaking scenic views and bounteous natural products of these high mountain districts were made available to the people. Then came the pure, refreshing, full flavour of high mountain tea, providing drinkers of traditional Taiwanese Oolongs with a pleasant change of taste. Within a short while, high mountain tea was widely adopted, resulting in the decline of some more traditional styles of Taiwanese tea.
With the rise of high mountain tea, many traditional Taiwanese tea styles that had relatively heavy levels of oxidation and taste such as Dongding Oolong and Oriental Beauty were somewhat sidelined by the floral, fragrant lighter oxidised high mountain style. During these early years, the reputation of high mountain tea spread far and wide, exerting an influence on tea drinkers and industries on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. This period can be seen as the time when Taiwanese high mountain tea came into full bloom, but there were still some issues lurking behind these prosperous times.
The most evident of the changes caused by high mountain tea was the switch from the production of traditional Oolongs, made using differing levels of oxidation resulting in many flavours to focussing on a single, lighter oxidised, more delicately fragranced tea. It seemed as if the supposedly multifarious Taiwanese , high mountain tea was truthfully rather drab. Regardless of whether these teas were grown in AliShan, Shanlln Xi or Li Shan, from Oolong, Jinxuan or Siji Chun varieties, all were produced focussing on attractive appearances and fragrance, and an inimitable "Taiwan Style" flavour. After being en vogue for the past twenty or thirty years, a few shortcomings in these teas have arose including insufficient lasting flavour, inferior fragrance to teas produced in the past and difficulty of storage. The roots of these shortcomings are complex, swayed by changes in the natural environment, as well as a multitude of man-made changes; furthermore, some of these changes are irreversible, while other issues may be improved through communication with the current systems of the tea market.
Confusion between 'raw', 'unripe' and 'green': Insufficient oxidation of Taiwanese high mountain teas
Recent insufficient fermentation of Taiwanese teas is generally accepted as stemming from the import attached to lush appearance of the final product, as well as various other factors. In this article, I would like to put forward my somewhat alternative viewpoint for the insufficient oxidation of Taiwanese teas: the pronunciation of the Southern Min dialect (Hereafter referred to as Taiwanese), causing Taiwanese teas to lean towards greener, lighter finished products. Reader, do not be surprised. How can tea production and language be related? Please read on and all will become clear...
In the early days of the Taiwanese tea industry, tea making concepts and technical terms were orally transmitted; rarely were written records made. Such instruction was predominantly given in Taiwanese, and the pronunciation of the words 'raw', 'unripe' and 'green' in this dialect is very similar. To the readers of this magazine who are not speakers of Taiwanese, allow me to further explain.
"生(raw)" is pronounced "tshenm" in Taiwanese, and should be employed as an adjective when describing tea; "tshenm" is also used to describe the state of other products such as raw vegetables and draft beer. Concerning tea, "tshenm" describes tea that has not been roasted or undergone post fermentation, or tea that has been lightly roasted, while maintaining fresh notes. It is similar in descriptive meaning to maocha, the raw leaf material from which teas are produced, but by no means identical! "青(unripe)" is pronounced "tshinn" in Taiwanese, and is a specialist word used to classify a type of tea: partly-oxidised teas,,namely Oolong. "綠(green)" is pronounced "lik" in Taiwanese, meaning unoxidised green tea, while in the minds of most Taiwanese people, "lik" is used to describe the colour green.
The 1980s were a turning point for Taiwanese tea, along with the development of transport infrastructure, and improvements in tea packaging technology, many lightly-roasted or unroasted high mountain teas filled tea shops around the island. These teas had remarkably delicate flavours, quite unlike any teas that had come before them, and swiftly won over the taste buds of tea drinkers who were previously accustomed to the heavier flavours of roasted teas. The rise in popularity of high mountain tea was related to people's notions of drinking 'raw' teas; at that time, many tea drinkers simply did not understand the correlation between high mountain and 'raw' tea, and had muddled concepts: high mountain tea, raw tea, unripe tea, green tea and the raw leaves that are used to produce tea.
The dichotomy of raw tea and ripe tea's Influence on consumption habits
Owing to the aforementioned confusions regarding the pronunciation of raw, unripe and green, and looking at various written documents related to tea production, these early days of high mountain tea were a bewildering time for a beginner who wanted to augment their tea knowledge. Many people keen to learn the fundamentals were only able to rely on their imaginations to speculate the differences between raw, unripe and green; resultantly, many misunderstood 'raw' as describing the raw green colour, of an unripe natural product. Furthermore, after a while, teas got a little damp and naturally darkened to less lustrous tints, losing some of their fresh green appearance, brewing to create yellower and redder infusions, this was seen as a flaw among consumers.
It must be noted that there is little distance between the modern Taiwanese tea industry and the consumers of its products: within a few hours of picking, raw, unprocessed tea can, without any middle man be in the hands of the customer. Similarly, small scale tea makers are often willing to cater to consumers' demands, adjusting the oxidation levels of their teas accordingly. In today's highly competitive society, this kind of market cannot be avoided...These developments have not only changed the influence of consumers on Taiwanese Oolong tea, but have had a far reaching effect on the development of the Mainland Chinese tea industry.
The most notable influence of the situation described in the above paragraph is the notions people have of raw and ripe tea. For a consumer in Taiwan today, entering an unfamiliar tea shop, the question they are most likely to be asked by the proprietor is whether they prefer raw or ripe tea, not whether they wish to buy Dongding or Oriental Beauty tea. This concept of rawness and ripeness has entered the realm of Puerh in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The first step in categorising Yunnanese Puer tea is that of raw/ripe. The author attended the first International Puerh Symposium in 1993, in both articles and speeches given by domestic and foreign experts, when discussing different Puerh teas, raw and ripe were universally used to describe them. Clearly this concept has not only exerted an influence on the development of Taiwanese tea, but has also had a significant influence on Puerh tea. Although the division between raw and ripe is a somewhat black and white distinction, it is a means by which people new to drinking tea can obtain a basic understanding, after which they are able to gain further, more complex tea knowledge.
The second influence is changes in the tastes of Oolong tea consumers. Originally, Oolongs were heavily-oxidised, heavily-roasted teas; now they err to lighter oxidation and more delicate fragrances. The most obvious example of this is the in the production of Tieguanyin tea in Anxi, China.
The most important aspect arising from the rise of Taiwanese high mountain tea was not the advent of unprecedented flavours, but the combination of the fine climate and geography of the mountains with various tea varieties and oxidation levels. This meant that flatland and hilly areas originally only able to produce average quality tea leaves were able to move towards producing higher quality high mountain teas, improving the quality of tea manufacture and variety: Ali Shan for example now produces teas with historical characteristics such as Oriental Beauty and Dongding. In the past, the author has used Li Shan high mountain tea leaves to create Hongshui Oolong, with surprising results!
From the discussion above, the author believes that the most pressing issues affecting high mountain tea are insufficiently lasting flavour and singular flavour, but finding the roots of these problems is no easy task. With the onset of climate change, the micro-climates of high mountain tea growing areas are set to change. The production area of Taiwanese high mountain tea is limited. There is not a great deal of new places that can be developed to grow high mountain tea, and the teas in extant tea gardens will only live for a certain number of years. As it stands, if the technique of light oxidation continues to be used to produce high mountain tea, it will be very difficult for a return to the fragrances and flavours attained in the early days of high mountain tea. However, these are not the final days of high mountain tea, but another juncture in the development of Taiwanese high mountain tea.