Recent news in the tea world has focussed on Taiwanese tea growing areas switching to the production of black tea, using the base material of traditional Oolong tea leaves to make black teas of notable quality. The teas are appropriately named after the fragrances they possess, such as "Grape Fragrance Black Tea." Furthermore, teas grown in areas where the natural environment is well maintained and squirrels are often seen is called Squirrel Black Tea, while those grown at high altitudes are simply named High Mountain Black Tea. As articles praising such teas spread the popularity of the tea, it seemed as if the Taiwanese tea industry was making a return to the production of black tea.
The Taiwanese tea industry already has two hundred years of history, but these years lack individual characteristics, as the tea was on a nationalised level, for the government. When trading with the British, Oolong and black teas were produced, during the Japanese colonial period, meicha and gunpowder green teas were produced for the Japanese, and. steamed green tea was produced after the KMT took power. The market was somewhat thwarted until its opening in 1975, when small scale tea farmers began to produce teas according to their own fancy. This marked the beginnings of Taiwanese tea developing its own identity, as historical areas of tea production were appropriately named: Wenshan Baozhong, Muzha Tieguanyin, Dongding Oolong. The elevation of areas suited to tea production also shot up, with Dayuling being the highest at 2400 metres, while the earliest of these high mountain tea producing areas was Haishan's Longyan Forest. One after another, these districts began producing Dongding style Oolong teas, and fragrant new teas came onto the market and were collectively called high mountain teas.
The Qingxin Oolong tea plant, grown at elevations above 1000 metres is the variety that has developed the most. In the curling clouds and mist, the mercury drops and rises abruptly, the tightly rolled tea leaves are lightly withered and lightly fermented to produce teas possessing flower, fruit and honey fragrances, which brew into a thick infusion, with a refined, sweet flavour. This high mountain tea immediately became popular among literary and artistic circles, spawning an industry that was quick to flourish. Consequently, numerous districts above 1000 metres in altitude began to produce high mountain tea.
The privatisation of the tea industry in 1975 returned the direction of tea development to the growers, resulting in the development of new tea growing areas and mass planting of teas that were both produced and sold by the farmers. In 1981, high mountain tea really began to take off, and the market was fully flourishing by 1991. By this point, the golden yellow brew and floral fragrance of high mountain tea could be found all over Taiwan, and also saw the beginnings of international demand for the tea.
When the volume of market demand stabilised, the quality of the product began to be scrutinised. The semi-fermented, tea was inconsistent in quality; as had been the case a few hundred years earlier, when small amounts of Wuyi Rock Tea were exported. As the market flourished, large volume production of these semi-fermented teas varied greatly in quality, and were soon superseded by fully-fermented black teas. The British began with the base of semi-fermented Oolong teas, by fully-fermenting the teas, they also stabilised the quality. Regarding the diffusion of Oolong teas in Taiwan, they continue to be propagated throughout the island, with unprecedented development in high mountain areas. The genetics of these tea plants is not stable, resulting in continual quality fluctuations, following the step to large scale production, quality variations have become ever more pronounced. Alas the flourishing of the market in high mountain tea has in turn seen an increase in the rarity of teas possessing the true refined flavour notes that tea lovers desire.
There is a limited land area where high mountain tea can be cultivated, in turn limiting the amount of tea on the market; skilled makers of the tea and mechanisation of the manufacturing process are also key factors in tea quality. We may take an approximate 80%/20% figure, inferring that 80% of the high mountain tea produced today is of medium to low quality. Many of the better tea growing areas and skilled tea makers were assimilated by trends in the market, commercialisation, brand popularity and changes in manufacturing techniques. Specifically, in the past decade, the most successful teas entered as Dongding competition teas have been high mountain teas from Ali Shan or Shanlin Xi that are lightly fermented then given a medium roasting, representing a new face of high mountain teas. Individual characteristics among teas is also dependent on the demands of consumers: in Southern Taiwan, for example, grassy, green bean notes are favoured, flowery fragrances are dependent on luck, and the only tea variety that definitely displays green bean notes is high mountain green tea. High mountain green teas are able to withstand 8-10 infusions and still display abundant flavours, as the demand for these teas has increased, the quality has stabilised.
If we take a glimpse at records relating to the production of high mountain black tea, it may soon become clear that the golden brew is, indeed one of the original forms of high mountain tea. Certain makers began to simplify the withering process, extending the fermentation time, and doing away with much of the rolling in order to create single-striped tea leaves. In the 1850s, a British viceroy in China requested a Mr. Ge Deng to simplify the process of tea production in order to standardise quality. This case seems similar to the Taiwanese situation.
Truthfully, it is not that important. In terms of Chinese history, the tea industry belongs to local economy and regional industry, apart from the British contributing to the globalisation of Oolong tea, Oolong holds a special place in Taiwan, and is everyone's favourite cultural industry. The tea will find its own way, with the surging popularity of high mountain tea over the past thirty years, the popularity of certain brands, leanings to green and black teas, all are part of wider process. Indeed, the last two years have seen tea producers returning to classic production methods, using lighter withering and fermentation in order to produce golden, flowery fragranced Oolong teas. A resurgence in using tea pots to brew tea has also put high mountain tea back on the right track, and new opportunities to enjoy fine tea are constantly emerging.
The best high mountain teas retain their fine fragrances after seven or more infusions. The ancients would never have known that on this island, people today would have fine tea mountains that are only a few hours away from the capital city. Small scale production is the only means to maintain quality. We should approach tea with truffles in mind! Large scale black tea is something very different from small scale high mountain tea.