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Taiwan's Green Gold - High Mountain Tea

One afternoon in early spring, I took a Yixing teapot, and set about brewing some Taiwanese high mountain tea. As I poured water into the teapot, the steam curled up, reminding me of the mountains upon which high mountain teas are grown, and the oft said "Mists lock'd among a thousand tea plants,fog of a thousand myriad valleys, fragrance floating afar,all in one cup of tea.n Pouring the tea into a smelling cup, a flowery fragrance followed the steam up the nostrils, the fragrance at the bottom of the empty cup developing as the temperature decreased." Sipping the brew, an exquisite flavour presented itself, a delicate, sweet and pure taste.

The flavour wasn't as bold as Puer,nor as lavish as black tea, more charming than Longjing, with more levels than Oriental Beauty, and possessing a different sweetness to Wenshan Baozhong. Taiwanese high mountain tea gives off a drifting fragrance of flowers, a flavour sought after by tea enthusiasts. In its early days, tea drinkers used small thimble like Japanese sake glasses in order to appreciate the fragrance of the teas before drinking, a practice which gradually became a facet of tea culture. In Japan, when people drink Oolong tea, they use the smelling cups, a custom which has also passed from Taiwan to Mainland China, and is now a key part of the Chinese tea ceremony. Although smelling cups are seldom seen at outdoor tea gatherings in Taiwan today, (possibly to retain simplicity), key figures in the industry often keep a smelling cup at hand when tasting teas in order to savour the graceful charming fragrances from high mountain forests.

Thirty years ago, Taiwanese high mountain tea first took off, becoming the shining star of the tea market. Consumers sought after a certain flavour in this tea, which in turn became a new type of tea culture. The use of smelling cups when drinking high mountain tea added an extra feature to Taiwanese tea art, which the industry caused another change, which led to the loss of the original flavour of high mountain tea: right now, green flavours lead the market, and this is the biggest issue facing the manufacturing process of high mountain tea today. The market brings commercial opportunities, opportunities influence the industry: Taiwanese high mountain teas are lightly oxidised, in the last decade, the greenness of these teas has influenced makers of Anxi Tieguanyin in Fujian, China, traditionally producers of heavy, mellow teas to begin producing Green Guanyin teas.

The reasons above make for a complex issue. This issue (of the magazine) hopes to wake up the industry, to inspire Mainland Chinese tea lovers to try the true flavour of Taiwanese high mountain tea, and to help consumers comprehend the finest high mountain teas. This issue also hopes to help those employed in tea culture to understand the pride of Taiwanese teas. In this Issue, several articles will expound on Taiwanese high mountain tea, and in my article below,I'11 elaborate on some basic issues regarding the tea.

Land and Climate

Taiwan's topography is unique: encircled by ocean, with a continuous line of mountains running from north to south (the central mountain range), while the west has the Yushan mountain range, and the Alishan mountain range, all magnificent mountains, lofty and linked. Taiwan's highest mountain, Yushan peaks at 3952 metres, and the peaks are often dusted with snow in the winter. The Tropic of Cancer passes through south central Taiwan, where monsoon weather is the norm, south westerly winds prevail in the summer, north easterly winds prevail in the winter. So,if we look down on Taiwan from the high mountain peaks, the island is divided by high mountains, and receives monsoons with wind directions switching between the seasons. The land and weather are quite complex, creating myriad changes. This also causes Taiwan's forest reserves to be bounteous, hence the reputation: "Sea of Forests."

In the midst of this, sea of forests, there are three key mountain ranges: the central mountain range, Yushan mountain range and Alishan mountain range,all possessing the right soil and climate to produce Taiwan's green gold: high mountain tea.

Mountains stretch from north to south, and river systems traverse the island, with many different climate zones. Each mountain planted with high mountain tea has its own charm, and its own reputation, and no matter its fragrance or flavour, each mountain has its characteristics. For example,Lishan tea is delicately Shanlin Xi tea has a fresh fragrance, Alishan tea is lucid and refined, Yushan tea is elegant and has long lasting flavours, Wushe,Lushan teas are fragrant and mellow,etc...

The relationship between the tea plants and the environment where they are grown is of great importance. According to information provided by the Taiwan Tea improvement Station, because of the cool climate of high mountains, morning and evening mists limit the sun rays that get through, actively dissipating the rays, increasing the nitrogen content of the soils, and arc the source of the sweet flavours in high mountain teas. Furthermore, day and night temperatures differ greatly, causing the tea plants to grow slowly, producing soft, thick leaves and buds that contain high levels of sap.Finally the rainfall in high mountain areas is ample, the soils sounds with high humus content; the high-er up the mountains we go, the lower the amounts of catechins and bitterness causing compounds, while theanine, dissolved gases and fragrant sub-stances that contribute to the sweetness and fragrance of the tea increase.

Due to differences in climate and geography of different high mountain tea growing areas, different flavours exist within these teas.Within the mass market however, the subtleties of different mountains and growing areas are Lost, and the teas are given the general designation of "high mountain teas".If we look further into the domain of these individual teas, every high mountain tea possesses local characteristics, complexity, artistry, and individuality that the interested drinker can attempt to pin down through tasting. The individual characteristics of Taiwanese high mountain teas have been extensively discussed in Chinese language articles by authors including Ruan Yiming, Lin Jinchi and Guo Kuanfu.

The Origins of High Mountain Tea

In 1975, Longyan Forest in Alishan's Meishan Township was the first place to grow high mountain tea at an elevation of around 1100 meters. The fol-lowing year,the Alishan road was opened, and farmers in Xiding began growing tea,and acre after acre of land along the Alishan road was planted with tea. From its first appearance, Alishan tea totally shocked the Taiwanese tea market, inspiring people in Shanlin Xi, Nantou County to plant tea at altitudes of 1600 meters and higher, reclaiming tea gardens from the mountain.

An even higher altitude tea district gradually came into existence, in 1969, a stretch of tea was planted nearby the 105km mark of Lishan road at that time as a scenic decoration, (later on the entire mountain would be planted with tea, and known as one of the major high mountain tea growing districts), and the area that would later become the Fushou mountain farm. In 1980, planting of tea gardens beneath the Heavenly Lake Pavilion (2500 meters altitude) marked an important moment in the development of high mountain tea. As the fame of Fushou Shan tea spread, reclamation of mountain land for the cultivation of tea was widespread in Lishan,turning it into the highest of Taiwan's high mountain tea districts with the most valuable harvest.

So, Alishan,Lishan,Shanlin Xi and later on Yushan followed each other in cultivating tea, while tea production techniques also continuously improved. Later, with the convenience of transportation, and a healthy market, these star high mountain tea production zones gained widespread renown,and had people saying "Mountains can't run,but tea can run.55 This popularity also led to the muddling of teas from different mountains, furthermore, the oxidation levels of high mountain teas also became somewhat clouded. Today, regardless of the actual mountain where the teas come from, 80% of teas in the hands of consumers posses a single, unitary flavour. (See Gan Hous article: Golden Brew, Drifting Flowery Fragrance) display raw, fresh or green flavours (See Cai Mingxun's arti-cle: Art of Transformation Through Light Oxidation) The remaining 20% constitute the finest high mountain teas, and are the teas sought after by connoisseurs who have the luck to find them, or teas chosen by tea merchants for competition, or sold to long time customers of certain tea shops.

The Craft of Making High Mountain Tea

Among the six main categories of tea, if we regard the manufacturing process, the most complicated and meticulous is semi-oxidised Oolong tea, referred to in Chinese as shining pearls among teas. These teas assimilate the principles of oxidised black teas and non-oxidised green teas. The raw tea leaves are not fully bruised and oxidised like black teas, but are given a partial bruising to break down the structures of the leaf cells, releasing the enzymes that facilitate oxidation. Through this process, unique colour, fragrance and flavour can be achieved.

The basic requirements for the manufacturing process of Oolong tea are: Picking season and quality, which are of utmost importance; following picking, the leaves are withered in the sun, then with-ered inside and disrupted (agitated), oxidised, rolled, bag-rolled and dried. These words describe complex, concise processes that enable tea makers to craft orchid and plum blossom fragrances from an emerald heap of tea leaves.

It is worth noting the picking and processing times of high mountain tea. Temperatures steadily decrease as altitudes rise, for each 100 meters we travel up, temperatures decrease by around 0.5 degrees Celsius. Tea plants generally like to grow at temperatures between 12 and 20 degrees, and certainly not lower than 10 degrees. Taiwan's high mountain tea districts such as Alishan and Shanlin Xi make between four -and five annual pickings, higher up in Lishan, only three pickings, while Fushou Shan and Dayu Ling only have two annual harvests. High mountain tea gardens at elevations of 1000 metres begin making spring tea around the 6th solar term (20-21st April) while higher mountain areas such as Lishan will not begin picking tea until the beginning of May. Higher up, Fushou Shan and Dayu Ling will not begin their spring picking until the 9th solar term on the 5-6th June, by which time, lower lying (1000 metres altitude) tea gardens will begin their second picking. So, while spring high mountain tea harvests begin at lower elevations, then go upwards, the opposite can be said for winter tea harvests, the first places to pick winter tea are those at the highest altitudes, followed by lower lying areas.

In April, one can often see signs outside tea shops used to entice customers, "Lishan Spring Tea is Here", or the craziness of the shopping channels announcing in March that they have Dayu Ling spring tea for sale, making those who know better truly despondent, not knowing what to say.

Nowadays, upwards of 90% of the tea produced by the Taiwanese tea industry is semi-oxidiscd Oolong tea. Looking back, the first teas grown on the island and the production techniques used came from the Wuyi Mountains in Fujian. In 1885, Nangang tea farmer Weijing invented a new method of processing tea, creating Baozhong teas that were markedly fragrant; and from that time onwards, it became common international knowledge that "Taiwan must be a good place, as the teas can give off flowery fragrances," and Taiwanese teas came to be sold internationally. These teas were commonly referred to as "Pouchongs" in the West. These methods of manufacture first employed by Weijing are the principal source of tea making techniques used in Taiwan today.

Taiwanese high mountain tea processing techniques followed pace with the development of the Taiwanese tea industry, using the Baozhong style of fermentation as its foundation, later incorporating the rolling techniques of Dongding style (creating spherical balls of tea), in turn creating the special colour, fragrance and flavours of today's high mountain teas. High mountain teas possess the light flowery persistence of baozhong teas, and the layered fruity fragrances of Dongding teas, further elaborated by cool high mountain temperatures and misty mountains, making these teas popular for the past thirty years. However, the light oxidation associated with high mountain tea has shifted tones in the hands of several tea producers, who have veered to lighter and lighter oxidation, and greener flavours, creating a worry for consumers of Taiwanese high mountain teas. Another notable point is that with the increase in cross strait exchanges, the tea industries have been mutually influential, and in the past ten years, Anxi Tieguanyin has been heavily influenced by Taiwanese high mountain tea production techniques, totally changing its production methods, switching from deeper, heavy Tieguanyin flavours to lighter, greener flavours, moving these formerly heavy tasting teas as far as to say they now infringe upon the green tea market!

The Floating Fragrance of High Mountain Tea, a Fine Choice for Dongding Competition Teas

According to historical records, the first tea competition and sale in Taiwan took place in 1975 at the Xindian Agricultural Association, Taipei. This, was an island wide competition of Baozhong style teas, and each entrant could provide one type of tea, entering an amount not less than 10kg; 223 teas were entered, and the results shook up the status quo of the tea world. In the following year, 1976, Dongding in Nantou also commenced its own tea competitions, with 104 entrants. By 2003, this competition received 4957 entrants, and last year's winter tea competition received a record high of 5284 teas entered. Each entrant delivers 22 Taiwanese jin of hes or her tea, divided into spring and winter teas, so over 230,000 jin of tea arc brought to the competition table annually. Insiders know that if a producer wants to enter his or her tea into this competition,or have a chance at a prize, let alone a top prize, only high mountain teas have a true chance, so every year in the Dojngding competition, a high proportion of the bests are high mountain teas.

In the early 80s, Longyan Forest in Meishan was regarded as a new tea growing area, and it had good tea garden husbandry, so when the first spring tea buds sprouted, tea dealers rushed all over the mountain vying for good teas. They would wait until the most suitable picking time, and the arrival of fine weather for tea making, snatch up some raw tea to take for testing; then painstakingly roast the teas they had purchased. This gradually became a business opportunity in the high mountain tea industry.

Alishan has Longyan Forest, Ruili, Zhangshu Hu, Taihe, Dayao. Shanlin Xi has Ruanan, Fanzai Tian, Sanceng Ping, Shitou Hu, etc. All of these tea growing districts are common victors in Dongding tea competitions, What is important is that in newly developed tea growing districts, the humus levels in the soil will be high, meaning that the soils will be fertile, and just as the tea plants reach maturity, their leaves will be suitable for making medium oxidised, medium roasted competition teas. Generally speaking, raw tea leaves from overly high elevations are not suitable for competition teas for two reasons: firstly the raw materials arc expensive, secondly, the brew may be too light and delicate for competition. Competition teas need to display fullness of flavour, and must display flavours that can be judged within a few seconds, the fragrances must be clear, flavours lively, sweet and smooth. In order to meet these criteria, the growing environment for high mountain teas must provide sufficient sunlight, with appropriate annual temperatures, fortuitously, these conditions exist at 23.5 degrees latitude north in tea gardens at 1200 meters above sea level, precisely in Alishan's Meishan tea district, and Nantou's Shanlin Xi tea district.

The Fine Production Skills of High Mountain Tea Farmers Create the Many Faces of High Mountain Tea

There are an uncountable amount of tea competitions in Taiwan today. The semi-spherical, semi-oxidised category is divided into lightly fragranced and ripe categories. Jiayi County's Meishan Agricultural Association holds a high mountain tea competition, judging teas in the lightly fragranced category and is the event most highly respected among tea growers, and the representative competition of the greater Alishan area. Regarding the riper flavoured teas, Nantou Lugu Farmer's Association holds the Dongding tea competition, and is influential over the Taiwanese tea industry. This competition is the largest scale competition in Taiwan, handling vast quantities of tea. No matter if these are lightly fragranced or ripe competition teas, every tea must undergo a delicate roasting process.

For high mountain teas grown at medium altitudes, different categories of teas can be made to suit the competition, but if ripe teas are required, a little extra effort is required to create medium oxidised teas, creating the fragrant fruity flavours that can be produced by multiple delicate roasting, creating semi-oxidised, semi-roasted Dongding style Oolong teas. If the competition is for lighter oxidised teas, although the oxidation is light, the level at which it is stopped needs to be correct, and the tea needs to retain its fresh flavours without heavy roasting, emphasising the sweet, floral fragrances of the tea.

Today, the largest market in high mountain tea is for lighter, more fragrant teas, and as explained above, these teas are often the category judged at competition. A present trend for high mountain black tea, uses small leaf tea varities such as Qingxin Oolong and Jinxuan, creating thick, heavy infusions loved by women. In Lishan's Cuiluan tea district, there were people already making black teas five years ago, and last year Wuling Farm first sold its own Wuling black tea; this is a hot market. Alishan black tea is similarly popular, the government being the driving force here; in order to stem the import of Taiwanese style Oolong teas from abroad, government workers are instructing tea growers on how to produce high mountain black teas from their summer and autumn pickings.

High Mountain Tea Tasting and Culture

Although Taiwan is not huge, food and drink in the north, centre and south of the island all have their own characteristics. Southerners prefer salty sweet "Taiwan" style foods, while northern Taiwanese prefer lighter, more varied cuisine. If we talk of tasting tea, using Puerh as an example, northern Taiwanese like to store raw Puerh cakes, while southerners store ripe ones. If we talk of high mountain tea, people in Gaoxiong prefer raw, "greener" high mountain teas, while northerners often follow their own tastes. Regarding the high mountain tea market, in the south, the main type of consumer is a lady or gent who knows that the origins of Taiwanese tea culture are in Tainan, using the historical literary figure Lianheng as an example, who advocated pot brewing and drinking tea from small cups in one of his poems. This method of consumption clearly still has a great influence on tea drinkers today. The days when high mountain tea first soared in popularity were also the heyday of tea houses in southern Taiwan, both of the above are factors that aided the sale of high mountain tea in the south. In the north, most buyers of high mountain tea are from big companies, buying the tea as a gift, or the tea may be used to entertain foreign guests.

Another section of the Taiwanese high mountain tea market has followed increased cross strait interaction, and people in the middle and upper levels of society who make frequent visits to the Mainland often choose high mountain tea as a de facto gift to take with them: firstly it is a valuable, esteemed product; secondly it is convenient to carry; thirdly, in an alien land, it can console the heart of one longing for home.

The main market in Taiwanese high mountain tea is for teas with fresh, natural flavours. In the honey green infusion, there are layers of light yellow, drifting fragrances of plum and orchid, the prelude to a fine swill. Entering the mouth, the tea proceeds to create a symphony of layered flavours, an experience that truly has to be tried to be understood, as words fail to do it justice.

"Fine water and soil fosters fine fragrant teas." This is true of Taiwanese high mountain teas. Here, I will share my knowledge of the three main production zones of the Taiwanese high mountain tea market. Alishan: Crossed by the Tropic of Cancer, the most southerly of the three main high mountain tea areas; it receives ample sunlight. The sea of clouds is this area's most notable feature, Meishan township is a key tea production district at elevations between 900 and 1400 meters. The teas are naturally powerful, broad and abundant in flavour, and the fragrances linger for a lifetime. Shanlin Xi: The most representative production area is Lonfeng Xia. The clouds and mist spread among the tea bushes all day long; higher in latitude than Meishan, at an elevation of 1800 metres, the teas here have elevated, resounding flavours. Lishan: Cuiluan is the most representative district, at elevations between 1700 and 2100 meters. Throughout the year, Cuiluan receives the nourishing cold air from the Yushan, Xucshan and Alishan ranges. Temperatures can differ by as much as ten degrees each day. The teas are soft and delicate, mellow, and graceful in flavour.

High mountains, green ravines, blues skies, forests, seas of clouds, mountain fog, the birthplace of Taiwanese high mountain teas is a Mecca for lovers of tea. The winds are changing, over time, the true nature of these high altitude teas will prevail. High mountain teas are Taiwan's most valuable harvest, and an essence of Taiwanese culture. Oolong tea culture is a bridge; the Taiwanese tea industry has developed as a vehicle to transmit Taiwanese culture to the world, and the island's high mountain tea can be seen as a new hope for Taiwan.