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Tempest in a Teacup:
Trendy Taiwanese High Mountain Tea

Looking at the aesthetics of Taiwanese high mountain tea from a consumer's perspective

Many years ago, a tea seller from New York handed me a name card. On the back of the card, there was an interesting sentence: "Oolong Tea Compares to Wine in terms of Complexity and Flavor.” As a native of an important Oolong production area, Taiwan, this statement was a great compliment. However, thinking it over, was this not merely a Westerner trying to praise Eastern culture? The sentence implies that the value of red wine has long since been known, and perhaps Oolong tea was merely a pleasant, surprising discovery for Westerners. Futhcrmore, I wondered what specific variety of Oolong tea the New Yorker was referring to. Was it a traditional Rock Tea from Wuyi Mountain in Fujian, or a fragrant Fenghuang Dancong from Guangdong? Was it a traditionally oxidised Anxi Tieguanyin, or its lighter, fragrant cousin, so popular in recent years? Was it a traditional Taiwanese Oolong such as Oriental Beauty, or an evasive high mountain tea? Without naming a specific tea, the flavour of this Oolong tea that he mentioned could have been any tea in the spectrum between green and black! Without stating the location of production and the tea variety, the flavour of this Oolong tea was impossible to pinpoint, meaning that the flavour was unclassifiable, a difficult tea to visualise.

In the book Found Meals of the Lost Generation: Recipes and Anecdotes from 1920's Paris, describing the lives of the so called lost generation of American expatriate artists and writers in Paris, there is mention of the poet Jean Cocteau serving Formosan Oolong tea with nuts, mayonnaise, olive oil and cheese sandwiches to receive guests. Although the book clearly states that the tea is Taiwanese Oolong, it is difficult to say whether the tea served was Oriental Beauty or not. Taiwanese people seldom serve Oriental Beauty tea with such western accompaniments, preferring to drink such tea without any other flavours infringing on the tea. Indeed, high quality Oolong teas are rarely paired with foods, especially fruit. On formal tea drinking occasions, the ideal is to serve light refreshments after the tea drinking has concluded. This pure style of drinking is generally preferred by Taiwanese people, but clearly also has its own limitations. Throughout the world, there is no standard way to drink tea: tea customs are sculpted by taste and the value systems of different cultures. High mountain tea is a fine example to further illustrate...

Taiwanese high mountain tea has been popular for the last twenty years; its refined, strong fragrance and exquisite flavour have made it the preferred tea with which to entertain guests and to offer as a gift. In Taipei's high end porcelain market, welcoming foreign visitors in artist's studios, and in high class models of housing developments, the de-facto tea served is high mountain tea. Furthermore, visitors from Korea, Japan, Mainland China and the Asia Pacific region often return home with high mountain tea in their suitcases.

In a fallow society obsessed with class, everyday necessities and entertainment are implicit means of displaying one's status. Drinking red wine implies class, as does playing golf and drinking high mountain tea. The metaphors inherent in these consumer choices are difficult to dodge. In the consumer market, the influence of class and branding in high mountain tea is growing daily. This is no new phenomenon, but one thing makes me curious: why are no traces of high mountain tea to be found upon the tea tables of self-ordained experts in tea circles in Taipei? Why do these senior figures in tea not greet their guests with high mountain teas? To enquire further into this may seem purposeless to some, but let us have go, in the process, we may well chance upon some seldom discussed points relating to the aesthetics of tea...

So, why do the connoisseurs of Taipei tea circles seldom sip high mountain tea? This question itself is somewhat uncalled for, as many tea experts are unceasingly pointing out that the methods used to produce high mountain tea are unsuitable, with deficiencies such as over-fertilising, picking immature tea, and insufficient withering. These methods have resulted in a decline in quality and flavour of the tea, creating a marked difference between the teas commonly sold in tea shops and the high mountain teas of their dreams. They cannot abide with and are unaccustomed to infusions that resemble green tea in colour, nor can they accept the grassy, floral flavours, believing that these teas have veered away from the path of traditional Baozhong style teas. Seldom do we hear discussion of solutions to the issues of industrial ecology or structural problems.

It is difficult for most people to imagine the picking times in the tea season, and differences in the picking and processing of teas may be imbued with nrgency, resulting in minute subtleties in the finished product, leaving tea makers unable to make teas with a quality that only slow, deliberate work can create. Teas that are the products of a slow process are seen as works of art by the experts mentioned before, clearly a different kettle of fish from the teas most people drink. It is rare to hear average consumers or tea producers nit-picking over the above points; the noise comes from the people we may tentatively call "Tea Interpreters" or individuals with a calling to endlessly expound upon tea-related issues. Returning to the average consumer, their silence may be interpreted as unconsciously accepting the situation, or as a conscious enjoyment of" tea. The silent maker of these teas implies a certain laissez-faire attitude towards what the buyers of these teas think, simply creating teas in season from the correct locations, leaving the appraisal of the tea to others, people will still be willing to pay a good price for the tea. If market problems emerge in the near future, these will be caused by the influence of teas from outside of Taiwan masquerading as high mountain teas duping customers to settle for less.

So, tea makers care not for the advice of the experts. Thankfully, the goal of this article is not to probe this aspect of the makers, but to explore the topic of consumers' unconscious acceptance of teas and conscious enjoyment of the status quo. First, it will be beneficial to understand the differences between the tastes, knowledge and tea drinking habits of regular consumers and experts. In this process, we must be careful to avoid the error of presuming that consumers do not understand tea, or that that they are innocent victims of unscrupulous vendors. must however, understand that in the eyes of experts, all of the deficiencies in the manufacturing process that may result in a poor quality tea can be attributed to the absolute principles of scientific rationale. In the eyes of consumers, these are more likely linked to fashion, taste and a means of creating a certain value for a product. The minute we involve taste or value, science will immediately be pushed into the background because science is not truth, it is unable to deal with the values; this, I fear is the work of philosophers. Alas, philosophy cannot solve problems, merely clarify them.

The so-called problems in high mountain tea are most likely not created in their production, but in the large gap in understanding between average consumers and experts. We cannot say that we should go back to the ideal teas preferred by connoisseurs, in order to restructure the manufacturing process with a set of absolute principles. Bizarrely, this ideal tea may well have scared off a great deal of customers, both those who are aware and unaware of the teas that they drink. It is likely that they would not be able to recognise or identify the so called true high mountain teas favoured by connoisseurs. The leanings to greener infusions and grassy flavours condemned in books written by such experts are actually the characteristics loved by many consumers; this is not solely an issue of taste and value, but is actually a question of tea aesthetics.

Sticking to the conditions that connoisseurs use to determine what makes a good tea, we will find ourselves with three results:

1.The infusion is orange in colour, totally different to the honey green hue preferred by most consumers.

2. Suitable oxidation to create intense flower and fruit fragrances. Following the wisdom of experts in the olfactory field, rich flower fragrances of flowers and fermentation (oxidation in this case) are easily able to saturate smell and taste receptors. Repeatedly smelling the same aroma engenders an opposite result than we would expect, which is to say that human sense of smell and taste transfers information directly through nasal nerve endings to the brain in a system, the brain's sensory signal limbic system, controlling our physiological functions including emotions, and our various appetites. So no matter if the tea fragrance is of a lightly oxidised or heavily oxidised nature, the brain will tell us not to drink too much of it. Resultantly, any tea with fresh, highly fragrant notes will be categorised by our senses as one that we should not drink too much or too often!

3. According to the conditions above, the best high mountain tea flavour is one that gathers upon the palate and does not migrate to the throat. For most tea drinkers, this would be an uncomfortable experience, making it difficult to relax, a common unconscious reason for people to reject high mountain teas. This makes for a difficult situation: one is left unable to enjoy the freshness and highly fragranced nature of high mountain tea, or its "hostility" to one's palate. In this light, drinking high mountain tea is a matter of habit and choice. Experts pin their rejection of high mountain tea on the shortcomings in production, failing to address the origins of the problems. Inherently, high mountain tea does not have "problems." Any problem is essentially a matter of tea aesthetics.

In the article above I discussed the metaphor of status in regard to high mountain tea. In the eyes of senior figures in the tea world, this is not an issue. Collections of old Puerh tea cakes, aged Taiwanese Dongding tea, and old Liuan tea are more common, reliable indicators of seniority and value. People pay close attention to the individual qualities of teas, enabling teas with interesting stories to provide endless interest to tea drinkers. Apart from flaunting the terroir of certain mountains, the widespread availability of high mountain tea and its relatively pallid history leave the seller/brewer unable to spin yarns of ancient poets or emperors sipping upon the tea.

Regarding the issue of tea drinking customs, most tea drinkers prefer lighter flavours. But in regard to those who drink tea from the moment they wake in the morning until they sleep, high mountain tea is not a tea to be drunk throughout the day. In this day and age, we must think of the benefits that come from the popular means of brewing tea in small pots and drinking from thimble sized cups. As little as three to five grams of tea is sufficient to satisfy a table of tea drinkers, the strength of the infusion can be controlled so that the tea is light and not too strong. Otherwise, high mountain tea may be brewed in larger pots to satisfy the casual drinker, avoiding the clanger of over steeping or ruining the tea, also taking away the worry of harming one's stomach. Clearly, drinking high mountain tea is also an issue of choice.

So, the reason that connoisseurs in Taipei tea circles seldom entertain guests with high mountain tea should now be clear.