Our first stop on our Asian adventure was Taiwan. We chose Taiwan for two reasons. One was because I worked with somebody from Taiwan who had done a very good job of making it sound like a great place to visit (he was right), including letting me sample some of the magnificent tea grown high up the sides of big Taiwanese mountains.
The other was because both of our flight options to Southeast Asia stopped in Taipei.
In any case, we were not going to miss the opportunity to experience Taiwan’s most famous (and expensive) tea. The flavour – rich, crisp, yet delicate – is perhaps only eclipsed by the tasting ceremony that all purveyors go through before you would buy any tea. Nobody who knows anything about tea buys tea in Taiwan without a tasting.
Pouring tea from pot into serving pitcher
So it was with great pleasure that we found ourselves high atop Alishan, one of the most famous mountains and top tea-growing mountains in Taiwan. We were even more thrilled to find Lian Xing Tea Shop, and better still, with our new friends Janet and Sean to share tea with us. And translate.
Lian Xing Tea Shop
High mountain tea is grown at over 1200 metres of elevation, although the higher the tea was grown the more desirable it is. The tea we tasted on that chilly night in January was a brand new winter harvest (winter’s cooler temperatures yield more succulent leaves; spring harvests are more floral), grown at 1700+ metres. It is a variety of oolong, but the effect of growing at high elevation – cooler temperatures, clean air and an abundance of mist – changes the character from other oolongs grown at lower elevations. The result is a tea that is very crisp, yet it has a creaminess, a richness, that gives this tea remarkable complexity.
Pouring hot water into the tea leaves
All high mountain tea has whole leaves that are left intact. The better teas, though, do all of the picking by hand. The resulting harvest includes multiple tea leaves still attached to a stem or bud. When a machine harvests the tea, you get a lot of individual leaves. This makes a big difference to connoisseurs.
Used tea leaves, unfurled
The tea is made in small batches in a very small pot by western tea sensibilities. Usually, the pot sits in another dish that has hot water in it, which insulates the brewing pot. After brewing, the tea is poured into a serving pitcher, which serves two purposes. One is that it is easier to pour into the small teacups from the serving pitcher. The other is that the tea mixes, which results in uniform servings. The tea cups are also very small, sort of large thimbles. All of these pieces are typically beautiful, and often intricately designed or painted.
Wang Hui-Chuan conducting our tea tasting in Taipei at the Alishan Rinchu Store
The shop owners we worked with were all wonderful people who clearly loved tea and what they did. High atop Alishan we found Tu Lin Che running the Lian Xing Tea Shop and she conducted the whole tasting with a big smile on her face, even though it was the end of what was probably a long day. Perhaps it was because she doesn’t see a lot of white people come through with a passion for her tea, or maybe she was putting on an act for the sake of business. rIAm’s theory is that there were preservatives in the cool, crisp and fresh mountain air. Maybe it was all of those things, but it was obvious Tu Lin Che loved her tea, and I think she loves every chance she has to do a tasting.
Tu Lin Che pours the hot water onto the tea leaves
In addition to the elevation, weather and growing season, the flavour of the tea is affected by the processing methods. Based on grower preference, the elevation of the tea, or to satisfy a variety of tastes, different amounts of oxidation and roasting take place. The process begins by leaving the tea in the sun to dry. After initial drying, the tea is put into large drums and bruised slightly, in order to begin the oxidation. Then the leaves are coaxed into curling up into tight balls (seemingly by magic, but I’m assured there is a method). This process can be repeated several times. Typically, the amount of oxidation is fairly low in order to retain the natural crisp flavour of the tea, but some people enjoy the flavours of different amount of oxidation, and we tried some with 20 and even 40 percent oxidation.
Another feature of the high mountain tea is that it is meant to be brewed multiple times, and all tastings continue through until the tea has been fully experienced. Each brewing takes a bit longer and the character of the tea changes over time. Some people have favourite brew numbers; rIAm, for example, came to really enjoy the second and third tastings, finding the first was too crisp for her liking. The process provides ample time to learn a lot about the tea and the person serving the tea. Of course, for the vendor, it also give them lots of time to make their sales pitch (which was never aggressive).
Tea Tasting at Lian Xing Tea Shop, conducted by Tu Lin Che, featuring jft, Janet, Sean and rIAm. Located in Alishan Recreation Centre in Chiayi county
This great tea can be found in North America; visit tea shops in your Chinatown, but know that it often isn’t easy and isn’t cheap (even in Taiwan). Often, like in Taiwan, it can be difficult to converse in English. It helps quite a bit if you can recognize certain Mandarin or Taiwanese characters (especially the ones for “high,” “mountain,” and “tea”), but unless you really know your stuff, it will be difficult to know the difference between a 300g bag that is $10 from one that is $40 from one that is $80 (note that in Taiwan, good stuff up on the mountain can be $25-$40 for 300g). This makes it likely that the $10 bag is bad quality or a fake coming from China; the $80 bag is probably the real deal, but still, are you getting your money’s worth?
If you’re not sure where to go, your local TenRen Tea Shop, is a good start. Be very clear about what you want and make sure you do a tasting before buying because then, at worst, you buy a tea you like.
The best place outside Taiwan I’ve been to is in San Francisco, the Red Blossom Tea Company (”Formosa Oolong” link for high mountain tea), and oh boy it is well worth a visit. There will be no language barrier, and the store is as elegant as the ones in Taiwan. They have a wonderful selection of teas from around the world, and excellent teaware, but their knowledge and selection of high mountain tea is unrivaled because the owner visits Taiwan – and the tea plantations – in order to buy for the store. Go, taste, buy, enjoy and learn more than you knew there was to learn. Or simply buy online.
Of course, you could also just hop the next flight to Taipei, get on board the extremely efficient intercity train to Chiayi, take the gorgeous narrow gauge train up Alishan (past tea fields), and then find the beautiful Tu Lin Che at her tea shop. I do recommend this option. Afterward, of course, find yourself back in Taipei and visit the Alishan Rinchu Tea Store (pick up some free samples in Alishan from the tea shop of the same name, if you like) where Wang Hui Chuan will navigate your way through an impressive selection of wonderful tea.
Tu Lin Che and her sister in their tea shop atop Alishan Mountain. If they could, I’m sure they’d say “Happy Drinking!”