We had the pleasure of traveling through Taiwan and parts of China this past Spring, meeting farmers and learning more about different cultivars and the tea production process. Most of our members are big fans of bold black tea blends, but we still took the opportunity to source a few finer traditional teas to share with the tea club.
First stop after a long flight - visiting tea friends in Taiwan for a week of zen, meditation and tea lessons!
Ali Shan, Taiwan
Once fully adjusted to the time change and weather - we met up with Mr. Lin, who has been growing oolong on Zhushan (Bamboo Mountain) and more recently Ruby Red #18 black tea near Sun Moon Lake. We spent a morning driving up Ali Shan (it took about 4-5 hours to get to the top), stopping along the way to visit a friend's tea fields and factory. In one of the pictures below, you can see all of his family's awards hanging on the wall behind us.
As we were in the tasting room, his employees next door were blasting EDM! It must have kept them motivated, as oolong processing is very labor intensive work even with the assistance of rolling and drying machines.
Unfortunately we saw a lot of environmental destruction on Ali Shan due to the deforestation and over-farming on the famous mountain. Additionally, the majority of farms on Ali Shan use pesticides which also harm the mountain's ecosystems.
Sun Moon Lake, Taiwan
We had a couple relaxing nights in Sun Moon Lake at the beautiful Lalu hotel. The views of the water and misty mountains are absolutely gorgeous, and we spent a day visiting the temples around the lake.
Shan Lin Xi, Taiwan
Bamboo forests, abundant mists and a rocky terroir give Shan Lin Xi's oolongs a fresh slightly fruity flavor, with woody notes and a very soft, pleasant texture. Tea is grown up to 2300 metres high, and Qing Xing ("Green Heart") is the most common varietal (shown below). It is know for a smooth mouth feel and long lingering hui gan (returning sweetness).
Once again, we stopped by the farm of Mr. Lin's friend and were able to taste and purchase some of the oolong that had just been processed that day. We also rescued three lost women and a very frustrated taxi driver with a flat tire.
Midnight Tea Tasting with Mr. Zhen in Zhushan
Mr. Zhen and his wife were kind enough to host a midnight tea tasting for us, where we tasted his Qing Xing oolong grown on Ali Shan, roasted Dong Ding style. It had a beautiful mouthfeel with fruit fragrance, and ended up winning first place in a local tea competition the following month!
We also tasted two cultivars side by side, Qing Xing and Jin Xuan. Qing Xing is the traditional oolong cultivar, it has a smoother mouthfeel and long lingering hui gan. Jin Xuan is very milky and creamy when grown at high altitudes but the mouthfeel is flatter. The tea is sweet but has a short transformation through the five flavours.
Mr. Zhen also showed us his signature pressed oolong tea - he's the only person in the world to press oolong (a process traditionally used for puerh tea)!
After several hours tasting Mr. Zhen's tea, we took a quick group photo and retired home for bed.
Mrs. Wu's Roasting Factory
Next stop, Jenny Wu's Qing Dynasty-style roasting factory! Very few people roast tea in charcoal pits these days, and the new method is to use mobile charcoal roasting machines. The newest machines can be electric as well.
Electric roasting has better heat distribution/control, reaches higher temperatures and needs less physical space. Traditional Charcoal on the other hand uses lower temperature and needs a longer duration (10-20 days with cycles of roasting and resting) as well as an entire room! The wood is also aged for one year for purity.
We also spent some time rolling tea leaves that we had plucked a few days earlier from Mr. Lin's farm, and had been oxidizing in the trunk of the car.
Our last stop in Taiwan was Rebecca's tea house, where she hosted a beautiful late night tea ceremony. We didn't get any photos, but came back the next day to drink some bowl tea, enjoy the weather and sample some matcha.
We went to lunch with a local tea farmer named Mr. Ku, at the family's restaurant. The family has been producing tea for 5 generations, over 100 years. He told us that Emei is the provenance of Oriental Beauty, and any teas grown outside Emei should be called “White Tip Oolong." The cultivar is Ching Xing Da Pang ("Clear Heart Big Emptiness"). He served us a green Oriental Beauty, 1st flush O.B., black O.B. and 2011 Oriental Beauty.
Wuyi Shan, China
After a night in Taipei, we took a short flight to Xiamen and then had a long transfer to Wuyi Shan, arriving around midnight. Our host Cindy took us to her factory, where her family members and staff were processing tea throughout the night. They were in the process of withering (15 hours) and tumbling (5-10 hours) leaves that had been plucked earlier that day.
Cindy's father has three brothers, and the entire extended family lives and breathes tea. Out of approximately 300 Wuyi Shan cultivars, the family grows 80 - each lots of tea is distinguished by cultivar, weather, date and sometimes the tea master. Example: Bai Rui Xiang (Elegant White Fragrance), sunny weather, 23/4, lot #6.
The next morning we went on a beautiful hike through the protected park area in Wuyi Shan. Small plots of tea were planted all along the path, belonging to many different farmers. We saw many ladies plucking tea, and made way for men carrying heavy tea baskets from the tea fields all the way back to the park entrance, where the trucks were waiting to take the tea leaves to the factory.
While we walked, Cindy spoke to us about the differences between tea grown in the valleys versus on sunny platforms. The valley tea has a gentle flavor with a soft aroma and body that comes on gradually. Tea grown on the platforms on the other hand gets a lot more sunshine and has a stronger flavour and more intense fragrance.
Later that afternoon, we drove through tea fields outside of the protected area, stopping at friends' homes to sample their new teas.
The next day, we went to visit Cindy's cousin in the mountains where we drank more tea before embarking on an epic hike to see their lao cong (60+ year old bushes). Only four families live on this particular mountain during the harvest season, because the village is so inconvenient to access.
The plucked leaves for Wuyi Oolong can be quite large (and are sometimes machine harvested nowadays, due to labor costs) with the lower leaves and stems still attached. The top 3 leaves typically become higher grade while the lower leaves will be separated as a lower grade tea, to be sold to hotels and restaurants. The stems are used for pillows.
Phoenix Mountain, China
After a few beautiful days in Wuyi Shan, we headed over to Phoenix Mountain, where Dan Cong tea is grown and produced. Ben Shan is the middle of the mountain and Wu Dong is the village at the very top. The best tea comes from Wu Dong. Tea from Ben Shan can be harvested more often as it's sunnier in the lower elevations. Sometimes farmers only harvest once a year to preserve the quality of the tea leaves.
Many of the farmers have prospered from their tea, and moved to the city centre in Chaozhou now. Very few people live on the mountain, and only return to the family home during harvest time. Similar to Ali Shan, Phoenix Mountain has been deforested for the tea bushes and landslides are unfortunately quite common.
While we drove up the mountain stopping at various factories, the candy aroma of the tea was strong and overpowering. To be honest I got a little nauseous from the drive and the intense aromas!
Our last stop! The wonderful Mary Cotterman showed us around her city, taking us to hidden little tea rooms, noodle shops, temples and of course her pottery studio. She explained the different materials and shapes of traditional teapots and helped us load up on teaware from around the city. We spent the last few days catching up on sleep, doing a little sightseeing and drinking more tea before heading home (or onwards to Japan for others)!
It was a beautiful trip of gentle adventures. The best parts were making new friends, geeking out over old trees and meeting the farmers growing our favourite teas.