Every tea is a snapshot of history. Terroir, weather conditions, manufacturing, and packaging and storage are just some factors that make tea each harvest different. Taiwan High Mountain Oolong has long been our favorite type of tea, and our friend Mr. Li has consistently produced the most impressive Alishan oolong we have tasted. When I first tasted his tea, I was struck by how pure and balanced it was, just like being high up on a mountain smelling the crisp dew-laden air.
There was no doubt that this sweet nectar was the result of strenuous, perhaps borderline obsessive dedication. We wanted to learn more about the terroir and processing of Alishan tea by experiencing it first hand and Mr. Li was kind enough to invite us to his tea garden on Alishan.
Mr. Li is an perennial award winning tea maker. He produces High Mountain Oolong in collaboration with equally dedicated farmers. One of these is also an award winning producer located on Alishan, 阿里山 - Mr. Yeh. He is always at the farm to oversee production, and today would be just one of his numerous trips to the mountain for the 2011 Spring harvest.
As we wound our way up the mountain, the scenery quickly shifted from development pockets (convenience stores and mass production tea gardens) to unspoiled natural beauty. The morning air was crisp and refreshing, and a fierce sun lurked above the layer of fog. Mr. Yeh's tea factory is located in the Tai He district. Thankfully, the dreaded fleets of tour buses were nowhere in sight and the air was peaceful and clear. My lungs burned from this high altitude, oxygen rich air. Trying to savor the moment, I closed my eyes and let my mind wander.
We arrived a few minutes past 9 a.m., just as the second batch of picked leaves arrived. The tea leaves are trucked down from the harvest site in big bags, each the size of a small person. The workers immediately scatter them in an even layer. This begins the withering process, where it is crucial to control the sunlight using large black curtains. Immediately, I was struck by the amount of manpower required for such a small tea operation. There were 6 workers and everything was done manually.
Why is High Mountain Oolong so expensive?
To put it simply, it's because it is hand picked. The labor cost to pick the tea leaves is 200 NT, $7, per catty (斤), 600g. Three pounds of tea yields one pound of processed, dried tea. It costs almost $21 just to pluck enough leaves to make one pound of finished tea. That's significantly more expensive than some cheap supermarket teas found here in America.
Yield also depends on weather conditions. Too much rain prior to harvest and the leaves will not develop fully, and their water content will be higher than normal. This leads to a lower crop yield.
Rattling (Gradual Oxidation)
After an initial withering under the sun, the leaves are moved into a temperature and wind controlled room for a short controlled withering. Mr. Li had his patented temperature and wind control system installed at this factory. Still, this operation is far from modern age. The workers take handfuls of leaves, mix, and scatter them into an even layer. This begins the gradual oxidation process that will coax the sweet, floral flavors from each little tea leaf.
The tea is kept for 8-10 hours in this dark room. Every hour or so, the workers "rattle" the tea leaves by hand in woven bamboo baskets (below). This is how they manually control the rate of oxidation, allowing complex flavors to develop. I was still finding it hard to fathom how rudimentary the process was. "This is how we make tea in Taiwan," Mr. Li said. "It's what gives Taiwan tea such a distinct elegance and pure character." In contrast, large tea factories in China replicate this process using a large machine tumbler. While we were only able to make a couple hundred pounds of tea with 6 workers, a machine can make thousands of pounds unsupervised. Different places, different methods, different results.
When is the Tea Ready?
It's pitch black outside by now. The nippy high altitude air is stinging my face, and I'm suffering from a slight bout of food coma from the multi course dinner: an array of mountain vegetables, wild pork, fish and a delicious chicken soup. Mr. Li motions for me to join him in the controlled environment room and tells me to smell the leaves. "You see," he says, "the sweetness is beginning to emerge. This is how you know the tea is ready to move on to the next step." When I asked him if there was an easier way to tell that the tea is ready he said yes, just use your eyes and nose!
Tumbling and Final Oxidation
Next, the leaves are moved into tumblers for a short period of time. Here, the goal is to bring out the rest of the bitter compounds within the tea leaves so that they can be eliminated from the end product.
The leaves are then moved onto bamboo trays and carefully monitored. Once all of the grassy smell has dissipated, the tea is ready for the step known as "killing the green," use of high heat to halt oxidation. I'm again shocked by the level of attention and qualitative human skill required. It's well past midnight and my eyelids are fighting to stay open. How do you keep their senses so sharp under this duress I asked. "Passion," Mr. Li said with a smile. "Getting better never stops."
Halting Oxidation ("Killing the Green") and Rolling
When this careful oxidation process has reached it's pinnacle, oxidation is halted by roasting the tea leaves at high heat. This process is also translated from Chinese as "killing the green," or sha qing. "Roasting is just to seal in the flavor you have achieved," Mr. Li says.
Harvest season is a time of little sleep, all work, and no play for the tea makers. Although I think in normal times they probably don't sleep anyways. When all was said and done, it was well past 3 a.m. and while everyone was fully awake, I was struggling to open my eyes for the camera. Taiwan High Mountain Oolong tea is so complex and there's so much more to learn. "Even after more than 30 years, I continue to learn and improve everyday," Mr. Li says.
Related Product: Alishan (pictured above).