An Extensive Winter Tea Shopping Spree
Well, it has been a long season of winter tea shopping, and we are delighted to announce that we have procured all of our selections and they are up on the site. The shopping spree started at lower elevations, ironically, as these are the latest crops to be harvested. This happened for a couple of reasons.
The first reason was that the highest elevation crops, particularly in the northern areas of the central Taiwan tea growing region, were scarce and scattered in an untimely fashion due to the cold dry spell that stunted new growth. Winter tea crops were harvested but exemplary batches of winter tea were hard to find from these farms.
Secondly, at mid-elevations, namely Dong Ding Oolong Territory, we knew all our artisan friends were busy roasting for days on end. A single batch of about 40 pounds of tea being roasted for 25-40 hours makes for a lot of time spent slowly toasting tea leaves!
This highly time-consuming and scientific work, that sometimes involves both magic and luck, takes weeks. Not to mention that most Dong Ding Oolong makers were preparing for the winter tea competitions, and we've learned that it's best to wait until they have prepared their competition batches before asking what they have to offer. In doing so, we have the advantage of potentially procuring tea leaves that were prepared for competition and are leftover. Also, the artisans are much more relaxed after they have completed their task of meeting the competition deadlines. All of a sudden, there's a lot more time to brew and taste tea, and incidentally more freshly roasted batches to choose from.
So we slowly made our rounds starting in October, checking in and collecting reports and tasting teas along the way. Early on we made note of the most recent harvest from our new source of Lishan - having procured from both the first and second harvests of the year. Highest elevations harvest only three times a year. Compared to any other Lishan or Da Yu Ling, it stood apart. Having just recently bought the last bit of spring harvest, we waited to see what else we might come across. Here's a snapshot of any given day recently at the tea table in my home in Bamboo Mountain.
Meanwhile, the lower elevations of tea arrived in November. Delicious, buttery smooth and fragrant, well-oxidized Jin Xuan Oolong along with an even more floral/herbal, greener Tsui Yu Oolong. Lower elevations did better with weather patterns and temperatures. Here we are watching the destemming of competition tea by the most active family of tea farmer/professionals we know.
After tasting several samples from the highest elevation farms, we decided on the Lishan that we noted early on. It brews a clear, bright amber/green tea that has a floral, rainforest aroma with a hint of dried herbs - like marjoram. The flavor is balanced and delicate with woody, asparagus notes. The floral aftertaste lingers in the throat and nose long after the tea is imbibed.
Dropping down a bit in both elevation and latitude, we were pleasantly surprised by the late fall harvests from both our Shan Lin Xi High Mountain and Dong Ding Oolong sources. Due the summer crops from both of these farms being affected by the Green Leaf Hopper that works its magic to produce Concubine Oolong, the plants needed to be pruned more deeply resulting in a later fall harvest.
This later fall harvest further resulted in the compromise of a normal winter crop at the 1500m elevation of the Shan Lin Xi farm. We were delighted to discover that we like a particular day's harvest of Mr. Su's fall crop even more than the spring batch we procured earlier in the year. The fall batch of tea was harvested in prime weather conditions and allowed to oxidize more - resulting in a smooth, balanced and full flavor with a heady aftertaste. As this farmer adheres to the more traditional convention of basing the price of tea on the season and the yield, this batch comes at a considerably lower price as well!
The fall batch of Dong Ding is simply a fine example of mid-elevation, traditionally made Oolong Tea from the renowned Phoenix Mountain area above Dong Ding Mountain in Lugu. The small plot of tea shown above is where these leaves were harvested. The leaves were slowly roasted to a mellow, balanced, nutty character with a sweet, fruity aftertaste. As I've said for years on end about the flavor of Dong Ding Oolong from this particular ridge above and to the northeast of Lugu - "If I had to choose one tea..." - this batch fills that slot. Here's the man who made this tea at work as a professional judge in this winter's tea competition at the Lugu Farmers' Association. Results of the competition were posted on December 19.
We were sad to see the last of our spring batch of Organic High Mountain Oolong sell, as it was a magical crop created by the influence of the Green Leaf Hopper. This is an effect that is different every time, hence each batch of bug bitten tea is unique. The good news is that we are just now breaking out a small amount of this harvest that we bought as "mao cha" which roughly translates as fresh tea. We brought this to our mentor Lisa Lin to roast, as we knew it was special. And now it is an especially substantial version of classic Concubine Oolong. It's the result of an intuition that proved successful, and we are proud to share this unique (and very small) batch of tea. Here's a shot of the small team of pickers, all over 60 years old most likely and only one male, starting in before 7 a.m. on that harvest.
We also procured some of the final harvest of the year from this farm. This batch exemplifies the natural taste of organically cultivated tea that we have enjoyed from this farm over the years. It is balanced with subtle flavors that continue to transform through significantly more brews than conventional teas. The most consistent quality that we have found from this organic source is the physiological effect of the tea. In a word, it makes you feel good in a particularly wholesome way that we have continued to be impressed by. I rode up to the farm for both spring and late fall harvest, and here is what the leader of the tea picking team showed me on my way out on the third and last morning of the final harvest. This high mountain caterpillar of sorts evidently likes tea too!
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Here's a list of the top 10 teas that Taiwan is most famous for, followed by a brief description of each one. The word Oolong refers to any type of partially oxidized tea i.e. from 5% to 85% oxidation. It also refers to specific processing methods that clearly distinguish it from Green and Black Tea types.