The Stories Behind Some Of Our Favorite Oolongs
2014 was overall a good year in our experience for Oolong Tea harvests from Central Taiwan. Here’s a brief overview of our favorite picks, from the most recent late winter harvest to the earliest spring harvest.
Four Seasons Spring – Late Winter
We were very excited to learn about this farm over a year ago, mostly due to the farm management that this farmer has committed to using. Almost all tea farms at this elevation employ methods that produce the maximum amount of yield annually – typically six harvests a year using machine trimmers to harvest. This is based on a volume of scale equation that makes their relatively low-priced tea profitable.
This farmer has decided to go in the opposite direction. He only harvests three times a year, by hand, and only uses quality, all natural fertilizers. In effect, he is allowing his plants to produce the best quality tea leaves possible. The yield is minimal, but of the best quality from this region. By committing to this approach, he is a model of sustainable agricultural practice in the tea industry. Minimal harvest and maximum nourishment results in low impact and longevity of his tea plants and land use. It also produces the highest quality, most valuable product. This is the kind of tea we continuously seek out.
This farmer’s tea is unquestionably of the highest quality that we have encountered from this region. These leaves produce a substantial, balanced brew that is a prime example of the importance of farm management and skillful processing of the tea leaves. We in turn are committed to supporting his efforts. This most recent late winter harvest is the best batch we’ve procured so far from this source. We think it very well could be the best batch of Four Seasons Spring tea that we’ve ever tasted.
Mr. Lin’s Inaugural Harvest of Certified Organic Tea - Winter
This has been the most meaningful and progressive aspect of our work in the local industry this year. You can read all about our project with Mr. Lin here, but basically we procured the entire harvest of winter tea from this newly planted farm. It’s the first harvest after the farm and factory he built in his home were certified by the organization with the strictest organic standards in Taiwan. Here's a shot of the leaves being picked early in the morning as the sun hits the opposite side of the valley.
The plants are less than 3 years old, and have just reached a mature enough stage to produce a substantial amount of new growth to be harvested. This newly established plot of tea is a new strain (#20) created by the TRES here in Taiwan, called “Ying Xiang”. It is designed for optimal growth at mid-elevation (500-1000m) using natural farming methods that may include less water/precipitation. So far, we find it to be most similar to Qing Xin Oolong of all the commonly produced hybrid strains. The first time we tasted it, we perceived a hint of Tieguanyin Oolong as well. This organically grown tea has a balanced, mild, yet substantial quality that is soothing and invigorating in a wholesome way. It has lots of brewing power too! Our first time brewing the heavily roasted version of this tea, we brewed it ten times and it still maintained its flavor and composition! Andy snapped this shot at well after midnight of the harvest, as he watched and assisted Mr. and Mrs. Lin in the processing of the leaves.
Phoenix Valley Dong Ding Oolong – Fall
This year’s fall harvest of tea from our regular source of Dong Ding Oolong has a unique character that we find quite special. The artisan who made it attributes this special quality to an inadvertent extra dose of natural fertilizers during the fall growing season. The prior season’s administering of soy mash fertilizer did not completely dissolve into the soil during the summer growing season due to a dry spell in the weather.
So the remainder of last summer’s fertilizer feeding the plants prior to fall’s new growth, combined with the standard timing of fall season’s fertilizer produced an extraordinary composition in the brewed tea. It is substantial and rich, with a unique sweetness like raw sugar cane and cashews or pecans. The seasonal growing conditions combined with repeated long, slow, low-temperature roastings of these tea leaves for over 30 hours total makes it a fine example an artisan oolong tea. We were lucky enough to procure more than half of the harvest. The fact that this is a particularly small plot of tea that yielded less than 50kg of tea leaves cured by family traditional methods is the basis of why this tea is a favorite. The additional fact that it was made by a professional tea judge who learned from his top prize award-winning father (who still “consults” ) is the icing on the cake.
Tried and true over decades of exploring Oolong Tea Country, this is sourcing-director Andy’s overall favorite tea growing area and culture. This small community of tea farms on a ridge below Phoenix Mountain is truly the heart of Dong Ding Oolong Country in a historical sense and in terms of quality artisan-made tea today. Tea from this community has a distinct character that we have not found anywhere else. We feel privileged for the opportunity to learn to really appreciate this traditional product of regional origin on a seasonal basis for years on end.
Lishan High Mountain Tea – Spring
This source of Lishan tea is from the slopes of Fu Shou Shan in He Ping Township, Northern Taichung County. It is managed by the two sons of a Dong Ding Oolong farmer. The knowledge-base of Lugu tea farmers is unprecedented in its concentration of research exchange combined with inherited knowledge of tea cultivation. This is a privately owned, family-run, small-scale tea farm in Taiwan’s most esteemed high elevation tea growing region. Our first procurement from this farm was from spring 2014.
We visited this family and asked if they produced a portion of their harvest at a higher level of oxidation than the standard High Mountain Tea. They said they had a small amount – basically the farmer’s share, in one day’s harvest that was custom ordered by one client who wants a well-oxidized Lishan Tea. This client reserves one day of spring tea’s harvest that must be oxidized more than usual. Mrs. Huang noted that the client is wise in the sense that producing a quality well-oxidized High Mountain Tea requires prime weather on the day of harvest. So reserving this type of tea will limit the farmer’s options to days with ideal weather. And oxidizing tea properly takes knowledge and intuitive skill. It’s always a challenge for the artisan in making decisions of timing and degrees every step of the way in producing a special quality of tea, such as a well-oxidized high elevation tea. A single snapshot captures the occasion of this first delightful taste in their home.
We were grateful to be able to share this custom-made batch of tea from a family that we continue to enjoy our connection with. We these resources, we can show the sources capable of producing top quality specialty tea that there is an avid interest in specialized batches from Taiwan’s prime tea real estate.
Certified Organic High Mountain Tea – Spring
The environment and management of this farm is simply the most ideal we’ve ever seen. And the growing conditions of spring 2014 tea combined with proper processing produced the best batch of tea that we’ve ever procured from this farm. The most obvious factor involved was the fact that these leaves were affected by the Green Leaf Hopper – a tiny insect that is responsible for the making of Concubine Tea. This batch is from the late spring harvest on May 25. These leaves are from the same batch that our spring 2014 unroasted Organic High Mountain Oolong Tea came from. And the photos below were snapped as this harvest began.
The honey-like flavor of “bug-bitten tea leaves” is typically more pronounced if the leaves are roasted. So we procured an additional amount of tea from this harvest and asked our mentor Lisa Lin to roast it for us. This is all that remains from this unique batch of tea – a very small amount of lightly roasted high elevation organic Concubine Tea.
The character of this tea is a complex combination of fragrant honey tones and ripe, fruity, woody qualities with a faint hint of roastedness that makes it an endlessly interesting and satisfying brew. There is a viscosity to the texture, and a floral aroma that lingers while leaving the palate clean and refreshed with a slightly sweet aftertaste.
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We can see in the photo of the dried leaves above that they were hand-plucked while still very young and tender. This is evident not only by the size of the leaves, but also in the protective fur that is still on the whitish colored leaf buds. It is this stage of leaf growth, along with the heirloom cultivar of tea tree that give Bi Luo Chun its distinctive character among Green Teas — especially when it is from the first flush of spring tea buds!