Fall Tea Shopping In Alishan Oolong Country
My next door neighbor in Zhushan, Nantou County finally took me to meet his tea source of 15 years in the Alishan High Mountain Tea producing region. Mr. Wang, my neighbor, appeared on my back porch the other day while I was cooking in the kitchen to ask if I wanted to come with him the following day to taste some fall tea. He said his tea farmer friend called him to say that he had just double roasted some of his fall crop and thought it would be to his liking. I readily agreed to go.
Upon meeting Mr. Ye, the farmer, I knew my neighbor had a reliable supplier. His humble manner and simple, direct communication was recognized as what I value the most in the industry here. An independent farmer with decades of experience producing small batches of Oolong Tea in a secluded mountainous environment. The photo above was taken from the second floor window of his tea factory, and his home. His tea farm is behind the first mountain ridge in the background.
Mr. Ye used his palm and his eye to determine the amount of tea leaves to brew from three different batches. He brewed in white porcelain bowls, allowing us to observe the leaves as they brewed. Smelling the fragrance steaming off porcelain spoons dipped into the tea as the leaves opened. Pushing the leaves aside and viewing the color and clarity of the brewed tea. And eventually ladeling the brewed tea out with the spoon into cups to taste. This is the common brewing method at the source.
The brew that immediately caught my attention was from a bug-bitten crop of spring tea. The flavor had the notable "honey fragrance" character that earns its name. It was only "roasted dry" without a secondary roast to qualify it as Concubine Tea, so it still had a fresh green character that was more akin to High Mountain Tea. This makes sense, coming from the Alishan region, where most farmers sell their produce unroasted. I'm happy to say, however, that more farmers in this region are oxidizing their tea leaves sufficiently enough to be suitable for roasting. This emulates a more traditional Oolong with significant oxidation that can be enjoyed as is, or roasted, and even aged.
The second brew of interest was the double roast. This batch was harvested late in the season, ten days after the third brew's batch, and well after the August rains had stopped. It was a tasty, almost zesty combination of fresh High Mountain Oolong Tea with an added ripeness and complexity brought on by roasting. I liked it. And since I was happily in the capacity of just being a neighbor along for the ride, I could simply enjoy the tea. The third brew was from a batch of significantly younger leaves, and less oxidized. In this sense, it was of the type that is more in demand in the mainstream market. I uninhibitedly announced it to be too green for my taste.
My neighbor decided to buy about 20 pounds of the double roast, and I bought a few as well. I also bought a couple of the remaining pre-packaged bags of the bug-bitten spring tea. For me, this was one more circumstance to express my support and gratitude for someone producing the kind of tea I know and appreciate most. And it was another research opportunity to take home some of this tea that made a good first impression, and really get to know it after many brews. In the photo below, my neighbor watches and lends a helping hand in the packaging of our tea.
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The medium oxidized leaves have undergone extensive, repeated roastings that have resulted in a very balanced, integrated character. The initial steepings offer a freshly cut wood aroma with a toasted nutty flavor. This proceeds to open up into a sweeter, more complex profile that is strikingly reminiscent of roasted winter vegetables, including parsnip, caramelized onion and butternut squash.
Mr. Zhang's father cultivated tea on their homesteaded land in Xiaobantian, on the southside of Lugu Township, where he grew up in the midst of traditional tea making. At 20 something, he decided to embody his local tradition by clearing land to cultivate his own plot of tea. For the last 20 years, he has managed his own humble, privately owned plot of tea. Throughout this period, he also acquired seasonal work in tea factories in Lugu, Shanlinxi, Alishan, Fanzaitian, and Lishan. In a word, he learned the ropes of tea making in a comprehensive way, like most tea farmers of his generation. Lugu hosts the highest concentration of tea makers in Taiwan, and is a hub of specialty tea making culture.