Alishan High Mountain Oolong Summer Harvest (2021)
We snapped this pic from the home of our source of Alishan High Mountain Oolong Tea when we visited last week. It's been raining intermittently for weeks now, but they had a couple of clear days last week which allowed for harvest.
The summer crop came in nice and evenly, as the tea trees were very happy to have plentiful precipitation at long last, after the year-long drought! As you can see, there are noticeably less pickers in the field. The island-wide efforts to contain the recent outbreaks of COVID prompted this husband and wife team to only hire local pickers. This is an anomaly in recent years, due to the shortage of local pickers, and the influx of migrant farm workers. Just like it used to be more than a decade ago, the team of local pickers have a higher standard of quality in the leaves they pick. They only pick the proper amount of new growth, and leave the larger, matured leaves on the tree. So our summer batch of Alishan High Mountain Oolong Tea is noticeably a better stock of leaf than we have seen in years from a High Mountain Tea source! It's very likely that most of the pickers on this day of harvest are relatives, as it is a very small remote community in Ruili Village.
Proper selection of tea leaves is the most fundamental quality control in the entire process of picking and processing tea leaves. Afterall, this is the raw material from which our tea is made. If the leaves are picked too far down on the branch, the stems have become thick and rigid. This makes it much more challenging to uniformly deplete the leaves of their moisture. Depleting the leaves of their moisture slowly and steadily while maintaining the integrity of the leaf structure is essentially the art of making quality High Mountain Oolong Tea.
Shown above are the leaves undergoing their initial "kickstart" of a long slow wilting process that takes more than 16 hours. The leaves are spread outdoors, where the infrared rays of sunlight penetrate the leaves and begin depleting them of moisture. This requires attention, finesse, and a comprehensive understanding of the growing conditions and the state of the leaves when they are picked, as well as the weather conditions, which are typically very volatile in these mountainous environs.
The photo above shows the fully processed and dried leaves from the previous spring harvest on the left and the leaves that were just picked and processed last week on the right. Same farm, same factory, same craftsmen. The growing seasons varied significantly in the weather patterns. And the team of pickers resulted in a significant difference in quality control in the harvest. We can see that there is significantly more stem material on the spring leaves. The summer leaves are more uniform in size and coloration, and less stem material is visible. The spring harvest is a standard High Mountain Tea straight from the factory. In the industry, it's called "mao cha", which be translated as "ungroomed tea". When leaves are prepared for competition, the stems will be removed as part of the post-production processing. This batch of summer tea more resembles tea leaves after the stems have been removed, or perhaps, tea leaves from more than 10 years ago...
Having said all that, the spring tea still wins in its aromatic and flavor profile. While the plots of tea just on the other side of the hill did not put forth any significant new growth due to the drought, the plot shown above still did well. It really comes down to micro-climate — based on very specific geographic details. Spring is classically the best quality stock of any given year. So it is no surprise at all that it is more flavorful than the summer crop. This is as it should be, given that it costs almost twice as much. So in the end, the value of summer tea wins vs. its cost. It is a prime quality High Mountain Tea from a source we have come to rely on almost solely for our Alishan High Mountain Oolong. And the price is hard to beat. So if you are looking for an everyday drinker that is really quite good quality, this batch is for you!
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We have become close friends, and this is a unique connection in our 25 years of involvement with tea producers in the local Taiwan tea industry. This farm is a rare resource, given its environment and micro-climate. The owners have faced many challenges and only in the last few years have developed their organic farming to a stable situation. Now, with some support and guidance, we believe they will soon be producing some of the best organic tea in Taiwan!