San Lin Shi

We hiked up one of the peaks of San Lin Shi mountain in Taiwan.  It was an impressive climb, and from the top you could see miles and miles of mist and other mountain peaks in the distance.  The tea bushes at the summit had been recently harvested.

This is where they produce ‘high mountain oolong’ teas.  The type of tea varietal is called ‘green heart oolong,’ which is well suited for the altitude.  At 6800 ft, the cool evenings keep the insects at bay so that no pesticides are used.  They have two harvest seasons, spring and summer.  Spring teas are prized for their high fragrance and light body, where as winter harvests have a deeper body.  The regional preference is for spring teas, but there are plenty of people who would argue that the winter is better.  I managed to get a small amount of each, and am looking forward to cupping them when I get home.

Because of the labor shortage in Taiwan, workers came from Indonesia to help with the harvesting.  The tip growth of the tea bushes is picked, primarily by women because of the size of their hands.  The stems can be somewhat tough, so to aid in speedy picking they attach razor blades to the sides of their index fingers.

This particular tea was processed by a man named Mr. Chen.  The word ‘processed’ sounds mechanical, but it was anything but that.  It’s a craft and an art that is informed by experience and intuition.  We visited his factory the previous day, just as the plucked tea leaves were being laid out to ‘sun’ in the windowed room.  The sunning, or withering, is done in a large open room full of windows.  It begins the oxidation process- the heat from the sun starts pulling the moisture out of the leaves.  There are screens that can be drawn over the ceiling to control the amount of heat, but the sun was not very strong the day we were there.   The amount of time the leaves are left to sun varies on the temperature and sunshine.  The day we were there, they were left to sun for about 40 minutes.

The smell of the tea leaves was intoxicating.  The men working apologized for making us take off our shoes, but we were all to happy to comply- it was warm and we had been hiking for a while.  We tiptoed around the edges of the mats careful not to disturb the leaves and enjoyed the view.

 

 

 

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Taiwan Tea Tour Itenarary

I’m leaving Monday for a week long tea buyers tour with one of our vendors.  Taiwanese teas have always been my favorite, and I’m very excited to experience them first hand.  Not only will we be seeing some harvesting and production, but we’ll be meeting the producers, the people that pick the leaves and roll them.  Mostly, though, I’m looking forward to experiencing how they approach tea drinking.  I’ve heard many good things about their tea houses, and I’m fascinated by the beautiful vessels and tools that they brew and serve with.  You can bet that I’m going to have a very full suitcase coming home.

As it stands, a group of about 6 of us will meet in Taipei next Tuesday (or is it Wednesday? The travel and time differences are so great).  Winnie Yu, owner of Teance and our experienced guide will take us to Wenshan, Taipei for baochong oolongs.  Then to the Maokong teashops “on top of Taipei City”- not sure what that means exactly, but I’m looking forward to finding out.  That evening we’ll visit one of the night markets and eat street food.  I have a facination with street food- it’s at once wonderful and horrible.  Wonderful because it’s such a good representation of the local food culture, but horrible because I’ve gotten sick in the past.  The unfortunate reality is that my midwestern American stomach does not contain the same type of flora and fauna.  Was it worth it to eat those double fried pork cheek tacos in Tapalpa, Mexico?  Hell yes.  Did it totally suck to be sick to my stomach for a few days afterwards, yes.  But, I got over it and remember the tacos more than the queasiness.

Day two:  Shinjhu, Taichung.  We’ll be visiting the place where the famed Taiwan Beauty Oolong is made.  This tea has been a fascination of mine because it gets help from pin-sized ‘leaf hoppers’ (which are actually mini cicadas, I’ve been told).  The little leaf hoppers munch on the leaves and start the oxidation process before they are even plucked- the result is that this tea has a totally unique taste.  It cannot be reproduced anywhere else- it’s a great example of terroir.  Then, we’re off to Nantou, Taichung for the Si Ji Chun Four Seasons Oolong.

Day three we visit Tung Ting ‘Cold Summit’ Mountain for some early morning tea harvesting.  Following that, we’ll go to the local tea museum and meet with a farmer’s co-op.  Since tea is processed soon after harvesting, we’ll see the morning’s pickings being harvested late into the night.  That evening we’ll be staing in a cabin at the base of San Lin She.

On day four we’ll hike up San Lin She for some ‘high mountain’ oolongs- my favourite tea.  It’s a steep mountain, and I’m excited for the smells and the views.  From the photos I’ve seen, it’s a breathtakingly beautiful terraced mountain top, sometimes shrouded in mist.  We’ll tour around the mountain, see some harvesting and production.

On the last day we’ll return to Taipei in the morning and visit the pottery district.  There is a big meal planned and then we all part ways that evening.

If I have time and internet access, I’ll post while I’m there.  I’m taking a camera that can record still shots and video.

Keemun

Keemun (or Qimen) tea is grown and produced in Anhui provence, in Eastern China.  Despite it’s relatively short history, it has risen in prominence because of the British love of ‘English Breakfast’ tea: Keemun tea leaves are the primary component of that blended tea.  In China, it’s known as a red tea because it produces a red liquid when steeped.  In the west, we consider it a black tea because of the color of the withered leaves.

Prior to 1880, only green and white teas were produced in Anhui province.  Black teas were the rage in Great Britain,  so an industrious civil servant traveled to nearby Fuijan to learn the production techniques of black tea, thus forever altering the tea production in Anhui.  The result is a flavor so unique that it (known as Qi Men Hong Cha) has risen to the status of being one of the ten great Chinese teas.

What makes it so special?  It’s arguable that the economic interest from the British propelled it in this direction, but the tea producers in Anhui are very skilled.  Their technique combined with the terroir of the tea leaves in that region have created a tea that is uniquely flavorful.

The first thing I notice with a cup of Keemun is the depth of color and the thickness of the brew.  It has a deep and complex, slightly wine-like armoa that is so distinctive it’s become a descriptor itself: ‘keemnun aroma’ is tossed around when describing other teas.  The flavor can range from smokey to piney, sometimes with notes of plum but it’s rarely in the realm of ‘fruitiness’ that you get from a Darjeeling.  The Chinese prize it for it’s orchid like notes and subtle sweetness.

This morning I’m cupping a Keemun Mao Feng.  The ‘Mao Feng‘ distinction comes from how it’s processed- during harvesting, a bud and two leaves of equal length are plucked and they are left whole throughout the manufacturing.  It’s a style emulated from another tea on the list of the most famous, Huang Shang Mao Feng, a green tea that is also produced in Anhui.  This Keemun Mao Feng has a thick richness, and is surprisingly smooth and balanced.  There is less smokiness than I’ve had in other keemuns, and I can’t help but think of wines from Burgundy when I taste it.  As it’s cooling, the sweetness is becoming more prominent, balancing the tannins nicely.  It’s an absoultely lovely cup.