Tea naming is an interesting art, and it’s easy for us Westerners to be confused by the plethora of naming conventions out there. I think a little primer might be helpful.
Let’s take a tea name like Gao Shan Ali Shan Jin Xuan Milk Oolong. That’s a lot of words! But we can break it up pretty easily to learn more about our tea. Within we will find:
1. The height of the tea garden.
2. The place the tea was grown.
3. The cultivar used.
4. A common use-name.
In this case we’re going through a Chinese tea name because I think that can be the hardest to understand, but the same principles apply to tea from other countries. There may, however, be more information as well, such as the leaf size or grade.
“Gāo Shān” (高山) literally means “High Mountain”. It refers to tea grown in a garden above 1000 meters. Many of the oolong teas from Taiwan fall into this category. The theory goes that if a tea is grown at a higher elevation, it will tend toward lighter, sweeter flavors as the increased sunlight and decreased temperature affect the leaf. This is not universally true, of course, but Gao Shan oolongs usually do have those qualities.
Many teas include the place name for the mountain or region in which the tea was grown. This has led to some famous locations throughout the tea growing world, and plenty of counterfeits. Ālǐ Shān (阿里山) is one of the most popular tea mountains in Taiwan and so you can often find “Ali Shan” tea that was actually grown someplace else. Still, the place a tea is grown does not in itself tell you if a tea will be good or not, so it’s just another guideline.
A Cultivar (short for “cultivated variety”) is the particular version of Camellia Sinensis that was grown to make this tea. Often the cultivar isn’t mentioned in the tea’s name, but sometimes it is the entirety of the name. Jīn Xuān (金萱), for example, is the name of a particular tea cultivar that is grown in Taiwan and Fujian, China. A particular cultivar is usually processed in the same manner, even in different locations, so if you are familiar with the way a cultivar tastes, that can give you more of an idea of the experience you will have with a tea than anything else in the name.
“Milk Oolong” is the more common name for Jin Xuan tea in the West because the flavor of that cultivar, when gently roasted by the tea manufacturer, gives off a sweet aroma with a texture similar to cream. The common name of a tea is often a translation of the Chinese cultivar name or location, but not always. In this case, Jin Xuan literally means “Golden Day Lilly”, so “Milk Oolong” is not a translation.
So finally, our “Gao Shan Ali Shan Jin Xuan Milk Oolong” is a tea that was grown about 1000 meters on Ali Shan mountain using the Jin Xuan cultivar. This is why you can’t have a Dong Ding Ali Shan (two place names) or a Jin Xuan Tie Guan Yin (two cultivars). As always, though, the only way to really learn about a tea is to give it a try (preferably several).