Tag Archives: alishan

Alishan Oolong Black

This morning’s treat was to share some waffles and a pretty unique tea with my wife as we watched the snow gently fall outside. This is one of the teas I bought from a small shop in Taipei called DigniTea, which is a family-run artisan tea company that grows (as far as I know) all of their leaves on Alishan (a rather famous mountain outside of Chiayi). I have of course written about their lovely oolongs before. Unlike their other offerings, however, this one is an “oolong black”, which seems like an unlikely descriptor, yet there it is, right on the package.



Well, ok, the package also reads “大紅帖”, or Dàhóng tiē, which to the best of my ability to translate means “big red ribbon”. So perhaps the title in Chinese is just as mysterious and unexpected.
alishan-oolong-black-leaves-dryWhile I might expect a title like “oolong black” from a Western tea bag company, where precision in naming is less important than floral descriptions, DigniTea is hardly that type of company. Their Jin Xuan and Qing Xin products are some of the finest I’ve tasted, and their packaging specifies the cultivar, year, and season of harvest. This leads me to believe that the title is not mere embellishment. So, how can a tea be made as both an oolong and also a black tea? My only guess is that the style is processed in the rigorous rolling and drying system common to high mountain oolongs but allowed to oxidize longer than any other similar Dong Ding or Alishan. In fact, I’m surprised that I haven’t heard of such a creation before.

The dry leaves are dark and rolled into small balls, already giving a unique impression. It is as though one took the dark roasted leaves of a Wuyi oolong and rolled them like a tiny Dong Ding. Infused, they produce a beautiful amber liquor reminiscent of a Sun Moon Lake black tea.

The taste as well is similar, I think, to that famous Taiwanese black tea (Hong cha, really) known variously as Sun Moon Lake, Red Jade, or Number 18. Sweet and caramel-thick, but with a slight dryness and rough mouthfeel that reminds me of a charcoal roasted oolong, this tea has a gentle but unexpected character. Indeed, every time I drink some my palate is always a little confused. Is this oolong, or is it Hong cha? The DigniTea page designates it as the latter, but this may be one of those cases where the question is simply one of experience and not semantics.

The uniqueness of this tea has earned it a special spot on my shelf over the last few years, although there is precious little remaining. But that is a good thing! The way of tea is to remind us that the present moment is fleeting, and that change exists in all things. The seeds of a flavorless teabag exist in even the finest high mountain oolong, if it is not consumed. I am fortunate, and it speaks to the quality of this tea, that my Alishan oolong black has lasted so long while retaining its delightful character. It is time to drink it and move on, giving thanks for all the joy and mystery it has brought to my life.

May your tea be warm and delightful during the frigid winter snows. And may your mind find peace in the cup.



Old Tea: Ali Shan Jin Xuan

This is the first set of teas I decided to test in my grand (old) tea tasting experiment of this summer.

My first foray into the stash of oolong I’ve been keeping around brought back fond memories of days spent in Taiwan. A 2011 Ali Shan Jin Xuan which I purchased at the top of Ali Shan mountain itself. (shan, 山, literally means mountain, so I’m repeating myself, but I’m willing to accept that today). It wasn’t an easy trip.

Photo Aug 27, 11 35 45 AM

My friend and I had planned to travel to the Chiayi area and spend several days visiting the gardens of this famous tea mountain, but as we sat in Lugu watching local TV we learned that a deadly train wreck had just occurred near the mountain and so, just to be on the safe side, we put it off.

Several days later, back in Taipei, we resolved to make a day trip of the journey. So early one morning, we packed up and headed out with only a short detour to find some breakfast and pick up food for the train ride. We knew roughly how long it would take to get to the base of the mountain, but we didn’t think about the extra time moving around always takes in a place where you don’t speak the language. So when we arrived in Chiayi and found a bus to the city, it was already mid-afternoon. Imagine our surprise when the people working there told us that the last bus up the mountain had left at 2pm!

We hadn’t realized that the bus ride up the winding mountain passes took a full three hours, and that in order to get up in time to do something and catch a return trip, we should have been there near daybreak.

With a tiny amount of Mandarin available to us and a firm resolve, we found a taxi driver willing to ferry us up to the top, and he promised it would be faster than a bus ride. He was right, but that little taxi swerving up the one-lane mountain road at high speed is still one of my least favorite memories.

Photo May 09, 6 25 46 PM

We made the trip in just over 2 hours, just as the sun was setting. We expected quite a view, but of course one of the reasons that Ali Shan is so well suited to tea growing is the clouds and mist that often cover its peak. In a last-ditch effort we found our way to a tea shop and became their last customers of the evening. After tasting several options, I bought this tea as my favorite, and equally as a trophy of our reaching the summit of this holy place.

I’ll spare you the part where we had to ask for help from a 7-11 clerk to get a taxi back down again.

Even though these leaves have been sealed in a foil bag within a tin, they are showing their age. The flavor of the infusions was very light with only a hint of the creamy floral aroma that the Jin Xuan cultivar is known for. I tried three infusions, attempting to pull out something to impress, but while I could certainly increase the strength of the tea, the flavor remained so light as to be almost indistinguishable.

This tea, alas, will be consigned to the bin.