It’s been a while, so I decided to try another tea from my stash of old oolongs. This time, I opened a pack of rolled Shan Lin Xi (aka: Shan Lin She, Sanlinxi, or any number of other things, but really 杉林溪烏龍). It’s getting difficult to remember which high mountain oolongs I got from where, but this one is likely a spring harvest of 2011 which I bought from a tea factory we visited on the side of Shan Lin Xi.
Honestly, I hadn’t heard of the mountain until I was there. I’m certain that I’d encountered its green rolled leaves before, but the mountain’s name is not nearly as well known as its nearby cousin in Nantou county, Dong Ding. As such, I think many exporters have labeled Shan Lin Xi as “Dong Ding”, the prestigious “Ali Shan”, or even the ubiquitous “High Mountain Oolong”, which technically refers to any oolong grown over 1000 meters up.
Despite its lack of fame, tea from this mountain often rivals the flavors and qualities of its neighbors and I think that tea shops are beginning to seek it out by name.
If you’re wondering, tea on Shan Lin Xi is still harvested carefully by hand by a group of tea ladies (and sometimes men, but the general thought is that men’s hands are too big and rough for such delicate work) early in the morning on beautiful foggy days. They wear traditional tea picker clothing that I imagine hasn’t changed much for hundreds of years, including a conical hat and brightly colored arm covers, possibly sewn by hand. The one relatively modern addition I saw was a small razor blade taped to the forefinger of each woman that enabled snipping the tiny leaf sets much more efficiently than just using the fingers alone.
For a quality rolled oolong, only the first (that is, the youngest) three leaves of the bush are picked, along with part of the stem. Sometimes four or even five leaves are included, at the discretion of the producer for that particular garden. Larger and older leaves are usually tougher and less flavorful so they are avoided, but depending on the weather and the altitude (as well as the relative quality of the tea being sought) the fourth leaf can still be quite good.
When I visited the harvest, they were picking four leaves because that spring had been unusually cold and even the fourth leaf was apparently small and delicate enough to add to the energy of the tea.
A fun thing to check when you’re done drinking some oolong is to very carefully pull out some leaves and look for the full leaf sets. Inevitably some single leaves will fall off the sets or break, but if you’ve got a good quality tea you should have no trouble finding stems with two, three, or four leaves still attached, as if it just came off the bush. It’s one of the amazing things about the gentle rolling process of oolongs that these small balls of tea can unfurl back into their original form months later undamaged.
The leaf sets on this tea were great and intact. Once it really held some magical flavors, but unfortunately as with many of the teas in this set, the years have not treated it well.
The aroma was quite nice, actually, with many of the bright flowery scents that I remember. It may be just the roast, but I also get a hint of tropical fruit when I smell Shan Lin Xi. The first infusion I made was amber gold. When I pulled it out, I thought that perhaps due to its age I should try a slightly longer time than usual, so I did 1.5 minutes. That turned out to be a mistake. The flavor was quite strong and more than a little blunt (lacking in nuance).
Hopeful since the tea had definitely retained its strength, I made a second infusion at 30 seconds. This one was a light gold with unfortunately almost no taste to speak of. When it had cooled a bit I could get the tropical aroma a bit in my mouth, but it was not impressive.
I tried two more infusions around 1 minute and allowed the tea to cool a bit before sipping (a common mistake I find when tasting tea is to sip it while it’s still too hot and your taste buds can’t distinguish the flavors). This was better, and I could now identify a high mountain oolong in the taste. Still, the flavors were light and really I think only a memory of what the leaves once held.
Since it took me so many tries to find the right flavor, I may try this tea again just to be sure I’m not unfairly judging it, but I think this will go in the thumbs-down category. Oh well! Space for another delicious tea to fill my cabinet. And this time I’ll be more careful about drinking it before it gets too old!