Tag Archives: taiwan

A One Garden Comparison

This month’s offering from Global Tea Hut is a pair of organic teas from Mr. Xie in Ming Jian, Nantou, Taiwan. One is processed as a green oolong, lightly roasted. The other is processed as Hóng Chá (红茶), or what we might call “black tea”. Both sets of leaves were made from the same garden and (I believe) around the same time, which makes this a very interesting comparison indeed.


I set up another tasting, much like my post on bi lo chun last week, with two small gaiwans and my small Totoro tea pet to assist us with his invaluable perspective. These two teas are quite different, despite their similar origins, and further demonstrate the profound effect of oxidation, rolling, and roast.

The warmed leaves have a delicious aroma. The oolong smells buttery and with an unmistakably light roast and the scent of chestnuts. The hong cha’s leaves give off a hint of candy sweetness, but mostly smell of dry bark in spring. When I say “warmed leaves”, I mean the leaves in the pot before they’ve been infused. It’s possible I’ve never mentioned this here, but if you warm your teapot before brewing, try putting the leaves into the empty pot just afterward and quickly shutting the lid to let them absorb some of the moist heat remaining. After a few seconds, lift the lid and inhale the aromas of the warmed leaves. This can produce an amazing effect, all before even adding water to your leaves!

Both of these teas have been allowed to grow without pesticides, which means that many of them have been nibbled by small insects before the harvest. This can be a very desirable event. The resulting tea, characterized by the iconic Bái Háo (白毫茶), tends to have a sweet rich flavor like honey. This tea magic is due to several factors including defensive compounds that the plant releases when it is attacked, as well as the beginning of oxidation while the leaves are still on the tree. I can taste the effects in both of Mr. Xie’s teas.

The oolong (infused with no rinse at around 2 minutes) produced a golden liquor. The flavor was buttery with quite a roasted and honeyed aroma in the mouth. The roasting of this tea was clearly done with a lot of skill! The finish was crisp and short, not lasting as long as I wished, but that only encouraged me to make a second cup!

The mouth feel was very pleasant, more light and silky than thick and creamy, but it paired well with the aromatics of this tea. The third infusion brought out something like the flavor of oranges, which perhaps was there before but hidden by the roast. Usually I would say “citrus” here, but in this case that word really didn’t fit; I was really getting the sense of oranges.

The Global Tea Hut article accompanying this tea reads,

The oolong tea is bug-bitten, plucked, withered outdoors, and then indoors, shaken and mixed in piles (jiao ban), withered more, pan fired (sa cheen) to arrest oxidation and kill green enzymes, rolled to break down the cells and further oxidation, as well as to shape the tea (ro nian), and then roasted twice — once to dry the tea and then for a longer time to add flavor and fragrance.

The Hóng Chá’s liquor was a delicate tan, as expected, and the wet leaves had the sweet smell of candy sugar. The taste, however, was very surprising. I was expecting something like either the minty quality of Sun Moon Lake or the chocolate notes of Feng Qing, but instead it reminded me of nothing else but maple syrup. Not that extremely sweet Grade-A stuff or the sugar paste that you find in restaurants, but thick, dark, Grade-B maple syrup fresh from the tree: still sweet, but more like caramel (if you were under the mistaken impression that Grade-A maple syrup means higher quality, you might be surprised to know it’s just a designation of color and season of production).

To quote Global Tea Hut,

The red tea is also bug-bitten, plucked, and then withered indoors, piled on bamboo mats for 12-24 hours. It is then rolled for up to ninety minutes before being roasted dry. … This results in a deeper, darker liquor than the oolong — though less refined.

I only made three infusions of these teas during this sitting, but I think that both could easily have made five to ten with their flavors intact. Neither has full leaf sets, and there were lots of broken leaves and stems (even with the rolled oolong), but this tea does not suffer from that. Based on the appearance of the leaf damage, I’d say the broken ones were in that condition on the plants, not because of poor handling. I also noticed that the cha qi was very energetic. I’ve felt this before with arbor tree sheng puer, where the tea seems to infuse a “wild” energy in the body, but I think this is the first time I’ve felt the same with an oolong and a black tea.

globalteahut-june-leaf-textureOrganic farming and hand processing mean that leaves may not look as immaculate as some other teas, but that does not mean that they are poor quality! The skill of the farmer is always present in your cup: the growing conditions, the picking, processing and roasting are all equally important. The proof is always in the taste.

Painter’s Roast Oolong

Of all the many, many (read: too many) teas I brought back from Taiwan, the most eloquent was a small unlabeled pouch of rolled oolong carefully hand-roasted by a man in Lùgǔ (鹿谷鄉). As I’ve just sipped the last of that fine vintage, I thought I might tell you the story of where I found it.

Perhaps I should first explain why I think this tea is so special. Certainly it has all the qualities of a first class tea, from its smooth mouth-feel to the blissful aroma of sweet roasted chestnut as the liquor engulfs my senses. Yet those mundane aspects are only one level of the intrigue at play here. What really draws me to this tea is a characteristic that is difficult to put into words. Some people call this Cha Qi (茶氣). It’s something like the energy of the tea.

Photo Feb 24, 2 54 41 PMSome tea tastes great or has a very interesting aroma, but after drinking it I feel unsettled. A tea which leaves me feeling at peace in mind and body is a tea which I consider to have good Cha Qi, and it is a rare thing indeed. This tea has Cha Qi in abundance, and I wonder what it must take to craft such magic from plants. If you’d like to read more about this elusive quality, Stéphane has a good discussion on his blog and TeaChat has one as well, but you’ll probably have to experience it for yourself.

These fine leaves originated in Nántóu (南投縣), the only land-locked county on the whole island. While Taiwan is generally an easy place to navigate with English, smaller regions like Nántóu can make life a little more interesting. As we got off the bus in front of the Lùgǔ 7-11 (they’re everywhere in Taiwan), there was some confusion about our bus tickets. In order to exit the bus, you had to hand your ticket to the driver to prove you had paid for that leg of the journey, but one member of our group had already misplaced his ticket. In the ensuing chaos, we met a very nice woman getting off at the same stop who helped us communicate to the bus driver and resolve the situation.

We only knew of one person in the town, a man who worked at the renowned Lùgǔ Farmer’s Association, but we weren’t sure where we might be able to stay. Fortunately the nice woman at the bus stop (whose English was excellent) led us to a sort of bed-and-breakfast she knew across the street. Apparently the building was also attached to some sort of school for children where she taught art classes. And of course, like many people in Lùgǔ, the owners of the house were involved with tea production. 


A good place to stay if you’re ever in Lugu.

We immediately started exploring the small and friendly town and learning about its vibrant tea culture. In the last few decades that culture had been in decline until the Farmer’s Association was created to preserve the traditions of the growers, pickers, and craftsmen of the region. At one point we browsed a small tea exhibit at the town hall and the employees there took a keen interest in us. I think that having Americans touring their town was quite a rare thing. Since they didn’t speak much English and our Mandarin was non-existent, they called up someone they assured us could help. As good luck would have it, our friend from the Farmer’s Association walked in the door! He had a busy schedule but told us a little about the town and then promised that he could make more time to chat if we could wait until the following day. Not wanting to take advantage of his kindness, we agreed to spend the rest of the day wandering on our own.


Our tea friend and translator.

Our tea friend and translator.

After another hour had passed we found a very interesting shop on the far side of the town. Being able to tell the difference between a shop and someone’s home is often very difficult in Taiwan; they’re frequently one and the same. This place was run solely by a very kind man who clearly knew about tea (his home-made tea station was something to behold) but whose primary activity appeared to be brush painting. He spoke not a word of English, but we sat and enjoyed tea with him just the same, jovially munching on sunflower seeds and observing the varied paintings that surrounded us.


The painter himself.

The painter himself.

As we were preparing to leave, we wanted very much to purchase some of his really excellent tea but at that point our ability to communicate without words completely broke down, so the painter called someone up on the phone. We figured that he knew someone who spoke English and could translate for us. Imagine our surprise when our Farmer’s Association friend again walked in the door. Apparently he was the one to call if you needed to talk to foreigners, but we felt very guilty for disturbing his work twice in one day.

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It turns out that the painter did not actually produce any tea, but would purchase mostly-finished tea leaves from the farmers and then roast it himself in a large electrically-heated bamboo basket: quite an art in and of itself. It was very much an education on the amazing effect that a carefully executed roast can have on a tea leaf. Of course the base tea needs to be of a high quality as well, but by roasting the leaves just enough to engage their mouth-watering fragrance without burning anything, the master of roasting can transform a good tea into an outstanding tea. I have cherished my small bag of “Painter’s Roast” ever since and I hope someday to return to Lùgǔ to pay my respects to that master (and, of course, to get some more tea!).

Gui Fei at Stone Leaf Tea House

Yesterday was a beautiful lazy Saturday, and my wife had the brilliant suggestion to spend our afternoon drinking tea someplace we don’t get to nearly often enough: Stone Leaf Tea House in Middlebury. As we sat and tasted some fine Gui Fei oolong I realized I have never written about this wonderful tea destination, despite it being one of the three nearest tearooms to my home. (Of course, I have written about some of the tea before.)

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My favorite part about visiting Stone Leaf is the intimacy of the experience; when I step in the door and look across the beautiful wooden counter, I’m immediately greeted by John (the owner and a friend) or another one of the skillful tea masters who work there. I tend to immediately launch into a discussion about the newest teas on the menu or some new tea pot on display. Talking about the tea helps me to settle into the space as I consider what I’d like to drink that day. I can be very indecisive (there’s so many great options!), but John is very skilled at guiding the conversation toward a specific few teas that I will probably enjoy. I see it happen even with those customers that are brand new to the greater tea world: before they even sit down there’s often already a perfect tea picked out.

To be fair, this sort of skill in tea recommendation is what I appreciate from all of my favorite tea shops. What I think sets Stone Leaf apart is the unhurried nature of the exchange. I know first-hand how difficult it can be to run a tea room and try to give each person the attention they deserve in a shop full of customers. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. This may be just the times I happen to visit, but I’ve never felt a need to hurry up when at Stone Leaf.

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Finally, and not the least impressive: the selection of teas is top-notch. Stone Leaf is always importing the freshest tea nearly as soon as it is harvested. John even roasts some of his own oolongs; there are very few tea shops in the West that can claim that skill. I definitely recommend some house roasted Jin Xuan, if you have the opportunity to visit.

The Gui Fei we tasted was gentle and smooth with a really entrancing aroma and a light body. The air around the tea seemed to take on a delicate floral sweetness, like standing in a field of spring blooms: not pungent or overwhelming, but undeniably present and comforting.

The consistency of the leaves was a welcome find. Each rolled ball contained around five full leaves all still attached to the stem. The leaves were of small-to-medium size, but I think that the presence of so many complete leaf sets helped to create the smoothness of the tea. After the fifth or sixth infusion the liquor began to take on a more bold, coconut aroma and flavor. I love a tea that presents a whole new side of itself as the infusions progress.

A heart-felt thanks to Stone Leaf for bringing us such a fine tea!

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Cultivars and Places in Tea Names

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.

tea_culitvarsMany 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).

Taiwan High Mountain Oolong from Teavivre

High mountain oolong (gāo shān wū lóng chá, 高山乌龙茶) almost always refers to a rolled oolong tea grown in Taiwan at a height of more than 1000 meters. Beyond that, it’s really a pretty vague description. As I read somewhere recently, calling tea by a name like this is something like calling a wine, “red wine from a field near a lake”. Actually quite a lot of tea is marketed without even the general style of production or the mountain name included, an unfortunate circumstance for us tea drinkers! Of course, this lack of information neither labels a tea as likely to taste delicious or common, so it is up to us to learn more.

My best guess about this tea would be that it’s a Qīng Xīn cultivar (青心) from Shānlín Xī (杉林溪) mountain or someplace nearby, but I definitely could be mistaken. The package lists Nántóu County as the location of origin, which is a prime producer of this style of tea on mountains like Shānlín Xī and Dòng Dǐng Shān.

Photo Feb 07, 1 45 30 PMAt my first inspection, the leaves seemed rather broken and small, but after some infusions, I discovered quite a few full leaf sets with long stems. I wonder, actually, if the broken leaves have more to do with the small sample packaging rather than the tea itself. Fair warning: this tea was sent to me by Teavivre as a sample.

When a tea is labeled as “High mountain oolong”, I usually don’t expect that much from it. Way better than any bagged oolong, certainly, but lacking in the nuance and intensity of a tea worthy enough to have been given a name. My experiences infusing this oolong fall within that category. The flavors were varied, but light, and the leaves opened up rather quickly, so the number of good infusions was somewhere around two or three.

Just to be sure, I infused a new packet with exactly 4g of leaf, no tea dust, and a fairly precise timing of around 1.5 minutes. The results had a pleasant energy, and were not without a good flavor, but a somewhat uninspiring aroma and flat mouth-feel.

The aroma of the wet leaves is honeysuckle and rose, with a little bit of raspberry sweetness, but it doesn’t seem to linger. The taste reminded me of eating the wakame seaweed out of miso soup or water chestnuts: a thin sweetness on top of the water.

Photo Feb 07, 2 33 58 PMSo: for me, a good daily tea but not something I would much want to show off. On the other hand, much better than many other teas I’ve had with the same name. With tea, it all depends on what you are looking for!

1995 Tieguanyin From Maokong

The leaves of this tea are dark brown, and clearly roasted as I’d expect from an aged oolong. As usual I can’t honestly verify that this tea is actually from 1995, but I know that when I was in the shop purchasing it, we tasted a selection of the owner’s aged Tieguanyin ranging from 1992 to 1998 and decided we liked this one the best. Buying directly from a tea master like this is about as good a guarantee as you can get unless you’ve aged it yourself.

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The infusion is a beautiful dark amber, already giving a sign of its quality. An overly-roasted aged oolong can be murky, but this is clear and glowing. The taste is roasty and rich. It has a full mouth-feel like a good Da Hong Pao and, for me at least, a comforting sensation. I suppose I can be comforted by many teas, but I would definitely call this ‘comforting’ as opposed to ‘energizing’ or ‘calming’. Drinking it is like sitting by a winter hearth, basking the gentle scent of woodsmoke.

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The level of roast is what sets this tea apart for me. Roasting oolongs, particularly for aging, is not an easy task. A little too much and the tea tastes sharp and baked. Too little and the tea may be too bland or worse, too green for aging. This Tieguanyin doesn’t taste of charcoal or burning. There’s even a light touch of sweetness, as though someone added a tiny spoonful of sugar to my cup.

I bought this tea in Maokong, Taiwan at the Chang Nai-miao Memorial Hall (張迺妙紀念館) while looking for teahouses. My friends and I stumbled across this wonderful place quite by accident.


Maokong (貓空) is a popular but rural and somewhat remote part of Taipei, sitting atop a mountain. They’re famous for their teahouses and the tea they grow tea there. We took a gondola to get up to the area which is a popular tourist attraction in itself. Not only was the line quite long, but we had to get a ticket and wait an hour to even get in line in the first place. The gondola ride was beautiful, going past temples and between some low mountains (~400 meters).

IMG_1874When we arrived at the top we were starting to get hungry, but we also wanted to find a pleasant teahouse. Well, in Maokong, there are a lot, but most of them seemed to be just restaurants. We hiked for an hour or two around the mountain until we stopped in to a small family cafe. We were served a delicious selection of veggies and some OK oolong. Of course, we weren’t going to get amazing oolong with a meal!

While eating we tried to communicate with the proprietors (including one very helpful dwarf gentleman), but without much luck. As is often the case in these situations, it seemed that they knew of someone who could help. One of the family members rushed out of the door on some mission. Minutes later, she returned, alongside a woman who spoke excellent English. With the new woman’s help we were able to explain that we were in Taiwan exploring the tea culture. Much to our surprise the woman asked us to join her next door where she worked in a tea museum! It turns out that she was the wife of the owner of the hall and a relative of the owners of the restaurant. We snagged a personal tour of the hall and a lot of tea processing information, as well as a wonderful gongfu service with the current master.


The woman’s husband was Chang Weiyi (張位宜), a descendent of a famous tea master for whom the memorial museum was made. He had also studied teapot making in Yixing and the hall sold some of his works. One of my all-time favorite teapots is one that I purchased there. With his wife’s translation, he brewed us several Tieguanyin as mentioned above. This 1995 was so divine that we decided to split some to bring home.

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The stoneware jar it came in reads 木柵鐵觀音, which is Muzha Tieguanyin, and the year. I still feel that this experience was one of the best parts of the whole trip and I’m very happy to still have this tea to remember it by.

Teavivre 2013 Qing Xiang Dong Ding

…or, How it’s hard to judge an Oolong before the fourth infusion.

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This was a sample sent to me from the lovely folks at Teavivre. Dong Ding (sometimes Tung Ting or “Frozen Summit”) is a very beautiful tea mountain in Nantou county near the west coast of Taiwan. They produce a lot of rolled oolongs in the Taiwan/Fujian style. “Qing Xiang” (清香) means “Fragrant” or “Aromatic”.

The dry leaves lived up to their name with a very pleasant sweet aroma. As expected for a Dong Ding, the leaves are rolled into balls, but somewhat unexpectedly they are many different sizes. Some are quite a lot larger than my usual Dong Ding (indicating a lot of stems, which doesn’t mean anything in itself), while some balls were more like fine gunpowder green tea in size. The variation in leaf size had me on my guard, as such inconsistency can make infusing a tea difficult. The color was a mix of bright green mixed with gunpowder gray, like an evergreen forest in the spring.

For the first infusion, I began with an experimental 1 minute at 95C. The resulting liquor was a flaxen yellow color that told me that at least I hadn’t over-steeped it. The mouthfeel immediately had a tiny bit of sharpness, making me think that there was some contingent of broken leaves in there. The taste was bright with a fairly fresh Dong Ding aroma. I’d guess this is a spring harvest, although the sample had no harvest date listed. The aroma and taste reminded me of spinach or kiwi fruit. At this point I was already judging the tea as average and wondering how many worthwhile infusions I could make.

Photo Nov 26, 11 38 54 AMFor the second infusion, I tried to mellow the taste by using less time, only 30 seconds. This time I tasted more kiwi, less spinach; it was sweeter and the sharpness was somewhat hidden as though behind clouds. The texture was still uneven, though, and remained very fresh and spring-like with only a light aroma.

For a third infusion, I upped the time slightly and the water I was using began to cool in its kettle. I tried 45 seconds at 90C. This yielded a taste that was still quite bright with a bit of roughness around the edges. However, my thoughts about the number of infusions began to change as this one had plenty of color, flavor, and the original aroma remaining.

Photo Nov 26, 11 42 33 AMFeeling very curious now, I tried a fourth infusion for 1.5 minutes with the now 85C water. Delightful! A hint of saltiness crept into the flavor, which changed everything. There was still the bright spring quality, but it became subdued and gentle. The aroma was delicate but unmistakably that of the wonderful sweetness you will find in an oolong withering room. Somehow a bit of cream entered the texture, mellowing the sharpness of the previous infusions. The effect was still there but now it manifested as a dryness on the front of the tongue in the aftertaste, not marring the mouthfeel. My mind wandered away to a green mountainside in Lugu, looking across the lake at the tea fields of Dong Ding.

Could this continue? Fifth infusion, 2 minutes, 80C. Still mellow! I think the first infusions were needed to bleed off some of the freshness of this tea. I think perhaps a first rinse would be a good idea in the future. I finally felt like this tea was giving in the way that was intended. A medium body, nothing dramatic, with a delicate green aroma and a round mouthfeel.

A sixth infusion, then. I heated the water again to see what that would yield and steeped for 2.5 minutes at about 98C. Impressively, the flavor was mellow and perhaps even more rich than the last two infusions. The color and aroma remained about the same. The taste didn’t last as long as it did before, vanishing after only a few moments in the mouth, but they were a very pleasant few moments.

Photo Nov 26, 12 29 45 PMI now suspect there could be four more infusions still within these leaves, but I’ve had enough tea for one sitting. This tea definitely surprised me. My first impressions were quite turned around by the fourth infusion. It’s really a reminder that, particularly with a rolled oolong, there can be layers of flavor that lie hidden away behind the initial taste.

A hot rinse of the leaves at the start or possibly beginning with a cooler temperature water might have made for a different beginning entirely for this tasting. Tea is a living creation, and while I love to find a Dong Ding that really wows on the first sip, I very much enjoy a tea that makes me taste and experiment to find its beauty. I’m glad to have had this chance!

2011 Shan Lin Xi from Wu Siou Nature Farm

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.

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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).

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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.

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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!

hong shui spring for fall

How to describe this tea experience? This spring 2010 Gao Shan Hong Shui (or Hung Shui) has the aroma and taste of plum and baked apricot. Caramelized layers surprise me, coming from a flaxen gold liquor. It doesn’t have nearly the darkness that I’d expect in a similarly aromatic Tie Guan Yin.

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The aroma is heavenly, especially in the mouth. I shared it with a friend in the teahouse and he pointed out, quite rightly, that while it’s undeniably roasted, it doesn’t have any hint of the sharp toast or charcoal flavors present in a Shui Xian. There’s a bit of the honey taste of a good Bai Hao, but it doesn’t come across as floral. The fruitiness is similar to a really delicious Mi Lan Dan Cong, but lighter in body.

What a wonderful mystery this tea holds!

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My heartfelt thanks to Stéphane from TeaMasters for introducing me to this tea. I suspect that I never would have heard of it otherwise. It doesn’t seem to be a popular style, and there’s still quite a lot that I don’t know about it. This particular leaf is from San Lin Shi on June 3rd, 2010 (another gift from Stéphane is knowing the exact date of harvest).

From what I know, Hong Shui (红水, literally, red water) is a process and not specific to cultivar, although as it is grown in Nantou province it probably is mostly Qingxin. The leaves are more oxidized than a standard Dong Ding style, and are then more deeply roasted. The roast is clearly done very carefully, though, to avoid any overly toasted taste creeping in.

All of this meshes nicely with what Stéphane has written, so if you’re interested in more on the topic, please read his blog.

Old Tea: 2010 Winter Alishan Jin Xuan

Another among the teas I decided to test in my grand (old) tea tasting experiment of this summer.

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Another Ali Shan Jin Xuan (I have a lot), these particular leaves are the last remnants of one of my favorite teas of all time. Unless I’m misremembering, I purchased this tea from DigniTea in Taipei, a family-run tea company specializing in different styles of tea from Ali Shan. Here’s my glowing review from 2011:

Golden straw liquor, aroma of fresh lillies with a slight hint of something richer: a gingerbread sweetness. Flavor is buttery sweet lightly grilled asparagus with a gentle dryness in the finish. The aroma in the mouth lingers for quite a while.

My friend and I had been wandering around the Guting station area of Taipei looking for a specific tea house we had read about when we came across this small shop. It looked promising, and within minutes of entering we were sitting at the rather modern bar inside and discussing tea styles and preparation with the wonderful proprietor. She told us about her family’s business and how all of their tea was from Ali Shan, although they had many different varieties.


For the sake of adventure, I brought back with me some winter Jin Xuan (Jin Xuan is a Taiwan-invented cultivar), spring Jin Xuan, Nitrogen-packed Qing Xin (apparently the nitrogen causes the leaves not to change as much after packaging as the standard vacuum-seal), a black Ali Shan, and an Ali Shan GABA tea (Nitrogen-flushed).

I have been extremely happy with all of them!

Now, oolongs of this style often reach their height after 6 months to 1 year of age (assuming good storage), and that definitely held true in my case. For over a year after bringing the packages back from Taiwan, I turned to my DigniTea when I was looking for something really special. As the supply of this Jin Xuan, my favorite, neared its end, I transferred the last leaves to a metal tin to (I thought) better preserve it.

This is always the danger with a beloved tea: you try to keep it alive long past its time. I’m not certain the reason for it, but after a good long life this tea has changed for the worst.

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My first infusion was for 1.5 minutes with near-boiling water, usually a good bet. The roasted aroma was present, but seemed very light and the color was pale. When I tasted it, though, I was very surprised by the taste. The best word I could come up with to describe it was “soapy”. The creamy delicious sweetness had become a sort of sour taste that was definitely not pleasant. Just in case, I made a second infusion, paying more careful attention to the leaves. The results were the same, soapy, in fact it became more pronounced. I didn’t even bother with a third.

Alas for the fine teas in our life! This is a lesson of impermanence in life, certainly. If you find something worth enjoying, enjoy it fully while it is here! If you hoard it, it may be lost, or changed into something else entirely different from the character you cherished. So it was with this tea. I humbly thank it for the lesson.