Through a series of blogs based around the recent visit of our friend & partner Philip from Taiwan [which was fabulous and we are so grateful for] we are excited to share more about our collection of Taiwanese teas. In this 3rd blog [you can find the first blog on white tea here & you can read the second blog on green tea here] we are taking a closer look at one of some of the most intriguing teas in our collection : Taiwanese Oolong Tea
Our aim, as was Philip's in making his visit to us, is to bring Taiwanese tea to the world, make the teas, their stories & the island more well known & of course encourage you to explore! You won't be disappointed!
We are only able to bring you such unique tea events & share these insights due to the partnership & generosity of our partners - Comins is such a wonderfully collaborative community - we hope you enjoy the read!
In our last blog we looked at some deliciously buttery Taiwanese Green Tea & the fascinating story behind how it came to be produced in Taiwan Now we continue our exploration towards Oolong Tea - as readers of this blog [thank you for reading] we are going to firstly take you on a journey through two high mountain teas ; made with the same cultivar but with different levels of oxidation; before turning our attention to one of our most popular teas Dong Ding which we will look at through the lens of the famous tea competitions of Taiwan & finally through the lens of innovation ; looking at those wanting to excite the tea industry by reimagining old ways of preparing tea.
So put the kettle on & let's dive in!
First stop; the high mountains! In our first blog in this series we introduced the mountainous landscape of Taiwan & now we invite you to travel with us to the central ridge. This area has several famous regions with Alishan being perhaps the most famous & well known. This was, in fact, one of the first areas that Rob visited on his first trip to Taiwan many years ago now & Philip shared with us how there is a mountain train just like in Darjeeling, but in this case built by the Japanese, to bring tourists up to Alishan.
Firstly lets take a look at the common cultivar in the first two teas we are going to explore - we have previously written in some depth about Taiwanese cultivars - you can read that blog here - but as a recap :
TAIWAN QING XIN TEA CULTIVAR : 台灣青心茶叶
Qing Xin : 青心
Meaning : emerald or green heart [a colour between green and blue]
This is a small leaf China Cultivar often chosen for high mountain teas and often referred to as 'King of the mountains' in Taiwan. It is favoured because it has a thick leaf, grows slowly at high altitude and is highly aromatic. This very expressive cultivar is suited to high mountains : its thicker leaf that grows at a slower pace offering a good yield for high mountain growers. 青心 gives a more expressive tea when grown at altitude. This is in comparison to other cultivars which proliferate in lower areas but do not change dramatically or will simply not thrive if grown higher up. If you put a low grown Qing Xin : 青心 next to a high altitude Qing Xin : 青心 you will notice a difference. Both will certainly deliver floral notes but the higher grown will have more layers and intensity while the lower will have a shallower expressiveness
Now lets take a look at the first of the teas. We will start with the lightest of the teas - which also happens to be the most reputed & expensive of the High Mountain Oolong teas - Li Shan - where Shan means mountains - Li is Pear. So Li Shan is pear mountain - & tea grows to heights of 2000m. How beautiful :)
- Origin [Cui Fong, Nantou County]
- Style [Oolong, Semi Balled Oolong]
- Cultivar [Qing Xin ]
A beautiful name conjures up beautiful scenery & that is exactly what you will experience when you visit this tea garden - you must take the highest road in Taiwan to reach this famed spot & Philip shared that although the distance from Nantou is is just 100km it is a trip that takes 5 hours. High mountain regions are very precarious - we have experienced this for ourselves on many trips - quite simply, when it rains you don't go to the mountains as the risk of landslides is high. These high mountain areas also raise another issue which is the controversy that surrounds high mountain gardens. High Mountain teas with their wonderful fragrance & complex flavours in the cup can fetch extremely high prices. As with most items of high value in life this sadly attracts some unscrupulous vendors. This is a story that has played out in Li Shan where illegal tea gardens have grown as high as 2600m on land cleared of natural forest in order to plant tea. These operations have now been shut down & the natural forest & environment protected - but its a lesson & warning to us all to ensure we know where our tea comes from. Back to the tea! High Mountain LiShan is a very fragrant & floral emerald/green oolong tea. At this part of the tasting we were introduced to a very special way to appreciate the tea & so we would like to share that with you too.
In the 1980s, when this style of very fragrant & very floral greener oolong became popular artisans & tea makers making tea-ware developed a specific aroma cup - not for drinking tea but for appreciating the aroma. This formed part of a 3 part set & ceremony to help appreciate tea in all its senses.
- Cha Bei - Tea Cup
- Wun Xiang Bei - literally means 'concentrate fragrant cup'
- Saucer - or presentation plate
High Mountain LiShan is the perfect tea to use the aroma cup with. There are several different ways to use it but the volume of the aroma cup must match the volume of the drinking cup. The first step should be to appreciate the aroma - something that we introduced in our last blog The Wun Xiang Bei is essentially a funnel that concentrates the aroma of the tea. Tea is prepared in a Gaiwan or a small teapot & the Wun Xiang Bei is always filled first before the tea is poured into the Cha Bei. The fragrance can then be enjoyed by smelling the aroma inside the Wun Xiang Bei before sipping from the Cha Bei. The aroma changes as the remaining vapours in the cup cool - becoming sweeter. As Philip explained this method of tasting and smelling is one of Taiwans great gifts to the tea world; you can see below how the aroma cups are bring lined up at our tasting ready to be filled before being passed to guests
Sitting down to explore tea with friends - at organised events such as the one we are describing here or at more informal settings - always leads to discussion & exploration of interesting topics. Sitting sipping this tea the subject of how much tea? This is a topic we often discuss at the Tea House so it was interesting to hear Philip discuss the Taiwanese perspective on this. He shared how you can, of course, use scales but you never see scales in any type of environment in Taiwan unless it is a competition - where you need to create a standard between teas being assessed - more on this later in the blog
Let's move on to take a look at the second of the teas - a more oxidised tea GABA. This tea is made from the same leaf material as the High Mountain LiShan - it is more oxidised but what characterises it is that it was oxidised in a way that involves oxygen deprivation in a vacuum room.
- Origin [Baguashan, Mingjian Township, Nantou, Taiwan]
- Style [Oolong, Semi Balled Oolong]
- Cultivar [Qing Xin ]
As Philip shared obviously this sounds weird ; oxidation & oxygen deprivation - it's a topic that we have explored before so if you are interested you can read more about GABA here.....but essentially the oxygen deprivation process increases the proportion of GABA in the tea. The maker of this tea is Mr Yu who closely guards the secret of exactly how much oxygen. When you look at the leaf you can see it has darkened but how some parts of it remain green. As Philip shared this is part of the magic of GABA - it is an uneven oxidation
At this point at the tasting we took a pause. At Comins part of the enjoyment of tea is to appreciate it alongside food. In the case of Taiwanese tea it blends in very well with sweets & in Taiwan you will often be offered a traditional pineapple cake [as pictured above]. Philip shared how, in Ming Jian Nantou, pineapple is the second most crop important after tea = a most delicious tea break pairing.
Time for something a little different to end this last blog in this short series ; you may have heard us talk about tea competitions before, in fact we have even written about it. Well, the last official tea of our evening tasting in Bath was to be a competition Dong Ding tea. Dong Ding is one of our most popular oolong teas at the Tea House so it was great to taste some competition level tea from 2022.
How do tea competitions work? As we have shared before there is a standard taste that is recognised to define a Dong Ding tea. For the competition - it is essentially how close you are to this standard [as defined by one judge] which determines whether you are awarded a prize. There is an initial stage where 50% of the teas are eliminated before the finals; after this is gets serious! Let's pause to recap on the tea in question : Dong Ding - Dong Ding tea is baked - you may remember this being referred to in our first blog where we talked about the tea finishing stages that occur in Taiwan . A tea baking oven is like a large convention oven with trays - tea can be layered inside before undergoing several stages of baking [with rest periods in-between]. During the process the tea needs to be continually tested in a process that goes on for hours, sometimes through the night. The temperature must be continually checked & has has featured so many times through this blog the nose of the tea maker plays a hugely important role - it is the most important tool.
How does the judging work? Once at the competition a standard cupping is undertaken - this will be 150ml of water with a set amount of tea & a set timing [so while making the tea it pays for the tea maker to continually taste & test the tea in the same way]. As a producer you can witness the proceedings but must remain at a distance waiting for the results to be posted on a board which will reveal if you have won. And what if you win? Well there is a lot at stake. If you get past the initial elimination you have already earned the right for your tea to packaged in the competition tins - it will then command a much higher price. Top championship teas have a unique box that differentiates them further. One feature you will see on the boxes of tea are flowers & you will hear competition teas being rated as 1,2 or 3 flowers. The flowers are related to the number of points you receive - the more points, the more flowers...
Lets drink some tea ; time for something COMPLETELY different ; We ended our session & we will end this blog with two different preparations of Dong Ding -
Preparation one : in a more traditional teapot - [you can see the picture of the teapot in question at the top of this blog]. Many of you who have enjoyed tea at the Tea House will have seen us heat the pot first and then once the pot is filled with leaves & water & the lid is back on pour water over the top of the teapot. As we explained at the event pouring water over the pot seals the teapot - making sure there is no air inside. It is also good to remember when preparing tea in this way that if you don't heat the pot first then you will need to give a little more time for the tea to infuse.
Preparation 2 : Whisked Dong Ding : The second preparation was something completely new. One of the tea-ware makers that we purchase unique pieces from - Da Bai - made the unique whisking jug you can see above inspired by The Classic of Tea or Tea Classic [the first known monograph on tea in the world] by Lu Yu. At this time that this was written tea was broken down to powder and whisked & Da Bai, taking inspiration from traditions, made this particular piece with the intention of thickening the tea. An interesting technique that we tried & enjoyed [& you can ask to enjoy at the Tea House] - & a wonderful reminder of how the world of tea is continually changing, revisiting old traditions, creating new ones - it's truly a wonderful world & one we hope we have excited you to explore through this blog!