In the eyes of the sophisticated Taiwanese tea drinkers – if not tea intelligentsia from around the world – High Mountain Oolong tea stands head and shoulders above other teas in Taiwan, or “like a crane among chickens” as the famous Chinese idiom goes.
One notion that appears to be ubiquitous with High Mountain Oolongs is that of the “connoisseur”, but this would be a little off the mark when referring to the category of master tea makers who have welcomed us into their homes to discuss their livelihoods. The word “obsessive” would be a more accurate portrayal.
A hefty solid oak tea table at least one meter wide in girth appears to be the honorary badge of tea connoisseurship in the Alishan Mountains, as we encountered one at each of their houses. At these tables we would always be served one of two teas: a High Mountain Oolong or an aged Pu’er tea. These well-to-do tea masters are humble people, happy to bear the cold frosts of winter without heating, but when it comes to tea, only the best will do. There’s a common thread binding all these tea fanatics together, a consensus among the seasoned folk we have encountered. Aside from the delicate and nuanced flavor profiles that mature palettes demand, this obsession with quality tea is about one other thing: it’s about satisfying their cravings for that elusive feeling that comes from teas which have retained their chi (氣).
Cha chi (茶氣) is a common element of a master taster’s notes on Pu’er; an abstract, almost mystical term to define the spirit or energy of the tea leaves. Premium Pu’er tea leaves are often harvested from trees that are centuries old, and after the fermentation process the leaves continue to develop their flavor and character, an aging process akin to that of a fine wine or whisky. But when it comes to Taiwan’s High Mountain Oolongs, it becomes a little less symbolic, and a little more biological: it’s about the environment.
Once I asked two tea makers, a husband and wife team of two who eloped from Taiwan’s second city Kaoshiung for the mountain life, what High Mountain tea leaves have that other teas do not, and why High Mountain Oolongs are said to retain their chi. Only to receive a blank stare, as they looked at each other, shook their heads, and Mr. Liu said jestingly “兄弟，你有事嗎?” the rough translation being, “Brother, are you crazy?” Mrs. Liu followed up by looking beyond me as she raised her arm to shield her eyes and horizontally panned over the mountain backdrop.
I was asking this question at 5,000 feet above the ocean; I stood at eye level with the clouds and saw mountains wreathed in mists and bathed in sunshine, clad with tea fields and fruit plantations growing pears the size of footballs. I can only assume that they sympathized with my dire lack of imagination.
A Definitive Terroir
The environmental conditions of the central mountain range of Taiwan, often referred to as ‘Taiwan’s garden’, are a divine curation of Mother Nature’s best attributes – perfect for cultivating tea. They rest on the tropic of cancer, with a subtropical climate and fertile soils, creating the perfect terroir for growing tea. Heavy mists bathe the high mountains, which protects the leaves from the full glare of the sun at high noon. This inhibits the excessive development of tannin within the leaves, and makes for a sweeter tea without the astringency that can make green teas taste bitter.
Our research also led us to an esteemed professor in biochemistry, Dr Hu, who explained to us how on the East coast of Taiwan the land drops steeply away beneath sea level to the deep ocean bedrock, where concentrated quantities of purified minerals gather. These minerals feed directly into the meteorological cycles and travel with the Western winds into the clouds which nourish the mountain terrain.
At such high altitudes, due to the cooler temperatures and thinner air, everything grows slowly and more deliberately and therefore become thicker and richer. These conditions yield tea leaves that have a higher density of natural sugars and nutrients, which makes for teas that have a sweet aftertaste and a stronger finish, a thicker texture and a smoother mouthfeel. These nuances create tastes and after-tastes, tones and over-tones which cannot be achieved using leaves with less density.
In its most revered semi-oxidized form, I have tasted some sublime High Mountain Oolongs with notes ranging from oatmeal cookies to citrus fruits or sugar snaps and sweet peas. But some elements of the taste are hard to describe and easier experienced, such as the sensation of your mouth being soothingly cleansed by the crisp mountain air when you take a deep breath, or the satisfaction that comes from drinking the softest of natural spring waters. The mountain environment is expressed in the taste. What’s more, the thickness of the rich leaves means that you can brew these oolongs five times or more, and the lightness means that you can drink cup after cup.
The Chemical Explanation of Chi
Scientists are just beginning to unlock the secrets of the tea leaf, and have noticed that High Mountain tea leaves are loaded with nutrients, bioactive compounds and antioxidants such as flavanoids and catechins. Tea is believed to boost your metabolism, reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and ward off cancer. High Mountain tea is also said to be rich in a special amino acid called L-theanine. Theanine prompts an increase in dopamine levels – the happy hormone – and alpha brain waves, which relaxes the mind and body, relieves anxiety and promotes a sense of well-being.
When paired with a gentle boost of caffeine, L-theanine induces a state of mindful alertness, allowing you to feel awake and energized yet calm and composed. So while the coffee revolution is reaching its jittery caffeine saturated peak, the humble, healthy and wholesome tea leaf remains the steadfast companion of those who appreciate a boost of revitalizing energy and a calm, focused moment in which to contemplate the bigger picture. The natural flavors coupled with the physical sensations aroused by drinking High Mountain Oolong is as close as one can get to metaphysically conceptualizing that feeling of chi.
But these teas come at a price. The scarcity of land that has the perfect confluence of growing conditions, especially at high altitudes (very few countries have high mountains with suitable climates for growing tea) is just one of the factors that drives up the price. In the remote reaches of Taiwan’s high mountains, it’s not abnormal for tea pickers to earn more than young professional graduates in their first few years of work in the capital, Taipei. In addition to this, high altitude crop yields are met with an insatiable demand from sophisticated domestic consumers, not to mention Taiwan’s tea-loving thirsty neighbors such as China and Japan.
Or Something more abstract…
Living in Asia, I have noticed a culture that is quicker to accept things without the need for rational proof using empirical measurements on continuous scales. Sometimes, things just are. Sometimes, meaning is felt, not proven. But there is something really magical about deconstructing something down to a sum of its parts, yet after gathering all of the separate pieces of the puzzle, there is still something missing, and that something is the essence that is created by clashing all of the parts together and creating something new: innovation.
When you are in a pristine environment, where pockets of untouched ecosystems thrive, things grow with such rigor and intent, and ancient trees inhabited by the spirits of ancestors loom tall among the peaks, there becomes a point in time when you feel at one with your surroundings, so intricately part of an ecosystem that is divinely balanced that you dare not move for fear of destabilizing the moment and permitting such a blissful feeling to pass. There is an energy felt that is not too dissimilar to the aesthetic emotion that locks your attention onto a piece of art, when the eyes or ears temporarily immobilize the mind, not allowing you to shift focus for a split second. Except it doesn’t seem to compare in magnitude.
The British artist Andy Goldsworthy once said, “we often forget that we are nature. Nature is not separate from us. So when we say that we have lost our connection to nature, we’ve lost our connection to ourselves.” But sometimes in order to connect with something, the five senses alone are not enough. In my days as a teacher, I recall teaching a philosophy class to some senior high students and posing the question: “To what extent can we argue that imagination is the 6th sense?” In my time spent learning how to make tea in the Alishan mountains, chasing the elusive chi and trying to figure out how I can cultivate more, I have noticed that there is so much more than a particular chemical composition which makes High Mountain Oolong special. To truly appreciate it, one needs to be present, engaged, and in a state of wonder.
Only then can you enjoy a high mountain’s exquisite flavor profiles, become energized and cleansed by its richness, and feel a sense of happiness that is again really hard to describe but easily felt – the kind of happiness that does not actually require a shared moment of amusement or human connection, since the life-force alone really does feel human enough.