The Tea Detective
Uncovering and Exploring the Facts About Tea
Reach For The Stars With Taiwan's Ali Shan  
and Other High Mountain Gao Shan Oolongs
Oolong teas have an amazing variety of flavors and aromas, some bright and
bold, others soft and flowery, while still others are creamy, light, and citrusy.  
The best oolongs undoubtedly come from
China and Taiwan, and some of the
most delicious are their high mountain gao shan oolongs, like Taiwan's Ali Shan
(also called Ali Mountain) oolong.
Taiwan's high mountain oolongs
were developed in the 1980's after the world
trade embargo against Communist China was
lifted.

Until then
Taiwanese tea makers had done well
selling lesser quality versions of
China green tea
throughout southern Asia.  But with China back in
the game, once again producing their superior
teas, Taiwanese tea makers began to experiment
growing tea in the higher altitudes.

What they found was that the higher the altitude,
the more creamy and floral the tea.  

No one seems to know exactly why this is, but the
theory is that cooler temperatures, along with re-
duced sunlight and a continual mist, with the same "cloud and mist" phenomena as is found in
China's Wuyi Mountains, restricts the growth, concentrating the flavor in the leaves.

The abundant cloud cover and misty conditions might also cause
certain amino acids to increase, giving gao shan teas their creamy
body, with the feel of heavy cream coating the mouth.

The Alishan Mountains in southern Chiayi county are home to Ali
shan oolong, where it grows at altitudes of about 7,200 feet, the
highest tea growing altitude in Taiwan until its newest competitor,
Li shan (or Pear Mountain) oolong appeared.

Growing in one of Taiwan's highest mountain ranges located in the northern half of the island, Li
shan tea gardens are found at altitudes ranging from 5,900 feet to 8,695 feet.  Ali shan's tea
gardens range in altitude from 3,280 to 7,545 feet.

Gold Lily oolong (also called Jin Xuan for the
cultivar it was developed from in the 1980's)
is also grown on Alishan Mountain.  Jin Xuan
is a modern clonal variety of tea bush.  
Teas
made from this variety, including Gold Lily,
are desired for their deep, yet mild and nat-
urally sweet taste.

Taiwan's high mountain oolong (also called
Alpine oolong) tea gardens including Ali shan,
Li shan, and Shan Lin Xi, in central Taiwan,
are located at altitudes ranging anywhere
from 1,900 to 8,000 feet and are relatively
small, but the steep inclines make growing
and plucking tea very hard work.

                                               The pluck for oolong
                                               varies, ranging from
                                               three leaves and a
                                               bud (the third leaf is
                                               called souchong), or it
                                               can be a stem cluster with as many as four connected leaves.
                                               Some of the best gao shan teas are made by small individual tea
farms, hand plucked, and in some instances produced in small batches by the farmer himself.

Called "handkerchief teas" for the small batch size, these teas are grown (and produced) by
small scale tea farmers who pride themselves on quality, not quantity.

Producing high mountain gao shan oolong teas is hard work.  Processing
one batch can take as long as 36 to 40 hours working continuously until the
batch is finished.  Quality Ali shan and other gao shan
oolongs take between
ten and eighteen separate steps to produce.

Once plucked, if weather allows, the leaf is spread out on a tarp in the sun
where it absorbs its floral aromas of rose,
jasmine, and geranium.  While
outdoors the tarp is folded and unfolded from time to time to sift the tea and
slightly bruise the leaf and begin oxidation.  After about 30 minutes the leaf
is brought indoors and transferred to large bamboo trays where it withers
for another eight hours.

                                                 The next step in making Ali shan is rolling.  High mountain gao
                                                 shan oolongs are always semiball rolled.  The best quality have
                                                 significant amounts of stem attached.  This is a time consuming
                                                 and arduous process as each leaf set is individually hand-rolled
                                                 and shaped into balls.  Ali shan tea makers extend the process
                                                 over six to eight hours in an effort to intensify the floral aromas
                                                 and
flavor of the tea.

Next comes an exercise in perfection originated in China's
Fujian
province by the producers of tieguanyin oolong. The first step is to
place the withered leaves in large canvas bags and cinch them
closed using a machine to tighten the bag until its shape resembles
a giant round of cheese.
The sphere-shaped canvas bags are then slid between two spring-loaded, rotating disks.
The forceful turning action of this machine causes the leaves to ball up on themselves.
This process also initiates oxidation by bruising the leaves.

To slow the oxidation the bags are removed from between the disks after just a few minutes, uncinched and opened,
and the leaves are placed in a large rotating drum that looks like a clothes dryer without the heating element.  The
rotating of the drum cools and dries the tea leaves.

                                 The end result are firm little balls of tea about the size of peas, completely dry and oxidized to
                                 only about 25%, with lovely citrusy-
scents, tasting like no other tea with creamy, mouth filling
                                 and sweet, refreshing flavors.

                                 Like China's Wuyi shan oolongs, Taiwan's Ali shan and related gao shan oolongs are a result of
                                 its
terroir, with the soil's mineral content, cool, misty mountain air, and other natural and geo-
                                 logical factors combining to producing their unique teas.

                                 Ali shan is plucked twice a year and quantities are relatively small, so you're buying quality as
                                 well as quantity.

Because of the steep terrain making harvesting difficult, along with the lengthy, arduous process-
ing, Ali shan, Li shan and Gold Lily, etc., are expensive, no two ways about it.  But once you try one of these sublime
teas-once you've sampled the result of the hard, tedious work that goes into making them, I think you'll agree that
they're worth every penny.  
Enjoy.  
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