What is high mountain oolong / high mountain tea? What makes it so special? Why is it so well-loved within the tea community? Why it is sold at a high price point? Why is it getting harder and hard to find? Those are all questions I am going to be answering in this post, I’ll also be talking over a brief history and at the end of the post and I’ll recommend some of my current favourite high mountain oolongs.
High mountain oolong (Gao Shan Cha) is particularly famous in Taiwan and most of the information I am going to include in this post relates to Taiwan. However, some of it also applies to Chinese high mountain teas as well. High Mountain Oolong is usually a name that can be given to any oolong picked and processed above 1000m.
In Taiwan, Qing Xin (青心) and Jin Xuan (金萱) are the cultivars that are most commonly used to create these teas both of which a very different and provide their uniqueness to each oolong. The Golden Lily (Jin Xuan – 金萱 Cultivar), which results in a tea with a creamy mouthfeel and notes of milkiness in its flavor profile and the Qing Xin (青心) cultivar, which often tends to produce a tea that is often bolder, sweeter, fruitier and more floral.
At these higher elevations leaves grow slower, are picked a little later and the picking standard is usually up to the third or fourth leaf, withering in out, firing resting rolling, drying and finally ball rolling and sometimes roasted. Taiwan compared to other tea producing areas in the tea world has a relatively short tea-growing history and did not become Taiwan’s number one export until the 1800s.
So the farmers were urged to create fruit orchards as well as tea farms to make the most of the high mountain land. Not many of those orchards still exist today but there are still a few, mainly plum orchards dotted around the area between the tea farms which gives certain oolongs closest to them a delightful stone fruit note. When aiming to discover which cultivars were best suited to the environment, they started to plant a lot of tea pants and out of around 800 plants only 200 survived. In doing this they allowed natural selection to discover the best cultivars for this tea, that we’re able to handle the high mountain weather and can thrive in those conditions.
In 2016 the Taiwanese government destroyed a lot of tea farms that were above 2500m elevations because they were worried about erosion as they were having landslides and tsunamis in the area and for reasons unknown decided that the tea plantations were not providing deep routed support to the land and stop these from happening – though we all know that the older tea plants definitely would have had pretty substantial roots.
They ripped these plantations out and replaced them with young tree saplings to add more first to the area, as the government decided that the tea and fruit tree did not count as forests despite promoting the use of the area for those specific things in the past. Which is part of the long list of reasons that the teas from the area becoming rarer and are at a higher price point per kg.
There are many reasons that these high mountain oolongs are so well-loved within the tea community, the first one being purity, because you are away from industrial areas resulting in extremely low levels of pollution the tea is also much better quality, high up means that you are less likely to get an infestation of insects, meaning you can pick later into the year without worrying too much more the bugs and you don’t need to use pesticides. The environment is much colder and that big change in temperature stunts slow the growth of the tea.
This means that the tea has more time to react to the environment and has more time to slowly drip those compounds into the leaves, that stress on the plant among other things is what leads to the complex and incredibly fresh-tasting flavour profiles these oolongs are known for. The plants get a concentration of sunlight due to being so much closer to the sun which enables the tea to develop catechins and polyphenols which will also affect the overall flavour profile. The downside to that however that the tea will have less theanine.
The high mountains are within the clouds and because of that the humidity can be quite high which helps the leaves be more succulent and thick, the mist, however, does a great job of calming down the heat and dryness.
Recent high mountain teas I have enjoyed include Alishan Special from Masters Tea, Frozen Summit, Alishan Cream, and Midnight Sun which are all oolongs from Mei Leaf. Each of which was incredibly unique but had some of those trademarks notes we have all come to expect for High Mountain Taiwanese Tea. Throughout last year and the start of this year I have had some incredibly Gongfucha sessions with these teas which only fueled my love for high mountain Taiwanese teas even further.
I’ll be exploring the world of Gao Shan Cha and trying other kinds of high mountain tea as I’ve heard that some fantastic black / red teas can also be found from this area. Of course, I will be sipping on more Taiwanese Gao Shan Cha so please leave me your recommendations in the comments so I can add as many of them as possible to my must-try list. If you would like me to do more posts like this in the future about other specific kinds of tea from specific areas of the world be sure to also let me know those suggestions in the comments as well.
You can also contact me on Instagram, Tik Tok and email if you have any questions about tea, tea recommendations, content recommendations. I also post a lot of exclusive content to platforms like Instagram and Tik tok both of which are (@kimberleyskyusu) so you’ll want to make sure you are following both of them to see more of that.
Until next time, Happy Steeping – Kimberley