Alishan Oolongs put Taiwan’s tea industry on the map in the 1960’s & 70’s as the country struggled to compete with China for tea consumers. These famous oolongs are produced in the south central region of Taiwan by the many aboriginal tribes of Taiwan living in the large conservation district of Taiwan called Alishan National Forest.
What sets these oolongs apart is their complex, clean flavors. This is credited to both the perfect growing conditions in the region as well as the laborious process of hand picking, properly balling the oolong, and a combination of roasting and aging after processing.
Up at 3,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level, the tea plants get plenty of morning fog that generally burns off by the afternoon. These warm misty conditions are what tea plants want. Given the ocean air, clouds can roll in and out all day long and small afternoon rain showers are normal during certain times of the year. Taiwan is bisected by the Tropic of Cancer, so it is close enough to the Equator to stay warm year round, but the high elevations do allow the plants to go dormant period during winter.
Beyond the weather, having tea grown without insecticide or fertilizer adds to the complexity of the flavor as the plants have to fight off bugs and pull nutrients naturally from the soil. The soil is amended with grasses and other plants to return nutrients to the soil each dormant period. The best Alishan oolongs are produced without insecticide leaving nature to do its job. In those fields that means a home to the giant golden orb weaver, one of the largest spiders in the world. Not poisonous, they are still an interesting obstacle to getting to the tea leaves for those who are not fans of arachnids. These spiders appear in abundance! However these amazing creatures ensure that the insects don’t get to eat all the leaves. So for the serious tea drinker, they are a welcome site on a tea field.
Getting plucking correct is actually one of the trickiest parts in Taiwan. With very few people willing to pluck, the experienced plucking teams are in high demand. So trying to time plucking is hard for the smaller growers. Ideally, the tea is plucked late in the day and into the evening after the fog has left and the leaves have dried off. Once plucked, the leaves need to whither at least 24 hours while the tea master determines what type of oolong to make. This is often done based off of how many leaves were plucked (bud and 2 to 4 leaves) and the length of the leaves. Generally, smaller leaves and bud are going to go a lighter oxidized oolong.
The leaves will be agitated for the next 24 hours in tumblers and rolling machines as the tea master samples to find the right flavor. It is then roasted/dried to stop the oxidation at the desired flavor. The tea is then put into air tight storage. While it can be drunk, the tea master prefers that it sit and a final finishing roast be applied a few months later. It is said that this resting time is the key to getting the complex flavors in the tea. The applied roasting can add its own complexities with woody and smokey notes.
There are many types of Alishan Oolongs to choose from, from a lightly oxidized and roasted Alishan High Mountain to a more heavily oxidized Alishan Red Oolong. For those who are fans of Lapsang Souchong, there is even a Dark Roasted Alishan that has a smokiness and sweetness to rival this well known tea.
Alishan Oolongs should be steeped at cooler temperatures, between 185-200° F for 3-5 minutes (western style steeping). Multiple steepings are a must for this tea as the flavor will change over the steepings.
The balled nature of this tea lends itself to the use of a gaiwan or yixing tea pot. As the tea unfolds, small particulate falls out adding to the creamy mouthfeel. Go grab your gaiwan or yixing and fill it 1/3 to 1/2 full and do your first steeping at 45 seconds and work up in 15-30 second increments. Smell those leaves as you go, the aroma is mind blowing.