High Mountain Oolong and
The Chinese Art of Tea
Tea, tea pots, and the fine art of preparing tea are among China’s greatest and enduringly popular contributions to world civilization. Among the many varieties of Chinese tea available on the market today, there is one whose fragrance and flavor surpass all others, making it stand “like a crane among chickens,” as the Chinese say. This distinction belongs to a noble variety of Oolong (“Black Dragon”) tea known as High Mountain Oolong Tea (gao-shan wu-lung cha), which early Chinese settlers in Taiwan developed from the Oolong tea plants they brought toTaiwan from China during the late 17th century. Chinese planters in Taiwan’s mountainous central highlands cultivated this unique variety of tea to create what many
connoisseurs of Chinese tea today regard as the finest tea on earth and the ultimate masterpiece in the Chinese art of tea.
High Mountain Oolong is a semi-oxidized tea that retains all the therapeutic health benefits found in unfermented green tea without the raw grassy taste and stomach irritation that make green tea disagreeable to many tea drinkers. The brief oxidantion process eliminates the harsh irritants found in raw tea and creates the subtle fragrance and flavor that distinguish High Mountain Oolong from all varieties of tea, without producing tannins and other harsh compounds found in fully fermented black tea. The cultivation and appreciation of High Mountain Oolong may be compared to that of fine wines: each plantation and region produce their own unique bouquet of flavors, and each year’s harvest yields its own special character.
Once you’ve tasted a fine grade High Mountain Oolong that’s properly prepared the traditional Chinese way, you will know precisely what makes this type of tea so special. Every sniff and sip deliver a bouquet of fragrance and flavor that speak for themselves the moment the tea enters your mouth and wafts through your nose, releasing tastes and after-tastes, tones and over-tones, that less well bred teas cannot imitate. A sip of freshly poured High Mountain Oolong introduces itself with a dry, slightly astringent foretaste that instantly cleanses the palate and clears the mouth of other tastes. As soon as the tea is swallowed, its rich floral aftertaste blossoms on the tongue and spreads into the throat, while its aroma unfolds in the sinuses like a fragrant
flower. This is a hard act for any other tea to follow, and many tea drinkers become lifelong aficionados of High Mountain Oolong after their first cup.
Equally important as the quality of the tea is the Chinese art of properly preparing it. Small unglazed clay teapots hand-crafted by master potters are used to steep this type of tea, and these are treasured collectors items for dedicated drinkers of High Mountain Oolong. Connoisseurs also collect fine tea cups, tea caddies, tea tools, and tea trays. Unlike the stiff formality of the Japanese tea ceremony, in which every move is ritualized, the Chinese art of tea focuses attention on savoring the taste and aroma of the tea and engaging in spontaneous conversation with fellow tea drinkers.
The Chinese refer to devotees of fine tea simply as cha ren, “Tea People.” The Chinese art of tea, particularly High Mountain Oolong Tea, is a way of life that harmonizes the elements of nature to refresh the body, please the mind, and satisgy the spirit. The Venerable Popchong Sunim of Korea, who cultivates the art of tea as part of his spiritualpractice, describes the proper way to appreciate tea as follows:
To determine whether a tea is good or not, one should
examine the color, scent, and taste of the infusion. The
perfect color is that of the first leaves in spring; the scent
is like that of a young baby. The taste cannot be described
but can be appreciated with experience. Tea is drunk to
quench the thirst, savor the taste, or simply to spend a
quiet hour appreciating the pottery and the general
atmosphere that accompanies tea drinking. There is
no need to have a special attitude while drinking it,
except one of thankfulness.
In his book Vital Breath of the Tao, Master Xhongxian Wu notes that the Chinese art of tea "is a way of classical Chinese spiritual cultivation, which we call cha dao (the 'Tao of Tea'). One may become enlightened by drinking tea." This is not an overstatement. Chinese tea lore abounds with stories of Buddhist monks and Taoist hermits who suddenly "awakened to the Tao" (wu dao) while savoring a cup of tea, and it was customary for spiritual adepts in China to gather together to "talk Tao and taste tea" (pin ming lun dao). Preparing and drinking tea was regarded as a form of esoteric alchemy in which the fundamental elements of nature--fire, water, earth, air, and herb--were combined to produce an elixir with subtle metaphysical properties that enhanced spiritual awareness.
The traditional way of preparing and drinking High Mountain Oolong has been developed to perfection in Taiwan, where it’s also known as lao-ren cha (“old folk’s tea”), a term that reflects the most important elements needed to cultivate the art of High Mountain Oolong: time and experience.
In addition to its value as an epicurean and aesthetic experience, High Mountain Oolong Tea also has potent medicinal benefits that promote health and longevity. Long known in Traditional Chinese Medicine for its blood cleansing and digestive virtues, this tea has been shown by recent scientific research in Japan to have powerful protective properties for the lungs. This effect is produced by the volatile aromatic fumes which give this tea its distinctive fragrance. As gases suspended within the fluid of the tea, these aromatic elements are excreted from the bloodstream through the lungs, not the kidneys, and as they pass through the delicate lung tissues with each exhalation, they dislodge heavy metals, tars, and other toxic residues from the alveoli (“air sacs”) and bronchia, allowing the toxins to be trapped by mucus and coughed up. As a result of this discovery, High Mountain Oolong has become the beverage of choice for millions of Chinese and Japanese smokers. Studies have shown that smokers who drink this tea throughout the day have significantly lower rates of lung cancer, emphysema, and other respiratory ailments.
High Mountain Oolong also has many other health benefits that have been validated by modern scientific research. The most important therapeutic benefits of drinking this tea on as a daily beverage are the following:
Antioxidant: High Mountain Oolong contains abundant supplies of potent antioxidants known as “polyphenols” and “catechins.” These compounds, known as “free radical scavengers,” neutralize and eliminate metabolic and environmental toxins known as “free radicals,” which destroy cells, corrode tissues, and cause premature degeneration of the internal organs. The antioxidants in the tea provide ongoing detoxifying activity in the blood and tissues, protecting the body from toxic damage and preventing formation of tumors.
Anti-Cancer: The polyphenols and other antioxidants in High Mountain Oolong suppress tumor formation, providing protection against the development of all types of cancer, particularly in the lungs and liver. This protection against cancer is further enhanced by the tea’s alkalizing action in the blood and tissues, where it counter-acts the excessive acidity associated with all forms of cancer.
Alkaline: High Mountain Oolong alkalizes the digestive tract, bloodstream, and cellular fluids, neutralizing the acidity that contributes to chronioc degenerative conditions. Blood and tissue acidity is the primary cause of calcium loss in the bones and teeth, which leads to osteoporosis and tooth decay. Drinking this tea daily therefore helps prevent these conditions.
Diuretic: The tea’s diuretic properties promote swift elimination of the toxins and acid wastes flushed from the blood and tissues by the antioxidant and alkaline elements in the tea.
Deodorant: By alkalizing the mouth and stomach, this tea eliminates the bacteria responsible for producing foul odors in the breath. The aromatic fumes contained in the tea saturate the blood and bodily fluids with cleansing medicinal elements that help deodorize bodily secretions.
Blood Adaptogen: High Mountain Oolong contains medicinal factors known as “adaptogens,” which adapt the body’s vital functions to changing conditions in order to maintain a healthy state of equilibrium. This balancing effect is strongest in the bloodstream, where it regulates blood pressure, balances blood sugar, and prevents thickening of the blood.
Digestive: High Mountain Oolong assists digestion by neutralizing excess acidity and preventing fermentation and putrefaction in the stomach. It breaks down fat molecules into smaller particles, making them easier to digest.
Detoxificant: Drinking this tea daily produces a continuous detoxifying effect throughout the body, facilitating the elimination of metabolic wastes and toxic residues assimilated from food, air, and water.
Cholesterol Control: Studies have shown that High Mountain Oolong Tea removes cholesterol deposits and other sticky plaque from the walls of the blood vessels, thereby preventing arteriosclerosis, heart disease, and strokes.
Stimulant: This tea contains only 0.5% caffeine, but it has other compounds which have mild stimulating effects on the central nervous system. Unlike coffee, which stimulates the body by racing the heart, the natural stimulants in High Mountain Oolong directly activate the nervous system and enhance cerebral functions, relieving mental fatigue. Its stimulating properties can be enjoyed throughout the day without overloading the nervous system.
Nutrient: High Mountain Oolong contains significant amounts of vitamins A, C, and E, as well as essential minerals and trace elements. These nutritional factors amplify all the health benefits of the tea.
Antiseptic: By producing a clean alkaline environment in the body, this tea has broad anti-bacterial and anti-fungul properties, which depend on acidic conditions in the blood and tissues to survive in the human body.
The top grades of High Mountain Oolong Tea from Taiwan rank among the most highly prized teas on earth. As this tea becomes known throughout the world for its unsurpassed flavor and potent health properties, demand continues to drive up the cost of the limited supplies of the best grade harvests. Nevertheless, the peerless taste and potent therapeutic benefits of this tea always make it a worthy investment in your personal health and enjoyment of life.
All of the human senses are pleased by the Chinese art of tea, which embraces the basic elements of nature in a harmonious interplay of energies that produces the perfect cup of tea and establishes the right state of mind to appreciate its virtues. In his book The Chinese Art of Tea, the sinologist John Blofeld describes the aesthetic and philosophical appeal of drinking tea the traditional Chinese way:
One should recognize that drinking tea is something in
itself, to be done for its own sake and not to fulfill an
ulterior purpose, for only in this way can the drinker
come to “taste sunlight, wind, and clouds.” This is a
typically Taoist and Zen sentiment. . . Tea, unlike
powerful drugs or alcohol, increases rather than dulls
alertness and carries with it the essence of sunlight
and mist, the spirit of sparkling mountain springs and
a pleasant earthy tang. . . Tea mysteriously engenders
empathy with nature and kinship with one’s fellow beings.
But be forewarned: once you develop a taste for good High Mountain Oolong, you will lose your taste for other teas, and once you start collecting tea pots and using them to prepare tea the Chinese way, other hobbies might lose much of their appeal and the Way of Tea will become a whole new way of life.
Why is High Mountain Oolong so special?
[Classic China Oolong and The Three Daughters of Taiwan]
An article by Daniel Reid
Oolong is the reigning emperor of tea in Taiwan, where it has become known as "High Mountain Oolong" or simply "High Mountain Tea" (gao shan cha), to distinguish it from the oolong grown in China. While the pedigree of all oolong teas may be traced back to their original roots in the Wu Yi mountains of China, a florid brood of oolong offspring has been spawned over the past three centuries in the lush green mountains of Taiwan, or "Isla Formosa" (the "Beautiful Island," as early Portugese visitors named it). The identity, character, and precise lineage of the High Mountain Oolong Teas grown in Taiwan is a topic of hot debate, conflicting opinion, and outright inaccuracy among cha ren ("tea people") in Taiwan today, but there are a few fundamental facts which remain beyond dispute and may therefore serve as reliable guidelines in sorting out the "Who's Who" and "What's What" in the extended, ever expanding family of beautiful daughters in the world of High Mountain Oolong Tea in Taiwan.
Oolong tea in Taiwan may be broadly divided into four major branches: the Classic China Oolong varietals brought to Taiwan from the mainland; and the three unique hybrids bred in Taiwan from China Oolong genetic stock and known today as "The Three Daughters of Taiwan," namely Jin Xuan ("Golden Lily"), Tsui Yu ("Kingfisher Jade"), and Se Ji Chun ("Four Seasons Spring").
Basically, the Classic China Oolongs tend to display a more mature, earthy character and a smokey, woody taste, while their indigenous Taiwan offspring--the beautiful, seductive "Three Daughters"--are most famous for their fresh young flavor, rich floral fragrance, and brisk fruity tang.
Let's take a brief look at the basic nature and unique attributes of each of these four branches of the Taiwan Tea Tree:
Classic China Oolong
Centuries ago, when the oolong variety of tea was first cultivated in the Wu Yi mountains of central China, planters noticed that a particular kind of black snake liked to make its home in the oolong tea bush. Since snakes are often refered to in Chinese as "little dragons," the tea harvested from this type of bush became known as "oo-lung," which means "Black Dragon."
Dozens of varietals were developed in China from the original oolong tea lineage, each with its own distinctive character, flavor, and fragrance. All of them are produced with the two basic techniques which distinguish oolong tea production: a short period of oxidation immediately after the leaves are picked; and a long, meticulous process of "firing" (baking) the oxidised leaves in order to dry them slowly and evenly for storage and shipment. Not all oolong teas are rolled into tightly coiled pellets before firing. A few of the more delicate varietals, such as Bao Jung, Tie Guan Yin, and Dung-fang Mei-ren, are baked and dried with their leaves unfurled.
When the Manchus swept down from the north and conquered China in 1644, waves of Chinese migrants came to Taiwan to escape the chaos of dynastic change on the mainland, and with them they brought the basic elements of Chinese civilization, including their indispensable tea. ("Better to go three days without food than one day without tea," states an old Chinese adage). The oolong tea plants they carried to Taiwan thrived on the lush green island, especially in the central highlands, where mineral-rich ocean mist from the surrounding seas mingles with dense mountain fog to infuse the leaves with the unique qualities for which Taiwan's oolong teas have become so well known. Today about half a dozen varieties of Classic China Oolong originally developed on the mainland are still produced in Taiwan. The distinctive hybrids bred later in Taiwan from Classic China Oolong stock and known today as "The Three Daughters of Taiwan" are the varietals that have made Taiwan famous for tea, and it is these unique oolong strains that are generally refered to today as "High Mountain Tea" (gao shan cha).
First, let's take a look at some of the Classic China Oolong teas that are still cultivated in Taiwan:
Ching Shin Oolong ("Tender Heart" Oolong)
This is the type of Classic China Oolong produced most abundantly in Taiwan. Lightly oxidised, hand rolled, and delicately fired, Tender Heart Oolong has a very refreshing young flavor, a green leafy aroma, and a light yellow-green color. It's called "Tender Heart" because the leaves come only from the first pluck, when they are still tender and the heart of each leaf cluster is still in bud.
Da Yeh Oolong ("Big Leaf" Oolong)
This is a relatively rare variety of oolong distinguished by a leaf that is almost the size of a man's hand when picked. Also known as "Buddha Palm," Big Leaf Oolong is often blended with other varietals by tea masters in Taiwan in order to produce a particular taste and aroma, much like whisky blendors in Scotland combine different malts to create the unique taste of various whiskies.
Tie Guan Yin ("Iron Goddess of Mercy")
One of China's most famous teas, Tie Guan Yin is named after China's most beloved Buddhist deity, Guan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. It is said that this tea was first discovered growing near the ruins of an ancient hermitage in which there stood an iron statue of Guan Yin, hence the name "Iron Guan Yin."
This is one of the original Classic Oolongs brought to Taiwan from China, and one of the most difficult to produce properly. It requires a much longer firing process than other varieties of oolong, and only traditional charcoal may be used to heat the oven, because the fumes play a central role in developing the unique smokey flavor of Tie Guan Yin. Highly aromatic, with a rich malty flavor and deep reddish color, Tie Guan Yin was the favorite tea of the great sinologist and Buddhist writer John Blofeld, author of "The Chinese Art of Tea" as well as a wonderful book about Guan Yin herself entitled "Bodhisattva of Compassion."
Dung-fang Mei-ren ("Oriental Beauty")
This legendary and rarest of all oolongs was the favorite tea of Queen Victoria, who gave it its beautiful name. Oriental Beauty has a fragrance, flavor, and color like no other oolong, and it's very difficult to find. That's because this tea depends entirely on the fickle whims of a particular flying insect which--when and if it comes--lands on the leaves and crawls slowly around the edges, gently nibbling and sucking up something it likes from the tea plant, without doing any damage to the leaves. During the insect's brief visit, its saliva combines with some compounds in the leaves, leaving a dry white fuzz around the edges, and this is what creates Oriental Beauty's unique taste and aroma. It also guarantees that all Oriental Beauty is 100% organically grown, because if any pesticides are applied to the plants, the precious insect will "bug off" and go elsewhere.
Oriental Beauty is available for purchase from our website.
Lao Oolong ("Aged" Oolong)
Some of the more mature oolong teas are kept stored for many years in large clay urns in order to let them slowly season, like old wine in an oak barrel. This produces a tea with a strong, robust flavor, a dry aftertaste, and a deep red color in the cup. The leaves used for Aged Oolong must be fully mature when picked, then oxidised longer than other oolongs and well fired to insure that the tea is sufficiently sturdy and dry to withstand the long aging process.
"The Three Daughters of Taiwan":
Golden Lily, Kingfisher Jade & Four Seasons
"The Three Daughters of Taiwan" are what made "The Beautiful Island" famous for tea. These beautiful oolong varietals were developed by tea planters in Taiwan by cross-breeding the best strains of Classic Oolong, particularly Tender Heart and Big Leaf, brought to Taiwan from China. Distinguished by their rich fruity flavor and fresh floral fragrance, each of these three High Mountain Oolongs has its own unique character, and all three trace their roots back to the original venerable lineage of Classic China Oolong.
Jin Xuan Oolong ("Golden Lily" Oolong)
Golden Lily is most renowned for its rich nai-shiang ("milky fragrance"), which gives the tea a distinctive milky taste. It displays a deep golden-green color in the cup, and the smooth buttery flavor which the best grades of Golden Lily release in the mouth has become a hallmark of Taiwan tea lore. Newcomers to High Mountain Oolong often think that this creamy, nutty taste comes from some sort of additive in the tea, but in fact it's the natural character of this charming oolong varietal.
We usually have at last 2 or 3 Golden Lily Oolongs available on our tea menu here on this website.
Tsui Yü Oolong ("Kingfisher Jade" Oolong)
Tsui is an ancient Chinese character that denotes the beautiful blue-green color of "kingfisher feathers," one of China's favorite colors, and yü means "jade." The apple-green color of this tea ranges in tone from emerald to jade. Kingfisher Jade is best known for its rich floral fragrance, like a bouquet of fresh flowers floating in your cup, sometimes like cassia or peach, sometimes like lilac or lotus, all depending on when it's picked, where it's grown, and what the weather is like the year that it's produced. Tea masters in Taiwan describe Kingfisher Jade as a tea that has "the strong natural aroma of wild flowers" and the taste of "fresh fruit."
Kingfisher Jade is available for purchase on this website.
Se Ji Chun Oolong ("Four Seasons Spring" Oolong)
The youngest and most exuberant daughter of Classic China Oolong born and bred in Taiwan, Four Seasons Spring is a hearty hybrid that may be picked six or seven times a year, i.e. in all "Four Seasons," and it always has the fresh flowery flavor of "Spring." Connoisseurs in Taiwan describe Four Seasons Spring as "shockingly fragrant" and compare its heady aroma to gardenia blossoms. It has a piquant, complex flavor that unfolds in layers of subtle overtones and lingering aftertastes which vary with each successive infusion of water.
Certified Organic Four Seasons Oolong is sometimes available on our website, but often sells out due to its popularity and limited supply levels.
These are just general guidelines to highlight your enjoyment and appreciation of Taiwan's High Mountain Oolong teas. The fact of the matter is that the taste of a particular tea lies as much in the person tasting the tea as in the tea itself. Whether the fragrance of a fine Four Seasons Spring smells like lilac or lotus, rose or gardenia, or whether the flavor of a good Golden Lily tastes like nuts or cream, is more in the taste buds of the taster than in the name or description of the tea. As Shakespeare noted, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet," and it's equally true that a Kingfisher Jade by any other name would taste as good. Moreover, just as two "Cabernet" wines from two different vineyards produced in two different years taste quite different, despite carrying the same label and general catalog description, so two Golden Lily teas from two different plantations harvested at different times of the year will each have its own different character.
This brings us to a point that cannot be overstated in cultivating the Chinese Art of Tea, and it's very well stated in a quatrain printed on the label of our favorite tea from Cedar Lake plantation:
The way of tasting tea is found in the form,
in the color, in the fragrance, in the flavor.
The beauty in tasting tea lies in the person,
in their foundation, in their knowledge, and in the setting.
This means that if you wish to cultivate the Chinese Art of Tea, you must first cultivate your self, cultivate your foundations, cultivate your knowledge, and cultivate the right setting for exploring the nature of your tea. Thereupon, you shall discover its beauty, and thereby become a true cha-ren ("tea person").
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