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8th December 2010

By Edward Eisler

A Trip to Li Shan in Taiwan

Tea Picker on Li Shan

Picking the first winter crop in one of the tea gardens I visited in Li Shan (Pear Mountain). A pear tree grows in the background.

Although I love Taiwan teas, I have been very limited in my search for excellence by the extremely high use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers.  Being a bit of a paranoid hypochondriac I won’t drink tea which I don’t know is extremely clean. I insist that any tea I buy (or drink regularly) is batch-tested in a certified lab, to ensure it complies with the extremely strict EU standards.

Having spent a great deal of time and money batch testing Taiwan teas over the years, driven by my love of the taste, only to get the test reports back and find 99% failed, I got frustrated and all but gave up.

It seems that a few decades ago, Taiwanese farmers were encouraged by the state to grow more and were handed out subsidised pesticides and fertilisers as a short-term boost. However, years later, the habits haven’t changed and we have found that the residues on some Taiwan teas are the highest we have ever seen.

However, my stubborn persistence, driven by craving for the creamy, floral taste of the best Taiwanese oolongs, eventually led me to gardens in all the key regions of Taiwan, Li Shan, Dong Ding,  Pin Lin, Ali Shan which grow tea organically.

Li Shan Reservoir
Li Shan is undoubtedly one of the most outstanding locations in the world for producing oolong tea.  It is a fantastic destination which so many Taiwan tea sellers sadly never get too.  So many are put off by the long drive.  Loads of my friends wave me away when I suggest we go, saying, ‘Oh its too far, the road is terrible…’ Three years ago a typhoon damaged the main road from Taizhong, and you have to go the long way round which means a 6 hour drive from Taipei.

Li Shan Tea Garden
Li Shan [LINK] is very remote, with the main village at around 2000m. Some of the tea gardens are significantly higher than this. The cool weather, due to the high altitude, means that it’s the only place where apples and pears grow in Taiwan, hence the name, Li Shan which means Pear Mountain.

Pear trees are all over the areas, with each pear beautifully wrapped in paper to protect it as it grows.

I decided to take a new companion with me on this trip.

Li Shan, Ed and Scarlet
She has been asking to come with me on every tea trip I go on and this time I couldn’t say no.  Neither a bump on the head after a fall the night before we left, nor the long 6 hour drive up to Li Shan from Taipei deterred her. She was determined to pick some tea and see first-hand what her daddy gets up to when he flies off on one of his tea buying trips.

As we drove up to Li Shan, night was falling and we couldn’t see the amazing views which we knew must be beyond the precipice a few feet from the car as we went up the very windy, and sick-making road. My little companion listened to her favourite music on the ipod quite contently. I have to say, I am glad she’s too young to understand what Amy Winehouse is singing about, but what taste in music for a three-and-a-half-year-old!

When we arrived, although it was late and we were tired after the gruelling windy ride, we went straight to meet on of the producers we came to see.  He pulled out a new tea which he was very pleased with.A black tea, produced in summer. I was very impressed, by the wonderfully fragrant aromas, thick mouth feel, and juicy honey-plum taste.

Having tasted countless excellent black teas in China from Fujian, the quality was very easy to measure. It really was excellent, and had a unique taste which the mountains of Li Shan could only provide. I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed it.

Tasting the Li Shan Black Tea
The farmers in Li Shan do pretty well and enjoy fine whisky with their food.  I was put to the test and had to make friends with Jonny Walker black label.  I usually don’t do too badly, but at 2000m I was a at a strong disadvantage.
We woke up early, feeling a bit groggy, and opened the curtains!

Li Shan View

The singularly best view I have ever experienced.

We then started a short walk to one of the gardens we came to visit, through the pear trees, squash fields and lakes.

A short motorbike ride and trip on the back of a truck and up to the garden where autumn tea picking just began the same morning.

Unlike almost any others in Li Shan, the tea is grown organically and the leaves are much stronger to the touch than many others I have seen.

Li Shan Indoor Withering

I had a chat with the pickers, the farmers, tea processors walked the gardens getting a real sense of the people and the place. I was really impressed with the level of care and attention to detail. I was blown away by the beauty of the people and the place.

Next week I’ll taste all the different batches of the new crop and if I like them send them for testing. If they pass both the taste test, and residue test in the lab, we’ll all be enjoying some of the greatest oolong tea in the world.