A Deep Dive Into Our Ali Shan Oolong Tea
Winter 2019, produced on 23rd September by Shenteng Chen in Chenjia Garden
In this piece, we look into who is behind this batch of Ali Shan, what makes it special, why we selected it and who we think will enjoy it. We will also take you through the best ways to find flavour, balance and enjoyment in this high mountain oolong tea.
This winter batch of Ali Shan is a great example for the region – floral, fruit and milk flavours in a refreshing-yet-thick infusion. It is difficult for a tea (as it is for other drinks, food and even music and art) to be both accessible and complex at the same time, but Ali Shan can achieve this quite beautifully. You might drink Ali Shan for comfort on a busy day, knowing that it will always be enjoyable however you make it (almost), yet you can also prepare it slowly and carefully (e.g. gong fu style) and drink during a quiet afternoon’s contemplation.
This is the fifth year that we have sourced our Ali Shan with Mr Chen and his team at Chenjia Garden on the west side of the Ali Shan National Park in Meishan Township. We love the quality of the teas that they are achieving through their commitment to finding new and excellent ways of looking after their garden, their tea bushes and their community.
Origin: Chenjia Garden, Chiayi, Taiwan.
Cultivar: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis “Jin Xuan”.
Name: Direct reference to the Ali “mountain” National Park that this tea comes from. Teas from the Jin Xuan cultivar can also be called “milk oolong”.
Style: High mountain (gao shan), baked, balled oolong.
Terroir: Ali Mountain National Park, Chenjia garden is on the west side of the park in Meishan township.
Altitude: The national park’s highest point is 2,600m above sea level, Chenjia is around 1,600m up the mountain.
Picking Season: Winter
Leaf: Bright green balls, revealing three mature leaf plus stem picking when unfurled upon infusion.
Infusion: Vibrant and bright yellow.
What kind of teas does Ali Shan produce?
Tea gardens in Ali Shan typically produce lightly oxidised, baked, rolled oolong teas loved for their thick mouthfeel combined with super fresh floral and creamy notes.
The climate is subtropical and the national park is very high altitude.
Production happens periodically from spring to autumn. The best crops are considered the first picking in spring and pickings before the winter sets in. The spring production happens in May. The other, known as, “winter” harvest happens around late September into early November.
In the coldest winter months, as in most tea producing regions, only the roots of the tea bushes are growing. They dig deep underground gathering and storing essential nutrients, minerals and energy, while the leaves and stems above ground appear dormant.
Due to the altitude of Ali Shan, the winter is long and so the roots have five or six months to gather a rich bounty from the ground. This energy and the nutrients are captured in the first leaves and buds of spring and give the spring picking a notable freshness and often subtle, grassy and mineral notes. By the time the leaves from the winter harvest are being picked, they have enjoyed five or so months of very hot, humid days and cool nights. For much of this time, the bushes have been surrounded by a constant mountain mist that hydrates and enriches the leaves. These conditions enable strong, plump leaf growth, which in turn when processed gives a thicker and more structured infusion than the spring and sometimes the floral aromas will be more prominent.
The Jin Xuan cultivar is typical of Ali Shan. It was developed in the 1980s locally in Taiwan, specifically to enable high yield tea production at high altitude. Very quickly it became appreciated for its milky flavours and thick texture and Ali Shan became one of Taiwan’s famous and well-regarded teas.
How did we find this batch of tea and who made it?
Despite the wealth of high-quality tea being produced in Taiwan including in Ali Shan, finding a garden that is very low pesticide, EU compliant, (we test the leaves!) let alone organic has been a big challenge for us. Taiwan’s history of using a high amount of chemical pesticides in agriculture appears to be deeply ingrained, and even now organic farming is not often considered wise.
When we were scouring the area for organic producers, Mr Chen’s name came up as someone we should be talking to – so that is exactly what we did.
Mr Chen is the third-generation tea master of Chenjia, he cares for the garden that was also looked after by his grandfather and his father. It was considering a potential link between his father being ill and his exposure to chemical pesticides that triggered Mr Chen, when he took over, to initiate the conversion to organic.
Noticing that another tea garden in the area had regained growth and strength after being left to go fallow, Mr Chen questioned the local received wisdom that tea bushes needed chemical intervention to flourish and so decided to convert Chenjia to organic and give his family the safest space to live and grow.
Innovation is very important to Mr Chen’s way of farming. As well as growing the bushes organically, he is also an early adopter of new technology that enables consistency through machine-assisted rolling as well as climate-controlled withering. He is constantly experimenting to understand how to process the leaves in the ways that will deliver optimum quality.
Perhaps most importantly, Mr Chen acts as a mentor for young tea farmers, and advocates for organic farming in the area. He is really committed to enabling Taiwan to become a centre of excellence for organic, high quality tea production.
This is the fifth winter production that we have brought from Mr Chen. He produced just 70kgs this crop and we feel very lucky to have secured the full batch.
What is this batch like to drink? Aroma, taste and texture
Typical in this style, region and cultivar are high floral, prominent milk and sweet fruit flavours and a thick quenching character.
This winter batch is a great example of the cultivar. The creamy qualities (aromas and flavours) are immediately evident when the leaves are infused. The tea is highly floral. The fruit aromas are strong, specifically we have picked out strawberry and pear, and the taste brings spring flowers & light flavours of mango and apricot.
It is fantastically refreshing and sappy.
Where and when is this tea for?
Much like the broad appeal of the flavour of Ali Shan, when and how this tea can be enjoyed is also wide open. The lightness of the tea means that it does not go bitter or astringent very easily; the prominence of the flavours and aromas mean that is a very easy tea to prepare well and the moistening, quenching qualities will satisfy all day.
Using just a simple tea pot like a tea-iere and infusing for three minutes, you will get a rewarding and full drink.
The unfurling of the large leaves as they infuse and the notable changing flavours of the progressive infusions when prepared gong fu style, mean that it is also an intriguing tea to explore when you have more time to focus on and engage with the leaves.
Being relatively light but satisfying, many people will enjoy Ali Shan throughout the day. There is no need to restrict the drinking by time or mood.
What is it like to make and how easy is it to get a good taste?
For large leaf balled oolongs, we know that the infusion needs time to develop whilst the leaves unfurl. When we were testing the recipes on this batch, we really liked the juicy freshness that using 90 degree, rather than boiling water, brought out. This cooler temperature allows a slow release and captures the lighter, floral notes in the first infusion. They really are prominent in this batch, so worth savouring.
In the second infusion, the complexity develops, and you will get the specific strawberry and pear fruit notes, and the satisfaction of the thick, creamy texture.
This produced good results - Method: 4g/ 250mls; 90-95 degrees; 3 minutes per infusion (we recommend at least three infusions).
In Chiayi, Ali Shan would usually be prepared in the ‘gong fu’ style – that is, using a small teapot or a Gaiwan, a high proportion of leaf to water and preparing multiple short infusions. Making tea in this way delivers a more concentrated view of the flavours and aromas. For this tea specifically we found that the first infusion is light, with intense flowery aromas; the second infusion showed the sweetness from the fruit and the third the thick, creamy structure as well as some minerality.
Method: 10g/120ml; 90 degrees; 45 seconds – 1 minute, increasing incrementally with each infusion (minimum 4 infusions).
Long Infusion Method:
Long infusions can be tricky because time will bring out astringency or an underlying bitterness that makes a drink unbalanced. However, for this Ali Shan, we really like the juicy texture and florality that you get when simply infusing a pinch of leaves in a tall cup with 90 degree water, leaving it for a few minutes with a lid on, and then enjoying the increasing intensity of flavour and slight twang of refreshing tartness that you get as you drink closer and closer to the leaves.
Method: 4g/ 250ml; 90 degrees; 5 minutes.
For all of these infusion methods, we have found that Ali Shan is best with soft, filtered water (which we highly recommend) but it is a pretty forgiving tea and works even in hard water areas, though you will get less floral notes and flavours.
Who is this tea for?
Ali Shan tea has very accessible, easily discernible flavours and a satisfying texture but also complexity and intrigue.
If you want a relatively light tea and you appreciate floral and milk flavours you will enjoy Ali Shan. If you want a moistening, quenching drink for all day, want some of the refreshing qualities and some of the freshness of a green tea, with a thicker and more structured mouth feel, you will enjoy Ali Shan.
Ali Shan is often a tea that we recommend when someone wants to explore the world of single garden tea. They might be used to drinking black and green teas readily available in the West and want to discover more. Finding that “I never knew that tea could taste like this” moment is easy with Ali Shan and it is this that has led many of us to want to drink and explore the wonderfully rich world of single garden tea more.