Written by Felicity

Shanlinxi Mountain, Spring 2020, produced in the organic Luojia Garden by Tea Master Luo ZhengBin.

In this deep dive we look at our limited batch of a Spring 2020 Shanlinxi oolong from Taiwan. It’s the first time we’ve found a Shanlinxi that’s stood out for its refinement and excellent execution of flavour, even though it’s a famous and well-loved tea in Taiwan and one we try almost every season. Like some of our other favourite Taiwanese teas, Ali Shan and Li Shan, Shanlinxi is grown high up a mountain, is a lightly oxidised and rolled oolong with a distinct creamy character. Similar but certainly not the same, it’s calming, full-bodied, fruity and highly floral.

Read on to meet Luo ZhengBin in his home in the centre of the mountainous island, Taiwan. Deep in Nantou County, Luo farms without artificial fertilizers or pesticides.

Since the tea arrived, I’ve experimented with a few methods for making it too, so I’ll tell you too where I found the sweet spot of this unique mountain tea.

Luo Zhengbin, second generation tea farmer is converting his plot to organic, and with that he's testing new cultivars.

Origin: Nantou County, Taiwan.

Cultivar: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis ‘Qin Yu”

Name: Refers to the mountain forest area that this tea comes from.

Style: High Mountain (gaoshan) lightly oxidised, rolled (also known as balled) oolong.

Terroir: Shanlinxi is a forested area in the centre of Taiwan.

Altitude: 1,600m

Picking Season: Spring 2020

Leaf: Tightly rolled large leaves shades of light to dark green.

Oxidation: 10%

Production: Without any chemical fertilizers or pesticides

Infusion: Soft green-yellow hue

What kind of tea does Shanlinxi produce?

To be categorised as high mountain tea or “gaoshan” tea, in Taiwan, it must be grown at an altitude of more than 1,500m. Shanlinxi sits between 1,600 and 1,800m above the sea and so is firmly within that category. Tea gardens in Shanlinxi typically produce lightly oxidised – so green-ish, baked, rolled oolong teas in the same style as lots of Taiwanese high mountain tea production.

Nantou is the only landlocked province on the sub-tropical island of Taiwan, the central mountain range runs right through it. High and low, in and among these peaks it’s humid all year around – a sort of fog covers Shanlinxi almost every day. The area is popular with tea farmers, but it’s the bamboo forests and coniferous fir and pine trees that cover most of the land.

Given the altitude, the nights and the winters are cool, so production only happens periodically from spring (around May to autumn) finishing in November. Like in Ali Shan and Li Shan, the best crops are considered the first picking in spring – days in April when the sun warms up the fog enough to encourage the new seasons buds to burst out; and pickings just before the winter sets in – when the days are cooling down again. These two ends of the season are when the temperatures are at their coolest and so the leaves grow slowly, which gives a high concentration of flavours and textures.

Ali Shan is well known for using the Jin Xuan cultivar of the tea bush, it’s sometimes called “milky oolong” because of the very strong milk flavours and thick textures it produces. Li Shan is well known for using the Qing Xin cultivar, which is well known for producing slightly more refined floral and fruit textures – but still a thick, creamy texture. The Qin Yu cultivar that is used in this Shanlinxi is cross of those two famous cultivars, and as such it brings together the creaminess and milky aroma from the Jin Xuan and a high florality and refinement from the Qing Xin.

Teas from Shanlinxi are typically refreshing and given their lightness of oxidation, they are green in nature but with the added complexity of tropical fruit, and a thicker more full-bodied texture, that gives it a characteristic creaminess. The good ones will be highly floral – and highly sought after locally. When I spoke to Luo, who makes this tea he conjured up the local demand:

“We cannot live without tea. We drink tea from morning to night. Shanlinxi is full of tea plantations so yes of course we are living in a big tea community. Everyone is tea lover. Tea for us is one of our daily commodities.”

Shanlinxi wet leaf
Shanlinxi wet leaf.
After a short wither in the sun, Luo brings his leaves inside on bamboo trays to continue their wither until the leaves are supple enough to be rocked.

How did we source this batch of tea and who made it?

If you know our Ali Shan or even if you’ve read the Deep Dive, you’ll know we’re always on the lookout for teas from Taiwan that have been produced without chemical intervention. When we tried Luo’s Shanlinxi this spring, its taste immediately stood out. When we realised Luo worked organically too, we knew we had to get to know him.

A second-generation tea farmer, Luo has so far converted 5 of his 15 acre garden to organic practices. When I asked about his motivations for making this change, ahead of most of his contemporaries (there is as of yet only a small demand for organic tea domestically in Taiwan), he said:

“I care about the life circle of tea and the way I am making tea. I want my customers to drink healthily. The satisfaction of selling delicious and healthy tea is invaluable to me….”

On his organic journey – and because of noticeable weather changes attributed to climate change, Luo has had to get closer his environment. It’s not just about experimenting with new and different cultivars to see which thrive and which deliver the best tastes, but to enable organic farming Luo and and his team have had to get to know which other grasses and trees they need in the gardens:

“It’s the best way to help stop the loss of soil, avoid the increase of soil temperature and even keep the water in soil to keep the good environment for tea plants’ life circle.”

Adapting to and working with the environment is something the team at Luojia garden are used to though – as understanding how the environment will affect the taste of the tea during production is the key skill to producing high quality tasting tea. During the picking seasons, the team work shifts across a production of 36 to 40 hours. It begins when the sun comes up and the first batches of leaves are picked – helpfully this is the best time for the plants but also for the team as it’s before the heat and the humidity gets intense. The leaves are then left in the sun to begin withering; as the sun gets intense and the mountain fog begins to come down the leaves are carried to a shelter where they continue to wither slowly. Only by getting close to the leaves – diving a hand through them, feeling them, watching to see how the fall as they drop back into the withering tray, bringing a handful to his face – will the tea masters know when the leaves are ready to be moved to the next stages. This closeness continues as the supply leaves are tossed or rocked and rested repeatedly. Rocking the leaves causes the outer layer to bruise and so begin to oxidise; back and forth over more than six hours, the leaves will be rocked and rolled in a bamboo basket and rested – do this any faster and the leaves will oxidise too quickly and lose their high aromatics. The tea cannot be tasted at any stage, so the producers rely on their learned intuition.

Qin Yu cultivar has developed to deliver creaminess, fruitiness and calming quality.
Qin Yu cultivar has developed to deliver creaminess, fruitiness and calming quality.
'We are living in a big tea community - everyone is a tea lover. Tea is our daily commodity.'

What is this batch like to drink?

This is a very creamy tea. It was clear from the aromas as soon as I added the leaves to the warm pot, but the creaminess carries through into the very full, thick mouthfeel. It’s highly floral too and there’s an apricot fruit freshness. It’s balanced with some deeper notes that indicate the light baking that the batch has had. This depth is more pronounced than in our Ali Shan (which like me, you might be more familiar with) and so although it’s still refreshing, (it’s only 10% oxidised after all), it has a more calming feeling. It’s thickness makes it enormously satisfying to drink.

Where and when is this tea for?

This is a tea for when you want something green-ish but very full and satisfying; if you want sweetness and creamy comfort. I think it’s best enjoyed over time making many small and concentrated infusions. It’s the best way to trace the complexities and the depth of flavour. It’s calming character works well late afternoon – and perhaps on a quiet day if you’re looking to wind down with something almost indulgent.

Surrounded by lush old-growth trees and coniferous forests, these trees contribute to give this tea its taste of place. It's green, fresh but thick and layered.
Surrounded by lush old-growth trees and coniferous forests, these trees contribute to give this tea its taste of place. It's green, fresh but thick and layered.
My favourite method of making was in small concentated infusions - here I'm using our tea master and waiting for the large leaves to unfurl in the first infusion.
My favourite method of making was in small concentated infusions - here I'm using our tea master and waiting for the large leaves to unfurl in the first infusion.
JING_Shanlinxi_Garden 16
The lush, green Luojia Garden

What is it like to make and how easy is it to get a good taste?

This tea is easy to make well – because of the strength and definitive character of the flavours in this tea, you’ll get a great cup using a simple one cup method, but I enjoyed it the most using our tea master and making the tea gong fu style – with 4-5 concentrated infusions.

Single Serve, One Cup Method using 250ml teapot and cup:

As with all highly aromatic teas, heat your teapot before you add the leaves. You can do this by simply filling the pot with hot water, swirling the water around for a few seconds before discarding. When you add your leaves, the heat will activate them and you’ll get a good blast of that baked cream and the floral aromas. For a single serve, I use 4g (or 3tsp) of tea for 250ml.

I made the tea with boiling water and it was great – but I also tried it with adding a small dash of cold water on the leaves before adding the boiling water, it probably took the temperature down to 90-92 degrees and that left more space in the cup for the floral, fruity character. I preferred it with that dash of cool.

With this method a three-minute infusion works well and, as always, pour out the whole infusion into your favourite mug or glass for the complete, perfect cup.

This is our go-to method: 4g/2tsp per 250ml; 90˚C; 3 minutes per infusion.

Using our Tea Master, a Gaiwan, or a small teapot to make small, concentrated infusions:

In Nantou, Shalinxi would usually be prepared in the ‘gong fu’ style – that is, using a small teapot or a Gaiwan with a high proportion of leaf to water and preparing multiple short infusions. When I tried this it certainly did deliver 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 and third infusions brough the depth from the bake and later even some minerality began to show in the structure. The creamy character was prominent throughout the infusions and developed as you’d expect with the infusions – becoming almost baked. I found that it didn’t need a huge amount of leaf, but I kept the water temperature at boiling to bring the depth of flavour.

Method: 4g/120ml; 100 degrees; 45 seconds – 1 minute, increasing incrementally with each infusion (minimum 4 infusions).

At 1,600m in the centre of the tropical island of Taiwan, the forested mountains of Shanlinxi have a year round fog
At 1,600m in the centre of the tropical island of Taiwan, the forested mountains of Shanlinxi have a year round fog.

Who is this tea for?

If you already enjoy Ali Shan and Li Shan for their milky, creamy, floral and fruity qualities and know that you like teas that are refreshing but still thick and complex, I’m confident you’ll enjoy Shanlinxi. If you want those flavours from a tea that brings a sense of calm too, I think you’ll enjoy this tea. It’s satisfying and refined – perfect for late afternoon relaxed tea session.