Gaoshan . High Mountain
Taiwanese high mountain oolongs are delightfully complex in their composition, lending themselves to wonderful gongfu cha sessions, where snapshots of different moments in the tea’s exposition are revealed with the development of each steep. Fresh and uplifting, sweet and floral, complex and unpredictable, all at once—these aspects mix together to form high mountain oolong’s nameless essential quality.
That’s about all there is to say about high mountain oolong, translation: it’s delicious and has a very healthy energy to it. These lightly oxidized marvels have transformed the oolong trade more than any other recent innovation, and it’s consistent quality is hard to match. Both their qi and flavor are expansive, opening and filling the space as the characteristically tightly curled balls of tea unravel and fill the pot or gaiwan. Tasting their elixir transports you straight to the mist covered mountains where sages breathe in deep the vapors of life.
In the spectrum of things, high mountain oolong is relatively light, bright, fruity, fragrant and sweet. Compared to other light oolongs though, they are also incredibly complex. They get their potency and complexity not through roasting but from the elements, notably the dramatic diurnal shifts in temperature at high elevations. As a result, they are extremely elegant. I feel relaxed just thinking about them. And, there is plenty of nuanced variation within the field of high mountain oolong, given their general character.
Although they are elegant, sometimes even effervescent, they can also be bold. The fruit of “fruity” is often citrus, but sometimes something more tropical stands in front. Other times notes of leafy green vegetables make a showing. While fruity is the norm, floral is the frequent exception. Fragrant is expected, but a predominant minerality is a common surprise, and a spiced quality a much less common one. The mouth feeling that high mountain tea is so praised for is buttery and sometimes milky, but others are clear and crisp like swimming in a lake in the heat of late summer. I love to find one that defies all such categories, completely indescribably quenching—it’s called the sweet nectar.
High Mountain oolongs scream out for gongfu cha. Their nuance and journey shows a new tea drinker the marvel of brilliant flavors emerging in the third or fourth steep, and of energy building slowly. The tea session becomes the meandering mist of the mountains where they grow, taking the party here and there on a circuitous and surprising route through the islands of the immortals. And in all of their elegance and effervescence they tend to be very durable, resisting over-brewing and lasting easily 4-7 infusions—so they are easy for the novice to engage with, while providing endless depth for the master to continue their growth in practicing gongfu cha.
When you drink high mountain oolong, see if you can notice the feeling in your body as you sip, or in the stillness between steeps. Notice too the flavor expanding out, blooming like a flower in a single taste, starting it one place and then moving to another. There is no better companion for an afternoon sit by the river, on the porch, or anywhere the contemplative finds themselves.
Historically, high mountain oolong is a recent development. Only a handful of decades old, their discovery came through experimentation at the request of Chiang Kai Shek, the revolutionary leader who founded Taiwan as a nation. It was unheard of to grow tea at that altitude before. The original Dayuling farm, the original high mountain oolong, is unfortunately closed down due to unsound government interference. But the legacy does live on and continues to enrich the lives of tea people.
The high mountain oolongs I carry include Shan Lin Xi, He Huanshan (Happy Together), Alishan, and Lishan. By definition they all grow above 1000 meters, and these tend to grow from 1200 to 1800 meters. I have also carried Dayuling. Each year there are two harvests of high mountain oolong in Taiwan, one in spring and another in winter. I always eagerly await the arrival of the new harvests, and am happy to share the treasures of each season.