The engine of my little scooter is unrelenting as it screams ever-higher, only to coast and reach yet another ascent into damp air. Bodies of mist are thrown over the wet strip of curling road ahead. Precious mists are everywhere here, coating all in soft gray.
While the rain smacks my visor with fresh scents, my rain cape has pasted me with the tang of wet plastic. The sky moves from left to right above me and on all sides is lush, wet, greenery…and beyond that, fields of shimmering tea. Within a fold of the island’s central mountain range, I know that my scooter and I will be moving still further up in altitude beyond two thousand meters, and into what is famously referred to as “high mountain tea country”. One of Taiwan’s famed and legitimate claims is its precious high mountain Oolongs, and on this island which has dozens of peaks above 3,000 meters, there are ample places for Oolong to flourish. The 190 km Central Cross-Island Highway was completely obliterated 13 years ago in an earthquake that remains in the psyche of Taiwanese to this day, and as I coast along it, there are brown cascading falls of mud that spread across the asphalt. It remains though, one of the only routes into the world of High Mountain Oolongs.
Oolongs’ detailed journeys to become semi-fermented masterpieces are in many ways journeys that contradict my own long-standing philosophy that the best teas are simply made. Teas that take a straight line from the time they are picked to the much-awaited point of consumption have always felt more legitimate to my mouth. In their simplicity, they remain teas whose true essence cannot be hidden. High Mountain Oolongs, however, and their often ornate and customized production, lay waste to my long held belief.
My destination is Lishan, in the Central Mountain range, which runs north-south. It is an area known for fruit, drenched vistas, and the one overriding reason for my travel aboard a scooter, tea. Known to its Atayal indigenous population as Shalamao, its rain-covered slopes, volcanic soil, and voracious mists assist in making it a sanctuary for tea.
Within Taiwan’s potently green and deep slopes that hint at its volcanic past, there are vestiges of what locals will call ‘the old ways’ that still hum along unchanged. These ‘ways’ are the vaunted methods of creating spectacular teas. Much of the challenge of getting here, and much of what makes the landscape so tea-friendly is this very inaccessibility. These ‘old ways’ are time-honored methods that have long created teas that are mini works of art.
I have come to visit a man named Mr. Lu, who creates masterpieces of Oolong, in small quantities, from the 2,300-meter slopes of Dayuling. I have come to meet him, and take as much tea with me as I can, after sipping as much as I can hold.
Oolong, often referred to as ‘qing’ (a light tone or color of blue) in Mandarin, bridges the gap between fully fermented black and red teas, and the lighter greens, yellows, and whites. It is a tea of the ‘middle’ ground, but at the same time is a tea that needs a dexterous hand and romantic spirit to create. It is a tea that needs an obsessive creator. Perhaps more than any other ‘type’ of tea, Oolong can go wrong…or it can go extremely ‘right’.
On the island’s tea bastions of Ali Shan, Lishan, Wushe, Pinglin, and beyond, tea makers will often say that it is precisely in the careful manipulation and process of creating these nuanced Oolongs, that an ‘author’ or maker can create a masterpiece. Fermentation of tea is – in other, perhaps more accurate words – a measurement of how much freshly harvested tea leaves are allowed to oxidize. Oxidization is halted by either a frying process, or in some cases, a steaming process. The combination of this aging, along with the decisive heating of the tea, fixes the taste, and by extension, fixes how the tea will be regarded. Fake ‘Taiwan Oolongs’ rage in distribution centers, as the leaves themselves will be produced in China, Thailand, or elsewhere, to arrive in Taiwan for a brief ‘finishing up’ before being exported.
For now, only my immediate, and almost invisible, surroundings concern me. I’ve often seen photos of the Lishan area, with bolt blue skies, terraced angles of green and deep valleys. What I’m now immersed in is a sideways-moving storm of gusts, bursts of wet, and gray. After many such escapades of ‘seeking tea masters’, I admire those that choose to be near their beloved green hills rather than basking in their own fame in the cities. These mists, which roam well above a thousand meters, diffuse the sun’s rays and create an airborne tonic of humidity that bathes the tea bushes. This soft gray home of caressing humidity helps maintain the amino acids, stimulants, and flavonoids in tea. It is the mists that are heralded and needed for Oolongs.
Lin is apparently in his late sixties, and is known to make only enough tea for himself and a few who pass by and know of his special teas. His fame originates from an adherence to an old and rare process of roasting already sumptuous Oolongs with low heat fires, burning wood from various types of trees. These varying woods infuse hints – mere hints – of themselves into the tea, creating marvelous one-offs.
Along the side of the meandering roadway are orchards of pear and apple trees in unorganized rows, hunched against the wet onslaught. Pulley systems on small tracks, used to haul up fruit to waiting trucks, lie still and covered in slick.
The town of Lishan passes by and soon there is only tea around me. Dayuling’s Oolongs are prized for their pristine, far-off altitudes, and for the fact that with altitude comes cool, and with cool heights come fewer natural enemies to the tea bushes. Pesticides are rarely used in true tea gardens up here, and if they are, locals spread the news like word of a plague. Reputations must be kept and nasty sprays are one step to losing a pedigree immediately.
Studying a ragged piece of paper with hand-drawn instructions, I see below me a little paved entry to a valley. The odd truck comes into view, with headlights in the gloom. Not much stirs at all, as the world here is engulfed in precipitation. Turning down the little road, a home of many parts sits on the left, while orchids sway under a black cloth overhanging the drive. A pitiful little waft of smoke issues out of a thin chimney, and further down the road, sits a similar home, with a similar bit of smoke. This is it; a home that hopefully contains Lin and some of his heralded tea. Selfishly, I hope this is the right place and that there is plenty of tea ready for my greedy mouth.
It is from these experiences and journeys into tea’s more remote worlds that true knowledge is imparted. It is the second day of driving from Taipei, in the north, aboard this 125cc machine. There are no numbers on the house that I can see. My instructions are in the style of “after the gas station, second right turn, past a hydro line, a left and the first house…” It was in many ways a miracle that I had made it this far.
A door hurriedly opens, as though someone is expecting me, and a broad woman runs out with an umbrella. I am ushered into the front door as she apologizes for the rain. Dispatching my rain cape on a hanger and providing a towel for my sandaled feet, my hostess is everywhere at once…she shows all the signs of a perfect hostess, who happens to be ripped on tea. That gleam in her eye is something very familiar to the tea obsessed.
One room, with only dull light making it through, is off to the left, and my elbow is steered into the scantily lit, square room. An old medicine cabinet, with dozens of drawers, lines one entire wall, with tea poking out of a good number of them.
Oolong varieties were the first teas to make it out of Asia and into the west, and yet they remain in many ways the least known. Numbering in the thousands, with different processes and handling, Oolongs are stronger and more durable than their green brethren. These semi-fermented teas are varied, and depending on how the fermentation is done, and the type of tea desired, there is a very general rule that they will be fermented between 10 and 65 percent. Oolongs’ picking, withering, fermenting, blocking of fermentation, frying, shaping….all of these stages are determined by the master, his intention, and the type or vintage of the plant.
A man, slightly bent, is coming toward me, with the heavy eyelids of the insomniac. This is Lin. My female guide has disappeared momentarily, returning with an urn-like container of water. Lin points to it and rasps that this is spring water from a nearby source, “One of the essentials for any tea is good water”. This is as much of an introduction to him as I will receive.
Lin knows why I have come and he gets right to it. My body is uncoiling out of its damp tension in tiny stages. Lin’s voice comes out in bullet points with no flowery language or soothing smiles. His small body is perched at the edge of a small chair behind a table, upon which is a huge carved tea table, with a small plastic conduit tube hanging below into a pail.
As Lin explains that in Taiwan true teas should not be harvested before they are five years old, my broad-shouldered, female hostess arrives with a steaming plastic bowl full of hot water for my feet. Lin takes no notice, preferring instead to peek through the half dozen bags of dried tea leaves.
He selects one, and looks quickly over the table at me and asks if my feet are comfortable. “I’m going to serve you a roasted Oolong tea. A tea that has been roasted with cherry wood. It is a tea you will not find in many places and I’m not even sure I like it, but it is very special.”
Out of nowhere, he tells me “you will sleep here”, without looking up. His abruptness keeps me focused on him and I begin to suspect that this is exactly his intention.
Lin, I have been told, is originally from Fujian province, where Taiwan has taken much of its functional tea culture and much of its language. Known to be direct – often misinterpreted as rude- in their attempts to get to the point of a discussion – they are undisputed masters of Oolong in all of its incarnations and serving styles. As a friend once told me, “Fujian knows best where tea ceremony meets tea functionality.”
Lin is back explaining something as he readies one of an arsenal of stained clay pots. He tells me that he isn’t going to explain the special Yixing clay pot to me. “Yes, it is important, but nothing is as important as the ‘integrity’ of the leaf.” Heavy words.
The pot is rinsed from the outside first, so as not to crack it. Then the insides are rinsed with the searing, just boiled, nearby water.
Dark rolled leaves, almost black, are thrown into the clay pot, shaken with the lid on and handed to me to take in a first waft. First comes a waft of ‘roasting wood’ and then after that a hint of burnt corn.
A new batch of freshly boiled water drenches the leaves in the pot and the hermetically sealed lid is replaced. Ten seconds later, and after some humming of a tune by Lin, the first infusion drenches our awaiting cups.
Suddenly Lin is staring out of the bleak window at the rains beyond. Another nugget of tea is released from his mouth, “You know that these teas (all teas really) need mists. Those mists out there are like a blanket to protect the tea bushes.”
Moments later I have the fluid in my mouth. Two days of driving through rain disappear abruptly as I – with feet still soaking – take in Lin’s roasted Oolong.
Lin’s eyes stray to a point up and behind me before he shoots back the cup of tea and it is only after four more infusions – which have me jabbering with delight – that Lin grunts something. Again he isn’t sure; in this case he isn’t sure that this is the best of this particular tea. “Each year I take two or three kg’s to experiment with. This roasting is never the same twice. These teas are small little worlds.”
Some sips later, he finally seems to settle. He speaks of roasting in his short clipped way.
“Roasting is an art. You can hide a bad tea by roasting it, or you can use the roasting process to bring out a tea’s qualities. It can make an already good tea something special.” Roasting for many master-makers encourages yet more of a tea’s character to emerge, but he emphasizes, “Every stage of tea production is crucial and the roasting helps to wring something extra out of a tea. Some quality that needs the added roasting to release it.”
The roasting that he speaks of is done only after a tea is ‘fixed’ into its final form. It can be done immediately after, or, as in the case of Lin’s teas, months after. Some tea makers will even double roast a tea to ‘age’ and preserve it, just as smoking meats in the past extended the life of foodstuffs.
When I ask later if we might go into the fields, I get a slightly incredulous look and then a shake of the head. “We have a lot more tea to drink and I don’t like the rain. I like the mists though,” and he again stares out of the little window, before preparing another one of his roasted blends.
A comment Lin makes stays with me, and marks him in my tea-mind at least as an unrelenting perfectionist. When I ask him which tea he defers to most often, he thinks a moment, before telling me that the perfect tea rests only in his mind, and that “I haven’t tasted a tea yet that I find perfect.”
“This one is pretty good though,” he says, as he readies another pot with another dose of water.