For many years now I’ve seen the term “high mountain oolong” being bandied about, but I never really gave it much thought. Until recently, when I started to wonder exactly what that meant.
Obviously, since I’m not completely dense (that’s my story and I’m sticking with it), I can pretty much deduce, based on the name, that this is a type of oolong tea that grows high in the mountains. No, duh. But wanting to verify this and to see if there was anything more to it, I decided that a little bit of research was called for.
To get back to an even more basic level, for those who might not be aware, oolong – along with black, green, white, and puerh – is one of the five major types of tea [Editor’s note: yellow is a possible sixth type but is fairly rare at this time.]. The most notable varieties of oolong come from China and Taiwan and they can range widely, depending on the point of origin and how they are processed. Some varieties are lightly processed almost to the point that they are close to green tea while the most heavily processed varieties have a bold flavor that’s closer to black tea.
So what about high mountain oolong? According to The Tea Drinker’s Handbook, by Francois-Xavier Delmas, Mathias Minet and Christine Barbaste, high mountain refers to a tea that grows at an altitude of 3,280 feet (1,000 meters) or higher, with one of the highest tea gardens being found in Taiwan’s Li Shan mountains, at over 8,000 feet.
In The Tea Enthusiast’s Handbook, tea experts and merchants Mary Lou and Robert Heiss note that tea gardens in Taiwan are situated at elevations from about 2,000 to 8,000 feet. But, as they also remark, “the most intriguing Taiwanese teas are the high mountain gao shan oolongs,” varieties that grow at about 6,000 feet.
In The Art and Alchemy of Chinese Tea, by Daniel Reid, the author devotes an entire chapter (and then some) to explaining and singing the praises of this type of tea. As Reid notes, about high mountain Oolong, “Among the many varieties of Chinese tea available on the market today, there is one whose fragrance and flavor surpass all others and make it stand out among teas ‘like a crane among chickens,’ as the Chinese would say.” For more on Reid’s book, read the review I wrote in early 2012.
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