by Olivia Miller on December 6th, 2016
Crawling up the mountain on the Ali Shan Forest Railway, at points it feels like we might topple over the edge or the old engine might just give up. After two and a half hours of slow ascent through lush forest we finally reach the tiny station of Jiaoliping. Clearly few people ever stop here; there is a lone station manager and a few dogs resting in the shade (also a giant spider the size of a man’s hand which I notice in its web above us). Other than that the village seems to be empty. We’re met by Mr Chiu, who points out his tea fields which are about a mile away as the crow flies; the plunging valley between us and our destination means a winding 20 minute drive though.
Ali Shan is one of the iconic high mountains which snake up the spine of Taiwan; famous for producing arguably the best oolong in the country and amongst the best in the world. A perfect combination of high altitude, sunny mornings followed by misty afternoons and rich soil makes the mountain ideal for growing tea. This is despite its relative infancy as a tea mountain, having only been producing for the last 35-40 years (compared to neighbouring China where tea has been produced for the last few millennia).
The Chiu Family have been in it from the beginning, having established Epin Farm 35 years ago. Mr Chiu, now in his thirties, grew up on the farm and is now in charge of the everyday running, overseen by his mother (who seems to be the real boss). The farm is relatively small compared in terms of Ali Shan, they have a few fields on the edge of Rueilli village and a shiny new processing unit at the top of the village. Their teas are famous in the area due to their frequent success in competitions, which are at the heart of the tea industry in Taiwan.
Upon our arrival it’s straight out to the tea fields. Tea fields are one of my favourite places to be: there is something magical about walking through the bushes, so far away from home.
Immediately I am invigorated by the fresh mountain air and the spectacular, never-ending view of mountains studded with palm trees. As usual I have managed to make friends with a local dog who leads me around the garden pestering the pickers as she goes. This morning we are lucky to see the pickers out, the window to harvest in Taiwan is always very short (between 5 and seven days) and the date is never set, so often you can go to Taiwan and not see any tea being made at all. There are about 12 pickers out in total, men and women, of all ages. They make quick work of the bushes, slicing through the stems just below the second leaf with razor blades attached to their fingers. At midday the working day is over as it’s too warm to pick the leaves and soon the afternoon mist will roll down off the mountain making it too wet.
It’s time for the pickers to enjoy a warm beer and some lunch before the leaves are weighed and the money is dished out. Then, it’s back to the village for us to enjoy a spectacular feast including some rather delicious tempura tea leaves. Whilst we were there they were finishing off a batch of tea due to be entered into a competition at the end of November, the biscuity smell of baking Ali Shan fills the whole building; there is no other smell more delicious or comforting.
Making a Taiwanese rolled oolong is a super skilled process with many complicated steps, taking over 24 hours. Each year the Chiu family bring in their favourite tea master and his crew to expertly manipulate their raw leaves into their award winning teas. That evening we go up to their processing unit to check it out. At 10pm they are still in the early stages of the process and will be up all night keeping a close eye on the leaves. The leaves have been withering on a wall of stainless steel racks for the last 10 hours; the leaves must be turned at regular intervals to ensure that they all wither evenly. It is taken in batches and tumbled in a bamboo rolling cylinder for 10-30 minutes to begin bruising the leaves and start the alchemy of oxidation. The tea master knows the exact point at which to remove the leaves just from their smell and appearance – no fancy equipment here. The smell is a little like cut grass, only much sweeter… really it’s incomparable to anything else, but instantly recognisable once you’ve experienced it. After the tumbling, the tea is laid out on shallow bamboo baskets which are stacked up on racks and left to wither again. We’ll have to wait until the next day to see the rest of the process. In the morning the tea master is still at it, the tea must be dried at the perfect moment to ensure the tea does not oxidise too much or too little, as any wrong decision will result in a ruined batch of tea.
The tea is piled into large cylinder shaped ovens which tumble the tea as they heat it, ensuring that the moisture in the leaves is reduced to around 10%, still leaving the leaves supple. The tea is scooped out of the cylinders and bundled into cloth sacks which are twisted into a tight ball and put into a rolling machine; this twists the leaves into the tight balls, characteristic of Taiwanese oolongs. The tea is then baked to the perfect level to ensure the fresh flowery, fruity notes are brought to the fore without being overpowered.
This year we have decided to buy both our Ali Shan and Milk Oolong from Epin Farm, both so spectacular we could not resist. Both are picked and processed almost identically but different bush cultivars are used. Ali Shan is made with leaves picked from the Chin Shin cultivar bush, a slow-grown, delicate bush that is suited to the high altitude of Ali Shan which is cool enough to allow the floral flavours to intensify. Milk Oolong is made with the Jin Xuan cultivar bush, which is faster growing and hardier than Chin Shin; this unctuous, sappy tea has natural milky tones making for a totally unique flavour.