One of Taiwan's most recognizable exports, high mountain tea grown on the island is known worldwide for its high quality and deep natural flavors.
Ultimately an agricultural product, learning about the environment the tea is grown in can provide more understanding as to the nature of the tea.
The island of Taiwan (also known as Formosa) is formed by the geologic collision of the Eurasian tectonic Plate and features belonging to the Philippine Sea Plate and the Ryuku Islands (Okinawa, Japan). As a result, the island is volcanically active and earthquake-prone. The eastern two thirds of the island is primarily mountain ranges and mainly uninhabitable due to inaccessibility and lack of developable areas. Taiwan's mountain ranges have been formed over millions of years as these geologic features collide under the surface and push upwards at an average of 2cm per year. The best example of this phenomena is a visit to Taroko Gorge National Park, where one can witness the power of the Liwu river eroding these mountains into majestic sights.
Some high mountain regions of Taiwan have developed agricultural industries, and high mountain tea farms can be found along each of the island’s mountain ranges. Each mountain range specializes in different types of tea, as tea strains have been developed to match the natural land and soil nutrient conditions. Some well-known strains include those from Ali-shan, Shanlinxi (Shanlinhsi or ‘Sun-Link-Sea’), and Li-shan, covering all fermentation levels such as green, black, and oolong (wulong) teas.
Due to Taiwan's unique topography, flat and developable areas are limited to the west coast and some pockets along the east coast. These zones have naturally developed into cities and industrial zones which power Taiwan's advanced, IT-focused export economy. While these industrial zones along the west coast may affect the island's pollution, high-mountain regions are so far away up in the clouds that air pollution is next to non-existent. The same cannot be said with confidence or guaranteed for tea products that come from neighboring countries.
During Taiwan's industrialization post WW-II, high mountain agriculture products were encouraged as an additional source of high-quality food. These products, grown in environments free of air pollution with clean, river water and volcanic, nutrient-rich soils, are still highly sought after in Taiwan. Tour groups heading to the mountains for the day may return home with a week's worth of vegetables such as cabbage or radish.
Taiwan has many earthquakes and tremors which may shake the land and cause landslides. These landslides occurring at higher elevations have the potential to cause compounding disasters as boulders and other land masses can tumble down the mountains, destroying everything in their paths. To limit the scope of these landslides, trees with long roots may be used to stabilize the land. Over time, mountain-side farms and plantations growing vegetables, tea, and other products such as beetle nut (檳榔, a stimulant similar to chewing tobacco) have been encouraged to discontinue these products in favor of trees.
Due to increased government enforcement of land usage rights, especially with relation to forestry and landslide concerns, availability of high mountain tea has decreased, and some sellers have resorted to mixing Taiwanese leaves with those of southeast Asian countries to defray costs. Major suppliers and brands have begun this practice as demand for Taiwanese tea now outstrips domestic production and supply, with consumers unaware of the exact percentages of mixing. Of course, this mixing diminishes the flavor and essence of the nicer tea leaves and changes its brewed result. Real high mountain teas from Taiwan that are unadulterated and not mixed are of high quality, and this will be reflected in its pricing. Lower priced goods may indicate some shortcuts were taken during production.
High mountain teas from Taiwan are available for purchase in many shops, however it may be difficult to determine the authenticity of the leaves, or if they have been mixed with lesser leaves. Similarly, tea leaves marketed as "organic" may be questionable, as truly organic leaves without pesticides are difficult to produce and will be priced outside the range of the average consumer. "Organic" tea products that are too cheap are most likely being misrepresented.
While shopping for Taiwan high mountain teas, please be aware of the source of the tea leaves, whether or not the leaves have been mixed with those from outside Taiwan (specifically from Vietnam or Indonesia), the packaging location, and if the leaves have passed an inspection process with regard to pesticide standards.
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