Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Shan Lin Xi high mountain Taiwanese oolong from Lin Hua Tai

I finally reviewed one of the high mountain oolongs I picked up in Taiwan, a Shan Lin Xi originated lightly oxidized and roasted rolled version.  It's from the Lin Hua Tai shop there, which I wrote more about in this general travel themed post, and in this Oriental Beauty review.  I'll say more about what the tea is after the review section (but it's a lighter rolled oolong, to start).


The tea is sweet, light, and fresh tasting.  It has some degree of butteriness to it, and a light, fresh vegetal tone, but the brightness and sweetness stands out beyond those aspects.  It feels thick, but then I'm not well-calibrated to judge relative thickness of light oolongs, having been off the subject for awhile now.  To me feel-related aspects are typically only interesting anyway, secondary to how a tea tastes.  The lingering aftertaste is nice too.

There's something about the overall effect that really does transcend the aspects, if that makes sense.  I can still keep going with listing aspects, mostly flavors, and maybe it would point towards why the tea comes across like that, but the effect seems to not be about that list being so interesting.

The tea brews to a bright golden yellow; it would seem the oxidation level and roast are both on the lighter side (I didn't discuss or get a clear written description of such things from that vendor).  Whatever those levels are the tea is prepared in such a way to give it a good complexity and very nice balance.  On the second infusion that feel picks up a lot, a good bit thicker, with a feel that really coats your tongue, and an even longer aftertaste.  It's creamy.

Unpacking tastes is another issue.  There are dominant floral tones, and vegetal tones that extend into the range of sweet corn, or really kind of hard to pin down, some of that overlapping with nice Chinese Tie Kuan Yin (a little).  Mineral doesn't stand out but some of the base complexity would relate to that, and even drifts toward spice range a little.  The sweetness and richness is even more appealing, or again how it comes together.

On the next infusion the mineral picks up a little more, with all the rest staying strong, nothing dropping back.  I get the impression I'll be able to talk some more about transition over a good number of additional infusions but that's essentially what's going on.  The concepts really don't do the experience justice.  I can write words like "clean, complex, rich, and sweet" but it might seem normal to describe teas that exhibit less of those traits using the same terms.

In the past I've knocked the entire range of lightly oxidized and roasted oolongs for getting boring but a better version is a different thing.  I get the impression "light" is too simplified related to those factors, in general and in this case, and what really is light compared to a mid-roasted tea still spans a range that makes a lot of difference.  I've got more to learn about Taiwanese oolongs, even though I already do keep reviewing versions.

Given plenty of experience with rolled ball oolongs expanding--Thailand and Vietnam also make those, and of course China--I thought that I went light on the dry tea amount and still got the balance wrong.  The tea isn't pushing out of the gaiwan, not the degree of botched brewing session one sometimes sees pictures of, but it is filling it, and using half as much would've worked as well, or maybe better.  The overall result might not be so different, something I'll be able to test since I bought 150 grams of this tea.

This is why people tend to weigh out teas.  I just wrote a post that discussed some of the problems with optimizing tea brewing versus keeping it simple.  That was more about making tea seem too complicated for people towards the beginning of a learning curve, but I really don't like to treat brewing like a chem-lab sort of experience either.  I'm an engineer, I did those chem labs, and I get it why people do push for consistency, about optimizing results, all that.

I can even sort of relate to ritual-oriented approaches, indirectly, to why people might prefer a 15 step gear-intensive brewing process for the same reasons, to roll up small technique related incremental improvements into a nearly perfect final result.  I'm just not on that page.  If I didn't have other things to do and had lots of budget to put towards it maybe gear and ritual aspects would seem more interesting.  But then probably not; I'm more a function over form sort of person, and the contribution to final outcome for heavily ritualized brewing steps strikes me as marginal.

On the next infusion the mineral and spice-like aspect--very light, nothing like cinnamon in a more roasted tea, but towards that general taste range--shift into a more even balance with the floral and touch of vegetal aspects.  Of course the feel of the tea is still full and creamy.  It's almost as if there is a flash of aftertaste that's actually stronger than the flavor of the liquid, which transitions a little but remains strong for a full minute after drinking it.

And that was it for tasting notes.  On the one hand those descriptions seem clear and detailed, in another sense maybe a good practice run for a real tasting instead.  It's never enough.  I have two more Taiwanese high-mountain oolongs from two other shops to get to, so if it works out I'll comparison taste to help get to a finer resolution description.  I just did that with golden needle teas and it worked well (not posted yet), it just makes sense to be careful about how much tea it adds up to at one go.

Research section

Taiwanese oolong is kind of not unexplored territory, but it's also more diverse than it might seem, beyond the issue of ever-better grades being available, those teas that never leave the country and such.  Here's an interesting Jastea vendor reference that describes teas from this particular area:

Shan Ling Xi – Tight leaf nuggets in a dark green color infuse a pale yellow liquid. Just be sure to steep them loose, not in an infuser, so they can open up all the way. The liquid has a light aroma and sugary quality. This oolong tea is from Shan Ling Xi in Nantou county of central Taiwan located at about 1600 meters above sea level, an elevation that provides ideal growing conditions due to air that remains cool year round. Tea has been grown here since the 1970’s and is known as one of the premier tea producing regions of Taiwan.

Not so much for any general aspects description (floral versus whatever else) but that sounds about right.

in Nantou County, in the center (just spelled differently)

That last reference and this tea growing area name (image credit) highlight one difficulty in keeping these areas straight:  Shan Lin (or Ling) Xi is transliterated in that as Shun Ling Shi.  There is one official spelling, it's just hard to know what it is based on surveying different records.

Tony Gebely describes this problem well in his text "Tea:  A User's Guide" (a great tea reference, reviewed in this post):

The Chinese standard for romanization is Hanyu Pinyin. Hanyu Pinyin became the international standard for romanization of Modern Standard Chinese in 1982; prior to 1982, Wade-Giles was the primary method of romanization... Hanyu Pinyin became the national standard for romanization of Modern Standard Chinese in Taiwan in 2009. Because this was a recent decision, Wade-Giles is still very prevalent there.

He also mentions that beyond that transliteration divide people can just rough out their own version sometimes, and it's possible for non-standard earlier versions to become relatively accepted (with "oolong" as a good example of that).

Another general tea reference and sales site (Tea from Taiwan) adds some interesting background on the area, with some interesting anomalies in the content:

This oolong tea growing area of Shan Ling Xi is about 1800 meters in altitude. Most of the oolong tea is the Wu-Long variety which is a very popular type of oolong tea in Taiwan. Two other varieties of tea - Jin Shuan and Tsuei Yu - are also grown in the Shan Ling Xi area.

Shan Ling Xi is also a popular tourist destination. There are cedar forests with running brooks in the vicinity that make it an enjoyable hiking area. There are many trails that meander through the forests with breathtaking views of waterfalls and beautiful flowers and plants.

The climate of Shan Ling Xi is temperate with plenty of rainfall and cool temperatures. The area is covered in an almost perpetual fog with short periods of sunshine. In winter frost and even snow are sometimes seen.

Interesting!  And of course partly wrong, beyond that elevation difference in the two citations.  There is no way that Wu Long is a tea plant type, which is what Jin Xuan is (or Jin Shuan, what's in a spelling, of course #12 in the TRES hybrid series).  Wulong is actually the correct (Hanyu Pinyin) transliteration for oolong, the common name version that stuck that's a bit inconsistently rendered.

Shan Li Xi tea plantation area (photo credit)

Someone with a lot of experience in the general range might be able to untangle inputs and say what this tea is--the plant type--based on tasting it.  The creaminess reminds me of Jin Xuan from Thailand, but the taste profile more of Bai Lu, the spice dimension, and the vegetal sweet-corn part Tie Kuan Yin (which they do also grow in Taiwan).  It's probably Qing Xin, since that's the most common plant type used (per my understanding), with most references I'm seeing to teas from this area basing teas on this plant type.

It's better to read about the area, plant types, and about good tea versions from better references, like this Tea Master's blog post on visiting the area and tasting a tea from there.  That tea was described as made from the Qing Xin cultivar, identified as Chin Shin in the older Wade Giles system.  His pictures and the description of the local climate are nice:

Everything is big, dramatic and extreme at this elevation. The light coming through the fog looked bright, but everything else became dark and mysterious. This fog brings moisture and freshness to all the plants, including our Oolong leaves. This afternoon fog is the secret ingredient of high mountain Oolong and explains why its leaves can grow so long while retaining their suppleness and freshness.

Nice!  None of this could lead back to more specifics about the tea I reviewed but it made for an interesting tangent.  It probably did taste so nice because of fog, and also growing and processing skill.

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