Throughout history, tea drinkers have prized leaves cultivated at high elevations. In almost every category, elevation can mark the difference between a good tea and an incredible one. In Taiwan, it can even be the primary factor in determining quality. Tea growers in Taiwan have moved gradually up the mountains over time, first planting tea at 700 meters above sea level, and then 1,600, and finally at the highest peaks of the Lishan range. Da Yu Lin, the highest tea-growing peak, reaches nearly 2,800 meters.
Since moving upwards in elevation naturally reduces the amount of available land, and colder temperatures further reduce crop yields, it seems counterintuitive to continue moving up the mountain. For the harvest to be worth the extra effort, it must be exceptional enough to command higher prices. So what, exactly, does elevation add? Is it merely prestige and rarity that makes these teas seem a cut above the rest?
Well, no. Actually, the elevation of a plant impacts almost every facet of its growing process, from flavor development to pest control. Even within a single region, environmental conditions can vary wildly with elevation, changing the terroir, and the quality, of the tea. Overall, high mountain teas are recognized as having more complexity to the flavor, less bitterness, and a more creamy texture to the finish.
Slow Growth, Better Flavor
Elevation reduces crop yields because temperatures are colder, the soil is rockier, and rainwater flows downhill, reducing the available water for plants at the top. It can be very difficult to grow tea plants at all in these conditions. One farmer, instructed by Taiwanese President Chiang Kai-Shek to establish a tea farm at an unprecedented 2,700 meters in 1967, reported an initial failure rate of 75%, with only 200 of his 800 tea plants surviving the first year. Organic practices were not only preferred, but necessary, as fast-growing fertilized plants would not develop a strong enough root system to withstand the cold winters and regular soil erosion.
Once a tea plant has taken root, it still faces a tough growing season, with warm summer weather coming later than lower elevations, and nutrients harder to come by in the rocky soil. Yet slowly, budding leaves begin to appear.
This slow growth process is the main secret behind the quality of high elevation teas. In such antagonistic conditions, the plant must send more carbohydrates to the leaves in order to power growth. Many spring harvested teas are prized for the same reason, but because elevation lengthens dormancy and shortens the growing season, the effect becomes more obvious in high mountain teas. The greater concentration of carbohydrates in the leaf adds natural sweetness, as well as the famed creamy texture of Taiwanese oolongs.
At the same time, colder temperatures naturally limit the number of insects in the area. This is lucky, not only because it reduces the need for pesticides, but also because it reduces the bitterness in the leaf. Most of the bitter flavors in tea come from polyphenic compounds that develop as natural pest control. With fewer pests, these high elevation plants produce fewer bitter compounds.
Finally, the rocky soil and natural drainage reduce the amount of water in the leaves, serving to concentrate and intensify the existing flavor compounds. Since plants stockpile nutrients and carbohydrates in the roots during times of abundance, too much water can essentially “dilute” the flavor of a tea leaf. In addition, excess moisture makes the leaf much harder to craft, as it must be completely dried for shelf stability. Even at lower elevations, farmers typically avoid harvesting right after a rain. While a lack of water makes it more difficult for the plant to produce new leaves, it also means the flavor is more intense in the sprouts that do emerge.
Advantages of Inaccessibility
For all these reasons, the flavor of high mountain teas is objectively superior, with more complexity and sweetness, and less bitterness. But this isn’t the only reason we love high mountain teas. An added benefit of mountainous regions is that they are typically rural areas, well removed from the pollution and industrialization of China’s cities. Some mountainous tea growing regions, like the Wuyi Mountains in northern Fujian, are even protected natural areas.
These rural villages operate in much the same way as they have for centuries. In Panan County, the whitewashed buildings on the mountainside look like they’ve been transported from the Ming Dynasty. At 1200 meters, in a village with less than a dozen families, the tea farmer’s son is also the mayor. His mother says the whole village benefits from the economic impact of their highly regarded tea farm.
As mentioned before, elevation can naturally reduce the demand for fertilizers and pesticides, and at many of these farms, the tea plants are left unpruned through the dormant winter. Rather than the familiar rows of sheared bushes that are common sights on larger plantations, these plants look almost wild. Full, round bushes are spaced irregularly, with undergrowth sprouting in between. It’s not difficult to imagine the first tea growers in China doing things much the same way hundreds or even thousands of years ago.
Finally, the remote nature of these high mountain farms makes it much easier for these farmers to avoid pesticide contamination. In Taiwan, for instance, betel nut trees grown prolifically at lower elevations must be sprayed with pesticides to yield their desired nuts. As these trees are often grown near or even among tea plants, contamination is almost a foregone conclusion. Responsible tea growers at these lower elevations work with their neighbors to avoid contamination during the harvest season. But this isn’t an issue at high mountain farms, since betel nut trees don’t grow above 500 meters. Similarly, higher elevations are less prone to polluted runoff or atmospheric contaminants.
While elevation may not be the best determination of quality for all teas, it is pretty safe to say that extra altitude does contribute to a better tea. It is hardly any wonder that these amazing and limited teas can command high prices. Luckily, the extra concentration of flavor is sure to see you through several infusions, or even reduce the amount of leaves you need to make a strong cup. Be sure to steep your high elevation leaves a few times, and take a minute to appreciate the flavor, texture, and tradition of each incredible tea.
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