Kaohsiung Native Mountain Tea／高雄原生山茶
Kaohsiung Native Mountain Tea
◎English translation: Peng Hsin-yi
◎Photos by Pao Chung-hui
The Kaohsiung native mountain tea tree is a very special plant. Its leaves, after being processed, become a versatile yet enduring tea that can be made into a hot beverage by the traditional tea-making technique or the "cold soak" technique. Cold-soaked tea has a distinctive leafy fragrance that speaks of mountains and misty dews. It quenches the thirst, and brings a sense of rejuvenation. The leaves can be re-soaked several times and still produce satisfying tea. When using hot water, the tea can be light and refreshing, or rich with a powerful aroma, depending on the techniques employed during the leaf-processing stage. The flavor has depth, and reveals multiple layers as one takes sips. The hot tea is never bitter; it leaves a sweet aftertaste as it goes down. As the native tea tree grows only on those steep slopes frequently enveloped by fog, their rarity make them much sought after by those in the know.
In Kaohsiung, most high-elevation mountain teas are cultivated in Tauyuan District, but it is the neighboring Sinfa Village in Liouguei District that has mastered tea-leaf processing techniques. Together, these two districts have struck a "green gold mine." Tea cultivation in this area started during the Japanese colonial period. Tea trees were planted in the native forests and grew slowly under the comfortable shade of taller trees. The best tea grows between 1,000 and 1,500 meters above sea level. Tea farmer Du Chun-fu and his wife Gu Shu-hua took over a native-tea plantation seven years ago from Du's father. He says old Mr. Du gathered his starter tea trees from a remote mountain, and transplanted the tea saplings he found there to his farm. The native tea trees do not need any special care and do not need to be fed with fertilizer. Following his father's path, Mr. Du also starts with saplings, serving as their guardian for the following four years, watching over the tea trees as their roots grow deeper and stronger. They are never sprayed with chemicals. Tea trees grown in this fashion are as natural as they come, which also means when the leaves are ready for harvesting, they do not appear in batches.
Kaohsiung native mountain tea leaves can be harvested three times a year. This winter harvest is the smallest and rarest of the harvests. By April, the trees are again covered in new leaves, enough to paint the whole slope a delicate pale green. This spring harvest is the year's largest in terms of volume. The autumn harvest takes place in October and November.
Native mountain tea is precious not only because of its flavor, but also because of the great amount of work involved. When working in their field, Mr. Du and his relatives must first tie a rope around their waist, with the other end secured to a tree. This is how they stop themselves from falling on the mountain side. During the summer the work is especially arduous due to the humid heat. But Mr. Du is deeply satisfied when he can share this treasure with the world.
Tea-leaf harvesting is only half of the work; the rest lies in the hands of experienced tea masters. They are the people who oversee the roasting process, making sure the leaves release their fullest potential and present their best flavor. Mr. Liu Wen-hua is a tea master with over 30 years of experience, and the maestro locals look up to. It was him who taught the area's farmers to spread out the tea leaves for aeration, stressing they should not overlap or smother one another, and that the leaves must be delivered from tree to roasting shop within half an hour. Mr. Liu says high-elevation native tea leaves are best treated with high temperatures to coax out the honey fragrance and lovely amber color. But with low-elevation native tea (1,000 meters and below), Mr. Liu can produce a very special brand of black tea. A two-stage fermentation process is used. During the first round the tea leaves lose their excess moisture and astringent taste, while during the second round of fermentation the tea develops its unique sweetness. Tea brewed from these leaves comes out a lovely shade of rose red, with a hint of honey fragrance. All the layers and multiple flavors unique to mountain teas emerge fully intact.
From its origins to its cultivation and then processing, Kaohsiung's native mountain tea is the epitome of quality and taste.