High mountain tea is a unique category of tea where tea trees are cultivated in high altitude. To be considered a high mountain tea, the leaves must be grown at least 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) above sea level.
Usually high mountain tea refers to oolong teas. All oolong teas are semi-oxidized, and high mountain teas are on the lighter end of oxidation, between 20%-40%. This gentle processing allows the beautiful flavor and aromas of the tea to shine through.
Everything about high mountain tea is beautiful and elegant, from the pale golden color to the floral and creamy flavors. The elevation and unique climate create a tea highly sought after by tea lovers.
Origin of High Mountain Tea
When we say high mountain tea, we are referring to oolong teas grown on the slopes of the mountains of Taiwan. Taiwan is a mountainous island. The island has the largest number and density of high mountains in the world. There are 286 mountain summits over 3,000 meters (9,800 ft) above sea level on the island.
Tea plants cultivated in Taiwan’s high mountain regions can be traced back to cultivars brought over from mainland China in the late eighteenth century. Though, tea grown in high altitude did not reach its local fame and popularity until 1990’s. Nantou county, densely populated with Taiwanese’s high mountains, became the birthplace of Taiwanese high mountain tea. Tea gardens in various size and scale can be found in many of Taiwan’s five mountain ranges. There are teas grown at high elevations in other countries as well, but in general High Mountain Tea refers to the high mountain oolongs of Taiwan in the industry.
You’ll often see Taiwanese high mountain tea referred to as Gaoshan Cha. Gao translates to high, shan means mountain and cha is tea. Each high mountain tea producing region is known to have its own unique flavors and aromas based on its terrior. The harvest time also has an impact on flavor. Most of the high elevation grown teas are harvested three times a year, spring, summer, and winter. Summer harvest has the least commercial value, therefore most commercially sold quality gaoshan tea are from winter, harvested starting late October, and spring gaoshan is harvested starting the middle of May.
High Mountain Tea Terroir
Terroir is the term for all the external factors that influence the tea plants. Factors such as weather, soil, altitude, climate, and even the mastery of the tea producers. The majestic, misty mountains of Taiwan create a unique ecosystem that nurtures the flavors in high mountain tea.
The key to the unique aromatics in high mountain tea is the slow growth of the tea plants. The average temperature is lower at high altitude, which causes the plants to grow slower than those closer to sea level. Also, the mountain fog creates a good amount of humidity and keeps the sun at bay which reduces the astringency and increase vibrancy of the tea.
The drastic temperature change from day to nighttime and higher UV exposure to the sun create tougher growing conditions, therefore weeding out weaker tea plants. Generally, high elevation tea leaves are thicker and sturdier compared to its sea level counterpart due to these environmental factors, offering more intense aroma and fragrance. Elegant florals, vegetal sweetness, and creamy flavors are common characteristics found in high mountain teas.
You may be surprised to see that high mountain teas are more expensive than other oolongs, and this is also due to the terroir. Growing at a high elevation has many benefits for the tea leaves, but also presents challenges for the tea farmers.
The tea is usually plucked by hand, which creates more time and work for the tea pickers. The slow growth means there is less harvest frequency, and a smaller yield in each harvest. Finally, there is a high demand for this tea within Taiwan so less of it gets exported out of the country.
High Mountain Tea Regions
Taiwan has many high mountains that produce tea with distinct aromatics and flavors, based on the climate and elevation of each area. The following mountains may be considered the most famous:
- Ali Shan – This mountain range in central Taiwan crosses six different counties and is home to its namesake Mount Ali. One of the best-known areas for high elevation Taiwanese tea, its tea region ranges in elevation from 1,000-2,300 meters above sea level. Tea from Mount Ali can be buttery, sweet, and is famous for its Osmanthus florals.
- Shan Lin Xi – This area is 1,600-1,800 meters above sea level, located in Nantou. This mountain is known for its afternoon throughout the year. The tea is known for its silky texture, vibrant floral and cedar notes. Long Feng Xia, or Valley of Dragon and Phoenix is part of the Shan Lin Xi mountain range.
- Li Shan – Mount Li’s mountain range crosses three county in central taiwan, also referred to as Pear Mountain. Its tea cultivating area ranges from 1,800-2,600 meters above sea level and is home to the highest peak in tea production, Da Yu Ling. Teas from this area are praised for its fragrance of pear blossom and apples along with an unique aroma of frosted ancient forest.
- Yu Shan – Also known as Jade Mountain, this mountain range houses the highest peak in all of Taiwan at 3,952 meters. The tea cultivation region is between 1,200-1,600 meters and predominately made with Qingxin cultivar. White flowers, pom fruits and ancient forest are its signature aroma.
- Lala Shan – A relatively newcomer to tea cultivation historically known to produces peaches. Its tea growing region is mainly in Taoyuan about 1,000-1,500 meters above sea level. Teas from this region has a soft and silky texture with an aroma of peaches and vibrant evergreen.
- Qilai Shan – Mount Qilai is a set of mountain range located in central Taiwan between Hualien and Nantou. It’s famous among serious mountain climbers for its dangerous climbing terrain and relatively new to tea cultivation. The tea region is 1,800-2,100 meters above sea elevation and its tea is vibrant, floral and buttery.
There are many other Taiwanese mountains that produce beautiful high mountain teas as well. Seek out as many as you can, to experience the differences in flavor, texture, and aroma. You will not be disappointed!
Benefits of High Mountain Tea
Because high mountain teas are lightly oxidized, they hold similar benefits to green tea without the strong grassy taste. The light oxidation brings out floral, sweet, and milky flavors while keeping the leaves a vibrant green color.
Comparable to green teas, high mountain oolongs have high levels of polyphenols. Polyphenols protect the body from stressors and may help protect against various forms of cancer, heart disease, and inflammation.
High mountain oolongs also contain L-theanine, an amino acid known to reduce anxiety and help you relax. But we think the tea also produces a sense of calm from the beautiful nuanced flavors. It allows the taster to slow down and fully appreciate this delicate tea.
Our favorite benefit is the multiple steeps you can get from just one serving of loose-leaf tea. High mountain oolongs are rolled into a ball shape, and it takes many steepings for the leaves to unfurl and release their flavors. You can sit with a gaiwan full of this tea for an entire afternoon and observe how the flavors change with each consecutive steep.
Caffeine in High Mountain Tea
High Mountain tea comes from the camellia sinensis plant, so it does have a good amount of caffeine. High mountain teas are typically tightly rolled, so the caffeine release from the slow unfurling of the tea leaves is more gradual. Caffeine does not actually correspond to tea type; other factors contribute to caffeine levels such as the brewing method, processing style, terroir, age of tea leaves, and even the cultivar of the tea plant.
Please refer to our tea and caffeine blog post for more information on this topic.
How To Brew High Mountain Tea
High Mountain Oolong 6 grams
Water 237 ml, heated to 212°F (Boiling)
Add a heaping teaspoon of High Mountain Oolong leaves into your brewing vessel. Pour the boiling water and steep for 1 – 2 minutes. This tea can be steeped multiple times. Be sure to observe the aroma both of the steeped leaves and the brewed tea as the leaves unfurl and release all of their aromatics. You can use a gaiwan or a teapot, we are partial to gaiwan for this tea.
Cold High Mountain Tea
High Mountain Oolong 8 grams
Water .75 Liter heated to 212°F (boiling)
High mountain oolong is rolled into a balled shape, therefore adding this tea to cold water won’t allow the tea to properly open up and release its flavors. It’s best to first brew the tea hot and let the leaves unfurl. Pour boiling water over the tea and allow it to steep for about 5 minutes. Remove leaves and allow the brew to cool down before popping in the fridge.
For more about preparing your tea both hot and cold, check out our tea brewing guides.