Of all the tea cultivars that are unique to Taiwan, none is more precious and intriguing as the wild indigenous mountain tea bush also known as Shan Cha (山茶). If you think that centuries-old wild tea trees with 30 cm leaves can only be found in the forests of Yunnan (not to forget India, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam), think again. You must add Taiwan to the list! This unique specimen is not only of great interest as a varietal tea, it is also important and revered as the father (or mother) plant to some of the most unique and distinctive tea hybrids of Taiwan. For example, it is from this unique wild strand that the Taiwan Research and Experiment Station (TRES) has successfully developed the now famous TRES-18 Red Jade black tea which has fueled the black tea revival on this island since the turn of this new century. Four distinct protected areas have been put in place in central, south and eastern Taiwan for the preservation of this national treasure. Of these four protected areas, the one that is reputed to make the best varietal tea happens to be just up in the eastern range close to Taiwan Tea Crafts’ base, in the Township of Yuchi of our Nantou County. Follow us as we climb the hills to hunt down specimens of these wild bushes and witness at the same time the transformation of a local economy brought about by the revival of black tea.
Our guide for this trip is Mr. Xü, an established tea producer in Yuchi for several generations. We met him on one of our tea sourcing trips last Fall, and we had the pleasure of accepting his invitation to show us around the neighboring mountains. But first, let’s answer a question that I can hear in the thoughts of many of you:
Why haven’t we heard of Shan Cha before?…
We are all acquainted with Taiwan’s reputation for its oolong teas, most are also aware of Taiwan’s black offerings, but a wild indigenous varietal tea?…Virtually unknown in the West, Shan Cha’s presence and use as an infused drink has first been recorded in Chinese writings dating back to 1717. It’s been known and used by the aboriginal inhabitants of this island then, and most probably before, and still is today. Its appearance is somewhat close to the Assamica strand with its long leaves, but distinct with unique adventitious shoots arising from its underground roots. It is a shrub that prefers a wild, mountainous habitat with altitudes ranging between 650 m to 1500 m. This tea is not promoted to sell into the market because of its wild characteristic. It is a plant that doesn’t render the same taste if cultivated in a more systematic way. Therefore, very few tea makers want to take the time and make the effort of gathering leaves from wild bushes scattered here and there in the mountain forests. And, Taiwan being the small island that it is, there is not so many wild Shan Cha bushes around to pick leaves from… So, it is quite rare.
This rarity has repercussions on price, and of course supply, making it quite a bit less interesting for any party involved in the traditional distribution chain of the tea business to show a commercial interest in it. This is even true for the local market but especially true for any foreign tea supplier, big or small. Uniformity of the product, stability in the supply, and good (read cheap) pricing are considered the golden rules of good business practices. So, this explains why your usual network may not offer it, even if they have heard about it. In our case, providing worthy and authentic tea tasting experiences and celebrating the diversity of a terroir is our model, as well as being right in the middle of it! So, you can trust that we will always be there to create that direct link with the distinctive tea offerings Taiwan has to offer to the world.
Meeting the father of all Taiwan Black Tea Cultivars
Every time we get offered to visit tea gardens, it invariably involves a ride in a pick-up truck. The Taiwanese definition for this type of vehicle is very far from the one in the West. We’re talking about a tiny and very basic 4-wheel drive contraption that is designed to cut its way through mountainous trails. Comfort is the last consideration in their design, especially when you are offered to ride in the back open-cab since the host’s Dachshund is occupying the passenger seat!
As we sped by on the sinuous Township roads, nearly all of the surrounding mountains still showed visible traces of the effects of the big 921 earthquake of 1999. Sharp inclines bore the scars of landslides where betel nut (Areca) trees tumbled down and were replaced by scattered vegetation clinging to the exposed rocks left afterwards. We are definitely in Areca tree country here! This has been the prevailing form of agricultural activity up until 1999 when the whole area got devastated and a major wake-up call was triggered. This Township was one of the most badly hit areas in Taiwan and one of the major cause for the extent of the devastation was exactly this areas main activity: the growing of shallow-rooted Areca palm trees! One of our previous posts gives a good account on how tea plantations have become a true economic saviour for this area since then: a model that was ironically the region’s principal activity back in the Japanese era. Climbing on the narrow mountainous trails through the still prevailing palm trees, we can actually see visual references of how tea plantations dominated these mountains a long time ago in how the hillsides are still terraced where rows of tea bushes used to be.
After a long climb where both hands were required to hold on to our dear life, we arrived at a large area where the dull green of Areca palms was replaced by the lively shade of green of tea bushes. We were now at an altitude of about 1000 m. Before our eyes was a new 5-year-old plantation that had just started yielding its first crops of T-8 Assamica and T-18 Red Jade and a splattering of the new T-21 Hong Yun cultivars. The garden was much like any other you would find in Taiwan, but yet a little different as well. There was no irrigation system. Mother nature was the only provider of water for these bushes and no tanks of liquid pesticide was to be found around. Among this vast expanse of similar bushes, all organized in rows like an well disciplined regiment, stood a different looking shrub draped in darker hues of bluish green. It looked similar with its recognizable tea-shaped leaves but the size of them was definitely grander! Some of them were over 25 cm in length, close to twice the length of my hands as I could establish on the spot. And there it was, the mythical indigenous Shan Cha. It stood there, among its descendants, as if it was guarding the spirit of the Taiwanese heritage it majestically symbolized. But, seriously, what was it doing there, all alone? It was quite obvious that this bush was much older than its siblings around him, and the position it occupied was not organized and planned in the layout of the garden. This bush was there when the forest was cleared to make way for the garden. And since these are protected bushes by law, it was left there. Mr. Xü was quick to point out that, even so, no one in Taiwan would even dare cut such a precious bush out of respect and pride for what it represents! I could only feel the same way.
After a minute of contemplative silence Mr. Xü signalled us to board the truck again for another stint through the palm trees to get to the other side of this mountain where a vertiginous couloir of rocks made its path down below the road. We were standing at the head of one of these many landslide paths I mentioned earlier. A scattering of small tea bushes were spread out all throughout this long chute to an undistinguishable far away point down below the mountain. Mr. Xü initiated a descent and invited us to follow him to the dismay of the dog that couldn’t even contemplate following us due to its obvious design limitations. At every footstep, rocks would start tumbling down the steep incline. We made it down to about 50 meters from the top to the start of a fault line deepened with time by irrigation. Standing at the commissure of the fault was another Shan Cha bush that was obviously displaced and roughened-up by some events we guessed happened around 1999. It was a magnificent older bush with an impressive short trunk from which extended an exposed root system that reached out deep inside the crevasse to find something softer than the boulders it was now sitting on. Its leaves were thick and lustrous and it stood straight and proud despite its seemingly precarious position. This specimen was 50 to 60 years old, estimated Mr. Xü.
As we made our return back down the mountain after paying our due respect to these venerable bushes, I couldn’t help pondering about them and making analogies between this unique tea plant and the people of this island, whether native or of mainland descent. They share common characteristics: Discreet and not flashy (and rare…), they are nonetheless strong and resilient, and unquestionably unique and colourful when allowed to have their own space to shine in their own rightful and distinctive way. This character comes in good part from the precious treasure this island is. In one case, we can evoke the distinctive terroir, in the other the distinctive culture that flourishes here. Each one a precious treasure to this world’s heritage in their own realm. That I can attest to, without a doubt or hesitation.
If you can’t come and verify my sayings on the spot, your best alternative still remains to experience it through the tea that comes from this fragrant island!
To remain in the tone of this post, we propose you consider the following offerings:
- Yuchi Wild Mountain Black Tea, Lot 139
- Yuchi Wild Mountain Black Tea, Lot 242
- 2006 Aged Wild Mountain Black Tea, Lot 236