This particular tea was produced entirely from Qing Xin or “green heart” cultivar tea trees that were planted in the late 1930’s in Jenai Township of Nantou County, Taiwan. These precious tea trees are some of the oldest living specimens in Taiwan, and they have been allowed to grow in a semi-wild fashion for the past decade or so.
Essentially, this is a wild grown tea; but, since the trees were technically planted (or grafted) by people, we are not willing to call it a truly wild tea. This is why we are referring to it as “Lao Tai Di,” (literally: “old terrace” or old plantation) tea, to borrow a term from the Pu-Erh producers in Yunnan. Despite this technicality, production from these trees is extremely limited, and we are very lucky to have gotten some of this tea from the Fall harvest of 2010.
The harvesting, processing & roasting of this tea was done with extreme care. It was picked entirely by hand to cause minimal damage to the precious trees. After picking, the tea leaves are allowed to sit and wither for some time until some moisture evaporates out of the leaves & they become pliable enough for rolling. At this point, the leaves are rolled to bruise them and start the partial oxidation process common to all oolong teas. In this instance, the tea master allowed these leaves to oxidize approximately 25% of the way before it was wok fired to stop the oxidation process. The tea was then dried and made ready for the final step: roasting.
The roasting of this tea was done in the traditional manner using glowing (not flaming) charcoal that has been covered with ash (usually from burned rice hulls) to prevent flare ups and smokey tastes from penetrating & overpowering the tea flavor. The roast is what I would term a “medium-high” roast, and the producer refers to this tea as 60% roasted.
The flavor profile of this tea balances the distinctively “charcoal roasted” roasty-toasty taste with the other distinctive flavors of dried stone fruit and maybe just a hint of tropical fruit flavor. To my taste, this 2010 harvest is more vividly fruity than the 2009 tea that we tasted side by side with, but the 2010 version is recently roasted and will continue to change and re-balance as time passes.
On a personal note, this “Lao Tai Di/Old Plantation” tea represents a really positive direction for the more exclusive, artisanal type teas from Taiwan to be taking. By shifting some focus away from mass production from younger, more productive plants to these precious but far less productive older trees, a whole different range of flavors and feelings can be experienced in the finished tea.