13 January 2010

The eroding landscape of high mountain teas

"The more fake a tea is, the more fragrant and delicious it can be.  The more fake a tea is, the more it can sell, and for a high price.  This is the world of tea that we live in." 

My Dong Ding teacher's viewpoint on the eroding landscape of tea is reflected in what happened to Alishan late last year, when typhoons destroyed 1/2 to 2/3 of the winter crop.  It is natural that higher demand results in increased production and/or increased prices.  The demand for premium Taiwan high mountain oolong is insatiable, made even more so by its rapidly growing popularity in China that's fueled by deep-pocketed tea enthusiasts. 

Alishan has been so heavily farmed and terraced for tea that its soil is increasingly unstable.  Trees on mountains grow deep roots that anchor the soil.  Remove the forests and grow shallow-rooted plants and there is no stability in the landscape.  I've seen it everywhere; on Fenghuang mountain, Shanlinxi, Longfengxia, and Dalun mountain.  Beautiful tea terraces that encircle entire mountainsides.  Where is the excess moisture to go?  It's no wonder heavy rains can wash away entire sides of a mountain.

I met some old tea farmers in Taipei as I was having tea with the Younger one day.  The farmers said that tea needs space to breathe.  It needs the natural landscape to balance its environment.  It needs to be trimmed and hacked every once in a while so that it can fight to grow back.  Sometimes a bush must forego the harvest for a few seasons to produce good leaves again.  Trees, fruit bushes and other types of vegetation add to the unique characteristics of tea.  Plants thrive, they think, when their natural environment is left as pure and natural as can be.

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