Monday, November 20, 2006

Ai Jiao Oolong

Taiwan did have some wild tea trees growing naturally on its soil, but it didn't use those to start its tea production in the 19th Century. Instead, it imported tea tree plants from Fujian. From MinNan (south of Fujian) came the Tie Guan Yin varietal as well as the method of rolling the Oolong in a ball like shape. And from MinBei (north of Fujian) came the tree that gave birth to Luanze (Qingxin) Oolong and its subsequent variations (Qingxin DaPa, Si Ji Chun, Tsui Yu, Jinxuan...). Taiwanese tea researchers have now exactly identified the origin of Taiwan's main tea varietals. Contrary to common knowledge, they don't come from Wu Yi Mountain itself, but from a place 2 hours drive away.

The tea varietal is called Ai Jiao (meaning 'little foot') Oolong. Actually, Teaparker (updated link) has pictures that show that the trees are not that small: they reach until one's neck. These trees are growing at low altitude and there are not many left of them. Why? For farmers, this varietal is not producing many leaves (the same drawback luanze oolong has vs Jinxuan). But the most interesting feature of this tree is that it grows in shallow water of a river.

From the leaves, you can see that it has been roasted quite heavily, like traditional Oolong. The first brew tastes very different from Taiwanese Oolong. The moisture and dampness of the river are the main fragrance and give its special sticky and full mouthfeel. A very long one. The second brew and the smell of the wet hot leaves, however, are very much tasting and smelling like a classic 'Dong Ding Oolong'.

Here we had our confirmation that Ai Jiao Oolong is the mother of all Taiwanese Oolong varietals!
This last picture is not Ai Jiao Oolong (I forgot to take the picture). These dry leaves are roasted WenShan Baozhong leaves from my selection. However, Ai Jiao Oolong looks very much like this.

7 comments:

Jérôme D said...

Hello Stephane,

I never heard about this, how big (or should I say "microscopic" ?) is the production ?
And beside its historical aspect (and wilderness), is it really worth harvesting ? (dealing with quality)

Elton said...

Hi Stephane,
This is interesting because we are trying to educate the UK that white tea from China only comes from 2 regions, Fuding and Zhenge in Fujian province coming from 4 varietals. However, there is more regions making tea using the same process and marketing at white tea, not only in China, but Sri Lanka and India as well. Any thoughts on this?

Stephane said...

Hi Jérome,
This tea was very enjoyable. It has its own original character. You could feel this is a tea with a history and a soil (a water!) that fits well.

Taiwanese Gao Shan Oolong are often 'copied' in Fujian (this is very ironic since we know that Taiwanese Oolongs come from this Fujian varietal!), but you can feel that the tea is not right. Most of the time, tea tree and soil don't mix well and can't recreate the same fragrance than on Taiwan's high peaks. And when the 'copy' is good, then it's because it has its own character.

So, in all, this tea would deserve to remain a classic. But its 'copies' in Taiwan (Wen Shan Shou Cha and classic Dong Ding Oolong) have overtaken it long ago and are themselves loosing ground to high mountain Oolong. So, this tea is from 2 generations ago and won't last much longer.

Elton,

I guess countries with cheap labor and tea culture are trying to make their own tea to answer the demand for low cost white tea... and they do what Taiwan did in the 19th Century when it imported Ai Jiao tea trees from Fujian!

Alex said...

Very interesting, Stephane! I'd love to read more about varietals and terroir in Taiwan.

Axel said...

This is quite interesting and it makes me wonder if anyone in Taiwan (or elsewhere) would keep growing these low-production old-time varietals, similar to what we see in France and elsewhere with people who keep cultivating varieties of fruit and vegetables that are no longer grown commercially...kind of like having a living tea museum...

alainthé said...

Stéphane, any chance to find this tea in your selection ?

Stephane said...

According to Teaparker, the guy who now owns this plantation is harvesting it in this spirit: to preserve a tea with an old story. However, my guess is that he will only try to preserve what's there and not try to do a revival with expansions.
So, with very little quantity and difficulty to access it from Taiwan, I'm not going to be able to sell this tea in the short term. Maybe in a few years, if interest for the high quality teas in my selection continues to grow...