I’ve been buying and sampling High Mountain Oolongs now for the best part of a year and if I’m completely honest I have no idea what the real difference is between Oolongs that are high grown and those that are grown closer to the ground. After all, what difference could it make? Yet the price of High Mountain Oolong is superior to a lower grown Oolong. Well today I’ve decided to get out my notepad and do some research.
It would seem that Thailand is well known for growing High Mountain Oolong (also known as Gao Shan or Alpine tea). In order to be High Mountain the Oolong must be grown above the height of 800 metres, everything below is known as a low altitude tea. So higher than 800 metres huh, that’s almost 0.5 miles high and would take roughly 17 minutes to walk. Putting it into such perspective shows exactly how high we are talking, and that is at the lowest end of High Mountain grown tea.
A further source of information indicates a scale of Taiwanese teas and the height they are grown.
Well that table is very useful, we can see these popular named Oolongs and the rough heights that they are cultivated and grown. It also shows the difference between Ali Shan and Li Shan which is one question I see people asking rather frequently. I touched upon how far 800 metres is, looking at the top of the pyramid I’m literally stunned by it’s height of 2500 metres plus. That’s over 1.5 miles in a vertical direction (or 8000 feet) and roughly 60 minutes of walking at a steady pace. That’s pretty darn high!
It is said that above 1000 metres the air is much clearer than that of the lower altitudes, plus there will be more humidity and natural precipitation in the air which tea plants (camellia sinensis) thrive in, also they will therefore naturally be healthier (and all around better quality). Due to being grown at such heights and with a generally cleaner environment it is also easier to keep and maintain true organic soil for the plants to grow in. Due to their fine nature High Mountain Oolongs are compared similar to that of a fine wine or even champagne.
Here’s another fact for you about Ali Shan Oolong (and others grown around 1000-1500 metres): This type of tea is lightly oxidized and is most commonly picked in winter which gives it the nick name of “Winter Tea”. Winter picked teas are towards the bottom of the scale in terms of quality and price compared to a Li Shan (for example) which is picked mostly in the summer months and due to it’s higher grown nature will be considered higher quality ie more expensive. So as well as the heights of the mountains the season that the Oolong is picked will also determine it’s condition and price along with flavours and special qualities.
Each source that I have read heeds one particular warning: BE CAREFUL OF SCAMMERS. Some small shops/markets offer low/medium grade Oolong and sell it as a high Oolong along with it’s hefty price. Whether they do so out of common mistake or down to something more untrustworthy it is just something that unfortunately happens. If you are truly interested in sampling some genuine High Mountain Oolong then please make sure it’s from a reputable tea dealer. I don’t wish to put you off of trying the beauty of High Mountain Oolongs and nor am I trying to come across as suggesting small tea sellers are scammers, I just want you to make sure you know that there are risks involved. It would be like buying a bottle of champagne to find that it’s actually just sparkling wine. Please make sure you know who you are dealing with and above all else, trust your gut instinct, if something seems wrong or is too good to be true then it probably is.
Well now I know the main differences between low altitude grown Oolong and High Mountain grown Oolong and I hope it’s also given an insight to others still in the learning process too. High Mountain Oolongs may be known as some of the best Oolongs available for purchase but I know that I will never stop drinking my favourite low altitude Oolongs, after all when it comes to tea everything is purely down to personal taste and experience.
Websites sourced for information: