How elevation affects quality of tea
For hundreds of years, tea drinkers have prized leaves cultivated at high elevations. In almost every category, elevation can mark the distinction between a good tea and an exceptional one.
The elevation at which a tea plant is growing influences almost every aspect of its development process; from aroma and flavor to nutritional value. Environmental conditions can change drastically with elevation, affecting the quality of the tea. These variations are evident even within a single growing region.
Overall, high mountain teas are known for having a more complex flavor, less bitterness, and a creamier finishing texture.
It is not easy to grow tea at high elevations. As the elevation increases, the air becomes colder, the soil rockier, and there is less available rainwater due to the land gradient. These factors inevitably reduce possible crop yield. It can be extremely difficult to grow tea plants in these conditions and seems almost counterintuitive to attempt to do so. For the farmers the harvest is only worth the extra effort when it is exceptional enough to demand higher prices.
This long and slow growing process is the main element behind the high quality of high elevation teas.
Organic and natural practices are not only preferred but necessary when handling high elevation products.
Fast-growing fertilized plants cannot develop a mighty root system to survive the low winter temperatures and regular soil erosion. In such antagonistic conditions, in order to power growth, the plant must send more carbohydrates to the leaves.
For the same reason we prize early spring harvested teas. Since the high elevation shortens the growing season and lengthens dormancy, we can see the effect more clearly in high mountain teas.
If the concentration of carbohydrates in the leaf is greater, then the natural sweetness and the creamy texture that is so famed in Taiwanese Oolongs becomes more pronounced.
In Taiwan tea growers have gradually moved up the mountains, first planting tea at 700 meters above sea level, then at 1,500 meters, and finally at the highest peaks of the Lishan range – Da Yu Lin, which reaches nearly 2,800 meters.
Another very important aspect of growing tea at high altitudes is that colder temperatures naturally protect tea plants from insects. This does not only reduce the need for pesticides but also it reduces the bitterness in the leaf. Most of the bitter flavors in tea come from polyphenic compounds that develop as natural pest control. With fewer pests, these high elevation plants produce fewer bitter compounds.
An added benefit of mountainous regions is that they are typically rural areas, well removed from the notorious pollution and industrialization of China’s urban regions. These rural villages operate in much of the same way as they have for centuries.
For all these reasons, the flavor of high mountain teas is objectively superior with more complexity and sweetness, but less bitterness.
And, of course, these amazing and limited teas command higher prices. Luckily, the extra concentration of flavor is sure to last through many infusions and reduces the amount of leaves you need to brew a strong tea.
Be sure to take a minute to appreciate the flavor and texture of an incredible high mountain tea.