Gaoshan: the baby

As Taiwan’s Spring 2019 high mountain oolong tea comes on the market, a brief look at the history and development of this style of tea seems in order. This recounting cites only two or three independent sources and is based primarily on the discussions that I have had over many years with Taiwanese growers and producers.[1]

Although Taiwan generally is considered to be a traditional oolong producing country, the principal tea products of the island are surprisingly new. The oldest, bao zhong, dates from the late 19th century, but, in its current formulation, it bears scant similarity to the tea made in the 1870’s.[2] Oriental Beauty or bai hao was developed only during the late 1930’s and the tea wasn’t called Oriental Beauty until 1983.[3] Dong Ding didn’t really come into its own until the 1950’s at the earliest and high mountain tea, for all practical purposes, did not even exist until the 1980’s.[4] High mountain tea has been produced for less than forty years. “High mountain” in Mandarin, is gaoshan and this is the term, henceforward, that I will use to refer to these teas.

Precious few regulations govern tea growing areas in Taiwan and many simply are ignored. But one that is widely acknowledged is that gaoshan tea must come from bushes grown above 1000m above sea level.[5] And these mountain reaches of Taiwan are some of earth’s most enchanting places. The mountains of Taiwan consist of a series of breathtakingly beautiful ranges in the central and eastern parts of the country. They form a spine for the country and extend from

Pingtung in the south to New Taipei City in the north. The most famous tea mountains, however, are located in Chiayi and Nantou counties and in Taichung City.[6]

A reclaimed tea garden in Dayuling

Gaoshan: the early years

Although the first recorded planting of gaoshan tea of which I am aware occurred in 1969 in the Da Yu Ling region in Hualian County (not far from Lishan village, at the intersection of Taichung City, Nantou and Hualian), it was only after a further decade had passed that real development took place.[7] This development coincided with, and in fact was precipitated by, a dramatic contraction of Taiwan’s tea export markets.

Until the 1970’s Taiwan was an exporter of tea; nearly all of the tea crop was destined for markets outside of Taiwan and few within the country were tea consumers. With the success of the industrialization of Taiwan, however, agricultural products ceased to be the island’s major exports. This trend was exacerbated by the rise in the strength of the Taiwan Dollar for that rendered most agricultural products too expensive in export markets. Tea from Taiwan, which then was largely a commodity product, could no longer compete with other producing nations.[8]

In an effort to save the industry, the Agricultural Yuan and the Taiwan Tea Experiment Station (TTES), now known as the Tea Research and Extension Station (TRES), embarked on a program to protect the industry by having it focus particularly on oolong tea and by creating a domestic market for this tea.

The tea garden at Foushoushan Farm

Early experiments on a gaoshan version of oolong were conducted in the late 1970’s by TTES at the Fushoushan Farm, high above the modest town of Lishan. Small plots of qing xin wulong, wuyi and the as yet unreleased jin xuan were established and each was subjected to the various manufacturing procedures common in Taiwan.[9]

The results of this experiment led the TTES to recommend that high mountain planting yielded best results best using the qing xin wuong cultivar (although there are some substantial plantings of jin xuan as well as some wuyi and tie guan yin as well in some areas) and employing the manufacturing processes used in the Dong Ding region around Lugu. Hence, we see gaoshan tea as a balled oolong; a form that has come to define Taiwanese oolong teas.

The first commercial gaoshan gardens were planted in the Meishan district of Alishan and soon spread to encompass much of the Alishan range. Interestingly, many of the early plantings saw the grafting of qing xin wulong scions onto jin xuan rootstock.[10] This procedure is no longer used, however, and all bushes are now on their own roots.

Gaoshan: coming of age

It was not long before many other high mountain locations were developed. Early in the 1980’s the government farms at Fushoushan (where the early gaoshan experiments took place) and Wuling established gardens at 2500 and 2200 meters respectively. Shan Lin Xi, just north of Zhushan was an early region to witness tea planting. The Lishan range became developed and locations such as Cuifeng and Hehuan Shan appeared in the market. The mountains at Chingjing and Awonda were home to new garden developments and now the more northerly Lalashan peak yields some of the finest gaoshan tea. Simply, there is nary a mountain in the whole of Taiwan that does not have some measure of tea gardens present; it is impossible to name them all.

In a high mountain Alishan garden. Tai He, Chiayi County

Whereas Dong Ding tea once held pride of place in the pantheon of Taiwanese teas, that crown now rests on the head of gaoshan teas. And whereas these gaoshan teas once resembled Dong Ding tea fairly closely in style, they now are noticeably distinct.[11] Over the past forty years gaoshan tea has become progressively greener and more floral (especially gardenias) in character.[12] The leaves are oxidized only to approximately 20% and there is little or no roasting involved. This style is labeled “fresh” or “qingxiang” oolong. The old style of higher oxidation (around 30 – 35%) and medium or higher roasting, however, is regaining some of its popularity and often shows up in the market labeled as hong shui (red water) oolong.

Gaoshan: its special character

Tea planting recently has been restricted to elevations below 2500 meters yet the 1500 meter differential between highest and lowest elevations leads to significant variations in the character of the tea leaves. The higher the elevations, of course, have colder prevailing weather, which, in turn, leads to thicker and darker leaves with more concentrated pectin levels. These thicker leaves tend to produce richer brews with heartier mouth feel often accompanied by a distinct buttery note to the brewed tea. Growers at high elevations are quick to proclaim the superiority of their teas and to charge significantly higher prices accordingly. But such boasts often cannot be sustained; the somewhat lighter, more floral and definitely less expensive lower grown gaoshan teas are every bit as enjoyable in their own right.

Despite its greener character, gaoshan tea typically is brewed with boiling water by the Taiwanese growers. It receives a relatively quick infusion when a high leaf to water ratio is used. Porcelain and clay brewing vessels are equally appropriate.


That’s my take. What’s your view?


[1] All corrections and suggestions for improvement are welcome

[2] See my blog on bao zhong:

[3] See my blog on Oriental Beauty:

[4] See and  Yu, Shuenn-Der  (2013) 台灣凍頂烏龍茶之工匠技藝、科技與現代性 Taiwan Journal of Anthropology 11

[5] By reputable growers and merchants that is. Considerable amounts of what is sold as gaoshan in fact come from low lying gardens or, more frequently, from Vietnam and Thailand.

[6] Taichung City now includes areas that, formerly, were in Taichung County. The county no longer exists as an administrative district but the rugged eastern reaches where one finds Lishan village certainly do.

[7] Only 5 Da Yu Ling gardens still exist. Most have been uprooted for they were planted inside the Taroko National Park and not in compliance with the original planting requirement to plant trees. The bulk of the DYL on the market now is not authentic.

[8] For a good overview see,8,29,32,32,45. See also Etherington, Dan M. and Keith Forster (1992) “The Structural Transformation of Taiwan’s Tea Industry, World Development. Vol. 20, No. 3, pp. 401-422.

[9] Yu, passim

[10] Han, Arris (2017) “Of Morning Dew and Half Day Sun – Taiwan’s Zhulu Tea” Tea Journey

[11] Some gaoshan tea continues to be produced in a Dong Ding style and to be called Dong Ding. Don’t confuse this with authentic Dong Ding from the Lugu region.

[12] Some have resisted this and stuck with the “traditional” style but they are the distinct minority.


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