Almost every great tea is associated with a mountain region.  Examples are rock oolongs like Big Red Robe and Iron Goddess of Mercy from Wuyi (China), High Mountain oolongs from Alishan (Taiwan), Kanchenjunga black teas, (the third highest mountain in the world, better known by the name of the town of Darjeeling), all the small farm matcha, sencha and gyokuro greens of Uji (Japan), or Nuwara Eliya black teas (Sri Lanka).

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Like Burgundy wines, such mountain names signal a terrain, a style of tea making, a community of expertise, a tradition and something about the land, location, soil and seasons – the terroir — that makes the name meaningful on a label or ad. The individual tea is the brand but the mountain is the megabrand. It can be hard to pick out, say, a really outstanding Japanese sencha; at its best one of the most exquisite of all green teas but on average bland and blah. Make it an Uji sencha and you can’t really go wrong.

Uncluttering tea descriptions

Megabrands help unclutter the information problem in choosing teas: vacuous puffery at one extreme and tea-talk overload at the other. The megabrand is in itself enough information to guide your more detailed exploration and assessment. Here are ten to consider:

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For any style of tea you are interested in – Chinese green, Japanese teas in general, Indian black tea, oolongs, puehrs, flavored tea, white tea, identify a mountain megabrand. Then apply a simple rule:

Pick any one of the teas that takes your fancy.

That last recommendation is the key one. Don’t bother with being systematic. Just browse the descriptions, check the price and hit the “Submit Order” screen option. You can become more selective as you zero in on the styles of tea you most like and have a comparison base to help you.

So, for instance, your discoveries among Darjeeling estates will fairly naturally nudge you to try Nepalese Ilam black and the Nilgiris and lowland estate Assams. From Uji senchas, it’s equally likely that you’ll be tempted to try ones from Kagoshima and the specialized, small farm senchas of Shizuoka. You just need a starting point for expanding to teas that are out of your ordinary space of knowledge and experience.

Megabrands versus individual tea names

There are other mountain brands, of course, but they are less generic in terms of all the teas from their region being uniformly distinctive. For example, the spectacular Blue Mountains of the Nilgiris produce some really top rate teas, from estates like Craigmore, Havukal and Glendale. But there’s also some pretty sorry stuff. Much of the production is low-grade ingredients for low price and low quality teabags. There are fine Nilgiris but Nilgiris doesn’t not equate to fine.

What makes a mountain a megabrand

The answer to the question of what makes megabrands special is that they have to be. These are crazy places for anyone to set up any type of farm and factory, let alone keep them running for hundreds and even thousands of years. Here’s what they have in common:

Climate: The best climates for tea growing are subtropical, with the longest growing season being at the equator, and the plants becoming dormant around 18 degrees of latitude North and South. Megabrand mountains are rare across the globe and if bushes from them are transplanted or their seeds grown elsewhere, the tea is nowhere near the same.

Remote locations: What makes the mountains rarer is that they must meet requirements of height, slope and wind/air/rain patterns: a lot of rain plus a lot of wind and sun. Tea thrives at elevations between 2,000 and 6,000 feet. That rules out Kansas and conurbations. Available mountain ranges with suitable climate are tall, not well-habited and very remote. The Himalayas are an obvious example. Darjeeling tea is farmed in the same general area as Mount Everest.

Rain, rain and more rain: Tea bushes need around 60 inches of rain a year. They must have excellent drainage or they become waterlogged.

There’s a whole science of slopery or slopiness. The best teas are marked by seasons sun/rain shifts. The side of mountains that faces the winds gets high rainfall and the leeward side of mountains receives the lighter falls in its drier rain shadow. Tea is largely grown on the windward slopes of mountain ranges.

Skilled labor: Slopes also mean that machines are – today at least – totally unsuited to harvesting. Here is the key differentiator between lowland and highland teas. The “two leaves and a bud” hand plucking that produces the best teas is expensive and relies on skilled labor. To be able to afford the high costs and command a premium price, megabrand mountains simply have to maximize quality not yield.

Acidic soil:  Soil management is critical for the health of the bush and a major concern for the long-term health of tea growing. Growers of the best megabrand teas are at the very top levels of comprehensive biodynamic management of which organic certification is a major part but not the whole.

Creepy critters: Pests are both the friend and foe of tea growers. They are a foe for the obvious reason that in a humid, steamy and biodiverse environment they devour and destroy crops. Tea bushes are juicy and nutritious canapes for many hundreds of different types of insect and creepy crawlies. They are a friend in ensuring the biodiversity vital to tea growing in maintaining the symbiotic balance with insects that help in many aspects of the chemical interactions of the leaf.

Explore the mountains first

The suggestions here don’t lock you in and are certainly not based on snobbery. They just help guide you in expanding your exploration of teas that you haven’t come across.

There are too many teas for anyone to sample in a lifetime. Just a few years ago, the practical choice space was very narrow: not many specialty stores outside shopping centers for the affluent. There were few online providers. Premium teas meant ultra premium prices.

None of this applies now. When Amazon lists over 100,000 teas, this is a new game. Oolongs are only 2% of the US tea market, but Amazon lists over a thousand, including some really outstanding Alishan High Mountain milk and kingshuan oolongs.

The table of ten megabrand mountains is a menu for shopping. Look for any of them and you will open up a lifetime of enjoyment of teas:  Alishan, Darjeeling, Huangshan, Lishan, Nuwara Elya, Dimbula, Uva, Uji, Wuyi, Xishuangbana. On their slopes, in their clouds and across their estates, gardens and smallholdings you’ll find the best of the best.

 

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