La La Shan hides itself in many ways. Down in the southern corner of TaoYuan county, narrow and winding roads keep it off the itinerary of most travelers. For those who do come, they more likely beat a path to the ancient cypress trees, those sentinels of time and cousins of the redwood. And if anyone does press on past the forests and the shoulder-less mountain passes, she must still ascend into the clouds.
LaLa Shan (拉拉山) tea production occurs at elevations of 4,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level. On the pecking order, it means the mountain isn’t as extreme as Li Shan and Da Yu Ling teas that can grow well above 7,500 feet.
This difference in altitude is not to say LaLa Shan teas deserve to be turned away. The qing xin varietal flourishes here as it does on those other lofty slopes. Depending on season and weather, the farms can turn out 20,000 to 40,000 jin (26,000 – 52,000 lbs) of finished tea per year.
LaLa’s real challenge lies in its northerly position. As spring arrives, southerly mountains warm up first, granting Li Shan (about 35 miles south) and Ali Shan (about 90 miles south) a head start on growth and plucking before the spring rains begin.
So LaLa Shan has 2 cards dealt against it; the first is elevation. Higher altitude can foster divine teas, but the cool days among misty clouds can sink a tea processor’s heart to the deepest low. Necessary withering and drying has to be done in controlled conditions that nature does not provide here.
The second obstacle is LaLa Shan’s northerly position. It waits longer for the warm Spring air, then has less time before the rains begin. LaLa Shan producers work frantically within this small window.
The result is that LaLa Shan remains tucked away, waiting until more people discover its richness. Tea plantations there are about 15 years younger than those of Li Shan or Ali Shan. Until they gain more credibility, their teas often get marketed under the catch-all “Gao Shan Cha” (High Mountain Tea). You may have already tasted some of LaLa Shan’s treasure but didn’t realize it. Some Li Shan and Da Yu Ling processors will blend LaLa Shan tea with their leaves to increase the volume they can sell under a more reputable mountain name.
But LaLa Shan teas deserve a place of their own. When done properly, the tea here takes on the floral sweetness of sweet pea blossom. Textures run rich while resorting to less bitterness. Maybe this character is due to the extra coolness in these northern mountains. The bushes may have been more sluggish in waking from winter, and therefore did not pump as much polyphenol into their younger leaves.
Until this tea gets the recognition it deserves, the treasure will be blended into obscurity. Or it will be reserved for those who brave the winding mountain roads, through ancient forests, and into the clouds.
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