We constantly talk at Tea Drunk about terroir. It is the comprehensive factors of location that contribute to certain aspects of a tea's "personality." And it's essential for understanding quality loose leaf tea.
Often high mountain or high elevation tea is marketed as superior and demands a higher value on the global market. But why is that? And is it always true?
In reality, it's far more complicated than just saying that better tea comes from a high elevation. Yes, that is a factor, but it is not a stand-alone quality marker. It's more accurate to consider that better tea comes from more complex environments. For tea, we're seeking harsher microclimates for terroir to increase the composition's complexity. This terroir translates directly to the potential for a more refined taste, hence why this factor is essential for high-quality tea.
A complex environment leads to complex metabolism in tea (to adapt to the environment). And complex compounds in tea lead to complexity in taste with balance, in the hands of a sophisticated tea maker.
Hot vs. Cold Climates
Top-quality tea comes from more challenging environments, and in these locations, cold weather is a common trait. Tea grows slower in this environment, and the tea needs to struggle to survive. To do this, it needs to synthesize more complex compounds, which we see come out in the taste and quality of a tea. Conversely, tea grows faster in a warmer environment, resulting in a simpler compound construction.
Latitude vs. Altitude
To achieve this cold and harsh climate for complexity, you can either go by high latitude (northern hemisphere), for example, the northern tea region of China, or by high altitude. Many of the notable terroirs in northern Chinese tea region are only 600-800ft above sea level. Yet, their harvesting season is later than southern regions, such as Yun Nan. In southern tea regions like Yun Nan, we seek elevations of at least 5000ft for any notable terroir.
You'll often hear sellers say their tea is "high mountain." But, we need more information than that to know what they are talking about. Is it a 2000ft mountain in the South or the North? Because 2000ft-terroir in a northern region is quite impressive.
Both latitude and altitude can achieve the same thing: harsher, colder climates. This is why we cannot look at elevation as a stand-alone marker for quality. You need the context of where the tea is from (the terroir) to understand if 600ft, 2000ft, or 5000ft is notable.