Taiwan – The Beauty of Tea
When European sailors from Portugal first set eyes on Taiwan in 1590, they decided to name the island “Formosa” - meaning “the beautiful.” Hundreds of years later, Taiwan’s tea culture has been influenced by mainland China, Japanese investors and the tea-drinking tastes of British traders and sailors. The end result is a unique tea culture and one very special variety. The world famous oolong.
This week, we’re discovering the history of tea in Taiwan.
The History of Taiwanese Tea
Despite its close proximity to both mainland China to the west and the southernmost Japanese islands to the east, Taiwan was a unique island with an aboriginal culture well into the fifteen hundreds. But as European traders explored the South China Sea, everything soon changed.
In 1590, Portuguese explorers discovered an island with green mountains and volcanic springs, and immediately named it Formosa – the beautiful. Then, for nearly a century, very little happened, until in the 1660s, Taiwan’s history as a tea culture began.
In 1662, Taiwan became part of China, and a wave of Han Chinese immigrants from the famous Fujian province arrived the following year. From their homes close to the Wuyi Mountains, these farmers brought new seeds and plants for their gardens. Soon, small tea trees were springing up so that the new arrivals could enjoy a refreshing cup.
In the 18th Century, a thriving tea trade started to grow around the northern end of the island, close to Taipei, and these Taiwanese settlers began to import more and more tea and plants. In 1855, history’s course was set when Linfeng Chi took a number of small oolong trees from the Wuyi Mountains and set off for Dong Ding, in Lugu, Taiwan. These trees thrived in Taiwan’s climate, and the world was soon introduced to Dong Ding Oolong.
Over the next 20 years, British traders began to influence the tea trade. A company called Jardine Matheson & Co began to buy up semi-finished Dong Ding Oolong and sell it all over the world, prompting the trader John Dodd to invest heavily in the region in 1866. Teas that would otherwise have been shipped to Anxi or Fuzhou for finishing could now be processed in Taiwan itself, giving birth to wholly Taiwanese Oolong.
In 1895, the Japanese Empire occupied Taiwan and carried on where the British had left off, investing heavily in tea and introducing new cultivars. Farmers were also taught the secrets of Japanese tea production and new machinery was imported to increase production.
By 1970, the unique relationship between Taiwan and mainland China led to a more inward-looking tea market, with farmers focusing on one variety beloved by the local Taiwanese. Oolong. Now, over 400 years since the first Portuguese sailor spotted this beautiful island, Taiwan has built a reputation as the producer of the world’s finest oolong teas.
Taiwanese Tea Culture in the 21st Century
Almost all Taiwanese tea produced today is drunk in Taiwan, but even so they import a lot of tea from China and Vietnam. Among the most popular imports are jasmine tea and pu-erh tea, for which the Taiwanese have a huge craving.
Taiwanese tea production is really focused more on quality than quantity. This is in part because of its subtropical, stable climate and high mountains. Summer rain in the south and winter rain in the north, are just crying out to produce the very best of tea.
Taiwan is famous for its high grown teas. These grow slower due to the colder temperatures and smaller amount of sunshine caused by mountain fog. This leads to more minerals being available for each tea leaf, the leaves becoming a lusher, green colour, and because of the wet fog quite flexible in nature ideal for heavy oolong processing.
Taiwan is also famed for its contests. Twice a year in each tea producing region, hundreds of teas are compared by the most highly respected professionals to choose a champion tea. Growers compete for honour, reputation, and the increase in price that such a bonus brings.
Most teas are drunk at home, where there is always a tea table and gong fu brewing equipment. The Taiwanese have their own tea ceremony that is more elaborate than in China, although not quite as intricate as the Japanese ceremony. A special piece of brewing equipment that you find nowhere else if the sniffer cup; a cup designed to let the drinker smell the aroma of the tea.
Taiwan is thoroughly immersed in tea, and it is an important part of daily life for whole families. It is grown in every region and sold on every street corner. It is served in special tea houses, during business negotiations, at wedding banquets, and in funeral services.
Tea is part of the social fabric of Taiwan. "Come in and drink tea," is a standard greeting to guests, and the most famous Taiwanese saying explains just how special tea is on the island.
“You have friends and you have tea – so you’re rich!”
That’s definitely something we agree with.
Taiwan’s Famous Tea Regions
The biggest tea producing zone in Taiwan, Nantou is good for almost half of the island’s production. Its main trading hub is the village of Lu Gu. Other Famous places are the mountains ofDong Ding andShan Lin Xi, and the area nearSun Moon Lake. While the area’s oolong tea is high quality, we’re afraid to say that many of the other teas produced are quite mediocre.
Mount Dong Ding:One of the first tea growing areas in Taiwan, Mount Dong Ding is now covered almost entirely by tea plantations. The mountain is a famed local tourist attraction filled with tea museums, courses and an annual festival to celebrate the new harvest and keep gong fu cha tea brewing alive. The tea gardens on the mountain (locals call them ting tung) get very strong sunshine in the morning, but are completely covered by fog in the afternoon.
Mount Shan Lin Xi:One of the highest tea mountains, and one celebrated for its beauty and nature.
Sun Moon Lake:An unbelievably beautiful lake surrounded by tea gardens. The region is famous for its black tea that some call ‘red ruby,’ the ‘original Taiwanese tea’ or the ‘authentic taste of Taiwan.’
Taipai was once the biggest tea producing region in Taiwan, but due to economic and residential development, tea has taken a step back. Now only two famous regions that make truly exceptional tea remain;PinglinandThe Mucha Mountain.
Pinglin: Close To Taipei and famous as the region’s tea trade centre. Many residents of Taipei still visit Pinglin to spend time in their famous tea shops. Pinglin is famous for Pouchong (or Bao Zhong) oolong tea, one of the few remaining strip style oolong teas (most are available in the rolled or bead styles). Over 80% of residents of Pinglin are tea growers or involved in the tea business.
This area is also home to what claims to be the biggest tea-dedicated museum in the world. The museum highlights tea-making and tea cultivation processes but also the influence of tea on Chinese and Taiwanese culture.
Mucha Mountain: Famous for its Tie Guan Yin tea, grown in the same style as in China, thanks to two famous brothers who came here from Anxi.
A small but famous tea producing area, Hsinchu is home to darker oolong teas. It is most famous for tea that is bitten by hoppers: Oriental Beauty, called Bai Hao in Taiwan. Its most famous tea plantations are near the villages of Beipu and Emei
A newer tea growing area, famous for the Ali Shan and Yu Shan Mountains. Chai Yi makes the famous Alishan oolong tea and Yin Xuan.
Chai Yi County has majestic and broad scenery surrounded by hills and waters, a landscape of lakes and seascapes.
A small area on the east coast which makes all sorts of teas, including floral ones, Hualien’s most famous region is Taitung.
A newer tea producing area most famous for its high-quality high mountain oolong teas. Best known for the mountains: Li Shan and Da Yu Lin.
Li Shan: Also called Pear Mountain, Li Shan is a relatively new producing area previously known mostly for fruit trees.
Da Yu Lin: This area’s peaks are among the highest in the world and just like Li Shan relatively new to tea, boosted with the high demand for quality tea.
Taiwan’s Famous Teas
The famous number 18 or Ri Yue Tan Hong Cha
Named after the famous cultivar ‘18’ this black tea is also known as the original taste of Taiwanese tea. The tea is full-bodied, smooth, minty, with a fruity bouquet. Most Red Ruby, including the very best, is grown near Sun Moon Lake.
Wen Shan Bao Zhong or Pouchong
A speciality of the Pinglin Village. Bao Zhong means ‘wrapped in paper’ which is a reference to the time this tea was offered to the Chinese Emperor wrapped in paper of the emperor’s favourite colour. It’s a leaf oolong tea that is very lightly oxidized by 10-20 percent, and has a very green herbaceous aroma and a lot of fruity notes. The tea leaves are lightly baked to ensure that the bitter flavours are removed, leading to a gentler, more balanced tea.
This oolong tea has a fresh, soft aroma with a hint of cereals – while the taste contains hints of salt and fresh vegetables, with a lasting sweet aftertaste that lingers on the tongue.
Gaba Oolong boasts a unique orchid flavour with a warm and woody aroma. The unique flavour and quality of this tea is the result of a special oxidation process developed by Japanese scientists. The result is a wonderfully calming flavour which you won’t find anywhere else.
Jin Xuan (Milk Oolong Tea orGolden Lily)
Named after its cultivar (TTES12), Jin Xuan gives rich buttery, cream-milk tones, with an amazing aroma. Soft, subtle and accented with hints of vegetal flavour, this silky smooth Oolong is loved for a refreshing sweet and milky aroma.
Not to be confused with artificial ‘milk tea’ which is a cheap tea flavoured with milk derivatives. Of course, once tasted, you’d never confuse the two!
Four Season Si Ju Chun
Also called Evergreen, this oolong is harvested all year long and praised for a fresh, green taste. The Chinese often call it Blue-Green tea meaning it’s a very green or low oxidized oolong tea.
Taiwanese Oolongs are praised for their green, fresh and crisp tastes, and our High Mountain Oolong is no different. Once brewed, this tea is sweet and light enough for beginners, but with hidden depths that even a true tea connoisseur will appreciate.
Called Dongfang Meiren or Formosa Tea, Oriental Beauty is a delicate Taiwanese white tip oolong tea. This balled oolong is famous for the green leafhoppers that munch on the leaves just before harvesting. Their biting causes the plants to release L-Theanine producing a complex flavour in this tea.
Delicate and rich, this tea is perfect for any occasion. Fragrant and with a sweet, floral aroma, Oriental Beauty carries tons of honey and fruits which deliver a lasting aftertaste.
Taiwanese Tie Guan Yin
Tie Guan Yin tea plant was brought from Anxi of Fujian and planted in Muzha of the Wenshan District. In 1919 two brothers, Zhang Nai Miao and Zhang Nai Qian, brought back the tea trees from Anxi. Since then the area has been well known for its mid-oxidation, mid-roast, tie guan yin style tea which is quite similar to the original one grown in Fujian.
Alishan, Li Shan, Shan Lin Xi, Dong Ding
Often known as Orchid or jade oolong teas, these are the product of Taiwan's premiere oolong growing regions and offer complex aromatics and a lush mouthfeel. Authentic teas from these regions grow high in the mountains.
A prime example of these teas is Alishan: The flavour of this tea is soft and sweet with a warming toasted grain overtone provided by the long, slow roasting of the tea leaves. This mellows to a honeyed, coating aftertaste with a hint of spice. Grown on the slopes of Alishan in Taiwan, this oolong tea provides the perfect pick-me-up for any tea lover.
There’s more to Taiwan to oolong, but what do you think? Have you tried any of the less famous teas, or do you find it hard to look past the famed oolong? How does Taiwan fare compared to China and Japan in the tea producing stakes? Share your experiences in the comments section below, and feel free to ask any questions.
Next week, our journey around the world of tea continues…
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