Why Taiwan tea? If you had to ask the question, you haven’t tried them. Taiwan has tens of thousands of small tea growers, many of them family operations, and the industry is almost synonymous with oolong.
Making Taiwanese oolongs is a long process and requires a lot of experience to get it right. After witnessing how oolong is made on a trip to Taiwan in 2011, I realized I am a very lazy and impatient person. I also realized I’m really bad at tea producing skills such as “rolling” and “withering” (which involves staring at the leaves for about 14 hours – it takes forever). Though few of my instructors spoke English, they knew how to yell “No” just like my father, and show me again how to do it right. To know when the leaves are done withering, they simply pick them up and smell them – and I couldn’t tell the difference at 6 hours, 10 hours, or 14 hours – which is when they said it was ready.
But I did learn a couple things while I was there. The first thing I learned was an immense respect for the wisdom and discipline to master what is essentially an art form. I also learned that when I was not ruining their tea leaves, the Taiwanese are otherwise very nice and welcoming people. I was amazed at their patience with my lack of Chinese speaking skills and their inclusiveness of total strangers. I also learned a little bit about the basic styles of Taiwanese teas, and what to look for.
Here are a couple of my notes:
Pouchong or Bao Zhong (translation: scented variety) – loosely defined as a lightly oxidized oolong with long, twisted, emerald green leaves, typically from Wenshan in northern Taiwan. The Chin Shin cultivar is commonly used to highlight the very fragrant nature of this tea. Look for a spectrum of sweet, strong-floral tones on top and bright, but subtle vegetal flavors underneath. The complexities of pouchongs will fade quickly once exposed to air so buy vacuum sealed if possible and store airtight.
Tung Ting or Dong Ding (translation: frozen peaks) – Though Mount Tung Ting is covered with tea plants, modern usage of “Tung Ting” often refers to a style of tea grown in Nantou county by which the leaves are rolled and compressed into “semi-ball” or “bead” style rather than the long twisted leaves of pouchong. These teas are often distinguished by what mountain they were grown on, which cultivar was used, and what degree of baking they went through (note that not all teas of this style will be referred to as Tung Ting – yes, it’s confusing to me too).
Tung Ting styles that are lightly oxidized are often referred to as “Jade Oolongs” for the bright green color. Other times the tea may be “baked” at the end of the process to deepen the character. The flavor profiles of these teas will vary widely depending on any of the above mentioned factors, ranging from soft and floral to deep and toasty.
Oriental Beauty, also know as Bai Hao Oolong or Silvertip Oolong, is one of Taiwan’s most famous (and expensive) teas. The tea is made only in mid-summer when the “Green Leaf Hopper” arrives to feed on the new growth tea leaves, which are then immediately harvested. This “feeding” causes a chemical reaction in the plant meant to drive the insect away, but it is also responsible for the sweet honey notes of a great Oriental Beauty.
When buying an Oriental Beauty I look for teas with sparkling, floral, apricot notes on top; and honey-woodsy-spicy notes in the bass. The leaves should have a stunning contrast of bright silver tips over twisted bronze leaves. It is called Oriental Beauty for good reason.
I could go on forever (I already have). This only scratches the surface. All I’ve learned so far is that I have a lot to learn, and besides the tea itself, that’s the best part.
In my experience, there isn’t a single unique flavor profile present in all Taiwanese teas, since they all have their own little micro-climates (soil, altitude, weather, season, etc.) and different cultivars, different tea producers with different techniques and skills. So I can’t say I’ve had the same experience you’re describing (Pouchong and Oriental Beauty don’t share similar qualities in my view), but within their more broad styles there are broad flavors that each style tends to share.
Japan is somewhat different, because 98% of the teas made in Japan have a common element in their flavor profile that could be called Japanese tea character. This is because almost all Japanese teas have a unique step in their processing, unique in the world of tea, but shared by almost all Japanese teas. That step is a short steaming of the leaves. It imparts a “taste of the sea” to most Japanese teas. There can still be tremendous variety within the realm of Japanese teas, but I know of no other teas that use this same “steaming step” unless they are trying to imitate Japanese teas.
Wow. My eyes have been pleasantly opened to the deepness of tea, not just in the wide variety of tastes, but also in how it is grown and produced. It seems that tea lends itself unreservedly to community and learning. I love that.
Oh, forgot to say that Taiwan teas, to me, seem to all carry a certain special flavor in them, no matter what kind they are, in addition to their own unique flavors. Someday I will put a description to that flavor. Is it the altitude? Or the surrounding ocean? Do teas from Japan taste similar because Japan is also an island?