Brief history of Taiwanese tea
Bagua, Nantou County, Taiwan
The island nation of Taiwan has been caught in the middle of diplomatic and military struggles with China, Japan, and the West for centuries, and its tea history reflects this. Tea production started here in the late 17th century when China occupied the island. The migration of Chinese brought tea plants and seeds, particularly from Fujian province which was only 90 miles to the west.
The island’s industry got a boost in the late 19th century when British trader John Dodd (Scottish born) provided financing for the development of Taiwanese tea as another trading source for Western nations. The Japanese occupied Taiwan during the first half of the 20th century. They invested heavily in the modernization of the industry and focused primarily on black tea for export since demand was so high.
The Chinese forced the Japanese out of Taiwan at the end of World War II and re-oriented production back to green tea for export. By the 1980’s the export markets dried up and Taiwan turned its focus back to its domestic market, which prefers a wulong tea style similar in craft to Anxi, but has evolved over time since its arrival in the 17th century.
The name “Formosa” was often given to Taiwanese teas, though the term is rarely used now. It comes from the Dutch who first encountered the island in 1590 and it means “beautiful.” Taiwanese teas are now recognized as their own distinct brand, though the Taiwanese tea culture is not significantly different from that of China. The tea production methods and consumption style are very similar to China. Japanese and Western tea habits are distinctly different.
About Taiwan Tea
Preparing tea gongfu style
The Taiwan tea industry produces about 16.5 million kg per year. As incomes have increased substantially in Taiwan over the last 40 years, demand for local tea has risen too, which far exceeds the local supply. Because of this and Taiwan’s focus towards high-quality wulong teas, there is very little export and prices are high. Over 90% of tea made in Taiwan is wulong tea. Half the volume produced comes from the Nantou district in west-central Taiwan.
Famous Taiwan Oolong Tea Regions:
Located in the central highlands, this is the home of the famous Dong Ding mountain where some of the earliest tea cultivation in Taiwan happened. Dong Ding tea is named after this mountain which means “frozen peak” and is sometimes spelled “Tung Ting”. This name is often applied to any semi-ball style tea produced in Nantou, even if it’s not exactly from the mountain, and flavors range from lilac-floral, creamy vanilla, to sweet vegetal depending on the cultivar being used and production expertise.
Located just outside the capital of Taipei, the producers on these mountains specialize in Bao Zhong, the signature tea of Taiwan. Even though this technique started in Anxi in the 19th century, it migrated to Taiwan where they refined the craft and made the tea very popular. Bao Zhong is long, strip-style leaves that are very lightly oxidized and keep a green, floral, sweet character to the tea. Bao Zhong means “paper-wrapped” tea, which was originally how it was packaged in Anxi when the technique was first invented and the tea has now formally adopted this name.
This region is famous for a higher oxidized wulong known as Bai Hao (Translation “White Fine Hair”) or “Oriental Beauty”. This tea is unique among wulongs in that it does not share as many of the same processing steps as other wulong teas and its highest quality examples have been bug-bitten by a tiny cicada commonly called the “Green Leaf Hopper” (technically “Jacobiasca Formosana”). The bite from these insects sets off a chemical reaction within the leaf that once combined with oxidation produces one-of-a-kind results mimicking flavors of woody honey, grapes, and spices. Gui Fei is a similar version of this tea that is produced in a more traditional style, but is often produced outside Xinzhu.
What is High Mountain Oolong?
This is a generic term given to any tea growing at over 1,000 meters (3,280 feet). Teas grown at this altitude are often considered to have more sophisticated flavor profiles due to the cooler, slower growing conditions. These teas are almost always produced in the common Taiwanese style of green, lightly oxidized, semi-ball wulong. Because of this, exactly where it is grown and what cultivar is being used are often emphasized.
Taiwanese Tea Cultivars
Freshly plucked tea leaves
Many Taiwanese teas are similar in production method, though this speaks nothing of the skills of the tea maker. They are usually differentiated by what cultivar is being used and where it is grown. The name “High Mountain Tea” can be given to many different teas (except those growing below 1,000 meters), so these factors, particularly the cultivar, play a larger role in determining the outcome. Here are a few of the most famous:
Qing Xin – Translates “Green Heart”. This cultivar is very popular and originated in Fujian. Though it can be a bit picky, it is often the preferred cultivar of many tea makers for its pointed, floral-fresh flavors.
Jin Xuan – Translates “Golden Day-Lily”. This is an enormously popular cultivar with the public. Often referred to as “Milk Oolong” for its naturally creamy flavor and texture.
Si Ji – Translates “Four Seasons”. This is a hybridization of Qing Xin with another cultivar to make it more durable and increase yields. It’s a workhorse cultivar meant to produce good-quality everyday oolong teas.Tieguanyun – Translates “Iron Goddess of Mercy”. Originally from Anxi, but has now been produced in Taiwan for over 100 years. This cultivar is less common, because Tieguanyin in Taiwan is often baked/roasted as the final step which is less popular with the public.