Taiwan, previously known as Formosa, is an island nation located about 90 miles from the coast of China. Its cool, humid, and mountainous landscape, coupled with centuries of expertise inherited from both Japanese and Chinese tea cultures, make Taiwanese teas nonpareil in quality. This article will delve deeper into Taiwanese tea, exploring its history, culture, and significance.
History of Taiwanese Tea
The history of tea in Taiwan is defined by two things: small family gardening and the oolong. Over 90% of Taiwan’s total tea production is oolongs. Though the Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese would all lay claim to the archipelago at some point, it was the Dutch who were first responsible for developing the tea trade in Taiwan in 1624. Taiwan served as a strategic seafaring port between China and ships bound for Europe. The foundation they set positioned Taiwan to be a leading tea producer, even as the Qing Dynasty reconquered and unified Taiwan with the mainland Fujian province, not sixty years later. The subsequent wave of Chinese immigration onto the island altered its tea culture irrevocably.
Over the next several decades, tea farmers from the renowned Anxi and Wuyi regions poured in, bringing with them their plants and tricks of the trade. The Taipei and Nantou regions became epicenters of family tea farming. Most tea was grown for personal consumption, and rice and sugarcane remained Taiwan’s cash crops. However, by the late 1700s, the international tea trade had kicked into high gear.
In 1866, a British trader named John Dodd began championing Taiwanese teas on the world market. He offered financing to family-farming peasants who agreed to start plantations and built factories in the capital, Taipei, allowing growers control over every stage of production for the first time.
This industrialization continued with the Japanese conquest in 1895. More and more, the family gardens of Taiwan were converted into mechanized factory farms. The Japanese introduced Tea Institutes and even offered training to aspiring tea masters. They also endorsed black tea production in the country, partially to avoid competition with their domestic green tea market.
After World War II, the Chinese reclaimed Taiwan and re-oriented it toward low-grade green tea production, meant for trade with Japan and North Africa. In the civil war that ensued not long after, Taiwan became home to The Republic of China. Now, unable to compete with the mainland for green tea markets and with Japan fast becoming self-sufficient, Taiwan embraced an age-old style and local favorite: the oolong.
Culture of Taiwanese Tea
Taiwan is also the only major producer to evaluate all three aspects of the tea experience when grading: leaf appearance, aroma, and flavor. In fact, they host biannual tea competitions in the major growing regions to encourage quality. Farmers submit their finest teas to be judged by a panel of experts, and the winning teas are awarded gold, silver, and bronze medals. Farmers who produce gold medal teas are met with renown and a very sizable income from sales of that harvest – at times, it creates a “futures market” for the tea, with customers buying out the next year’s harvest before the leaf is even on the bush.
Famous Formosa Tea
Taiwanese tea is known for its unique taste and aroma. The country produces a wide range of teas, including oolongs, which are especially famous. Here are some of the most famous Formosa teas:
This lightly oxidized oolong has large, wavy, dark green leaves and a pale, golden-yellow cup. The leaves are minimally rolled and lightly roasted. Pouchong is known for its delicate floral flavor, buttery texture, and light earthy undertones. It was originally produced for scenting and is named after the “paper wrapped” way it was originally presented.
The oldest and most renowned of all Taiwanese tea styles, Dong Ding is processed with light or medium oxidation and is notable for its tightly rolled “Min Nan” style leaves as well as its full, sweet, and clean flavor. Grown in the mountains of Nantou, Tung Ting is traditionally made from the Qin Xin cultivar. This tea boasts a deep honey aroma, buttery mouthfeel, and notes of lilac with a fresh vegetal finish.
Bai Hao is grown in the highlands of Hsinchu and is oxidized between 65-70%. The leaves are bitten by the Jacobiasca formosana insect, triggering the release of a defensive hormone in the plant, which is amplified by oxidation. Only leaves and buds that have been bitten are picked, giving Bai Hao its beautiful, autumnal grey-reddish appearance. Look for lush, smooth flavors of honey, apple, and juicy stone fruit. Bai Hao’s have a multitudinous complexity and a lingering, clean finish.
- Gao Shan Cha (“High Mountain Tea”)
A broad classification, signifying any tea that grows at a height of more than 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) above sea level. Many Taiwanese oolongs fall into this category, including Ali Shan, Li Shan, and Shan Lin Xi. Gao Shan Chas are renowned for their pronounced aromatics, roasted vegetal flavors, decadent bodies, and luxuriant floral finishes. Gao Shan Chas are grown primarily in the middle of the island, on the Central Mountain massif, some gardens thriving at heights well over 8,000 feet.
These teas offer unique flavor and aroma experiences, each with their own distinct characteristics. Whether you are a tea connoisseur or simply enjoy a good cup of tea, Taiwanese oolongs are definitely worth exploring.