History of Tea in Taiwan

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Map of Taiwan relative to China

Taiwan is home to many of the best world’s best oolong teas.

Being an island 90 miles off of the Chinese southern coast, Taiwan was destined to grow tea and be a strategic trading and military port for several different countries. The tea trade in this country reflects centuries of constant change in rulers and customs. It is believed that there were Camilla sinensis plants growing natively on Taiwan, but they produced very thin leaves that were brittle and bitter (Kevin Gascoyne, 2011). Tea plants where brought onto the island in the mid-1600s from the Fujian province of China when Taiwan was controlled by the Chinese Qing Dynasty. As more Chinese immigrants came to Taiwan, the plants where moved to several locations throughout the island. It wasn’t until the end of the 1800’s, with European intervention, that a commercial tea trade was developed.

European Influence on Taiwan Tea Trade

The Europeans were looking for other ports to trade tea given the Opium Wars with mainland China in the mid-1800’s. The need to diversify tea ports away from mainland China, led John Dodd to start offering financing to Taiwanese peasants. This enabled local Taiwanese start tea plantations as well as build factories in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, to process the tea. Prior to those factories, all the tea leaves in Taiwan where sent to Anxi or Fuzhou China for the final processing. By bringing the final processing to the island, Mr. Dodd put Taiwan on the US and European tea maps with Taiwan producing mostly black teas for those markets. The name “Formosa” was put on most of these teas, as Portugal was the first European country to stumble across Taiwan and that is the name they gave the island. It means beautiful, so it worked well for a marketing name at the time (Kevin Gascoyne, 2011).

Taiwan Tea Industry From 1895 to Present

Close up of Fanciest Formosa Oolong

Fanciest Formosa Oolong from Taiwan

Japan took control of Taiwan in 1895 and proceeded to invest heavily in tea production in the country, introducing new tea cultivars, fertilizer and mechanization of the processing of the tea. Very skillfully, the Japanese kept the focus on black tea so the island would not compete with the Japanese green teas. The Chinese took back control from Japan at the end of the Second World War. This shifted tea production from black to green as trade with Europe and the US was dramatically cut. Competition with Japan and China forced Taiwan to shift again in the 1970’s to the oolong production they are well known for now. Even today, most of the tea in Taiwan is consumed locally even though they are considered among the finest of available teas worldwide (Richardson, 2008). The tea industry in Taiwan is still dominated by small family owned farmers giving them control over both the growth and the manufacturing of the tea. This is a unique arrangement and is credited with creating the proper atmosphere for the creation of their diverse and superior oolongs. Below is a quick chart describing some of the better known oolongs which are exported from Taiwan. If you get your hands on one of these, drink them over multiple infusions to enjoy the full complexity of these wonderful teas.

Dong Ding (Tong Ting) Produced in the Dong Ding region (while most people refer to Dong Ding Mountain, most of the tea is not grown on the mountain side). This is a tightly balled oolong that should be brewed with boiling water. It produces a greenish golden liquor with heavy floral notes with a buttery cream finish.

Bao Zhong (Jade Pouchong) This 18-20% oxidized green tea – almost an oolong  but mostly a green tea (called Pouchong) is a full twisted leaf green that produces an amber green liquid that is delicate floral and sweet.

Oriental Beauty This balled oolong is famous for the green-leaf hoppers that munch on the leaves just before harvesting. Their biting causes the plants to release L-Theanine producing a complex flavor in this tea. It makes an orange-brown liquor with woody, floral notes followed by a creamy finish. This oolong is traditionally enjoyed with a Gong Fu set that allows for multiple small steepings of this tea to enjoy all the different flavors.

Fanciest Formosa This higher oxidized oolong is produced in the traditional Chinese method with twisted leaves instead of balled. It produces an amber to dark brown liquor with honey and peach flavors. It is the typical “first” oolong for someone wanting to experience oolong for the first time.

Ali Shan This high altitude oolong  is a tightly balled oolong that produces a yellow liquor with a sweet intense creamy flavor with some toasted nut notes. It is less oxidized oolong, so brew more like a green than black tea (not at boiling).
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