[Photo by Eric Nguyen]

The Teas of Taiwan

When the Portuguese sailed past the island of Taiwan in 1517, they named it Ilha Formosa, or “beautiful isle,” and the pretty name is still used for some of the country’s teas today. When the Dutch occupied Taiwan from 1624 to 1662, they investigated the possibility of growing tea there but were chased away by the Chinese before they could develop any tea gardens.

A 1640 map by the Dutch of “Ilha Formosa.”

Then, during the 18th and 19th centuries, large numbers of immigrants arrived on the island from China’s Fujian province and brought with them seedling plants to cultivate in their new homeland. Large scale production developed from around 1866, with the first oolong processing factory opening in 1868 and the first shipment of Formosa Oolong was shipped to the United States by John Dodd in 1869. In the 1860s, tea exports made up just 10 percent of the country’s total exports. However, by the 1890s, that number had risen to almost 65 percent.

In 1895, control of the country switched to the Japanese, who encouraged the manufacture of black oolong teas so the Taiwanese producers wouldn’t compete with Japan’s green tea production. At the end of World War II, the Chinese once again took control of the island and teamakers turned back to making Gunpowder (珠茶) and Chun Mee (珍眉) green teas, with the help and guidance of tea masters from the mainland. Production and exports of green, oolong, and black teas gradually increased through the 1960s and ’70s, and then, in the 1980s, farmers began focusing on the manufacture of the quality high mountain oolongs that are so famous today.

The wonderful aromatic “jade” or “balled” oolongs that tea drinkers around the world are learning to love are produced throughout the mountain region that sweeps down from the north around Taipei to the more southerly high slopes of Ali Shan. In the high, steeply terraced gardens, the bushes are hand plucked to give a better quality leaf with less stalk, while on the lower slopes, much of the tea is harvested using hedge-trimmer type machines. The leaf is withered first in the sun and then indoors while gentle oxidation takes place in the leaf to develop the amazing fruity and floral notes that make these teas irresistible. Once oxidized to the required level, the teas are bagged and rolled repeatedly until the leaves or shoots have been twisted and compressed into small pellets that yield buttery-smooth, golden-amber liquors with a pine forest or sappy flavor and aroma akin to the orchid, narcissus, and hyacinth.

In the peaks that surround Taipei, the farmers produce their delicious Bao Zhong (包種茶) teas, which are also known as Pouchong, Wenshan Paochung, or Pinglin Baozhong. These teas are so lightly oxidized, to just 15–18 percent, that they hold onto their rich green color. Their gorgeous and pale yellow-green liquors provide the most amazing depths of sweetness, with the fresh floral notes of green tea, the biscuity aroma of oolong tea, and the perfume of sweet peas in full bloom. The flavor was once described by a Taiwanese tea expert as, “like wandering through the forest in spring time.”

With its exquisite fragrance and fruity sweetness, perhaps the most impressive of Taiwan’s teas is Oriental Beauty, or Dongfang Meiren (東方美人). The tea is also known as White Tip Oolong, Bai Hao Oolong, Champagne Oolong, Pekoe Oolong, and Wu Si Cha or “five color tea” from the five tones of red, white (or silver), yellow, green, and brown that are displayed in the delicate, dry leaf.

These expensive and very special teas are made from very young shoots of one silvery bud and two baby leaves harvested in late June and early July when the humidity is high and after the bushes have been infested by little leafhoppers that love the taste of the tea and bite the leaf to suck out the juices. Once the leaves have been ruptured by these invading creatures, they begin to oxidize in the hot summer sun while, at the same time, the tea plant produces enzymes that are designed to shoo away the little insects. The oxidation and defensive enzymes contribute to the tea’s very special and unique fruity character.

Guest contributor Jane Pettigrew is a tea historian, writer, consultant, specialist working in the UK and around the world explaining and offering insight into the world of tea. She’s written 15 books and hosts regular master classes and tea tastings. You can find her at www.janepettigrew.com.

Originally published at teforia.com.

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