The story of good tea has it all: biodiversity, cultural diversity, health, livelihoods, agriculture, trade, taste. It’s an ancient botanical that has created, shaped and connected cultures; it’s an embodiment of man’s intimate interplay with nature.
When you flick through the history books it doesn’t take long to see that origin really does matter and when it comes to providing the whole experience of appreciating tea, the shorter the distance, the greater the magic. As we explore the famous tea-making regions of Taiwan, we’ll weave in and out of its location, history & culture, and signature taste & terroir (which interestingly, when appropriated by the English language refers to soil and climate but in its original language, French, refers to tradition too).
THE NORTHERN BROW
It’s all said to have began in the early 19th century when some Wuyi seedlings were planted in the northern Ruifang district. But Taiwan’s tea trade really began to pick up steam when demand from the mainland was on the rise for its scented Baozhong tea from Nangang, the southeastern district of today’s capital, Taipei. Soon after the island was taken over by the Japanese, advanced processing methods were developed to satisfy demand from their nation for a more pure, subtle and naturally floral taste. This sent the Baozhong trade in search of greener pastures and it found a more permanent home in Pinglin where the Emerald green Beishi river meanders through the verdant valleys, nourished by fresh spring water and well-kept soil due to the district being preserved to ensure that its main reservoir which supplies the city of Taipei with its water is not contaminated.
Allow the western prevailing winds to nudge you west for a moment and you’ll arrive at Muzha, where in the 1920s the Baozhong tea artisans, the Zhang brothers, returned from Anxi with some Tie guan yin tea buds. The Zhangs not only successfully cultivated plantations but they also developed their own style to match the low-elevation, high-temperature terroir of the north east: medium oxidation and low repeated roasting, resulting in flavours you wouldn’t usually associate with oolong such as tobacco, chestnut, and even summer fruits. Attend a tasting competition of the finest Muzha Tie guan yins and your taste buds will be dancing for weeks underneath a smoky-yet-fruity coated roof.
And finally, to complete the traversing of Taiwan’s northern tea-making brow, we must visit Shiding – the home of Taiwan’s most exclusive tea, Oriental Beauty. Since the young, bug-bitten and organic-by-nature leaves are only harvested once per year during summer, Oriental Beauty is arguably Taiwan’s most exclusive tea and the most elusive when it comes to sourcing an authentic one at a reasonable price. It’s still produced in Hsinchu but isn’t as prevalent today as this district was gentrified during the industrial economic miracle that kicked off in the 50s. Oriental Beauty is also grown in the foothills of Miaoli – home to the famous Hakka tribe and their lei cha: a grounded mixture of tea leaves, nuts, seeds and grains that was originally served to esteemed guests upon arrival.
SWEEPING SOUTH TO TAIWAN’S GARDEN
Proceed south and next up is the central district of Yuchi and Sun Moon lake. Here you will find the epicentre of Taiwan’s black tea production, the Taiwan Research & Extension Station – founded by the Japanese in the 1920s to diversify Taiwan’s tea trade. Its legacy thus far is the Red Jade #18 black tea, a cross between the indigenous Taiwanese tea tree and a Burmese assamica bush. But to be clear, this black tea could not stand toe-to-toe with its foreign counterparts without the processing and soil management innovations spawned from this establishment – traits that experts say allow the Taiwanese to excel on the global scene. The scarcity of this tea paired with the name recognition of Sun Moon lake and its bountiful tourism means that the demand by far outstrips supply, and this tea can be costly and prone to counterfeit. But, I must say, the best Red Jade #18 we’ve come across so far (competition-grade teas excluded) is from Pinglin and given that it was detached from the pre-marketed label of Sun Moon lake, we got a lot more bang for our buck.
The lake sits on the border of Taichung and Nantou, and at this crossing you will find the Lishan and Da Yu Ling high elevation tea farms. Now, thanks to some veteran farmers in the 1950s establishing plantations as part of a government sponsored initiative to use the trade to develop local livelihoods, we are standing atop Taiwan’s tea industry – both in terms of elevation and prestige – and have entered the southern section of ‘Taiwan’s garden’.
Breathtakingly beautiful, this central mountain range sits upon the tropic of cancer and its hillsides are bathed in mist and wreathed in sunshine before sun down where temperatures cool dramatically. These are the climatic conditions that are accredited for the prized high mountain oolongs’ delicate and nuanced flavour profile, lasting sweetness and amazing patience. But if that’s not enough, it even has the Pacific Ocean on its side. An esteemed biochemistry professor and organic fertilizer producer once told us of how concentrated quantities of compression-purified minerals gather at the deep ocean bedrock of the east coast. These minerals feed directly into the meteorological cycles and travel with the prevailing western winds into the clouds that crash into the mountains nourishing the terrain.
Aside from the occasional scandal with authentication – an obvious hazard in an industry where land is limited and it’s extremely difficult to empirically validate a particular terroir – the Taiwanese tea industry also received a scolding from the viral movie ‘Beautiful Taiwan’ for the land it has claimed in pursuit of these perfect plots. That being said, efforts have been made by governmental agencies to preserve the ecology and Nantou’s Shan Lin Shi, in particular, can hold its head up high. Its tea fields have been scattered around the forest, creating a neat microclimate for growing tea that can be bright and punchy.
Although high mountain oolongs signify Taiwan’s excellence, continue south along the volcanic central mountain core and jump to the early 19th century and you’ll find a returning intellect from the mainland planting some qingxin oolong bushes at Dong Ding (frozen peak) mountain in Lugu. Grown at medium elevations of 700-1200m, the semi-oxidized medium-roasted Dong Ding oolong is deemed to be quintessentially Taiwanese and was even once considered a high mountain oolong. Significant heating of the island over the 20th century as well as the aforementioned demand for increased production sent the industry in search for for more land and cooler temperatures. Mr and Mrs Liu, a tea maker and grower duo who own a tea plantation at 1200m in Ali Shan, appreciated the irony of us applying the ‘Dong Ding’ style of making to their high mountain tea leaves since to them it was a gentle nod to the old days.
As we come to the Southern quarter of ‘Taiwan’s garden,’ we’ve made it to the mountain range that is becoming synonymous for high mountain oolong right now, Alishan. Revered by tourists for its nostalgic steam engine train, beaming sunrise, enchanting woods where the spirits of ancient ancestors loom tall and tea fields are nestled into the sea of clouds at sunset – Alishan is the collective name of an 18-peak central mountain range. Distinctively sweet and mild in character yet not without its complexity, Alishan high mountain oolong is great for the beginner yet also sits proudly amongst the collections of the most discerning of connoisseurs.
& THE SECRET RECIPE FOR THE BEST TEA IN THE WORLD?…
Taiwan’s tea trade is an interesting tale that starts with the coming together of cultures: know-how from the mainland, entrepreneurship from the visiting Brits, continued ingenuity from the Japanese, and culture sustained by impassioned Taiwanese.
Government-funded research as well as local organisations and support networks assist and collaborate with its 6,000 family-owned small-scale tea farms to develop trade, and its tasting competitions help define standards of quality and excellence. Further to this, its culture bureaus work extensively with community enthusiasts to host celebratory tea heritage festivals and its museums and recreational tea farms educate and entertain in equal measure to deliver an authentic experience to domestic and international tourists. All of these increase trading opportunities and creates a domestic demand that spurs the industry in times of prosperity and buoys the industry in times of struggle.
Upon visiting the US and the UK, we can say that it certainly feels like the long anticipated ‘third-wave’ of tea has arrived in the West. Although it’s easy to look at its connoisseurship counterparts – coffee and wine – and question if it can really get there, it’s worth noting that coffee and wine have their not-so-secret weapons such as the caffeine content to start a stuttering engine and enough alcohol in one glass to put rose in the cheeks. Tea might not have one of these silver bullets, but what it does have is a story and a heritage that has been espoused by the Chinese literati of past dynasties and Japan’s prominent religious scholars. Further to this, it has that connection to the natural; to the divinely balanced; to the calm and serene.
As Eastern culture, mindful practices and our 7-soon-to-be-9 billion population of increasingly urbanised dwellers look to rekindle their relationship with nature – I cannot help but feel that if only the industry pulled back the curtains and allowed us to truly experience the coming together of each tea’s tradition and terroir, we could weaponise the wonder and make each tea taste that little bit sweeter.