Along the walls of the tea shop operated by Wu Chiu-ling and her son, Ray Chien, are the various competition awards the pair has won for their red oolong tea: 45 gold medals, and growing. Their success has earned Ms. Wu a new moniker: “Queen of Red Oolong.” Red oolong is impressive for its versatility. It can be prepared hot or cold. It’s popular both domestically and internationally. The processed leaves take on the characteristics of the cultivar from which they are derived, so at times red oolong may bear floral notes of rose or osmanthus, while at others it tastes of honey or ripened fruit.
The tea is even suitable as a culinary ingredient.
As Ms. Wu explains, “I’ve had friends who’ve used it to make really good chicken soup.” It’s surprising, then, that such a miracle tea has only existed for ten years.
Red oolong is a variety unique to the southeastern county of Taitung, home to one of the
youngest tea-making regions in Taiwan. Initial plans to introduce the cultivation and manufacture of black tea began in 1960. However, as export sales of Taiwanese tea diminished and the tea industry as a whole began to focus on selling domestically, the focus shifted to cultivating the trendier baozhong tea.
The period from 1980 to 1995 can be considered a golden era in Taitung’s tea industry, as high-mountain teas from the central region of Taiwan had yet to dominate the market. Thanks to Taitung’s favorable growing conditions, its tea gradually caught the attention of tea sellers and tea-makers. Industry professionals relocated to the region and established the infrastructure for large-scale production. At the tea business’ peak, tea fields occupied up to 600 hectares of land.
By 1996, however, Taitung tea was experiencing a depression. Land devoted to tea shrank to 200 hectares, and the 50 to 60 tea-makers once active in the region dwindled to fewer than 20.
The rapid decline of business resulted from a variety of factors. One was rising competition from imported Taiwanese-style tea. Another was the bifurcation of the cultivation and production of tea: farmers and teamakers operated separately and with opposing agendas, complicating efforts to achieve a balance between quantity and quality.
With makers unable or unwilling to buy their leaves, many farmers abandoned tea in favor of more profitable crops. As Mr. Chien explains, “A lot of tea grown in low-mid elevation doesn’t taste good. The farmers still have to live, so they switched to growing other fruits.”
Perhaps most damaging to early tea-making efforts, however, was an issue of branding.
Without a unique selling point or well-established pedigree, Taitung tea was unable to thrive in the market.
In an effort to revitalize the tea industry, the local branch of the Tea Research and Extension Station (TRES), a national agency,
launched a campaign to transform Taitung’s tea industry from a manufacturing basis to a knowledge basis. The strategy targeted three areas: quality certification, marketing, and, most importantly, the establishment of unique tea cultivars and processing methods.
From this initiative, red oolong was born. Ms.
Wu, who had already worked in the tea industry for nearly 20 years, was one of the people tapped by Wu Shen-sun, head of TRES’s Taitung branch, to collaborate on research and development.
“He invited a few of us young tea farmers to investigate tea together,” she explains.
One of the problems was to address the challenges posed by the terrain; tea shrubs grown
in the low- to mid-elevations of Taitung mature differently than those grown at high elevations. Initial attempts produced a tea that was too rough on the palate, but by 2008, Taitung had established a process for creating red oolong, so named because of its color.
Broadly defined, tea that has been wilted, agitated, baked, rolled, and dried is classified as oolong, a category that includes the baozhong, tieguanyin, Oriental Beauty, and Dong Ding varieties of teas. However, much of the flavor of traditional oolongs like baozhong depends on the quality of the unprocessed leaves, which are particularly susceptible to factors like seasonal changes, cultivar differences, and pests.
In contrast, red oolong is more forgiving of fluctuations in the raw product. Its defining characteristic is its oxidation time, the longest of any oolongs. “Our red oolong is oxidized to 70 to 80 percent, so it’s approaching the color of a black tea,” Ms. Wu explains. By comparison, black tea is 100 percent oxidized.
Just as important as oxidation is roasting.
Through experimentation, teamakers have found that red oolong requires not only high oxidation but heavy roasting to remove astringency and to allow the aroma to blossom.
As a recent invention, red oolong is still subject to room for trial and error. Sometimes new breakthroughs have been serendipitous: Ms. Wu discovered the benefits of prolonged roasting when once she was preoccupied with customers in the shop and neglected to check her tea.
The potential to expand the limits of red oolong, and of tea production in Taitung more generally, is part of what drives a new generation of teamakers to continue innovating in
their field. As Ms. Wu explains, “It’s a new challenge every time.”