Take a Tea Tour on the Trail Less Traveled

NANTOU COUNTY'S UPLANDS OF LUGU ARE THE SOURCE OF THE COUNTRY'S OUTSTANDING OOLONG TEAS. Photo: Richard Matheson @ LIFE OF TAIWAN

The most popular beverage in the world is made to perfection in Taiwan, from bubble teas at roadside vendors to the most expensive high-mountain choice grade oolong.

The playbill for a Broadway production in the early 1900s pictures a waiter serving a gentleman and two impeccably attired ladies in some undefined but leafy and upscale location. Tea is served in cut-glass, coupe stemware.

“The Champagne of Teas!” exclaims one of the characters.

“Yes, it’s Formosa Oolong Tea,” comes the reply.

Though India is justifiably proud of its Darjeeling and China’s Pu’er has history on its side, most would agree that the utterly unique terroir, light jade coloration, and muscatel-like flavor make choice-grade Oolong the brew of champions. And as anyone who knows tea will tell you, there’s much more where that came from.

Taiwan’s teas range right across the color spectrum, from black to white, yellow to green and red. There are three main types: a cornucopia of oolong varietals; mellow black teas, centered on Sun Moon Lake; and fragrant green teas, such as Sanxia Dragon Well. Similar to tours of France’s wine-growing regions, following the Taiwan tea trail involves more than simply indulging in the pleasures of an impeccably poured cuppa, but also provides an opportunity to learn more about the country’s history, savor the scenery, and explore its cuisine.

It should come as no surprise that Taiwan has the perfect conditions and climate for growing tea, with its pristine Central Mountain Range running down the spine of the country, plentiful sun and precipitation, plus the rich volcanic soil.

However, though tea is naturally endemic to Taiwan, its indigenous varieties have rarely found favor. The Portuguese, who occupied Taiwan in the 17th century, documented wild tea plants in Nantou County but didn’t think much of them. Red Sprout Mountain Tea has brittle leaves and a somewhat bitter taste, while Taiwan Mountain Tea plants cannot be cultivated, even if retailer What-Cha supplies small amounts of the latter and describes it as having a “sweet blackberry aroma” and “smooth honey taste.”

Just as the origins of wine are said to be found in an Armenian cave rather than France, Taiwan owes a debt of gratitude to merchants from China’s Fujian province for its flourishing tea industry.

In the late 18th century these adventurous merchants brought over tea cuttings and set up the first plantations in Taipei’s Ruifang and Muzha districts. In 1855, Qingxin Oolong plants from Wuyi Mountain were transplanted to Nantou County’s uplands of Lugu (“Deer Valley”) and thrived, eventually creating the “Champagne of Teas.”

Three treasures

At the turn of the 20th century, as the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) neared its denouement and Japan operated the levers of power in Taiwan, tea was one of “three treasures” – the others being cane sugar and camphor – that generated economic development.

As befits a serious business, there was considerable government oversight, and the Tea Manufacture Experiment Station (now known as the Tea Research and Extension Station or TRES) was established in Taoyuan in 1903. It was around this time that Taiwan’s teas were first sold as trade-marked brands and became internationally recognized for their quality.

Some of the packaging is, quite literally, divine. Graphics were developed from Chinese myths, such as “Nezha Conquers the Dragon King;” depictions of native flora and fauna, such as the sika deer; and mountain landscapes. Another theme, understandably, was beautiful women – hence the famed Oriental or Eastern Beauty teas, roasted oolongs from Hsinchu County exported by the British trader, John Dodd, in the late 19th century.

These colorful canisters and packages of tea can be viewed at Pinglin Tea Museum, which is as good a place as any to set off on the tea trail. One of the world’s largest tea museums, it overlooks Beishi River and is downstream of the picturesque Feitsui Reservoir. Among its many artfully and interactively presented exhibits are tea-making instruments and machines, a “magic” teapot (just rub three times), and old newsreels.

Some of the packaging for Taiwan’s teas is worthy of serious art appreciation. Photo: Jules Quartly

Shaun Yu, a former journalist who is now a tour guide at the museum, takes the subject of tea seriously. He considers tea growing and packaging as marking the beginning of Taiwan’s global trading, and regards it is now as an example of “soft power” – a means of securing international recognition.

Shaun Yu, a former journalist who is now a tour guide at Pinglin Tea Museum, introduces Taiwan’s tea culture to the world. Photo: Jules Quartly

This doesn’t prevent Yu from beginning his tours with Shennong (神農), the mythical Chinese god of agriculture and medicine, who is said to have been the first to discover tea when he left some leaves burning above a fire. The wind blew the leaves into a pot of boiling water and the rest is, of course, history.

In Yu’s opinion, an ideal tea tour deserves an enriched itinerary of hiking, gourmet foods, and a look at the history of tea merchants in Taipei’s Dadaocheng district, an old part of town packed full of traditional products and wares.

Naturally, he is a fan of Wenshan Baozhang, which is grown and processed in the Pinglin area. An oxidized oolong that is rarely roasted, it gets its name from being wrapped up in paper during the drying process. Yu describes it as “fragrant, light, and doesn’t keep me up all night.”

A nice touch at the museum is repairing to the gift shop annex afterward, where a knowledgeable lady will prepare cups of tea until you find one that suits you best. We plumped for white tea, which is rare in Taiwan and comes from high elevation wild camellia hybrids. It is lightly processed, mild, and makes great ice tea.

At the Pinglin Tea Museum annex, it’s always the perfect time to savor first-hand the cultivated pleasure of a tea ceremony. Photo: Jules Quartly

Kungfu tea

Not far away as the crow flies is Taipei Tea House, more formally known as the Nangang Tea Processing Demonstration Center (南港茶葉製造示範場). It’s a 30-minute drive from Taipei 101 and attracts hikers and painters, as well as tea enthusiasts. Overlooking the generally smoggy Taipei basin, it offers tasting workshops, DIY planting, and both half-day and full-day tours.

Closely aligned with farmers’ associations, the center also offers local produce for sale. Our guide for the day, Kitty Tsai, showed us around and pointed out an oil tea tree. She recounted that in the days before doctors’ appointments its kuyou cha (苦由茶), or bitter tea oil, was full of vitamins A and E and considered to be a cure-all. A teaspoon was taken in the morning to ward off stomach ulcers and act as a tonic. These days, it is more often cold pressed and used for cooking because of its high smoking point and slightly herbal taste.

Tsai talked about how tea is a corner-stone of life in Taiwan, from being a ubiquitous drink to slake thirst on hot days, to being part of a ritual art form. Bubble teas with the chewy tapioca balls and assorted jellies originated decades ago in Tainan and Taichung, but are now made all over the world. On practically every street corner is a convenience stores with refrigerators full of ice teas.

Then there are the teas sold in dedicated stores and places like Wistaria Tea House in central Taipei, or Yao Yue Teahouse in the rural setting of Wenshan district. Such teas are mostly produced at high altitudes and often sourced from renowned plantations – much like chateaux in France. They may be served in tea ceremonies, brought out to impress guests, or sweeten business negotiations.

Alishan plantations

Nick Kembel, who has written extensively about tea on his blog, Spiritual Travels , says that while there are outstanding places to visit on a tea tour of the island, marketing and promotion is often lacking.

He notes that the younger generation has been swept up in the coffee craze, and most domestic tourism focuses on activities like jam making and feeding animals on kid-friendly farms. As for international tea tours, Kembel suspects that the language barrier would be a problem and that plantation owners “don’t even realize that foreign tourists would be interested in visiting or staying on a tea plantation.”

“Alishan High Mountain Tea is probably Taiwan’s most famous tea, but most visitors rush up to the tourist village in the Alishan National Scenic Area for the famed sunrises, without realizing they are passing right through some of the most gorgeous and accessible tea plantations on the island,” Kembel says.

A tea plantation in Nantou County’s Lugu. Photo: Richard Matheson @ LIFE OF TAIWAN

The relatively undeveloped tea tourism industry nevertheless provides plentiful opportunities for exploration to individual travelers. Kembel says he is happiest to “hang out at a simple local family’s guesthouse and drink quality tea with the farmers themselves.”

He recommends visiting the village of Shizhuo, halfway between Chiayi and Alishan, which has a series of hiking routes with names like “Tea Trail, Sunset Trail, and Mist Trail, which meander through terraced tea plantations. There are several simple guesthouses dotting the hills, some of which are run by tea plantations.”

Kembel’s other recommendations include Sun Moon Lake for one of his favorite teas, Ruby Red #18, and the high mountain tea farms of Taichung County. His own outstanding tea moment was a visit to the Global Tea Hut (GTH) headquarters in Miaoli, run by someone whom Kembel calls “easily one of the English-speaking world’s leading experts on tea.”

Born Aaron Daniel Fisher, Wu De was raised in Ohio. After roaming the East and combining kungfu with meditation and tea, he set up Tea Sage Hut (通聖亭), which offers courses on “The Way of Tea” and sells organic teas sourced directly from farmers. It also provides a guesthouse for “Zen tea” pilgrims.

Alishan black tea. Photo: Richard Matheson @ LIFE OF TAIWAN

In an email, Wu De describes his organization thus: “Apart from a unique ecological outlook based on sustainability, our Center also focuses on incorporating the tea ceremony into a life of self-cultivation. We seek to use tea as a Dao, and along with meditation, healthy diet and exercise, teach people to live more fulfilled lives through a tea practice.”

Asked why he settled in Taiwan and how he rates the tea culture, Wu De responds by saying that in addition to having stunning natural landscapes and a vibrant lifestyle, “Taiwan is one of the tea capitals of the world, with a rich tea culture and its own long-standing tea traditions.… If you are looking for tea experiences, you have but to pick a direction and go.”

Life of Taiwan

Given such riches, it’s a little surprising that Taiwan’s tea tours aren’t mentioned in the same breath as luxury vacations to Sri Lanka’s tea stations or Darjeeling’s heritage tea estates.

For Life of Taiwan  Managing Director Mark Pemberton, Taiwan has only relatively recently become a “destination” – somewhere actively sought out rather than serendipitously discovered. Tourism Bureau figures back up this assertion. At the start of the millennium there were just 2.6 million visitors a year, while the figure stood at 10.7 million last year and is still growing, despite fewer Chinese visitors.

In addition, what started out as principally backpacker traffic is now becoming more upmarket, with more spending and focusing on culture and heritage. Pemberton, originally from Hastings in the United Kingdom, says his “boutique travel experiences and private tours” company doubled its business last year. As someone who describes himself as a “mad tea drinker,” he is keen to spread the love.

“Taiwan has become a destination,” he says. “It’s not so cheap now and the domestic market is also healthy. You can pay US$300 a night in Taroko Gorge and US$500 for a standard room in Sun Moon Lake. There’s enough wealth in Taiwan and the prices have become international level.”

Life of Taiwan specializes in customized experiences, offering expert advice and curated itineraries. It’s three-day, five-day, and seven-day tea tours provide insight on the traditions and techniques of Taiwan’s tea cultivation, overcoming the language barrier by employing bilingual guides.

Met at the airport and whisked away in comfort to a fine hotel, tours typically begin in Taipei and look at the origins of Taiwan’s tea on Dihua Street, before immersing visitors in the arcane rituals of the tea ceremony. After taking the Maokong Gondola up to Muzha’s tea plantations and enjoying nighttime views of the blinking city below, there’s dinner at an acclaimed restaurant.

Optional hot spring or Kavalan Distillery whisky stops on the way to Hualien County will be followed by an exploration of the oolongs produced at Wuhe Tea Plantation. Other highlights include the Antique Assam Tea Farm in the Alishan region, strolls through the forests around Fenqihu, tea growing in the village of Shi-zuo, or wild coffee gathering in the Indigenous village of Laiji.

“I’ve always thought that Taiwan’s tea tours would be huge in terms of international tourism,” Pemberton comments. “It hasn’t happened yet, but the market is definitely growing. I could be biased, of course, but I would say Taiwan’s teas are among the best in the world and they are a great excuse to explore this amazing island.”

A vista of stunning Sun Moon Lake. Photo: Richard Matheson @ LIFE OF TAIWAN

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