Exploring the World of Taiwanese Tea

Nantou County is one of Taiwan's most scenic tea-growing areas. Photo: Rich Matheson

Themed tours involve visits to farms, production facilities, and teahouses to introduce tea culture as a whole.

Teas grown in Taiwan have many fans, both on the island and overseas, but few are more avid than Stephen Carroll. When Carroll, a Briton who has lived in Australia for many years, encountered Taiwanese Oolong in 2012, it was love at first sip.

“My first thought was that I’d never before tried a tea that tasted of tea as well as what I could only describe as flowers,” he recalls. “I had to learn a new sensory vocabulary for this sort of tea. I thought to myself: ‘How can leaves from one bush produce such a panoply of neurological inputs?’ The experience was rewarding for my nose, tongue, mouth, and throat.”

Glenn Shark, an American connoisseur of Taiwan teas, does not hesitate to describe the island’s high-mountain Oolongs as “the champagnes of tea.” He attributes their tremendous quality to natural factors: “Taiwan is the only tea-growing country that combines high-altitude climate, mineral-rich volcanic soil, and close proximity to moist, ocean air currents. This causes slower plant growth and results in sweeter, aromatic teas with a distinctive dry aftertaste.”

“Taiwan Oolongs include a larger span of leaf styles and oxidation levels than their Chinese Oolong cousins, giving tea enthusiasts more delicious choices to explore,” asserts The Tea Enthusiast’s Handbook: A Guide to the World’s Best Teas by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss. In Alishan, Lishan, and Shanlinxi, the book goes on to state: “The tea bushes yield relatively small quantities of astoundingly good tea… Despite their high cost, many [high mountain teas] never leave Taiwan, as they are spoken for year after year by Taiwanese customers loyal to these artisan farmers.”

The vast majority of Taiwanese teas are made from the leaves and leaf buds of Camellia sinensis var. sinensis. Indian teas come from a different strain, Camellia sinensis var. assamica. Whether a tea is classed as green, black, or Oolong depends largely on the degree of oxidation. For green teas, the leaves are minimally oxidized. Black teas are fully oxidized, while Oolongs are withered under the sun and partly oxidized. Over the past few decades, Taiwan’s tea producers have gradually shifted away from black tea and focused more and more on Oolongs.

Most Taiwanese tea is made from the leaves of Camellia sinensis var. sinensis. Photo: Rich Matheson

Officially, Taiwan’s tea exports in 2012 came to 3,126 tons, just a tenth of the level achieved in the mid-1930s, when Taiwan was the world’s sixth-largest producer of tea, behind India, Ceylon, the Duth East Indies, Japan, and China. The true total could be much higher, however. Mainland Chinese visitors to Taiwan are believed to take home at least 4,000 tons of souvenir tea each year, though some may be cheap imports deceitfully repackaged as Taiwan-grown tea.

In recent years, total tea production in Taiwan has been less than half of the pre-World War II peak. According to the Republic of China Yearbook 2013, Taiwan’s 2012 tea harvest totaled 14,902 tons, valued at NT$6.7 billion (US$227.6 million). Yet the local tea industry has attained something many other sectors of the economy can only dream of accomplishing: A stellar reputation propelling exports and driving solid domestic demand.

Because Taiwan’s annual per capita consumption of tea is now around 1.7kg, compared with just 344g in 1980, the island has also become a major importer, bringing in close to 30,000 tons of tea per year. According to a March 2013 report in the Chinese-language Commercial Times, the average price of tea exported from Taiwan was US$11.59 per kg in 2012, while imports cost just US$1.75 per kg. If the only tea you have drunk in Taiwan has been boxed beverages sold by convenience stores, or zhenzhu naicha (pearl milk tea) made by a roadside stand, you probably have never tasted real Taiwan-grown tea.

Stephen Carroll has had a strong interest in tea since his youth. “I was brought up on the usual Indian and Ceylon black teas, but as a teenager I used my pocket money to purchase Lapsang souchong” [a black tea with a smoky flavor]. Now an Honorary Tea Master of the Australian Tea Masters Association, in Australia he teaches classes on tea production, tea cultures, tea wares, and tea art. In recent years, his passion for tea has also taken him to Japan, South Korea, China, and India. “I’m a student of the Japanese chanoyu tea ceremony, the Korean darye tea ceremony, and the Chinese gongfu tea ceremony, as well as the slight variation of it that’s practiced in Taiwan,” he says.

Since that palate-opening visit in 2012, Carroll has returned to Taiwan five times, with another trip planned for September. “The appeal of Taiwan teas lies in their subtlety but huge complexity, from aroma to flavor. For those new to Oolongs, the high oxidation of some mainland Chinese Oolongs can be off-putting or just plain overwhelming,” says Carroll. “Also, there’s a lot of pretentiousness in the tea world and people get told what they should like if they are to be considered sophisticated tea drinkers. Not so in Taiwan – everyone from the tea farmer to the tea shop wants you to get something you like and not what anyone else thinks you should like. The new consumer can explore Taiwan tea on his/her own terms, and quickly gain some expertise.”

What’s more, Taiwanese Oolongs are very forgiving if you’re not too skilled in the tea-making process, he adds. “They’re good beginners’ teas that build confidence, but once you’ve tasted them, you’ll never leave them behind!”

Unique Oriental Beauty

Carroll advises first timers to start with Alishan Oolong or Oriental Beauty. The former, he says, “can be brewed as lightly as you like so as to get to know it, but you can also turn up the heat and length of steeping for your own personal taste.”

“Oriental Beauty has a superb flavor found in no other tea and no other country. It’s so special everyone should taste it at least once,” waxes Carroll. “It also has a straight-down-the-middle taste and a perfect balance of flavor, aroma, taste, and color. Compared to Alishan Oolong, you need a little more care when brewing Oriental Beauty, but it isn’t onerous and it’s also a way to develop your tea knowledge and skills.”

Sometimes known as White Tip Oolong, Oriental Beauty is unusual in that a common pest plays a critical role in the growth cycle. Because no pesticides are applied, the tea green leafhopper (Jacobiasca formosana) feeds on the leaves, stems, and buds of the tea bushes. When this three-millimeter-long bug sucks out sap, the bush responds by producing substances that alter the tea’s flavor. The buds’ edges turn white (hence the name), and oxidation begins where the bugs bit into the leaves, a process that adds an additional dimension to the taste.

A mere 30 tons or so of Oriental Beauty tea is produced in Taiwan each year, with a predictable impact on price and availability.

The island’s main Oriental Beauty growing area is Hsinchu County, in particular the townships of Emei and Beipu. Near Emei Lake, the Fuxing Tea Demonstration Center (Tel: 03-580-6320; open 8 a.m.-6 p.m. daily; free admission) is a good place to buy local green, Oolong, and Oriental Beauty teas. The center is inside what used to be a tea-processing plant during the Japanese colonial period, and some of the original equipment has been preserved.

People hoping to join an English-language tea themed tour have a number of options. Glenn Shark has been conducting custom tea tours for small groups for several years. Now based in Idaho, where he grew up, this spring he led a group of eight Dutch and Belgian tea cognoscenti on a seven-day tour of northern Taiwan. “Our primary concern was tea production, so we spent more time with farmers and at production facilities than we did actually drinking tea, although I did arrange a few brewing demonstrations that included an introduction to Taiwan’s tea culture and philosophy,” he says.

“There are still many ‘art tea houses’ around where one can sit in a calm, relaxing atmosphere and enjoy tea the way it’s meant to be enjoyed,” says Shark. He describes Wistaria Tea House (No. 1, Lane 16, XinSheng South Road, Section 3, Taipei; Tel: 02-2363-7375; open 10 a..m-11 p.m. daily) as “setting the gold standard for combining high quality teas and historic atmosphere into an unforgettable tea experience. You can get a quick introduction to brewing there or have one of their staff demonstrate it for you. They also have an English menu.”

Shark suggests two other destinations within striking distance of central Taipei for self-guided visitors. One is Maokong in the Wenshan District, where several teahouses offer views of the city, good food, and tea until late at night. The other is Pinglin Tea Museum in New Taipei City’s Pinglin District [open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m.-7 p.m. weekends, closed first Monday of the month; NT$80 entrance fee]. With almost 1,000 hectares of plantations, most producing Wenshan Pouchong tea, Pinglin is one of Taiwan’s most important tea-growing regions. Only Nantou County (6,826 hectares given over to tea in 2011) and Chiayi County (2,189 hectares) have more land devoted to the crop than New Taipei City.

Tours and classes

In 2012, Mark Sinclair established Life of Taiwan, a company that works with local partners to organize high-end tours of Taiwan for mostly Western clients. Responding to a surprising number of requests for tea-oriented trips, he is preparing to increase the offerings and include classes and instruction on how Oolong teas are processed.

“We are working with both the Formosan Tea Masters and the Australian Tea Masters to create courses focused on Oolong Teas and hope to be able to offer both courses and certification for our clients in 2015,” says the British expatriate. “We’ve had clients from the U.S., Australia, Singapore, and the U.K. take our tea tours,” he adds. “We even had a request from an American couple looking to spend three days of their honeymoon nestled in tea plantations!”

Sinclair rates Greater Alishan and Lugu in Nantou County as the best overall destinations for tea tourists. “Equally beautiful is the Antique Assam Tea Farm near Sun Moon Lake, founded by the Japanese in 1925,” he adds.

Sinclair tries to arrange tours to coincide with one of the four harvests each year (the spring and winter crops are the most popular and valuable). “That way, visitors can see the new flushes picked and tea artisans at work. Typically, our clients spend two or three days tasting fine Oolongs while staying in wood cabins amid tea gardens. They live, drink and breathe tea for the time they’re with us, and often book their return for the following year. Taiwan really is a tea drinker’s paradise.”

For Sinclair, who lives in Taiwan year-round, the promotion of tea tourism is not simply a matter of business. Like Carroll, he began drinking fine teas at an early age.

“In our family, we always drank high-quality, loose-leaf tea. My mother was very strict on how the tea was brewed,” he recalls. “On arriving in Taiwan, I was introduced to the local teas and loved them right away. I still drink pots of loose-leaf English tea, but more often I drink fresh Oolong. I prefer the greener Oolongs, but from time to time indulge in a fuller roast. My favorite teas are from Alishan and Sanlinxi.”

Sinclair is not the only expatriate following in the footsteps of John Dodd, the British merchant who played a key role in the development of Taiwan’s tea industry in the final quarter of the 19th century.

Philip Brook, who describes himself as “half British and half Québécois,” arrived in Taiwan in the early 1990s to work in the sporting/bicycle industries. Now based in Nantou County and working full-time on his online tea-vending business, TaiwanTeaCrafts.com, he recalls his conversion: “Taiwanese tea quickly became a key for me to access a deeper understanding of Taiwan as a distinctive nation and culture. Taiwan’s teas have a character very much like the people of this island: Colorful, generous and friendly, as well as complex and very diverse!”

“I’m privileged to be ‘embedded’ in a family of growers and producers that have been involved in tea for three generations with a vast network of connections all around the island and on the mainland,” he says. “I get to tap into a huge selection of teas and select lots that are shining stars to propose online. I’m not burdened by inventory considerations and can always propose the freshest teas–particularly important when it comes to the very fragrant seasonal offerings of high mountain teas. Very often, customers can order fresh tea hours after it was released by the producer and receive it within a week of being made.”

According to Carroll, to properly understand Taiwan’s tea culture, one should visit both a grower-processor and a tea shop. “Many of the latter, of course, are in the big cities. Typically you just sit, drink, and buy. A few are somewhat unprepossessing but offer a wealth of knowledge,” he explains.

Carroll bought his first Oolong from Ten Ren, which has 22 branches in Greater Taipei, 23 elsewhere in Taiwan, plus a strong presence in California and New York. “The experience they offer will delight anyone new to the world of Taiwan tea, but it’s far from the intimate and personal experience you get by visiting a grower-artisan and seeing his methods.”

The same company owns the Ten Ren Tea Culture Museum (422 Zhonghua Road, Zhunan, Miaoli County; Tel: 037-696-718; open 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; free admission), which has English-language information, as well as displays of tea paraphernalia and cute dioramas showing how tea was brewed and consumed in ancient China.

“Quality tea is much, much cheaper in Taiwan than at home, so bring an empty suitcase,” Carroll advises tea tourists. “And don’t worry about language issues. In Taiwan, I spent a good deal of time laughing with locals and being press-ganged into drinking vast amounts of tea with perfect – and I mean perfect in all its senses – strangers.”

- This article is a slight modified version of one that first appeared in the July 2014 edition of Taiwan Business TOPICS.