TAIWANESE TEA

Taiwan Landscape

With six peaks over 3500 meters, Taiwan is amongst the highest islands of the world and, along with Sri Lanka, one of only two tea-growing nations to differentiate between teas grown at high altitudes and low altitudes.

Ray of lightDespite its proximity to China and the subtropical island’s ideal climate, Taiwan is actually a fairly recent addition to the international tea landscape – especially when compared to the 5000 or so years tea has been enjoyed on the mainland. Taiwan’s tea story begins with the island’s incorporation into the Chinese empire in the late 17th century, after imperial troops  ousted Dutch colonialists on the “beautiful isle.” A wave of Chinese immigration ensued, especially from neighboring Fujian province, establishing ports and agricultural settlements across the island. Among the items the first settlers had in tow were their beloved tea plants that had been a fundamental part of their lives for thousands of years. Both tea plants and tea culture were soon flourishing on the island. Like no other, the Fujian tea specialty oolong has been instrumental to Taiwan’s success as a tea nation, with the tiny island state now accounting for an extraordinary 20% of worldwide production.

After the first Chinese settlers arrived in Taiwan, it took about 100 years, i.e. after the second Opium War, for the island to open its ports to foreign trade. British entrepreneur John Dodd played a central role in developing the island’s tea industry, coining the term “Formosa Oolong” as an alternative to Indian black teas. Quickly gaining popularity in the West, oolongs and baozhongs were among the Qing era’s first industrial exports.

The situation changed dramatically with the Japanese invasion of Taiwan in 1895. In order to protect their own green tea industry and also benefit from the Western world’s growing demand for black tea, the Japanese switched Taiwan’s entire production from oolong and green teas to black tea, investing heavily in automated processing and the education of farmers to gain higher yields. In so doing, they also laid the foundation for Taiwan’s successful research and development institution, the Taiwanese Tea Experiment Station (TTES).

The end of World War II ushered in a new era of Taiwanese independence both from Japan and the mainland. Quickly switching production back to green and oolong teas, the country experienced an unprecedented economic boom, partly as a result of China’s isolationist policies during its Cultural Revolution period, when drinking tea was seen as a remnant of bourgeois society and punished accordingly. During this time, the center of Chinese tea culture shifted to its many diasporas – with Taiwan, as one of the largest, playing a central role in this tea culture’s preservation and advancement. Until this day, Taiwan maintains a more traditional, elaborate and ceremonious form of the gong-fu tea ceremony, in contrast to the more pragmatic and toned-down interpretation practiced in modern-day mainland China.

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Taiwan’s success as a tea nation is based to a large degree on the exceptional quality of its teas and the decentralized structure of its agriculture. The vast majority of its teas are produced by small-scale, family-run businesses that number more than 30,000. This, along with Taiwan’s scientific tea research institution TTES has fostered an immensely diverse tea landscape with an abundance of new varieties and processing techniques being produced continually. Our high-tech Gabacha tea is a shining example of how scientific research has benefitted Taiwan’s tea industry, with the leaves’ memory-enhancing and mood-elevating amino acids increased and preserved using a highly engineered processing method. Or our Four Seasons of Spring, a tea whose name hints at its special benefaction. This extraordinarily adaptable cultivar thrives at even the highest altitudes and boasts an incredible five harvests a year, each exuding a highly esteemed spring bouquet.

But not all cultivars are the result of scientific intervention. Bai Hao, for example, tells the story of a serendipitous local pest, the tea green leafhopper, whose nibbling triggered the immune system of the tea shrubs and brought on early oxidation. Surprised to see much of his crop turned yellow, the curious tea farmer harvested and processed the leaves the way he would any other. The result was a stunning display of colorful, white-tipped leaves exuding an incomparably smooth and zesty cup. So beautiful were the leaves’ autumnal hues that, upon being presented to Queen Elizabeth II, they were honored with their English title, Oriental Beauty.

image credits: Martin Moscosa