Formosa Oolong is so called for the same reason Sri Lanka’s tea is called Ceylon—by any other name it would not sell as well. The word formosa is Latin for “shapely, beautiful” and this is the name Portuguese explorers gave the island, superceding all other names by which it had been known. “Taiwan” came into use only during the Qing era after 1644; only in recent centuries did the island gain a Chinese population—Taiwan’s aborigines are Austronesian, i.e., Malay-like people—and only very recently has it grown tea. A certain Lin Fengchi is credited with planting the first in 1850, a type of Wuyi oolong, which he had brought with him from Fujian, China’s greatest oolong-producing province directly across the straits from Taiwan. Obviously it flourished, for by 1869 an Englishman named Dodds was able to export the first Formosa Oolong to New York.
Taiwan has been the refuge of China’s ancient tea traditions, which were repressed and neglected on the mainland during this century of turmoil there. Tea is the very essence and lifeblood of Chinese culture and some of its most cultivated practitioners fled the Communists and went to Taiwan after the establishment of The People’s Republic on the mainland. The island was governed under martial law until 1987, however, and only thereafter did teahouses again flourish as the social and cultural institutions they have been among Chinese since the Song dynasty. The appreciation of fine teas and all that go with them is now integral to Taiwan’s culture and is being reintroduced from Taiwan to the mainland. As a culture in ferment, like Japan, Taiwan has also witnessed all sorts of heretical variations on old ways by the younger generation, for instance, “bubble tea” is which tapioca has been added. All the same, Taiwan’s tea community is leading the way in helping redevelop China’s ancient tea gardens, modernizing her manufacturing, and promoting her great teas and tea ways abroad.
Most Taiwan tea is now consumed at home, where the Chinese teahouse culture seems to flourish. Annual exports average only some twenty million pounds, most of it priced as a luxury product. Much of this goes to Japan, which did much to foster the industry from 1895 to 1945, when Japan held the island and acquired a taste for its teas. As more and more tea acreage is lost to urban sprawl these days, tea men searching for Taiwan’s best worry whether many choice gardens will exist in another decade. So should we all, for Taiwan’s various oolongs are among the world’s greatest teas. For convenience, the trade has begun to classify them as jade, amber or champagne oolongs.
Read next: Jade and Amber Oolong