Last month, World Tea News published a fascinating article about Taiwanese tea. World Tea News does an excellent job in keeping the tea industry updated and aware of current tea news around the globe.
The article was actually first published in Tea & Coffee Trade Journal in January of 2013, written by Barbara Dufrene. As T Ching is devoting this week to exploring the teas of Taiwan, I thought it might be helpful to share some facts about Taiwan and its tea history. For the full story, please read the story linked in the first paragraph.
As a woman who considers herself geographically challenged, I was unaware of the fact that Taiwan is a small island of 23 million residents located just 150 miles off the coast of China’s Fujian province. Fujian has produced some of the greatest teas in the world and has held a reputation of excellence for centuries. Taiwan and Fujian share similar growing conditions, offering cool, yet mild, mountain temperatures with periods of mist and rain that are said to optimize tea production. Many believe these unique factors provide both China and Taiwan with the ideal environment for Wulong teas. Today, Wulong teas can be found growing in other regions around the world that have adopted the semi-leaf oxidation techniques. However none have been able to reproduce the same final product.
The history of Taiwan’s tea industry began with the Dutch East India Company or the VOC (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie). In 1602, the VOC essentially held a monopoly on all trade from the Straits of Magellan to the Cape of Good Hope for over 200 years. There is record of a report dating back to 1662 which notes the location of wild tea plants in the central mountain range. As Chinese immigration was encouraged to provide much needed labor, it’s certainly feasible that some Chinese from Fujian brought some tea plants with them.
It took John Dodd, a British industrialist in the 1860’s, whose entrepreneurial spirit brought Taiwan teas to New York, to spark the interest in “formosan oolong” and began the noteworthy reputation of the Taiwan tea industry. Back in the early 1900’s, Taiwan began the Tea Research Institute which fostered this burgeoning industry. As the industry matured, the Taiwan Tea Manufacturer’s Association defined three main Wulong tea categories, created based on the level of leaf oxidation.
“Jade Wulong teas: have dark green leaves rolled into tea pearls, with a light oxidation between 8-10 percent for the Bao Zhong (or Pouchong) and 15-20 percent for the Dong Ding; feature subtle and intensely fragrant cups.
Amber Wulong teas: with an oxidation between 30-40 percent, and which undergo additional baking, are also rolled up in pearls. Tie Kuan Yin teas, with their strong flavored, yet mellow cups, also fall into this category.
Formosa Bai Hao teas: also called “Oriental Beauty,” is a unique tea that does not grow anywhere else in the world and is harvested only once every year during a fortnight in early summer. This premium tea is rich in buds that show up as white streaks amongst the reddish brown twisted leaves. Formosa undergoes the strongest oxidation of up to 60 percent, which gives the fruity peach and honey flavor to the cup. Some experts attribute this exquisite fragrance to the leaf-biting of a small insect, but this is a controversial matter.”
Most of us have had the pleasure of drinking teas from all three categories. As with wine, the differences between an Oriental Beauty from one tea garden and another can be quite substantial. What I’ve come to understand and respect when it comes to tea is that you get what you pay for. There are always exceptions to the rule however. When the growing conditions are just right, the tea plants are decades or centuries old, and the processing is done by tea masters who have trained over a lifetime, the exquisite results can not be duplicated.