A Fractured Fairy Tale
If tea drinkers were asked to list their favorite teas and then told afterward that their tea choices provided a peek into their personalities, many would concede that there are plausible connections. Personal in nature, our choices might reflect taste preferences, functional needs, geographic allegiances, or simply family traditions. Which led us to wonder – what is the dynamic at the other end of the tea experience in countries that grow and produce teas? Do the characteristics of the major teas produced by tea-growing countries reflect the history or personality of that country? Are the teas a mirror of their tastes, preferences, and culinary and cultural history or are they strictly the result of a series of merchant or business calculations made to determine how to sell the most tea for the best price, inside or outside the home country?
Take Taiwan as an example. Today Taiwan is known almost exclusively for producing some of the world’s best oolong teas and, on rare occasions, a green or black tea or two. With a (relatively) short tea cultivation history on the island, is it a simple connecting of a few historical and cultural dots on a timeline that explains why premium oolong teas are linked to the people and island of Taiwan?
In 1590, Portugal planted a flag on the island, which is less than 100 miles off the coast of China, and named it Formosa, a name that was eventually used for teas produced on the island. Over the next century, a series of European countries would occupy the island (Portugal, Spain, Holland, and England) until China took over when the island was annexed to China in 1683. Over time, Chinese tea growers immigrated to the island, especially from Fujian Province, bringing tea plants and tea-processing knowledge with them to the fertile hills and valleys of Taiwan.
By the middle of the 19th Century, tea farming and production on the island produced oolong and green teas, with limited availability outside the tea markets in Taiwan and across the strait in China. In 1867, British importer and entrepreneur, John Dodd, saw the potential of the tea industry and brought “Formosa” teas to Europe and the United States. In the interest of brevity, what followed was a growing tea industry that was redirected at the end of the century through World War II by the occupation of Japan, followed by the return of the Chinese after the war. As the tea industry matured in the late 20th Century, the competition with Chinese and Japanese teas limiting tea-exporting options, tea producers have focused on improving quality and promoting Taiwan teas for the domestic market. Taiwan also became the launching pad in the 1980’s-90’s for a contemporary twist on tea drinking – bubble tea. Overall, while Taiwan has maintained a tradition of smaller tea gardens and many family-owned tea farms, the popularity of tea has exceeded capacity and Taiwan has now become a net tea-importing country, bringing in three times the amount of tea it exports.
So, there you have it, in a little over three centuries, the history of tea in Taiwan has meandered through four European occupations, a ping-pong development of tea and cultural influence by China and Japan, and a demand for tea that exceeds the capacity of local growers, requiring the importing of tea from countries like China, Thailand, and Vietnam. Perhaps to understand the nature of tea from Taiwan, we need to observe cause and effect over time. Yet, for all of the changes throughout the history of tea cultivation in Taiwan, there is one constant – that many people from many countries have recognized the potential for teas grown in Taiwan. Each time the leaves of a Chin Shin oolong tea slowly, fragrantly unfurl in my cup, they demonstrate that the unique evolution of tea in Taiwan and centuries of potential have been realized.
This article has been reformatted and updated from the original August 2012 publication.