High up in the picturesque Taiwanese mountains, where fog hangs so thickly that even the tropical sunlight struggles to break through, you’ll find some of the most exquisite teas in the world. This idyllic landmass, ninety miles off the coast of China, and roughly the same size as Switzerland, was once dubbed the ‘beautiful island’ by Portuguese sailors who sighted it - Ilha Formosa. The name was fitting, and though the country’s name changed long ago, the incredible flavours of its teas still go by the name formosa oolongs.
Whilst it’s reported that Chinese tea had been consumed as long ago as the 28th century BC, it was only in the late 18th century that the tea plant was introduced to Taiwan from the nearby Chinese province of Fujian. With the treaty of Tientsin ending the Opium War and opening up the trade ports in 1860, tea quickly became one of Taiwan’s largest exports.
Although Taiwanese tea production had been increased during the Japanese occupation that ran from 1895 to 1945, it was dramatically heightened during the post-war Chinese occupation of the island. A combination of its quality, and periodic embargos on Chinese exports made Taiwanese oolong the most popular tea of its kind in the world.
Though Formosa tea dropped in popularity towards the end of the 20th century, it is currently experiencing a resurgence of interest as tea enthusiasts around the world rediscover its unique qualities. This is also aided by local governments supporting the industry, with an emphasis on mid to high range teas.
Taiwan’s lush tropical climate and clearly-defined seasons are perfect for tea-cultivation. Unlike many teas produced elsewhere, Taiwanese tea is often cultivated in much the same way that it originally was within localised, family-owned businesses. Tea farmers usually take years to learn difficult skills which are handed down from generation to generation. Processes such as kneading leaves, and the peculiarities of each blend require delicacy and knowledge. Timing is also critical, with many farmers even working through the night to process leaves once they are picked.
Sweet Bai Hao Oolong
Take, for example, the production of the fruity and sweet Bai Hao oolong, or Oriental Beauty. Leaves are cultivated without pesticides so that the tea leaf greenhopper (Jacobiasca formosana) will feed and remove the phloem juices from the plant. This causes the buds to turn white along the edges, and adds further sweetness to the crop. Due to a short harvesting period, and only half of the leaves being usable, this is a particularly rare and expensive tea.
Dongding - Honey & Caramel Aromas
Dongding is another of the most famous teas produced in Taiwan, and certainly one of the oldest. The deeply rich honey and caramel aromas of these tightly-rolled leaves is believed to be the result of the persistently dense fog that surrounds the mountains. Spring harvests of this wonderfully flavourful tea are entered into competitions, with the winners commanding high prices.
Puchong - The Wrapped Kind
Though Formosa teas are mostly oolongs, there is also a wide variety of oolongs themselves. Pouchong, meaning ‘the wrapped kind’ in Chinese, and referring to the older method of wrapping the leaves in paper during the drying process, is technically somewhere between a green tea and an oolong, though it’s floral flavour lacks some of the typical aspects of green teas.
The Strong Iron Goddess Tea
Iron Goddess tea has a strong, roasted-nut flavour, and is incredibly complex to produce due to the large amount of processes it must undergo. Originating from the Fujian province of China, the tea’s conception is also shrouded in mythology. The most common version being that of a young man discovering and plucking a peculiar and different leaf from beneath a statue of the goddess Kuan Yin.
Though the undulating topography of Taiwan means that it is seemingly unsuited to mass tea production, many of the distinctive characteristics of Formosa teas are attributed to the uniquely heavy fogs that hang over the crops. It is said that the ultra-dense humidity of the air causes the tea leaves to get extremely juicy, giving them potent flavours and allowing them to be brewed multiple times. Some also say that these mists mediate the sunlight, causing the leaves to grow more slowly than in clearer climes.
Though Taiwan is a small island, with smaller crops than rival tea producers such as China and India, the rarefied traits of its teas have helped it rise to prominence as a tea producer of note. Many of the highest prices paid around the world for teas have been for Formosa teas, and names such as Dongding and Bai Hao resonate fondly with tea lovers around the world. Not least within Asia itself.
Much of these premium teas are bought by the Japanese, some of the most discerning tea buyers in the world, as well as the British - unsurprisingly! The most consistent demand is from China, however, who then brand and sell it to the European and Asian markets.
Despite fake Formosa teas making the rounds in Russia, Europe, and Asia, the Taiwanese government recently expressed their satisfaction with the consistency and stability of their tea-centric economy. Though there is little room for expansion on the ‘Ilha Formosa’, their centuries-old focus on producing some of the best teas in the world is sure to keep tea lovers clamouring for formosa teas for many years to come.
About the Author
Johnny Vineaux is a published author, critic and journalist – and an avid tea enthusiast. He enjoys exploring the teashops and society of his home city of London. He’s had articles published in The Guardian, contributed to best-selling e-books, and directed successful advertising campaigns with engaging copy and unique design direction. Education: University of Westminster – English Literature