Taiwan Tea History and the Age of Discovery
Taiwan tea history goes back a long way, and today Taiwan produces some of the most popular teas on the planet.
The name Formosa has long been associated with tea. Yet many people are unaware of the history behind the name. The word formosa, meaning “beautiful”, is the word Portuguese navigators used to describe Taiwan when they caught sight of the island back in 1544.
We can just imagine the scene as they sailed up a precipitous coast enveloped in mist.
Ilha formosa: “beautiful island.”
Although Portuguese explorers didn’t stay long in the area, they did give Taiwan this enduring and poetic name that transcends language barriers.
This name, ilha formosa, masks a complex history shared by Taiwan’s native peoples and cultural outsiders. After the Portuguese came Spanish and Dutch colonists, neither of whom lasted long. The Qing Dynasty, ruling from Beijing, assumed control of Taiwan in 1683. To the Qing, Taiwan was not quite the “beautiful island” of Portuguese reckoning. Qing government ministers reportedly described Taiwan as nothing more than “a ball of mud beyond the sea.”
Likewise, the Kangxi Emperor (who reigned for more than 60 years) quipped that Taiwan was “the size of a pellet,” an optional add-on to the mighty sweep of his empire.
Sounds like something an emperor would say, doesn’t it?
A New Home for Oolong Tea
Nonetheless, Taiwan was attractive enough for mainland Chinese immigrants, because they began moving there in large numbers. Most of these migrants came from the coastal provinces of Fujian and Guangdong.
Thus begins Taiwan tea history in earnest. Oolong production originates in Fujian, but migrants from Wuyi, a mountainous area of Fujian, were soon planting tea seeds on Taiwan’s mountainsides. These enterprising migrants sent back the harvested leaves to Fujian for processing because Taiwan still lacked the facilities. This changed in 1868, when a British entrepreneur, John Dodd, set up a processing plant in Taipei.
By 1895, Japan had formally annexed Taiwan from the Qing empire. Japan’s administrators imposed Japanese ways and the Japanese language. This situation lasted until the end of the Second World War.
Politics aside, “Formosa tea” had long become world-famous. But no-one enjoys Taiwanese tea more than the Taiwanese people themselves: around 80% of Taiwan’s tea crop stays in Taiwan.
Oolong is Taiwan’s signature tea.
What Makes Oolong, Oolong?
In a nutshell, lengthy processing.
In comparison to other types of tea, the production process for oolong is time-consuming and complex. It takes more than 2 days and 10 steps to process tea leaves into Oolong. The main steps are:
- firing (to prevent further oxidation)
- rolling, and
- roasting (re-firing)
The result is a semi-oxidized tea. High mountain spring-harvested teas such as Jinxuan, and some Alishan teas, have a floral aroma, and a creamy, milky mouth feel. Dongding oolong has a lighter and, some would say, a more refreshing taste.
Fujian oolong leaves, on the other hand, often come in the form of long thin strips. Some of the most famous of the Fujian oolongs are the heavily-oxidized Big Red Robe (da hong pao, shown below) and Shuixian. These teas are “rock oolongs” because of the rocky terrain of the Wuyi region. The tea plants there can literally grow between the rocks.
The mountains of central Taiwan (such as Nantou County) and southern Taiwan (Jiayi County) also grow some of the strip-style oolongs, but are more famous for pellet-shaped oolongs. These include Dongding and Jinxuan oolongs (from Nantou), and Alishan oolong (Jiayi). The famous Bai Hao (“Oriental Beauty”) is from Xinzhu in northern Taiwan.
So, Taiwan tea history owes quite a lot to the mainland. But Taiwan’s tea is today an enviable product of dedication, care and entrepreneurial spirit.
Currently Cloud Nine Teas offers five high-grade oolong teas from Taiwan as part of an expanding range of premium quality teas.
Sources for this post:
Linda Gaylard, The Tea Book, London: Dorling Kindersley, 2015, pp 106-107.