Last updated August 16, 2008

Tea in Taiwan

There are many commercial web pages offering to sell you tea from Taiwan but most are not very helpful in helping you learn about the different kinds available and how they are produced. There are in fact very few good sites. Most explain that there is white, yellow, green, oolong, and red (or black) tea depending on how fully the leaves are allowed to wilt and oxidize before they are dried, with the destruction of their green chlorophyl and the oxidation of their essential oils, a process also (wrongly) termed fermentation. Most of the tea produced in Taiwan is more or less oxidized and generally categorized as Oolong Tea ף (Black Dragon, a name for which there are various explanations).

The differing tastes of these varieties of tea depend in part on the cultivars from which they are made. There are many cultivars, and more are constantly being produced by research institutes. However, more important than the cultivar is the skill with which the tea is dried. 

Tea is picked throughout the year, so that another way of categorizing the different kinds specifies whether a particular tea is from the spring, summer, autumn, or winter picking. The difference between tea made with small leaves and large leaves is also significant.

Different kinds of tea are produced in different parts of the island, but with a lot of overlap and the diversity of names is inevitably confusing, with every tea garden (plantation) using its own name but often selling their tea under a more familiar generic name. Many of the finest oolong teas are supposed to be from the highest mountains, and are therefore often termed Kaoshan (ߣ high mountain), a name especially associated with the tea from Mount Ali (Alishan) in the southern part of Taiwan.

A brief list of the major varieties of tea and their main production areas:

1. Pao-chung tea ( paper-wrapped tea) : Wenshan area

Paochung tea differs from oolong tea not because of the species of tea plant but due to the degree of fermentation. The paochung process calls for only 15 percent fermentation, while the figure for the other varieties is as high as 60 percent. This gives paochung its refreshing flavor. People who prefer paochung tea like to say it has the clear color of a full moon. Other varieties, however, range from golden to brown. The name is a relic from an earlier practice of wrapping the leaves in paper before drying them. Possessing an exquisite floral bouquet, this variety is lighter in flavor than its better-known cousin from central Taiwan, the strong-tasting oolong tea.
The rural township of Pinglin is located only 40 kilometers (south)east of Taipei City. The scenic hills surrounding the small town provide a bountiful yield of paochung tea. Pinglin has few tourist amenities apart from its mountainous landscape and the largest tea museum in Asia. The town has a population of only 6,000 people, four-fifths of whom are tea farmers.

2. Tiehkuanyin tea (κ): Mucha area of Taipei

Mucha lies on the outskirts of Taipei, within easy reach of the subways Taipei Zoo station, rather than the staion named Mucha. This tea is often known as Iron Buddha tea although Kuanyin is more correctly the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. A type of tea that used to be exclusive to the Fukian (Fujian) province of China. Noted for its large leaf size, multi-layered peach-like fragrance, and ability to withstand many infusions, this tea has a legend associated with it. Back in the days of yore, there was a poor tea farmer who lamented over the condition of a temple that was dedicated to Kuan-Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. Financially unable to repair it, he thought that the least he could do was to burn incense and clean the place twice a month. One night Kuan-Yin appeared to him in a dream and told him to look in the cave behind the temple for a treasure. He was to take it for himself but also to share it with others. There he found a single tea shoot which he planted and cultivated into a bush with leaves that produced a singularly fine drink. He began selling it under the Kuan-Yin name, and gave many cuttings to his neighbors. All prospered, and eventually the temple was repaired. Plantings (or "jets") of this sub variety are now planted in many areas of China, as well as Taiwan.

3. Tung-ting oolong tea ( Frozen Peak ף): Luku Township, Nantou county

In 1865, when the scholar Lin Feng-chih crossed the Taiwan Straits his hope was to pass the imperial examination in Fujian province and become a government official. On his return to Luku, however, he brought more than the good news of his success. He also brought home 36 plants from the famous tea gardens of Wuyi Mountain. In the next few decades, trade with the West ensured a steady demand for oolong tea, and the plants from Wuyi Mountain proved ideal for oolong production. Tung-ting means Cold Peak and is the name of the mountain rising above Luku (Deer Valley), where the tea grows. There is a Tea culture Museum in the center of Luku.

4. Pilochun tea:(ܡբ Spring green snail tea) Sanhsia area in the southwestern tip of Taipei County,

A green tea. The name Pi Lo Chun (Bi Luo Chun, Bi Lu Chun) in Chinese means "Spring Green Snail". The name was given by the Emperor Kang Xi in the seventeenth or eighteenth century who felt the steeped tea looked like tiny green snails. Pi Lo Chun is one of China's famous rare teas. Although it may be grown in China and Taiwan, it originated from two mountains in the west part of Dongting in Suzhou province, China. The tea leaves for Pi Lo Chun are only picked once a year during mid-March to mid-April when the leaves are at their peak. The tea is hand picked for just the leaf and its bud. It takes 60,000 to 80,000 leaf-bud sets to produce one pound of finished Pi Lo Chun tea. Due to the stringent selection process for high quality leaves, this tea is not widely available. According to fable, it originated from a tea tree watered by the tears of the dragon-betrothed girl Bi Luo as she cried for her dragon-slain (same dragon) beloved and then herself died - supposedly the tree sprouted leaves the next spring.

5. Kaoshan tea (ߣ high mountain tea): from A-li-shan ߣ Mount Ali, or Ri-shan, or other high mountains

This is the most widely known general name for lightly-oxidized oolong tea, much of it picked in winter and therefore termed Winter tea.  Among the oolongs grown on Mount Ali, tea merchants tend to stress the special qualities of Jin Xuan (or Chin-Hsuan, Gold Lily) tea, which is really the name of a cultivar developed in Taiwan in the 1980s. The oolong tea made with it has a particularly deep flavor. In Ruili (at 1000 meters) we bought some very fine tea and visited the factory and tea field of the man making it. A series of pictures taken there can be seen at this site (click on the thumbnail to start a slideshow).

6. Pai-hao (white-hair) oolong tea (ף): from Fujian or Hsinchu counties
This tea is also sometimes known as Oriental Beauty (۰ڸ). It is a summer tea, picked between May and July, and the name (white-hair) derives from a discoloration at the point where the stem turns into the leaf on tea plants infested by little parasitic hoppers known as Jacobiasca formosana (paoli), in Chinese Cha Xiao Lu Chan (绿 or ). That portion turns white on drying, and looks like little strands of white hair against the black of the leaves. It is a strongly oxidized tea that is given increased intensity by a series of sessions of low-temperature  "baking" after the initial drying. A new (2008) page shows photos of a tea-making friend living in Peipu and his tea-fields.

There is also a page that offers to translate into English the romanized name of your Chinese tea.

I have also put online a set of atmospheric pictures taken during a recent visit to the region of Taipei.