The country of Taiwan—formerly Formosa—is synonymous with classic oolongs. The island in the South China Sea accounts for about 20% of all oolongs produced worldwide.
I traveled there at the end of May to explore their legendary tea culture and observe the harvest of Oriental Beauty, one of the most prized teas in any oolong collection.
In 1542, when Portuguese explorers came to the island, they were so moved by the natural beauty that they called it Ilha Formosa, meaning beautiful island.
Tea production began two hundred years later when Chinese settlers made the 90-mile ocean crossing from Fujian and Guangdong provinces, both places with legendary tea cultures. According to historical documents, tea seedlings and manufacturing equipment from Fujian were brought here by those immigrants because, with its high mountains, temperate climate, and abundant rainfall, Formosa was perfectly suited for growing exceptional tea.
The island was under Japanese control from 1895-1945. In the 1920s, bushes from Assam were planted in the Sun Moon Lake district of Nantou Province by Japanese tea companies. Leaves from those plants were used to make black tea. Much of the black tea production was destined for Russia, Turkey, England, France, and the United States.
By the 1960s, black tea had become an important export for the island but, as Taiwan modernized, the rising cost of production made it difficult to compete with countries where tea was more cheaply produced. Most of the plantations converted to solely oolong and pouchong manufactured teas that made the name Formosa oolong synonymous with the world’s finest oolongs. A small amount of black tea is still made, but most of Taiwan’s teas are partially oxidized oolongs (some of which are roasted) and very lightly oxidized pouchongs.
My host was Norman Shu at Shakeng Tea Factory in Hsinchu County, just southwest of Taipei. Many in the American tea community know his brother Thomas Shu, who lives in California. I met Norman early on a Saturday morning at his company, founded in 1945. I found him in the back of his facility where he was roasting oolongs in woven baskets over charcoal—old school!
After a couple of hours of cupping teas, we traveled up the mountainous road to witness the harvest of Bai Hao or Oriental Beauty. It was the last week of May and the tiny leafhoppers which nibble on the tea bushes and give them their distinctive flavor were just arriving in the fields.
Nocturnal by nature, these cricket-like insects swiftly leap, fly, nibble, and hide throughout the tea garden. In most instances, farmers would act to rid the gardens of these pests. For tea farmers of Northwest Taiwan, these invaders are a welcome site because their arrival marks the beginning of the season for making Bai Hao oolong.
Commonly called jassips or thrips, these tiny predators chew small holes on the leaves, which initiates premature oxidation as the leaf manufactures an enzyme to fend off its attacker. A tiny bit of damage is good, but a greater amount of mutilation can cause the leaf to wilt and drop off. This tea can only be picked by workers with keen eyes who can discern leaves scarred with just the right percentage of blemishes.
After withering on the floor, the leaves were repeatedly tossed, panned, rolled and dried to an oxidation percentage of about 65 percent. The finished tea, filled with fine, dark-red twisty leaves dotted with fluffy silver buds, is a work of art.
As with all exceptional oolongs, Oriental Beauty should be short-steeped multiple times in a small teapot and sipped in petite handleless cups while in the company of a friend. The tea liquor leaves a lingering finish on your tongue, which can last for hours.
Although early cultivation was concentrated mainly around Taipei, most of the central region of the island is now home to over 50,000 acres of plantations, all above 1,000 feet, where over 30 million pounds of tea are produced each year.
Unlike the India system of plantation gardening, teas are grown on family-owned “boutique tea farms” where the owner/tea master oversees the entire process and passes his or her skills and secret methods of manufacture on to the next generation so that the production of prized teas can continue.
While methods of cultivation and hand-plucking have not changed greatly, some of the simple tools of the early twentieth century have been replaced by modern machineries—such as electric clippers imported from Japan.
Tea making like this is changing due to warming temperatures and a lack of skilled workers. I don’t know if these exquisite teas will still be available by mid-century.
For now, I’m thankful that tea masters like Norman and Thomas Shu continue to keep the tradition of fine oolong making alive as they spread the news of Taiwanese teas to a growing culture that is thirsty for good tea.
For more information about teas in Taiwan and all tea-producing countries, turn to THE NEW TEA COMPANION, THIRD EDITION by Pettigrew and Richardson, available from Benjamin Press.