By Savannah Cobb-Thomas
Tea is intertwined with Taiwanese culture and ingrained in its land. If you take another look at Taiwan on the map, the island begins to take the form of a tea leaf.
Like Italy and its boot shape, perhaps foretelling its future line in impeccable leather goods and shoes, Taiwan’s leaf shape could be in itself a form of a tasseomancy, foretelling the island’s future prosperity in tea.
Zoom into Taiwan a little closer and the island’s individual counties come into focus, each producing their own distinct teas. The county-to-county tea specialties are based on variations in climates, altitudes, and terrain, each bursting with their own characteristics and flavors depending on where exactly the tea plant was grown. At the end of each growing season, tea growers from all over the island gather with their produce, each vying to bring home a trophy signaling their county’s tea as the best.
Taiwan’s cities, however, are not wholly dependent on tea, feeling the full effect of the world-wide coffee craze, with urban pop-ups, trendy coffee cafés, and even award-winning roasters claiming a significant part of the urban bibation scene. Despite the growth of coffee interest, though, tea still remains triumphant.
The island-wide frenzy for bubble tea has seen an explosion of such shops, sometimes several on one block. A look at the menu reveals endless options for customization: desired sugar level, ice amount, tapioca pearls, various jellies, flavor infusions, and even a potential foamed cream cheese topping. Those not sipping on a glass-strawed bubble tea (the Taiwanese are very eco-conscious) are probably holding a translucent glass tea flask or positioned behind an ornate tea ceremony set. It’s safe to say, Taiwanese tea culture is not going anywhere anytime soon.
At the root of the modern-day options for colorful add-ons and superfluous modifications remains the tea itself, so abundant in every household that a normal greeting in Taiwan is “come in and drink tea”. Taiwan breaks its tea down into four pillars: white, black, green, and oolong, with a particular emphasis on high mountain oolong (grown at 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) or higher), known as the “champagne of teas”.
Each of these four tea types can then be branched into different varieties and unique blends based on the Taiwan terroir in which it was grown. Whether sipping on the fruity Miaoli oolong tea from the jungled mountains of the north or the smoky flavors of the Melody tea from Taitung County in the south, each tea packs its own unique experience.
Gunko – Oolong – Pingtung County
Beginning in the south of Taiwan, at the tea-leaf-shaped island’s petiole, is Pingtung County, home to the famous Kenting National Park. This tropical coastal region is also where the oolong tea blend Gunko is produced. The region of Pingtung County in which Gunko tea is grown has a unique microclimate, resulting in a small-scale cultivation and harvest dating back to the 1880s. Characteristic of the land it inhabits, a sip of Gunko tea holds a salty splash with breezy floral top notes.
Lugwei – Black Tea – Kaohsiung County
Neighboring Pingtung is Kaohsiung County, the maritime capital of Taiwan, split in two by the wending Love River. Kaohsiung’s homegrown black tea, Lugwei, packs a zesty citrus kick with underlying licorice and quince jelly notes. Akin to the contrasting yet collaborative tasting notes of Lugwei tea, Kaohsiung County is a continuous amalgamation of different landscapes from its lively urban streets to its relaxed mountainside settlements. Kaohsiung County and Lugwei tea are one in the same: a combination of contrasting elements that seemingly shouldn’t work, but somehow exist in splendid harmony.
Alishan – High Mountain Oolong – Chiayi County
Further north up the coast is Chiayi County. This large county has a perfect climate for growing tea – temperate but very wet – and as such, brings a long list of native teas. Alishan tea, however, stands out as the most representative. The plants for Alishan tea are cultivated at a higher elevation, resulting in a slow growing tea, which allows for an intense accumulation of flavors to develop. Alishan is not only home to tea though, it is also a National Forest, famed across all of Taiwan for having the best sunrise on the whole island. A nod to these glowing homeland views, Alishan tea brews in deep golden hues with rising notes of apricot.
Miaoli – White Oolong – Miaoli County
Spanning the north-western coast and the inner mountains range sits Miaoli County, home to a substantial community of Hakka people and an abundance of agriculture (primarily sugar cane, tea, and fruit). Here, the main tea variety takes the county’s namesake – Miaoli oolong tea. This shining white tea of the north has a scent so alluring that it is also refined into a quality perfume, exuding a floral ambiance, combined with soft orange blossom and malty undertones.
Biluochun – Green Tea – Taipei County
In the mountainous outskirts of Taipei County hides the unassuming Sanxia District. Here, a selection of Taiwan’s green teas are grown, and the most famous among them being Biluochun tea. This tea has carved itself a home on the hillside of this district, sitting in the banking mist exuded from the surrounding three mountains, the tender-leafed tea is imbued with delicate floral aromas and fruity flavors, creating the perfectly subtle notes quintessential of Biluochun tea.
In the words of an ancient Chinese proverb, ‘it is better to be deprived of food for three days than tea for one’. Though the words may be old, the truth remains the same, especially for Taiwan, a place where tea is infused with the culture of the island itself.
As you embark on an exploration of this mysterious island, be sure to not only stop for tea, but to also appreciate the unique flavors and upbringing each cup holds.
Want to know more about tea in China?
Like all the best parts of history, the origins of tea begin in legend. Around 5000 years ago, so it goes, the mythical Chinese emperor Shennong was resting beneath a tree while his servants boiled water for him to drink.