The high altitude, humid and misty mountains of Taiwan provide the perfect growing conditions for wulong tea. Taiwan's wulongs account for 20% of world production. More than 25 varieties of tea are grown in northern Taiwan alone, and most of them are wulongs. Taiwan hosts annual tea tasting competitions, and the winning teas can fetch prices as high as 1000 USD per kilogram or more. The following are some of the most common varieties found in Taiwan:
Baozhong (or Pouchong) “wrapped variety” ( bao1 zhong3 cha2 包種茶)
This tea is lightly oxidized (15-25%) so it is light, floral, and has a melon aroma. It is produced mainly in the Pinglin (坪林) and Nangang (南港) districts of Taipei City (see below). Baozhong originated in Fujian province and is named after the unique square packages that it comes wrapped in.
Iron Goddess (Tieguanyin) (tie3 guan1 yin1 cha2 鐵觀音茶)
Named after the Goddess of Mercy, this tea also originated in Fujian, but is now commonly grown in Taiwan, especially in the Maokong area (see below). There are many varieties that vary from light to medium bodied.
Alishan High Mountain (a1 li3 shan1 gao1 shan1 cha2 阿里山高山茶)
Alishan is not only famous for it's misty mountains and sunrises above seas of clouds. Traditionally revered by locals as Taiwan's best tea, this is the only stuff my wife's father will touch. It is usually around 40% oxidized, so it is light to medium in color, and is grown at altitudes of 1000-2000 meters. The tealeaves are usually rolled into dense little balls that unfold when you add hot water. It has a creamy mouthfeel that seems to coat the mouth, and a sweet, long-lasting aftertaste. It is sold for as high as 400 USD per kilogram.
Dayuling (da4 yu3 ling3 大禹嶺)
Near Hehuanshan and Lishan in the Central Mountain range, Dayuling's insanely high price is related to the mountain's remoteness, high altitude (2200-meter crops), and the small quantity that is produced as much as it is to the fact that it frequently wins tea competitions. This is Taiwan's most expensive tea, at up to 1000 USD per kilogram. I have yet to try it.
Oriental Beauty (dong1 fang mei3 ren2 東方美人)
60% fermented, this fine tea has an amber color and earthy characteristics. Insects and insect eggs are intentionally left on the leaves when harvesting, imparting a unique flavor, and so it is typically grown organically. The dried leaves also have visible white tips, so it is sometimes called “white tipped wulong”. Oriental Beauty has gotten a lot of international attention lately, and some regard it as the world's finest wulong. It has a lovely honey aroma.
Ruby Red #18 (hong2 yu2 hong2 cha2 紅雨紅茶)
The only non-wulong on this list, Ruby Red is a cultivar developed by Taiwan's Tea Research and Exgtension Station that was 50 years in the making. It is a cross between imported camellia assamica tea and the rarely used native wild Taiwanese tea. It is mellow with a distinctive cinnamon and mint flavor. See my full review of Ruby Red #18 here.
For absolutely stunning panoramic views over the Feicui Reservoir (fei3 cui4 shui3 ku4 翡翠水庫), one of two main reservoirs that provides water to greater Taipei, get yourself to this fantastic little spot. The catch is that you need your own transportation, unless you don't mind hiking a ways down from (and back up to) the Xindian to Pinglin highway and trying to find it.
There's not much to do here besides standing at the viewpoints and snapping photos of picture-perfect terraced tea fields rolling down to the turquoise waters of the reservoir with mountains rising straight out of the reservoir to form a commanding backdrop. It's worth it.
Nearby, you can enjoy similar views from Qian Dao Hu or “Thousand Island Lake” (千島湖), named after a lake with similar scenery in Zhejiang province (浙江省), China. There's also a hike in the area called Yong An Scenic Trail (yong3 an1 jing3 guan1 bu4 dao4 永安景觀步道) that I have yet to try.
One interesting way to buy tea in Taiwan is to visit a tea producing area and buy tea directly from the growers or in local shops in that area. While this can create a personal connection with the tea you drink, you may not always know what variety or quality you are getting unless your Mandarin is good enough to ask.
If you want to order tea from Taiwan, then Ai Want Tea sells a number of interesting Southern Taiwanese varieties on their English website. They ship teas internationally from Formosa Tea, a family-run tea operation in Nantou, Taiwan. Another good choice is Eco-Cha, which distributes artisan teas with from producers that practice sustainable farming, and has a good tea of the month program.
My favorite place in Taipei to buy bulk tea is the Lin Mao Sen Tea Co 林茂森茶行 (195-3 Chongqing N Rd, MRT Daqiaotou 重慶北路195-3號，捷運大橋頭站). The clerks speak impeccable English and can describe all the characteristics of the teas to you before you buy. There are dozens of varieties on display in large metal barrels, and the main local varieties are sorted according to quality, ranging from very cheap to very expensive.
Tea, just like most dried goods and produce in Taiwan, is sold by the jin (jin1斤). One jin is equivalent to 600 grams. For most of the varieties mentioned above, the highest quality goes for NTD4000 (120 USD) per jin, the second goes for 2400 per jin, the third for 1600, and so forth, with the cheapest ones going for as low as NTD60 per jin. The lowest quality ones are mostly stems and powder, while the highest ones have the largest concentration of perfect leaves. If you want even lower than the lowest quality, go to your local supermarket and buy a box of teabags. The minimum purchase at Lin Mao Sen is a quarter of a jin, or 150 grams (150 gong1 ke4 公克). They are also familiar with Western units of measurement.
It's interesting to compare the size of a 150g bag of, say, light fluffy baozhong to the same amount of Alishan High Mountain, which is rolled into dense little balls. The bag of baozhong will be about three times as big!
Personally, I always go for the third highest quality. This is still VERY good tea, and I think only a true connoisseur would be able to tell the difference between the top three qualities, yet the price drops enormously between each of them. NT400 (12 USD) gets me a decent-sized 150g bag of tea that lasts me for at least a few months, and if I get a few different bags, I'm good for a year.
The bulk tea sold here comes in simple plastic bags. If you want some junky tea in a fancy container, you can get this all over Taipei, but at this shop you are paying for quality and you will know exactly what you are buying. They do sell some fancy containers separately if you really need one, though.
I've been living in Taiwan for nearly eight years and I've become addicted to all kinds of Taiwanese foods and drinks, but it wasn't until last year that I first developed a true appreciation for Taiwanese tea (cha2 茶).
I'm not talking about pearl milk tea (zhen1 zhu1 nai3 cha2 珍珠奶茶), for which the island is famous, nor do I mean the sickly sweet concoctions made in iced tea shops at every corner. I mean real tea. Taiwan produces some of the finest wulong teas in the world, and the more I learn about the different varieties and subtle differences between them, the more I find myself becoming obsessed with tea. Besides its healthful properties, I find a small pot of tea to be the perfect amount of caffeine to give me a mid-afternoon boost, without affecting my sleep at night as a cup of coffee at that point in the day might do.
I haven't blogged much lately because I mostly stay at home with my two kids, but I sure do have a lot of time while I'm at home to sip on a range of fine Taiwanese teas. I'm writing this guide to give a basic introduction to Taiwanese teas and how to say them in Mandarin, and also recommend the best places for buying tea, how to brew tea properly, and finally to introduce some interesting tea-related tourists spots in Taiwan.
Despite all the varieties available, all true teas are brewed from cured leaves of the same plant, Camellia sinensis. Tea originated in Southwestern China, becoming a popular recreational drink during the Tang Dynasty (tang2 chao2唐朝) (AD 618-904), then spread to other parts of Asia. Tea didn't become big in England until the British began cultivating it in India in the 17th century.
The Chinese have traditionally added flavors, either natural or artificial, to some teas. Popular ones include jasmine (mo4 li4 茉莉) and lychee (li4 zhi1 荔枝). Herbal (hua1 cao3 cha2 花草茶), fruit (shui3 guo3 cha2水果茶) and flower (hua1 cha2花茶) teas are also common in China and Taiwan, but are not true teas.
Caffeine levels vary in tea, but contrary to what some say, your typical cup of tea has less caffeine that a cup of coffee. Tea may be higher in caffeine by volume, but quite a bit less tealeaves are used than coffee beans to brew a single cup.
Many factors affect the characteristics of a tea, including climate, altitude, water, and soil, but what separates them into the main varieties is the method of post-harvesting production.
The amount of oxidation, or fermentation, that tealeaves undergo after being harvested determines the variety of tea. The following are in order from least to most oxidized.
White Tea (bai2 cha2 白茶)
This is the least processed of all teas and has an extremely mild flavor and light yellow color (the name “white” comes from the tiny silvery-white hairs found on the unopened buds of the plant). White tea comes from Fujian province (fu2 jian4 sheng3 福建省) in China, and as far as I know it is not produced in Taiwan.
Green Tea (lv4 cha2 綠茶)
Like white tea, green tea is totally unoxidized, but has a stronger flavor. Green teas tend to be sharp and possess citrusy or vegetal undertones. It is believed that by roasting or pan-firing the leaves immediately after harvesting, they retain much of their natural flavor. China and Japan produce most green teas. Taiwan produces some, but they are far less common here than wulongs. An interesting flavored green tea I've come across in Taiwan is sweet osthmanthus green tea (gui4 hua1 lv4 cha2 桂花綠茶).
Wulong (Oolong) Tea (wu1 long2 cha2 烏龍茶)
Wulongs are semi-oxidized teas, generally ranging from 10% (lighter, closer to a green tea in characteristics) to 80% (darker, more robust, closer to a black tea). As such, wulongs are highly varied. They can be steeped multiple times, and each steeping produces different flavors. Taiwan's wulongs are prized by tea connoisseurs around the world and can fetch astronomical prices.
Black Tea (“Red Tea” in Mandarin) (hong2 cha2 紅茶)
Black tea leaves are fully oxidized, giving them the most robust flavor. They are most common in the West, and produced mainly in India and Sri Lanka, though China does produce some as well. Many of them are blends, and sometimes flavors are added (for example the addition of oil of bergamot produces Earl Grey tea).
Pu Er Tea (pu3 er3 cha2 普洱茶)
Pu Er tea is a fully fermented, aged tea that is unique to Yunnan province (雲南省) in southwestern China. Pu er is truly “black” tea, being extremely dark, earthy, and robust in flavor, and it often comes packed in large dense pucks. It is fairly easy to find in Taiwan but it is not produced here. I've also seen it packed in mini one-pot sized pucks wrapped in thin paper (see center of below left photo) in shops on Dihua street (迪化街) in Taipei.
a field of baozhong tea in Nangang District, Taipei City
baskets for collecting tea
varieties of Chinese tea
old Formosa oolong tea poster at the Pinglin Tea Museum
more than 25 varieties of northern Taiwanese tea on display at the Pingling Tea Museum
bulk tea bins at Lin Mao Sen Tea Co
teal pot, cups, and tea tray. just some of them equipment commonly used for brewing tea in Taiwan
Most Taiwanese serious tea drinkers would consider the way I brew my tea sacrilegious. I put a few pinches of tealeaves into a large glass pot, add water of the appropriate temperature, let it steep for several minutes, and then drink it.
Traditionally, tea drinking is a relaxed, social affair in Taiwan. In terms of day-to-day consumption, most busy Taiwanese drink coffee or bottles of iced tea from 7-11 or iced tea stalls these days. In old times, people would head to the local teahouse (茶館), or brew tea on their living room table or in front of their homes. Teahouses are dying out in urban areas of Taiwan (though some can still be found even in Taipei City), with the increasingly fast pace of life and the growing popularity of cafés, but most families and especially elderly people will still bust out the tea set when they have friends or relatives over.
A typical Chinese tea set includes a surprisingly small teapot (cha2 hu2 茶壺) (the one in the photo above is quite large) with a strainer , a tea pitcher (gong1 dao4 bei4公道杯) for actually pouring the tea (transferring from the pot to the pitcher helps to achieve consistency), miniature drinking cups (cha2 wan3 茶碗), tongs for removing infused tea leaves, and a large tea tray (cha2 pan2 茶盤).
Most locals perform a somewhat simplified execution of the traditional Chinese gongfu tea ceremony (gong1 fu4 cha2 功夫茶) or “skilled tea”. The first step, after bragging about how good your shit is, is to boil some water and add it to some leaves in the small pot to “rinse” or “wash” them, usually for 30 seconds or less. The "liquor" from this first round is then poured into the cups and then discarded into the tea tray, which typically has drainage holes. This is done to warm the cups, and after the tea is discarded, drinkers can stick their noses into the empty cups to experience the tea's aroma. The main purpose of rinsing the tealeaves is to get rid of the bitterness.
Next, more water is added to the pot and the leaves are steeped for about 1 minute (or up to two minutes for some darker wulongs, such as Oriental Beauty). Also note that the ideal temperature for brewing tea varies according to the tea. The ideal water temperatures for various teas are as follows (according to the Pinglin Team Museum; information online varies slightly):
Iron Goddess, High Mountain Wulong: 100°C
Black, Pu Er: 95°C
Green Tea, Oriental Beauty: 85°C
Wulong teas can be steeped a few times, while pu er tea can be steeped ten or more times. For each subsequent brew, the leaves should be steeped longer. Supposedly, each round brings out different flavors in the tea.
In the foothills of Nangang district, eastern Taipei City, Jiuzhuang is the first place that grew Baozhong tea in Taiwan. In early 2014, a new tea center called the Taipei Tea House (tai2 bei3 zhao3 cha2 yuan2 台北找茶園) was opened here to showcase local tea. The modern, zen-like facilities feature large wooden tables, Western- and Japanese-style private rooms, and great mountain views in the distance. Tea processing equipment and educational exhibits are also on display. On weekends the center also leads eco-tours and holds tea-themed activities.
Across from the Taipei Tea House, there is a restaurant called Guanyun Residence Tea Plantation (guan1 yun1 jv1 cha2 zhuang1 觀雲居茶莊), with a patio surrounded by trees. They serve a variety of tea-infused dishes, such as tea oil noodles and tea stewed chicken. You can also visit the family-run Qinming Tea Plantation (qin1 ming2 cha2 yuan2 欽明茶園).
Overall, Jiuzhuang won't blow you away, but it makes for a pleasant 2-3 hour trip from the city and offers a good introduction to Taiwan's tea culture. There are some nice walking trails in the area with lovely views over terraced tea fields. Finally, the Taipei Tea House is quite new and as far as I know isn't in any travel guidebooks yet, so you are unlikely to see any other foreign visitors there.
Getting There: Catch small bus #5 from just in front of Funan Temple (富南宮) near exit 5 of Nangang Exhibition Center MRT. Buses are infrequent, and if I remember correct, the ride takes about 20 minutes.
Taipei Tea House, Nangang District, Taipei City
terraced rice fields, Jiuzhuang, Nangang District, Taipei City
Western-style tea room, Taipei Tea House
cute tea pots and suspension bridge, Jiuzhuang
tea fields, Jiuzhuang
Pinglin is Taiwan's mecca for tea lovers. Located southeast of Taipei, all Taiwanese know it as the midway point on the old mountainous highway #9 from Taipei to Yilan. Drivers used to stop here to enjoy a cup of local baozhong tea and lunch, until the freeway was opened in 2006, bypassing Pinglin with a series of tunnels. But now Pinglin has made a comeback by cleaning up Beishi Creek, the waterway which runs through town, and lining it with bicycle paths from which cyclists can admire pools filled with large catfish, and fields of tea (Giant bicycles can be hired in town). One reason why there are so many fish in the river, and also why the baozhong tea grown in the area is considered so fragrant, is that the entire area is protected as a special water resources zone given the fact that Pinglin is just upstream from the Feicui Reservoir (fei3 cui4 shui3 ku4 翡翠水庫), one of two main reservoirs supplying water to Taipei.
Most of the shops in the one-street town sell tea, tea derived products, or foods infused with–you guessed it–tea. Personally, I really enjoyed the deep fried tealeaves, and you can never go wrong with matcha ice cream or tea eggs. Walking down Pinglin's little old street, note the cute little teapots on the lampposts. Pinglin also boasts the world's largest tea museum, in which you can learn everything you've ever wanted to know about local tea, and entrance is totally free. A good place to go if you just want a single cup of tea is the little teashop on the outer wall of the museum near the entrance.
If you want to cycle a little further than the easy paths along the river, peddle to the Jingualiao Fish and Fern Trail (金瓜寮魚蕨步道), a lovely one hour ride. There are also multiple riverside campsites in the Pinglin area.
Getting There: Bus #923 and green #12 go to Pinglin from just outside Xindian MRT station. The ride takes about 40 minutes. Bicycles can be hired in Pinglin town.
tea oil thin noodles in Pinglin
signature square-shaped packaging of baozhong tea, the "wrapped variety"
cycling past tea fields in Pinglin
stunning views over rice fields and the Feicui Water Reservoir from Shiding Bagua Tea Plantation
Maokong offers Taipei folk (and lots and lots of tourists) the chance to get up into the tea fields via glass-bottom gondola directly from the Taipei Zoo MRT station, and offers dozens of traditional teashops to choose from. If the crowds are too long for the gondola, just hop on a bus across the street to get to the top in 15-20 minutes. If you do take the gondola, make sure to stop at some of the other stops along the way to check out the excellent temples (see this blog by Josh Ellis).
A word of warning: most of the teashops in Maokong are set up for groups, so you typically have to buy a whole bag of tea plus pay a “water fee” per person. It can actually get quite pricey, at least for budget travelers. However, many shops allow visitors to bring their own tea and only pay a water fee on weekdays. There is a collection of shops and food stalls near the Maokong gondola station at the top, but for me, the main reason I go up there is for hiking. There is a network of trails, and the Silver Stream Cave and Waterfall (yin2 he2 dong4 he2 gong1 銀河洞和宮) makes for a great destination. It's a little tricky to find the first time you go, but once you know the way it only takes about 40 minutes to get there from Maokong station, taking you past a number of tea fields.
Silver Stream Cave and Waterfall, Maokong
Terraced tea fields are highly photogenic places, and there any many places in Taiwan were you can get up close to admire their simple beauty. Taiwan is also home to several interesting and informative tea centers and museums. All of the following are in the greater Taipei area.
baozhong tea, 15-25% oxidized and closer in characteristics to a green tea
oriental beauty, with its signature white tips, about 60% oxidized and considered by some to be the world's finest Wulong
Alishan high mountain tea, 40% oxidized and rolled into little balls, considered by many locals to be Taiwan's finest tea
Chinese Pu Er Tea, the blackest of teas, 100% oxidized and aged, only grown in Yunnan, China