I wouldn’t do that for all the tea in…. Taiwan?
That’s right. Taiwan grows some of the best teas in the world. Tea cultivation only really began there in the mid-19th century. But it spread like crazy, thanks to strong domestic demand.
Taiwanese teas are also greatly sought after by foreign tea connoisseurs.
I recently spent a week on the island, and I took a day to tour around one of the best tea growing areas in the country: Dong Ding mountain in Nantou County.[…yeah, I had a hell of a time not calling it “ding dong”— and if you read the Ometepe section of my book Vagabond Dreams you’ll know why…]
The first thing that struck me about Taiwan was that it didn’t come anywhere near my expectations. I thought it would be a lot like mainland China. Instead, it reminded me of Japan.
People were incredibly polite, and also very fashionable. Taipei was clean and modern, with an efficient subway system and more great restaurants than you could dine at in a lifetime. And the only people I saw shoving, spitting, shouting or otherwise behaving like boors were tourists from the mainland.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Taiwan, and I would welcome another visit.
So anyway, yeah, let’s talk tea.
I used to think that Taiwan only grew their famous oolong tea. And that each of these varieties of tea came from a different plant. But I was wrong on both counts.
Taiwan produces oolong, green tea and black tea, and they all come from the same bush. The difference is in the method of processing after the leaves are picked.
I needed to know more about this industry. I rolled out of bed very early one morning to hop a high speed train south, so I could drive up to Dong Ding mountain and see this process for myself. I was fortunate to have been given access to the tea plantations of a local family, who spent most of the day showing me around their rather impressive operation.
First stop was their tea house in a small mountainside village, where I discussed the art of tea with Chen Nenghui, whose ancestors have been involved in the business for several generations.
“The quality of the tea changes from one season to the next,” he told me. “We have four different picking seasons. Summer tea has a stronger scent. Tea picked in the rainy season grows quickly, so the leaf is thinner. There’s less scent, and a milder flavour. And winter tea is more expensive, because it grows slowly and there’s less of it.”
The weather is also important, as his wife, Tsai Baimei, interrupted to tell me. “Tea leaves need sun,” she said. “If there’s no sun or if the weather is constantly overcast, it makes for very poor tea.”
The other big factor when it comes to pricing tea is the height at which it is grown. The length of time the leaves take to grow changes depending on the altitude above sea level. Tea grown at a higher altitude grows more slowly, and is believed to have a smoother taste.
Mr. Chen prepared a pot of their tea while we talked. He first poured the tea into a tall narrow cup. I was instructed to pick this up, pour it into the wider-mouthed drinking cup, and then stick my nose in the smaller cup to appreciate the scent of the brew before drinking it.
“This tea was grown at a height of 1,800 meters,” he said. It tasted almost buttery, with clean grassy notes.
Dong Ding means “Frozen Summit” or “Ice Peak”, and the region is known for producing a tightly rolled tea with a light, distinctive fragrance. Some people believe it’s distinctive flavour is due to the almost continuous fog that blankets the region for much of the year. Whatever the reason, teas from Dong Ding fetch premium prices. And I was beginning to understand why.
When the sipping was done, we hopped into a car to drive further up the mountain and see the processing plants in action.
Our first stop was a smaller field on a terraced hillside right next to the road. Carefully manicured bushes filled the entire area, evenly spaced, right up to where the hillside dropped off into a gaping void.
Tea plants will grow into enormous trees if left alone, but cultivated plants are pruned to waist height to make harvesting easy. They do this because only the top 1 or 2 inches of the plant are picked. It’s these new leaves that become the tea you steep in your store-bought Tetley bags.
After the tea leaves are picked, they’re trucked straight to the oxidation facility. We were fortunate to arrive just as a fresh load of tea came in, so I could pitch in with the work and help spread the leaves out in the sun.
Hey, it wasn’t so bad. I earned a couple bottles of beer with the workers.
The newly picked tea leaves would be exposed there for about an hour, which causes the oxidation process to begin. The leaves are then gathered and taken into the drying house, where they’re placed on racks. The racks are shaken about once an hour to bruise the leaves and encourage continued oxidation. This is also when they begin to turn brown.
We were all pretty hungry after spreading that fresh harvest in the sun. And so we took a quick break for lunch, where Mrs. Tsai — a culinary as well as tea master — served us a full meal of tea-based cuisine. That’s food where actual tea leaves are used in the dishes. Check out that photo! Yeah, it was as incredible as it looked.
Our final stop was a processing facility where the tea leaves are roasted and dried before being rolled and packaged for sale. This roasting brings the oxidation process of the leaves to a stop. Just as in the case of fermenting wine, the decision of when to stop the process and roast is made by the tea master, based on his years of experience and on what sort of finished product he wants to create.
Each sack of tea leaves is dumped into a cylindrical tumbler, tumbled for a few minutes, taken out and checked, and tumbled again. In between tumblings the leaves are tightly packed in a canvas cloth and placed in a rolling machine. This repeated cycle of tumbling and rolling is repeated up to 20 times, and it’s what gives the tea leaves you see in the package that neat tightly rolled appearance.
So that’s it! I was amazed to learn what a labour intensive process it is to make a simple brick of quality tea. That’s why the finer varieties fetch such high prices. And that explains why tea from a region like Dong Ding has such a delicate, refined taste.
Further Info on Tea Varieties
Here’s a quick rundown of the 3 different types of tea grown in Taiwan, and the main differences between each.
Oolong tea — This is the variety we spent the most time exploring, and my personal favourite among the Taiwan teas. Oolong is considered a “half fermented” tea. It comes in an enormous variety of flavours. I’ve tried stronger, darker oolong varieties from mainland China. But I found the higher altitude teas from Taiwan to be quite delicate, almost buttery, with very green, fresh aromas. These are subtle teas that should be sipped slowly and with attention. Oolong teas are reputed to aid digestion, and they’re popularly marketed as “weight loss” teas in the West.
Black tea — Black teas typically undergo a longer period of open air fermentation than oolong, which turns the leaves dark brown to black and produces a stronger tasting tea. These are considered “fully fermented”. The black tea I tried at the oxidation facility on Dong Ding mountain was rich and nutty, with an almost malted aftertaste. I should also note that these teas are not the same as what we commonly refer to as “black tea” or “English tea” in the West.
Green tea — Green tea is not oxidized, and is considered an “unfermented” tea. The leaves are processed very quickly so they don’t have a chance to turn brown. They are also heated to “fix” the chlorophyll, which keeps the leaves green by destroying the enzymes responsible for oxidation. You’re pretty much tasting what it’s like to consume these leaves straight from the bush.