The Art Of Tea Magazine
The Varieties of Formosa Oolong
Taiwanese tea culture dates back to at least the 18th century, and has long contributed tea and traditions to the world. Even very antique Chinese books complimented Taiwanese tea production and mentioned how central it was to the people's way of life. According to one such ancient record there were wild tea trees in Taiwan as far back as the middle of the 17th century, but it was not until the Yong-Zheng reign (1723 to 1735) of the Qing Dynasty that the Taiwanese people began to harvest and sell the tea from these trees. However, the teas that have been developed over the past two hundred years in Taiwan are not related to those native wild tea trees written about long ago. The island has since then developed a reputation for the production of fine Oolongs such as Bai Hao Oolong (Oriental Beauty), Dong Ding, Bao Zhong, and several other varieties of high-mountain Oolong teas. In modern times the ideal mountainous climate, modern business practices and agricultural research have all combined to create what is probably one of the most dynamic and influential tea markets in the world.
When discussing the varieties of Taiwanese tea, it is important to first understand the two main types of Oolongs: Stripe-Shaped and Ball-Shaped. These two distinctive categories actually represent the two places they were brought from in Mainland, China. One of the birthplaces of Oolong is the northern part of Fujian province. Oolong teas from Northern Fujian are long and thin, stripe-shaped teas like the famous Wu Yi Rock Teas (yen cha). The southern part of Fujian developed its own version of Oolong that is rolled into tight balls as exemplified by teas like Anxi Iron Goddess (Tie Guan Yin). The ancestors of today's tea masters brought their teas from Fujian to the highlands of Taiwan, along with the skills to produce the fine selection of Oolongs that have become so famous around the world. The types of trees and processing methods were divided roughly between the northern and central regions of Taiwan, corresponding to the proximity of the northern and southern regions of Fujian. The Northern striped Oolongs, therefore, migrated to the Northern hilly regions of Taiwan and the Southern ball-shaped Oolongs were brought to the Central Highlands of Taiwan. With an understanding of the two kinds of Oolong tea, let's take a closer look at the varieties of Formosa Oolong:
Northern Dan Shui river series: Pou Chong and Bai Hao Oolong
Origin: Northern Fujian, Wu Yi Yen Cha
Time of Origin: 1810 A.D. (Ching Dynasty, Chiang Ching Period)
The northern region of Taiwan imported the teas and processing techniques familiar to the northern region of Fujian to the banks of the Dan-Shui River in the early 18th century. The Oolongs from that region of Taiwan are therefore stripe-shaped〞 the most famous of which are Pou Chong (Bao Zhong) and Bai Hao Oolongs (although there is the modern exception of Taipei's Pin Lin Tie Guan Yin, which is farmed and processed in a more southerly way). Taiwan started to produce Pou Chong as early as 1810 when immigrants from Chuan Zhou, Fujian cultivated tea trees to make flowered teas, like jasmine green tea, for export. Later, World War II collapsed the international market and Taiwanese tea producers changed their focus to the domestic market, which demanded teas of finer quality.
This turned out to be a positive change, as it forced them to research and develop the oxidation skills needed to generate a natural floral fragrance from teas without using actual flowers. Since then, Pou Chong has been farmed to emphasize the aroma and complexity of its fragrance during brewing. Of all the Oolongs Taiwan produces, Pou Chong is the lightest in oxidation. The elegantly narrow and naturally curved shape of Pou Chong reveals its heritage in Wuyi. Pou Chong is, however, not heavily oxidized and roasted like the rock teas (yen cha) of Wuyi. Pou Chong poignantly bridges green teas, like Long Jing or Bi Lou Chun, to the versatile and profound world of Oolong. It offers a unique, light greenness and freshness while at the same time presenting the floral fragrances of Oolongs.
Another famous striped tea of Taiwan is Bai Hao Oolong. It is created through a glorious waltz played in harmony with Nature herself. During summer, the population of leaf hoppers reaches its peak and most of the tender tea leaves are eaten by the insects. Due to a natural self-defense mechanism, the tea leaves produce a higher content of polyphenols and tannins. These natural chemicals are mixed almost alchemically together with enzymes in the insects' saliva to produce tea leaves that are rich, fruity and full of a profound floral aroma. Bai Hao Oolong is further distinguished by the fact that it requires three to four thousand leaf tips to make six hundred grams of tea, whereas other teas usually only need about one thousand. It is the most oxidized type of Taiwanese Oolong (~70%), and is only harvested in Hsin Chu and Miao Li counties during the summer season.
Central Mountain Area: Dong Ding Oolong and High-Mountain Oolongs
Origin: Southern Fujian, Tie Guan Yin
Time of Origin: Ching Dynasty, Kang Xi Period
Southern Fujian's Tie Guan Yin was brought to the central part of Taiwan as early as the Kang Xi reign (1661 - 1772). The characteristic round shape comes from a special cloth-wrapped kneading process which also imparts a unique aroma to this kind of tea. Another important benefit of the tight shape is that it enhances and preserves freshness, as it limits the surface area of the leaf that is exposed to oxygen. This is very important for these High Mountain Oolongs. If they become stale they lose the wonderful floral fragrance they are so famous for. The most influential of these teas are Lu Gu's Dong Ding Oolong and Ming Jian's Song Po Oolong.
Dong Ding Oolong originally referred to the Oolongs harvested from the three villages of Pin Ding, Yung Long and Feng Huang in Lu Gu, Nan Tou County. Since then it has come to mean any Oolong that is from anywhere in Lu Gu. In the olden days, when farmers had to walk to the tea farms and carry the harvested tea leaves back on foot, they had to tighten their calf muscles as they hiked. In the Taiwanese dialect Ding refers to this action. Everyday, they climbed up and down the constantly foggy, slippery and cold mountain paths. ※Dong§ is the word for such cold and slippery roads. Hence, Dong Ding alludes simply to the hiking up and down the mountains that the farmers did in order to bring this amazing tea to market. Dong Ding Oolongs have undergone some changes since the days when they were carried up and down the mountains on farmers' backs. Traditional Dong Ding Oolongs were oxidized more (~60%) and roasted less than what we are seeing today. That is because more oxidized teas have a more consistent quality. Before, when the only means of transportation was walking, it was vital to have a stable quality control that could survive the longer transportation period. Moreover, the higher oxidized Oolongs enabled the tea farmers/merchants to store them safely for several years without the help of any of the modern innovations like refrigeration and vacuum or nitrogen-sealed packaging. The lighter oxidized (~30%) and more roasted style of Dong Ding Oolong was fashioned by and for the annual Lu Gu Tea Competition. The lighter oxidation allows the judges to inspect the nature of the tea leaves more easily. These lighter oxidized Dong Ding rely on a heavier roasting to bring out their mellowness and complexity. ※Formosa High-Mountain Oolong§ is a generic name that refers to all Oolong teas that are harvested from plantations over 1000 meters in elevation. Such farms originated in Mei Shan of Jia Yi County in the 1970's. Farmers in Mei Shan originally depended on wood and bamboo farming. Then in the 1960's-70's, when the demand for bamboo and wood decreased, they faced financial hardship. The local governments had noticed the achievements of the tea industry in neighboring Lu Gu County, and decided to help the local farmers to plant tea trees and learn the processing skills needed to revitalize their economy. The higher elevation (Mei Shan: 1100m, Lu Gu: 700m) and humid/foggy climate made the Oolongs produced in Mei Shan an immediate success. The thick and refined consistency as well as the rich and refreshing floral aroma quickly won the hearts of many tea drinkers in Taiwan. Following Mei Shan's accomplishment, tea farmers have been continuously trying to develop tea plantations at higher elevations. Nowadays, the most famous High-Mountain growing regions are Yu Shan (1400m), Al Li Shan (1600m), Shan Li Shi (1700m), and Li Shan (2500m). Higher elevations have become synonymous with higher quality teas produced in more conducive and often organic environments.
Roasting (hong pei) Taiwanese Oolong has also inherited the roasting skills so essential to Wu Yi yen cha and Anxi Tie Guan Yin. Proper roasting of an Oolong should achieve the following goals: (1) stabilize the quality of the tea, (2) correct the aroma and taste of teas; and (3) increase the mellowness and complexity. Traditional Oolong roasting can be a very time-consuming and labor-intensive process, especially for Oolongs such as Dong Ding and Tie Guan Yin. It was often done by hand on hardwood charcoal fires, and the teas had to be monitored constantly by sight, smell and feel. Even today, as modern machinery has mostly replaced the hand-roasted, charcoal fires, experience and patience both play vital roles in the success of Oolong roasting. A good roasting not only achieves the three goals mentioned above, but also is free from any sharp or harsh firing or cooked feeling. It retains well the existing floral quality, adds a mature fruity aroma, and blends them in harmony. It enhances the taste to an even more lingering and penetrating experience that not only entertains the mouth and throat, but also resonates smoothly with our bodies.
Aged oolongs While it is generally understood that Oolong teas are best when drunk fresh, some can be stored for years and actually improve with time. Those Oolongs are usually heavy-roasted or those with a higher oxidization, such as Dong Ding, Bai Hao Oolong or Tie Guan Yin. Lightly oxidized Oolongs like Pou Chong may also be aged if they first undergo a proper roasting. Aging an Oolong can significantly improve the mellowness and develop more complexity in the aroma and flavor. From my personal experience, even freshness-oriented High-Mountain Oolongs can become mellower and sweeter, though losing some degree of their freshness, after even just one year of aging. Aging Oolongs is not like the aging of Puerhs in which biological activity plays an important role in the transformation of the tea. Puerhs, therefore, need a certain degree of humidity and air circulation. In the aging of Oolongs, on the other hand, one should use an environment that is low in humidity and oxygen. Generally, a more robust Oolong is selected and placed into a glazed, earthenware jar. It helps to completely fill the jar so that there is less oxygen inside. The jar is then sealed shut, often with wax, and stored in a cooler place without sunlight or humidity. More oxidized or roasted teas are usually drier and therefore age better in humid climates like Taiwan. Many Western countries that aren't very good places for storing Puerh, because they're too cold or dry, would still be excellent candidates for storing Oolongs. Since our ancestors brought tea plants and their processing skills to the island, the knowledge of Oolong and tea horticulture has been significantly refined and improved. The thriving Taiwanese tea culture has arisen as a result of three factors: (1) Nature: the perfect growing conditions for tea trees and the young and rich geographic landscape of Taiwan itself; (2) Timing: the economic boom in Taiwan since the 1970's strongly fueled the domestic market's demand for finer quality teas, creating a competition that forced farmers to improve their product; and (3) The People: the hard-working, honest and creative tea producers in Taiwan are always refining their skills. Today Taiwanese Oolong has become one of the hottest tea fashions in the world. Taiwan's precious High-Mountain Oolongs have even had a large impact on the conventiona l Oolong production in Mainland China. Still, Taiwanese Oolong faces a formidable economic challenge in the global market. More and more teas that bear the name Taiwan, Formosa, Dong Ding, Bai Hao, etc. are not really from Taiwan and only marginally resemble the original quality. These forgeries abound in Asia and the West, offering tea at cheaper prices, but without the quality that the originals have become famous for. To overcome this problem, Taiwanese tea farmers, producers and merchants must continuously strive to improve and refine the quality of genuine Formosa teas and courageously introduce them to the world market. In that way the true form of Formosa tea, in all its astonishing varieties, will be given the chance to speak for itself.