Teas from Taiwan are referred to as “Formosa” teas due to that the Portuguese explorers who originally traded with the island gave it the Latin name Formosa, from “formosus,” meaning “beautiful.” It wasn’t until the mid 1600’s that the island received its modern name, Taiwan. Historically, Formosa (as I will refer to it) was not a tea producing island, and it is said that Lin Fengchi was the first to plant tea on the island in 1850, which was a type of Wuyi Oolong that he had brought with him from Fujian, home of some of the best oolong teas at that time. By the late 1860’s the English had begun exporting teas from Formosa, using the Portuguese name for the island to describe the tea, and the Formosan tea industry was introduced to the world.
At a time when the traditions of tea making were stagnating on the mainland, Taiwan was developing a robust tea industry and continuing to developing the early traditions of tea manufacture brought from China. Mixing old with new, the Taiwan tea industry produces some of the most unique oolong teas in the world, and they are classified as Jade oolong, Champagne oolong, Amber oolong, and Pouchong. Fruity, floral, and delicate, Formosan oolongs are worth seeking out by anyone who appreciates tea. Due to their delicate nature,Jade oolongs and Pouchongs require a steeping time of no more than three minutes at twenty degrees Fahrenheit below the boiling point. Amber and Champagne oolongs should also be steeped for three minutes at ten degrees Fahrenheit below the boiling point. All of these teas allow for multiple infusions.
Some of the more commonly known Taiwan (Formosa) teas are:
Jade oolong (oolong being a lightly fermented, or oxidized tea) typically leans towards being less fermented than most oolong teas, typically between 10% – 20% oxidized. For this reason, it can easily be misconstrued as a green tea by some. The edges of each leaf tends to be brown (apparent after being infused) which indicates the slight oxidation. Without the vegetal characteristics found in most green teas, Jade oolong tends to be floral (perfumed), light, slightly sweet, and one of the most unique teas in existence.
Due to the rough treatment during oolong production, the tea leaves are not picked at first flush, but allowed to mature slightly, and is picked from mid spring until late summer for processing. Due to this, rather than only three leaves (pekoe, orange pekoe, flowery orange pekoe), a five leaf cluster is picked and rolled (in the style of gunpowder tea) which results in a piece of the stem present in the finished product. Some of the finest Jade Oolong teas hail from the mountains of Nantou County in Alishan, as well as Tung Ting (sometimes labeled as Dung Ding), the latter region producing the most commonly found commercially distributed Jade Oolong.
One exquisite example of Jade Oolong tea is Li Shan oolong, which may not always be easy to find, but is well worth it if you can and enjoy that particular style of tea (see below).
Amber oolong is a more oxidized (fermented) tea than Jade oolong (closer to 30% oxidation) and therefore has a heavier and more roasted flavor. With a lingering sweetness the infusion is an amber color (hence the name). The most commercially coveted of these teas is known as Bai Hao, which has silvery or white portions of the leaf due to being damaged during growth, which gives the dry tea a scintillating look.
Typical Formosan Oolong, champagne oolong (also called white-tip oolong) is mostly grown in the northern region of the island, usually at low altitudes (below 1,000 feet). It tends to be approximately 60% oxidized and surprisingly has little of the astringency or bitterness present in many black teas. On the fruity side, this tea is unique in the oolong tea world for its subtlety, sweetness, and fruity character while retaining a richness present in heaver teas. The two top grades are called “fancy” and “fanciest.” While many Formosa teas are “shotty” (meaning rolled up into little balls) champagne oolong is an open leaf which displays the many colors of its medium oxidation level.
Li Shan Oolong
Li Shan (Pear Mountain) is a type of Jade Oolong from Taiwan that is one of the most expensive, and some say the most exquisite tea from Taiwan. Named for the region’s history as a producer of pears, Li Shan teas owe their unique quality to the cool and moist conditions the mountainous region harbors, perfect conditions for growing tea. It is sometimes called “The President Tea” due to the plantations being on land previously occupied by Chiang Kai Shek’s summer villa.
Due to the particularly beneficial climate, this high quality tea has a very delicate aroma, and a sweet, fruity character that almost coats the throat. Being very lightly oxidized, the liquor is greenish gold, with no bitterness and relatively little astringency. The unusually large leaves have only a hint of oxidation around their edges, and are amenable to multiple steepings.
Li Shan teas are harvested only twice per year, and this combined with the small growing region contributes to its high cost. In spite of this, tea connoisseurs are more than willing to pay the price for this tea, as this oolong is practically without peer.
While most of this tea is produced for the domestic Taiwanese market, some types of Li shan are available to outsiders if they can be found. Some examples of Li Shan tea that you may be able to locate follow.
Tsuei Luan Oolong
The Tseui Luan region of Li Shan produces this particular tea, characterized by particularly large leaves rolled up into surprisingly tight, light green balls (similar in shape to typical gunpowder tea). Sweet and flowery, Tseui Luan is clearly a stand out, even among Taiwan’s already incredible tea bounty.
Wu Ling Oolong
Similar in many ways to Tsuei Luan, Wu Ling oolong is darker in appearance (a touch more oxidized, and produces a slightly darker liquor) and has a fruity quality with a light, clean astringency. A subtly green taste and smooth mouth feel help finish the tea, leaving the drinker thinking that there is something to this tea having been grown on land that was previously apple and pear orchards.
Pouchong is essentially a minimally oxidized Jade Oolong. While sharing all the characteristics of a Jade oolong, however being significantly less oxidized, Pouchong is essentially a green tea on the very edge of oxidation. The infusion resembles that of Jade Oolong, albeit a bit lighter in color (a golden yellow), with a stronger and more diverse bouquet (aroma) than classic green tea.