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While there are many places that produce and consume more tea than Taiwan, it is the island’s proud history of tea making that earns it a special place in the hearts of tea lovers the world over. But what is it that makes Taiwanese tea so special that it is prized in tea shops across the globe? We find out.
A long-term resident of Taiwan, passionate tea lover and owner of The Jade Leaf, Emilio Jose Del Pozo, gave us his opinion on why he thinks Taiwanese tea differs so greatly to teas from other regions and China in particular.
“Just as French wine is different to any other wine, Taiwanese tea is markedly different to tea from other parts of China. This is mostly due to the soil in which it grows, the production techniques used, and of course the climate.”
As any tea lover will tell you, Taiwan’s most famous teas are those that come from the mountains or, as they are more commonly known, the high mountain teas. The high elevation tea growing regions throughout the island are among the highest in the world. Jose explains why this is an important factor.
“At this altitude, the tea is exposed to cooler temperatures and shielded from the sun by perpetual mists. This produces a tea that is less bitter, has a rich character that is fruity to floral and both fruity and creamy or buttery with a long finish that lingers in the throat. This is the unique character of Taiwanese high elevation tea.”
It’s interesting to note that even though Taiwan doesn’t even make it into the top 10 tea producing regions in the world, its high mountain teas are so sought after that the island exports up to 70% of its annual yield.
When it comes to sampling local delicacies it can be difficult for the average tourist to judge the quality of the product they wish to buy, and tea is no different. With Taiwanese teas having such a distinct flavor, those with no experience will find it impossible to spot the good from the bad. However, with a little homework, it can be done.
In general, good quality tea is comprised of whole, intact leaves while leaves that are cut or broken indicate a lower quality product. Tea is also quite absorbent of aromas so if poorly stored it will often have an ‘off’ aroma that is quite noticeable. Good tea should have a pleasant aromatic fragrance, anything else and it’s not worth trying.
When it comes to taste, tea is a bitter plant by nature. However, the tea’s bitterness should be balanced by other pleasant flavors. Bad tea has a lip puckering, harsh bitter flavor that lingers, or leaves the mouth feeling dry. In good tea, the bitterness transforms to sweetness that leaves the mouth feeling clean. It creates a phenomenon known in Chinese speaking countries as “hui gan” which is a comfortable aftertaste that lingers in the mouth, throat, and sinus after drinking good quality tea.
With so many teas available, it pays to have a little expert advice, particularly for the novice tea drinker. Luckily enough Jose was happy to give us a few suggestions.
“I’d recommend Taiwanese high mountain tea for obvious reasons. It’s Taiwan’s most distinctive type of tea and mountains such as Da Yu Lin, Alishan, Li Shan, Fu Shou Shan, Shan Lin Xi and Qi Lai Shan all produce nice high elevation tea.
Taiwan also makes excellent black tea. I’d recommend one called Shan Cha which is a black tea produced from a tea variety that is indigenous to Taiwan. It has a satisfying fruity, malty flavor. It’s rare so if you find some, buy it. Another really nice black tea is Red Jade #18. It is a hybrid made from a cross between the Shan Cha and a Burmese Assam variety. The good quality stuff is naturally sweet with an amazing fruity taste and aroma. It’s known for leaving a minty taste in the mouth. It’s making a name for itself of late and is definitely one to look out for.”
So the next time you find yourself in Taiwan, head for the local tea shop or try one of the large chains such as Ten Ren Teas, who have locations throughout the island, and look out for some high mountain tea. But take note, once you have the taste for Taiwanese tea, nothing else will do.