Tea is everywhere in Taiwan, and it forms a core part of Taiwanese life. You see tea stands in all sorts of neighborhoods, and walking around town with a bubble tea in hand seems to have become a must-do when visiting Taiwan. If you have been to a tea stand or a tea house, you might have noticed the wide variety of tea you can choose from. It’s sometimes even confusing for us locals, so here we’ve hand picked some common tea varieties served at tea shops and tea houses -the tea essentials- and we’re going to dig a bit deeper into the complex and beautiful Taiwanese tea scene.
Let’s be real right from the beginning! Even though tea stands are a quick and convenient choice, in order to better understand the essence of Taiwanese tea, you must visit a tea house. A tea house is an ancient cultural institution where tea is freshly brewed, and served hot and sugar-free from a teapot into tiny tea cups, easily finished in two sips. Taiwanese call this method of brewing gongfucha (kung fu tea). Most varieties of Taiwanese tea are better served hot for a full appreciation of their nuance, which is often hidden by the amount of ice and sugar used at tea stands.
The three major tea varieties are black, oolong, and green, each with its own set of sub-varieties. The difference between each the level of oxidation. Black tea is fully oxidized, oolong partially, and green unoxidized.
Black Tea (photo credit: CDN)
The literal translation of black tea in Mandarin is actually “red tea”, and indeed black teas from Taiwan are usually more of a red and orange than black. Most are a lot lighter than the common ones in the West. One of the most famous varieties would be Taicha No.18 from Sun Moon Lake, a.k.a. hongyu. When done right, this brew shines a sunset hue and has a hint of cinnamon and mint. The taste is a lot less in-your-face, and far less bitter. The delicate nature of Taicha No.18 does not pair it well with milk, as even gentle milk overshadows the taste of the tea. You would be basically drink milk with a bit of tea instead of the other way around. Another popular variety is Honey Black Tea (mixiang hongcha). As indicated by its name, it has a fruitier taste with a hint of honey. It is stronger than Taicha No.18, and goes better with milk and, if necessary, sugar.
Oolong Tea (photo credit: www.levertthe.com)
Taiwan is most famous for its oolong tea, which has been sold to all over the world. The most-known variety would be Oriental Beauty (dongfang meiren). It is said that when it was first served to the Queen of the UK, the Queen saw the tea leaves dancing like ballet dancers and hence its name. The story might be lacking in credibility, but the tea is certainly not lacking in taste. This variety of orange brew is more oxidized than average, with the levels around 60%. This might be the reason why it has been more popular in Europe, as the taste is more familiar to Europeans, unlike some other less oxidized oolong varieties. Milky Oolong (jinxuan) is also a well-known variety from Taiwan. It is less oxidized with the levels around 30%. Its signature, of course, is its milky, even coconutty taste. The brew is golden and smooth, sometimes with a hint of flower.
With the oxidation lowering down to around 10%, Pouchong from Muzha also stands among the popular oolong varieties from Taiwan.
Pouchong Tea (photo credit)
Since it is a lot less oxidized, its brew is lighter with its color landing between light yellow and light green. The lighter oxidation gives it a refreshing taste and brings out its fragrance, but the aftertaste that steals the show. If you want something fancy, High Mountain Tea could be your thing. High mountain tea however is not a variety. It is just a term for tea leaves grown in high mountains, so you can actually find many different tea varieties made using high mountain tea leaves. Due to the higher quality, the prices also soar, and the oxidation levels stay around 30%. This way, the true taste of the tea leaves is retained.
Green tea ia a far less common product in Taiwan. The most cultivated variety is Biluochun from Sanxia. As green tea is unoxidized, it is important to brew it with lower temperature around 80°C so that the bitterness is contained and the original taste is displayed. Biluochun has a grassier flavor than oolong or black tea, and might even have a beany taste to it, depending on the grower. It is indeed nice to walk around with a bubble tea in your hand but it is also quite the experience to take your time, sit down, brew some tea yourself and have it the traditional way. Here is the guide to where this ancient practice can be enjoyed: (tourmeaway.com/blog/culture/TeaCulture). If you slow down a bit, all the details hidden in your tea brew might surprise you and do more than quench your thirst.