In this series of articles, I want to dive deeper into tea culture and its history. I will cover, in the next few weeks, all the largest tea growing countries. First of all, I want to talk about Taiwan, sometimes overlooked for its tea production. It’s overlooked because it’s a smaller country and dishes out less tea than most other tea producing regions. For my first article on Taiwan, I want to touch base on its history, and how it got to its modern tea culture that we know and love today. In my second article, I will talk about the specifics of modern taiwanese tea culture (Growing regions, cultivars used, tea types, unique characteristics of taiwanese tea, and processing) Let’s get started.
Taiwan is a small island located 150km away from the south east chinese coast. It’s safe to say that China heavily influenced Taiwanese tea culture, but the story is a bit more nuanced than what it seems.
Taiwan was first named Formosa by the Portuguese in 1590, which means ‘’the beautiful’’. The island is fairly small, with high mountains. That’s why taiwanese tea was called and sometimes stille called ‘’Formosa’’ tea. The island passed through many hands in the 16th and 17th century. It was under Portugese, British, and Dutch control at some point in this time period. Although, the Duch are known to have developped and grew tea commerce on the island before it came back under chinese control in 1683. Following the connexion to mainland China, chinese immigrants started flowing to Taiwan, especially from Fujian province, known for its oolong production (Rock oolong and Anxi Tie Guan Yin). These immigrants brought their expertise in tea cultivation. Later, tea was planted in the north, near Taipei, and in the central region of Nantou.
During the second half of the 19th century, Europeans noticed the growing tea industry from Taiwan. They financed technological advancement, to better equip Taiwanese farmers so they could process their teas entirely in Taiwan. Leaves were often sent to China for further processing.
From 1895 to 1945, the tea production in Taiwan was focused more on black tea, to provide for the european market. The Japanese contributed to the Taiwanese tea culture as well. They brought in machines to process the tea, which means faster and more lucrative tea production.
At the end of World War II, China took back control of Taiwan. During that time, Taiwan focused its production on green tea dedicated to export.
During the 70s, Taiwanese exportation died down and the tea produced couldn’t sold. The Taiwanese government was forced to intervene to stimulate the local market. The tea production switch mostly to oolongs, which Taiwanese people enjoyed a lot.The industry focused on quality rather than quantity. The government even launched tea education initiatives (Museums, Competitions, Fairs).
Most of the tea produced nowadays in Taiwan is locally consumed. Although, Taiwan imports 3 times more tea than it exports. Even the 18 % tax on imported tea does not stop this phenomenon.
Since the 90s, Taiwan plays an important role in the Pu Erh market. There is a lot of Pu Erh collector on the island. It’s known to have a great storage climate. If you keep an eye open on the market, there is such a thing as ‘’taiwan stored’’ Pu erh.
Taiwans tea industry is based on small tea farms. There is about 30 000 tea farmers on the island, which most of them are family based company who are rather small in terms of labor force.
Lower competition on the tea market in Taiwan made producers focus on the quality of their craft, rather than the quantity of tea pushed out. Tea farmers are prouder of the product they make. Some of them submit one of their teas to competitions where they are examined and tasted by industry experts.
In my next blog post, I will touch on specifics about the tea culture in Taiwan : cultivars, regions, types of tea, characteristics of Taiwanese tea… And much more.