Every tea has a heritage that can be traced back to ancient China. Teas from Taiwan are no exceptions.
Taiwanese teas take on two cultural influences, one of its Chinese heritage and the other during five decades of Japanese occupation.
As early as the 17th century, there were records of wild tea trees grown in mountainous areas on the island. Though, it was not until tea makers and traders of Fujian China migrated to Taiwan in the 1800’s that started Taiwan’s journey in commercial tea cultivation and export.
In early 1800's, the teas grown in Taiwan were sent back to China for processing before it's ready for sale, mostly for export. A British merchant named John Dodd saw an opportunity to streamline the tea making process in Taiwan. He convinced tea makers from Fujian to move to Taiwan to establish processing facilities closer to the farms then export the finished teas directly out of ports of Taiwan. John Dodd marketed teas cultivated and processed in Taiwan under the name Formosa tea and started to export to New York in 1869.
Many of the tea makers came from Anxi or Wuyi mountain of Fujian, where some of the best oolongs in China were made. Therefore, the tea making knowledge and expertise of Taiwan was largely based on oolong tea making.
In 1895, Qing Dynasty of China lost Taiwan to the Japanese from the First Sino-Japanese War. The Japanese occupation (1895-1945) in Taiwan brought fundamental changes to Taiwanese tea industry, including modernized infrastructure, machinery for tea production, and new methods of farming and cultivation.
One is the most influential investments was scaling thee Taiwanese black tea production. Japanese built railroads and infrastructure to enable black tea production for export, as a supplement to their green tea market. This helped scale up the tea productivity on the island.
Their other main contribution was the establishment of the TRES (Tea Research Extension Station) in 1903, a government institute committed to the research, development and production of the Taiwanese tea industry. For over a century, the organization brought technological advancement and a scientific approach to tea making in Taiwan.
Political Influence and Technological Advancements
Post the Japanese occupation, Taiwanese teas began to differentiate itself from its Chinese ancestry onto a path of its own. The ultimate split between Taiwan and China from the civil war that ended in 1949 lead Taiwan onto a democratic political path, veering further away from the Chinese communist regime.
The political structure brought a open society to the citizens of Taiwan in all aspects of life, including tea. Under the leadership of TRES, Taiwan saw new tea cultivars, local tea competitions, improved techniques and methods for tea making. TRES is still the most influential organization supporting Taiwanese tea industry to this day, more than a century since its inception. More recently, they brought a sharper focus on tea consumption safety, organic farming and certification to elevate the quality and international status of Taiwanese teas.
From a global tea production lens, Taiwan is known as the darling tea region that produces the some of the best oolong teas in the world. Since the production volume is low (<1% of world's tea production) and prices are relatively higher, majority of its tea production is consumed domestically where 80% stays on the island and only 20% is exported.
Read more about Taiwanese teas and learn the top 10 most iconic styles here.