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EXPLORING TAIWANESE TEA THROUGH STYLE, CULTIVAR & TERROIR


Welcome Oolong & Taiwanese tea lovers!  This blog follows up from our Instagram Live session that focused on the diversity that exists in Taiwanese Oolong - we also touch on Taiwanese black tea here.  Join us as we explore TAIWANESE TEA THROUGH STYLE, CULTIVAR & TERROIR - a journey only possible due to the kindness of our partners in sharing so much of their knowledge with us in our exploration and travels around this topic.

Lets start by talking about Cultivars : The choice of cultivar is one of the elements the tea maker plays with when making any tea.  It is part of a mix of elements put together to deliver a specific result.  Putting our focus on Taiwan tradition often dictates the type of cultivar used.  Economics also play their part.  Some cultivars are simply more economical to grow in certain places for certain teas [as we explore below with Qing Xin : 青心 & TTES 12 [which is rarely grown above 1000m]]  Lets explore some of the more commonly known cultivars and the teas that they are used to make.  

CULTIVAR 1 : Taiwan Qing Xin Tea Cultivar : 台灣青心茶叶

Qing Xin : 青心

Meaning : emerald or green heart [a colour between green and blue]

This is a small leaf China Cultivar often chosen for high mountain teas and often referred to as 'King of the mountains' in Taiwan.  It is favoured because it has a thick leaf, grows slowly at high altitude and is highly aromatic.  This very expressive cultivar is suited to high mountains with a thicker leaf that grows at a slower pace offering a good yield for high mountain growers. 青心 gives a more expressive tea when grown at altitude.  This is in comparison to other cultivars which proliferate in lower areas but do not change dramatically or will simply not thrive if grown higher up.  If you put a low grown Qing Xin : 青心 next to a high altitude Qing Xin : 青心 you will notice a difference.  Both will certainly deliver floral notes but the higher grown will have more layers and intensity while the lower will have a shallower expressiveness 

Teas we sell from the Qing Xin : 青心 cutivar

1. Shan Lin Xi 

Terroir : Shibi, Yunlin County, Taiwan
Style : Shan Lin Xi
Cultivar : 
Qing Xin : 青心

The style : There are many 'rumours' out there about the meaning of Shan Lin Xi.  The area is in fact a specific ridge developed over the last 25 years by the Taiwanese government for high altitude tea growing.  Some people say it is 'the place where the river runs through the forest' but speak to tea growers in the area and many wont recognise what this refers to.  It has also been anglicised to 'sun link sea'.  If you take the highway to the area and go right to the end of the road you get to a National park - a beautiful area but it is questionable whether you can see the sea from there - it is more marketing to evoke an image in the mind : something commonly observed in the world of tea. 

The Cultivar : As discussed above this expressive cultivar is suited to high mountains with a thicker leaf that grows at a slower pace offering a good yield for high mountain growers.  Favoured for this tea due to its thick leaf which grows slowly at high altitude and is highly aromatic.

The Tea Maker : For Shan Lin Xi the skill of the maker is key.  The terroir and the cultivar will have a determined impact on the profile of the tea but to make well balanced fragranced of this type takes a very different skill set.  There are very small windows for withering and oxidation to get the desired result and the exuberant fragrance : over wither and you will lose the fragrance ; over or under oxidise and you will lose the fragrance and aroma.  Adjustments need to be made according to the weather and these adjustments can only be made by skilled tea makers.  It is said that tea makers have a 'signature' and can travel to other gardens and make teas which - to those who are familiar with the teas of this region - bear their trademark.

CULTIVAR 2 : TTES 12 Jin Xuan 金萱

Appearance : An oblong shaped leaf, slightly wider with well defined larger 'teeth' at the leaf edge.  

Meaning : This has no 'meaning' as such but is named after the famous director of TRES  who developed it in the 70s and 80s - one component is from his grandmothers name & one from his mothers.  He developed this cultivar to bring Taiwanese tea to a new level - he also developed the T-13 known as 'Jade oolong' but this is less known & harder to grow as it is more prone to pests.  

Alongside Qing Xin : 青心 TTES 12 Jin Xuan 金萱 is the most common cultivar for Dong Ding The most famous area for Dong Ding [LUGU Town] has yearly competitions for teas made from both of these cultivars. 青心 TTES 12 cultivar is actually a hybrid designed as an improvement on previous cultivars which performs well up to high altitudes.  However it is rarely found above 1000 or 1100 metres.  You would never, for example, find this in Lishan where it is >1800 metres.  The reason for this is economics.  As this delivers so well at low altitudes it makes little sense to make the effort to plant it high with all the additional risks this brings [temperature fluctuations /high costs].  

Teas we sell from the TTES 12 Jin Xuan 金萱

1. Taiwanese Hong Shui 'Red Water'

Terroir : Mei Shan, Jia Yi County
Style : Hong Shui style [see below]
Cultivar : 
TTES 12 Jin Xuan 金萱

The Style : Hong Shui  Developed around 20 years ago you could say that 'Hong Shui' is the 'maocha' or base tea used to make traditional Dong Ding. The name is simply a nice poetic way of presenting this tea rather than one with a real meaning - perhaps there is a nod to its fruity fragrant tones.  

Lets explore that further : Imagine that you start with TTES 12 Jin Xuan 金萱 as if you are going to make a Dong Ding.  Then allow the leaf to oxidise more than you would for a Dong Ding; finally bake to a lower baking programme to keep and enhance the fruity profile.   So....Hong Shui is more oxidised than the tea used to make Dong Ding.  This higher oxidation is then combined with a specific baking programme to deliver tea with complex fruity notes.  This is in contrast to the oxidation/baking combination for Dong Ding which is aiming for nuttier creamier notes.  

For this tea, unlike others in Taiwan there is no competition to establish standards.  There is no real story for this tea or for the history it is more of a name that appeared and is convenient to distinguish it from Dong Ding  'The consensus in Taiwan is that this tea is more fruity than Dong Ding - more refreshing, sweeter and not so complex'   

2. Dong Ding

Terroir : Nantou County
Style : 
Dong Ding
Cultivar TTES 12 Jin Xuan 金萱

The Style :  Whats in a name? Dong Ding is actually a small mountain next to which there is a lake.  When the first tea plants came from the North to the South in Taiwan they were first planted on the hillside that surrounded the lake.  The lake looks like a crater and has a lovely slope.  The plants were ‘oolong cultivar’ derived from Qing Xin : 青心 cultivar and coming from Fujian just before the Japanese regime in the late 1800s.

So back to Dong Ding mountain : some people refer to it as ‘snowy peak’ but in the local Taiwanese language it refers to how steep the slope is : meaning when you climb your knees knock against the side of the hill - if you stand next to the lake and look up at the hills it makes complete sense with the steep pitch.  It is very rural just a few houses and the tea garden.

So does all the Dong Ding come from Dong Ding Mountain?  Definitely not! Clearly if you see this space you would realise it is impossible.  Today it is a style of tea named after the hill.

The Style : Dong Ding is an oolong more oxidised in the ‘traditional fashion’ the key feature is that it is baked or roasted.  This technique came from China and was adapted, honed and refined as the Dong Ding  style teas became more appreciated.  The guiding light of Dong Ding style are the competitions held every year in LUGU town - this is the place that many of the tea makers have settled - there are no tea gardens just shops and factories.  The leaf is brought in - we are told often from as far afield as AliShan.  In this town there is an entity that controls what ‘Dong Ding ’ style is.  Tea can only be submitted by people that live in LUGU who are often buying in and finishing the tea. Qing Xin : 青心  is the preferred cultivar for the competition tea : TTES 12 Jin Xuan 金萱 is also used and there is a separate competition for these non Qing Xin : 青心 teas.

Traditional style vs Western Appetite : The Dong Ding we buy is a light baked tea which is popular in Europe.  Prize winning tea has a much deeper bake which is more nutty & complex.  And what about the method of baking?  Well these teas are now baked in modern tea ovens - charcoal baking, which was, long ago, the only method, is gradually disappearing - due to the environment, health etc.  We sell both the oven baked Dong Ding and a charcoal baked Dong Ding using sustainable wood endemic to the island.

3. Spring GABA

Terroir : Baguashan
Style :
 GABA Tea 
Cultivar :TTES 12 Jin Xuan 金萱

The style : GABA is a distinctive tea category - the different oxidation process and completely different chemical reaction leads us to question whether it should be a tea family by itself.  GABA is a tea making process and therefore you can use different cultivars, different approaches to oxygen deprivation and different levels of oxidation prior to placing the tea in the tank to yield different results.  You could, for example quickly wither the tea and place straight in the tank to deliver a green GABA - not an oolong. 

The tea maker : Mr Yu : One of the key factors - that is present in all tea making - is the skill of the tea maker.  For the GABA we purchase the leaf undergoes oxidation before it goes in the tank but the time in the tank must be adjusted by the tea maker dependent on the water content on the leaf and the conditions during withering etc.   

The Cultivar : The choice of this cultivar for GABA is a personal choice. TTES 12 Jin Xuan 金萱 makes a good GABA because it gives a creamy texture to whatever tea you make.  It has a nice ‘thickness’ to it.  The combination of the cultivar and a carefully calibrated vacuum oxidation really highlights this creamy finish - there is no ‘tartiness’ lie you may experience with a cultivar such as the Yuchi T18 [see below under black tea].  You can also see this characteristic in black teas made from Jin Xuan - a nice creamy finish.

CULTIVAR 3 : Si Ji Chun

Meaning : 'four seasons of Spring' - a tea that tastes as good as the Spring tea all the months of the year.  

This is the most important cultivar around the MingJian township area - the area with the highest concentration of growers and producers in Taiwan.  In fact when people think of this area they think of Siji Chun.  It is a fast growing cultivar and can sometimes yield up to 6-7 pluckings a year [although these types of yield may be linked to less favourable agricultural practices]  As it grows very quickly the leaf is thinner making the tea less suitable for gong fu brewing.  However it is flambouyant and fragrant meaning it has become very popular in the food and beverage industry especially for bottled teas.  This interest has brought a lot of big businesses to the tea communities here which has pushed the prices down.  With four season 'Si Ji Chun' teas being less expensive there is sometimes a snobbery labelling them as inferior - the reality is that the skill set needed to make these teas is the same as is needed to make LiShan at 2000m - Lishan however fetches 10 x more.  So although you may get greater complexity in the high mountain teas [because this is not guaranteed] it must also be remembered that the high cost is also attributable to the unpredictable nature of high mountain farming which deliver lower volumes .  The hands that make the tea and the processing skill is the same as these low mountain offerings.  This is all part of the ongoing conversation about tea and highlights the importance of transparency.  

Teas we sell from the Si Ji Chun cutivar

1. Taiwanese Shui Xian : Siji chun

Terroir : Ming Jian Township , Nantou
Style : Shui Xian style [see below]
Cultivar : 
Si Ji chun

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'Shui Xian' is also known as Water Sprite.  It is one of the famous teas of Wuyi Shan in Fujian.  Having spent many years in China tea maker YuWen has used her knowledge, experience and expertise to make a Taiwanese 'Shui Xian' using the local four seasons Si Ji Chun cultivar which is medium baked. 

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How did this Taiwanese Shui Xian come about? :  The first thing to note about this tea is that it is named in order to highlight the similar characteristics to the Chinese Shui Xian from Wuyi.  It is not intended as a 'copy' more a unique tea in its own right with recognisable characteristics.  

Why choose Si Ji Chun to make this tea :  There was no set intention of using Si Ji Chun for this style of tea.  The area around the baking unit [where the tea is finished] is known and famous for Si Ji Chun and the grower Mr Chen makes a really good twisted leaf Si Ji Chun.  Yu Wen [who bakes the tea] grew up watching how to make different types of Yancha - she knows Da Hong Pao and knew that a twisted leaf Si Ji Chun should deliver an interesting & similar profile.  This type of leaf cannot deal with a heavy bake - it is a thinner leaf [because it is a fast growing cultivar you can pluck up to 7 times a year]  So this tea is baked lightly just as Shui Xian would be to emphasise the sweetness and produce a creamy flowing tea with a flowering component and a hint of roasted nuttiness.   So we can conclude by saying that the intent is not to choose the cultivar in order to achieve an intended style of tea. It is more a question of highlighting the character of this cultivar through a skillful and well thought through tea making process that will be suitable for it and produce appealing characteristics. This answer is valid for GABA as well.  We could rename this tea but have chosen to keep the reference to Shui Xian.

2. Bao Zhong 

The Style : Meaning 'the wrapped kind' - the name comes from how this tea was sold and originally commercialised.  The original Bao Zhong came from the area around Taipei and its twisted fragrant leaf was sold wrapped in paper - a pile of fresh leaves were placed in the centre of the paper and wrapped by the shopkeeper.   This is a highly fragrant tea and requires a high level of skill to execute the technique which brings out the fragrant buttery tone Bao Zhong is known for.
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The tea maker :  Mr Chen makes an excellent twisted leaf Si Ji Chun perfect for Bao Zhong
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Some musings on Bao Zhong :  We are often also asked about hand plucking vs machine plucking.  Is this related to cultivars?  Again focusing on Taiwan our partners share with us that the 'plucking approach' is more often also based on economics & the perceived value of the tea in the customers eyes.  In the high mountain areas mechanically picking the teas would be very appealing (lower labour costs, plus consideration of the availability of pickers) but this method is seen to cheapen the teas in the buyers eyes.  The teas in these high mountain areas remains hand plucked but as we discuss below with four seasons Si Ji Chun teas each tea should be explored and enjoyed in its own right.
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In other areas of Taiwan - Wenshan being one - buyer pressure - [where in this case the buyer refers to the drinker rather than the 'merchant'] - has had an opposite effect on price and plucking method.   Wenshan is very close to Taipei so open to an influx of direct 'buyers' who hope to gain a better price by buying direct In order to match consumers price expectations machines have been bought in including the use of clippers which is now a standardized practice. Our friends tell us that this method is 'now compensated by an additional tea sorting step to clean out the stems at the end of the tea manufacturing process. A good tea sorting can make a mechanically harvested tea look like a hand picked one. Only expert eyes can detect whether it was mechanically sorted or not. This is why shrewd merchants in Wenshan are still trying to push to illusion that it is hand-picked to less knowlegeable buyers'.  Why share this?  To start an informed conversation and discussion - to ensure each tea is judged in its own merit rather than by the marketing that is perhaps put in place to elevate its value
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As my wise and generous friend Philip shared with me 'The world of tea is a world of variables and a world of stories to justify these variables' - it certainly makes for a fun ride for all of us exploring this fascinating plant 
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Preparing Taiwanese Oolong Teas

There are many ways to brew and drink Oolong teas, including pottery & porcelain or glass cups, larger teapots and of course the tea ceremony method.  The beauty of preparing oolong is that there are no 'set rules' : we offer an outline in the details of each tea and you can then adjust to your preference!  The information below was shared with us by the team at TRES and offers a useful introduction before you dive into the details for each tea.

Brewing with a big teapot from TRES  : For meetings or family consumption, a big teapot is usually used to prepare tea. This method is more practical according to the constant ratio used (volume of teas to water). The general standard ratio is one to fifty. Steep the tea for 5 to 6 minutes before serving. After pouring tea liquor into the serving pot and then drink the tea to enjoy the pleasant flavour & taste.

Brewing with tea ceremony from TRES  : The Chinese tea ceremony has its peculiarities and uniqueness. At first, you should have one set of tea utensils including teapot, teacups, tea bowl, tea boat, serving pot, tea towel and tea kettle etc. The proper way of brewing tea is introduced as follows : 

a. Use the tea scoop to take some of the tea from the tea canister to put into the teapot. The tea should fill 1/4 to 1/3 of the teapot's volume.  Don't add too much tea if the appearance of tea are tightly formed in semi-spherical or spherical shape

b. After pouring boiling water (mixing 75~80℃ water with green tea) into the tea pot, brew the tea for about one minute. After brewing, pour the tea liquors into the serving pot. In order to make tea liquor uniformly light or heavy in each drinking cup, the tea liquors should be swirled back and forth before it is poured into the cups. Some people firstly brew tea for few seconds and then pour the tea into tea cups and serving cup, and then dumped away without drinking it. That is for increasing the temperature of tea cups, teapot, and serving cup to promote the teas evaporating aroma. This process is called as "Warm and Moisture mixing". 

An Aside :
What about Taiwanese Black Tea?
 

Many of you asked this question after our Instagram live as we have the beautiful Yuchi Red Jade on our Tea House menu and website.  Thanks again go to the team at TRES for this chart showing the 'Tea Qualities of TTES no 7, 8 & 18' cultivars suitable for the production of black tea - you can see here the characteristics that contribute to the unique profiles in the teas they make.  Part of that 'recipe' we discussed earlier that, when combined with terroir and the expertise of the tea maker, has the opportunity to create huge diversity in the cup.  

Yuchi Red Jade Black Tea

Terroir : Near Sun Moon Lake, Yu Chi Township, Nantou County, Taiwan
Style : Yuchi Red Jade
Cultivar :
Red Jade T-18

The Cultivar : As stated on the TRES site :TRES has propagated and extended the new cultivar-TTES No. 18 since 1999 in Yuchi, and this tea smells like natural cinnamon and fresh mint and is popular among consumersThe TRES T-18 is in fact a hybrid from 2 cultivars - the endemic Camellia Formosensis the wild native species and the Burma B-729 X [var. Assamica]  variety, similar to what you may find in Yunnan. 

Preparing Taiwanese Black Tea :

Yuchi Red Jade tea requires a bit of concentration in the making - although the guidance below focuses on boiling water you can prepare it at a lower temperature 90 C in order to bring down the tannins and enjoy a layered experience.  The competition standard in Taiwan is 5.5g in 500ml at 90 C for 3 minutes in taster sets with boiling water.  [to achieve the temperature : the lack of preheating of the cups will bring the water down to 90 C]
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Back at home there are two main ways to brew black tea and the following overview guidance is from the team at TRES
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Teapot method : from the team at TRES

Step 1. Porcelain teapot and teacups are preferred : pre-heat them with hot water.
Step 2. Put about 3-5 gram of teas, depending on the tea type (referencing the following figure).


Step 3 : Add 360 ml 95-100℃ water.
Step 4 : Steeping time is around 3-5 minutes, depending on the tea types.
Step 5 : Take out infused leaves, then pour tea liquor into cups,

On the other hand, you also can choose

Chinese style brewing method :  from the team at TRES

Step 1 : Pre-heated the pot and cups with hot water.
Step 2 : Put teas, about 1/3-1/2 of the pot, into the pot.
Step 3 : Pour in hot water, 95-100℃, first brewing only need 30-40 seconds, pour into the teacup to maintain the thickness of the tea liquor.
Step 4. Then with each brewing, wait for 15-20 seconds more, and then drink. Each pot can brew 3-4 times.
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Thanks for joining us on this whistle stop tour through Taiwanese tea - we hope you enjoyed the journey and will soon be exploring this category more widely either at home or in the Tea House!  If you would like to explore Taiwanese Oolong more widely then here are a few ideas >> Explore Oolong >> Explore Oolong Tea Set



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