The Tea Curious Blog

Little Island, Big Tea Game: The Guide To Taiwanese Tea

RIE TULALI | 14 MIN READ

TEA PROFILES

Taiwan is one of the world's most famous tea growing regions, and with friendly yet flavorful teas like Oriental Beauty and high mountain oolong, it's a place you don't want to miss in your tea study and collection.

Illustration of Taiwan

It's no secret: here at Tea Curious, we freaking LOVE Taiwan and its teas. The first tea I really fell in love with was a Taiwanese oolong (and not just in lust, a la Silver Needle), and 10+ years has only served to grow my love for this incredible tea region.

I've since visited Taiwan 5 times over the last few years to study tea, and while I'm still no expert in the subject, here's everything you need to know to start exploring this kickass origin.

  • Taiwan 101: What Makes Taiwan So Special
    -Geography & Terroir
    -Tea Culture
  • Common Teas in Taiwan

What Makes Taiwanese Tea Special?

To understand the tea, first you need to understand the place. But for some reason, Taiwan is a place that often flies under the radar of both tourists and tea lovers. Not only is it freaking gorgeous there and almost divinely designed for good tea growing, it's also chock full of tea culture and appreciation.

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that tea is intertwined with Taiwan's national identity, and while not everyone drinks tea on a day-to-day basis there it's certainly a point of pride and you can't leave Taiwan without a souvenir of high mountain tea to take home.

Some other signs of Taiwan's unique love affair with tea include:

  • Official tea competitions, held every growing season to test the skills of local tea producers
  • The existence of actual tea museums, dedicated to tea culture and awareness
  • City blocks with three or more tea shops on the same corner

That count includes bubble tea shops of course, since bubble tea (also known as boba tea) first originated in Taiwan in the 1980s and is still the de facto national drink.

OK, you get the point. Taiwan loves tea -- but so do the British, right? What makes them different?

What's special about Taiwan is that its tea fanatic population lives virtually alongside its tea gardens, which represent some of the most diverse but accessible areas in the world. Tea is produced almost everywhere in Taiwan, from the hills surrounding cosmopolitan Taipei to misty, high mountain gardens over 1400 meters in elevation or higher.

Modern, bustling cities hug the coasts and central valleys, as much of the land area is covered by verdant forests and misty, mountainous terrain. It’s not uncommon for city folk to spend their weekends enjoying Taiwan’s beautiful natural environment, which is easy to do, as the Taiwan High Speed Rail can take you north to south of the island in just over 2 hours.  

Picture of nature in Taiwan

It’s not just the local people who enjoy Taiwan’s natural environment, either. The conditions are a dream come true for tea plants! The tea plant enjoys tropical & subtropical places with lots of rain and sunshine, and rich, well-draining soils. Taiwan fits the bill perfectly. Taiwan’s sunny, fertile valleys produce teas of surprising strength and warmth, while the misty high mountains produce teas of wonderful complexity.

The Taiwanese tea industry also strikes a rare balance between tradition and technology. Tea has been made here since the 1800s, so some families have generations of experience making tea. In the tea factories, you’ll find teamakers combining age-old withering techniques with incredibly precise, semi-automated processes for rolling and drying the tea. There are even research institutions dedicated to supporting the cultivation and crafting of tea, so tea farmers can stay up-to-date with the latest tools. When done well, Taiwanese tea has the clean, consistent polish of modern tea processing, and the irreplaceable passion of traditional, artisanal crafting.

Picture of tea plants, misty in the background

A tea lover’s dream come true...

If you ever visit Taiwan, you’ll be surprised at how many tea shops, tea houses, tea museums, and tea gardens you’ll find there. It’s a tea lover’s dream come true!

In Taiwan, it feels like there's tea in every nook and cranny. Also, it's as if everyone knows at least a little bit about tea. Even the school kids. At school, children are taught to taste and serve tea, and to appreciate tea culture. (Read more about tea in schools from Xinhua News, here.) When I was visiting one of the tea museums, I was shocked to find school children on a school trip there, checking out the tea history exhibits. And honestly? They were pretty stoked for 4th graders on a tea trip. (I wish we could have gone to a tea museum in elementary school!)

Illustration from a Taiwanese Tea Museum of people having tea

Wall art I found at the museum. I feel this captures how much people love tea in Taiwan. I mean, look at those happy faces!

1970s tea display in tea museum

A display at a Taiwanese tea museum.

Anyway, with an awesome tea culture like that and the perfect conditions for making good tea, you bet Taiwan produces some world-class stuff!

It's worth exploring Taiwan, a place that's as iconic in the tea world as France and Italy are for the wine world. It can take a lifetime to explore everything Taiwan has to offer, but even for a tea novice, Taiwanese teas are a great place to start. Super likeable, approachable, and surprisingly affordable, I'm sure you'll find something to love in these teas. 

Next, let’s take a look at some of Taiwan’s most common teas, so you have an idea of what to expect, and so you can shop for them with more confidence.

Common Teas in Taiwan

When you start shopping for Taiwanese tea, you might run into teas like ginseng oolong, osmanthus oolong, or milk oolong. These are flavored or blended teas, with additional ingredients added to the tea. Let’s skip those for now, and go straight to the good stuff - the pure teas.

While I still enjoy flavored teas once in a while, if you really want to get to know the tea, unflavored tea is the way to go!  

The most common type of Taiwanese tea is oolong, so it’s no surprise that 4 out of the 5 teas on this list are oolongs. However, Taiwanese teamakers are beginning to branch out more, so I’ve also included a Taiwanese black tea as well. I’m sure you’ll find something to like!

1. Baozhong

image of baozhong dry tea, next to a cup of brewed baozhong

Type: Green oolong (low oxidation)

Common names: Baozhong, Pouchong, Wenshan Baozhong

Profile: Mild, flowery, vegetal, refreshing

With a light, refreshing flavor and a flowery fragrance, Baozhong is the lightest of Taiwan’s oolongs. In a nutshell, oolong tea is the range of teas between green and black tea, right? As far as oolongs go, Baozhong is as close as a green tea as it gets. (Need a refresher on the tea types? Check out A Quick Guide to The 5 Tea Types.)

I find that Baozhong is a great tea for everyday drinking, thanks to its affordable price. It’s also very easy to brew, and makes delicious cold-brew tea. If you enjoy light, floral flavors, you’ll probably enjoy Baozhong. Also, if you like green teas but dislike how finicky they can be to brew, Baozhong is a great option, as it has a similar, refreshing flavor but is rarely as bitter.

Shopping Tips: When you’re shopping for Baozhong, look for both “Baozhong” and “Pouchong”. Both are the same tea with the same Chinese characters in the name, just written in a different way in the English alphabet. You might also find “Wenshan Baozhong”, which simply refers to the area where the tea was produced.

image of three grades of baozhong next to each other

Nowadays, most Baozhong on the market will be light, flowery oolongs with no roast. However, just a few decades ago, Baozhong was a darker tea, made with a higher oxidation and added roast. This dark style of Baozhong still exists today, but is quite uncommon. You can also find aged baozhong, which has been stored over time, and develops deep, fermented fruit flavors. Aged Baozhong is relatively uncommon, too. We’ll cover aged Baozhong and other aged teas in a future post.

For the most part, you’ll find the modern, greener style of Baozhong on the market. So if you enjoy mild, refreshing teas and floral flavors, Baozhong might be a good choice for you.

2. High Mountain Oolong

picture of high mountain dry tea, next to a cup of brewed tea

Type: Green oolong (low oxidation)

Common names: High mountain oolong, high mountain tea, gaoshan, specific mountain names like Alishan, Yushan, Lishan, Shan Lin Xi

Profile: Complex, buttery, floral, fruity 

True to their name, high mountain oolongs are grown in Taiwan’s misty, high elevation areas. To be classified as a high mountain tea, the tea must be grown at least 1,000m - 1,200m (3,300 - 3,900ft) above sea level, or around 3,300 - 3,900 ft. The specific minimum elevation is up for debate, but really, it’s not so much about the exact number on the altitude meter, but about the extreme growing conditions up there. On the bush, these teas get lots of sun in the morning, a blanket of mist in the afternoon, and cold, damp nights. As a result, the tea grows more slowly, but with thick, tender leaves.

I’ve experienced this difference for myself, after handling tea plants in different places around Taiwan. The high mountain plants definitely feel softer and thicker than their low elevation cousins. I’ve also heard that the tea releases different, flavorful compounds to protect itself from the extreme conditions, but I couldn’t verify that just by hanging out with the plants. I’m no chemist, either, so if you know a source for this, let me know!

Whatever it is, high mountain teas have so much going on. They can be soft, creamy, and smooth, while also lively, tasty, and sweet at the same time, with notes that hint at the natural environment where the tea was grown. Different mountains will yield slightly different teas, too - some regions produce savory and buttery high mountain teas, while others are more fruity and fragrant. I love trying different ones! It’s interesting to taste each different mountain, and find your own favorite.

 

Shopping Tips: When shopping for high mountain oolong, you’ll usually find them with the name of their respective mountains. Some common ones are Alishan, Lishan, and Shan Lin Xi, but if you find other regions, like Yushan and He Huan Shan, don’t hesitate to try them. They can offer teas of a similar quality, but at a cheaper price than the famous regions. 

Just PLEASE promise me one thing, though - skip the big name tea shops, and go straight to a reputable local shop or online vendor for your high mountain tea. There’s just way too much overpriced, low-quality, or even fake high mountain oolong out there.

Because the tea grows so slowly in the mountains, and there’s not as much real estate for tea gardens, there’s not enough supply to meet the demand. So, it’s not uncommon for tea from the surrounding valleys and foothills to be sold as “high mountain” for a higher price, or for Taiwanese companies to import Vietnamese or Thai oolong as a replacement. There aren’t any regulations preventing this from happening, so buyer beware.

Four grades of high mountain oolong, dry leaves and brewed tea

Four Taiwanese high mountain oolongs... or is it? From left to right: Alishan, Alishan, Lishan, Shan Lin Xi. I think the first Alishan is low quality, possibly fake. The other three look like good examples of high mountain tea.

grades of high mountain oolong, quality of brewed leaves shown

Two teas, both purchased as "Alishan High Mountain". The tea on the right looks like good high mountain. The tea on the left has very broken leaves and flat taste, which leads me to think it's either very low quality or fake.

Your best bet is to buy from reputable vendors only, preferably tea shops that specialize in Taiwanese tea, or in small-batch single-origin teas. Yes, it’s important to buy from trusted sources for ANY tea, but high mountain can cost a pretty penny, and I want you to have a good experience with it. Also, not all high mountain oolongs are created equal: even the “authentic” ones can be either great or terrible. So, why not ask an experienced tea friend to recommend a specific batch for you to try? 

3. Dong Ding

picture of dong ding, dry leaves and brewed tea

Type: Green oolong (low-medium oxidation / often roasted)

Common Names: Dong Ding, Tung Ting, Frozen Peak

Profile: Sweet, satisfying, nutty, flowery

 

Dong Ding is one of Taiwan’s most well-loved teas. It’s a classic favorite, thanks to its warm, strong, and satisfying character. Just a few decades ago, Dong Ding was just as trendy as high mountain oolong is today, but in recent years it’s become a bit underrated. The current market preference is for lighter teas, like Baozhong and high mountain oolong.

That’s good news for you, though, because Dong Ding is wonderfully affordable right now. It’s an excellent value for the level of quality you’ll usually get, especially if you enjoy warm, sweet, and comforting flavors. (Count me in, too!) Dong Ding is easy to drink and satisfyingly delicious.

The satisfying taste comes from good leaf material, harvested from the famous Dong Ding area. This area is considered low elevation, at only 600-800m, but it’s in a state of constant, beautiful thick mist, which keeps the tea leaves pretty tender. As a result, you kind of get the best of both worlds with Dong Ding - some of the complexity of a high mountain tea, and a some of the bold character of low elevation tea.

The delicious taste also comes from the roasting style for this tea, which, in my experience, brings out a distinct nutty and flowery flavor in the tea. There are tea competitions held in Lugu, where Dong Ding is located, to evaluate the teas made by local teamakers and roasters. Thousands of people enter the contests, which happen every harvest season. It’s a testament to the skill needed to even make this stuff.

One thing I’ve noticed is that experienced Taiwanese tea drinkers like Dong Ding most of all. I can see why, as the tea has a classic, “timeless” taste that is hard not to like. How can you not like something so sweet, floral, nutty, and satisfying?

Shopping Tips: When you’re shopping for Dong Ding, look for both “Dong Ding” and “Tung Ting”. Remember the “Baozhong”/“Pouchong” thing for Baozhong oolong? It’s the same situation here, with the exact same Chinese characters but different spelling in the English alphabet. You might also find “Frozen Peak”, which is just a translation of “Dong Ding”.

You’ll find both roasted and unroasted versions of Dong Ding pretty easily. It’s worth trying both, as the price is usually very reasonable, and the two versions taste pretty different. You might also find aged Dong Ding, which is worth a try from a reliable vendor.  

three different grades of dong ding, dry leaves and brewed tea

3 different Dong Ding oolongs. Left: unroasted Dong Ding. Center: roasted Dong Ding. Right: 2006 aged & roasted Dong Ding.

Like high mountain oolong, demand for Dong Ding exceeds supply. This is because the actual Dong Ding area is pretty small, so it’s super, super common for tea in the surrounding areas to be passed off as Dong Ding. Many of those “fakes” can be pretty tasty, to be honest! But as a tea buyer, you deserve to buy exactly what is advertised on the label, and to experience each different type of tea in its authentic form. So, please rely on a trusted vendor for Dong Ding! You’ll only benefit from their experience with this classic tea.

4. Oriental Beauty

image of oriental beauty tea, dry leaves and brewed tea

Type: dark oolong (high oxidation)

Common names: Oriental Beauty, Dong Fang Mei Ren, Eastern Beauty, Bai Hao Oolong, White Tip Oolong, Champagne Oolong

Profile: Honey, fruity, malty, fragrant

Dark, elegant, and deep, Oriental Beauty is as close as an oolong gets to being a black tea. It has with a high oxidation, and usually has little to no roast. There’s something that makes Oriental Beauty pretty special, though. Oriental Beauty is traditionally produced in the summer, when insects are most abundant…

Wait, insects? What’s this about??

Well, the classic taste of Oriental Beauty can only be achieved with tea leaves that have been bitten up by lots of tiny insects, called leafhoppers.

It’s a good thing, I promise. When the tea plants get bitten up, they release compounds as a stress reaction, which gives the tea a “muscatel” note. I’ve never had muscat grapes before, so I don’t know what "muscatel" should taste like, but in my experience the good, bug-bitten Oriental Beauty has a distinct bright, sweet, honey and fruit note that you won’t find anywhere else. I imagine that’s the “muscatel” note. 

That note is only there when the leafhoppers bite the tea leaves. If those insect bites aren’t there, the muscatel note goes away. There are definitely lots of “Oriental Beauty” teas out there that are delicious in their own right, but that lack that distinct note, as not all gardens can be guaranteed a leafhopper visit…

Whether bug-bitten or not, Oriental Beauty teas are delicious to try, and can be a nice gateway tea for black tea drinkers into oolong teas. They are sufficiently dark, flavorful, and bold to satisfy people who might not enjoy the light taste of Baozhong or high mountain. Oriental Beauty is also usually quite complex, with a lot of different flavors and aromas going on, which I always enjoy in a tea!

Shopping Tips: Oriental Beauty is a tea that goes by many names - it’s commonly sold as Dong Fang Mei Ren (Eastern Beauty), Champagne Oolong, and Bai Hao Oolong (Silver Tip) in the West. They are all the same tea. Unfortunately, none of these names will tell you whether or not the tea has the bug-bitten note. Also, as far as I know, there's no way to tell from the leaves alone if the tea is bug-bitten or not. 

three grades of oriental beauty, dry leaves and brewed tea

Three Oriental Beauty teas. The tea leaves and liquor look pretty similar, don't they? However, only the tea on the right had the "muscatel" note.

The whole bug bite thing is pretty famous, so many vendors will just throw in that bit of story for the sake of marketing. I noticed that, when the Oriental Beauty really is bug-bitten, the owner is often proud to share very specific details about that harvest, like the amount of leafhoppers that came that year, the specific tasting notes, et cetera. When in doubt, just email them and ask.

I can’t tell you how to taste for the classic Oriental Beauty note, but you can teach yourself! Pick up a few different Oriental Beauty teas, including one or two from a vendor that can confirm that your specific batch was bug bitten. Then, brew the teas together and compare - there should be ones that stand out with a distinct, lively bright fruity note, while the others are a little more toned down and balanced. It’s a fun practice to develop your palate, and your library of flavors over time. 

Occasionally, you can find aged Oriental Beauty, which have a delicious fermented taste. I didn’t have any to photograph here, but in my experience, they actually look pretty similar to fresh Oriental Beauty, except the leaves are a little darker and smaller, due to the effects of age. Maybe if you’re REALLY lucky, you’ll find an aged leafhopper inside your tea, too...

5. Ruby 18

image of Ruby 18, dry leaves and brewed tea

Type: black tea

Common names: Ruby 18, Ruby Red, Ruby Black, Hong Yu, Hong Yu 18, Red Jade, Sun Moon Lake Ruby Black

Profile: Fruity, malty, cherry, menthol  

 

While Taiwan specializes in oolong tea, it offers some kickass black teas as well. Thanks to Taiwan’s unique growing conditions, Taiwanese black teas taste very different from black teas you may have tried from other regions, like India, Sri Lanka, or China. Taiwanese black teas are often bold and flavorful, but with the classic smooth, fruity, and fragrant Taiwanese character. 

Perhaps the most famous of these is Ruby 18 a modern black tea that was developed with the help of the Taiwan Tea Research Extension Station (TRES). Remember those institutes dedicated to researching tea? Yeah, this is where Taiwan’s modern approach to tea pays off, because Ruby 18 wouldn’t have been possible without it.

 Ruby 18 is named after the #18 cultivar, “Hong Yu”, which was developed by TRES specifically for black tea. “Cultivar” stands for “cultivated variety”, and in this case, Ruby 18 is a cross between the bold, malty Assam tea plant, and the native Taiwanese tea plant, Camellia formosensis.

Unlike the true tea plant, Camellia sinensis, you can’t actually make tea from Camellia formosensis, but it lends its awesome, menthol and herbaceous flavors to the bold, malty taste of Assam to create a super interesting, complex tea. If you like black tea, or if you like the idea of super interesting flavor profiles, then Ruby 18 is a great tea to try. You can brew it smooth and sweet, or bold and robust, depending on your mood and preference.

Shopping Tips: When shopping for Ruby 18, you might find it as many other similar-sounding names, like Ruby #18, Ruby Red, Ruby Black, Hong Yu, Hong Yu 18, and Red Jade. They are all the same tea. “Hong Yu” is the Chinese name for the tea, and literally means "Red Jade". 

Grades of ruby 18, dry leaves and brewed tea

Two Ruby 18 black teas from Taiwan. The leaves have the characteristic jet black, twisted shape for Ruby 18. Look at that pretty tea color!

Be careful when the term “Sun Moon Lake” comes up. There is a lot of Ruby 18 grown in the famous Sun Moon Lake region, so it’s often included in the name of the tea. That is fine. However, there are other Taiwanese black teas grown in Sun Moon Lake too, and simply labeled as "Sun Moon Lake Black". This may or may not be Ruby 18, so be sure to confirm! Of course, the other Taiwanese black teas are great too, but I just want to make sure that no one tries to sell you something that’s mislabeled or confusing.

In summary…

If you like light, refreshing, grassy, and flowery teas, try Baozhong.

If you like soft, complex teas, try High Mountain.

If you like warm, sweet, comforting teas, try Dong Ding.

If you like dark, fruity, honeyed teas, try Oriental Beauty.

If you like bold, fruity, and complex teas, try Ruby 18.

(Even better, if you like tea, you should just try them all!)

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for advice from a trusted vendor or experienced tea friend. It’s always more fun to learn together!

Now, you should have all the info you need to just pick a tea, and get started. There are other details you might encounter like cultivar and season that might be confusing, but don't worry. We'll cover these in a future post, and those details are pretty subtle. So for now, just go taste some teas! This information is here for you to reference, but the most important thing is to actually taste the tea, and enjoy. 

Illustration from a Taiwanese Tea Museum of people having tea

We can only hope to be like those happy tea people...

Till next time! 

Rie

A picture of the author

About the Author

Hey there, I'm Rie and I'm a professional tea nerd. I share the techniques and strategies we've used to seriously level up our tea game so you can get super confident with tea too!