This is Part 2 of Getting To Know Taiwanese Tea.
Common Teas in Taiwan
Now, let’s check out some of the most 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!
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.
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
Type: Green oolong (low oxidation)
Common names: High mountain oolong, high mountain tea, gaoshan, specific mountain names like Alishan, 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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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”.
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.
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.
Till next time!