Here's a simple guide that defines and categorizes Taiwan's unroasted Oolong Tea in a way that will help you find your "cup of tea".
The cryptic English spellings of the most famous tea names in Taiwan are one of the following:
The majority of unroasted Oolong Tea types fall under the first category of place names— Alishan High Mountain Oolong, Shan Lin Xi High Mountain Oolong, Li Shan High Mountain Oolong, Da Yu Ling High Mountain Oolong, and Wenshan Baozhong Tea.
Three popular names of Taiwan Tea fall under the second category of (hybrid) cultivar names— Jin Xuan Oolong, Tsui Yu Oolong, and Four Seasons Spring Oolong Tea.
Here's the tricky part. Processing methods can vary from harvest to harvest within a given region, and also using any given cultivar. In other words, it's possible to make Green Tea, White Tea, (all kinds of) Oolong Tea, and Black Tea from any cultivar, and from any regional origin. But among our unroasted Oolong Teas, we only need to distinguish one by its processing method, and that is Wenshan Baozhong Tea.
Wenshan Baozhong is both a place name and a particular processing method. Baozhong Tea has historical roots dating back to the 19th century in the Wenshan region just north of Taipei City. The Chinese name Baozhong simply means "wrapped type", as this tea was traditionally (and skillfully) wrapped in a paper packaging. It is an Oolong in that it is partially oxidized, but it has kept its simple name that comes from a local tradition.
OK, now we know where these tea names come from, but what do they mean in terms of flavor and character? Well, let's take a deeper look into what comprises these three categories.
The two most significant aspects of what the place names refer to here are geographic location and altitude. In Taiwan, the name High Mountain Tea classifies as any tea that is grown at 1000m elevation or higher.
Alishan is the southernmost High Mountain Tea producing region. This latitude offers both more direct and more abundant sunshine annually. The altitudes of the majority of tea farms in this region are 1000-1400m, with the highest farms at around 1600m.The climate conditions in this environment produce a milder, sweeter flavor profile with distinctly floral notes.
Heading north, Shan Lin Xi is the next High Mountain Tea producing region we reach. The geography and climate here are significantly different from the Alishan region. Tea gardens range from 1200-1900m elevation, and the environment has a much more "high alpine forest" feel. The steep forested slopes provide less sun, more fog, and cooler temperatures. This all adds up to producing a character of tea with a forest essence. It offers a tea with deep, green-leafy and pine notes, with a more full-flavored nutty character.
Continuing north, we reach the highest elevation tea growing region in Taiwan, which boasts the most renowned place names of Li Shan and Da Yu Ling. At altitudes above 2000m and geographically located in a mountain range with climate conditions that have proven to be the most ideal for High Mountain Oolong Tea production — in the world, it takes the crown. The produce from well managed tea gardens in this region, combined with skillful processing, makes the best unroasted High Mountain Oolong Tea available on the market. When minimally oxidized, the leaves offer a fresh green flavor profile with heady floral notes. Slightly more oxidation of the leaves result in a balanced, subtle fruity aroma with a rich, balanced profile that offers a purity of character that sets it apart. The substance of flavor and texture of high quality Lishan and Da Yu Ling High Mountain Tea are truly unsurpassed.
Two of the most renowned hybrid strains that were designed and promoted by Taiwan's Tea Research and Extension Station are Jin Xuan and Tsui Yu cultivars.
Jin Xuan Oolong / Tai Cha #12
Jin Xuan is often called "Milk Oolong" due to its distinctly buttery or milky notes in the flavor profile. It has a mild vegetal character with a smooth, buttery texture and aroma that makes it a friendly introduction to unroasted Oolong Tea.
Tsui Yu Oolong / Tai Cha #13
Tsui Yu literally means "blue/green jade", and is often translated as Jade Oolong. This hybrid cultivar is known for its distinct herbal/floral character and prominent aromatic qualities. It offers fresh, green, savory notes that set it apart from other strains of unroasted Oolong Tea.
Wenshan Baozhong Tea is the only one of our unroasted Oolong Tea selections that is distinguished by its processing methods. And the most prominent aspect of processing that distinguishes the character of this tea is that it is not tightly rolled like all of the other types mentioned above. There is something about maintaining the natural integrity in the leaf by only gently curling the leaves as they are dried that offers a deep green vegetal quality with a well-rounded complex character that is unmatched.
This is what has kept Baozhong Tea in demand and alive in Taiwan's modern tea industry. It offers a fresh vegetal character with substance and balance, followed by a heady lingering aftertaste. It really does stand alone in the unroasted Oolong Tea category. Baozhong Tea is produced in the northernmost tea growing region, above Taipei, in the Wenshan/Pinglin mountainous area. This north-island environment offers plentiful rainfall, at altitudes of 500-800m.
Here's a list of the tea names that we discussed, all of which are types unroasted Oolong Tea, and are designated by place name, cultivar, and/or processing method. Some quick flavor profile notes are included for quick reference. And if you want to see the detailed information on any or all of these teas, just click on the name of the tea below!
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We recently visited Mr. Liu when we hosted a visitor from Italy who was keen on experiencing the local tea culture. Our guest was truly elated to be served tea by a true artisan of the trade. Mr. Liu served us three different teas that were all locally harvested this past spring. They varied only in their degree oxidation and roasting. And the one that was sufficiently oxidized, but only lightly roasted, immediately impressed us.