Notes on Beautiful Black Teas from Taiwan (from the August 2020 Monthly Tea Club Insert)

October 03, 2020

If you’ve been drinking tea for a while, you probably are already aware that Taiwan is known for its stunning oolong teas. Their High Mountain Oolongs are ethereal, their Eastern Beauty is magical, their Wenshan Baozhong is joyful, and their Dong Ding Oolong is restorative. Over the last century, Taiwan has actually put a lot of work into upping their black tea game. This month’s tea club will explore a little bit about their black tea.

Taiwan was basically occupied by the Japanese from 1895 to 1945. During that time, the Japanese wanted to develop a black tea industry in Taiwan for two reasons: to reduce any competition between Taiwanese green tea and Japanese green tea and to increase tea production for export (export teas consisted primarily of black teas). After a period of trial and error with imported Chinese tea varietals, the Japanese colonial government (through the Black Tea Research Institute that they set up) began experimenting with growing and producing black tea they had imported from seed from Assam in northeast India.

These Assamese plants did really well in Taiwan (Nantou County), and the tea, called “East Sun Black Tea,” was a big hit. During the Japanese colonial period, native wild Taiwanese tea trees were also ‘rediscovered,’ and some black tea was made from those plants. That tea is called simply “Taiwan Mountain Tea” or “Shan Cha.” There isn’t much volume of this tea, so it was not really made commercially until very recently.

In 1945, the Japanese colonial government was kicked out, but the Tea Institute, now called TRES (Tea Reserach and Extension Station) continued their work of developing black teas (among other types). Two of their early works were the development of Assam #8 and Ruby #18, the former basically a more Taiwanese version of Assamica and the latter a very famous hybrid of that Taiwanese native wild tea tree I mentioned earlier and an assamica plant from either Burma or Yunnan (there is lack of agreement in the history). I mention these two, as they’re quite well known types of Taiwanese black tea, with Assam #8 being one of my desert island teas.

This month, we’re sending out two beautiful new Taiwanese black teas, 2020 Organic Golden Egret 17 and 2020 Green Heart Honeyed Black, plus a smaller amount of 2020 Assam #8 to round out the conversation.

2020 Organic Golden Egret 17 is from TRES #17, a cultivar from the TRES developed in 1983 for black tea, green tea, and Eastern Beauty Oolong. It is also known as Bai Lu 17. The tea itself is a rich, whole leaf (not broken leaf) black that I find particularly smooth and satisfying. It definitely has a honeyed quality to it that the growers in Taiwan refer to as ‘mi xiang,’ which is most prominent in Eastern Beauty oolong. It’s not as flashy as the Green Heart, but I find what it may lack in ‘flash and splash’ it makes up for in smooth body and comfortable drinking.

The 2020 Green Heart Honeyed Black is made from the Qing Xin cultivar, which (you’ll never guess!) was brought to Taiwan by the colonial Japanese government in the early part of their occupation (1895 ish). This varietal, originally from China, is used primarily for higher elevation oolong tea. It’s a bit of a fussy plant and is hard to grow, so consequently teas made from qing xin tend to be more expensive. I think you’ll probably be able to taste the oolong-style expressiveness of this tea. It’s truly beautiful, bright, and lively. This is definitely a ‘mi xiang’ tea.

The 2020 Taiwanese Assamica #8 is rich and somewhat dense, with the molasses and grain notes of Assam but with a smoother texture and less astringency. This is a tea we usually have on hand all year round, but I wanted to send a little bit for you to have as you have a month of exploring Taiwanese black tea.

In a couple of weeks, the 2020 Shan Cha arrives so I’ll be sure to include some of that in the September box.

For all of these teas, either western style/larger tea pot style steeping or gong fu style will work well.  I generally western steep my black teas because I like copius amounts of them in the morning and don’t have enough special attention to devote to gong fu cha at 7 am.

If you do gong fu steep these teas, they’re actually quite flexible. They could be flash steeped, steeped starting at around 25 seconds with subsequent steeps adding more time, or even steeped the first time at one minute. Play around and see what you like.