The year is 1980. Ronald Reagan was elected president, The Empire Strikes Back had just been released, and Dong Ding was at the top of the Taiwanese tea world. Before Da Yu Ling, before Lishan, before Shan Li Xi (all relatively new entities in tea), and even before Alishan, there was Dong Ding. Perched at an elevation above nearly all other tea-growing region in Taiwan, Dong Ding was literally at the top of the Taiwanese tea world. Feng Huang, a township within the traditional Dong Ding tea-growing region, housed one of the highest-elevation plantation in Taiwan (~1000 meters), that marked the modern-day equivalent of 105k Da Yu Ling. This very, very premium tea was processed with the utmost care by top Taiwanese tea farmers and roasters.
NOTE: Interestingly, the 1980s Dong Ding was processed much more differently than today’s high-mountain oolongs or even the majority of modern-day Dong Ding (more on this later).
However, like Dirk Diggler was famously brought down by the invention of television and his ego all with a not so healthy dose of cocaine, Dong Ding was not king for long. Dong Ding was brought down by Taiwanese farmers push up the mountains, along with it the advent of high-mountain teas and the trends of a new era. Tea from higher-elevations became increasingly popular and plantations began popping up first in Alishan and gradually upwards (Shan Li Xi itself is less than an hour from Dong Ding). These newer, high-elevation teas inevitably became more sought after and demanded than Feng Huang (Dong Ding) tea. In contemporary times, what used to be a relatively high-elevation is now dwarved by tea grown at over 2,500 meters, so much so that Dong Ding is not even really regarded as a high-mountain oolong. Dong Ding has also evolved considerably in this relatively short time span as it has both struggled to keep up with the times and reinvent itself. Modern day Dong Ding can still be a very good tea and ranks somewhere between the high-elevation teas and fast-growth teas (Jin Xuan, Si-ji, Cui Yu) in pricing.
A Short History Lesson
In the 1800s a Wuyi tea cultivar was taken across the water from Fujian (China) into Taiwan and more specifically Dong Ding Village. When exactly tea was first introduced to Taiwan is contentious but Dong Ding tea was certainly one of the first areas that tea was grown in Taiwan. Although it has continuously evolved and changed, fast-forward to present day and Dong Ding is still incredibly popular. Unlike high-mountain tea (the hype began in the 1980s) Dong Ding represents one of the most iconic and famous names in the tea business.
What is Dong Ding Tea Exactly?
Dong Ding is a tea-growing region so this seems like it should be an easy question. Yet tea nomenclature is often very confusing, and Taiwanese tea names are no exception. Dong Ding itself is both a village and a mountain yet tea marketed as Dong Ding tea is often from neither and occasionally not even from Taiwan! Dong Ding Mountain (literally Frozen Summit) is not a particularly high mountain, with its tea-growing region peaking at approximately 1,000 meters, making Dong Ding not a high-mountain tea (a common mistake). Located in Nantou County, the three townships nearby the mountain, Feng Huang, Yong Lung, as well as Dong Ding Village (all small villages) represent the center of the traditional Dong Ding area (source). As demand for Dong Ding tea has increased, the area has fanned further and further out, away from what originally constituted its core.
NOTE: Lugu Township is another name commonly associated with Dong Ding tea.
Premium & Traditional(ish) Dong Ding, Hong Shui
The premium Dong Ding of the 1980s. In its premium days, a high amount of care was put into the production of Dong Ding tea. The ultra-green style of today’s top-shelf oolongs was not as common and premium Dong Ding teas were commonly processed as Hong Shui (literally Red Water) Oolongs. It is important to note that Hong Shui is not a cultivar (Chin-hsin is) but a style/processing method with a couple key characteristics:
1. An oxidation that is stronger than the the light oxidation of today’s high mountain Oolongs. However, it also shouldn’t be too oxidized (like an Oriental Beauty, for instance).
2. The leaves should receive a long and slow roasting that intensifies and refines their flavors while retaining the freshness of the leaves. The roast should not leave a burned taste or make the dry leaves unable to open up. (EDITOR’S NOTE: This roasting should bring out a delicious sweetness)
A few things should be noted for this now aged version of Hong Shui Dong Ding. Aged, rolled oolongs from the 80s (and earlier) will have a looser roll. This is due to the tea both initially being given a looser roll as well as the roll inevitably loosening up over time. Hong Shui is an older and not particularly trendy tea/processing style. As a result it is not commonly sold by many western-facing vendors. Hong Shui is not synonymous term with Dong Ding tea and it can be used as a way to describe many (even high-mountain!) different types of teas. Due to its heavier oxidation and roast, it is also a great tea to age.
Contemporary Styles of Dong Ding
In today’s oftentimes treacherous online marketplace, tea marketed as Dong Ding has come to stand more for the style of the tea the location itself. What is this Dong Ding style? There are two types of teas commonly marketed as Dong Ding in today’s marketplace.
Old School, Charcoal Roasted Style (Roasted & Rolled)
Charcoal roasted Dong Ding composes a large amount of tea in the online marketplace marked as Dong Ding. It is far closer to the traditional Dong Ding of the 80s but itself is a fairly general style. Similar to Wuyi oolongs and Tieguanyin, there are varying oxidation and roasting levels. Oxidation is usually a bit lighter than Hong Shui, but not necessarily so. Ideally, the roasting should bring out a roasty sweetness without distorting the tea’s original character too much. Be aware that this style is commonly mimicked and a heavy roast can be used to hide the teas true origins or simply mask bad tea. Heavier roasted tea can also be aged (make sure you only age good tea!). Charcoal roasted Dong Ding can usually be purchased for a lower price than high-mountain tea and marks a nice complement towards the greener styles of Taiwanese oolongs.
Hip & Modern, Gaoshan Style (Fragrant & Rolled)
Gaoshan style, fragrant and rolled is processed in a style virtually identical to modern-day high-mountain tea. This is Dong Ding’s attempt to keep pace with Taiwanese tea trends. Green, green, green, sometimes even nuclear green. As shipping times have decreased, roasting to preserve and extend the shelf-life of oolong is not as necessary as it once was. This greener pattern holds true for many modern-day oolongs (both Chinese Tieguanyin and Taiwanese gaoshan). Not only is this form of processing simpler and easier, but there is an established market for various shades of green oolongs. It is risky for a farmer to subject his slow-growing high-elevation crop to the process of roasting, even if it might make excellent tea.
Grown at just under high-mountain elevations (700-1000 meters), fragrant Dong Ding is a great budget item for those looking for high-mountain style tea without the high-mountain cost. If you do want this high-mountain imitation style, make sure you buy Chin-hsin Dong Ding and not a cheap growth/budget cultivar (a tactic often used for Alishan tea). Fragrant Dong Ding is ~2/3rd the cost of Alishan and ~1/3rd the cost of top-tier Da Yu Ling, making it a great tea to practice brewing and get repetitions in without breaking the bank.
Dong Ding, pricing by vendor (0.5-2 oz)
|Vendor||$ Cost||Quantity (oz)||$/oz||# Offerings|
|Taiwan Tea Crafts||$5.00||0.88||$5.68||2|
Dong Ding, pricing by vendor (2.1-5.3 oz)
|Vendor||$ Cost||Quantity (oz)||$/oz||Old $/oz||% Diff||# Offerings|
|Taiwan Tea Crafts||$28.50||5.3||$5.38||$5.68||5.63%||2|
|Tea From Taiwan||$24.00||2.64||$9.09||N/A||N/A||1|
- Average Price, 0.5-2 oz: $7.00
- # Vendors, 0.5-2 oz: 5
- Average Price, 2.1-5.3 oz: $6.81
- # Vendors, 2.1-5.3 oz: 6
Innovation and the Future: Gui Fei Mei Ren
Throughout the 80s and 90s Dong Ding farmers had to watch as their very premium tea became less and less so. Rather than simply mimic the trends, some Dong Ding producers began to experiment. Originally grown from the heart of Dong Ding territory in Nantou County (Zhushan/Lugu), Gui Fei Mei Ren is a mix of Oriental Beauty and roasted Dong Ding (Gui Fei Mei Ren literally stands for Concubine Oolong, an obvious play on words for the popular Oriental Beauty oolong). Gui Fei Mei Ren is harvested without pesticides to allow jassids to bite the tea leaves (like Oriental Beauty), but is also charcoal roasted, rolled and harvested during spring and winter (like Dong Ding). The Concubine Oolong began to gain popularity in the mid-2000s. In fusing new thoughts and techniques with Dong Ding’s traditional terroir and tea-growing regions, Gui Fei Mei Ren both represents the ever-changing landscape of Taiwanese teas and the future.