Taiwanese Oolong Compendium

Taiwan has been described by Marshaln as “The Tea Shop Island” and is truly a tea lover’s heaven. Like Japan and unlike China, the standards for authentic Taiwanese tea are quite high. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all tea marketed on the internet as Taiwanese tea is extremely high quality (or even grown in Taiwan!), but that most tea acquired through reliable sources will be of reasonable quality. While green tea and black tea are also grown in Taiwan, Taiwanese Oolong is the most famous tea type coming from Taiwan. Taiwanese Oolong is also commonly referred to as Gaoshan (high-mountain tea) or Formosa (Taiwan), and you will see these names used interchangeably amongst the tea drinking community.

A Brief History

Camellia sinensis (tea) was initially brought to Taiwan in the middle of the 19th century from Fujian, China (home of the Anxi Tieguanyin). Eventually the Wuyi Mountains cultivar was brought into Taiwan and was used for Dong Ding and Baozhong teas. The terroir of Taiwan is extremely well suited towards growing tea. In particular the high-altitude mountains of Taiwan (Alishan, Lishan, Shan Li Xi, etc.) have become popular growing areas for what has been termed high-mountain tea (>1,000 meters). Teas from Dayuling, the highest tea-growing peak in Taiwan, are some of the most in-demand teas in the world and demand appropriately high prices.

 Taiwan

Different Shades of Oolong

Due to the broad definition of what constitutes an oolong (oxidized somewhere between 0-100%) there is an enormously diverse spectrum of oolong teas. A very lightly oxidized, green-tea like Baozhong (<10% oxidation) will display very different characteristics from the darker, black tea-like Oriental Beauty (~75% oxidation). Taiwanese Oolongs can also be loosely categorized as green or dark, although many teas are commonly created as both (i.e. Dong Ding can be fragrant but is usually charcoal roasted). One common term is high-mountain tea which is used to describe tea grown at over 1,000 meters (source).

Green Oolongs

The most famous broadly defined type of tea in Taiwan. Green oolong teas are usually oxidized much less (<30%) than their darker cousins. Many drinkers of green oolong will state that the roasting process for darker oolongs hides the true character (or lack thereof) of the tea. High-mountain tea tends to be processed as green oolong for this reason. Green oolongs lose their flavor over time and should be consumed quickly and stored carefully. Pay close attention to the harvest you are buying for green oolongs and really all tea.

Alishan

Tea grown from Alishan Mountain. Alishan tea is the most common high-mountain oolong. The area itself is broad and teas can range anywhere from 1,000 to 2,300 meters in height. This is a good starter tea (at the lower-elevations) for anyone interesting in higher-quality of Taiwan. As is typical of high-mountain oolongs, good Alishan tea is hand picked, rolled and is characterized by a creamy, rich taste, with a nice body. Zhong Shu Hu and Shi Zuo are two tea-growing regions within the Alishan area that are often classified as Alishan tea. Most vendors specializing in Taiwanese tea will offer an Alishan, and it is even occasionally offered by more general vendors.

Lishan

Another staple of the high-mountain teas, grown on the Lishan mountain. At 1,600-2,600 meters, Lishan is a taller mountain than Alishan and commands a somewhat higher price. A key element to the terroir of Lishan tea is the consistently cool temperature in the  mountains, a condition highly conducive to growing very good tea. Along with Shan Li Xi and Da Yu Ling tea (technically a Lishan), it is typically classified as one of the best high-mountain oolongs. Hand-picked and rolled, Lishan displays many of the same characteristics as other high-mountain teas including Alishan (lightly floral, savory, and creamy) but is especially notable for it’s fruity notes. Fu Shou Shan tea represents tea grown from the peak of Lishan. Similar to Alishan, Lishan is a very common offering especially amongst specialized Taiwanese tea vendors.

Shan Li Xi

A popular high-mountain tea, Shan Li Xi tea is also named after it’s growing area. Shan Li Xi is grown between 1,200-1900 meters in a forested area with rainfall throughout the year. Shan Li Xi is hand-picked and rolled with a clean taste and very little astringency. Particularly in-demand are Longfengxia teas from Shan Li Xi. Longfengxia is a term used to designate the highest peaks in the growing region (~1,900 meters). Along with Alishan and Lishan tea, Shan Li Xi is a relatively common selection within Taiwanese-specialized tea vendors.

Da Yu Ling

Da Yu Ling is the premium high-mountain Taiwanese oolong. Grown from an extremely high elevation (~2,400-2,500 meters), Da Yu Ling is usually grown in the greenest way possible with very minimal processing (with select, few exceptions!) and commands some of the most intimidating prices of any teas. Grown at the top of Lishan mountain, Da Yu Ling tea usually exhibits a sweet, clean, but complex flavor. 95k and 102k are commonly attached to this tea, standing for the highway markers within the growing region (explanation from Origin Tea). 102k Da Yu Ling is at a higher altitude than 95k Da Yu Ling, and is typically priced accordingly. Da Yu Ling should only be acquired from reputable Taiwanese vendors.

Baozhong

Also grown in China, modern Baozhong (or Pouchong) is one of the greenest oolongs typically having <10% oxidation. Baozhong literally translates to the wrapped kind and comes from the Wuyi cultivar and is noted for it’s twisted (similar to the Wuyi) and is harvested near Pinglin. Despite it’s low oxidation, good Baozhong has a nice body with a delicious clean taste. Baozhong leaves are much fluffier than rolled oolongs, and gaiwans should be filed up to ½ to ¾ full when brewing Baozhong. Usually grown from low elevation, quality and price can vary for Baozhong. It can be both an affordable alternative to the costly high-mountain teas or on the higher-end quite an excellent tea (see Floating Leaves).  Baozhong is usually only offered by vendors specialized in Taiwanese tea.

Jin Xuan (milk oolong)

One of the most popular Taiwanese teas for casual drinkers and newcomers due to it’s fragrance and affordable price. The Jin Xuan cultivar was developed by TRES (Taiwan Research and Extension Station). Often referred to as milk oolong for it’s taste, Jin Xuan tea is often flavored to even further the rich, creamy taste. Jin Xuan is usually grown in lower altitudes but can be processed as a high-mountain tea (typically Alishan). Like most Taiwanese Oolong Jin Xuan is rolled, and is both machine and hand-picked. Jin Xuan is commonly offered by both Taiwanese and non-Taiwanese vendors.

Four Seasons

Another green oolong for the cost-conscious. Four Seasons is rolled and can be grown from higher-altitude mountains but is commonly grown in lower-elevation zones. Amongst western-focused vendors, Four Seasons is easy to find, albeit rarer than it’s close cousin Jin Xuan.

Jade Oolong

The third most popular fragrant cultivar for Taiwanese Oolong (Four Seasons, Jin Xuan), Jade Oolongs should be purchased for a low price. Like Four Seasons and Jin Xuan, Jade Oolong is usually are grown at a lower elevation and was developed by TRES (Taiwan Research and Extension Station). Good jade oolong will have a medium-body and a buttery taste. Jade Oolong is rolled and is commonly machine-picked. Jade Oolong is harder to find than Jin Xuan and Four Seasons amongst western vendors, but is offered for low-prices by many Taiwan-specialized vendors.

Alishan, Lishan, Baozhong, Four Seasons Green Oolongs. Source: Floating Leaves

Alishan, Lishan, Baozhong, Four Seasons Green Oolongs. Source: Floating Leaves

Dark Oolongs

Although, green oolongs have long been the overt symbol of the Taiwanese oolong, Taiwan also produces very interesting and tasty dark and often roasted oolongs. Roasting itself is an art and while it can be used to hide the lack of taste in some tea, it can also be used to enhance and improve a tea. Darker oolongs retain their taste much longer than green oolongs and are often aged.

Dong Ding

One of the most iconic Taiwanese tea, Dong Ding is traditionally charcoal roasted but can also be processed as a green, fragrant oolong. Dong Ding tea is grown at ~700-1,000 meters (not quite a high-mountain tea) on Dong Ding mountain. It also originates from the cultivar for Wuyi oolongs that is also used to make Baozhong tea. The roasting brings out a full-bodied, nutty, yet sweet flavor commonly associated with Dong Ding. Compared with green oolongs, Dong Ding usually has a longer oxidation period and the roast can vary from a very light one to a heavy roast. Due to it’s widespread popularity lower-quality imitations of Dong Ding tea are often harvested away from Dong Ding Mountain and processed and marketed as Dong Ding tea. Like Jin Xuan, this is a great intro tea and is often sold by vendors not specializing in Taiwanese teas.

Tieguanyin (Muzha)

Tieguanyin oolong is produced both in China and Taiwan but the processing of the Tieguanyin cultivar varies significantly between the two countries. Chinese Tieguanyin grown in Anxi county and is usually processed as a green oolong, exhibiting fragrant and highly floral characteristics. Taiwanese Tieguanyin is usually Muzha Tieguanyin (Muzha is in Northwest Taiwan) and is roasted with a nuttier, slightly floral and more full-bodied flavor. It makes a good comparisons with Dong Ding for fans of roasted oolongs. Tieguanyin is also commonly aged. Muzha Tieguanyin is not as common as Dong Ding and usually needs to be acquired by western-focused, Taiwanese-specialized vendors.

Oriental Beauty

A truly unique tea, Oriental Beauty is the only Taiwanese tea harvested only in summer. Oriental Beauty must be processed without pesticides, allowing a grasshopper to nibble on the leaves. This causes the buds to eventually turn white. Unrolled and unroasted, Oriental Beauty has much higher oxidation levels than most other Taiwanese oolongs and can be mistaken for black teas from Darjeeling or Yunnan. Flavor wise, Oriental Beauty has a sweet, fruity, honey-like flavor. Due to it’s very precise processing, Oriental Beauty has always been somewhat of a premium tea (despite being grown at lower elevations, 300-800 meters). Check out Marshaln’s blog post on Oriental Beauty for some very interesting speculation on it’s origins. Oriental Beauty is widely available and is offered by both Taiwanese-specialized and non-Taiwanese specific vendors.

Other

Many Taiwanese teas are also aged. Tieguanyin and Baozhong are some of the more common teas to be allowed to age. These teas are usually taken out of storage every few years and re-roasted by an experienced tea master. Over-roasting or under-roasting the aged tea can completely ruin it. Aged tea is especially nice to drink at night, as almost all of the caffeine has left the tea through the years. Some tea farms also grow their own versions of  the Wuyi Oolongs. There are several other types of Taiwanese oolongs not covered in this post, most notably: Fo Shou (Buddha’s hand), Gaba, Hong Shui.

dark-oolongs

Dong Ding, Tieguanyin, Oriental Beauty. Source: Mountain Tea

Vendor Cheat Sheet & What to Buy

This list is ordered by level of experience and gives specific vendor and tea recommendations. For detailed vendor by vendor information check out our Taiwanese tea vendor guide.

Beginners

Newcomers should look for small sizes (sample packs are a major plus), a wide variety, and low overall cost. Never assume you know what you will like (don’t buy 450g of tea yet!), sample widely for good prices! Many of the best vendors for beginners are ebay stores based in Taiwan.

Recommended Vendors:

  • zen8tea (ebay store) – Wide selection, low shipping rates, OK quality, ships from Taiwan.
  • Teahome (ebay store) – Similar to zen8tea, ships from Taiwan, highly variable quality.
  • Taiwan Tea Crafts - Everything you want for a new vendor. Low shipping, small samples, wide variety, ships from Taiwan.

Recommended Teas:

  • Jin Xuan/Four Seasons – Neither are particularly exciting tea to the seasoned Taiwanese Oolong drinker, this can be a great, inexpensive introduction.
  • Alishan – Get your feet wet with some of the good stuff without overspending. Be sure it’s from the most recent harvest. This can be substituted with any of the other high-mountain teas, Alishan generally runs the cheapest.
  • Dong Ding – One of the most iconic Taiwanese Oolongs. Its roast is a good intro to tea for coffee drinkers put off by the perfume-like fragrant oolongs.
  • Oriental Beauty – A totally unique Taiwanese tea and an awesome contrast to the green oolongs. This one will be a good gateway for black tea drinkers.

Intermediate

The intermediate tea drinker should broaden their scope with different cultivars and more mountains. The vendors listed below generally have a higher barrier to entry, but make up for with the quality of their offerings.

Recommended Vendors:

  • Floating Leaves - Higher barrier ($80 for free shipping) than the vendors listed above. Quality is generally consistent, with good mix of low-elevation and high-mountain tea. Allows for 1 oz purchases.
  • Mountain Tea - Higher barrier ($75 for free shipping). Good prices, smaller but eclectic enough selection.
  • Tea From Taiwan - Higher barrier ($60 for free shipping). The portion sizes are larger. Sample first, then buy.
  • From beginners: Taiwan Tea Crafts

Recommended Teas:

  • Lishan – This can be pricy (don’t buy any suspiciously cheap Lishan), ensure it’s from the most recent harvest.
  • Shan Li Xi – Another essential high-mountain offering.
  • Muzha Tieguanyin – The 2nd most famous dark/roasted Taiwanese tea.

Advanced

Similar to intermediate tea, just better and pricier tea, with a dose of aged tea.

Recommended Vendors:

Recommended Teas:

  • Da Yu Ling – The premium high-mountain oolong. If you can afford it get some at the 102k highway marker.
  • Fu Shou Shan/Long Feng Xia – Premium Lishan/Shan Li Xi tea.
  • Aged Teas – These can vary in price/quality but are one of the most intriguing frontiers in Taiwanese tea for the expert tea drinker.

Brewing

It’s recommended to brew Taiwanese Oolongs gong-fu style. However, good Taiwanese Oolong is an incredibly robust tea and can be brewed successfully a number of different ways.

Gong-fu

gaiwancupsCha Hai
Tea enthusiasts love gong-fu style brewing. Gong-fu will generate the most flavor out of the tea. Summed up, gong-fu style uses a lot of tea leaf, very short steep times, and several steeps (>5).

Recommended Teaware:

  • Gaiwan/Yixing Teapot - A robust, inexpensive, flavor-neutral gaiwan can be used for brewing essentially all teas. Usually made with porcelain, a gaiwan is a great device for brewing Taiwanese Gaoshan. An yixing teapot can also be used. If you choose to go yixing, choose a pot with thinner walls for green oolongs as the leaves can cook due to the higher heat-retention of clay. Darker oolongs perform especially well with yixing. One advantage to using an yixing teapot is to avoid the inevitable gaiwan induced burns. Shoot for a 100-150 ml brewing vessel. Avoid glass for your gaiwan as it gets hotter much more quickly and can cause burns.
  • Serving Device - An inexpensive glass pitcher is typically used. If you want to avoid cost, you can really use any pitcher-like device or even pour straight into your teacup!
  • Teacups - One must drink! Small teacups work very well for gong-fu style brewing.

Where to Buy:

I recommend purchasing non-yixing teaware from Yunnan Sourcing. Their prices are consistently excellent. For the cost-conscious, using a gaiwan is much cheaper and oftentimes superior to yixing. Classic gong-fu style brewing can easily be done with <$30. NOTE: Shipping is high from Yunnan Sourcing’s Chinese site, so it’s best when you buy a ton of tea with your purchase. Dragon Tea House is another reasonably priced alternative with free shipping (better if you are buying individual items). Yunnan Sourcing links are to the US site. Their Chinese site has even better prices and more selection, but higher shipping.

How To:

With a 120 ml brewing device use ~5-9 grams of leaf. Scale this upwards or downwards according to the size of your brewing device and taste. Use water just under boiling. Do a flash-rinse to clean the leaves and wake them up.  The first steeping should be ~30 seconds, and then brew according to preference. I recommend using a timer to start but quickly phasing it out once you start to get a feel for brewing. Depending on the quality of tea you may be able to get between 6-10 (or even more) steepings.

Advantages:

  • Extracts the most flavor out of your tea.
  • Authentic.
  • Stylish.
  • Inexpensive.

Disadvantages:

  • More time-consuming.
  • Gaiwans can scorch fingers!
  • Highly addictive!

Auntie

Somewhere in between gong-fu and western, auntie style is a low-key style that can be used to showcase the leaves. Auntie style involves pouring back and forth between two glass pitchers. This style is used commonly by Lydia at Seattle Best Tea; Verdant Tea also covers this style of brewing. Depending on the sizes of the pitchers, this can closely resemble gong-fu brewing. Auntie style can be used for lower-oxidation teas (white/green tea) and is particularly well-suited for Taiwanese green oolongs.
Recommended Teaware:

  • 2 Glass Pitchers - These can simply be normal glass serving pitchers (Cha Hai). 200-250ml is a good size.
  • Strainer - Because you’re not using a gaiwan, you need something to catch the leaves.
  • Teacups - If you want to be cheap and manly drink straight out of the pitcher.

Where to Buy:

Yunnan Sourcing is a great, inexpensive option (see gong-fu section for more info on Yunnan Sourcing and Dragon Tea House).

How To:

Put ~8-10 grams of tea into a 250 ml pitcher. Do a flash-rinse to clean the leaves and wake them up. Brew for ~45 seconds and adjust time according to taste. Any leaves that get caught in the strainer should be scraped back into the brewing pitcher. You should be able to get between 3-5 good steepings out of the tea.

Advantages:

  • Low maintenance – just pouring from pitcher to pitcher.
  • No burns.
  • Can watch leaves brew/open-up.
  • Inexpensive.

Disadvantages:

  • Doesn’t have as much flavor as gong-fu.
  • More time-consuming than western-style brewing.

Western

Western TeapotLarge steeping vessels and big cups, western style. Western-style brewing is a very low-maintenance way of brewing. This is an acceptable way to brew Formosa Oolongs, especially more inexpensive ones.

Recommended Teaware/Where to Buy:

  • Brewing Device/Teapot -Try out one of Adagio’s clever little brewing devices. They don’t have the tradition of the teapot, but are highly functional.
  • Teacup – Go big or go home! You can use a standard old large mug. Everyone owns one of these, right!?

How To:

Use 2-4 teaspoons of rolled tea, more if it’s curled. Brew for 1-2 minutes with just under boiling water. Add about 1 minute/steeping (~2-3 steepings).

Advantages:

  • Easy!
  • No burns.
  • Requires very little teaware.

Disadvantages:

  • Less flavor/complexity.

Grandpa

MugDrink tea like a Chinese grandpa! Grandpa style is an extremely simple method of drinking tea. Simply dumping tea leaves into large cup and pour boiling water on them. This is especially well-suited towards roasted oolongs and will yield different flavors than a gong-fu session.

Recommended Teaware:

  • A big ol’ mug!

How To:

Put leaves into cup. Don’t use too many. Pour boiling water onto leaves. Refill cup with boiling water when you are about halfway through. Try to always keep water in the cup. Use a lidded cup if possible. Check out Marshaln’s highly-informative posts (1,2) on grandpa-style brewing.

Advantages:

  • Low maintenance.
  • Different flavor profile than gong-fu.

Disadvantages:

  • Have to drink around leaves.
  • Doesn’t have the same flavor/complexity as gong-fu.

Resources

This is a curation of a variety of information from my own personal experience but primarily found on the internet. Without these great resources, it would not have been possible to create this guide. If you want to learn more about Taiwanese tea you should read and follow from these resources.

Blogs:

  • Tea Masters - The grand daddy of the Taiwanese gaoshan and a high-end vendor. Stephane’s site is one of the longest running tea blogs and he has been providing great information (and gorgeous photos) for both an English and French-speaking audience since 2004.
  • Floating Leaves - A good, extensive archive from another vendor. Not nearly as active as before but a good resource from a top-tier vendor nonetheless.
  • Marshaln [Taiwan Tag] - The godfather of tea blogs is mainly focused on raw Pu’erh, but there’s enough on Taiwanese gaoshan and teaware for the Taiwanese oolong lover.

Teachat Forum Threads:

Other:

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7 Responses to Taiwanese Oolong Compendium

  1. Ross says:

    Nice comprehensive article. I would just like to correct the information about our free shipping policy, which is for orders over $60, not the $75 as stated.

  2. James says:

    Thanks for the correction Ross. I’ve made the changes!

  3. Becca says:

    Wow, absolutely terrific overview – it’d be very nice to have a similar (and frequently updated) compendium for other tea categories. I spend an inordinate amount of time online googling tea-everything but not everyone has that leisure. Good service!

  4. James says:

    Thanks for the reply Becca. Don’t worry there will be more coming in the next couple months!

    I totally agree with your assessment and had the exact same dilemma. The Taiwanese Oolong Compendium (and the other incoming compendiums) are an attempt to curate and piece together a good chunk of relevant information for those interested in learning more!

  5. Pingback: The Price of High-Mountain Tea | TeaDB

  6. Pingback: Taiwanese Tea Vendors | TeaDB

  7. Pingback: Alishan Taiwanese High-Mountain Oolong [Episode 18] | TeaDB

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