The Taiwanese Tea Industry

The Taiwanese Tea Industry

Today, Taiwan produces some of the best wulong teas in the world, and almost all the production is consumed locally. To satisfy demand, and despite an 18 percent tax on tea brought in from outside the territory, Taiwan imports more than three times as much tea as it exports each yean This commercial activity extends beyond the island's borders, as some Taiwanese businessmen are now investing in tea production in Vietnam, Thailand and China. The Taiwanese inherited a genuine art of tea tasting from the Chinese through the gong fu cha ceremony, a simple and refined ritual that uses a special "sniffing" cup to enhance the heady aromas released by wulong teas.

Moreover since the late 1990s, Taiwan has been one of the hubs of the Pu er tea trade. Some of the major Pu er collectors are Taiwanese, and they have contributed to the recent explosion of this market.

Contrary to other countries, such as India, China or Sri Lanka, where many tea gardens extend over several thousand acres, the Taiwanese tea industry is fragmented among a number of small growers. Today there are more than 30,000 growers, who are, for the most part, small family businesses of no more than two to eight employees.

The Tawainese industry produces some 18,700 tons (17,000 t) of tea per year, mostly wulong. This production is not much compared to the output of other tea-growing nations, especially since Taiwan must import several thousand tons of tea to satisfy local demand. However, local weather and geographical conditions are not appropriate for high-volume production. Some gardens located high in the mountains, like those of Da Yu Lin, for example, can only be harvested twice a year

Until the beginning of the 1980s, roughly 80 percent of Taiwanese production was shipped abroad. To keep the industry alive in spite of competition from neighboring countries and to free the country from its dependency on exports, the Taiwanese government decided to try to redirect production toward the domestic market. It managed this very skillfully by channeling growers into high-quality teas and introducing many popular educational programs (museums, tea contests, festivals and the like).

This transformation of the industry gave growers the impetus to form groups and to sell their tea directly to consumers, which eliminated the need for middlemen. This stimulated the emergence of a local tea culture and a gradual reduction of exports. The Taiwanese are now free of the yoke of competition. They export only a very small proportion of their harvest (about 12 percent) and consume the bulk of it themselves.

Today, almost all growers take great care of their gardens, from the choice of the tea trees to meticulous processing in order to produce the best possible quality. They then enter their high-quality leaves in contests that usually take place twice a year, in May and November, in various growing regions, where they are judged and compared by eminent specialists. These contests can be very lucrative for a grower because, in addition to conferring fame and prestige, winning a prize increases the market value of a tea.

Although there are still pockets of black-tea production (particularly the east coast, close to Sun Moon Lake), as well as several low-grade imitations of quality Chinese green teas. Taiwan now specializes in one single tea, wulong.