Some History of Tea in Taiwan

Formosa oolong (ETS Image)
Formosa oolong (ETS Image)

There are a few significant tea producing countries or regions that have changed their name since tea began to be a significant industry there. Probably the most notable example is Sri Lanka. It used to be known as Ceylon, and to this day the tea produced there is known by the same name. And then there’s Taiwan.

Formerly known as Formosa, Taiwan is an island nation located directly to the east of mainland China. Unlike the situation in Sri Lanka, Taiwanese tea such as this one is no longer sold under the name Formosa. Much of the tea that’s produced in Taiwan today is one of a number of highly regarded varieties of oolong.

Writing about tea in the early twentieth century, in an article called The Tea Industry of Formosa, journalist Herbert Compton that there were “highly bright prospects” for the future of this industry. He also noted that Formosa, as it was still called, was “a most delightful realm for human habitation.”

Compton recounts that according to some tales wild tea plants were thought to be native to Formosa but suggests that it was more likely that the plant was brought there from neighboring China. Tea historians Victor Mair and Erling Hoh don’t go into the specifics of exactly when and how tea got to Taiwan but apparently there are records of it being grown there as early as 1701.

By 1861, according to a British government report, a fair amount of tea was being shipped from Formosa back to tea’s place of origin – China – but tea production was apparently still a relatively minor industry. Compton credits Englishman John Dodd with doing much to further the tea industry there in the years that followed.

In the half century from 1895 onward Formosa was a colony of Japan, and both sources agree that it was during this time that tea production really began to take off. Which is probably not surprising, given Japan’s long relationship with tea. Of course, Japan is best known for producing green tea and, while it would be interesting to determine how their colony became a hotbed for oolong tea, that’s a question that will have to wait for another day.

See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.

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