A Terraced Beauty, Taiwan’s Tea Culture

July 29, 2015 Updated: October 8, 2018

NEW TAIPEI CITY, Taiwan—You’ve heard of wine-tasting in California, but for the island nation of Taiwan, it’s tea-tasting that’s the big thing.

Since the 1700s, when tea trees were introduced to Taiwan by the imperial Chinese official Ke Chao, the island has developed a dynamic and vibrant culture around this successful industry.

Nantou District, smack in the center of Taiwan, is four-fifths mountain or hills, with forty-one mountains with peaks over 3,000 meters high—great for tea cultivation.

Despite Taiwan’s small size, its geographical diversity lends it to great variations in the tea traditionally produced here. Different regions of Taiwan have different climates for which varying kinds of tea are suited; we can divide them into four main regions: north, south, west, and central.

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A tea farmer collects fresh tea leaves from the farms in Nantou, central Taiwan, May 10, 2012. (Sam Yeh/AFP/GettyImages)

On the island’s tea farms, there’s much more to do than just picking tea leaves or learning the art of their processing. Available to the casual visitor are various do-it-yourself projects associated with tea, tea-related cuisine, and exquisite views featuring Taiwan’s beautiful landscapes.

Taipei and the Terraces of the North

In Taipei—the national capital of the Republic of China, as Taiwan is officially known— 7 plus million urban and suburban residents leave precious little room for tea cultivation. This means steep terraces for northern farmers, who, though perhaps constrained by area, find no shortage of customers.

Just a 40-minute drive from Taipei, in Shiding District, lies a tea plantation that is little-known even to locals. After a picturesque bike ride along the Yong’an trail leading to the farm, the owner welcomes you to his productive terraces—among the crops are such teas as Wenshan, Pouchong, Light Oolong, and Oriental Beauty. Here, the tea is just part of a greater beauty, namely, that of the Thousand Island Lake.

Further inland, in Sanxia District, grows the Biluochun variety of green tea famous in northern Taiwan. Here, where the old Japanese colonial architecture has been meticulously preserved, tea is cropped in early spring.

The fine Bai Hao oolong tea of northwest Taiwan’s Hsinchu County is grown in particularly humid and foggy conditions. When the harvest comes, it is done in June and July, rather than the spring or winter.

Central Taiwan, Nantou, and ‘Yin-Yang’ Towns

Nantou District, smack in the center of Taiwan, is four-fifths mountain or hills, with 41 mountains with peaks over 3,000 meters (about 9,800 feet) high—great for tea cultivation. It is home to the towns of Zhushan and Lugu, both important locations for the tea business.

The local tea promotion society holds evening tea parties in a traditional Chinese courtyard.

They comprise part of the “Taiji Land of Splendor,” so named for the arrangement of tea and bamboo cultivation, which, viewed from afar, resembles the Taoist yin-yang, or taiji symbol. Zhushan, literally “bamboo mountain,” was the first place to be settled in the Nantou area, and is now an important cultural spot.

A tea farmer displays his tea in front of the awards wall at a local factory in Taoyuan, northern Taiwan, April 26, 2012. (SAM YEH/AFP/GettyImages)
A tea farmer displays his tea in front of the awards wall at a local factory in Taoyuan, northern Taiwan, April 26, 2012. (Sam Yeh/AFP/GettyImages)

Lugu is the homeland of oolong tea. Its yearlong canopy of fog and clouds make it ideal for growing the high-quality Dong Ding variety of oolong. The local tea promotion society holds evening tea parties in a traditional Chinese courtyard, where many engaging activities are prepared for visitors tired from picking tea leaves by day. A free shuttle bus runs on weekends between important tourist sites and main roads connecting Nantou to the rest of the country.

Eastern Taiwan: Plantations and Ecology

The village of Longtian in eastern Taiwan’s Taitung County is the location of state-established plantations that produce a wide variety of crops, including tea. Known as “Fulu Tea,” it is grown on a 30-hectare (about 74 acres) space that also hosts a research center for tea, as well as a tea garden and an ecological park and safari. Visitors can relax and enjoy themselves in the company of such fauna as the ring-necked pheasant and the white heron. A flat, checkerboard road offers a comfortable biking experience through both tea fields and wilderness.

The vaunted Longtian tea factory allows visitors to dress in traditional tea-picking garb and learn the ways of the trade.

For those who desire a more hands-on experience, the vaunted Longtian tea factory allows visitors to dress in traditional tea-picking garb and learn the ways of the trade. The activities are topped off with edible tea bags made from lemon and the exclusive oolong-flavored ice cream.

Low Altitude-Tea of the Taiwanese South

Despite the common belief that good tea must be grown high above sea level, the so-called Seaport Tea proves a worthy exception. Cultivated at the coast in Pingtung County’s Manzhou Township at a lowly 100 meters (325 feet) above the waves, it has a history that goes back to the late 1800s, when Taiwan was ruled as part of the Qing Dynasty. The local governor, Lin Feng-ch’ih, introduced this style in 1875 from his native province of Fujian in mainland China.  

Seaport Tea is grown completely organically, without pesticides, and relies on the oceanic weather and abundant sunshine for its cultivation. A handful of elderly and extremely experienced workers tend to the crop, which has the same distinct fragrance as the seaside air it grows in.

Visitors to the southern terraces of Manzhou should be sure to try out out the homemade steamed buns: made with pumpkin and red bean paste and brown sugar, these delicacies make a perfect snack to go with the Seaport Tea.