What Is Formosa Oolong Tea?
Formosa, meaning "beautiful", was the name given to Taiwan by the Portuguese. Today, the word describes teas that come from the tropical island. The unique qing xiang (or "green fragrance") style of oolong developed here. Distinct from the traditional styles on the mainland, it is now popular across Asia. Many tea producers in Vietnam, Laos, and mainland China now imitate Taiwanese teas.
Taiwan is home to several environmental factors that create a tea plant's paradise. The island is best known for its high elevation tea gardens. The slow growing tea plants at high elevations develop an unparalleled creamy texture. This distinct mouth feel has given rise to the name "milk oolong" or "silk oolong".
How Is Formosa Oolong Tea Made?
Most Formosa oolong teas are lightly oxidized and tightly rolled.They appear in dry, finished form as small, dark green bundles. But in the cup, they unfurl to reveal quite large leaves, often still attached to a small piece of stem.
These harvests are hand picked to include the bud of the plant as well as the top two or three leaves. This combination lends both sweetness and complexity to the finished tea.
After harvesting, these leaves are laid out to wilt and soften. Then large machines roll the leaves, and a final roasting halts the oxidation process. As with all oolongs, this complex process requires expertise to get right. If the leaves are not oxidized enough, they will tend to taste grassy and vegetal. But letting them get too dark can destroy the fragrant floral properties this style is known for.
Though it is one of the youngest tea producing regions, Taiwan has a worldwide reputation. The exquisite creaminess and complex flavors of its teas are in high demand. The Taiwanese tea industry has been at the forefront of developing new tea varieties. They've also created new technologies for manufacturing. But their traditional quality of flavor still reigns supreme.
Signs Of Quality
Taiwanese oolongs are unique in that they are graded predominantly on elevation. High elevation tea gardens are shrouded in mist and clouds by mid-afternoon. The clouds shade the tea leaves and slow the plant's growth. This promotes the development of flavor compounds while preventing bitterness. Thus, the higher the elevation, the more complex the flavor. High elevation teas also have less potential for unpleasant or vegetal flavors. But these mountainous farms have limited land, meaning their teas command higher prices.
It can be hard to tell the quality by looking at the dry, bundled leaves. Many areas of China and Southeast Asia imitate the green style oolongs of Taiwan. The differences are small but distinct. First, faster growth in areas with more sun exposure yield dryness in the mouth feel. Also, inexperienced crafters can keep the leaves too green. This produces vegetal flavors rather than floral ones, especially when brewed very hot. In general, it is best to ask the name of the mountain the tea was grown on and the elevation at which it was harvested. This is the best way to verify the source of the leaves.