Can a novice become a certified expert in just 48 hours? Joe Henley embarks on a rough-and-tumble journey through the Taipei tea scene
Words: Joe Henley; Photos: Sean Marc Lee
“Just look at the colour!” I’m sitting across a table from Han Yi at a dimly lit tea house in the Songshan District of Taipei. Han is a man who has dedicated almost every waking moment to the taste, scent, look and feel of tea. And for the past few hours, he has been giving me a crash course in his life’s calling, cramming years worth of wisdom into our laughably brief time together.
He speaks slowly, perhaps with compassion for my deer-in-the-headlights look as he pours out information. When animated, his hands mimic the large mannerisms of older Taiwanese when they discuss matters of political importance, or just argue over neighbourhood gossip. But Han has yet to enter his thirties. He gives the impression of a young man’s mind battling against an old man’s soul.
Now, staring down at a small cup of steaming, opaque-brown liquid, I’m being put to the test. Han’s hands are moving again as he insistently tells me to look at the colour. All I have to do is tell him what kind of tea I’m drinking. Han isn’t scolding me, per se, but he is a bit exasperated, and with good cause. He’s probably thinking the same thing I am: This guy is in way over his head.
I’ve been living in this city of 2.7 million people for over a decade, and explored many facets of the diverse culture. But there’s one aspect of Taipei life I’ve remained largely ignorant of: tea. It’s a remarkable omission. After all, it’s been a staple of local culture in Taiwan for hundreds of years, some say as far back as when the island was populated solely by its indigenous tribes. In the 19th century, tea from China made its way over with Qing dynasty merchants, which prompted the first wave of Taipei’s tea houses. To this day, the Wistaria Tea House in the city’s Da’an District – set up in a beautiful traditional Japanese wooden house and named for the vines that crawl up its outer walls – remains packed with visitors on any given day, just as it was when it first opened in 1920. Old families in historic Dadaocheng, where one of the first Taiwanese ports open to foreign trade sent out the first Taiwanese tea exports in the mid-19th century, owe their wealth to tea leaves. Some still sell them from century-old storefronts along Dihua Street.
Since those early days, the tea game has continued to evolve, but Taipei’s passion for the drink is unwavering. Along with the traditional drinkers, there are now also young boba tea fanatics waiting 20 minutes for a cup at Chun Shui Tang, the famous chain that, like a few others, claims to be the inventor of pearl milk tea.
The truth is, I’m a coffee guy. I always have been. But if I really, truly want to say I’ve immersed myself in the Taiwanese way of life – and I do – tea is something I simply must embrace. It’s an unparalleled window into life in Taipei, especially in regard to the elder generations, who have held on to their antique formal tea sets, and still offer you a cup the moment you enter their homes. If nothing else, it’ll give me something with which to impress my Taiwanese father-in-law.
And so, I have gladly taken on the challenge. In the span of 48 hours, I am attempting to become not only a tea aficionado, but a tea master. By the end of two days, I will need to be able to identify no less than four kinds of tea by scent, taste and the look of the leaves alone. Never mind that in order to do this, actual tea masters train at tea institutes like Lu Yu (named for the eighth-century Chinese “sage of tea”), where students study for years. I’m confident… or at least reasonably certain… all right, I’m not sure at all that I can do this, but it should be enlightening to try.
Day 1: From farm to kettle
My journey towards tea mastery begins at Maokong Cabin Tea House. Maokong, located in the mountains rising up in southeastern Taipei City, is an area noted for its small tea farms and cosy tea shops providing an expansive view of the cityscape below, all reachable by gondola. The tea cultivation industry has been on the rise – literally – in Taiwan for decades, with farmers gradually going higher in elevation to see what flavours and traits greater altitudes would bring. But most cultivation began in places like Maokong, at relatively low elevations, well under a thousand metres.
I catch a ride up to the top with Nick Kembel, author of the memoir Taiwan Through the Eyes of a Foreigner and, more recently, the 2018 online essay “Tea in Taiwan: A Complete Guide”. The Canadian blogger has spent over a year of his decade-plus writing career focusing on all things tea, and I’m looking to him to give me a primer before my crash course with Han on Day 2.
“Taiwanese people do tea in a really slow, relaxed way,” Kembel tells me on the way up, perhaps trying to put me at ease. We settle at an outdoor table at the tea house to enjoy a view that extends out to Guanyin Mountain in the far northern end of Taipei, and the mouth of the Tamsui River as it empties into the sea. Below us, the verdant hillside cascades down in a rush of bamboo and other subtropical plant life toward the cityscape that billows out from the foot of the mountain. The calls of birdsong and the buzz of insects fill the damp jungle air.
Kembel orders a pot of tieguanyin, or Iron Goddess tea, a type of oolong, he explains, with leaves roasted around 40 or 50% through. I learn that tieguanyin originally came from mainland China, but took well to the soil and temperature in Taiwan and has become one of the staples of the local palate.
As we wait for our tea, Kembel pulls out a box filled with about a dozen different kinds of leaves and proceeds with my first lesson. He leads me through the colour spectrum from light to dark. At the very lightest end, in colour and taste, is white tea, which he notes as being the truest to form and having a taste that replicates the original plant. I learn that the darkness of the liquor (an official term for the liquid) goes up a notch with oolong tea, the most prized variety of which is from the mountainous area of Alishan, often described as the gold standard of Taiwanese tea. “The flavour is smooth and people say it has a distinct creaminess and longer aftertaste. The Taiwanese call this hen gang, a lingering sweetness in the back of your throat,” Kembel says. He points out that tieguanyin, the premium oolong variety which has been served at our table now, is a bit darker, or roastier still, and then there’s Oriental Beauty, or dongfang meiren, as the locals call it, among the darkest of oolongs.
Halfway through our pot, Mota Chang, the 73-year-old father of the café’s owner, saunters over. A carefully styled pencil-thin moustache offers personality before he even opens his mouth, and despite the baseball cap pulled down low over his eyes, his mischievous sense of curiosity is clear. He starts with a self-deprecating remark about his age but quickly moves on to offer his two cents on the tea leaves that we have spread out on the table. “I don’t really like that one. It’s not very traditional… I prefer to stick with dongfang meiren.” Just a few minutes later, Mota returns with a pot of his own favourite for us to try, contributing further to my first lesson.
There are a couple more varieties for Kembel and me to go through, but my head is already swimming, both with information and with a nice caffeine buzz. Thanking Mota, Kembel and I head back down the mountain. On the way, we pass by the Taipei Zoo, a sprawling complex that crawls its way up the mountainside, the gondola cars serenaded by the calls of what sounds like a group of Taiwanese macaques in the trees below. It’s a lovely send-off, but it’s clear that I need more background information.
In the afternoon, I head for the New Taipei City suburb of Pinglin, a quiet little satellite town known for its tea farms and what is billed as the largest tea museum in the world. It’s spread over a couple of modest but well-appointed buildings, taking visitors on a comprehensive tour. Here is where I learn about the glory days of Taiwanese tea, when the Treaty of Tianjin opened four Taiwanese ports to foreign trade in the mid-19th century, and tea from Taiwan found its way to the four corners of the globe. I read about John Dodd, the Scottish tea merchant who helped bring Taiwanese tea to the West. I feel a bit more prepared to meet Han.
Day 2: Enter the master
We meet at Buddha Tea House. The place is a throwback, from its lush, almost overgrown courtyard filled with subtropical shrubs and even a banyan tree, to the antique-filled interior, with every available space taken up by red clay and dented steel teapots and other wares, and walls covered in paintings by the owner himself, Huang Jun-hao. An artist, tea aficionado, member of the Paiwan tribe and former frogman in the Taiwan military, Huang opened the place in the early ’90s, and it has since become something of a destination in the Taiwanese and Asian tea scenes.
As mentioned, Han is an anomaly in the Taiwanese tea master world, just 28 years old. A former magician, he took up tea mastery a few years ago. Tea was something he had enjoyed casually for much of life from adolescence on. His training as a master of the magical arts, he says, informed his studies in tea culture. “My magician training helped my mind, my tea-brewing gestures, my self-confidence,” he says. “When you are talking about the story of tea, you perform, just like when you perform magic tricks on the audience.”
He’s already a certified Level Two (of a possible three) on the mastery scale (testing and certification are handled by tea institutes, such as Lu Yu), able to identify the origin, variety and type of tea by blind taste test alone. For example, the origin could be Alishan; the variety of leaf could be Jin Xuan; and the type, or the way the leaf is prepared, could be oolong. One sip, and Han can name all three.
He takes me through the various ways to identify tea: by the colour of the liquor, the taste (of course) and the fragrance of the leaves, both when they are fresh and after they are boiled. “The hotter the weather where the leaves are grown, the deeper the fragrance,” he points out. “But that doesn’t mean more aftertaste.” This is just one of many pieces of, at times seemingly contradictory, information he throws at me.
He shows me the proper way to serve tea in a Taiwanese tea ceremony, something he admits he doesn’t really enjoy, preferring a more relaxed, casual atmosphere. “Avoid breaking the plane of the tea boat with your hands,” he admonishes lightly as I move to serve him, mistakenly moving the pot over the vessel that holds the spent leaves and water. In addition to the boat, the ceremony requires a host of tools, including a spoon (for scooping leaves into the pot), a presentation vessel (for displaying leaves before boiling), tweezers (for taking leaves out of the pot), a strainer (traditionally made from bamboo), a needle (to prevent spout blockage in the pot) and tongs (to help pick up and wash tea cups).
We enjoy several different kinds of tea, covering the colour spectrum from light to dark, starting with Four Seasons oolong, making our way slowly to Sun Moon Lake black tea. Along the way, Han points out the various intricacies of the scent, pouring small amounts of tea into tall, thin scent cups – narrow white ceramic vessels decorated with floral patterns – letting me smell the leaves. He has me take stock of the flavour notes present, some roasty, others with hints of honey or cinnamon. I utilise words I’ve never heard or used before, like “vegetal”, used to describe a grass-like flavour. Then, finally, it’s time for Han to put me to the tea test.
The moment of reckoning
My first cup goes about as badly as it can possibly go. I proceed through the steps in a suitably reticent manner. Observe the liquor. Pick up the cup and smell the liquid, taking deep, sharp breaths through the nose. Slurp the liquid into my mouth and exhale through the nose. Swallow it down. Take note of the head (the way it tastes in the mouth), the body (the way it tastes going down) and the tail (the aftertaste). I detect notes of citrus, wood, bamboo. It’s slightly sweet.
“Is it green tea?” I guess.
“No,” he replies.
“Is it white,” I guess second.
“Wrong. Just look at the colour!” Han says, as if what I’ve suggested is ludicrous.
I look. I wait for him to offer some guidance.
“It’s black tea,” he says finally, the look of disappointment on his face hard to ignore.
Zero-for-one. Maybe it’s the 20 or 30 small cups of tea I had during the course of the lessons. Everything is amplified in a caffeine craze. As part of the day’s whirlwind of information, I’ve learned that there is such a thing as “tea drunk”. Maybe it’s psychosomatic, but I’m feeling a good ways toward blotto. Still, I press on. The second cup goes better. I taste a beanlike flavour, a hint of honey. It’s a touch vegetal. The colour seems a light green, but I’ve been fooled before. “Green tea?” I offer, my answer coming off as more of a question. Han nods sombrely. At least I won’t be going home with a big fat zero on my report card.
For the third cup, I serve myself, using the trick Han taught me of “showering” the pot – pouring boiling water over the top of it so it cascades down the sides and winds up in the tea boat – to further enhance the flavour. I taste. I guess: it seems heavily roasted to my amateur palate. Perhaps a red tea? “No,” Han says. It’s ruby black, from Sun Moon Lake, a special cultivar developed during the Japanese era in Taiwan.
Time for the fourth and final cup. It tastes strong, roasted. But there is almost nothing in the way of aftertaste. I think back to my training, all of a few hours ago. I remember my tasting session with Kembel and the knowledge he so graciously imparted. It can only be… oolong?
Han nods, and I feel a rush of modest relief. I’ve gotten two of a possible four right. To reach level two, Han had to get six out of six right, drinking out of black cups so he couldn’t even see the liquor, and he had to ascertain the origin and the variety as well.
It’s as clear as boiling water before it’s poured onto a waiting pile of steeped leaves: I’m no tea master. I’ve tried, and I’ve failed. But it hasn’t been a total bust: I’ve learned a lot. I jumped into the deep end, way over my head, and discovered a part of Taipei culture that had to this point eluded me. Next, I’ll find out if getting “tea drunk” comes with a “tea hangover”. I’m already looking forward to some “hair of the dog” tomorrow morning.
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