Taiwan has a superb climate for growing tea, and produces some of the best in the world. Our trip to Taichung, Sun Moon Lake and Taipei became a pilgrimage not only to find some excellent tea to take home, but also some beautiful, reasonably priced ceramics.
In order to survive in the face of cheaper teas from Indian and Sri Lanka, many tea farmers in Taiwan turned to the cultivation of ‘Betel nut’ instead. The popular ‘betel nut’ is actually an areca nut wrapped in betel leaf, the combination of which creates a mild stimulant, and has been chewed as a traditional custom in many Asian and Oceanic countries for an extremely long time. Despite this, the popular number 18 Assam tea has withstood the changing trends with locals and tourists alike. Sun Moon Lake Antique Assam Tea Farm still stands as both a working tea factory with it’s own plants, a shop, and as a tourist attraction that teaches people about sustainable tea-farming via informative tours.
Tea has become a part of Taiwan’s social fabric, as it has a place at every occasion. It is perhaps this that allows the western tourists to appreciate the differences between ‘a cuppa’ in England, and tea. The process of making the drink is lengthy and continual as you awaken the leaves, often pour away the first brew, and use a cup for smelling and a cup for tasting. Each pot is emptied completely as no two brews taste the same – the idea being to drink each pot until the leaves become bitter. This of course, is why teacups in Asia are no larger than an egg cup in the UK. The wonderful procedure forces you to sit down with companions and take some time out, to respect each other and the drink, allowing a sense of calm to become associated with tea.
We were staying just half an hour from the factory, on the shore of the lake in Ita Thao. This is home to the Thao tribe who continue to create aboriginal delicacies, including an extremely delicious lime-flavoured Assam iced tea. Legend has it that the Thao ancestors followed a white deer all the way from Alishan (home to the famous oolong teas) to the lake, where they discovered an abundance of fish and thus decided to claim the land. Tribal life is almost extinct now however, as there are fewer than 800 Thao people left in the area. We enjoyed perusing the numerous stalls and shops ran by these kindly people, and bought several tea cups and pots.
Sun Moon Lake
From Sun Moon Lake we travelled north, where we discovered the Yingge District. This little gem hidden away in the southwestern corner of Taipei is home to the Ceramics Old Street. A collection of cobbled roads flooded with tea instruments of all kinds, from tiny cheap cups to delicate teapots that were way out of our price range. You can also make your own pots in workshops, stop for tea and test out the products, or wind your way up and down the many unique ceramic stalls trying not to buy everything in sight!
A fantastic thing about buying tea in Taiwan is the invitation to try before you buy. Laden down with the (four) teapots and (at least eight) teacups we had already purchased, we nipped into just one more tea shop. Two ladies sat at the back, happily chatting away over an already laid tea table. We got talking as Aaron soon recognised the Pu-erh tea on display. It was packaged in compressed discs, about the size of a frizbee – something I was thoroughly unfamiliar with. The ladies explained (as they brewed us about a dozen cups each) that Pu-erh is grown only in a particular region of china, and then is aged. It’s often drank in winter for its warmth and healing properties – and is more popular amongst the elderly. It certainly had a very different flavour to the light, creamy oolongs and deep amber assams we had been gorging on. Pu-erh tastes earthy and mature, though leaving a very pleasant mouthfeel afterwards. Obviously we had to buy some…
Once in the centre of Taiwan, we continued our mission to buy yet more tea. We came across Lin Mao Sen’s shop first, a delight to enter as the fragrance of tea mingles with award winning architecture. An assistant talked us through the official buying process, explaining that tea is sold by the ‘jinn’ – a measurement equivalent to 600g. He helped us choose four different teas, lifting the lids of each, and explaining the differences in price. Each type of tea has a number of grades, which usually refers to its quality – the higher the grade, the more expensive the tea. I had to purchase a jinn of jasmine as it’s my fragrant favourite, and Aaron went for a couple of oolongs and some pouchong green.
Following this, Aaron went looking for the oldest teashop in Taipei – which turned out to be right next door to Lin Mao Sen’s! The familiar metal lidded drums greeted him as he wandered in, though this store was full of locals buying huge orders – most likely for local restaurants and cafes. Just as he was leaving an older gentleman approached him and asked if he would like to try some tea. As it turned out, he was a member of the family, and gave Aaron a full tour around the shop and the back rooms; this kind of service is quintessential of the Taiwanese people.
Our last stop on this flying visit was a mountain tea village on the edge of the city, best reached via cable car. Packed with quirky cafes and traditional tea houses, this quiet village was a tourist attraction best visited on a rainy day to avoid the crowds. We managed to find a secluded spot on the perimeter, in a large two-storey traditional restaurant. Needless to say, the tea was extremely refreshing and we appreciated the moment of peace.
With thanks to Abi and Aaron for their insight into tea drinking during their time in Taiwan. Are you going on a sustainable adventure or staying longer somewhere to absorb the culture? Let us know and you could write for us!