With the map of Taiwan resembling a tea leaf, it should not come as a surprise that tea is one of Taiwan’s oldest exports. Guest contributor Milton Hill accompanies Stuart Hill on a quest for the perfect cup of Taipei tea.
There are two types of tea drinkers: those that use tea bags and those that brew their tea in a pot. The first type can be put into the same category of people as those that prefer to drink instant coffee over brewed, and ignored as not very serious tea drinkers.
The second type can be divided into several categories as well. Those that prefer Green, Black, Red, White or even Yellow tea. I hasten to add, that the White tea previously mentioned is not with milk, but describes the appearance of the leaves of the tea plant grown in certain altitudes. As all teas basically spring from the same type of plant similar to the camellia (camellia sinensis) it is the processing and blending of various varieties that counts. Like grapes, tea can be grown almost anywhere, but like poor grapes, from which good wine cannot be made, poor quality tea bushes will only produce an inferior tea.
However, there is a use for these teas, as they can be blended with superior quality teas to average the flavor (and price!) of the final blend.
Another sub-section of brews are made from various herbs or grasses, such as Thyme, Fennel, Lemon Balm, Peppermint, and Chamomile. Whether these can lay claim to being called “teas” or medicines is another question. If tea is used to relax, calm or revive, or simply to enjoy at a social occasion, it too may claim to have medicinal qualities.
Teas that closely resemble the brews made from the herbs and grasses are those that have an introduced perfume or spice that gives it a distinct aroma. As a plant from the camellia family it may not be so strange to have, say, rose petal, or lemon blended in to the mix.
Taiwanese are lovers of all varieties of tea. And most drinkers fall into the category of the “tea in a pot” kind. That said, if you ask for “red” tea (as in black tea), you might find yourself drinking from a Lipton’s tea bag. But for coffee shops and tea houses that are more discerning, expect to get fruit and flower mixes, tea leaves and quality infusions. Some traditional traders of green tea also produce some of their better leaves in tea bags, ensuring their customers enjoy both quality and convenience.
As you’d expect from a country of tea growers, there are plenty of places to enjoy teas of all types. When in Taipei, a visit to the Tea House of Smith & Hsu provides the perfect experience for tea-drinking pleasure. When seated, you are offered a tray with around 30 sample jars of various straight or blended teas of many varieties. Using your nose, you are able to smell and select the tea you would like to drink by its aroma. Smith & Hsu’s scones aren’t half bad either.
Another wonderful tea drinking experience in Taiwan can be had at the Taiwan Folk Museum, which was formerly a Japanese Hotel, hot spring and entertainment center located in BeiTou. This impressive example of Japanese architecture dates from the early 20th century. Guests sit at low tables in this exquisitely designed and furnished Japanese room tea and food is brought to your table. The day we visited, we were served by a waiter who surprisingly turned out to be neither Japanese nor Taiwanese; he was a foreign student who just loved tea. Although very knowledgeable we were spared the full tea drinking ceremony, due to our schedule, but nevertheless enjoyed a slightly abridged version.
Taiwan, in fact, has a long history of the commercial growing, processing, and trade of tea, dating back to at least the 18th century with commercial trading between China and Taiwan (see Life and Times of a Taiwan Tea Trader: John Dodd). Today, there are still historical remnants of this industry even in downtown Taipei. You can visit one of the tea trading houses in the old western side of Taipei, down near the river.
One such business is Wang You Ji Ming Cha (王有記茗茶) on ChongQing North Road. The back of their shop still has the old tea curing facilities where the leaves were dried.
Over a sampling of their various Taiwanese teas, it is not hard to imagine the kind of exhausting , and at times unhealthy, conditions under which early tea workers labored, for what must have provided fortunes for a few and pleasure to so many.
More about Taiwan’s tea industry
- Life and Times of a Taiwan Tea Trader: John Dodd
- Smith & Hsu tea house website
- Wang You Ji Ming Cha (王有記茗茶) website
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