Since my first trip to Taiwan, I’ve been frequently asked about what to do and where to go for tea in Taiwan. This is an attempt to answer some of these questions.. I should also preface this with a warning. I’m by no means an experienced sourcer and have had my share of purchasing errors and regrets, so please take this all with the proper context with appropriate reservations.. These are more or less the answers I’d typically give venturing off to the island of tea.
I’m going to Taiwan and want to experience tea? Where do I go?
The good news is tea is not hard to find.. This answer largely depends on what you’re looking for. From boba to more serious tea drinking, it covers a huge range of tea culture. If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably into your gong-fu tea. Wistaria tea house is a good place to start and is the first place on most tea people’s list, experienced or inexperienced.
Two other tea-centric areas in the greater Taipei area are Maokong and Yingge. Maokong is an area in Wenshan in the southeast corner of Taipei. You can take the MRT all the way to the the end of the Brown Line and then a scenic gondola ride up.. It’s a nice place to casually walk around and drink tea. It may be a good idea to bring your own tea and pay the water fee as most of the tea sold up there isn’t particularly good (some say it’s mostly from Vietnam). Some lower-elevation tea is grown around Maokong and Muzha (Tieguanyin) is nearby but most of the appeal is drinking tea in a nice, natural area rather than serious tea.
Yingge is an old pottery town located in the suburbs, ~45-1hr train ride away from Taipei. Similar to Maokong, Yingge is kind of a mixed bag for serious tea or teaware. You can find some pots, but it’s mainly a cool place to walk around and experience. There’s a museum covering Taiwanese pottery and an old street, where most of the pottery and teashops are based.
What is Wistaria?
Wistaria is a tea house and historic building located at the base of Da’an Park in Taipei. The format may be a bit unusual for those that haven’t traveled to tea houses in east Asia.. Usually you order tea by the person and they’ll bring out a pot, cups, and other basic teaware. The menu is a pretty diverse affair and includes pu’erh, oolongs, greens, aged tea, etc. The proprietor, Zhou Yu, is a famous tea person and producer of pu’erh with a number of his own pu’erh productions dating back to the early 2000s. There’s also a private menu where you can sample from Mr. Zhou’s collection of antique teas, perhaps most notably the 1950s Red Mark. It’s appropriately expensive but it’s rare to see that opportunity so openly. If you just want to drink your own tea, you can also bring your own tea and just pay a water fee.
By Taiwanese standards the tea fee of ~$10/person, it’s rather expensive. However, by our western standards it’s more than a fair price to pay for the time, space and quality of tea.
Zhou Yu’s teas most recent pressings are under the boutique label, Baohongyinji. Notable productions of Zhenren Yufeng and Wangong.
Where else can you go for tea in Taiwan?
Tea can really be found everywhere. Both Taichung (Taizhong) and Tainan (the old capital) have a good deal of tea houses and tea shops. Tainan in particular is home to many of the Taiwanese boutique producers of pu’erh, i.e. Chenyuan Hao, Yangqing Hao, Xizi Hao. There’s also of course actual tea growing area, such as Alishan, Nantou (Dongding, Shanlixi), and Lishan. Taiwan is not a huge country and you can get to many of these via car.
Where do I find tea to take home? What’s the difference between a tea house and a tea shop?
Tea houses are places like Wistaria. The business model is creating a nice place for people to hang out for a few hours and drink teas. You can order tea off the menu or bring your own. At many of these tea houses you can buy tea to take and brew at home (such as Wistaria) but it’s not their main source of business, and you’ll have to ask for the tea prices to take home.
Tea shops are different from tea houses and are places where you drink tea for free and purchase tea to take home. These are inherently sales experiences, where you’re drinking the tea to try as a sampling. How hard of a sell is shop-dependent and can really vary. Many of these are mom and pop type shops, manned by the owner and are a one-person or family run show, rather than a fleet of sales employees. It’s quite possible to spend a couple hours in a teashop if you’re serious about buying their tea. They should also let you sample or try most reasonably priced tea without purchasing or spending money up front.
Alright what teashops and areas do I go to if I’m looking to buy?
This of course depends on what you’re looking for and how much time you want to spend. Taiwan is a very nice place even without *gasp* all the tea. Be a well-rounded individual and don’t drag your travel mates around against their will…
In Taipei a good area to start is the Yongkang area south of Dongmen station. There’s a main street/strip with a bunch of teashops. The area expands west, east, and south and you can find hidden tea shops/houses tucked away in random corners. You won’t find grandiose deals, but you can find decent tea at decent prices and that’s often enough to beat the western market.
Taiwanese teas. These are easy to find and most stores carry something.. I’ve found most vendors will tend to aim low at first and if you’re looking for the better stuff, you’d probably do best to immediately ask for gaoshan or one of the higher-mountain areas, Alishan, Lishan, Shanlixi.
Pu’erh. It’s not produced here, but Taiwan is still one of the best places in the world to shop for serious tea which includes our beloved pupu pile.. Wistaria is a good place to start with a respected producer and several well-reviewed productions, if you’re OK spending between 4800-6500NTD on a cake ($150-200).. There’s a lot of tea that they sell, that isn’t on the menu so you will have to ask their front desk.
There’s also large stocks of older pu’erh much of which has come from Hong Kong or been stored in Taiwan for a while. Shops specialized in pu’erh are usually pretty easy to identify. Go to a shop with lots of pu’erh in the window. With these, I’d recommend walking around the store, looking at the stock and deciding what you’d like to try. Some may just have a lot of semi-old factory tea, others might carry young dayi, others could just be Zhongcha. Based off that and what you’re looking for, you can ask to try something specific or give the proprietor general parameters of what you’re looking to buy. Similar to Taiwanese teas, if there’s something you’re probably not interested in it’s best to be discriminating and move onto something that fits in with your interests and/or price range better.
Old tea. This usually means aged oolong in Taiwan and while there’s not too many shops specialized in just “old tea”, just about everyone has something to offer. Marshaln has covered this far more than anyone else.. Ask for “Lao Cha”, old tea, and smell/drink what they bring out. The main pitfall for these is avoiding overly roasted or sour teas.
One advantage to Westerners..
One advantage you may have depending on where you’re traveling from is the power of your dollar. Taipei despite being the biggest city in Taiwan isn’t an expensive place. The cost of living is approximately half of Seattle’s. Places like Wistaria are expensive to a local, but not bad for someone traveling that’s already dropped $1000USD on a plane ticket.
Is this different from China? What about Hong Kong? Do I need to negotiate?
Yes. There are tons of differences between China. While it’s good to have a good idea of prices, most of the time you’ll get quoted real prices and have to worry far less about being ripped off. It’s also quite different from Hong Kong, with far more small mom & pop businesses.
Do I need to negotiate?
The simple answer is, no. I had a friend accompany to Taipei and was asked to acquire good high-mountain tea.. He was told that it’d be really good if he negotiated because well.. “It is the Asian way”. This conversation made me want to gouge my eyes out. Negotiation is usually not necessary at most tea shops, and for most small cases it’s not usually worth the trouble. If you do end up buying in decent quantity, it’s definitely worth asking.. Just don’t expect China-level discounts or anything more than 10-20% off.
What not to do: I’d like 100 grams please..
Taiwanese oolong prices are typically quoted per jin. For loose tea, a jin is 600 grams and quantities are normally divided evenly from there. This doesn’t mean you need to buy a full jin, but it does mean that usually you’ll be buying in some fraction of that. For instance, 37.5g (a tael, 1/16th), 75g (1/8th), 150g (1/4th), 300g (1/2), etc.. If you ask for 100 grams, expect confusion..