Day 1, April 10, ARRIVAL. This was my first time to Taipei... the weather was perfect! We stayed in the city center in Zhongshan District. No jet lag here, I was too excited to get immersed in Asian tea culture.
I should have gotten the hint when the MTR (Taipei Metro System) walls were littered (no exaggeration) with boba milk tea and coffee adds... COFFEE?! The first day I walked, and searched, I Googled and Yelped... Tea house? Tea room? Tea Lounge? Tea Bar? No, no, no and NOPE. So I chalked the day up to travel fog, had a wonderful meal at Din Tai Fung, and would start fresh the next day.
Day 2, April 11, TEA HOUSE. Finally my good friend TripAdvisor led me to two tea houses in Taipei located on a street formerly known as "tea alley". Despite a decline in the tea industry, Lin Hua Tea has withstood market fluctuations since the 1800's. I was giddy to see big metal tins lined in rows clearly labeled with characters and price (But in Mandarin which I can't read or speak!). The promise of tea in my hands was bubbling... Just two doors down was a more modern tea dealer named Lin Mao Sen. Somehow to two brokers are related, same family, something about a split 6-7 years ago, but I don't have the backstory (you know I want to know it though!). Service was very courteous, they were patient with me wanting to see and smell every type of tea they have... Oriental Beauty, Alishan, Dong Ding, Assam (Taiwanese), Sun Moon Lake, Four Seasons, Jasmine, Osmanthus! Let's just say I left with two full bags in hand, but my mission to find TRUE Taiwan oolong not yet accomplished. These 2 tea merchants brokered tea. They work directly with growers in Taiwan, some from China, but clearly I wasn't about to penetrate their 4th generation market chain. So the search continues until I find tea bushes with my own eyes!
Day 3, April 12, BEIPU. So on the plane ride I saw a Taiwanese travel show covering the awesome tea rooms and nearby tea gardens of Old Beipu, a town inhabited by indigenous Hakka people, with architecture dating back to the Qing Dynasty. I HAAAAD to go! I mazed through Taipei's MRT metro system to the high speed rail to a short taxi ride up the mountain and 2 hours later, I was in Beipu! Except, it was pouring rain, and as soon as got out of Taipei, it appears that no one speaks English, UGH. Everyone was so nice, but as I slowed down my English, they slowed down their Mandarin, and we ended up communicating through Google images on my iPhone. It was kind of funny, but the Taiwanese people are so endearing and kind, our language barrier was overcome with teamwork and compassion (mostly them feeling sorry for me, LOL). Walking in the rain along old cobblestone alley ways in search of this ONE tea house that I saw on the travel show... after an hour I gave up and took a needed break at a Hakka tea house where they taught me how to pound lei cha, a pounded tea (more like hot cereal) made of tea, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and peanuts. It was a great diversion because when I finished the sky cleared, and I tried in vain for another hour to search for any signs of tea. No luck, so I headed back to Taipei, and treated myself to yet another delicious soup dumpling meal at Din Tai Fung.
Day 4, April 13, MAKONG!!! I had a good feeling about this day. It was my last day and I had to leave to catch my flight back to LAX by 3:30 pm. Back through the MRT maze to the outskirts of Taipei (public transport here is so well-organized, clean and safe! Why don't we have this in California!>%?) and up the glass-bottomed Sky Gondola to Maokong (cat sky) Mountain. Known for its touristy teahouses and skyline views of Taipei, my mission was to snuff out a true tea source for Jadetiger's Iron Goddess (Tie Kuan Yin - Iron Goddess of Mercy Oolong Tea). I researched 2 possible leads, the Taipei Tea Promotion Center or the Chang Nai-Mao Tea Memorial - with time running short, I only had time for one, so I followed my gut and went with the former. Off the gondola, my handy dandy travel partner Siri took me down a (hot and humid) 10-minute walk to this building. I walked in, no one. A moment of, "REALLY!?! This is how my tea trip is going!?" and out walks nice, English-speaking lady. We start slow with, "do you serve tea here?" and it eventually progresses to a tea tasting with her husband, a 4th-generation tea master (not the token online kind, the real deal, lifetime master). His Great Grandfather Chang Nai Mao is THEE guy who in 1895, brought over the first 3,000 tea bushes from Anxi, Fujian China to plant in Taiwan!!!!!!! BINGO, EUREKA, JACKPOT, sigh of relief! Not only do they source Taiwan tea, they are experts, still standing despite Taiwan's tea glut. They understand what TRULY organic tea means and don't have these "loose" definitions like many tea brokers outside of the U.S. They are training their daughter to take on the next generation of tea business, and I am ready to place orders. The wife kindly led us to the tea terraces where some of best Tie Kuan Yin in the world is grown - I couldn't contain myself and started jumping like a little girl! This is definitely the start of a lifelong tea friendship, and I look forward to coming back for more tea, and lessons from the Tea Master.
BOTTOM LINE: I am surprised to learn that coffee culture is the RAGE. Every third business was either a café or a bakery that served specialty coffee drinks. The competition with the milk teas & bobas (which has held top beverage spot for the younger generations) was palpable. The newer trends lie in fruitteas (which doesn't even taste like tea to me!) and topping-loaded shave ice dessert spots, but I'm not feeling the staying power.
BUT... oolong anyone? What the heck?!?? From California, I have been immersed in self-imposed tea studies and tea discipline for the past 6 YEARS!!! Oolong is synonymous with the word "Taiwan", I thought? I was like, "Hi Taiwan, I'm here, FINALLY, Oolong Me!!!" Taiwan was like, "Oh honey..."
The migration to tea is gaining momentum in the West as people associate tea with a zen healthy lifestyle, clean diet, and a more peaceful route to caffeine intake. While the tea movement will surely make its way back to Taiwan, it will take time. Taiwan's youth is only starting to reconnect with their roots (the maker movement is already in full bloom state side). As the East sees the West's desire for the tea lifestyle, the re-embrace of tea culture will re-plant itself.
Meanwhile, I have sourced some REAL GOOD TEA! The pricing is too high and not quite retail-ready, but I'm working on it. Since the trip 2-weeks ago, I've already found a delicious Iron Goddess tea hunter. Until I can source a more affordable Tie Kuan Yin, there's an open invitation to anyone who would like to sit with me for a private Taiwan tea tasting. Cheers!