Thursday, January 19, 2017

Searching for tea in Taipei, Taiwan


with Shiow Lin, owner of Lin Hua Tai tea shop (and sporting a travel beard)



A recent tour-themed vacation back home to see family in Pennsylvania also spanned Washington DC, New York City, and a short stop in Taipei, Taiwan.  I posted about looking for tea in NYC but the subject didn't come up in DC.  So close though!  We were right on the edge of their Chinatown at Union Station at one point but bizarre as it might seem the search for tea wasn't a priority.


Of course it was a priority and did come up in Taipei; tea is part of what they do.  My wife said "given what you bought in NYC that's enough tea already," but that was clearly just temporary insanity induced by the jet lag.  I'll go through what I experienced of it there, although I really didn't do the subject justice since that visit was basically a long layover to take a look around, with only two full days there.


Taipei is cool, by the way.  It felt a little like Seoul to me, maybe even a little more laid back, with a vibe that's different in a way that's hard to describe.  I wasn't seeing so many foreigners around but I never had the impression anyone cared much either way that we weren't from Taiwan, which was nice.  People seemed pleasant and genuine.  It's tempting to compare it to mainland China but perhaps not fair or equivalent to directly compare the few places I've been in China given some significant differences (Shenzhen, Beijing, and Shanghai).  The culture was friendly and relaxed, not as hectic as most cities everywhere feel (except Bangkok also isn't like that; Thais wouldn't be into it).  The look was as if it had been completely modern and fully developed a few decades ago, maybe even longer.  It didn't have that aged urban / industrial look US East Coast cities have but it didn't have a brand new feel either, in the middle.

Taipei 101!



On the subject of tourism and what else we did, we saw Taipei 101, and shopped a little, and tried some local food.  That was it; the two days filled.  I really wanted to try the Taiwanese version of shaved ice but being the dead of winter there--at a balmy 19 C / 66 F, give or take, cool but on the comfy side coming from -6 C / 20 F in NYC--no one was eating flavored ice just then.



About looking for tea there



Tea is not so hard to run across there; tea shops turn up everywhere.  Unfortunately I was seeing places selling the same ten or so common types, high mountain oolong, with an Oriental Beauty version, and a little black tea.  Those are fine, it's just that one would want to either find something more unique (ideally) or else at least run across above average versions of those.  Without trying a tea it would be hard to know if it wasn't just a mid-grade uninteresting version.


I'd just had a so-so experience in a NYC branch of the main chain store from Taiwan, Ten Ren.  They were selling tea as "black tea," a clear violation of the idea that there should be as many details about the tea offered as possible.  Of course if you can try a tea first that's sold only as "black tea" if it's great then it's great, but that's not a good sign.


Taipei, from Taipei 101 on a cloudy day



So how to turn up leads?  The obvious answer:  Google!  Going further, an online acquaintance and blogger Nick Kemble wrote a great post on tea from Taiwan, based on background knowledge from living there (where he still is now), in this post:


I've been living in Taiwan for nearly eight years and I've become addicted to all kinds of Taiwanese foods and drinks, but it wasn't until last year that I first developed a true appreciation for Taiwanese tea (cha2 茶).


His advice his favorite place made up a short list, which is almost all I had time for:


My favorite place in Taipei to buy bulk tea is the Lin Mao Sen Tea Co 林茂森茶行 (195-3 Chongqing N Rd, MRT Daqiaotou...  The clerks speak impeccable English and can describe all the characteristics of the teas to you before you buy. There are dozens of varieties on display in large metal barrels, and the main local varieties are sorted according to quality, ranging from very cheap to very expensive.  Tea, just like most dried goods and produce in Taiwan, is sold by the jin (jin1斤). One jin is equivalent to 600 grams... 


Lin Mao Sen shop; it is absolutely beautiful, and the people were nice




I should also mention that Lin Hua Tai is a related shop (website), with Lin Mao Sen actually split off from that older shop located next door.  There is more backstory about that I won't get into, but both are worth a look.

The one place that comes up a lot in online discussion is Wistaria Tea House, a cafe that also sells loose teas.  Per reputation they have a connection to aged pu'er, even though that's tea from Yunnan, China, not local.  I didn't make it there; time was really tight.  One can review random observations about there on TripAdvisor, or review Tea Chat tea forum mentions of experiences there, or of other places.

I missed meeting a vendor that's probably a better tea reference than one is ever able to find, Stephan Erler of the Tea Masters Blog and the related Tea Masters Blog shop.  His blog is one of the best references about Taiwanese teas on the internet (in my opinion) and it's a real shame to not get a chance for a visit while there.  I could always just order online but I tend to buy teas when I travel and my wish-list for purchase ordering results in a long, endless queue I barely chip away at.  Perhaps it's not my place to judge since I haven't tried the teas but they look like incredible options in terms of range of selection and value, and some limited feedback in a discussion thread seconds that.


some pork dish, and other sides, just delicious



Visiting Lin Mao Sen and Lin Hua Tai tea shops



Lin Hua Tai; a bit of a warehouse feel, but cool



I'll come straight out with it:  these are the only places I bought tea.  We spent two full days in Taiwan, which went fast working around 11 hour time-shift jet lag, especially with two young kids in tow.  I was happy to have found such a good resource, although Wistaria would've been nice to see, or the Yingge traditional ceramics district a bit outside of the downtown area.

It would be hard to go further than Nick Kemble's description of the basics related to both those shops (Lin Hua Tai and Lin Mao Sen; he only described one but they're functionally similar).  They are both retail and wholesale shops that sell a lot of the basic types, and then a few others, in a range of quality levels or grades.  The smallest quantity they sell is 150 grams, with most teas a bit under $20 per that quantity for next to highest grade and around $30 for the highest.  Those are great prices, for what the teas are, at least in my estimation.  I'd know better after drinking what I bought, but at a guess people in the West aren't finding any better teas from most outlets, and they're definitely not paying as low as around $10 for 50 grams for teas on that level (although the Tea Master's outlet is a possible exception--just take a look at this description, or something more unusal).


Onto more back-story first, though.  Freeing up time for an outing was brutal, given only the two days to work with, so I was skipping an afternoon nap to shop.  A friend recommended another shop I visited first, in a different part of the city, but the tea offerings looked a bit standard.  They were probably good, but I passed.


after visiting NYC the subway had a 4 star feel, just missing "local color"



Getting around was rougher due to that sleep-cycle disruption haze, and not so long into the search I was slightly mis-routed twice in two places, looking for the Lin Mao Sen shop.  At least it wasn't snowing--the Taiwan winter is a cool version of room temperature, not that you'd know it from the winter jackets they wear.  It turned out I found Lin Hua Tai first, next door to where I'd set out to go, on the far side of the same street when walking from the metro.  Maybe it was the universe trying to tell me something.  It turns out the owner, Shiow Lin, had also lived in Pennsylvania (where I'm from), doing graduate studies at Wharton.  That is on the other side of the State in Philly, and I'm from up near Erie, but close enough.


After checking out some teas it was clear I was in the right place.  The lower grades looked and smelled nice; upper grades had that extra level of fruit, complexity, richness, or buttery character.  I mapped it all out:  I needed some high mountain oolong, some Oriental Beauty, and some of a nice fruity and soft black tea style that I love.  Onto payment:  they weren't set up for credit card payments, but luckily I had extra US cash they would take.  Or I thought I did:  my ultra-efficient wife had emptied my wallet of that when we changed countries, so I came back the next day.  That also let us check out a nearby Carrefour, a French grocery store chain my wife loves that's no longer in Bangkok.  I've only tried one of the teas so far, a honey flavored black tea, and so far so good, it was rich, complex, fruity, and very clean-flavored.


Lin Mao Sen teaware selection, part of it



Lin Mao Sen (website) was really more of the same, just in a lot more beautiful a shop setting, a bit more organized towards retail sales.  One owner--or the owner's son, however that goes in a family business--had lived in Canada so his English was also flawless, just lacking that cool twist that Brits put on the language.  I bought a sweet and rich black tea for a friend there, and more for me (so maybe I can do a comparison tasting with one from next door; I think those styles are the same), and some more-roasted Dong Ding, I think it was.


We had a nice talk about tea, about different shops, and pu'er, about the relation between the two shops (they had split five years ago), and about gaba tea.  Is that type familiar?  It's nitrogen-environment processed tea, a Japanese invention I think, designed to produce gaba, a brain-regulating compound that's supposed to relax you (with more on that in this post).  Per what I've tried of it the processing gives the teas a strange sour taste.  His insight:  it's really about the tea being relaxing, but it's also an acquired taste, as pu'er can be, although not everyone would acquire it.  Who knows if I've tried the best examples just yet; that would make a difference.  We talked a little about pu'er, about why it's even there, but nothing really new came up.  Somehow people there appreciate it too, even though they're not so into Wuyi Yancha or Longjing or whatever other styles might map over, but don't.



Lin Hua Tai teaware section, limited, but seemingly good value options



I also bought a couple of clay pots at Lin Hua Tai, at a reasonable price.  As for how that works out in function I'd not be the right person to judge, given my limited experience and knowledge related to different pots and types of clay.  But it'll be one more thing to mess around with.


my favorite part of visiting Taipei, these two


About comparing the two shops, Lin Hua Tai and Lin Mao Sen, the latter is set up better as a retail outlet (they take credit cards, it's more beautiful, with more range of teaware), but in general they seemed similar.  I'm not completely impartial because even after such a short span of time I consider Shiow Lin a friend.  I see that as a good thing; feeling a connection with a vendor with some shared background and a shared love of tea should be a more typical experience than it often turns out to be.



I'd recommend sparing some time at both shops, talking to people at both, and buying tea from both.  The tea might well not be the "teas that never leave Taiwan" but my impression was that most tea lovers would wish it was more common to find teas this diverse and this good, and offered as such good values.  

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