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After I wrote an article introducing tea in Taiwan in 2016, I was contacted by representatives from several Taiwanese tea-related companies and organizations. One of these was Sam, one of three permanent residents at Global Tea Hut (國際茶亭)’s headquarters Tea Sage Hut (通聖亭) in Miaoli (苗栗), a small county capital in Central-Western Taiwan.
At first I assumed they were some kind of tea distributor like the others who’d contacted me, but upon closer inspection of their website I soon realized they were much more than that.
Global Tea Hut won’t be found on any typical Taiwan itinerary, but I know for a fact that some people travel around the world just to visit it! And if you are coming from Taipei, then Miaoli and Global Tea Hut can easily be done as a day trip from Taipei.
Update: Global Tea Hut has announced that Tea Sage Hut is currently closed, and they are in the midst of fundraising for a new center, Life Meets Life, somewhere in Taiwan.
Global Tea Hut and the Tea and Tao Magazine
Wu De is a controversial figure. In Facebook tea geek groups, he’s either highly respected, or criticized for cultism, cultural appropriation, combining religion with something that is inherently not religious, and being “woo-woo”.
Another cool place to try tea in Taiwan is Jiufen, New Taipei City, which features some gorgeous historic teahouses.
Visiting Global Tea Hut’s “Tea Sage Hut”
In order to get to Miaoli on time for the 8 am one-hour meditation that starts every day at Tea Sage Hut, I had to wake up at 5:30 am and catch the first High Speed Rail of the day from Taipei, a 44-minute, NT$430 (US$13) ride. The HSR just recently opened it’s Miaoli station, and only runs there once every 30 minutes until 8 am, and then hourly for the rest of the day. I could have paid half the price for a two-hour ride on the local train, and the Miaoli TRA station is actually closer to Tea Sage Hut, but I didn’t want to get up so early that I might fall asleep during the meditation class.
I’ve been to places in Miaoli County (苗栗縣) several times, but never had a reason to visit the city itself. Pulling up in the HSR, I was impressed with how green Miaoli City and surrounds are. Despite being a county capital, it is not even in the top ten in Taiwan in terms of population. Miaoli residents boast about their pleasant weather, with the Central Mountain Range (中央山脈) visible to the east and shielding the area from most typhoons and rainstorms.
When I got into a taxi and said the street name, the driver knew the place right away, indicating plenty of foreigners went there. “What is that place?” he asked in Mandarin. “It’s like a…an American zen temple and a hotel for foreigners.” “Huh?” he replied. “Um…It’s a kind of teahouse. They drink tea and meditate.” The driver looked even more perplexed and said nothing, so I promptly changed the subject.
Tea Sage Hut is in the southeast of the city. After passing a row of betel nut beauties near the HSR station, which lies just north of the city, and then circumnavigated the city on an outer ring road, we crossed a bridge then entered the city proper. The taxi then turned down a number of increasingly narrow, unmarked lanes then alleys before stopping before a kind of building that exists in the south of Taiwan but us Taipei apartment-dwellers are totally unfamiliar with: an actual house.
With prayer flags strung on the outer walls, a coy pond watched over by a Buddha statue to the side of a rocky courtyard, and the large black characters 好茶 (“good tea”) and 奉茶 (“to revere or share tea with respect”) emblazoned on the outer wall to either side of the door, I knew I was at the place.
I was soon greeted by Shen, a slim, handsome Western man in a white tang zhuang (唐装), a traditional Chinese suit top for men), who is the second of the two permanent initiates studying under Wu De at the center. Shen proceeded to give me a quick tour. The main room of the house serves as the tearoom, with a large wooden table occupying much of the floor space. Behind it, a chain running through a bamboo pole hung from the ceiling from which a pot of tea could be hung over a charcoal fire.
The walls on all sides had shelves holding all manner of tea paraphernalia, teapots, compressed tea cakes, and so on. At the front of the room stood a simple alter. To the right was a doorway that led to a meditation room, and to the left the kitchen and dining area. Above the dining table was a short list of rules including: hug every person here once per day.
Just before 8:00 Shen sounded a gong several times to indicate to guests upstairs that it was time to rise and join the morning meditation. Before going through a beaded door curtain with the character 茶 (tea) on it and into the elevated meditation room, participants anointed themselves with water from a stone basin. The one-hour meditation was a guided recording by Wu De. It was a simple, 50-minute focus on the breath that ended with ten minutes of meditation on metta (loving kindness).
I haven’t tried to meditate in quite some time; for the past two years my life has been very hectic, with my wife and I both working and sharing the responsibility of taking care of our two-year-old son Sage and seven-month daughter Lavender. My body is not in good shape right now, and as such the meditation was tough for me physically. My legs cramped up about halfway through, and my back and shoulders were stiff by the end. Mentally it was relieving though, as I seldom have an entire free hour at my disposal to simply sit in contemplative silence.
Next, meditation led into a silent breakfast, which was less awkward than it may sound. It was just after breakfast that I got my first, and then second, of several random hugs that day. The center, as you might imagine, attracts a mixed bag of people, from tea nerds and individuals working in the industry to hippie backpackers and spiritual seekers.
But one thing every person I met that day had in common was that they were all outwardly kind, humble people, the kind who are comfortable in their skin, who give every person a chance, who do things like fly around the world to do meditation and stay in a zen and tea center and eat vegetarian food and give random hugs to like-minded people. In short, they were the kind of people that I like.
The breakfast then led into a tea session led by Wu De himself. Wu De would later describe this part as the crux or heart of everything that he and the Global Tea Hut are all about. Despite all the detailed, wordy jargon in the magazine and Wu De’s forthcoming cha dao lecture, he would later insist that it all boils down to one thing: the sharing and blissful enjoyment of tea. No words transpired during the hour-long tea session, but the silence was filled with the rising and falling drone of meditation music and the bubbling of Wu De’s tea kettle.
Wu De was as intense as I had expected based on the former student’s comment I mentioned above. I’d passed him once or twice earlier in the morning. He came across as distant and unsmiling (or maybe he’d just woken up and hadn’t had his morning tea yet?), and hadn’t returned my nod and smile. His severity faded once the tea session began, or rather melted into an austere focus on the preparation and serving of the tea.
I don’t know much about gong fu cha (功夫茶), that is, “skilled tea” or the Chinese tea ceremony, so I don’t know how true to type what followed was. In fact, as Wu De later explained, we were enjoying this morning’s tea not gong fu style but in the simplest of five methods: bowl tea. Wu De recommends any cha dao student to stick to nothing but leaves and hot water in a bowl for at least 6 months, developing a relationship with and love for the tea before even attempting to learn the skills necessary to execute gong fu tea.
Bowl tea can be subdivided into three methods: direct bowl tea, bowl tea poured from a side-handled pot, and boiled tea. Our morning’s tea session was the second of the three. A side-handle pot has essentially the same result as leaves placed directly in one’s bowl, but helps to prevent pieces of tea from certain loose varieties from getting into the bowl.
Wu De proceeded to heat a kettle, closing his eyes and placing his left hand on the handle, feeling the vibrations of the bubbles to determine when perfect temperature had been achieve. He precisely lined up seven bowls, one for each person at the table, himself included, turning each one 45 degrees after setting it down.
The master then warmed each bowl with hot water, put several large pinches of withered black pu-erh tealeaves (普洱茶) from a bowl on the table into a pot, added hot water to rinse the tealeaves, then dumped the water into a basin. He filled the pot again, steeped it for about 30 seconds, and then poured the tea into the bowls, only a splash at a time, going back and forth along the seven bowls about four times, in order to evenly distribute the liquor from the top and bottom of the teapot.
At this point I realized it might have been a bad idea to have that cup of coffee on the train ride down from Taipei, but I don’t think I could have made it from 5:30 am to teatime without some caffeine in my system.
One final observation I made before the session came to a close was that Wu De had never once replaced the tealeaves in the pot. This meant that those few pinches of tealeaves had produced 70+ bowls of tea! And still, the tea remained flavorful till the end, but those flavors transformed with every round. I’ve heard before that pu-erh can be steeped this many times, but never had the stamina to attempt doing it on my own.