I’ll be covering a lot in this article, including varieties of Taiwanese tea, how to order tea from Taiwan, where to buy tea in Taipei and Taiwan, Taipei tea houses, how to brew Taiwanese tea, tea tours in Taipei, and tea-related attractions around Taiwan.
I’ve been living in Taiwan for ten 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 (茶), especially Taiwan’s oolong tea.
I’m not talking about pearl milk tea (珍珠奶茶), for which the island is famous, nor do I mean the sickly sweet iced concoctions made in Taipei tea shops at every corner. I mean real tea.
Taiwan produces some of the finest oolong teas in the world, and the more I learn about the different varieties and subtle differences between them, the more I find myself becoming obsessed with tea.
If you want to experience Taiwan’s tea culture with an expert guide, try this Taipei tea tour to Taiwan’s largest tea museum and a tea plantation with phenemenal views in New Taipei City, this night tour to Maokong tea area in Taipei City.
Despite all the varieties available, all true teas are brewed from cured leaves of the same plant, Camellia sinensis. Tea originated in Southwestern China, becoming a popular recreational drink during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-904), then spread to other parts of Asia. Tea didn’t become big in England until the British began cultivating it in India in the 17th century.
The Chinese have traditionally added flavors, either natural or artificial, to some teas. Popular ones include jasmine (茉莉) and lychee (荔枝). Herbal (花草茶), fruit (水果茶) and flower (花茶) teas are also common in China and Taiwan, but are not true teas.
Caffeine levels vary in tea, but contrary to what some say, your typical cup of tea has less caffeine that a cup of coffee. Tea may be higher in caffeine by volume, but quite a bit less tealeaves are used than coffee beans to brew a single cup.
Many factors affect the characteristics of a tea, including climate, altitude, water, and soil, but what separates them into the main varieties is the method of post-harvesting production.
Many Taiwanese teas have been transplanted from China, but with a new terroir, they take on new characteristics, and some varieties have been developped only in Taiwan. Typically, they are named after the place where they are grown, for example, Alishan High Mountain tea comes from the area around Ali Mountain, but in some cases when seedlings from the original place are grown elsewhere they may still be given that name.
Main Varieties of Tea from Taiwan
The amount of oxidation, or fermentation, that tealeaves undergo after being harvested determines the variety of tea. The following are in order from least to most oxidized.
White Tea (白茶)
This is the least processed of all teas and has an extremely mild flavor and light yellow color (the name “white” comes from the tiny silvery-white hairs found on the unopened buds of the plant). White tea comes from Fujian province in China, and as far as I know it is not produced in Taiwan.
Green Tea (綠茶)
Like white tea, green tea is totally unoxidized, but has a stronger flavor. Green teas tend to be sharp and possess citrusy or vegetal undertones. It is believed that by roasting or pan-firing the leaves immediately after harvesting, they retain much of their natural flavor. China and Japan produce most green teas. Taiwan produces some, but they are far less common here than oolongs. An interesting flavored green tea I’ve come across in Taiwan is sweet osthmanthus green tea (桂花綠茶).
Oolong (Wulong) Tea (烏龍茶)
Oolongs are semi-oxidized teas, generally ranging from 10% (lighter, closer to a green tea in characteristics) to 80% (darker, more robust, closer to a black tea). As such, oolongs are highly varied. They can be steeped multiple times, and each steeping produces different flavors. Taiwan’s oolong teas are prized by tea connoisseurs around the world and can fetch astronomical prices.
Black Tea (“Red Tea” in Mandarin) (紅茶)
Black tea leaves are fully oxidized, giving them the most robust flavor. They are most common in the West, and produced mainly in India and Sri Lanka, though China does produce some as well. Many of them are blends, and sometimes flavors are added (for example the addition of oil of bergamot produces Earl Grey tea). Sun Moon Lake black tea is Taiwan’s most famous.
Pu Er Tea (普洱茶)
Pu Er tea is a fully fermented, aged tea that is unique to Yunnan province in southwestern China. Pu er is truly “black” tea, being extremely dark, earthy, and robust in flavor, and it often comes packed in large dense pucks. It is fairly easy to find in Taiwan but it is not produced here. I’ve also seen it packed in mini one-pot sized pucks wrapped in thin paper (see center of below left photo) in shops on Dihua street (迪化街) in Taipei.
Taiwanese Oolong Tea: Taiwan’s Best Tea
The high altitude, humid and misty mountains of Taiwan provide the perfect growing conditions for oolong tea. Taiwan’s oolong teas account for 20% of world production. More than 25 varieties of tea are grown in northern Taiwan alone, and most of them are oolongs. Taiwan hosts annual tea tasting competitions, and the winning teas can fetch prices as high as 1000 USD per kilogram or more. The following are some of the most common varieties found in Taiwan:
Baozhong (or Pouchong) “wrapped variety” (包種茶)
This Taiwanese oolong tea is lightly oxidized (15-25%) so it is light, floral, and has a melon aroma. It is produced mainly in the Pinglin (坪林) and Nangang (南港) districts of Taipei City (see below). Baozhong originated in Fujian province and is named after the unique square packages that it comes wrapped in. It’s very easy to tour Baozhong tea-growing areas from Taipei.
Iron Goddess (Tieguanyin) (鐵觀音茶)
Named after the Goddess of Mercy, this tea also originated in Fujian, but is now commonly grown in Taiwan, especially in the Maokong area (see below). There are many varieties that vary from light to medium bodied.
Alishan High Mountain (阿里山高山茶)
Alishan is not only famous for it’s misty mountains and sunrises above seas of clouds. Traditionally revered by locals as Taiwan’s best tea, this is the only stuff my wife’s father will touch. It is usually around 40% oxidized, so it is light to medium in color, and is grown at altitudes of 1000-2000 meters. The tealeaves are usually rolled into dense little balls that unfold when you add hot water. It has a creamy mouthfeel that seems to coat the mouth, and a sweet, long-lasting aftertaste. It is sold for as high as 400 USD per kilogram. See my comparison of Alishan and another Taiwanese oolong tea, Dong Ding Oolong tea.
Near Hehuanshan and Lishan in the Central Mountain range, Dayuling’s insanely high price is related to the mountain’s remoteness, high altitude (2200-meter crops), and the small quantity that is produced as much as it is to the fact that it frequently wins tea competitions. This is the most expensive of Taiwane’s teas, at up to 1000 USD per kilogram. I have yet to try it.
Oriental Beauty (東方美人)
60% fermented, this fine tea has an amber color and earthy characteristics. Insects and insect eggs are intentionally left on the leaves when harvesting, imparting a unique flavor, and so it is typically grown organically. The dried leaves also have visible white tips, so it is sometimes called “white tipped oolong”. Oriental Beauty tea has gotten a lot of international attention lately, and has even been dubbed the world’s best oolong tea. It has a lovely honey aroma.
Ruby Red #18 (紅雨紅茶)
The only non-oolong tea on this list, Ruby Red is a cultivar developed by Taiwan’s Tea Research and Exgtension Station that was 50 years in the making. Many produced in the Sun Moon Lake area, it is a cross between imported camellia assamica tea and the rarely used native wild Taiwanese tea. It is mellow with a distinctive cinnamon and mint flavor. See my full review of Ruby Red #18 here and article about other Sun Moon Lake teas.
How to Order Tea from Taiwan
A solid choice for buying Taiwan tea online from anywhere in the world is Eco-Cha, which sells artisanal teas from producers that practice sustainable farming, and has a great tea of the month program. Use this link to browse their teas and get 10% off your Eco-Cha tea order or enter the discount code NKTEA when you check out!
Another choice for buying Taiwanese tea online is Ai Want Tea, which sells a number of interesting Southern Taiwanese varieties on their English website. They ship teas internationally from Formosa Tea, a family-run tea operation in Nantou, Taiwan.
Last but not least, Global Tea Hut, an international meditation and tea center run by an American monk and tea expert and headquartered in Miaoli, Taiwan, also has a great tea of the month + tea magazine program. The magazine is extremely information and I would highly recommend it for tea (and meditation) lovers who want to take their love of a tea to a higher level. I wrote a whole article about an inspiring visit that I had to the Global Tea Hut’s meditation center, Tea Sage Hut.
Where to Buy Tea in Taiwan
One interesting method for buying tea in Taiwan is to visit a tea producing area and buy tea directly from the growers or in local shops in that area. Easily accessible tea growing areas include Sun Moon Lake, Alishan, and Luye. Buying tea in this way creates an association in your mind between the tea and your experience in that area, making it all the more enjoyable when you brew it later. See more details about these regions below.
You can find many stores specializing in Taiwanese tea in all the major cities, many tourist centers (especially Alishan and Sun Moon Lake), and even at the airport and in most grocery stores. Just beware that with such high demand for certain Taiwanese teas, like Alishan High Mountain tea, some tea that is now sold as these varieties is actually grown outside of Taiwan, such as in Vietnam.
If you are not in Taiwan or able to travel to around the island, try ordering Taiwanese tea online from the sites I mentioned above, or see below for the best place to buy tea in Taipei. Truthfully speaking, though, I can’t imagine any teas sold in Taiwan are ever really ‘bad.’
Where to Buy Tea in Taipei
My favorite place in Taipei to buy tea in Taipei is the Lin Mao Sen Tea Co 林茂森茶行 (195-3 Chongqing N Rd, MRT Daqiaotou 重慶北路195-3號，捷運大橋頭站). 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.
Right next door, and owned by the brother of Lin Mao Sen, is competing Lin Hua Tai Tea (林華泰茶行). The shop isn’t as fancy looking, but the product seems to be almost identical, with a similar range of qualities and prices.
Tea, just like most dried goods and produce in Taiwan, is sold by the jin (斤). One jin is equivalent to 600 grams. For most of the varieties mentioned above, the highest quality goes for NTD4000 (120 USD) per jin, the second goes for 2400 per jin, the third for 1600, and so forth, with the cheapest ones going for as low as NTD60 per jin.
The lowest quality ones are mostly stems and powder, while the highest ones have the largest concentration of perfect leaves. If you want even lower than the lowest quality, go to your local supermarket and buy a box of teabags. The minimum purchase at Lin Mao Sen is a quarter of a jin, or 150 grams (150 公克). They are also familiar with Western units of measurement.
It’s interesting to compare the size of a 150g bag of, say, light fluffy baozhong to the same amount of Alishan High Mountain, which is rolled into dense little balls. The bag of baozhong will be about three times as big!
Personally, I always go for the third highest quality. This is still VERY good tea, and I think only a true connoisseur would be able to tell the difference between the top three qualities, yet the price drops enormously between each of them. NT400 (12 USD) gets me a decent-sized 150g bag of tea that lasts me for at least a few months, and if I get a few different bags, I’m good for a year.
The bulk tea sold here comes in simple plastic bags. If you want to buy some overpriced tea of questionable quality in a fancy container there are many tea shops in Taipei, but at this shop you are paying for quality and you will know exactly what you are buying. They do sell some fancy containers separately if you really need one, though.
Another interesting place you can buy good tea in Taiwan is the Taipei Expo Farmer’s Market, which takes place beside Maji Square at Yuanshan MRT station every Saturday and Sunday 10am to 6pm. Most of them will let you taste their brews before buying.
Taipei Tea Houses
Traditionally, tea drinking is a relaxed, social affair in Taiwan and can last for hours. In old times, people would head to the local teahouse (茶館), or brew tea on their living room table or in front of their homes. These days, coffee is way trendier in Taipei and cafés serving quality coffees are popping up everywhere.
In terms of day-to-day consumption, most busy Taiwanese drink bottles of iced tea from 7-11 or pearl milk tea-type concoctions from tea shopsstalls these days. These days, coffee is way trendier in Taipei and cafés serving quality coffees are popping up everywhere, However,but most families and especially elderly people will still bust out the tea set when they have friends or relatives over.
Since it’s not easy for travelers to get invited to have tea with a family, your best way to take part in this unique experience is to visit a traditional tea house. Traditional teahouses are dying out in urban areas of Taiwan, but luckily, the Taipei tea house scene hasn’t totally vanished, and you can find several in the Yongkang street area.
If you only have time to visit one Taipei tea house, make it Wistaria Tea House near Yongkang street and Da An Park. This famed establishment is housed in a Japanese era home that was an underground meeting spot for artists, intellectuals, and dissidents during the later days of the White Terror period of martial law in Taiwan. The staff on hand speaks English and is highly knowledgeable. It is often full so you will want to make a reservation.
Another good Taipei tea shop option in the Yongkang street area is Stop By Tea House (串門子茶館).
Maokong (see below, in Tea Tours section) is also a great place in the Greater Taipei area with many traditional tea houses in rural natural surroundings overlooking Taipei.
How to Brew Taiwanese Tea
A typical Chinese tea setlike this one you can order on Amazon includes a surprisingly small teapot (茶壺) with a strainer , a tea pitcher (公道杯) for actually pouring the tea (transferring from the pot to the pitcher helps to achieve consistency), miniature drinking cups (茶碗), tongs for removing infused tea leaves, and a large tea tray (茶盤).
For the absolute best choices of teaware and tea sets in Taiwan, you must head to the Pottery Street in Yingge, New Taipei City. You can find anything there from dirt cheap functional ware to authentic traditional sets and modern ceramics artworks. The Yingge Ceramics Museum is also really impressive!
Most locals perform a somewhat simplified execution of the traditional Chinese gongfu tea ceremony (功夫茶) or “skilled tea”. The first step, after bragging about how good your shit is, is to boil some water and add it to some leaves in the small pot to “rinse” or “wash” them, usually for 30 seconds or less.
The “liquor” from this first round is then poured into the cups and then discarded into the tea tray, which typically has drainage holes. This is done to warm the cups, and after the tea is discarded, drinkers can stick their noses into the empty cups to experience the tea’s aroma. The main purpose of rinsing the tealeaves is to get rid of the bitterness.
Next, more water is added to the pot and the leaves are steeped for about 1 minute (or up to two minutes for some darker oolongs, such as Oriental Beauty tea). Also note that the ideal temperature for brewing tea varies according to the tea. The ideal water temperatures for various teas are as follows (according to the Pinglin Team Museum; information online varies slightly):
Iron Goddess, High Mountain Oolong: 100°C
Black, Pu Er: 95°C
Green Tea, Oriental Beauty: 85°C
Oolong teas can be steeped a few times, while pu er tea can be steeped ten or more times. For each subsequent brew, the leaves should be steeped longer. Supposedly, each round brings out different flavors in the tea.
Tea Tours in Taiwan and Tea Attractions around Taipei
Terraced tea fields are highly photogenic places, and there are many places in Taiwan where you can get up close to admire their simple beauty. Taiwan is also home to several interesting and informative tea centers and museums.
There are a few tour operators offering tea tours across Taiwan (a simple google seach will help you there, but I can’t recommend one personally). The below tea-related attractions can all be visited on your own, but I’ve mentioned organized tours where they do have them.
Taipei Tea House, Jiuzhuang (舊莊)
In the foothills of Nangang district, eastern Taipei City, Jiuzhuang is the first place that grew Baozhong tea in Taiwan. In early 2014, a new tea center called the Taipei Tea House (台北找茶園) was opened here to showcase local tea.
The modern, zen-like facilities feature large wooden tables, Western- and Japanese-style private rooms, and great mountain views in the distance. Tea processing equipment and educational exhibits are also on display. On weekends the center also leads eco-tours and holds tea-themed activities.
Across from the Taipei Tea House, there is a restaurant called Guanyun Residence Tea Plantation (觀雲居茶莊), with a patio surrounded by trees. They serve a variety of tea-infused dishes, such as tea oil noodles and tea stewed chicken. You can also visit the family-run Qinming Tea Plantation (欽明茶園).
Overall, Jiuzhuang makes for a pleasant 2-3 hour trip from the city and offers a good introduction to Taiwan’s tea culture. There are some nice walking trails in the area with lovely views over terraced tea fields. The Taipei Tea House is quite new and as far as I know isn’t in any travel guidebooks yet, so you are unlikely to see any other foreign visitors there.
Getting There: Catch small bus #5 from just in front of Funan Temple (富南宮) near exit 5 of Nangang Exhibition Center MRT. Buses are infrequent, and if I remember correct, the ride takes about 20 minutes.
Pinglin Tea Museum (坪林茶業博物館)
Pinglin is Taiwan’s mecca for tea lovers. You can enjoy the best Pinglin has to offer on this tea focused tour to the Pinglin from Taipei, including the tea museum and visiting a gorgeous tea plantation nearby (see below).
Located southeast of Taipei, all Taiwanese know it as the midway point on the old mountainous highway #9 from Taipei to Yilan. Drivers used to stop here to enjoy a cup of local baozhong tea and lunch, until the freeway was opened in 2006, bypassing Pinglin with a series of tunnels.
But now Pinglin has made a comeback by cleaning up Beishi Creek, the waterway which runs through town, and lining it with bicycle paths from which cyclists can admire pools filled with large catfish, and fields of tea (Giant bicycles can be hired in town). One reason why there are so many fish in the river, and also why the baozhong tea grown in the area is considered so fragrant, is that the entire area is protected as a special water resources zone given the fact that Pinglin is just upstream from the Feicui Reservoir (翡翠水庫), one of two main reservoirs supplying water to Taipei.
Most of the shops in the one-street town sell tea, tea derived products, or foods infused with–you guessed it–tea. Personally, I really enjoyed the deep fried tealeaves, and you can never go wrong with matcha ice cream or tea eggs. Walking down Pinglin’s little old street, note the cute little teapots on the lampposts. Pinglin also boasts the world’s largest tea museum, in which you can learn everything you’ve ever wanted to know about local tea, and entrance is totally free. A good place to go if you just want a single cup of tea is the little teashop on the outer wall of the museum near the entrance.
If you want to cycle a little further than the easy paths along the river, peddle to the Jingualiao Fish and Fern Trail (金瓜寮魚蕨步道), a lovely one hour ride. There are also multiple riverside campsites in the Pinglin area.
Getting There: Bus #923 and green #12 go to Pinglin from just outside Xindian MRT station. The ride takes about 40 minutes. Bicycles can be hired in Pinglin town.
Shiding Bagua Tea Plantation (石碇八卦茶園)
For absolutely stunning panoramic views over the Feicui Reservoir (翡翠水庫), one of two main reservoirs that provides water to greater Taipei, get yourself to this fantastic little spot. The reservoir is also called Qian Dao Hu or “Thousand Island Lake” (千島湖), named after a lake with similar scenery in Zhejiang province, China.
Maokong offers Taipei folk (and lots and lots of tourists) the chance to get up into the tea fields via glass-bottom gondola directly from the Taipei Zoo MRT station, and offers dozens of traditional teashops to choose from. If the crowds are too long for the gondola, just hop on a bus across the street to get to the top in 15-20 minutes. If you do take the gondola, make sure to stop at Zhinan Temple stop along the way to see the impressive temple.
A word of warning: most of the teashops in Maokong are set up for groups, so you typically have to buy a whole bag of tea plus pay a “water fee” per person. It can actually get quite pricey, at least for budget travelers. However, many shops allow visitors to bring their own tea and only pay a water fee on weekdays. A great way to visit is on this Maokong night tea culture tour.
There is a collection of shops and food stalls near the Maokong gondola station at the top, but for me, the main reason I go up there is for hiking. There is a network of trails, and the Silver Stream Cave and Waterfall (銀河洞和宮) makes for a great destination. It’s a little tricky to find the first time you go, but once you know the way it only takes about 40 minutes to get there from Maokong station, taking you past a number of tea fields.
Visiting Tea Areas around Taiwan
Interest in tea tourism seems to be growing in recent years (based on the number of tours offered and also emails and questions that I get from readers). However, the tea tourism industry in Taiwan is young, and it is not very easy to visit or stay on tea farms around Taiwan. I have spend a lot of time researching this and trying, and below are what I consider the best options.
If you want to actually stay on a tea farm, the best (and only?) options I’ve found are in Shizhuo, a small tea growing village near Fenqihu railway station, about half way between Chiayi city and Alishan, and also the current end point of the Chiayi to Alishan Forest Railway line.
I had an incredible experience staying at Cuiti B&B (see prices / read reviews), a legit Alishan High Mountain tea farm, pictured above and below. There is a network of trails you can hike among the tea farms, and the scenery is phenomenal, so this is truly a paradise for those who are interested in tea tourism.
Sun Moon Lake is a gorgeous and popular tourist destination, but the region north of the lake, between Sun Moon Lake and Puli, is also famous for its black teas, especially Ruby Red #18.
Here you can find multiple tea-related sights and activite, most notably the Antique Assam Tea Farm. There is even a tea themed guesthouse, and if you get off the main road and drive up some mountain roads, you can find some beautiful terraced tea farms.
Another place to see beautiful tea fields or buy tea in Taiwan is Luye, a tiny town (more like a rural area with a train station) in Taitung County.
The best way to see the tea fields is to rent a scooter near the train station and then drive up to the Luye Highland. The main teas grown here are jinxuan (milk oolong), red oolong, and honey scented black tea.
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