Taiwan’s not just bubble tea, say these tea houses coming up with new drinks and innovating on the country’s drinking culture
- From bottled cold brews to cocktails, three tea entrepreneurs are combining a reverence for Taiwan’s traditions with drinks that will appeal to younger people
- While Taiwanese tea has always been transforming, the outsize influence of its tea masters saw it stop innovating for a long period, an academic says
At first glance, it’s not clear what the sun-soaked storefront in the fashionable Xinyi district in Taipei is selling. It can easily pass for another chic cafe, or maybe, after spotting the glass flasks holding a pale amber liquid, you might assume it’s a bar specialising in whisky.
Look closer, though, and you’ll find that the flasks hold not liquor, but brewed small-leaf black tea. Jewellery dishes of loose-leaf teas invite you to pause and take a sniff. Glass contraptions hang along the main wall, making ice-drip tea.
This is Shi Jian Tea, founded in 2016 by Franco Chang, the thirty-something, fifth-generation member of a tea family in Taiwan, and a computer engineer turned tea entrepreneur. His shop is part of a new crop of tea houses reimagining tradition and tea culture, or in his words, “finding a path of innovation within tradition”.
Taiwan has a rich, but brief, tea history, traditionally associated with gong fu cha from mainland China’s Fujian and Guangdong provinces, which later, combined with Japanese influences, became chayi, or tea art. It involves special equipment, settings and rituals.
Some of the most prized teas, especially oolongs, are found on the island’s high elevations. Taiwan tea production was export-driven under Dutch and Japanese traders until the 1980s, when it switched to serving the domestic market. And Taiwanese tea drinkers are just begging for more: tea consumption per capita has increased nearly fourfold since then. Half of the demand is for bottled and takeaway tea drinks.
Chang began experimenting with making whole-leaf cold tea to find the optimal steeping duration and technique for different varietals. His father, a tea traditionalist, tea roaster and wholesaler, was sceptical that cold tea could compete with the traditional hot brew. Two years of trial and error later, and Chang’s ice-drip hong shui (red water) oolong surprised his father with its striking fragrance.
Cold-brew, originating from Japan, has long been popular in Taiwan. However, the tea is usually of lower quality or overly steeped, and it is considered a convenience beverage rather than of chayi culture. To improve this, Chang developed and refined three techniques: cold brew, brew over ice and ice drip.
All of Chang’s efforts go into making tea more approachable to younger tea drinkers, who find cold-brewed tea more accessible than the hot beverage, which they often associate with elaborate rituals. The selections at Shi Jian Tea are categorised by light, medium or dark, rather than by the more complicated fermentation method and origin of the tea as used at the traditional shops.
For hot tea, which is traditionally served in ceramics, Chang chose to use glassware because it shows off the leaves and the colour of the brew.
Even older tea shops are transforming themselves. What looks like a beer bar with a great view of Yongkang Park on the popular Yongkang Street is actually Wang De Chuan Fine Chinese Tea – Since 1862. The brand was started in 2002 by Wang Anshang, whose family tea farm was established in 1862 in Fujian by the store’s namesake, before he moved the family to Taiwan. Wang remodelled the Yongkang location in 2020 to offer sparkling tea and tea cocktails in the retail space.
Like Chang, Wang grew up around tea and wanted to dispel its old-fashioned image by giving it a makeover. His own experiments with cold-brewing tea led him to sell carbonated “sparkling tea” in 2017, the first of its kind in Taiwan.
A great way to try the sparkling teas is with a sampling of three tea drinks or tea cocktails served in Madeira wine glasses that mix the brew with other ingredients. “When Frozen Hearts Melt”, made with ripe pu’er tea, chocolate and peanut syrup, has a smooth, rich taste, while “The Summer Delight”, made with siji anshang oolong tea and lemongrass, has a bright flavour.
If you’re looking for a buzz, try a tea cocktail such as “First Love”, made with milk-flavoured oolong, gin and vodka.
Set in the Breeze Xinyi shopping mall, Yonshin Tea is a warm, retro-inspired space: Thonet chairs, burgundy leather seats and gold accents everywhere. Hot tea is served in glass pots with gold lids and tiny ceramic drinking cups. What stands out is its cold-brew tea, which comes in a corked bottle to be served in tall wine glasses, inviting one to swirl and consider the flavours.
One customer is Paul Chen, who visits Yonshin Tea once a month, though he knows the spot more for its rice noodle soup with squid. He likes the restaurant for its convenient hours and location, but he describes the tea as “so-so” and says that as the food menu has grown, he wishes there was more focus on the tea. “When there’s too much food, you lose the tea aroma,” Chen says.
For these tea entrepreneurs, their experiments come from two goals: to transform and elevate Taiwanese tea so that the younger generation can appreciate their own culture, and so the world will see that there’s more to Taiwanese tea than just boba.
Yet Taiwanese tea has always been in transformation, according to Professor Yu Shuenn-Der from the Institute of Ethnology at Academia Sinica, a research institute in Taipei, who studies tea. In the 19th century, when Taiwanese tea was aimed at the Dutch trade, and later by the Japanese colonial regime, gong fu cha was also known as lao ren cha, or old people tea, and considered inelegant. Many tea houses were hostess bars.
Thanks to Taiwan’s economic growth and, in part, to competition from China, the late 1970s saw the tea market turn domestic. The government actively promoted tea culture, partly to politically emphasise Chinese-ness in Taiwan. The invention of chayi, as influenced by Chinese gong fu cha and Japanese chado, brought an artful and even performative aspect to tea.
Specialty cafe culture from the West and Japan also influenced the design of Taiwan tea houses to be more elegant, with an emphasis on them being a space to relax and socialise, Yu says. Taiwanese chayi and tea masters had an outsized influence, especially on Chinese tea practitioners, who saw Taiwan as the mecca for tea.
However, Yu says, the influence of Taiwanese tea culture meant it stopped innovating, because tea masters found a lucrative business teaching chayi to the Chinese audience. But as the mainland Chinese have learned enough from Taiwan and are beginning to develop their own craft, they are relying less on Taiwanese expertise.
Many in the Taiwanese tea community believe that in a few years, China will no longer look to Taiwan chayi as an example.
Traditional chayi tea houses have been on the decline since the early ’90s, Yu says, but tea in Taiwan will only continue to evolve with changing cultural tastes and market dynamics. Yu cites efforts in the tea community to innovate by bringing back “authentic” gong fu cha.
“It’s interesting, but without potential,” he says, pointing out that innovation is about the future, not a nostalgic repackaging of the past. What is important to the tea community here is the fact that it’s ever-changing.
Chang from Shi Jian Tea agrees. Tea culture and its rituals will change, but the core reverence for its craft and quality will not, he says.
On a weekday afternoon, two young professionals – office workers in the neighbourhood – pop into the Shi Jian Tea store. They walk around the store snapping photos, each buys a flask of tea, and continue taking more photos outside.
Chang welcomes such customers, even if they were first attracted only because of what they saw on social media sites. “At first, I was afraid no one would come. Later [as the shop became popular online], I was afraid people weren’t taking the time to understand tea.” But that’s the challenge he accepts: to not just sell tea, but to educate, and pass on the craft of tea.
Only it’s looking much more modern now.
Shi Jian Tea, #48, Lane 553, Section 4, Zhongxiao East Road, Xinyi District, Taipei City, Taiwan 110, tel: +886 (2) 2746 5008
Wang De Chuan Fine Chinese Tea – Since 1862, #10-2, Yongkang Street, Daan District, Taipei City, 106, tel: +886 (2) 2321 2319
Yonshin Tea, 3/F, #68, Section 5, Zhongxiao East Road, Xinyi District, Taipei City, Taiwan 110, tel: +886 (2) 2723 3028