February 11, 2019 |
Being from the UK, us Brits are famed for our tea, or at least our drinking of it. Whenever I visit my parents in Yorkshire, I’ve often not even finished my cup before my mother is asking if I’d like another. Tea is the bedrock of homelife up and down the country, but when it comes to supping outside of a home or office environment, tea is often confined to the places old dears like to frequent, with a buttered scone on the side and a heated chat about what the noise coming from the next-door neighbour’s house might be. Not so in Taiwan…
Wander down the frenetic streets of Taipei, and you’ll happen across somewhere selling tea quicker than you can say “don’t mention Chinese rule”. But it’s not just the quantity of tea that’s an eye opener, it’s the sheer variety: everything from wild and wacky concoctions to traditionally ceremonial offerings, catering to a huge range of demographics, from hip and stylish young teens and twenty-somethings, to suave and well-to-do businessmen. All of it highlights just how much the British tea market lacks any real pull outside of the home, and it’s the same across most of the western world.
Instead, the west has embraced coffee over the last decade, with the likes of Starbucks and Costa catering to the masses, and a deluge of boutique, hip coffee houses with meticulous baristas finding their way into even the smallest of provincial towns. I’m pretty sure our love affair with coffee is here to stay, but I also think the west’s tastes for non-alcoholic beverages could be broadened so much further, and Taiwan’s tea culture is a prime example to draw inspiration from.
Starting at the top end of the market, the mountains of Taiwan produce some of the finest Oolong tea in the world, with its unique subtropical temperature combined with dewy mist creating refined, delicate flavours that can sell for eye-watering prices. Many business meetings are conducted over a pot stuffed with Alishan leaves, with a traditional procedure for preparing the tea that’s just as rigorous as you’d see from a moustached barista with geometric tattoos in a Melbourne coffee house.
This meticulous method for preparing tea is not confined to the high-end though, with hundreds of tea houses catering to social gatherings in the bourgeoisie, fashionista districts of Taipei at more middle-class prices, and more low-key establishments serving as places of quiet refuge for Taiwan’s older generation. And all of these teas can of course be bought loose in plain bags, served in increments of jin (市斤), the Chinese measurement for 500 grams. Even the cheapest loose tea you’ll find will be ten steps above anything in a British tea bag.
As you travel down towards the younger end of the market, this is where their tea becomes really interesting. Much of the world already knows about one of Taiwan’s most famous exports: sweetened milk tea with tapioca balls known as ‘bubble tea’. As you’d expect, it’s immensely popular in Taiwan and has become so in many Western countries over the past decade, with hundreds of different styles, and everything highly customisable from the size and texture of the bubbles to the sweetness and flavour of the tea. But many of these outlets are now creating new, unconventional styles that stray from the bubble.
A drink known as cheese tea originates in Taiwan and has become wildly popular there over the last few years: milk tea topped with a creamy, slightly sweet and salty cheese cap that has now started to spread to other countries. A myriad of other milk teas are combined with red beans, jelly or pudding. And branching out further, sweet potato noodle milk tea with egg is becoming famous for the amount of strange ingredients you can add to a single drink. If you’re not a fan of milk in tea, many places instead specialise in tea packed full of a variety of tropical fruits that will quench anyone’s thirst on a hot summer’s day.
Don’t get me wrong, Taiwanese love their coffee, but their tenacity and inventiveness has made tea into a drink that can be enjoyed across the whole spectrum of their culture. From social-media loving teen influencers who love snapping the latest colorful creations and uploading them to Instagram, to 24 hour tea-houses where hip, stylishly-dressed twenty-something laugh and play cards at 3am while casually sipping giant litre-sized glasses of sweetened green tea, to family occasions where the connoisseur father picks the best tea on the menu and waxes lyrical about its flavours, there’s a whole lot mileage in tea.
With statistics showing that younger generations in west are drinking less alcohol than ever before, and certain elements of Asian pop culture making huge gains for the first time such as K-Pop bands like BTS topping the charts in the US and UK, I feel the time is ripe for inventive teas to blossom outside of the Far East.