Tea Art Houses (茶藝館) in Taiwan. Part 1

When visiting Taiwan, a nice way to experience tea culture is to visit a tea art house. In these places, customers are treated to drinking tea gongfu style in a peaceful setting, and can learn more about tea and how to brew it. To create a “pop up tea art house” is basically our objective in events.

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The interior of a tea house

Tea art houses give an appearance of having always been part of Taiwanese culture, providing a glimpse into the past.

The surprising truth is that tea art houses have only been in Taiwan since the 1970s.

Before this, there were two types of tea houses. The first was ‘Old men rooms’, places for old men to socialise. These men were the Mainland Chinese who came to Taiwan with Chiang Kai Shek’s army. They were public officers and former soldiers, separated from their families.

There were also tea houses which employed hostesses and were associated prostitution. Consequently, tea houses were associated with the elderly or prostitution. Many Taiwanese were therefore not interested in them. Simultaneously, coke and coffee were seen as drinks for the elite, as they were symbols of ties to the US.

In this context, tea art houses were started by a small group of tea practitioners in Taipei. They emphasised high quality tea, and the art of making tea. Manuals explaining how to prepare tea gongfu style were published. Through efforts, tea art houses were accepted by the Taiwanese, and gained government recognition, in the forming of the Republic of China Tea Art Association.

Tea art houses are now established as good destinations to visit, and are even promoted to tourists. They are an opportunity to escape busy city life, spend time with friends drinking tea and probably also enjoy a meal.

Please join us at our events in the future for a similar break from a hectic lifestyle to experience the culture, tastes and aromas of Taiwanese tea.

Taiwanese Culture 3

People will often ask you personal questions, sometimes one after another, probably when they have just met you. These questions can be how many people are in your family, how old are you, are you married, do you have children, and how many, how much do you earn, what do you do for a living, etc.

If you can skilfully dodge them, and get the person to start talking about themselves for example, then do so. This practice of asking questions not badly meant, although everything that you tell them should be considered public knowledge, as the news will most likely be passed on…

Picture of Taipei City Nanyang Street 20130127.jpg: By Solomon203 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons File url: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0c/Taipei_City_Nanyang_Street_20130127.jpg

 

 

 

Taiwanese Culture Part 2

Some further observations that we made about Taiwan’s culture whilst we were sourcing tea.

Regard for other people is shown much more in actions than in words. This is quite a striking difference from Western cultures when you encounter it.

Taiwanese culture is quite group orientated, and people like to do things in large gatherings.

At the same time, ostentatious behaviour and showing off is not seen well, even though Taiwanese can be extravagant hosts taking you out to restaurants. At the same time, they do not expect you to reciprocate at all, but to accept it and thoroughly enjoy it.

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The traffic is very hectic, even though it has improved over the past few years. As a pedestrian, you are more or less expected to take responsibility for your own safety. In the tea mountains, it’s much more the terror of driving very fast past sheer precipices.

The next time we go on a sourcing trip, I am hoping to make some videos to show you where your tea comes from, and the mountain driving to get there.

In people’s houses, you will be expected to take off your shoes, and put on slippers. There may also be separate slippers for the bathroom, in which case you can change to these as you go through the door.

There is often not a clear change between working life and home life. Working hours can be long, and there are many people who are entrepreneurs. Being an entrepreneur naturally blurs the line between working and leisure hours. Our green tea supplier, who is also a good friend of the Chessers Tea team, virtually “lives” in her cafe, and sometimes spontaneously asked me to help out with serving food, which is something that would basically never happen in Britain.

Life goes at a faster pace, and you are treated to many wonderful and unique experiences that will not be replicated anywhere else (one of mine is playing arcade games with soldiers to cheer me on in a night market).

Taiwanese Culture

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Lonely Planet described Taiwan in these words:

“Taiwan offers visitors a hypermodern skin, an ancient Chinese skeleton and an aboriginal soul. And more than that, Taiwan has some of the world’s warmest people, affable to a fault and so filled with renqing wei (which, roughly translated, means personal affection) that few who come to Taiwan a stranger leave that way.”

When spending some time in Taiwan, we had the opportunity to experience a truly wonderful country. We know several people who after planning to go to Taiwan on a short visit, stayed there indefinitely. Taiwanese people are amazingly kind, welcoming and generous.

Some observations and tips:

At mealtimes, we were often served an individual bowl, with rice, while there were many dishes for people to add to their bowls. As a tip, it’s considered good manners to finish all of the contents of your individual bowl down to the last grain of rice. I like to try all the dishes given to me, so I add just a little bit of the different dishes to my bowl, and in this way you end up finishing. At the same time, hunger was the last of my problems in Taiwan, it’s more a question of pacing yourself (the first problems were probably heat and mosquitoes). Taiwanese are very generous when it comes to meals, and also very hospitable generally.

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A common interest often helps to break down barriers. My interest in tea has allowed me to get to know people I otherwise wouldn’t have had a chance to properly talk to. Talking over tea after a meal also helped to reduce the uncomfortable full feeling in the stomach.

The beds are sometimes very hard. Although I have slept on soft beds in Taiwan, I have also slept on the floor on a mat and on what really seemed to be a bed frame, but you do get used to it, and eventually you prefer it. Coming home to a soft bed after sleeping on a mat was like climbing into a marshmallow.

People are very willing to help you out if you’re in trouble, or just to help you out, and I’ve experienced some stunning generosity, and was even given some muscle medicine by our teapot supplier when my leg was hurting after the long haul flight.

Due to the aptly named Convenience Stores and EZ / I-Pass Cards in Taipei and Kaohsiung respectively, life in Taiwan is very streamlined. The cards can be used at many different places such as all public transport including taxis, vending machines, shopping and food outlets and of course, convenience stores. You can buy cinema tickets, order your taxi, and pay your rent from convenience stores as well.

More posts to follow…

 

Why get into tea? Part 1

To introduce tea from Taiwan to a predominantly British audience is in one sense made easier by our culture, and in another way harder. British people are used to drinking tea, and so tea itself is not something that needs to be introduced, so much as a new “kind” of tea, and a new way of drinking tea. With green teas and tisanes becoming more popular, people are becoming more open to alternatives to the classic “builder’s tea” (strong, sweet, black teabag tea).

Why should you get into tea?

By getting into tea, I mean branching out from everyday “builder’s tea”, and big name brands to trying more premium, more traditional teas similarly to how they are enjoyed in the far east.

  • Taste

“Everyday teas” tend to have one taste which is two-dimensional, predictable and short-lived. Premium teas have richly varying aromas, which can change as you smell them, dramatically different flavours, which again evolve in the mouth, and premium teas also have several flavours at once.

Brewing differences will achieve differences in flavour which means that higher quality teas are more interesting. Higher quality teas will also affect you after you have drunk them, not only with a potentially stronger dosage of caffeine but also with the sensation of cha qi, a sense of invigoration that spreads through your body. They can return a taste of sweetness to your mouth, hui gan, and affect the cup so much that you can enjoy an extra aroma experience from the empty cup, leng xiang – cold fragrance in Chinese.

So many different sensations, and flavours and aromas – and all this from one cup of tea.

I suppose you could add that you learn a few words of Mandarin Chinese too.

  • Gong Fu Style Brewing

In TeaDB’s recent review of one of Chessers Tea’s oolongs, you can see an example of gong fu style brewing, which is how tea is prepared in China and Taiwan. There are lots of variations and quite a few different approaches to it, but this gives a very good idea of how to brew high quality tea in a most enjoyable and rewarding way, and the tea’s flavours develop over time brewing.

Watching the leaves unfurl and grow to several times their size really surprised me when I first got into tea as well.

Basically, high quality tea is a lot of fun and if you love complex and changing tastes and sensations, it is a delight.

This image was sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Image attribution: By Gary Stevens (Flickr: Gaiwans) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“Tea Patience” and Brewing Parameters

When brewing teas, and particularly when brewing teas in multiple steepings, we come up against how many times the same leaves can be brewed otherwise known as tea patience.

For most of the article, I am going to talk about brewing parameters and patience in tea in terms of gong fu style brewing: a small teapot or gaiwan, a large quantity of leaf (maybe about a quarter or a third of the brewing vessel full), and short repeated steepings of 5-30 seconds or so each, probably including a rinse at the beginning.

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Tea patience is affected by the nature of the tea itself, as well as how you brew it.

A light oolong may yield many cups if it is brewed for say 5 seconds or so per steeping. (Brewed in a mug with each steeping time taking 2 or 3 minutes of slow drinking may not be the same.) The taste should still be full and fragrant.

Chessers’ black teas benefit from long steepings. I think my farmer must have brewed it for over a minute at a time, in a small glass jug, using enough leaf to fill the whole jug, and used boiling water. These long steepings however, although showing the tea to its best, do not produce such a high quantity of cups. I think we had 4 or 5 cups or so.

This is to say a few things:

  • the quantity of tea liqueur that can be yielded from a tea is not necessarily indicative of its quality, it can be the nature of the tea itself.
  • the amount of leaf, water temperature and brewing time will all affect the taste of tea.
  • teas will taste better when the above variables are in a good proportion, however at the same time, enjoyment is more important than trying too hard to brew too exactly. Having said that, brewing very exactly can be fun, some people even find it sort of ritualistic.

One of the aims of gong fu style tea, or gong fu cha is to make all the leaves open at the same rate. Pouring in the water at the edges of the pot so that the leaves stir around will help to achieve this.

Brewing gong fu style however, is very different to brewing in a mug, produces a different flavour profile, and is useful for seeing a tea’s flavours evolve. It takes practice to become better at this way of tea brewing, but it’s fun. Brewing in a mug will give you all of the flavour of the tea at once, or more immediately, and takes less skill, although it does present its own challenges. For instance, in gong fu style, you often see people pouring over more hot water on the teapot, to maintain a high temperature and develop patina on the pot. However, I have found that brewing in a mug does not require much attention to keeping the mug hot, as the high sides of the mug will retain heat exceptionally well, sometimes too well.

How To Brew Loose Leaf Tea in a Cup

This is our video for how to brew loose leaf tea using just hot water and a cup.

I find that after waiting for the leaves to settle and unfurl in the cup, they will not float towards you.

This way of drinking tea is much more convenient than the traditional “gong fu” style, which will be the subject of the next video.