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Taiwanese tea entrepreneurs brew up new twist on tradition

Cheap instant “bubble tea” is one of Taiwan’s best-known culinary exports; now a new wave of entrepreneurs hope a high-end modern take on traditional brews will also be sipped worldwide.

Taiwan has been producing tea for more than 200 years and a cup of the island’s famous oolong is obligatory for many visitors, but exports have been knocked by rising labour costs and bubble tea has eclipsed the old-style carefully crafted cuppa.

Often artificially flavoured and loaded with milk, sugar and tapioca pearls, bubble tea has gained a global following.

Ultra-modern tea shop “Xie Xie” is one business trying to turn the tide back to sophistication.

Founder Xie Yu-tung, 30, comes from a family of tea producers and uses leaves from their plantations in Taiwan’s mountainous Dayuling and Lishan areas.

Her sleek all-white tea boutique at Taipei’s Mandarin Oriental hotel is stacked with teabags in book-like boxes and clear cylindrical bottles of ready-to-drink cold brews.

“I think Taiwan has the best oolong and it’s a pity that it’s not seen all over the world,” says Xie, who

sells pure and flavoured oolong.

Infused with spearmint, chamomile, rose and ginger, she hopes the pretty packaging and ready-made bottles will attract uninitiated foreign customers.

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At NT$680 (HK$166) for 10 teabags, she says it is a reasonable price for top quality tea.

“Every step (in producing oolong) has to be exact. I think the craftsmanship involved matches that of international luxury products,” she says.

Xie has served her tea at the Venice film festival, Paris fashion shows and Milan design week since launching two years ago.

Other entrepreneurs are hoping to create a culture that will entice younger generations.

At David Huang’s salons in Taipei, customers order pots of organic Taiwanese tea served alongside tea-flavoured French pastries.

“I don’t want to see tea drinking fade into history because young people think it’s old-fashioned,” says Huang, who opened the salons after studying marketing in France.

“It is one of the things that most represents Taiwan.”

Huang’s “Zenique” brand of pure and flavoured oolong, green and black teas do not come cheap – a small tin starts at NT$409 and can cost up to NT$1,890.

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First-time salon visitor Anne Yu, 30, says she likes the “chic and tasteful” feel of the place.

“I started to drink more tea recently after I got palpitations from drinking coffee,” she says.

“I like tea better now.”

While industry experts say the average age of tea drinkers in Taiwan is rising, entrepreneurs like Xie and Huang are giving the business a fresh edge.

“To some young people now, running a tea company is attractive and trendy, it’s like being the owner of a French vineyard,” says Lin Chih-Cheng, president of the Association of Taiwan Tea.

“They feel like they are part of a creative, cultural industry.”

Both Huang and Xie have regular international clients and are hoping to expand the list.

However, there are still those who argue that simple is best.

At Lin Hua Tai, leaves are still processed at the back of the tea shop, using traditional methods.

Standing in Taipei’s once-bustling “tea street” it is one of only a few tea shops to remain.

The shop buys raw tea from plantations across Taiwan and sells 100 types, from basic brews to the pricey “Oriental Beauty” oolong, which can go for more than NT$4,000 per 600 grams.

Tea leaves are stored in stainless steel barrels and packaged in plastic bags printed simply with the store’s name and contact details.

The shop says its loyal clientele has been won purely by word of mouth.

While it is dedicated to maintaining tradition, Lin Hua Tai is also trying to inspire younger generations by giving store tours and tea tastings to students.

“Children drink bubble tea, but they don’t know what oolong looks like, or that there are many more types of tea. When they get interested, they will grow up drinking more tea,” says shop manager Joanne Kang.

Kang says it would be easy to transform into a “pretty store”, and recognises the shop now faces trendier competition.

“But then everything would change and we would not be who we are,” she says.