Following a lead in Lonely Planet about the “oldest tea selling shop in Taipei”, I took the #306 bus to the Daqiaotou bus stop right in front of Lin Mao Sen Tea Co. It looked so different from the image on Google Street View where it could have been taken years ago. I was greeted by a very modern-looking shop with the standard large, airtight cans for rows and rows of different teas. They also had beautiful teaware and tools.
The staff were friendly and directed me to a tall, English speaking guy (later on, known as Charles Lin … the 5th generation of the Lin in Lin Mao Sen). I just decided to junk my very poor Mandarin this time and just go with English.
Lesson 1 : Tie Guan Yin
First he introduced me and a fellow tea fan from Japan to their Tie Guan Yin. I immediately said that I’m not a fan of Tie Guan Yin, but he seemed very enthusiastic about theirs so I suppose it was worth a shot. He brewed 2 mini pots of it and served to us one by one in a double-walled Chinese tea cup. Both were indeed very good, and very different from Tie Guan Yin from China (tried in Xiamen and Hangzhou). The first pot of tea had a clearer taste but bolder in flavour than the tea from the second pot which had a stronger aroma — this is just my opinion. The nuances are there but you have to find it. He then said that the first one is from an actual Tie Guan Yin plant (tea variety), while the second is Oolong tea roasted to be like Tie Guan Yin which is a more modern way of doing it. Ahh, such revelations!
Lesson 2 : Oolong
We then went around sniffing teas from different cans. Different levels of fermentation, different varieties and infusions. I was actually interested in the Oolong that had a hint of cream aroma near the entrance but somehow forgot about it when I was buying the teas. There were 3 levels of High Mountain Oolong – one with stronger aroma, second with the stronger aftertaste distinctively Oolong, and third for those who appreciates the purity of Oolong (perhaps a more experienced palate would greatly appreciate this type?). I ended up with the 2nd level of Oolong.
Again, the Oolong here tasted so different than what I’ve tasted in China. What is happening? All the while I was getting more and more confused, and starting to doubt myself. It takes such effort to try holding a smile steady, while listening intently to an interesting lecture about tea, while again carrying out a casual conversation so that everyone feels at ease, all while feeling the pangs of an existential crisis brewing!
Lesson 3 : Black Tea & Other Varieties
So while holding down my self-doubt and thoughts of possible Alzheimer’s within me, we again took a round of sniffing to the cans in the last row. One sniff and “Aha! This is Ceylon tea!” when Charles said it WAS black tea from Sri Lanka, I felt so relieved that I’m not losing it yet. Thank you, Ceylon tea, for your ubiquity!
Upon opening the can of Taiwanese black tea, one could see the huge difference. There really are different kinds of varieties of tea plants! The leaves are larger and curlier, the aroma doesn’t have as strong a sweet note like the Ceylon’s.
We headed over to another can to see the Oriental Beauty. This is quite the interesting tea that I think is also processed a bit like Oolong, but since a certain insect feeds on the tea leaves, the flavour changes, adding a slight fruitiness to the tea. I try the tea and found it a bit funny that it reminded me of bananas. Its definitely just a hint. The fruitiness won’t slam you in the face, don’t worry. I like it, I buy it.
Upon further inspection, the insect responsible for this is the “tea green leafhopper” Jacobiasca formosana. It punctures the leaf and feeds on the nectar in the phloem (passageway for liquid in plants). The leaf then has an immune reaction of producing monoterpene diols & hotrienols responsible for the fruitiness called “muscatel” flavour, which some Darjeeling teas (helped by a different set of insects called jassids & thrips) are actually also famous for. Amazing! Anyway, this Oolong x muscatel flavour made this tea famous and highly acclaimed in England.
I would liken Taiwanese tea to that of purists of the single malt whiskey type. The product is of course a reflection of the people who consume it. There is consistency and a certain identity in the teas I have tried so far, whether Oolong or Tie Guan Yin. It is where slight differences mean a whole world of difference to the tea drinkers here, that they do not call it a varietal of tea but a different class of tea altogether. The threshold for the range of variation is much smaller, but then this also means that the people here focus more on fine details that dictate quality – Charles mentioning that some of the more expensive teas attribute their flavour to virgin soil on which the tea plant grows on, for example.
The biggest lesson from this trip, highlighted especially in this visit to Lin Mao Sen, is to not carry your biases of China into Taiwan. Yeah, both use Mandarin and might call things with the same name, but don’t expect the same things especially when it comes to food and tea. Clear your mind… and only THEN must you drink your tea.