It is raining ever so slightly as the bus leaves Taipei and within minutes of exiting the Taiwanese capital’s city limits, the mountain road meanders uphill. Soon there are green tea bushes all around, freshly washed by the mild drizzle. Apparently the area is a popular weekend getaway for hiking and biking. The air is very fresh.
After about an hour, the bus stops in a mountain village known as Pinglin which appears to consist of one dreary street surrounded by a few nondescript shops, two 7-Eleven convenience stores and a couple of eateries. Many of the shops specialise in tea. Indeed, the entire village is nestled among tea gardens.
The Pinglin area is particularly known for this semi-fermented variety of green tea, known in Chinese as baozhong. Click To Tweet
One establishment is a cavernous shed-like shop, with a counter, a table, a few chairs, glass jars filled with loose leaf teas, shelves full of neat tea packages and tea paraphernalia, the whole establishment manned by a wiry uncle whose name turns out to be Wang.
I wonder if Uncle Wang and his family live deeper inside the shop – I spot a flat screen TV and an old woman watching an afternoon soap opera. Perhaps they roll out their bedding on the floor when the shop shuts for the day.
Its name is in Chinese letters on the signboard, so I’ve no clue what the shop is called, though I guess one could drop into any of the several similar shops that stand side by side along the street and the experience would be more or less the same.
Uncle Wang speaks no English, but according to my guide and translator, Grandpa Hu, he is known to make some mean tea. A big kettle of fresh water is soon put on the boil on a gas flame. On the table he sets out a special tea-making drip tray; it is of metal and has a stainless steel wicker mesh base through which spill over water vanishes. A very clever way of keeping the table dry.
The tray holds all the necessary utensils – sets of tiny earless cups, a glass decanting pitcher, a tea pot, a black jar almost filled to the top with tea leaves, strainers – and as Uncle Wang goes about his business with a serious mien, the place soon begins to resemble a laboratory.
The black porcelain jar with tea leaves is about the size of a tea mug and it is in this that the tea is brewed. Uncle Wang flushes the cups with freshly boiled water and also pours some water on top the tea leaves – in the black jar – which he immediately throws out after giving the leaves a quick rinse. At first this takes me by surprise, but it is explained that this is to remove the tea dust, which is a non-desirable by-product from a Taiwanese point of view (ironically, tea dust is what is put in the factory-made tea bags we all use in the rest of the world!).
He also rinses the decanting pitcher with hot water. Then he pours water on the leaves and lets them brew, rather briefly, barely for a few seconds, before he transfers the liquid through a metal strainer into the glass decanter.
The resulting tea has a pale greenish colour. He then pours it out into the tiny drinking cups. Against the white porcelain, the colour now looks lime yellow. It’s a bit like a magical trick. No sugar or milk is added or even offered.
The warm beverage is mild and refreshing, and I easily drink cup after cup without getting any hint of acidity or the usual sharpness that regular tea has. Of course, these cups are sized for one gulp or two, basically the dimension of shot glasses. I end up shooting down more than ten cups, as Uncle Wang keeps on brewing and pouring, before I lose count.
At some point the elderly woman, who turns out to be Wang’s mum, walks off to the back of the shop and brings me a few candies. She must think me a good boy for how much I appreciate her son’s brewing skills. After bonding with the family I realize that I ought to improve my tea-drinking habits and treat the beverage like it ought to be treated: as a gourmet drink to be had in well-measured quantities.
Drinking tea is in fact a major pastime in this island country – it is served free in many restaurants to accompany the meal. Cold green tea is popular in the more tropical zones, sold pre-bottled in convenience stores as well as freshly made at numerous stalls, usually in generous half-litre cups. It is never sweetened, in my experience, which makes it especially refreshing.
Baozhong is somewhere between green tea and oolong, a lighter version of the oolong tea that Taiwan is so famous for. Click To Tweet
Of course, Uncle Wang’s tea is among the best to be had in Taiwan explains Grandpa Hu. The Pinglin area is particularly known for this semi-fermented variety of green tea, known in Chinese as baozhong. As far as I can gather, baozhong is placed on the scale somewhere between green tea and oolong, in effect a lighter version of the oolong tea that Taiwan is so famous for.
Despite the humble appearance of Uncle Wang and this hole-in-the-wall shop where he spends most of his days behind the counter, Grandpa Hu reveals that Uncle Wang owns his own tea plantation and a tea factory, and his teas have won many awards. Appearances can be deceptive. After having had my fill of tea, I take a closer look at his stock and, peering at the price tags, almost topple over backwards.
The rate quoted for his cheapest tea is 1000 dollars for a 600gm package and some of his higher-end teas are priced at as much as 50,000 dollars for 600gms. I feel faint, before I recall that we’re talking Taiwanese dollars here – and one local dollar is roughly two Indian rupees. Nevertheless, there’s some pricey tea around here. Uncle Wang’s costliest teas would set me back something like 1.6 lakh rupees, should I decide to carry a kilogram with me home to India.
The Chinese standard weight for selling tea is 600gm and we discuss a possible transaction – Uncle Wang hasn’t charged me for the tea I drunk and I anyway feel that I must carry some of this heavenly beverage back with me. Initially, the talk goes around 1200 dollars for a good bag of tea. We go on discussing the matter via the translation by Grandpa Hu, until we finally agree on a price for the smallest quantity of tea he is willing to part with – 300gm – and which I can have for 300 dollars (or 600 rupees). As the lengthy negotiation draws to an end it turns out that Uncle Wang actually has a stash of vacuum-sealed ready-to-sell 300gm bricks of tea under the counter, anticipating the arrival of difficult customers such as myself.
Later, after I’ve left Pinglin far behind, I realize that I made a bargain at Uncle Wang’s shop, when in another plantation area I purchase a 150gm packet of Taiwanese oolong and this time I pay 750 rupees. The shopkeeper, of course, throws in a few free cups of brew to sample – though nowhere near as many cups as the generous and unforgettable Uncle Wang brewed for me.
Photographs by Zac O’Yeah