A Tea Addict's Journal

Good baseline tea

August 1, 2023 · 7 Comments

I just spent a month in Taiwan doing research and other things. It was spent almost entirely in Taipei, so there wasn’t much time to go to the tea farms or anything. I did do some tea shopping, revisiting old haunts and finding new ones. A shop ran by someone who’s been there since he was 16 (now 75) is, for example, a pretty fun place to go, and a witness to all the changes to the tea industry there in the past two generations.

As food in Taiwan is invariably pretty cheap and the rental apartment kitchen subpar, I ate out a lot. Food comes with drinks in sets, and more often than not, it’s tea. One thing that got me thinking, and for once a new thought that perhaps deserves a blog post, is that there is such a thing as a good baseline tea. In Hong Kong, for example, the baseline tea one might drink is some watered down Lipton that you might have at a cha chaan teng, or some rather nasty cooked puerh with some storage notes in a big pot in a dim sum restaurant. It’s…. not good. In Taiwan, the baseline tea, at least in terms of what you normally end up drinking in a lot of situations, is iced black tea. They are often listed as “honey fragrance black tea” – bug bitten black tea, lightly roasted. The stuff actually in plastic cups may or may not be that – who knows about truth in advertising here – but the teas, in general, are pretty good, and far better than whatever junk Hong Kong places serves up.

But the profile of that baseline matters a lot, I think, and shapes tea preferences. Hong Kongers are not afraid of traditionally stored puerh, because you encounter it so often. It’s what you would expect to taste when you want some puerh. In places where bottled, bitter green tea is the norm, like in Japan, then the drinker is going to be pretty immune to those kinds of bitterness. The Brits and much of Europe has teabags with blended black tea as their baseline. It is our daily encounter with tea and often is what comes to define what “tea” is for these people.

The worst, I think, is when you have places that just don’t do much tea in daily life. This ironically includes Mainland China, where tea is not usually served with food (and when it is, the tea is similar to the cheap powdered stuff you get in American Chinese restaurants). In these cases, there is no “tea” and no baseline. In a way, I suppose, that opens doors – you go in with no preconceived notion. But I think by not having a daily encounter and a daily baseline, there’s also less ability to discern quality, to know that something is “ok” or “off.” This is something a typical Taiwanese, I think, would have a feel for, even if they can’t articulate it, because they see it so much.

Alas, I’m back in Hong Kong. So, maybe I’ll post some thoughts again in a few years time. Ciao.

Categories: Teas
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7 responses so far ↓

  • Watanabe // August 9, 2023 at 8:39 am | Reply

    I am so glad you are posting again, just brewed a #18 black tea from Sun Moon Lake…

    I have been reading your blog for close to 10 years, and was missing you during the past three years. I am sure there are many blog readers who look forward to your posts.

  • Amory // October 5, 2023 at 7:24 am | Reply

    My mind keeps wandering to this post. I wonder what spawns more tea hobbyists; growing up with a decent ‘baseline’ tea culture that gives you the tastes and interest in exploring, or growing up with very little and finding good quality tea such a pleasant surprising venture.

    For my experience growing up in the UK, I think our tea culture certainly produces a degree of discernment and brewing preferences, but very little appreciation of variety. Almost everyone I know has definite preferences in style and quality, and makes tea regularly, but are almost without exception brewing English style blended black tea bags. That might be one of the reasons that variety has historically appealed to me maybe more than quality.

  • Emilio // October 31, 2023 at 10:30 am | Reply

    Your article hit home for me since I live in Taipei.

    Other than the self-serve black tea often encountered in restaurants, many temples in northern Taiwan have somewhat better tea available in self-serve stainless steel dispensers. It’s probably strip-rolled oolong tea grown in the north around Taoyuan County.

    Some restaurants even have shou puerh available. It sounds similar to the dim-sum puerh you mentioned. It’s not nasty, but it’s not that good either.

    I guess for much of the younger population in Taiwan, bubble tea shops provide that baseline.

  • Sunshine // December 28, 2023 at 9:35 pm | Reply

    Do you think there is a more desirable tea baseline in Taiwan simply due to the fact that the island is small and the teas they have consistent access too that are grown there are usually of decent quality?

  • Takkeho // January 11, 2024 at 4:41 pm | Reply

    you are right, the baseline tea in Taïwan is mostly the black one, mostly some Assam or Black Ruby
    But sometimes, you may also get some Oolong, pretty good too
    And it’s easier to find and drink tea there than water or soda

  • Hana // January 23, 2024 at 2:50 am | Reply

    Thank you for every posts on your Journal. I am actually writing a thesis about Oriental Beauty and trying to find its uniqueness – why is it still so expensive and is it worth it? On my searching I found your Journal and I fell in love with so many articles. I also love teas and to find someone as yourself I felt really glad.
    As I am on my way to Taipei this year again, would you mind sharing the name of ” the shop ran by someone who’s been there since he was 16 (now 75) ” ? Would really like to stop by and experience it. Also in many of your articles you have mentioned you’ve spoken with the farmers in Taiwan, do you just go to the farm and talk to them or is any pre-call needed?
    Thank you a lot.
    Have a safe stay in HongKong !

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