Tea houses are not to be confused with tea rooms — Tea rooms typically serve afternoon tea. They’re places where topping off your cup with cream or lemon wouldn’t be a complete travesty. A tea house, however, is where tea is front and center.
At a tea house the menu describes the mountains the tea came from, the region’s annual rainfall and the bugs that nibble on the leaves. At a tea house more than a cup and saucer is set. There are scent cups and drinking cups. Tea picks and tea towels. Brewing vessels and pouring vessels. At a tea house, there’s a tea ballet happening in front of you.
The chicer (and more expensive) houses have a server to assist with this process, while the more relaxed houses are DIY. My husband and I visited four tea houses over our week in Taipei, each with their own distinct personality. I’ll cover the gist of each house, allowing you to choose the one that best fits your mood. Be warned, stopping into a tea house is not a 30-minute excursion. This is not a grab-and-go situation or a coffee counter where you sip while standing. Each teahouse visit will take 90 minutes minimum. Budget time and caffeine allotment accordingly.
Wistaria Tea House: Classic
Wistaria is a gorgeous Japanese style tea house recommended to us by our friend and tea blogger James, and while it may seem a little funny coming all the way to Taiwan to visit a place inspired by a nearby country, Wistaria is so much more than a style. Built in the 1920’s and located in the Da’an neighborhood, Wistaria was home to Taiwan’s Governor-General in the 40s, dormitories to the Republic of China administration in the 50s, then a hotspot for political dissidents and revolutionary activity in the 80s. Named after the wisteria vines that coil outside its door, the turmoil of its past does not match its calming and unassuming exterior.
The front room looks onto Wistaria’s lush courtyard and koi pond. The space is light filled and peaceful and at 11:30am on a Tuesday we’re able to grab the perfect window table to take it all in. From a hand-bound tea menu we choose the Banzhang Bulang Xishuangbanna pu-erh, a fermented tea from the Yunnan region of China, and gaoshan cha oolong, a high-mountain Taiwanese tea, grown not far from where we’re sitting. The teas aren’t consumed side-by-side, oh no. We start with the oolong since it has a lighter more floral character, then proceed to the thicker and woody pu-erh.
Each tea house we visit in Taiwan serves tea gongfu style where the tea is steeped multiple times. It’s a slow, thoughtful process, and drinking one tea takes around 60-90 minutes. It’s best to start with the lighter teas so not to crush your palette, similar to a wine tasting starting with whites and working towards full bodied reds.
To fight off peckishness we nibble on pineapple cake, a local treat of shortbread stuffed with preserved pineapple. Dense and slightly sweet, it’s a perfect companion to a three hour tea tasting.
Throughout our stay I notice newcomers are led towards the back of the tea house and discover several Japanese tatami rooms where customers sit shoeless on the floor sipping away. Days later when we return to Wistaria on a gray and drizzly afternoon I ask if we can sit in the back room. Once seated it’s chilly but cozy and all I want to do is curl up in my pashmina and doze off.
It’s not just the space that brings us back to Wistaria — My husband (the tea aficionado of the two of us) had been wanting to try the bai hao oolong, or “Oriental Beauty” tea, an oolong that derives its flavor from katydids munching on its leaves. This is one of our more unique tea tastings, as per the menu description:
Oriental Beauty is grown in central Taiwan and usually harvested in the summer months. It is produced in a unique dance of the natural world. A kind of katydid chews on the tea leaves in the spring. As a result, the tea trees produce a second flush with more tannin to discourage the insects. When the katydids return they find the leaves distasteful and only partially eat them. The combination of their saliva, the added tannin and the tea processing then produces a very unique kind of tea.
Mentioning insect saliva on a menu item can be a bit off putting, but all that translates to is a tea slightly sweeter and thicker than other oolongs.
Between the two spaces I prefer the bright front room with its garden views to the back room with its tatami mats, but I have a hunch the right place is very much mood-dependent.
Yao Yue Teahouse: Local
This place is an institution. A 24-hour tea house nestled into the mountains just outside of Taipei. Don’t go because you’re thirsty for tea, go for the journey it takes to get there.
It starts by taking the MRT to Taipei zoo station then taking the Maokong Gondola 20 minutes into the mountains. Everyone says that a “crystal cabin” aka, a glass bottomed gondola cabin is the only way to make it to the top. I say that’s rubbish. On a slow morning there’s a 35 minute wait for a crystal cabin and walk-on access to the other cars. No matter the cabin you’ll have a sweeping view of mountains, tea farms and Taipei’s skyline, so why wait?
We make the pilgrimage on a foggy and drizzly winter’s day and the ride brings an incredible amount of peace. From the gondola’s drop-off point of Maokong station we take the mile long walk to the tea house for some additional sightseeing. (Anyone not wanting to walk can take a shuttle from the station to the teahouse, which runs every 20 minutes.) The wooded winding road brings us past the adorably named “cat’s got nothing to do cafe” and it’s along our walk we learn Taipei’s garbage trucks play songs like “Happy Birthday” to bring residents outside for a face-to-face garbage hand-off.
There are few things more satisfying than travelling slowly. I love novels in cafes and hours-long train rides through foreign country-sides. Sitting outside at Yao Yue, sipping at a snow oolong while watching the rain pitter-patter off the landscape is one of those scenes I would love to slip back into. For hours my husband and I do nothing but eat dim sum, brew and sip tea, and count the number of caterpillars we spot munching on leaves next to our seats.
Oolongs are the tea Taiwan is famous for, with the general consensus in the tea community being the best oolongs in the world come from Taiwan and the Fujian region of China. Taiwan’s subtropical climate has mild winters, high humidity, heavy rainfall, and mountainous regions make it a prime environment for growing oolongs. From our seats on Yao Yue’s patio we actually see future-oolong growing.
Tea begins to oxidize as soon as it’s plucked and oxidation has a huge impact on the astringency and bitterness of the finished tea. An example of an unoxidized tea would be a delicate white tea, with aged pu-erh falling into the heavily oxidized category. Oolong falls somewhere in the middle, but the tea remains a complex one — Depending on the level of oxidation, an oolong can be floral and light, to a thick, woodsey tea that weighs down the tongue.
Yao Yue is comforting — Unlike many American “24-hour” establishments, there’s no harsh lighting. No smell that screams just-bleached or burger-grease. There’s only a chill that makes me want to stay put and nod my head at another steeping of tea and order of dumplings.
Stop By Tea House: Hipster
The first thing I see walking into Stop By Tea House is a feathered ceiling installment hanging above a highly curated selection of aged tea cakes and craft teaware. A video plays on repeat showing an on-site event where participants dressed entirely in beige sit on the floor, plucking tea cups off miniature rafts from a river carved into the ground.
This place is hip-ster.
Stop By is located in Taipei’s Da’an neighborhood, the hipster haven of the city. This is where to go for breweries and espresso walk-up windows, shoebox bars and gourmet shaved ice. In an area with a picky palette and a thirst for novelty, the tea house couldn’t get by on looks alone. The tea selection is wonderful. We drink two Taiwanese oolongs — a buttery high mountain Lishan, harvested from Taiwan’s highest oolong elevation and a Dong Ding oolong, darker and more toasty.
I’m captivated by Stop By. When I go back to Taipei, I’m drinking from that tea river.
Mata tea house: Chic
This is the place to caffeinate and people-watch. Mata sits along Yongkang park in Taipei’s Da’an neighborhood and a window seat here is the best place to catch chic residents stroll by in leather backpacks and lace up boots. The tea house also looks onto a small playground, so I can watch 4-7 year-olds duke it out for seniority over a slide platform for the power to determine which kids have permission to slide down. You gotta pay the child’s toll to ride this slide.
The space is industrial-meets-Eastern. Visitors must walk a small wooden plank over a mossy pond to gain tea house access, creating a novel experience before entering. Mata’s color palette spans all shades of brown, but the focal point of the space is a raised platform with one long, low table and its dozen floor cushions in front of a gold brushed wall.
Mata is a bit more hands-on than other tea houses. I say this because instead of being trusted to brew and pour our own tea, we spend our first hour having a linen-clad woman handle each step of the gongfu tea ceremony, which is an involved process.
Multiple instruments are meticulously laid out: A small clay teapot, a platter to display the tea in its raw form, a sniffing cup to understand the range of scents a tea will experience throughout its brewing process, and other bits and bobs we don’t have at home.
I often find myself inadvertently saying “thank you” an insufferable number of times to servers — A thanks is given when silverware is placed. When water is poured. When menus are delivered. Retrieved. It’s like Sisyphus rolling a boulder of thank-yous up a mountain. It’s painful and endless. In Taiwan where I don’t speak the language, this translates as me bowing my head in thanks each time an action is taken. I felt like a bobblehead. Service at Mata is particularly detail-oriented, further enhancing this quirk.
The tea platter is brought to our nose where we inhale, approving the tea’s fragrance with a nod. The tea buds are then transferred into the teapot and boiling water is rinsed through the leaves, to clean and “wake” the tea. This first, brief steep is trashed into a carafe and placed out of sight.
Now it’s time for the big show — A new batch of just barely boiling water tops the tea leaves, everyone holds their breath for 30 seconds while it steeps, then the piping tea is poured into a gaiwan (a ceramic cup) before being poured once more into individual tasting cups. Once the gaiwan is drained the process begins anew. Steep > gaiwan > glasses > mouths, with one tea seeing between four to five steepings.
In the three hours we spend here we order a Taiwanese high mountain oolong and Laotian old growth pu-erh, with both the teaware and place settings getting replaced between teas. For the pu-erh we’re trusted to pour our tea solo. Casual and cheap, this place ain’t, but the tea is the highest quality and the location for people-watching is unbeatable.
I don’t regret spending 3-6 hours drinking tea a day. In my eyes, tea is the main event in Taipei. The slow process clears my mind and relaxes me the way I wish meditation did. Plus, there’s caffeine involved. What’s not to love?