You've just arrived in Taipei and you want to get your hands on some of the best oolong tea on the planet. You go online and do some searching but can't find any conclusive information. The stores you check have wildly different prices and you don't know why. Which stores can you trust? Is it better to buy at a farmer's market? Do you buy the nicely packaged tea with beautiful labels, or will all that packaging just artificially inflate the price?
Before I arrived in Taiwan, I considered myself to be pretty well versed in tea. I drink at least a cup or two of tea every day, I hopped on the loose leaf band wagon near the beginning, and I'm a mildly annoying purist who doesn't like to drink the flavoured fruity teas that are now super popular. But when I got here I was totally overwhelmed. I'm still overwhelmed, but I think I've gotten enough experience to offer my advice to people who just want some tea without a hassle. And even some advice for those who want to jump through hoops to find the best tea and just don't know where to start!
First thing's first though: always taste your tea before buying, and if you have the time taste as many subsequent steeps of the same leaves as you can. Try to pick up on how the flavour changes on each brew/ infusion. Afterwards, if you don't want to buy their tea, don't feel obliged. Be gracious, thank the owner, and ask for their business card. Tell them you want to think on it.
But anyway, on to the recommendations. For a map of our top choices, scroll down to the bottom!
The One Stop Shop: Wang's Tea / 有記名茶
Go here first. I consider them to be very honest, and genuinely interested in educating people in the difference between different types of Oolong teas, from the light, emerald flavoured 包種／Baozhong/ Pouchong tea to the nutty, highly roasted 鐵觀音/ Tieguanyin / Ti Kuan Yin. Most of their staff that I have encountered speak English quite well, and they are happy to let you taste several different teas.
Every tea they sell is offered in various grades, colour coded from red at the low end to gold at the high end. Don't feel like you have to spring for the higher grades though - chances are if you're reading this guide, you don't need to spend that kind of money on tea! When Jannell and I went to Wang's Tea recently, we asked them to give us a blind taste test of yellow and blue. Their blue grade tea is twice the price of the yellow (and gold is twice the price of blue). While we could identify that the blue tasted a bit smoother and the yellow was a bit more tannic, we thought that the yellow was still very, very good and ended up buying it.
The one drawback of Wang's tea is that the origin of the tea leaves is not super clear. If you're looking to get your hands on some Alishan, Lishan, or Dayuling oolongs, you'll have to go elsewhere - their high mountain tea is simply labelled "high mountain oolong" rather than giving the provenance.
The best teas that we found here are:
Tieguanyin - medium oxidation and heavily roasted. Very nutty, deep flavours that last for many infusions.
Chichong Gaoshan - a lightly oxidized High Mountain Oolong that is roasted more than usual using charcoal fires. It's very well balanced and lasts longer than more lightly roasted teas. Lighter than Tieguanyin but heavier than others.
Jinxuan - known in English as "Milky Oolong", this strain of tea leaves naturally develops a buttery, creamy flavour. It is also quite floral.
Guihua - tea flavoured with Osmanthus flowers (guihua in Chinese), this tea is very light and floral. One of Jannell's all time favourites.
Wang's Tea has several different locations in Taiwan that can be found on their website, or on our map at the end of this page.
The Classic Teahouse: Wistaria Tea / 紫藤廬
"Come on Reid, this is the only place that actually came up in my google search. Everyone knows about Wistaria, it's the most famous teahouse in the city."
Maybe so, but it's famous for good reason! The inside is gorgeous and it's priced pretty competitively relative to other teahouses (though still pretty expensive - teahouses that serve using gongfu tea sets are all expensive in my experience). The biggest attraction for me is that you're required to get one serving of tea per person in your party. This means that if you have 3 people, you must get 3 servings of tea. But! You're not obliged to get 3 servings of the same tea, nor are you obliged to drink all of the tea you order in house. The extra tea leaves come in little canisters that you can take home and brew yourself. It's a great way to spend a (rainy) afternoon, and an excellent way to sample several different types of tea.
Their tea leaves are also for sale as you leave, though they can get quite expensive. Personally, I used it as a jumping off point. We saw a couple of 凍頂 / Dongding / Tungting oolongs on the menu and had never tried one, so we ordered it and loved it. A couple weeks later we saw someone selling Dongding oolong at a market and ended up picking up a pack. The one exception to this rule is their Jinxuan tea. At 600 NTD for 150g, it's priced pretty fairly.
Tea with a View: Maokong
No doubt about it, Maokong is as touristy as it gets in Taipei. However! They have some very good Tieguanyin (also known as Iron Goddess or Roasted Oolong) teas, as well as good Baozhong (Green Oolong). These are two very interesting teas to pick up because they represent pretty opposite ends of the tea spectrum: Tieguanyin is moderately oxidized and heavily roasted while Baozhong is hardly oxidized at all and either unroasted or lightly roasted.
To get there, take the gondola from Taipei Zoo station. It's not cheap in Taiwan terms, but it's a bargain compared to Western gondola prices.
Try to look for the more run-down shops with boring tea labels - the cuter the packaging, the more expensive it'll be. The prices do not necessarily reflect the quality of the tea, but more often the quality of the package. This is true for many things in Taiwan: high prices mean that a lot of effort has been put into the look of the tea/ restaurant/ food, not necessarily into the quality.
Farm Fresh: Taipei Expo Farmer's Market
This is a great place to shop for teas from local farmers. There are plenty of stands selling Gaoshan (High Mountain) Oolongs from around the country, but we recommend sticking to the local varieties: Tieguanyin, Baozhong and Oriental Beauty. The farmers pictured above are incredibly sweet and happen to have an amazing Baozhong that's grown without pesticides. It's a pretty good bargain, good enough that we doubled back for a second pack before we left the country.
Gaoshan for Bargain Prices: Yingge
This one is a bit hard to get to - we recommend you use the map to find it. It's located at the southwest corner of our map below, inside of a large apartment complex right before you reach Yingge's old street (great place to buy ceramics to brew all this tea in!) You can reach Yingge via train from Taipei Main Station, and then walk from Yingge Station to the tea shop.
We really liked all of their tea and thought it was incredible value. A bag of tea that normally goes for 2000+ NTD will sell for about 800 here. It's also the only tea shop our tea teacher explicitly recommended! Do yourself a favour and stop here if you're already in Yingge - it's well worth the trip even if you're not already there!
Upstairs from the tea shop, you can also paint your own teacups, teapots and more! The owners are really friendly, though only one or two people who work there can speak English.