Hubert Burda Media

Is Chinese tea making a comeback?

From Taiwan to the US, Europe and Singapore, fine Chinese tea is seeing a new springtime.

It’s mid-april in the rural district of Pinglin. The sun has just risen over the horizon and Bai Jun Yu’s day has already started. Workers are gathering in the fields ready for tea picking. Today, they will be harvesting tea leaves to make Wenshan Baozhong, one of Taiwan’s most famous oolong teas. Led by his father Bai Qing Chang, Jun Yu will be overseeing the picking and processing, which will take a couple of days to complete.

Jun Yu represents the fifth generation of his family’s tea production business in Taiwan. The 30-year-old initially had no intention of following in his father’s footsteps, he says: “I had no interest in tea. One of the questions people often ask me as soon as they learn about my father’s business is what sort of tea he produces, but because I didn’t know, I could never come up with an answer.”

That changed in 2011, when he started to help out at his family tea factory and found himself fascinated by the tea leaves’ incredible transformation after they were picked. Today he is joined by his 28-year-old brother, with whom he develops ideas on taking the family business — now named for their father — online and on social media platforms.

The Bais are not alone in taking up the baton of becoming the next generation of tea producers — in Pinglin alone, more than 20 young adults have returned from the city to become tea producers. “Taiwan’s Council of Agriculture is encouraging tea farmers to package and brand their teas, so many second- and third-generation young adults happily go back to helping their families make and sell tea,” says Weng Chao Liang, 43, a tea merchant who owns and runs a tea shop called Xi Tang in Muzha, Taipei.

Weng Chao Liang of Xi Tang in Taipei believes tea drinking is becoming more popular now

Weng, who has been in the tea business since 2000, sees renewed vigour in the country’s tea scene. “Tea gatherings and events are becoming increasingly popular, typically blending with various themes such as music, drama, performance art, ceramic art, incense, floral arrangement, and so on. These novel experiences draw young people and their friends in, who then start delving into tea,” he adds.

In the swanky art deco environs of Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan, New York, tea also sports an upmarket image and appeal. The three-Michelin-starred dining outfit proffers a list featuring Japanese green teas to oolongs and aged pu-erhs, as well as several herbal options and tisanes. “The list can reach over 50 selections depending on season and availability,” says the restaurant’s tea director Todd Chatterton. Among them are rarefied picks such as a Nepalese white tea and a very limited pu-erh from the 1960s. “Nepalese teas tend to be fairly rare in the US because they are virtually unknown to the casual tea drinker,” explains the 24-year-old. “The pu-erh is unusual because of its age and we are the only restaurant to have this tea on our list.”

Eleven Madison Park in New York has over 50 tea selections

Most of the teas at Eleven Madison Park are prepared and served in a Western-style pot, while the more exclusive offerings are presented and brewed tableside with a modified gaiwan (a lidded bowl) employing an exacting multi-step traditional tea brewing technique known as the gongfu method. In other instances, the tea is brewed in a pot but served through multiple steeps. “It’s a great way to introduce guests to the complexity of tea as it changes through numerous steepings,” Chatterton says.

Even at a restaurant as progressive and prestigious as Eleven Madison Park, diners are often surprised by the reach and depth of the tea menu. “The best moments come when a guest orders a tea to which he or she never had access,” Chatterton says. “The excitement and delight that follows from trying a tea for the first time is the reason why we created this list.”

Several streets away in downtown Manhattan, hidden behind unmarked doorways underneath an apartment building, a similar scene is playing out at Atera. Diners at this two-Michelin-starred restaurant tuck in to intricate dishes paired with meticulously brewed tea, a menu the restaurant calls Tea Progression. “We offer 19 different teas, which include matcha, white, green, oolong, black, pu-erh and herbal infusions. On our Tea Progression, we serve five selected teas, where one is prepared cold and carbonated, the others either in a kyusu teapot or in a gaiwan. The preparation depends on the style of tea and the flavour of the dish,” states Atera’s Wine Director Morten Magh. “We also serve coffee, but save for a few exceptions, coffee is not ideal for food pairing, while teas have flavours that are similar to wine; they can be a great partner to a meal.”

On the opposite side of the coast, fine tea lovers in San Francisco find solace in independent retailers the likes of Song Tea & Ceramics, run by tea veteran Peter Luong, who left his family business Red Blossom Tea (also in San Francisco) to start his own boutique. “I’ve seen a phenomenal interest in tea over the past decade,” Peter noted in an interview with Kinfolk. “That interest has manifested in a proliferation of tea vendors in this country: From small tea merchants such as Song to large chain stores. Both supermarkets and speciality markets have shelves dedicated to tea — and the number of choices are staggering.”

Speciality tea concept stores have also popped up in Europe. In Berlin, P & T caters to a growing community of fine tea enthusiasts, offering not only teas and teaware but also seminars designed to equip participants with a deeper appreciation and knowledge of the age-old drink. “The appreciation for quality artisanal tea has not only risen in Berlin, but also in other German cities,” says P & T’s founder and CEO Jens de Gruyter, whose uncle was a tea merchant supplying to luxury hotels and restaurants in Germany. The company’s name stands for “paper and tea”, alluding to what de Gruyter regards as two of the world’s greatest inventions. “We’re passionate about creating a greater awareness and appreciation for tea’s beauty, pleasure and manifold benefits. Surprisingly, there is a relatively high proportion of men taking interest in what we do.”

Odette has a curated list of teas

Tea’s growing popularity and its place in fine dining is not lost on some of Singapore’s most hallowed restaurants. French dining destination Odette, which opened in November 2015 at the National Gallery Singapore, curates a list of fine teas that span white, green, oolong, black and pu-erh, as well as sencha and gyokuro, brewed and served in elegant contemporary teaware. “In designing our tea menu, we work with people we trust, who share our level of passion and technical knowledge. And we taste completely by sensorial experience, so we are not clouded by preconceptions,” says Vincent Tan, 29, the restaurant’s sommelier.

French 14-seater restaurant Beni located at Mandarin Gallery provides diners a rather unconventional tea experience in the form of Royal Blue Tea. Founded by Keiko Yashimoto, it is a collection of cold-brewed Japanese and Chinese teas that come bottled like wine, with shelf life ranging from three to six months. The teas are served exclusively in wine glasses, in accordance to Yashimoto’s request. “The approach to appreciation and pairing is very similar to wine,” group sommelier Hiromi Muraoka explains. “Especially for diners who can’t take alcohol, Royal Blue Tea affords the same level of experience and enjoyment.”

Cold-brewed teas at Beni come in bottles like wine and served in wine glasses

The tea menu at Wolfgang Puck’s CUT is also an enviable one. “We have an exhaustive list ranging from lighter styles to more oxidised teas, such as sencha, matcha, oolong, and pu-erh,” says General Manager Paul Joseph. The teas are presented and brewed tableside, and served over two to three rounds. When it comes to pairing, Joseph recommends having a 2004 Menghai Tea Factory 7592 ripe pu-erh with a hunky piece of steak. “Regulars who come back often ask for tea,” he recounts. “We want our guests to enjoy the theatrics of tea service. In some ways, it’s becoming a status drink, like having a great bottle of wine.”

Tan goes further to add that quality tea is a significant component of a perfect dining experience. “You can’t have a very good meal and round it off with an inferior tea served to you as an afterthought. If you’ve spent so much on a perfect meal, don’t end it on a dismal note.”

At CUT, teas are brewed and served tableside

Chatterton agrees, adding that quality tea is becoming widely available to connoisseurs and casual drinkers alike. “I think getting the younger generations like mine excited about tea will help create a larger awareness,” he says. “I hope this will help elevate tea from being a mere afterthought at the end of a meal to a respectable drink to be enjoyed throughout the day and throughout a meal. It is one of very few beverages complex enough to stimulate the mind, energising enough to stimulate the body and far-reaching enough to stimulate humanity. Tea is the perfect drink.”