Words by: Adam Hopkins
Photos by: Yi-choon Tang, Pan Chun Lin
Tea is the world’s most widely-consumed drink, and in Taipei, you’re (probably) never more than a few feet away from someone enjoying a cup of chá. A drink rich in tradition, culture, and history, Taiwanese tea is seen as a beverage for the older generations, with Taipei’s young people preferring more stylish drinks such as coffee, bubble tea, and craft beer. As with a lot of industries in the capital these days, teahouses have to keep up with the times and adapt to the changing needs of their clientele.
With the rise of influencer culture in recent years, not only do drinks in Taipei today need to taste good, they also need to look good. To many people, taking a picture of their drink is equally, if not more, important than drinking it. At one teahouse in Dadaocheng (大稻埕), they are not only finding ways to appeal to Taipei’s youth, but also maintaining the tradition that has seen their family business thrive for more than 130 years.
Wang Tea (有記名茶) has been in operation since 1890, and last year took a big leap into the modern market by opening the very stylish Wangtea Lab on Chongqing North Road (重慶北路), right between Dadaocheng’s famous Dihua Street (迪化街) and Ningxia Night Market (寧夏夜市).
DRINKING TEA IN WAYS YOU NEVER THOUGHT
Looking more like a trendy bar than a teahouse, Wangtea Lab, conveniently located next door to Wang Tea’s tea factory and tea museum, boasts a menu as forward-thinking as its design, offering drinks such as sparkling tea and even tea beer as part of their draught series.
Far from the average teahouse, Wangtea Lab’s modern approach and aesthetic is owed to a quickly changing tea market in Taipei, with younger generations just not as into traditional tea culture as their predecessors. “Young people drink tea, but they don’t drink it the old-fashioned way,” Jason Wang (王聖鈞), a fifth generation Wang Tea tea maker/trader and manager of Wangtea Lab, tells TAIPEI
“A lot of young people drink bubble tea, but seldom do the younger generations go to teahouses to brew tea themselves. We see it as a niche market.” Jason thus planned to do something between bubble tea and the tradition of old-school teahouses.
At Wangtea Lab, he is trying to make something different. “We have sparkling tea, for example. We’re trying to use ways that haven’t been used in the tea business here [in Taiwan],” Jason explains.
This is part of where the idea for Wangtea Lab came from. Jason wanted to cash in on the gap in the market, while also fulfilling his father’s dream of opening a family teahouse.
INNOVATIVE FAMILY LEGACY
“At the very beginning, like five to ten years ago, my dad wanted to open a teahouse. An old-fashioned one. But it never materialized until now, so he said, ‘Okay, you can do what you want to do right here.’” Jason was given complete creative freedom for the project. “My family actually had no idea what I was going to do. I think they are very supportive. My father is a very open-minded person. So, if I make a new kind of tea, I ask him to try it to see if it’s ok, or if it needs some adjustment.”
From an innovative menu introducing the roasting and blending of tea in different levels and varieties, you’ll find many interesting and delicious drinks at Wangtea Lab that Jason wants people to try.
“I would say you definitely need to try our draught series. It’s something you can’t try in other places,” he smiles. “We also blend different kinds of tea. People can get the single types of tea at other tea shops, but you cannot get blended tea. We blend two, sometimes three types of tea together to come up with some new flavors.”
He is also adamant on his store not just becoming another bubble tea chain. “What we sell here, the tea has no sugar and no bubbles. But with milk, I needed to make a compromise,” he laughs. With milk tea being consumed so widely in Taipei, he knew it would be a bad idea to keep it off the menu. “At the beginning, I didn’t want to sell milk tea. But there’s a really big market for it.” Sometimes you have to make sacrifices to make businesses thrive.
DISCOVER NEW TEA DRINKING CONCEPTS WITH WANGTEA LAB
Jason explains how he came up with his shop’s innovative ideas and creative flavors. “I came back to the family after my graduate studies in Boston in 2012, but had been involved in the family business since college. So, I already knew the background and the basics of how we could do it [blending tea]. It’s trial and error until you get the best product, which we’ve got right here.”
For example, the sparkling tea is one of the products that Jason had to keep experimenting with to see how it would go in the beginning. As he recalls, “We would experiment. The carbon dioxide would cover the smell, so you’d need to use a very floral or fruity- smelling tea to make it. We also found out that using nitrogen gas would make it taste much smoother than one with carbon dioxide.”
Wangtea Lab’s draught series is unique, with nowhere else in Taipei offering tea in this style, as is their pour-over series, whereas other tea shops and teahouses still use the old-fashioned way, using the teapot, or the gaibei (蓋杯, covered cup), or gaiwan (蓋碗, covered bowl), to pour their tea. “Also, we’ve got the whole series where we use the whole leaf to brew the tea,” said Jason. “We don’t crush them. Using the whole leaves has a better aroma. I would also say it tastes better.”
“We want to let more people know about Taiwanese tea culture, but we are using a different way to present it. So, here you’re not just drinking tea, you are also acquiring some knowledge about tea. Looking at our menu, you can learn about the fermentation and the roasting. You can also go to our tea factory.”
To figure out how to make his store appealing to customers, Jason used other business models for inspiration. “I observed different businesses. For example, I would try to figure out why people would rather go to a coffee shop than a tea house to do their homework or to chit chat with friends. What are the elements that I can borrow from a coffee shop?” Jason adds: “Also, there is a cocktail brand called Draft Land, which is very popular in Taipei, and they’ve got so many different flavors and they use a very easy way to present the cocktails to their customers. Easy and fast, less is more.”
Meanwhile, Wangtea Lab collaborates with other beverage makers to put more twists on their tea. Last summer, Sunmai (金色三麥), a Taiwanese brewery, debuted a baozhong tea (包種茶) beer at convenience stores, which uses tea from Wangtea. Jason then asked the beer brewer to customize a flavor for Wangtea Lab, which has a stronger tea flavor compared to the one sold in convenience stores.
EXPLORING THE POSSIBILITIES OF TEA
Wangtea Lab has been well received so far by tea insiders and regular customers alike. “We’ve gotten attention from people within the tea business, since it’s a totally different thing for them. Also, customers who are accustomed to going to coffee shops are intrigued by us,” Jason shares. He further indicates that the strategy for promoting this new place is to attract customers with cutting edge interior design.
Walking into Wangtea Lab, you’ll first see a modern look bar lying in the center of the space with a lantern made of bamboo structure hanging above. “Once they come in, they would realize we are not just selling normal tea,” he laughs.
Meanwhile, because Wang Tea is a famous brand with a long history, Jason noticed that people who already knew the brand would be curious about what Wangtea Lab can do that’s new within the tea business.
Jason’s goals for the future remain balanced and realistic. “Right now, because this is still a new thing to the market, we need to stabilize the whole business. Then, we want to come up with some new flavors for the draught and the pour-over, and see how to represent the brand in different locations. Maybe open a shop that just sells the draught series, or a shop that just sells the pour-over series.”
If you want to drink Taiwanese tea like you never have before, head to Wangtea Lab for a taste that is familiar but different, and an experience that is traditional but unlike any other.