Travel in Taiwan Museums

The World's Largest Tea Museum


By Christopher Logan and Tereesa Hsu
Photos by Sung Chih-hsiung
Tea has for centuries been the national drink of China, and the Taiwanese are proud of their tea-producing tradition. Just about all visitors to Taiwan will at some time in their stay be offered a small cup of steaming, golden oolong tea. It is fit, then, that Taiwan should be the location of what is reputed to be the world's largest tea museum--the Pinglin Tea Industry Museum (坪林 茶 葉 博 物 館 ), which opened on January 12, 1997. The museum, located in the green hills of Pinglin ( 坪林 鄉) in Taipei county, took eight years and US$10 million to complete.


Visitors can enjoy a refreshing cup of tea at the museum's tea house.
"Pinglin has over a century of experience producing tea," says Mayor Huang Ming-feng (黃銘豐), whose family has planted tea in the area for five generations. Paochung tea (包 種 茶)--an aromatic, sweet-tasting brew--is the type of tea most commonly grown around Pinglin. "The quality of our paochung tea has steadily improved," continues Huang. "It is the most fragrant tea available."


The Pinglin Tea Industry Museum has a pleasant Chinese-style garden.
Just an hour from the hustle and bustle of Taipei, the museum overlooks one of Taiwan's cleanest waterways. Peishih Stream (北勢溪) is the source of Taipei's drinking water, so environmental responsibility is of the greatest concern in Pinglin. The town is surrounded by forested hills, and is so small that one main road accounts for most of its commerce. The road is lined with workshops where tea is fermented, dried, and packaged. These small tea factories must be kept extremely clean and well-ventilated to ensure that none of the rich fragrance is lost. Between them nestle numerous tea shops, which provide visitors with opportunities to sample Pinglin's famous paochung tea.


The museum displays traditional tea producing equipment.(left) Exhibits show China's many varieties of tea and how they are processed.(right)
A Cup of Fragrant Tea
As with more common Chinese teas like oolong, paochung tea is partially fermented by exposing the tea leaves to light and air for several hours after picking. This fermentation process eliminates the grassy aroma of (unfermented) green teas, which is caused by chlorophyll. If the tea were allowed to ferment in this way for three days, the result would be black tea. Paochung is only about 20-30% fermented, however, which preserves the sweetness of the leaf.

Pinglin's merchants are always happy to welcome visitors with a cup of paochung tea and to show off the various grades, none of which ranks among Taiwan's most expensive teas. While you are browsing the tea shops, you'll no doubt notice quite a few tea products, such as tea candy, a chewy Japanese sweetmeat known as moji flavored with different kinds of tea, and tea oil (茶油). The oil is worth its price (a 600 ml. bottle costs NT$800) for the rich and subtle flavor it imparts to special dishes.

These shops also feature all manner of tea-making utensils and accessories, from fancy teapots, cups, and pitchers to special self-draining tables. Westerners are often bewildered by the number of specialized implements used in the gentle art of tea brewing. And tea time would not be complete, it seems, without an assortment of dainty snacks such as dried fruit, pine nuts, and sesame cookies.


The museum incorporates three-dimensional simulations of traditional tea processing.
A History of Tea
To find out why such a fuss is made over a simple cup of tea, head up to the museum, where 2.7 hectares of exhibits should make things clear. Displays recount the more than one-thousand-year history of tea. A thorough exposition is given of the various processes used throughout the ages to make different types of tea. In the eighth century, for instance (when Lu Yu (陸羽), an ancient Chinese scholar, wrote the Book of Tea), leaves were mashed into a paste and dried as tea bricks. During the Sung dynasty (960-1279) dried leaves were powdered and whisked with hot water in a bowl. Only during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) did the use of teapots become common.

Modern tea processing in Pinglin--from the picking of the leaves to the packaging of the product--is explained in pictures and three-dimensional simulations. The visitor can also watch live demonstrations of various techniques. Exhibits are housed in a spacious modern facility that was inspired by the traditional gardens of the Southern Fujian gentry.

Naturally, tea is served at the museum. It has two tea houses, one of which can accommodate parties of up to 120 guests. Three tea pavilions offer visitors the chance, weather permitting, to sip paochung tea outside while admiring the view over the stream.

Spring Tea in Pinglin
Around the end of March, Pinglin begins picking the famous 'spring tea' (春茶). This tea, picked just after the cold of winter has departed, possesses a particularly fine flavor that is hard to achieve in other seasons. During this time, and through the early part of April, the whole town is busy producing its specialty--the world-famous Wenshan paochung tea (文 山 包 種 茶). The heavenly aroma of fermenting leaves fills the air, and some producers welcome visitors for a peek at the operation.

A trip to the world's largest tea museum offers more than an introduction to a famous tea variety. It is a trip into the rural countryside of Taiwan, where the environment comes first and people have time to enjoy a cup of sweet paochung tea with friends and visitors. Because the area is so charming, campgrounds near Pinglin have become popular in summer, creating a second industry.

"We've just begun to beautify our town," says Mayor Huang. "In the near future, over three kilometers of land along this stream will be protected. We're building parks with broad walkways by the stream-side." And for a centerpiece, Huang continues, "There will be a big fountain in the center of the stream, near the museum."

A shuttle bus from Taipei is also planned for the future. For now, there's a public bus (the Hsintien Bus Company, tel: 666-7611) leaving every half hour from the Public Insurance Building (公 保大 樓) on Taipei's Kungyuan Rd. (公園路) near the Hilton Hotel. A one-way ticket costs only NT$82.

The museum offers a short brochure in English and an English-speaking guide is usually on hand, but it is recommended that visitors call the museum in advance, tel: (02) 665-7251 and (02) 345-5806, or fax: (02) 665-6328 for English-language services. Admission is NT$100 for adults and NT$50 for children. Groups over 20 receive a discount.

Travel in Taiwan Museums
Copyright 1995 Vision International Publishing Co.