The Great Shake-off: Surviving and Thriving in Taiwan’s Tea Drink Market

Community group Snowball developed a ranking system for tea drink shops in Taiwan based on ethical-consumption metrics. Image: Snowball

The lucrative industry of hand-shaken tea beverages has received attention from the Taiwan government, human rights groups, and the island’s many entrepreneurs. But with the growing politicization of the businesses that make these drinks, a “good cup of tea” has taken on a new meaning.

Taiwan tea – above all, high mountain tea, known as the champagne of oolongs – is renowned for its high quality and outstanding taste. The island’s subtropical climate and scores of mountains immersed in clouds, year-round mist, and diffused sunlight give its tea plants optimal exposure for photosynthesis that creates a thick aroma, sweet flavor, and smooth texture.

Indeed, the Taiwan tea industry has remained lucrative since the Qing dynasty, with the exception of a few periodic drawbacks. But while connoisseurs might prefer to discuss gongfu tea ceremonies or the more recent eco-friendly teas, modern-day Taiwan is known globally for its less glamorous but equally serious hand-shaken tea beverages industry.

Hand-shaken tea can be traced back to Taichung during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, but it was not until the introduction of bubble tea in the 1980s that its popularity really began to grow. Since then, the island’s tea industry has rapidly transformed to include an array of creations sold by streetside stalls that have become as ubiquitous as its many convenience stores.

Drink-store sales in Taiwan have increased by more than 80% over the last decade and exceeded NT$58 billion (US$2.09 billion) in 2020, according to the Ministry of Economic Affairs. A staggering 1.02 billion hand-shaken drinks are sold every year in Taiwan, working out to around 44 cups per person per year. Assuming that each cup contains on average 30 grams of sugar, this also adds up to about 30,000 metric tons of sugar consumed annually in Taiwan through hand-shaken beverages alone.

In an almost profound reflection of the coexistence of old and new in the industry, two major tea-related events took place in November: release of the Netflix Original series Gold Leaf – a period drama about Taiwan’s tea industry in 1949 – and the announcement by Taiwan’s Tea Research and Extension Station that it will establish a beverage center to develop new methods for creating tea-based mixed drinks.

The beverage center will employ between five and seven people to collaborate with private companies to develop new drinks using local crops, as well as research tea-blending techniques and the best ratios for such pairings as tea with alcohol or fruit juice. Station Chief Su Tsung-cheng told the media that anything that can be used in a drink would be considered for mixing. His comment perhaps captured the reason for the popularity of these beverages – the prospect of endless possibilities.

Standing out

A walk down just about any street in a Taiwanese city downtown makes it blatantly obvious that competition in the hand-shaken beverages market is fierce. As brands that fail to reach a sizeable scale within the first three years are unlikely to survive, reputation and distinction are vital aspects of succeeding in this business. Whether through creative pairings, unusual interior design, clever names, or outstanding quality, brands do everything in their power to differentiate themselves.

Taipei-based community group Snowball has added another opportunity for tea shops to stand out. The group created a politics and human rights-based index of tea shops in Taiwan after recent challenges to democracy in the Asia-Pacific prompted co-founder Colin Hodge and his team to ask themselves what actions they could take to influence business practices.

“We want to start shifting people’s mentality from ‘I’ll just buy whatever is cheapest, or whatever’s most readily available,’ to thinking a little more about where they’re spending their money,” says Hodge. “Digging into the idea of conscious consumption, we thought we could actually have an impact on a market the size of Taiwan.”

Considering the ubiquity of tea drinks in Taiwan, the group decided it would be the best place to start before expanding its rankings to include e-commerce and fashion.

In Snowball’s “Drink or Not” ranking system, each shop starts with 10 points, and additional points are either added or subtracted based on a number of variables. Major franchising in China loses a brand two points, while support for Hong Kong protesters earns it a point. Hodge stresses that the group is not urging a complete decoupling with China but rather encouraging people to “spend less money that goes toward supporting the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] and their policies.”

This type of political awareness in consumption and business management related to cross-Strait relations has been escalated by pro-democracy groups in Taiwan and the Beijing government, Hodge notes. He predicts that business leaders will find it increasingly difficult to remain on the fence as tensions rise.

“A lot of the CCP’s actions are basically playing into the hands of Taiwan and helping to prove a point,” he says. “If you have business in China, you do need to take a stance because if you don’t, they’re going to be heavy-handed and force you to take their stance by the natural momentum of things.”

Ching Yuan Taro Balls (清原芋圓) is one of the franchises managing to both distinguish its brand and pass the Snowball test. The chain was opened in 2018 by engineer turned entrepreneur Eason Liu, who decided to combine two high-demand segments – drinks and desserts – in one shop. Thus, the chain serves not only hand-shaken beverages but also classic desserts with ingredients like taro balls, grass jelly, tapioca, and mung beans. With a score of 13, Ching Yuan also tops Snowball’s drink shop index.

But Ching Yuan is not all about tradition – its menu boasts several imaginative creations, like the taro smoothie with purple sweet potato bubble. This drink has a colorful exterior and flavor, a natural sweetness, and a smooth, thick texture. Although it contains no tea whatsoever, it is a fun alternative for those seeking new experiences for their tastebuds.

Ching Yuan Taro Ball’s imaginative taro smoothie with purple sweet potato bubble is sweet but not overly rich. Photo: Julia Bergström

Another winner in the Snowball drink index, Truedan (珍煮丹), takes an approach similar to Ching Yuan’s. Its formula for success seems effective, as the brand has grown from a night-market stand a decade ago to boasting over 100 shops in 12 countries today.

Although Truedan’s specialty is its brown sugar series, its menu also features sections such as Tea Spectrum in the World, Old-Fashioned 80’s Classic Drinks, and Novel Tea Ceremony. Customers can choose from timeless toppings such as taro balls, pudding, grass jelly, winter melon, condensed milk, honey, lemon, passionfruit, coconut jelly, and others. 

Photo: Julia Bergström

Truedan’s mixed tea drinks have a rather mild tea flavor, emphasizing the accompanying ingredients instead. Its brown sugar douhua black tea features the shop’s signature 0.85-centimeter soft bubbles mixed with light-bodied tea and silky-smooth tofu, rendering it more akin to a dessert than a drink. Zestier options, such as the passionfruit green tea with coconut jelly and honey chrysanthemum tea, are likely better enjoyed with no added sugar, as even a one-third amount of sugar overpowers the refreshing and fruity flavors. 

The sine qua non of a proper Truedan experience, part of its signature Craftsman’s Brown Sugar Series, is the brown sugar bubble with milk and cream. A fair bit of warning: this combination of soft and clean tea flavors, light milk powder, sweet tapioca bubbles boiled in brown sugar, and a salty milk cap is strictly for those with stable insulin levels. A medium-sized cup will land you at a whopping 575 calories (around a quarter of the daily recommended intake) and up to 50 grams of sugar. Nevertheless, the slightly salty milk cap perfectly balances the heavy brown sugar aroma and is the first thing consumers will taste as they chug their way to a sugar high that soon fades into lethargy.

Tea refinement

While some opt for nostalgia, others take a more modern and sophisticated approach. Although not a traditional tea vendor, one Taipei hotel has produced the epitome of refined modern tea drinks and thus deserves an honorable mention. By what seems to be a stroke of luck, Regent Taipei recently decided to combine two of this writer’s favorites – oolong and carbonation – in its Sparkling Oriental Beauty Oolong Tea.

Regent Taipei’s sparkling oolong tea uses tea leaves from Beipu that have been bitten by small green leafhoppers, a process that brings out a honey fragrance. Adding fine and long bubbles creates a champagne-like silky taste. Photo: Regent Taipei

Made from Beipu oolong, Regent’s sparkling tea is dark gold with a light coating of bubbles foaming at the top, and one could easily mistake it for beer at first glance. The drink is quite heavily carbonated, but this does not stop the distinctive fragrant oolong aroma from traveling through the bubbles. Although the drink contains no additives or sugar, it is naturally sweet and highly refreshing and could be used as an alcohol-free alternative to champagne. This sparkling tea is best enjoyed chilled or mixed with whisky for an upscale oolong highball.

SOMA Tea & Mocktail (SOMA特調飲品) is another shop offering tea with a healthy serving of sophistication. With only three branches in Taipei and one in Los Angeles, SOMA is an award-winning boutique brand in the hand-shaken beverages category and thus too small to be included in the Snowball index so far.

Although modest in size, SOMA has its own in-house R&D team for whom no detail is too small – including the weight of its ice cubes. The company collaborates with small-scale local farmers and proudly proclaims that it follows the cookery spirit of cordon bleu (of the highest quality). The price tag is also steep – a cup of SOMA tea costs NT$45-130. Before the 2021 price hikes in Taiwan, the same amount of money could buy a decent lunch.

In adherence to its refined image, SOMA’s tea mixes are clean and straightforward, producing mild and refreshing flavors. An excellent example of how SOMA transforms well-known flavors into unique beverages is its Nespresso Italian yuanyang tea. The drink bears a strong semblance to the better-known Hong Kong yuenyeung (also known as cofftea), only with milder flavors.

SOMA’s Nespresso Italian yuanyang tea combines the distinct yet compatible flavors of coffee and milk tea in one unique drink. Photo: Julia Bergström

SOMA’s yuanyang balances smooth milk tea with a mild but distinct coffee flavor, down to the nut-like aroma and light milky-foam coating similar to a freshly made espresso. The Chinese characters in the name of this drink are the same as those used for mandarin ducks (鴛鴦), a symbol of matrimonial love in Chinese culture as they are believed to be lifelong partners. They often seem to be an odd-looking match, however, and the same connotation of a strange but successful pairing applies to this mixed coffee-and-milk-tea beverage. The pairing of political consciousness and sugary drinks might also seem odd at first, but since living in Taiwan is nearly synonymous with having the occasional boba, it is worth thinking twice about whom we choose to support with these often impulse purchases. After all, if we cannot keep a clean conscience regarding our sugar intake and use of plastics, we could at least select our next cup with consideration for our fellow humans.

The Tea Drink Industry’s Politicization

From the Boston Tea Party to the competitive interdependence of China and India, throughout history tea has repeatedly played a role in global politics. The latest example is the “milk tea alliance,” which gained popularity during the Hong Kong anti-extradition protests of 2019-2020. Originally a Twitter meme, the term came to describe an online democracy and human rights movement composed mainly of netizens from Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Myanmar.

The shops selling milk tea were not immune from politics either. Following pressure from Beijing, several Taiwanese tea shops with business in Hong Kong decided to abandon their previously pro-Hong Kong or neutral stance and openly support the pro-Beijing government. One of them was CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice, which faced backlash by Chinese netizens on social media platform Weibo after one of its franchises in Hong Kong printed “let’s go Hong Kongers” on a receipt during the second round of protests in June 2020.

In response to the controversy, the company quickly backtracked and posted on Weibo that “CoCo firmly follows and supports relevant state law and policy, including the fact that the Hong Kong region is an inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China.”

Following this development, Hong Kong’s democracy movement built a system of color coding of retailers in Hong Kong based on whether they supported or opposed the protesters. Those who sympathized with the movement frequented “yellow shops” that supported the protesters and boycotted “blue shops” backing the Hong Kong police force. The system, also known as the yellow economic circle, was a model that Taipei-based community group Snowball used when compiling a list rating Taiwan tea shops based on ethical-consumption metrics last year.