New York-based Té Company source handmade teas from generation-old tea makers in Taiwan. Founded by Elena Liao, the shop showcases Taiwan’s bountiful terroir, its innovative people and its diverse cultural heritage through their small batch, locally produced teas.
As part of our Time to Make series, Elena prepares some of her favourite brews for spring and summer, discussing the health benefits of each as we welcome in the warmer months. We talk to Elena about her journey so far, what tea means to her and some of the rituals that fall into her every day.
Tell us a little about yourself and what you do?
Based out of New York City, Té Company specialises in Taiwanese teas, which are predominately oolongs. Taiwan is a tea region that has been exporting some of the world’s most delightful teas to London, New York and Tokyo since the early 1900’s.
We source all of our teas directly from tea making families, and our role here at Té Company is to curate an assortment that is not only delicious, but one that reflects the very essence of this beautiful island.
Loose and full-leaf teas can be intimidating for some, so we try to present our teas in an accessible way. We have a small physical tearoom in the West Village, and we offer brewing guides, tea knowledge and delicious snacks that go well with tea.
What does tea mean to you – growing up and today?
I have a big tea drinking family where tea is consumed as much as water, very possibly more than water! Tea is a way of life and has been very much so, long before I started Té. My mom used to put steeped tea leaves in a muslin bag to calm my eczema as a child, for its anti-inflammatory properties can calm the skin. It was also brewed after every meal and loaded into our thermos for any family hikes. My earliest memory of tea making is watching my grandfather brew a strong cup for himself and drinking it all day. In middle school, I was charged with tea making at home whenever house guests arrived.
Dotting our daily lives with tea is not unique to just my family. It is quite a common hospitable greeting gesture for hosting house guests in Taiwan. Historically, tea is one of the seven essential kitchen ingredients for any Chinese family, alongside firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy, and vinegar. Can you tell us a little about the traditions and culture of Taiwanese tea?
Taiwanese tea traces its origin back to China. There were records of wild tea trees in the mountainous regions of the island from as early as the 17th century. Though it was not until tea makers and traders in Fujian, China migrated to Taiwan in the 1800’s that Taiwan’s journey in commercial tea cultivation and export really began.
Most local tea drinkers in Taiwan drink Oolong - a category of tea that sits between green and black tea in its production process. The amount of oxidation level a tea receives is what defines whether a tea is green, oolong or black. Green tea is not oxidized at all, and black tea is fully oxidized. Oolong tea is partially oxidized, therefore it covers a large canvas of flavor variations and complexities.
Taiwan as a country has the ideal terroir for cultivating tea. It is a subtropical island with the Tropic of Cancer passing through the middle. There is plenty of rainfall and high levels of humidity from the ocean breeze to accompany its warm weather. Taiwan is mountainous, with 286 mountain summits over 3,000 meters above sea level on the island. The particularly high elevation produces juicier tea leaves with concentrated aromatic oils. The majestic, misty mountains of Taiwan create a unique ecosystem that nurtures the flavors in tea production. The tea plants grow slowly, and the drastic temperature change from day to night make the growing conditions tough, therefore weeding out weaker plants. Humidity, healthy rainfall plus well drained soil makes Taiwan a natural gift for many agricultural products but particularly for tea.
What does a usual day look like for you? Are there certain rituals and routines you follow each day?
My days are varied, but they always start with a 20-minute meditation before breakfast. I drink a pot of green or black tea with my breakfast, and sometimes I might even have a coffee! Mostly, my days are split between admin for the business, anything from working on content for our website to private tastings and helping guests at our tearoom. I really like to handwrite my gift notes that come with the teas, and the ones from this past year were particularly heartfelt.
After a day's work my husband and I will prepare and cook dinner together. Typically, my husband will cook and I will set up the table and pick some music to play. Nights when we want a break from wine or cocktails, I might drink a glass of cold brew tea with my meal, in a wine glass! Cold brew has less caffeine and can be just as flavourful - I'll always have some brewing in my fridge.
Do you have some tips for tea blends to welcome in the warmer months?
Green teas, wild chrysanthemum and lighter oxidized oolongs are my go-to for warmer months of tea drinking. These styles have cooling properties for the body and are great complements as the body heats up with increased activity levels in the warm weather.
Green tea is loaded with health benefits and is filled with antioxidants. It is thirst quenching, so I enjoy it after my morning exercise. It is also delicious for cold brewing; the infusion is sweet and fragrant with less caffeine for all day drinking on hot summer days. Always remember to eat before gulping down a glass of green tea as it can be a little harsh on the digestive tract.
Lighter oxidized oolongs, particularly the ones grown in high elevations, are certainly the tea of choice in the afternoon. It shares as many health benefits as a green tea, but the aroma is much more floral in addition to its vibrant vegetal aroma. Oolong tea is also gentler on the tummy – but like green tea, never on an empty stomach. Oolongs are known for their ability to stand up to multiple infusions. It is the perfect summer afternoon companion for any activity I tackle.
Wild chrysanthemum is light, gentle, and soothing. It is known for its anti-inflammatory property. It can ease our digestion and early symptoms of a cold. I prefer it in the evening on long, hot summer nights.
Is there a particular tea you are enjoying at the moment?
Recently I have been drinking a lot of floral teas to match all the flowers blooming in the city. New York City wakes up as spring arrives and it is a beautiful time to be here. I tend to prefer a lightly oxidized oolong made in a small village that is not very well known, even locally in Taiwan. When I drink it, it really reminds me of home.
Due to the pandemic I have not been able to visit the tea makers I work with. The aroma and the taste of these small-town teas instantly transport me. They make the agony of not being able to source teas in person just a little less painful.