Floating Leaves Tea is a tea shop in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood that specializes in Taiwanese oolongs. Owner Shiuwen Tai, who was born in Tainan, Taiwan, makes regular trips back to the country so she can obtain and share its acclaimed teas with others. She began her tea career by hosting tea tastings at her home, which led to the idea of opening her tea business in 2005—a place where East and West could meet.
It is an intimate setting with a focus on tea education. There is one table, where Tai is happy to meet with customers and talk about tea and host spontaneous tastings.
Tai returns to Taiwan once or twice per year to continue to learn about tea from her mentor, a tea roaster she refers to as Roast Master Zhan. She is even in the midst of producing a documentary about him, which goes into why he and his knowledge are her inspiration. “I think tea is very interesting because of the people behind it,” said Tai. She sources her teas from a variety of top-notch farmers, tea roasters and wholesalers.
“I receive so much wonderful teaching from the tea farmers and tea teachers in Taiwan, I feel like I am a bridge between East and West. I’m in an interesting position and I feel very honored,” said Tai. “I think it will be a very beautiful thing if I can introduce people here in the United States to even a little bit of a glimpse, an essence of what tea is from Taiwan.”
Taiwanese high mountain oolong is her favorite and considers a well-produced Dong Ding to be another one of Taiwan’s special signature teas.
Tai offers tea classes in her store and across the United States, the most popular being “The 5 Most Fundamental Oolong Teas from Taiwan,” which delves into the tasting experience and benefits of each type of oolong tea. She has also taught classes in Portland, Ore., Boston and Brooklyn, and has teaching trips to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Diego planned for February 2020. Updates will be posted on FloatingLeaves.com. Additionally, Tai teaches via Facebook and Instagram live sessions and publishes podcast recordings of tastings conducted in her shop. “I want [listeners] to feel like they are drinking tea with us,” said Tai, who sees tea as a vehicle for respite and human connection.
Tai has an intuitive approach when it comes to brewing tea. New customers often ask her about quantities of tea leaves, water temperature and brewing times while being a little intimidated by the process. Tai noted that most people in Taiwan do not think about these details when they drink tea. She learned how to brew tea by watching people who encouraged her to let her feelings discern when a pot of tea was ready. “It’s [a connection] between the tea brewer and the tea,” she said.
Tai views tea brewing as a sensory experience and believes the myriad types of tea leaves—large and small, rolled tightly or loosely—should be seen and held. She sites tea’s many variations as a reason to refrain from creating a set structure to brewing, “We can never grow if we do that… because every tea is different and alive.”
She added that even the same type tea brewed with the same method each time will still produce different flavors. Tai encourages people to let go of their fear of doing the wrong thing and feels if all people follow the same guidelines they will never experience a tea’s potential.
She wants her teas to be a source of happiness in people’s homes.