tie guan yin in the rainy mountains of taiwan: tea and travel with austin yoder

Austin Yoder and I have twin addictions – travel and tea. He runs AustinYoder.com, a lifestyle design website where he writes about tea, travel and travel hacking.  Austin and I had a chat about tea, traveling and why Tie Guan Yin is the most amazing thing on Earth.


Tell me about your website, how did you get to the point you’re at now and what are you thinking of doing next.

I actually decided to start my site, austinyoder.com, back in April as a way to share valuable information with more people. I became obsessed with travel hacking last year. Travel hacking is finding creative, off-center ways to travel for cheap or for free. I frequently found myself talking to different friends and clients about ways to travel better. In order to share the same information with more people, I thought it would be useful to put it all online. Travel hacking is still a central focus of my site, although I write about other valuable things, like entrepreneurship, tea, and creativity, too.

In the future, I’ll be putting out more reports on travel, more photo essays from my travels, and more discussion of how it’s possible to travel the world with limited capital.

Tell me where in the world you are, what do you love about the place you live.

I am currently finishing out my senior year at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.  Georgetown is a great location because it’s located close to an excellent Chinese tea house, Ching Ching Cha, Teaism in Dupont Circle, and Regan National Airport is a fifteen minute ride from Georgetown.

Short term: My travel agenda for the next several months is exciting. I’m heading off to the Bahamas this week on roundtrip tickets that I booked for $6 + taxes and fees, and heading down to Orlando two days after I get back from Nassau. I’ll be in North Carolina visiting with family in December, and tentatively plan to hit the Yukon in March, to see the Northern Lights, over Spring Break.

Mid term: I am looking at opportunities to get to China next year, where there is more  exceptional tea than I would know what to do with. I’m applying for scholarships which would allow me to research entrepreneurship and social media in urban areas, or directly enroll into a Chinese university.

Longer term: My goal is to travel to every country in the world.

What does tea mean to you.

That is a very large question.

The meaning of tea changes for me depending on who I drink tea with. If I’m with friends, tea can be refreshing and enlightening. Even intellectual. It could be a physical experience, because we focus exclusively on how the tea affects our palates, and our bodies. With the right people, I have found tea to be extremely sensual: a means of expressing love for someone.

At the most fundamental level, tea means an opportunity to connect with people and share a common experience with them. Tea has helped me to maintain the relationships that I value most in my life, and also to make new relationships that I have come to value highly.

For all of those reasons, tea as one of the most beautiful things in the world.

What’s your favorite tea related memory or location and why is it special to you.

Without a doubt in my mind: the first time I ever drank Tie Guan Yin Oolong tea, in the rainy mountains of Taiwan’s Maokong region. This was the night that I fell in love with tea.

I spent three months in Taiwan during the summer of 2009, studying Chinese at National Chengchi University. Although I wasn’t there for an extended period of time, I formed very close friendships with people I met there. Many of my closest friends from Taiwan were Korean and Japanese, and had spent time formally studying tea in their own countries. In our spare time we would visit different tea shops, brew tea in our rooms, and practice our Chinese.

My best friend from Taiwan brought me to his favorite teahouse one evening. A little hole-in-the-wall with bushy green vegetation obscuring the entrance. As I walked up the wooden stairs into a room lined with colorful vacuum packs of loose leaf tea, the owner  smiled mysteriously at me. He sat me down behind his giant wooden table, whipped out his tea equipage, and changed my life. He introduced me to Tie Guan Yin Oolong tea, brewed with water from a mountain spring.

“This tea will be flat for the first five infusions. After that…” said the owner of the tea house, shooting his hand out wildly from his chest, “… it will spike. It will change. Your mouth will detect a drastic difference.”

I had never seen anyone become so excited about tea before.

Infusions one through five of the Tie Guan Yin were flat, just as described. They had a pleasant smokiness, and tannins just strong enough to make you pucker. A really excellent mouthfeel, and great tea. However, it was nothing mind-blowing.

I took my first sip of the sixth infusion, not believing that the tea would be any different. I swirled the tea around on my tongue, swallowed, and was disappointed. I couldn’t tell any difference between the first five infusions and the sixth, which the owner had promised me would be wildly different.

The owner looked at me patiently, eyebrows raised. Like an owl.

“Well?” He asked.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t taste any difference. I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”

The instant that I finished telling the owner I couldn’t taste the wild flavor change he had promised me, something snapped. My mouth went into overdrive, and started to salivate like I was looking at a sheet of cookies fresh out of the oven. The sides of my tongue curled inwards, and it felt like there was a balloon of pine-tree-freshness expanding through the back of my throat, up into my sinus cavities.

My mouth felt like I was smoking strawberry sheesha. Smoke. Unripe red fruit. An extremely pleasant bitterness around the edges of my mouth. The tea had completely intoxicated me.

In the five seconds it took me to experience this rush of sensation, my face must have glazed over. The owner of the tea shop started to laugh at me. He reached out from behind the table, and gave me a hearty pat on the shoulder.

“There! You see?” His smile told me that he knew exactly what my experience had been like. A smile of camaraderie.

It was difficult for me to speak. Not because I’m trying to be overly dramatic, but because I was shocked. I had no idea that tea could be so surprising.

I dropped about $120 on 1500 grams of Tie Guan Yin before I left the tea shop that night. I’ve never made a better purchase of tea in my entire life.

What do you drink at home, or what’s your go-to tea that makes you happy and calm.

I drink Brazilian Mate in the mornings, which I find is a beautiful way to wake up. I steep Taiwanese Oolong tea throughout the day, whether its Alishan Oolong, Tie Guan Yin, Li Shan Oolong, Dong Ding Oolong, or Four Seasons Oolong. At night, I might indulge in another serving of Tie Guan Yin. But I’ve recently steered away from tea in the evenings in favor of a glass of wine.

Tip – the best tea that I’ve discovered for waking up, or getting you through a late night:

A large cup of Yerba Mate with two tablespoons of Chili Honey. Not only is the caffeine from the Yerba Mate exhilarating, the chili peppers burn your lips and get your adrenaline pumping at the same time. I get my Chili Honey from a beekeeper friend in North Carolina, but you can make it easily enough by adding a generous heaping of dried pepper flakes to your favorite honey. The hotter the pepper the better.

If there is one tea you could introduce to everyone in the world, what would it be.

Tie Guan Yin brewed with water from a Taiwanese mountain spring.

Can you tell me three of your favorite tea or travel blogs.

  • Of course! My favorite blogger out there is Chris Guillebeau, who is an expert on world travel and travel hacking.
  • Boardingarea.com is an aggregate of high quality blogs devoted to travel and travel hacking. It monitors the Flyer Talk forums for the best travel hacking news around, and is an excellent source of high-value information.
  • FrugalTravelGuy.com is written by another expert world traveler who focuses on deals and travel hacking.

What has travel taught you about yourself, have there been any big surprises or shocks along the way.

I started traveling when I moved to Hong Kong at 8 years old. Since that time, I’ve learned that I like to move around. I like to figure out new environments, and new cultures. I love trying new foods, beverages, and of course teas.

Most importantly: I have found that travel is the best way to stay curious about life.

You can find Austin on Flickr, on Twitter as @austinyoder and at AustinYoder.com.

If you like what you are reading here, please support tea and travel by subscribing to the RSS feed, or by following tea and travel on Twitter. And last but not least, you are of course very welcome to leave me a reply below.  Thanks!

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