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Penn State Teaparker Teahouse Strengthens Connection To Asian Culture Through Trip To Taiwan

Since its founding, Penn State’s Teaparker Teahouse has served as an educational and social institution on campus to help students learn about Asian culture through preparing and practicing Chinese, Korean, and Japanese tea ceremonies.

The Teaparker Teahouse (青白茶馆) was founded in 2009 by then-student Jason Cohen, who had spent time traveling throughout China before enrolling at the university. He frequented many open tea markets and befriended Chinese tea merchants, who taught him about Chinese tea and its preparation. Cohen brought this knowledge back home and taught it at the Teahouse, which still practices those methods to this day.

Currently, the Tea Club, which occupies the Teaparker Teahouse, operates out of its own private quarters in the basement of Ritenour Building. Through disciplined lineages and a rigorous exam, prospective members can earn membership to the Teahouse and even become certified tea specialists.

Over winter break, the Teahouse took its mission to immerse its members in Asian culture worldwide when it traveled to Taiwan. Throughout its 10-day trip, nine students learned to properly pair food with tea, picked and processed their own varieties, and traverse cities while taking in scenic views of the Taiwanese countryside.

The inspiration for the trip came when Teaparker, the journalist and tea specialist who sponsors Penn State’s teahouse, invited students to Taiwan to take a class on pairing specialty teas with the proper foods necessary to bring out subtle tastes and nuances in both. The course, which was recognized by the Taiwanese government, used decades of info to do just that.

In order to set the stage for pairing the two, you need to clean your palate. To do so, five different glasses of water — varieties of bottled and spring — were poured into small servings. With 10 types mixed up in front of them, members were tasked with pairing up each of the corresponding water samples.

Courtesy of Sarah Lillian Schaeffer

A 5/5 score was rare during the exercise, but most members managed to muster up a match or two.

Next, Teaparker encouraged students to continue expanding their respective palates, this time with tea. Members worked their way through a seven-course meal by pairing dishes with certain teas to bring out expansive new flavors.

“It was amazing, so cool. The idea was, you drink the tea with some food in your mouth and it heightens the taste of the food,” sophomore tea specialist Xavion Huffman said. “This one roasted oolong, when you bite into fried eel, it was unbelievable.”

Courtesy of Sarah Lillian Schaeffer

A heightened sense of taste and an expansive palate are critical to pairing such delicacies. From what I’ve gathered, it was a lot like this memorable scene from Ratatouille.

“My favorite one so far was the second oolong and this seven-layered pork,” Huffman continued. “What they do is, they take this aged pot, maybe 60 years old, with this super-powerful broth in it and put a whole bunch of layers of super fatty pork into the pot. When you eat it, your tastebuds, your tongue, they all just go numb. It’s wild.”

Of course, no school trip is complete without a bit of homework. Tea Club members submitted brief essays explaining their thoughts on the tea pairing exercise to Teaparker’s apprentice, Stéphane Erler.

One of many members’ favorite parts of the trip came days later when the Tea Club traveled to pick their very own tea. The gang hopped into the back of an old pickup truck and drove up a mountain in Taipei’s Pinglin District to a rural tea farm to do just that.

Courtesy of Sarah Lillian Schaeffer

There, adorned with traditional workers’ hats, they labored away in the fields searching for the best leaves possible.

Although more flavorful varieties are scarce in the winter, that didn’t stop the folks from picking ingredients to make their own tasty teas. Green and oolong variations were commonly found in the fields after other leaves been picked thoroughly throughout the summer and fall.

Courtesy of Sarah Lillian Schaeffer

Once they finished roaming the valley’s fields, members were able to dry their leaves to concoct their own unique teas. Students got hands-on experience processing leaves while getting their hands a little dirty in the process.

Courtesy of Sarah Lillian Schaeffer

In perhaps the trip’s most intimate moment, students traveled to a group of natural hot springs to take in the natural beauty of Taiwan while, of course, brewing tea. The only catch? In accordance with tradition, visitors to the springs needed to disrobe before taking it all in. Don’t worry, though — guys and gals were separated for good measure.

“I was brewing, looking over a beautiful Taiwanese mountain, brewing Oriental Beauty and just taking it all in,” Huffman recalled. “I remember seeing some kind of eagle or large bird fly past in the breeze. It was so picturesque. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Unfortunately (but maybe for the best), no pictures were taken at the hot springs.

Upon returning home, many members felt a newfound connection to Asian culture. Students who traveled abroad plan to put their recently acquired knowledge to work when leading lessons and lineages this semester.

“I used to refer to China and Taiwan a lot as words and definitions as things I read in a textbook, but now when I teach and talk about tea, the concepts are things I’ve seen, felt, and experienced,” Huffman said.

Interested in joining the Tea Club? Prospective members can join tea specialists at the club’s weekly Wednesday-night meeting at 8:15 p.m. in 34 Ritenour. Additionally, anyone is welcome to attend the Teahouse’s open house hours from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Friday.

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About the Author

Matt DiSanto

Matt proudly served as Onward State’s managing editor for two years until graduating from Penn State in May 2022. Now, he’s off in the real world doing real things. Send him an email ([email protected]) or follow him on Twitter (@mattdisanto_) to stay in touch.

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