Located on NW Market Street in Ballard, Floating Leaves Tea is one of the few teahouses in the greater Seattle area that focuses on selling only true teas. The shop’s owner, Shiuwen, hails from Taiwan, and primarily sells Taiwanese, Chinese and Japanese teas. Most of the teas in the shop are seasonal, single-estate teas that Shiuwen sources herself on her yearly trip to Taiwan. In total, Floating Leaves Tea sells about 40 different kinds of tea, which are comprised of a lot of oolong, puerh, a few green teas and one or two white teas.
Shiuwen says that while selection of 40 different teas may sound small compared to shops that sell nearly a hundred different kinds of teas, she is intentionally selective about the teas she has in her shop. She works hard to find the best teas for her shop, only selling what she feels truly passionate about. It just so happens that she’s passionate about oolongs!
Upon my arrival in the shop, Shiuwen used a pretty blue and white gaiwan to brew me up a Baozhong Competition Style oolong. This lightly oxidized tea was refreshing and had a floral aroma and taste, which Shiuwen accurately described as ‘tasting like spring.’ As we continued to chat, Shiuwen brewed a second oolong called Taiwan Wuyi. It was a roasted oolong, featuring a smoky scent and a heartier, roasted nutty flavor that, Shiuwen explained, made it great for drinking in the cooler fall and winter months.
You don’t have to talk to Shiuwen long to tell that when it comes to oolongs (and tea in general), she really knows her stuff. Curious about how she became so knowledgeable about tea, I asked Shiuwen how she got into the tea business. Shiuwen explained that, growing up in Taiwan, tea is a huge part of the culture and was readily available. Although Shiuwen drank tea often as a teenager, the extent of her tea knowledge at the time was ‘tea is good.’ This is largely because tea is often brewed for you in Taiwan, so you don’t get to watch the brewing process.
In fact, Shiuwen didn’t really learn how to brew tea herself until she moved to America. One morning, she decided to make the tea for her and her former husband’s morning tea ritual. Not happy with the result, Shiuwen became curious about how to correctly brew tea and began visiting tea shops and asking the owners (as well as friends) for advice on brewing tea. Once she became comfortable with the process, she began serving tea regularly at parties. One day, one of her friends asked where they could buy the tea she was serving, and the idea for the business was born.
Shiuwen started the business by hosting tastings at her apartment, and then branched into doing tastings at events like art openings. Shiuwen opened her first shop in 2005, and then moved to her current location in 2008. Inspired by teashops and tasting rooms of Shiuwen’s native Taiwan, Floating Leaves Tea is a quaint little shop, with shelves full of ornate and beautiful tea ware and, of course, tea. Shiuwen adds that she wanted to ‘open a space where East and West meet, that was quiet, had a peaceful feeling and served good tea.’
Shiuwen’s ultimate goal is to be a ‘bridge between the culture in Taiwan and the culture in America.’ Luckily, her frequent visits to Taiwan to source teas for Floating Leaves Tea provide Shiuwen with the perfect opportunity to achieve this goal. While in Taiwan, Shiuwen is able to learn from and build relationships with tea farmers, tea roasters and tea wholesalers who have been in the industry for years. Shiuwen then strives to bring the knowledge and concepts she learns from these tea producers back to America and share them with her customers. Better yet, each year a few lucky customers get to travel with Shiuwen on this incredible journey, which allows them to visit three or four tea farms, and dine with and learn from the farmers themselves.
In addition, Shiuwen offers drop-in tea tastings on Thursdays through Saturdays from 12:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. so people can sample and compare a couple of different teas to determine what they would like to buy. She also has more formal tea classes and even a tea club where people can learn about oolongs and puerh teas at a more advanced level. However, Shiuwen is not only interested in teaching advanced learners, but likes working with beginners as well. She says it is great when people reach out and contact her about setting up classes, and she is more than willing to host them as long as there will be at least two people attending. If you can’t attend class in person, Shiuwen has an abundance of helpful information on her site about how oolongs are processed, or even on how to roast tea yourself.
Shiuwen will also happily serve up a cup of tea to customers who wander in from the cold and chat with them about tea. Since Floating Leaves Tea is a niche shop, it draws in a lot of repeat customers, which Shiuwen loves connecting with. It is evident by the way Shiuwen’s eyes light up when she talks about her customers that this is the aspect of her business that she enjoys the most. In fact, she says that many of them have become good friends, who often come over to her house to visit. If you’re interested in learning a lot about tea and making a new friend (or two), this is definitely the teashop for you.