Austin Yoder samples the most expensive, disgusting tea in the world.
SITTING IN FRONT OF ME was a serving of bug feces. And I was going to drink it up. I had to drink it, really. I had no choice anymore. The little pellets were dry, and didn’t clump together. Like dry kitty litter in your favorite coffee mug.
Tiny black shits collected together as a delicacy, an extreme rarity: “Bug Shit Tea” is valued on par with gold, ounce per ounce.
Master Gao Que, a third generation Taiwanese tea master, poured a long, steaming stream of mountain spring water into the cup to begin the brew. As soon as the boiling mountain water hit the “tea”, an organic, gamey scent jumped up and latched onto the insides of my nostrils. The water picked up the little poopies, swirled them around like dirty little whirling dervishes, spinning, spinning, settling down onto the bottom of the tea bowl.
And then it just sat there. Brewing.
The color of the tea went from clear, to deep blood amber, all the way to black. As black as, well…
“The bugs never live anywhere else for their whole lives. The farmers put them into a big pile of wet tea leaves right after they are born, and let them live in a corner. And they live, breath, eat, and shit that single pile of tea, and nothing else, until they’re ready to morph into the next stage of their lives. Like a butterfly.”
Classical Chinese zither music was playing in the background. Eloquent high-brow poetry hung on the walls, transcribed by some of the finest calligraphers in Taiwan. A lily-white flower arrangement, collected from the hills directly outside of Master Gao Que’s teahouse, was definitely not having the intended effect of zen-tranquility upon my mind. Looking down at the broad mahogany tea table in front of me, surrounded by an atmosphere of culture, literature, and serenity, I couldn’t help but gag.
“After about two weeks, the farmers come back to the pile of wet tea leaves. By that time, the bugs have metabolized most of the tea. So it’s no longer a pile of tea leaves, but a pile of bugs and da bian. Droppings.”
You have to smell tea deeply in order to taste it fully. I leaned down for a deep inhale: Chinese medicine, and chicken stock. Tree bark, and protein. River-rocks, like wet granite, and a certain meatiness.
“And how expensive is it, again?” I asked.
“It’s not cheap.” Master Gao Que said. The Taiwanese are extremely hospitable, and humble people. He was treating me to something special, so he didn’t want me to feel indebted, or like I owed him any money. He was trying to downplay the significance of his gift to me.
I couldn’t help myself, and had to clarify. “But what does that mean? I’m just curious.”
The taste was remarkably true to the nose. Wet granite, and something else. Something else a little more alive.
Master Gao Que stared back at me, still wanting me to taste the Bug Shit tea without regard to the price. Sometimes knowing the price of an expensive tea or a wine can bias you positively against it, and Master Gao Que wanted me to rely on my tongue, and my tongue alone.
A twang from the Zither music playing in the background.
“Well, if you must know, it’s valued on par with gold, ounce per ounce.”
I’ve known Master Gao Que for almost four years now, and he’s like an uncle to me. A mentor in all things tea, and life. He was serving me up the distilled essence of a unique experience here, right on a silver platter. If he hadn’t gone out of his way to treat me to this experience, I wouldn’t have been drinking Bug Shit out of a porcelain bowl. Even bug shit that costs as much as gold.
“It’s sort of like Kopi Luwak, the civet cat poop coffee from Indonesia,” The Master volunteered, obviously sensing some hesitation from me. “You know that one, right? It’s the one where the cats eat the coffee berries off of the bush. When they shit the berries out, the farmers go around and pick up the cat excrement, wash it off, and roast it just like it was normal coffee.
“It’s like that. But with bugs eating tea instead of cats eating coffee berries. The farmers making the Bug Shit Tea go in with something like a magnifying glass and a pair of tweezers. They remove the bugs from the droppings, pick the shit-pellets up one by one with the tweezers, and that’s why it’s so expensive. It’s more time and labor intensive than any other kind of tea.”
I put the poop-soup up to my lips, and slurped it up like a Master Sommelier tasting a rare Pinot Noir for the first time. I was sitting in Master Gao Que’s teahouse imagining four large, live Australian Witchiti Grubs crawling out of my mouth on all sides.
I exhaled a big, deep breath up from my gut, and through the back of my throat. Chinese medicine flavors shot up through my nasal cavities, sort of like when you smell Vicks Vaporub and it fills up your entire forehead.
The taste was remarkably true to the nose. Something else a little more alive, a little more of its origin. It didn’t actually taste like excrement, but it had a decidedly mellow twang to it.
No Witchiti Grubs crawled out of my mouth. I didn’t spontaneously combust after drinking a bowl full of steeped insect feces.
I took another big slurp. It was even growing on me. It’s not something I’d want to drink every day, but if I had a sinus infection, or had just come back in from building a snow fort, it would really hit the spot.
I can honestly say that this is the best shit I’ve ever tasted in my life.