So about those choices

Well, when buying things there’s never a real “correct” answer. There is always someone who’s willing to buy a beachfront property in Kansas. The first thing you might notice about those choices is that they are largely anonymous – the stuff on the left side are mostly cooked puerh, and the right side are raw. The cooked pu are mostly CNNP wrappers, which doesn’t tell you much of anything. The stuff on the right are named, but only just – they are anonymous named tea cakes, in the sense that nobody would’ve heard of them anyhow. The green big tree you see half of is not the real deal, so it’s more or less the same as a CNNP wrapper.

The prices seem good – quoted in HKD, they are from about 180 to 500, with the 500 actually a cooked cake. The thing is, while these are sort of cheap (for this day and age), they are terrible value. The tea is likely to be bad – of the “this is awful” category. I tried a few of these while looking over these, just for the fun of it, and wouldn’t choose any of them, at any price. The rest – well, if the samples I tried are no good, chances are the others aren’t gems either.

To be honest though, I didn’t need to try to know that these were going to be bad. A few friends have commented to me privately after I posted this photo, basically saying “uh, these are all terrible”. If there’s anything like a general rule, it is that anonymous CNNP wrapper teas are going to be bad – you may find one out of a hundred that’s decent. The rest are just, well, horrible teas that were made in the dog days of the puerh industry, and ever since.

No-name brands like the ones on the right are no better. They are, 99% of the time, bad teas that are no good for aging. Some may be ok for current consumption, if it’s cheap enough and you’re not picky enough. The days of when no-name brand could be decent tea is behind us now – in the early to mid 2000s that may have been possible, because there were so many new outfits that were making tea. Now, however, it is most likely just trash tea that will age into nothingness.

Vendor choices, or lackthereof, is really a problem with buying tea. It is possible to choose a “best” tea within a given selection, yes, so even in this heap of what is basically no good tea, there will be one that seems better than others. It does not, however, mean it is a good idea to buy it – best among a bunch of junk is still junk. Within the online world, it is harder to make that judgement. I think a good way to try though, is to compare across vendors as much as possible. Even then, as I’ve said before, what’s available online is only a small fraction of total teas available in the real world, and much of the best teas never even leave the confines of China simply because the market demand for them is the highest there. The prices that online buyers will be willing to bear is simply not high enough for vendors to realistically bring the best goods to them. So, the pool of available choices are already poisoned, so to speak. Sometimes saying no is the best choice.

Hong Kong teashop ecology

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Despite its historical roots as an important trading post for tea, the Hong Kong of today is not that friendly towards teashops and the tea buying public. There is a lot of tea around – you encounter the drink everywhere. The default drink at a lot of places is weak, watered down tea. The favourite drink to order at a local restaurant is Hong Kong style milk tea. You can’t avoid the stuff. Yet, if you want a more “refined” experience drinking tea, or if you want tea that can be considered more specialized, this isn’t a friendly place.

The chief enemy here is really one that plagues the city for almost everything – high rent. The lack of land, the influx if large number of mainland tourists, and the sheer density of the city mean that every store front is precious. In a city that has always been built vertically to the extent that is possible given whatever current technology we possess, street-level stores are a precious commodity. When you stroll down some of the busiest shopping areas, you will see rows and rows of jewelry shops, luxury clothing stores, and pharmacies that cater to the mainland trade. Shops that cater to local needs are usually relegated to back streets and residential neighbourhoods. It’s a very strange sight.

In this context, it is very difficult for stores specializing in selling tea to survive. The first challenge is to overcome the rental market. Owners of stores often charge exorbitant rents for very small spaces if they happen to occupy good locations. Some even charge rent according to the amount of turnover the store does – so the more money the store makes, the more money the landlord makes. Unfortunately, tea businesses in general aren’t going to be that popular. There are really two paths to survival – one is to lower costs as much as possible, the other is to charge sky high profit margins to make the rent.

So for the cheap side, there are a few ways to do that. The first is to somehow own your own store – a number of older stores in Hong Kong do that, and are therefore impervious to rent increases. A lot of the shops on Bonham Strand, for example, are in this model. They bought their place fifty years ago, and aren’t looking to move. They make a decent living selling tea, and are happy doing it instead of, say, closing shop and renting it out to a fancy new restaurant. So they keep up their business and sell decent tea for cheap. They are, however, probably not profit-maximizing and shops like this are prone to closing when the older owners pass it on to their descendants.

The other option is to “go upstairs”, where the shops no longer operate on the ground floor, but move to a building inside. These are usually located in cheaper, older buildings, where they occupy what is basically an office space but renovated to be a teashop. Rents for these are much lower, and can often be supported by a small tea business. There are now a number of these in operation. I just visited one recently, called the House of Moments, where I took the above picture. The tea was all right, but it was rather expensive for what it was ($30 USD for an ounce of Taiwan roasted TGY). You pay for the space you occupy basically, and in Hong Kong, space is expensive.

The other option, which is to charge high margins, is really geared towards the gift/tourist trade. The Best Tea House has increasingly gone that way in recent years. There’s Fook Ming Tong, which is also just an expensive gift shop that happens to sell tea. Then there are things like TWG Tea, which shamelessly puts 1837 on their logo even though the company was founded in 2008, and whose colour scheme is an obvious attempt at ripping off Mariage Freres (whose 1854 on the logo is at least real). They usually occupy nice malls and have prominent displays. These places are really to be avoided by those of us who really want to buy decent tea – only visit if you want something with decent packaging.

It’s really rather unfortunate, but given the local infrastructure, there isn’t much that could be done. There’s a reason Taiwan has a relatively thriving tea scene – it’s cheap to set up a good shop and cheap to keep it running, where in Hong Kong it’s the opposite. If you were an alien visiting the city you’d think we all eat gold here, but in fact, it’s a place where small businesses have a hard time surviving. If you want to buy good tea when you’re in Hong Kong, visit Bonham Strand to try your luck. Otherwise, just skip right on ahead to somewhere else.

Don’t drink shincha

Well, I didn’t say that. Longtime readers may know that I am generally not a drinker of green teas, and especially Japanese greens, which tend to make me dizzy or feeling uncomfortable. The idea that shincha shouldn’t be drunk, though, isn’t coming from me. It’s from a man called Kaibara Ekken, an authority on Japanese herbs who lived during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. In his work Yojokun (Instructions on Nourishing Life) he said a few things about tea drinking (translation mine).

There are many people now who drink a lot of tea from dawn to dusk…drinking a little tea after a meal helps digestion and quenches thirst. Salt must not be added as it’s bad for the kidney. One must not drink tea with an empty stomach as it damages the spleen and the stomach. One must not drink too much of koicha, as it damages the qi generation of a person… People with weak constitution must not drink that year’s shincha at all. It will cause eye problems, anemia, and diarrhea. You should only drink shincha after the first month. For people with good constitution, drinking it after the ninth or tenth month should not be harmful.

In case the time here is confusing, the months referred to here are the lunar calendar dates. So for normal shincha harvesting would happen in the second month, which is around April. When he says one shouldn’t drink it until the first month, that means the lunar new year of the following year – that’s about a 10-11 months wait before drinking the tea. Ninth or tenth month would translate to about November or December.

The idea that green teas in general are cooling and isn’t a great thing to drink is not new, and many traditional Chinese medicine practitioners can tell you that excessive drinking of green tea is damaging to health. Kaibara is not alone in claiming this, but it’s interesting to see how emphatic he is with the idea that drinking shincha is pretty much a bad idea all around. Contrast that with the current obsession with drinking shincha as soon as possible, and the difference cannot be more obvious.

So by today’s standard, someone like him was probably drinking slightly stale green teas all the time. Interestingly enough, sencha, at least the ones I’ve had, actually do fine when aged a bit in an air tight container. I just had a little the other day – a can of a couple years old sencha that I opened but never finished. The tea brews a bright yellow, rather than the normal green, but it tasted very smooth and was actually quite decent. It also didn’t make me dizzy. I think these guys have a point.

Relativism in tea

A long time ago, I talked about tea blogging as a community of people who are virtually talking about drinking tea together in a never-ending session. Things have really quieted down since then. Blogs, as a form of writing, seems to be at least dying, overtaken by social media in various guises. Sometimes you still have new entrants in this field, however, and recently there were a couple posts, one by the vendor TwoDog, and the other by Cwyn, a sometime visitor of this site, about relativism in tea. The claim here is simple, if I’m allowed to reduce them a little bit. Basically, the idea is that we should approach teas with a clean slate, and that opinions shouldn’t be formed based on other people’s views of the tea. So far, so good. Then the claim, made in slightly different ways, come out of both posts – that all opinions are equally valid because there’s no real absolute in tea, and that experts, real or imagined (and there are plenty of imagined ones out there), don’t know any better. That I’m not so sure about.

This type of claim I see often, and basically boils down to the idea that opinions are all equally valid. On some level this may be true, if it’s a matter of preference. What I mean is, when given a choice of, say, a menu of food items, each person have their own matrix of preferences that will guide them to choose one out of the many things on that menu. Some will choose none at all, others may have to be limited by the size of their stomach. That choice is an opinion, and the chooser has the liberty to do whatever s/he wants. They may be picking based on taste, allergies, religion, politics, or any number of factors. It’s hard for anyone to say “you shouldn’t have picked the chicken.”

At the same time though, that doesn’t mean that one cannot make claims about absolute quality of the food on this given menu. For example, if the choices on the menu include the following items: a McDonald’s hamburger, a simple grilled flank steak, and a slow cooked beef stew from a top restaurant, I think it is pretty easy for most people to say that the slow cooked beef is the best food item among the choices, even though not everyone will choose to, or even want to, eat that. There will be outliers who prefer the hamburger, even. Others, Hindus for example, will reject the entire menu because it’s all Not Food for them. But even then, objectively, they can probably say that the slow cooked beef is the highest quality item here.

Teas are no different. There are, objectively, teas that are better and teas that are worse. The high elevation, hand crafted Darjeeling is probably a better tea than the Liptop tea bag, but there might be times when I’d rather drink the Lipton (admittedly not too many). One is a judgement of quality, the other is an expression of preference. It’s quite easy to mix the two.

More importantly, the experience of the person expressing that opinion also matters. I asked my cousin, who’s a professional sommelier, about ideas of absolute quality in wine – does it exist? Do people talk about these? It’s pretty easy to say that a First Growth Bordeaux is a better wine than the $5 a litre box wine you find at your local supermarket. At the same time, the guy who’s only drunk First Growth wines and who’s never had a bad wine, so to speak, is actually probably less able to judge a wine than someone who’s drunk the whole range, good and bad, because he lacks the reference points for making an informed judgement. What you get in the end is just first impressions, with references that may or may not be relevant, and is indeed utterly useless precisely because it’s ungrounded in experience.

Similarly, when TwoDog talks about approaching a tea as a beginner, well, a true beginner won’t know what’s what, and in my experience, most beginner to puerh all have one instant response to this stuff – it’s really bitter. That’s it. That’s the first thing that hits them, and quite a few can’t let go of that beyond the “but it’s so bitter”. Some may move beyond it and find other things about the tea, but it actually does take experience with a certain type of item in order to be able to pass a decent judgement on it. If you really approach something as a real beginner, you will end up with reviews like this four year old at the French Laundry. It’s honest, it’s unpretentious, she’s not probably all that impressed by the pomp and circumstance, but it’s also something we look at and say “well, the kid doesn’t know what she’s dealing with,” and end up with “let me eat that.” Never mind that she rejected half of the good stuff. So, my point is – there’s a good and bad, and experiences do matter. They’re certainly not foolproof, and there will be differences of opinion, but if you stick a few tea in front of a bunch of people who all live and die by drinking tea, chances are their preferences will be similar. The preferences will be more disparate when the teas sampled are more diverse, but in general there will be a consensus on which one’s better and which one’s worse.

Having dispensed with absolute relativism, I do agree with Cwyn in the uselessness of tea reviews online, but not for reasons of relative opinions. Rather, they’re useless because nobody controls for the most important input into the tea – water. Unless we all start using the same thing as our standard tasting water, what you put into the cup is going to drastically affect how it comes out. Someone who uses a reverse osmosis filtration at home is going to have a lot of tea come out absolutely horribly. In some places, whether you’re drinking water from the snow melt in the spring or the summer rains probably will also change how your teas taste. Without controlling for that, all reviews are at best suggestive. There’s a reason I pretty much stopped writing tea reviews on this blog – they’re not useful and they don’t serve any real purpose, not even really for myself anymore at this point. So, I don’t do them.

So what’s the point of me writing all this? Well, I think it does matter for us to critically reflect on what tea we’re drinking, to examine them, to analyze them, and to learn from them. Addition of experience will enhance tea drinking, because it adds one more frame of reference and will enrich all future tea drinking activity, even if it’s a bad tea. If this is a hobby (and if you’re reading this, it probably is) then you should most definitely go out and enjoy and at the same time critique what you’re drinking. There are lots of good tea out there, there are also lots of bad tea out there, but exploration is half the fun. Besides, there’s a tea for every occasion, even if that tea sometimes happens to be a Lipton teabag.

Travel with no tea

Normally when I travel overseas, I bring my own tea. This way I have an assured supply of decent tea, so long as I can find hot water. On my most recent trip, however, I decided to not bother and see what happens. Granted, I was going to Japan, so things are a little easier in that it’s a tea drinking country. I know I’ll be able to find tea here and there. With a one year old in tow, it’s just easier to travel with as little as possible.

It also ended up being a good look at how normal people can consume tea. I think doing this across many countries can also tell you, generally, how much tea that place drinks. In Japan’s case, the answer is obviously a lot. The kinds of tea that I ended up drinking include a large number of bottled teas – from cheap roasted oolong to sencha ones, bought from vending machines or in some cases convenience stores. I consumed a number of hotel teabags, which include a Lipton Darjeeling (doesn’t taste like anything from Darjeeling), a Lipton Ceylon (what you’d expect), some unbranded oolong tea (cheap Chinese restaurant tea) and some unbranded sencha (meh). At various restaurants tea is offered as a matter of course, with hojicha being the most likely beverage given.

One of the rooms I stayed at, this one at a ryokan, also gave me this

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Which is a basic sencha kit. You can see the kyusu is cheap, but if you’re going to let regular guests use it, it’s probably wise to use cheap kyusus. It has everything you need – two cups (more if there were more guests, I believe), a pot, a water container, two chataku, a towel, and two types of tea – a sencha and a hojicha. The sencha is bagged, while the hojicha is not. I suspect it mostly has to do with the fact that the sencha was going to be difficult to clean out of the kyusu so they bagged it for convenience. The teas are actually decent quality.

Now, this is all in a country that produces a large amount of tea, where every hotel room has a water kettle, and generally is friendly to tea drinkers. If I had brought my own tea, I would’ve just drunk those plus maybe some bottles, which is not too bad.

Contrast that with Korea, though, and you can see that Korea, in general, is not a tea friendly place. Hotel rooms at two pretty decent hotels have no provision for good hot water – you need to either use the coffee machine, which is mostly a horrible idea, or you ask the hotel to bring hot water to you, which they do but in carafes that have carried coffee before, thus defeating the purpose of asking for water in the first place. Restaurants do not routinely offer caffeinated tea as a beverage. I brought my own tea there, but it was a frustrating experience. Your best bet is to go to the nearest coffee shop and buy that anonymous black tea they have. It’s a much sadder place for a tea drinker. It’s at more or less the same level as traveling to the US. Koreans drink coffee.

From my experience, if you’re not happy drinking anonymous bagged black tea all day long from paper cups, only Japan and Taiwan are safe places to travel without any tea of your own. Even mainland China is dicey – you need to hit tourist spots to find those tea stands that sell you cheap but decent green teas. Although at least in China, good hot water is to be had everywhere, so bringing your own is made much easier.

High and low

At the Hong Kong Tea Fair yesterday, I saw this

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There’s a few hundred thousand USD in this cabinet here. But in case this is a bit too rich for your blood, you can get something a little more suited for the commoner among us.

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Or maybe this version is clearer?

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Yes, Hello Kitty is here

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Finally, a really beautiful bug dropping tea.

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It’s better than the one I have – after all, what you get out of it depends on what you put in, and in this case, it’s pretty obvious the input for this tea is better than the input for the one I had. It’s very, very fragrant, with a good medicinal taste and just really sweet. Lovely stuff.

Going to tea expos

Tea expos are funny things. There are a million of them, at least here in the Greater China area. There’s one here every year in Hong Kong, and this year’s is coming up. Tea expos are funny because they, for the most part, pretend to be trade shows, but a lot of the exhibitors are really there to do retail. I think for shows like World Tea Expo it’s really much more of a trade show – Vegas isn’t exactly filled with retail customers for tea, especially an expo that size.

In Hong Kong, and many cities in the mainland, however, the tea expos are really more about connecting sellers with buyers, mostly in small to medium sized orders. What’s interesting is that for a lot of vendors these days, tea expos in China are an important venue for them to get publicity out to the customers and to also do some business. For example, the Best Tea House is very active on the circuit, and Mr. Chan travels around to various cities (at least the main ones) and do all the big shows. In Hong Kong, his home base, there is also a group of what can be called posse who hang around their booth. The booths that these vendors set up tend to be pretty big and spacious, and are meant to be seen from far away. They are showcases, basically. It makes sense – you don’t necessarily want to set up shop in second tier cities, but you want to sell to them, so going to a trade show where the locals come in to buy tea is a pretty good compromise. They can always get your contact afterwards and keep buying from you.

You also find, in Hong Kong, the big factories – Dayi, Xiaguan, and the like are usually here, but a lot of the medium sized ones are missing. Part of the reason is because they simply don’t have much business here – whereas a lot of Hong Kong vendors find better prices in the mainland, mainland outfits coming to Hong Kong will have a hard time finding buyers. Hong Kong buyers are not as willing to pay top dollars especially for new tea, so they’re usually better off selling stuff in the mainland.

Then you have the smaller exhibitors. Readers of this blog know that I’m more partial to finding stuff in the rough – shunning big brands in favour of the small and more interesting outfits. These things run the gamut, sort of like when you’re in a tea mall. There are small factories that you’ve never heard of that make pretty decent tea, but far more likely are companies that sell things that you’ve never heard of and really have no reason to try. I think quite often these are just junkets for the people in question and a chance to visit Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong there tend to be a lot of big vendors of green tea from lesser known provinces – I don’t even know why they come, because Hong Kong is a relatively small green tea market, and locals don’t like drinking it. Their booths are almost always empty. I suspect they come because they have a marketing budget and it’s just on their standard circuit, and maybe they can find some overseas buyers who are here to source stuff, but I really have trouble imagining they are going to recoup their costs this way. The booths they have tend to be big, flashy, with a few employees. I don’t know how they justify the costs of coming down.

The fun part of going to an expo is actually the weird stuff you never see otherwise. Last year here there was an Okinawa outfit that sells black tea made on the island. It’s delicious, but as you can imagine for a place with limited land and Japanese prices, the cost of the tea is very high. There are a couple Korean vendors, including Jukro, who come every year, and I almost always buy something from them. The black tea they made last year was really quite good. That’s also where I discovered Zeelong, and other weird tea ventures, some of which are very good, others not as successful as a product. And then you have the “friends of tea” side of things, as the expo organizers call it. These are things like canisters, teaware, and other related items. Sometimes you can buy some cans for cheap at expos.

If you ever have a chance to go to a tea expo, do go. I’d imagine at WTE in Vegas the scale is quite large and it’s a fun event to visit if you’re interested in tea. The HK Tea Fair has been getting worse the past few years, but even then it’s still nice to see what everyone’s up to. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing some old friends and maybe make a few new ones this week.

The best $6 I’ve spent

Most of the time when buying unknown teas, the gamble doesn’t pay off – there’s more crap tea out there than good tea, so luck is rarely in your favour. Once in a while, especially if the setting is right, the gambles can turn out right.

In this particular case, I took a gamble with this one

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A bag of tea, really, nothing too fancy. You can see the bag is quite old. Few shops package teas this way now. I found this in the back of a cupboard of puerh in a local shop. It’s their only one. I asked how much, and the owner clearly has no idea, and just said “uh, whatever, 50?” That’s about $6 USD

I bought it because it’s got a pretty good chance of being an aged oolong. I can smell that aged taste through the bag. I’ve actually held on to this for a couple years now, and decided to open it yesterday when I was rearranging my tea closet.

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Aged oolong, all right. It’s somewhere between 20 and 30 years old. The fact that it’s a private company in Shantou that packaged it means that it couldn’t have been made earlier than maybe the mid 80s. The tea is not heavily rolled like new tieguanyin tend to be, and looks traditionally processed with high firing. It’s wrapped in two sheets of paper. Given that it’s been just sitting around in a cupboard, the tea is actually in pretty good shape.

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It’s got a nice, aged taste to it. It’s not the most full bodied or fragrant aged oolong I’ve had – open air storage probably has something to do with it. It’s only minimally sour, and is in very good shape. The only knock is that the tea is somewhat chopped up – probably because of repeated handling over the years. For $6, it’s a steal.