Yesterday I went with a friend of mine to a local Dayi store to drink the new 7542s. We had three – from 2019 to 2021 (left to right). The reason we went is simple – the new 7542s are priced to the heavens. The new 7542 this year, for example, is well over 1000 RMB a cake. On Taobao it is selling for roughly 1500+ per cake, which is about $230 USD. The green wrapper version of the 7542 from last year is now double that at 3000+. It was a “special” year, some 80th anniversary cake, basically. The 2019 is about the same price as the 2021. None of these prices make any sense.
They especially don’t make sense when you drink them. The 2021 one feels insipid, high fragrance, but lacking in body. The 2020 one is better – obviously so. It’s got a solid mouthfeel and rounded profile. The tea is decent, but at $450 USD a cake, you have a LOT of alternatives and the 7542 does not stand out as a good purchase. Likewise for the 2019 – the tea, which is pretty standard factory fare, has no real business being this expensive. The 2018, funny enough, is only a fraction of the price.
It’s clear that Dayi has switched strategies once again. Long gone are the days when they do 10+ pressings of 7542 a year. These years it’s just once, and they limit the production amount. This is, I think, mostly to drive up prices. For the price of one of these cakes you can find a tong of some older 7542 with 10 years of storage on it. There isn’t that much immediate demand to consume this tea – nobody’s drinking this for fun. In fact, any kind of blemish on the packaging on these teas immediately result in a discount, so people are loathe to even handle them lest they lose value. God forbid there’s “tea oils” on the wrapper or a tiny dent on your box. These are, now more than ever, vehicles for alternative investment and not for drinking. If you want to drink something, find a not-sought-after Dayi recipe from like 2009 and buy away. If well stored, they offer good value for money. These 7542s are for people who have too much cash and nowhere to spend it.
About ten years ago when I first got back to Hong Kong, I was wandering around in the pre-children days and went to Lau Yu Fat to see if they had anything interesting to sell. When I got there someone was already sitting there with old Mr. Lau, drinking some tea. It was a Japanese couple and they were having some tieguanyin. I joined in, wanting to try some puerh or another. The tea was not very remarkable. I don’t even remember if I bought anything that day – I may have out of politeness. But as I was just doing research that ended up in the article A Foreign Infusion, I had a fun and exciting conversation with this Japanese aficionado of Chinese tea. Afterwards, we exchanged contact info.
I didn’t expect much from it, to be quite honest. While I’ve met many people over the years over tea tables, the number of people I’ve actually kept in touch with any regularity is small. Kihara-san, though, was different. He loved traveling, tea, and good food. Hong Kong was a frequent stop for him and his wife, and they would visit at least a couple times a year, always staying for just a night in the same hotel. I also happened to go to Japan every year or so. Before I knew it, I would be meeting him a few times a year, over food, tea, or both, and inviting him to places that I know. We even once met while we were both in Taiwan, with him taking me to a place he knows near the Taoyuan airport. Good times.
Before the pandemic hit, we had plans to go out for sushi together next time I visited Tokyo. While the Sukiyabashi Jiro is world famous for the documentary and the three Michelin star, Kihara-san thought it was “too old fashioned – too conservative.” This other place, he said, would be more exciting. I had also wanted to finally see, in person, his heirloom teapot that he inherited from his grandfather, who was a trader in Nagasaki. It’s a zhuni pot, Siting shaped, and beautiful. I’ve seen many such pots on sale before, but it’s always special to handle one that’s got family history.
A year ago on June 18th, as he often did, he posted a photo of a sukiyaki place that he went to. It was the same place he recommended me to go almost exactly two years prior that served up some good beef in some basement in Ginza. 好食, he said, which is Cantonese for tasty. I implored him not to taunt people like me who were, at the time, locked down and unable to travel anywhere. The next morning, I received a reply – this time from his wife, saying that he had suddenly passed away in his sleep that night.
The news was shocking – while he had been having health issues, he seemed to be on the path to recovery. The passing was sudden. The loss, irreplaceable. A year later, I still haven’t been able to go to his tomb and pay my respects. I haven’t quite reconciled with the fact that I’ll never see this friend again, to enjoy discussions with him over good food and tea. My heart goes out to his widow, who had to navigate this awful year coupled with the passing of her husband. I know I’m not along in mourning for our friend – he had many friends all over the world, and it’s a testament to Kihara-san’s magnetic charisma.
On this memorial day of his passing, I am having some roasted tieguanyin, something I know Kihara-san would very much like. I hope that, in the great beyond, he could be enjoying as much good tea as he would like to have. Kihara-san, you’re very much missed.
You are at a beautiful restaurant, the dinner was very good, and you’re satisfied. Dessert is coming, and the server comes around and asks you “coffee or tea?” Being a civilized person, of course you said tea. Then, they come right back and bring you what I call the box of doom
And your heart sinks, because, well, you know.
Now, granted, if you’re at some fancy place, chances are they won’t do this kind of injustice to you. Instead, they’ll have a few menu options for you to choose from. But more often than not, as a non-flavoured, caffeinated tea drinker, the options are usually English breakfast, and maybe Earl Grey. If you’re lucky, the place has a few other options, such as an Assam, Ceylon, or even Darjeeling. If not, it’s going to be some random green tea, chamomile, and a really dodgy puerh.
It’s interesting to me that this happens often enough. Restaurants that spend a good deal of time and energy worrying about their food, their alcohol, and their decor, frequently pay too little attention to literally the last thing you’re likely to taste before leaving. Yes, it’s a First World Problem, but then, that’s what this whole blog is about isn’t it.
I’ve never worked in a restaurant or run one, but I recognize that tea service is difficult and fussy. I’d imagine it’s a costly exercise having to deal with brewing tea – you need a teapot, a cup, hot water, leaves, someone to deal with all that gear, plus sugar and cream. Compared to coffee, where you just present the drinker with a cup of coffee and cream and sugar… tea is annoying.
Yet, it doesn’t really make sense to me how neglected it is among restaurants. Take, for example, this tea menu:
The eagle eyed among you probably noticed a few weird things. Puerh listed as a black (1993 too!). A Zealong premium, which doesn’t seem to exist anymore on their own website, also black (why buy a Zealong black tea?). Yushan oolong from the national park – pretty certain anywhere with tea farms isn’t actually in the park itself – most likely it’s an area next to Yushan, more like an Alishan tea. Da Ya Qing is probably Dayeqing, a typical name for a yellow tea. Yuzu Kikucha, not kikicha. Now, what if I told you this is from the last page of the 100+ pages wine menu from Per Se, a Michelin three star restaurant in NYC owned by Thomas Keller? I’d imagine their wine list doesn’t have this many question marks on one page, so why is it ok with tea?
Now, typos aside, this tea menu is actually ok – it has nine options for those of us who want unflavoured, caffeinated tea, which is a lot more than most places offer. Of course, at a restaurant charging you hundreds of dollars per head, this is the least I’d expect. But then, even at super fancy places, the tea service can be underwhelming.
“Per Se is dated” I hear you say. Ok, how about the menu at Le Bernadin, a half dozen blocks down Broadway?
If you want caffeinated, non-flavoured tea, you’re stuck with Keemun or Dragonwell (not Dragon’s well). I guess you can drink sencha… but you know, there’s a reason nice Japanese places in Japan generally give you hojicha after a meal and not sencha. Sencha is not an after-meal drink, at all. Especially after heavy French food, you’d want something with a bit more weight. Le Bernadin’s tea menu veers too much on the light side – even Keemun might be too light. A malty Yunnan black would do much better (or, better yet, a heavily roasted TGY).
Which also gets me to the second part – the teaware. The teapots used are often impractical, looking more to impress visually than be good practically. They’re usually too big, which I understand – you want to avoid having to refill. But it also means there’s a lot of room for error for the drinker. Use too much leaves, and it comes out super strong. Use too little, and the tea is insipid, especially if it’s something that sells for $8 at a place with a tasting menu at $275. If the teapot has a mesh element, they’re impossible to clean properly, and after a few months or a year, will take on the smell and taste of whatever flavoured teas that are most commonly ordered at the restaurant. So then, when you order that sencha, it’s going to come with free vanilla and lavender flavour, whether you like it or not. And don’t get me started on baskets/infusers that are too small for the job.
Carrying tea is costly, just like any kind of inventory, and unlike wine, it goes bad. So it’s fairly understandable why you’d want to avoid having too much variety or just too much stock in general. I think for a restaurant menu, flavoured vs unflavoured should be about half and half. Easy to brew teas should be prioritized – blacks, roasted oolongs, hojicha, that sort of thing. Sencha, pan fried green teas, and other more delicate teas like light oolongs should be treated cautiously – if carried at all (and they also go stale very quickly). For example, that dancong on Per Se’s menu looks like a disaster in the making – I can imagine it being fragrant but also nasty bitter if brewed the normal western way in a big pot. How is that a good idea?
Look, I get it, tea isn’t something you can easily charge thousands of dollars for, unlike wine. While there’s a market for expensive-ish tea, these restaurants aren’t where you’d go for that. I’m not asking for home quality tea here, I just want something that isn’t nasty and leave me with a bad taste in the mouth as the last thing I ingest before standing up and walking out. For those of us who don’t drink coffee, there’s often no alternative but some bad English breakfast blend that taste like Lipton yellow label. For restaurants that supposedly care about things like taste, food source, sustainability, and all that other good stuff, you should care about the tea that you serve your customers.
As I said last time, I have a few of these. This one is bigger, with a slightly more purple colour, but largely the same shape otherwise. Since having seen a lot of these, Gemingchang pots tend to look very similar in many ways, just coming in different sizes. 140ml.
This was my very first pot of this type. These rough, badly finished clay pots that are rather porous in nature. I’ve since acquire more of them, but this is the one I used for years for young pu. I bought this pot in 2008. It’s been used for young pu since then, although the past couple years it’s been left mostly on the shelf as I used other pots. Maybe I should bring it out again for some work. 110ml.
This is one of those pots I bought already broken. There’s some light carving on the side with words. The lacquer is bulging out – I suppose I could try sanding it down, which would probably make it look better than it does at the moment. It seems like the entire front was smashed into a few pieces and glued back together. It was a traumatic event. 95ml.
I have a feeling I need to come up with something for the titles, otherwise there’s going to be a lot of “Mengchen” in this.
This is a pot with a nice, smooth clay, a “Mengchen” chop at the bottom, and not much else. It’s large, 160ml. One of those that I cleaned and actually (once in a while) use. I should put it back in rotation.
Another typical “Mengchen” marked pot, which basically means nothing. These are wood chops, supposedly popular in the late Qing/Early Republic era. The pot is an interesting purple brown, with a smooth skin. The lid is very loose on this one, sitting a bit awkwardly on the pot, but it is otherwise quite functional. 130ml.
I’ve been delinquent in updating this series. Here goes.
This is a pot marked “Gemingchang”, a producer of Yixing pots in the proverbial “Late Qing, early Republic” period. There are lots of these on the market, many of them fake. I’ve got maybe half a dozen of these, and I think after a while you notice a few things. This shape here is a pretty classic one for this mark. The cut on the spout is usually sharp. Really nice, practical pots. 100ml
The tea we drank for this past Sunday’s livestream was this tuo. On his site, Glen from Crimson Lotus Tea lists it as a 2003, because that’s what he’s been told the tea is from. The reason I have it here as 2005 is because of what’s on the wrapper – the wrapper claims this is for commemoration of the establishment of the Changtai Tea Group, which happened in April of 2005. Given that wording, the pressing of this tea cannot have happened before that, thus the year. It’s entirely possible that the tea is made with leaves that were a couple years old by then – nobody knows, and frankly, once you go past ten years or so, plus one or two years doesn’t matter.
What does matter, however, is the storage condition. One thing that I worry about when I buy aged teas from China these days is where it was stored – and sellers don’t always tell you that. If you can taste it in person, then it’s easy – just judge it by the tea. If you can’t though, then it’s a lottery. I bought a cake from 2007 recently that has been stored in Kunming the entire time, or at least it tastes like it – it’s like a cryogenically frozen tea, barely aged. It has some Kunming aged notes – leaves are a bit darker, tea brews a little more orange, but, it’s still tasting very young.
That’s not the case for this tea. I said on the stream it’s decent – and I might have undersold it a bit. I drank it once before the stream and once during. My initial impression, without knowing anything about the tea (I didn’t even look at the website) was that it tastes like something that’s been dry stored in Guangdong, with an ever so light hint of wetness. It seems like the story is that it was stored in Xishuangbanna – entirely possible, as I’ve had some pretty good teas that’s stored in Banna before that are similar. It has that slightly musty aged smell, but that’s not too strong. The tea, despite it being from Changtai, is pretty good.
The thing about Changtai is that since 2005 when they became Changtai group, the quality of their teas took a nosedive. They built their reputation on the early Yichang Hao stuff from 1999-2004. There was a fair amount of hype around the tea, whipped up by a few individuals online. However, the tea itself really was decent. It wasn’t worth the exorbitant, post-hype price, but it was decent tea. There’s a reason Changtai Tea Shop became Changtai Group.
Once that happened, however, something changed. I think it has to do with them ramping up production volume, but whatever happened, a lot of the teas they pressed just weren’t that great, and their top of the line stuff, the Yichang Hao pressing, was expensive. In some ways, I think that diluted the brand a lot – most people couldn’t afford their top flight stuff, so bought the lower grade ones. Those, however, was very average (or worse), and so people (like me) swore off Changtai tea as a result. They also did some private pressing for individuals – Wistaria’s 2007 Hongyin, for example, was processed by Changtai with materials that were sourced through them. But that does not reflect on their standard pressings.
These days when I do buy teas I mostly buy ones that are semi-aged – 10 years or so old is a normal thing to buy, instead of something brand new. At that point, you basically know what you’re going to get. When you buy a new tea, there’s a fair amount of risk involved – some teas never aged into anything decent. When you buy something that’s aged 10+ years, if the storage has been good, then the tea would be pretty nice to drink.
This tuo, at this moment, is pretty good. With his rather short Chinese new year 15% off sale (ends in a day or so I believe), you can buy a 100g tuo with at least 15 years of decent aging for $31.5. I don’t browse much in the Western-facing part of the tea market these days, but I believe this is a very good value for what you’re getting. If you don’t have much aged tea in your stash, this is a very good candidate for some decent aged tea.
Full Disclosure: I got one tuo for free. I probably won’t be buying more of these, but that’s largely because I am a hoarder who has more tea than I can drink in a few decades. I didn’t promise him I’ll say nice things about it.