Bottled teas

In the years I’ve been drinking tea, every so often, usually on the road, I would resort to some kind of bottled tea for a quick caffeine fix when it’s not practical to do anything else. One of these occasions is when going to some library or another – like during my recent trip to the National Diet Library in Tokyo. There’s basically nothing around there, so your food and drink needs are all served by the canteen on the top floor of the library. There’s also a little grocery store that sells drinks. Since drinking hot tea is rather impractical there, bottled it has to be.

When I go to these places, I normally buy some kind of oolong tea – it’s more palatable than bottled green tea, which are invariably some kind of nasty. In Japan, bottled teas are by and large not sugared, whereas even here in Hong Kong sugared variety is more common, leading to a really gross mix. So, non-sugared oolong tea is what I normally end up with, and they are generally really heavily roasted tasting things. Serviceable, nothing more.

Except this time, I saw something new – all the bottled oolong teas are now “made in the country” as in made in Japan. Whereas previously they were usually from China, this is I think the first time I’ve seen a Japan made bottled oolong tea. And it shows – the taste is different. I’m sure they try their hardest to make it pretty much exactly the same, but it’s not. You can taste a bit of that Japanese tea in the taste.

The marketing is also interesting – they’re saying they brought over the technique for making oolong in China, but also keeps it fresher and better because it’s made in the country. Some of the tea is grown in Yakushima – an island south of Kyushu. It’ll be interesting to see what else is made on Yakushima. Does that mean that we will start seeing oolongs more from Japan – not just in bottled form, but for real? Currently I only know of one farm that seems to consistently push out oolong teas in Japan, located in Miyazaki. They’re decent, although nothing compared with Taiwan. I’m curious to see what will appear.

The fun thing, of course, is that these producers – the major beverage manufacturers like Kirin, Sapporo, Coca-Cola, etc – always try to come up with new products every so often. Every spring there’s going to be a bunch of expensive shincha, taking advantage of the craze with new tea every season. And with these oolong teas there’s always new varieties that they try to push, like this one.

Drinking up teas

There are a few reasons I haven’t been updating much on my blog recently. The most basic one is I moved recently, so a lot of stuff got moved and many of my teas got moved offsite, because it’s easier to manage that way. The more important one is because of the big Photobucket blackmail issue. I have been slowly converting all my old Photobucket links to instead hosting the photos on my own blog, which is a slow process unfortunately.

However, the biggest reason is because I just don’t have a lot of very interesting things to say these days about tea. I mean, what haven’t I already covered in the 10+ years that this blog has been alive? Sure, I can update on some topics, and there are new things that happen all the time, but really, most of them are quite similar to what have come before. There are very few genuinely new things that I encounter these days with regards to tea (there’s one new black tea that I got a hold of recently that I will talk about at some point).

I also haven’t been drinking much new tea. After all, there’s only so much tea one can drink, and there’s plenty of older teas now that I have bought years back that are now at least drinkable. I’ve reached the point where I’m not really in the market for much new tea anymore – there’s really just no need. Why should I sample a whole bunch of new tea when I’m not interesting in buying almost any of them? It’s always interesting, of course, to do so, but that interest is tempered by the fact that many of them are usually terrible, or at least not great. When I can drink something that is great now, versus the high chance of having something that really isn’t very good (and often overpriced) …. the choice is obvious.

So I suppose that’s a pretty unsatisfactory explanation. I know if I were living in a city with a more interesting tea scene, I may be out drinking tea more, but then, having two kids will always crimp your style that way. The way the current market is though with tea, I just don’t see myself being that interested in buying anything much – and the few things I do buy, you can’t get easily online, making it a bit of a difficult thing to talk about where I’m basically talking about a pie in the sky.

In case you’re worried though, I do intend to keep this blog around, even if it costs me in hosting fees and what not. A lot of discussion of tea related things have moved from things like personal blogs to social media of various sorts, with some facebook groups being particularly active, and at least a few slack groups that I know of. There’s a problem with all those conversations though – they’re fleeting. Once done, trying to find it again is next to impossible, even if you yourself participated in it. Quite often people would tell me that they recently discovered my blog and have gone through a lot of my older posts, and have found them useful. You can’t do that with social media posts, not really anyway, and there’s almost no way to actually save any of those conversations unless you do some serious work to keep an archive of them, which is very unsatisfactory. This blog is by no means an authority on anything, but I do think some 10 years of tea writing is worth something. That’s the reason why I will bother to go through all my old posts to migrate the photos over, even though many of them are of tea reviews years ago for teas that nobody can find anymore, and for which my opinion is probably largely outdated if not completely invalid at this point. I guess that’s me being a historian, but I will at least try to keep the record straight.

I do, however, need to continue documenting my teapots, and have been lazy about it after the move even though it did give me a pretty good idea of exactly how many I have. So, in the absence of more interesting posts about tea, you can probably expect to see more teaware in the near future.

Gongfu is not always better

Gongfu brewing is quite versatile – you can control all the variables, including the amount of tea, the amount of water, the timing of the infusions, etc. You can adjust infusions as you go to try to get the best cup of tea from the leaves. However, it is not the only way to brew, nor is it always the best suited for whatever tea you drink.

These days I use a small pot to brew tea at work, with an electric kettle that has served me quite well. I mix waters so the tea is not suffering from the ultra-filtered water we use at work. It works reasonable well. At home, with kids, it’s difficult to do any kind of gongfu brewing. Instead, I grandpa everything. This may come as a surprise to some, but for some teas, grandpa-ing the tea actually produces better results.

I’ve talked about this briefly before. The thing you have to remember is when you brew teas in vastly different ways, the tea itself changes character in really obvious metrics. A tea you think you’re familiar with can appear wholly unrecognizable. The most obvious for these is aged oolongs. You might think that oolongs are best brewed in gongfu style. This may seem especially odd for aged oolong, which can be a bit sour. Wouldn’t grandpa-ing the tea make it even more sour?

Funny enough, the answer to that question is usually no. In fact, I’ve found over many years of drinking this stuff in various ways that grandpa-ing is often the best way to drink aged oolongs – even better than drinking in a small pot. If you gongfu an aged oolong, what often happens is the tea can be a bit thin, and a bit sour. There’s not a lot to recommend the tea. The same tea, however, throw into a big mug and just stewed for minutes before you even attempt your first sip, can be fragrant, full bodied, and quite pleasant. The acidity is now enhancing the drink, instead of making it worse – in the same way that acidity in a wine can make it a better experience. There are aged oolongs I’ve had that taste sharp and kinda nasty when gongfu brewing, but are an absolute delight when drunk grandpa style. I haven’t given up drinking aged oolongs gongfu style completely yet, because some teas do work better for that, but in general, I’d say it’s at best a tossup.

Even for semi-aged puerh, I think one should at least try drinking them grandpa style, or at the very least using a much lower tea to water ratio but with longer steep times. The result is usually a richer taste – I have some teas that appear thicker, and more fragrant, when I grandpa them. In gongfu style, they’re instead a bit weak and not terribly interesting.

I think what’s going on is that for some teas, the amount of time you need for whatever it is in the leaves to be pulled out of the water varies for different types of whatever proteins it is that is giving you that particular flavour. If you do short and fast steeps, as is pretty normal in a gongfu style brew, then they all come in succession – with none of the cups being particularly satisfying. Instead, when you steep them long and slow in a big mug and then drunk together, the result is far more interesting, and the individual elements – such as the sourness – blend into the tea in a way that is not obtrusive. As James said recently, drink with an open mind and don’t get stuck in the same routine. The results can be surprising.

Teapot storage

This blog is sometimes about stuff you don’t even know you need to know. Here’s one – how to store teapots.

It’s usually not a problem, until it is. When you have three or five teapots, just putting them on a table and laying them out is good enough. When you have a couple hundred, that tactic doesn’t work that well.

After a lot of experimentation with various places and storage units, I have found that IKEA’s Alex works best, seen here

The main problem with storing teapots is that you want them accessible, you want to be efficient with space (at least in Hong Kong) and you want to be able to be relatively sure that they are safe when you open it and take something out. The nice thing about these drawers is that the small drawers are almost perfect for smaller teapots in terms of height. When you open you see most of the drawer, and you can pull out the teapot vertically. If you put it on a shelf, for example, you can easily bump into another teapot and cause something to fall out the front. With an open top drawer, you don’t worry about that. If you live in an earthquake prone area, well, this might not well as well, but I don’t think any storage solution is going to work well for that.

The bottom drawers are deeper, so I can fit the bigger pots and also boxes in there for my pairs of pots and things like that. So far I have two of these filled. I could use a third, I suppose, since I have cups and stuff to store, but I’m trying to avoid another one because more space = invitation to get more stuff to fill them. Anyway, if you need a storage solution for your teapots, you’re welcomed. No, IKEA didn’t pay me.

Caffeine detox

Once in a while, I’ll go through what is essentially a caffeine detox, or really, just a period of drinking less tea. What I notice is that consumption of tea over time trends up. This also means that I generally consume more and more tea over time. It’s sort of natural – you fill up the pot, and before you close it and start the process of brewing, you add a little more. This “little more” gets normalized and next time you add a little more again… and it goes up.

I’m fairly disciplined when it comes to personal tea consumption. Unless I’m drinking with people, which is rare these days, I usually just drink one tea a day – which means that I only drink one session of tea a day. Now, I will re-brew this tea many times over, so in effect I’m extracting all the caffeine there is out of them, usually, but it’s still just one tea a day. I think among my readers many are multi-session-per-day type. That’s not me.

Still, drinking a lot of tea has its effects on the body. There’s a balance to everything and it’s probably not a good idea to consume too much of anything, so after a while of drinking a lot of tea, I often will consciously go through a period of lower consumption to re-adjust myself to a lower caffeine intake. I find this is good – good for my palate, and good for my body. Caffeine overdose  is a very uncomfortable thing. While I haven’t gotten there in many years, it’s still something I want to avoid. There are also times where I’m not exactly in OD territory, but I can feel my heart pumping faster and my body reacting to a bit too much caffeine. That’s usually a sign I need to tone it down if it happens too often.

Some people I know quit cold turkey trying to re-adjust to lower caffeine. I find that painful – literally, because you get massive headaches, but also not having any tea makes me really cranky because, let’s face it, it’s an addictive drug. So, instead, I usually opt for aged oolongs – the tea that is clearly the lowest in caffeine among my regular rotation of stuff. I also very consciously measure out the amount of leaves I use and make sure I’m not putting in too much tea leaves.

The end result is usually pretty immediate and obvious – I get a bit sleepy earlier in the day, I don’t get jittery, and also I have a little bit of craving sometimes for more tea, which I have to resist. There’s always that temptation to drink more tea – which must be resisted. Which is another reason why aged oolong is great – a good aged oolong will keep giving if you keep rebrewing grandpa style, without really much in the way of additional caffeine. It’s the perfect tea for this sort of thing.

I usually do this for a couple weeks – at which point tea consumption will stay low for much longer but it’s no longer such an obvious thing to fight. Then, well, the cycle begins anew….

Life and death of a tree

This is a picture from my friend L, who is visiting Yiwu again this year. He’s been going for some years now, the first visit of his from 2007. He said when he first went to Yiwu, this tree was supposed to be 600 years old. It was just growing in the wild, one of the older trees, but certainly nothing too special. A few years later, in 2012 when he visited this spot again, the tree was now 1400 years old, not 600. By then, it had been “protected” with this metal cage you see surrounding it, and also some concrete poured around it to help protect it from, presumably, falling off the slope or something. Fast forward a few more years to today – as you can see in the picture, the tree is either dead or about to die, with no leaves and no real sign of life. It’s not the first tree like this and won’t be the last. Nannuo mountain had a similar, much bigger (physically) tree that was also “protected” and died in the process.

But fear not – there’s already a newly crowned “1000 years old” tree at the front of the village with a sign hanging from the tree proclaiming so. Tourists who are entering the region need not worry – they will still be able to see 1000 years old tree and buy magical leaves from them!

Now, aside from the utter absurdity of the story and the sadness of it all, I think it’s safe to say that those of us who have watched the puerh market for a decade or more know this sort of thing has been going on for some time now. The ever-increasing age of certain trees is not surprising – it’s been that way since at least 2005, when people first started getting crazy about older trees. Prices for the leaves have never really fallen since then, and now ever-fancier things are happening, with single tree cakes being pressed, etc. Just look at this tree though – how much tea do you think it can realistically produce? It’s no taller than a person and half. Even if you chop down the entire tree and took down all the leaves when it was in full bloom, chances are it’s no more than a couple kilos when fried and dried.

That brings us to a more salient point – this area of China has never, ever been rich. For pretty much its entire history, human beings living in these mountains have lived a subsistence lifestyle – they produce enough to sustain their life, but not much more. When tea traders first visited these areas in the early 2000s, conditions were primitive. Huts were shabby, sanitation basic, food, while they exist, were not exactly free flowing. In earlier decades many farmers actually chopped down their tea trees to plant rubber, because rubber trees offered a more steady income. Old tree tea was cheaper – they were considered less good back then, and more troublesome to harvest. Prices only really reversed starting somewhere in 2003, and hasn’t looked back since.

So in the face of this sudden rush of fortune, it is not a surprise that farmers in this area would want to exploit it to the full. This is, after all, their one chance of getting comfortable, even rich if you were one of those lucky ones to live in a famous village like Banzhang. You can finally make some decent money, send your kids to school comfortably, buy some creature comfort, build a new, better house, get a motorcycle or even a pickup truck. You can have some money in the bank, and enjoy life a little more. If the cost of all that is, say, the over-harvesting of some trees in the slopes above your house…. that’s ok, no? These trees finally will pull them out of poverty, and with an endless supply of newcomers who don’t know that much about tea, business is good.

In the last few years as tea-tourism has increased exponentially (I read one account that said this year 500,000 people are visiting the tea mountains during harvest season) there is an increasing number of people who really have no business going to the mountains in there, buying tea. If you are a rich, city professional interested in tea, and are spending a couple weeks in Yiwu looking at things, well, you would want some of your own tea, no? Here, here’s some tea from my 800 years old tea tree. That bag there? It’s the 600 years old one. If you are visiting only that one time – you’ll want to get your hands on some of these things. What’s a few thousand RMB for half a kilo of tea? It’s the memory that counts, and you can press it into a cake or a couple cakes and store it forever, knowing that you personally went up to the mountain to press these unique, old, single-tree cakes.

At that point, does it actually matter what trees these leaves are from? These guys are just buying tour souvenirs. It can be trash tea and it won’t matter. And a lot of it is indeed trash tea sold to people who really don’t know what they’re doing when buying maocha. When you compare a few bags of tea, one of them will always be better than the others. That doesn’t mean the bag is good, unless you really know what you’re doing. Most people have never really tried really fresh maocha enough to know the difference.

Eager customers from faraway places who don’t get to go to Yunnan easily are also lured in by the same promise. Like this tree that magically went from 600 years to 1400 years old – outlandish claims exist, even among vendors whose primary customer are in Western countries – and people buy them hoping that they, too, can experience these amazing teas. Let it sink in for a moment how old those trees are really, and think about how likely it is that these claims have any semblance of truth. Meanwhile, spare a thought for this tree that perished in the process.

What’s a good tea?

First, an important but unrelated point – as we move our discussions and conversations onto various social media platforms, those discussions are lost to those who are not privy to these conversations. Even if you are a member of those groups, or friends with those people, if the algorithm decides not to show you the conversation, and if nobody told you about it, you’ll never find it, basically. So, although these platforms can be great for connecting people, the memories are all fleeting, with no permanence to speak of. The author of the original post can decide to delete the post, and everything is gone. If you don’t have a direct link, even if you scroll through the timeline of whoever or whichever group it belongs to, you might not be able to find it. Search is useless. So, any sort of wisdom, knowledge, or ideas that were shared are not open to all. That’s a problem.

The reason I’m saying this is because there’s a recent discussion in the facebook group Puerh Tea Club about “how you know what is good“. The question is one that plagues not just tea drinkers, but aficionados of all kinds – how do you know what you have/see/drink/smoke/eat is good or not?

The answers to this question run in a few different directions. One is the simplest, but perhaps least useful – whatever you prefer is the best. To this, our dear friend Su countered that she knows someone who’s been drinking the same type of teabag for 50 years – he likes it, but does it make the teabag good? Objectively, I think most of us will say no. So clearly, the answer has to be more than that.

Then you can get all scientific – some kind of complicated checklist of aroma, mouthfeel, etc etc. – you see this sort of thing for wine tastings a lot. I’ve been to some of these things before, and frankly, it gets very silly. Someone drinks a bit of whatever it is, then rattles off “24/25 for taste, 23/25 for aroma….” it’s meaningless. For one, there’s an unspoken rule, it seems, that no score for anything drinkable should ever be lower than maybe 85. So you’re really working with a 15 point scale, not a 100 point scale. When almost everything is in the upper 80s or lower 90s, what does giving something a 65 actually mean? It just means it’s not drinkable. Why not have a scale that makes more sense? Also, are taste and aroma really equal? These sort of scoring metric often make them out to be so, but in reality, I think a lot of us put more emphasis on how a tea tastes and feels, rather than on how it smells. In the case of tea, it’s further complicated by the person preparing the brew – the same tea, in two different hands, can taste very different. Someone who doesn’t know how to handle a tea can completely botch it. If it scored a 65/100, who’s to say it’s not the brewer’s fault?

Which doesn’t leave us with a lot of options – at the end of the day, there isn’t much you can do if you’re a drinker on your own, without any real life tea friends to turn to. The answer to the question, I think, rests in 1) getting enough experience and 2) understanding what you’re trying to evaluate.

Getting enough experience is probably the more difficult of these two. I’ve said before that one should drink widely – different kinds of teas, from different vendors, at all price points and of different geographical sources. Getting stuck with one or two vendors is a terrible trap to be in, because vendors, especially for something like tea, are usually limited to a small number of suppliers. It’s not like wine where you can just order a few cases here, a few cases there, with provenance clearly traced and knowing you won’t get fake or adulterated goods. For tea, it’s more complicated than that. When you are talking about aged puerh, it gets even more complicated, as you have to factor in the risks of fakes, the quality of the storage, the price that their customers are willing to pay for the tea (not high enough, usually, outside of Asia). After those limiting factors, the vendors then select what they could offer, and will try to sell those. So even if you want to sample widely, due to these reasons and other logistical problems, vendors will have their own preferences and make choices based on those. Therefore, any vendor is really only offering a small slice of what’s possible out there. That’s why patronizing different vendors is important.

Even when you do buy lots of teas from different people, or get them through sample swaps, or whatever…. then what? I think the first thing you could do is to brew them in a way that is easily controllable. Buy a few sets of these cupping sets, for example, and start cupping your own tea. Start by doing some simple tests – use black tea, one from say a cheap teabag, one from a mainstream supermarket loose leaf brand, one from a supposedly higher grade source, and compare directly against each other. How are they different? What are the things that distinguish them? How is their durability and rebrewability? We are talking five minute brews here of 3.5 or 4g each, or some similar parameters. Make it precise. Practice it, and get used to cupping. Smell them, taste them, re-do it a few days later. Drink it hot, then wait for them all to cool and try it again. Then try it with different kinds of teas – oolongs, greens, etc. They’re all going to taste virtually undrinkable the first time you try cupping, but you’ll get used to it and soon you’ll start to figure out ways to understand what you’re dealing with – and why some teas cost more.

This way, you at least eliminate the biggest variable in changing how a tea taste – your brewing. By controlling for everything through the same process, it’s tea against tea (using the same water) and not influenced by anything else. Better yet, have someone else set it up for you so you don’t know what you’re dealing with, to avoid any preconceived notion. This is probably more work than most people are willing to put in, but I think it’s the way to go if one were to really try to gain experience. Then apply whatever it is you’ve learned from cupping to your daily drinking. How are these things reflected in the tea when brewed normally?

What to look for then? Well, the answer is pretty simple – stronger is better than weaker, more aromatic is better than less, smoother is better than rougher, longer lasting is better than not. However, there’s a balance issue here. Some teas are really aromatic, but rather thin and don’t rebrew well – a lot of green teas are like that. Among green teas, that’s fine. However, for a puerh, that’s no good, because a thin but aromatic tea will age poorly – aromatics go away over time.

So, depending on the tea, what you might want out of the tea maybe a bit different. This is really the answer to the second question – what are you looking for? For most teas, immediately consumption is the answer, so the tea that really has the best mouthfeel, taste, and aroma is going to be the winner. What’s best? Judge by cupping. Two teas that have similar levels of strength but different types of aroma – that’s a matter of taste. However, usually one is going to be better than another. There’s just no way around it.

For teas that you intend to keep for aging, however, the situation becomes a little more complicated. In this case, I’d prioritize strength and rebrewability over other factors. Aroma, as I mentioned many times before, changes and fades. If you like a newly made puerh because it’s really fragrant – drink it up fast, because if you store it it’s not going to keep that aroma for that long. Also, if a tea is really one note, aging might not be the best for its future – it can get very boring after aging. I know it’s not fashionable these days, but try some proper Dayi 7542 when they’re young. It gives you a good idea of what an ageable tea tastes like. Even those are changing a bit, but more or less they have stayed the same over the years. It’s at least a good benchmark to compare against in terms of strength. A tea that is weaker than a 7542…. I’d be careful buying those for aging.

Notice I haven’t said anything about cost here. Let’s just say this here: good tea is rarely cheap, but expensive tea doesn’t mean it’s good. Also, western-facing vendors are not offering the full range of what’s out there, because there’s not enough of a market for the real top flight stuff, despite what is sometimes marketed as such. At the same time, coming to Asia to buy directly is a recipe for disaster if you don’t really know what you’re dealing with.