Is Dayi or Xiaguan worth it?

So reader Serg asked in my fake Dayi post if it’s worth it to navigate through the sea of offerings on something like Taobao looking for real Dayi or Xiaguan teas. There are actually two parts to this question – the first is if it’s worth it to navigate it through the sea of fakes, and the second is if something like Dayi or Xiaguan is inherently worth it.

First of all, buying teas off Taobao, especially if you have to go through an agent who then re-ships it to you, carries an inherent risk. What is sold is not necessarily what you see on the page, and if you go through an agent there’s no real recourse. I can at least talk to the sellers myself and get refunds, maybe (usually not) but with an agent it’s definitely impossible. Basically, if a tea normally sells for 1000, and you find it for 900, you really have no way to tell if the tea is being sold a little lower because the seller wants to get rid of it, or if it’s a fake that wants your attention. As I mentioned in my fake Dayi post, on the product page you have no real way of telling if the cake is real or not. I knew it’s fake because the price was obviously too low to be true, but it’s not going to be obvious if the price is about right.

The only way around it is this: buy from the official stores. For Dayi, you can visit the Dayi tmall store (tmall is the more respective division of Taobao). For Xiaguan I believe it’s here. They’re not going to be a deal, or have older teas, but at least you’ll know you’re not getting fakes. In short, no, don’t bother buying from random sellers on Taobao unless you’ve gambled and bought stuff from them that’s real (assuming you have a decent idea what real tastes like) and you are willing to spend that money that may end up with fakes.

The more important question is: are these teas worth it in general?

Well, I think this question is harder to answer. I generally think less of Xiaguan teas, so let’s focus on Dayi. The thing with Dayi is there are different kinds of Dayi products. There are the cooked puerh – which I will absolutely endorse so long as they’re not the special, limited production stuff that cost an arm and a leg. The regular stuff that they put out, like 7452, are quite decent and taste better than most cooked puerh out there. If you are into that sort of thing, buy them.

Now, for raw puerh, there are also the regular productions and the special ones. The ones that generate buzz these days are the special productions. Usually they give a reason to come out with them – a special event, an anniversary, or whatever. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that they are producing teas that are usually one-off, and are usually limited in quantity. This has a few effects. People who buy up a lot of these early on can quite easily scoop up enough and control some portion of the market. They are easily identifiable, and so easy for consumers to notice. I think much of the reason for pumping out these special editions is to drive up market demand. If it’s just the same 7542 every year, there’s no reason for people to plump down money to buy them. Getting out these special blends that are a bit different every year will ensure that people who already have too much tea are going to keep buying – many are just stamp collectors who buy because they want some of everything, not necessarily because they want to drink them.

In the aged market, things are a bit trickier. Before about year 2000 things were simpler, there weren’t as many special pressings and what not, and teas are generally identifiable by recipe number and maybe a vague year range. That market is probably not what Serg was asking about, because the prices for those cakes are high. For the later stuff, starting especially around 2002 or 2003, you see a lot of these newer pressings that are one off. There are the hyped up stuff – Green Big Tree, Gold and Silver Dayi from 2003, etc, that are quite expensive now. There are also the less celebrated ones – teas that nobody bothered to hype. Those can still be pretty reasonable.

Why do people buy Dayi though? Well, I think there are a few reasons. First of all – if you buy something that you’d like to, maybe, resell one day, Dayi is probably better than anyone else, because there’s always a secondary market for it. A lot of people buy a lot of tea that they will never finish drinking. If you buy a private label whatever, chances are you can’t sell it off at a price that means much of an appreciation, if at all. On the other hand, if you have a whole jian of some Dayi tea from 2009, chances are you are sitting on some paper profits there. It’s just a matter of market forces.

The other thing is among all the brands, Dayi has one of the longest track records for producing tea. This is of course mostly due to history – there were only three factories making puerh back in the day, and Dayi is the one that has made the most out of it, with Kunming having died and Xiaguan generally producing teas that don’t age as well. So, in that sense, buying Dayi is the safe choice – it will age fine, into whatever Dayis tend to age into. You will probably be sitting on tea that will be decent in ten, fifteen, twenty years. It’s not going to be that ancient tree, single mountain stuff that commands top dollar these days, but that’s not why you buy Dayi. Also, there’s definitely something to be said about blends – they are more interesting and more complex. I have had many aged (now ten years or more) single estate teas that can be pretty boring and flat because it’s so one-note. Dayi will help you avoid that problem.

Ultimately, the question of whether something is worth it or not is really quite subjective – some people think it’s totally worth it to shell out thousands of dollars on a bottle of wine. Others will cringe at the idea of spending more than $20 on a bottle. It’s the same with tea. Without knowing how much money is worth it to you, and how much you value certain attributes for a tea, it’s impossible to say if something is worth it. With Dayi, you pay for a brand premium (which, of course, translates into that reselling premium). You pay for some certainty with aging characteristics. You pay for some certainty in reliability. Whether any of those are worth it… is really up to you.

300 years old tea

I didn’t see this when it came out, but apparently, they found a box of tea from 1698. I only saw this because I’m now reviewing a book called Empire of Tea: The Asian Leaf that Conquered the World. What’s interesting, first and foremost, about this tea, at least from the somewhat grainy picture that they showed, is that the leaves are still green. Moreover, that this is unmistakably green tea – small buds, processed in ways that looks to be quite similar to what we consume now as greens. The fact that it kept its colour is quite interesting. I wonder how they have stored it in the intervening years, and what process the tea was produced under. Of course it’s a pity that they won’t let anyone try it, but it’s quite interesting nevertheless.

Fake Dayi

A few months ago a local tea friend Zach and myself went to the Dayi store in Shum Shui Po to try a few teas. I also brought two things along for this tasting:

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Now at first glance this may look like a Gold Dayi on the right and the Huangjin Suiyue on the left – except these two are both fakes I bought from Taobao, deliberately, so that we can check out what fake teas are made of these days.

Those who are wrapperologists can tell you right away that the left side one is fake – because the real one has gold words that are shiny, while this one’s words in the center are not. The right side one though, at least looking at a picture like this, isn’t nearly as obvious. In fact, when we put it against the real deal at the Dayi store, it’s not immediately clear which one is real – the real one is a little brighter in colour, but this isn’t the sort of thing you’d notice unless you put a real and a fake side by side.

However, one thing was obvious:

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The real cake was a lot bigger than the fake one – and in fact, if you weigh the fake one, it only came in at 330g or so. For an older cake this is entirely possible – shrinkage happens a little, and also bits and pieces breaking off the edge. For a newish cake like this though, being off by 30g is not possible.

The back looked ok – might look a little iffy for the wrapperologists out there, but once again, not screaming fake:

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Put under a black light, the label doesn’t exactly pass the test:

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There’s a bit of that neon glow, but compared to the real thing, it’s obvious this is a fake

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You can’t do any of these unless you already paid for the fake though, so obviously, don’t buy Dayi from Taobao that are obviously too cheap to be true.

The cakes themselves also look markedly different once unwrapped. The fake/real differences are obvious.

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The taste, I have to say, was no contest. This isn’t 2004, when it was more profitable to sell decent teas under the Dayi label than your own. These days if you have decent tea, selling under your own label probably would get you more money than trying to fake the difficult-to-replicate packaging that Dayi uses. Back in the day if you were a no-name brand, you’ll have trouble moving your tea for 30 RMB a cake. These days, if you have a nice story, you can easily sell it for hundreds of RMB a cake without the trouble of faking. So, nobody does it with nice tea anymore. Instead, you get crap – which is exactly what these two fake cakes were.

The story was similar for the Huangjin suiyue, so I won’t repeat the same slew of pictures – we also didn’t take as many of that one because it was an even lower quality fake that didn’t really pass muster once you hold it in your hands. The Gold Dayi you have to do some comparison to be sure the fake is, well, a fake. Until you open the wrapper, anyway, then the dust and the terrible compression will tell you all you need to know.

Yixing inventory #15: Gongju

Yes, this is the third so far I’ve posted with the same wooden chop “gongju”. After you see enough of these you start to get a sense of the different makers’ styles. Gongju wooden stamped ones like these tend to have a thin spout relative to the body, with an angled cut at the tip of the spout, and thin handles. The lip on the lid is short. They often pour a bit slow because of the smaller spout, which may or may not be a good thing depending on your needs. 160ml.

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Yixing inventory #12: Zini water dropper

Not all yixing pots were used for tea brewing, or at least that’s the way it seems sometimes. In things like senchado sometimes they were used for water cooling/pouring rather than tea making. It’s not always clear to me why one is designated as water dropper rather than teapot. When there’s a pair sometimes one gets assigned one job and the other the job of tea making. In any case, this pot is called “zini suichu” which literally means purple clay water dropper. 145ml.

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The taste of water

Most of your cup of tea consists of water – and what water you use has a huge effect on how your tea tastes. It is an important thing to remember when trying a tea – what water are you using, and what does it do to your tea?

Most of us rely on some kind of tap water supply for regular drinking. Where your municipality gets its water changes how your tea tastes. When I lived in Pacific Northwest I remember the water tasting very fresh and is often very cold even in the summer – it’s snowmelt so that’s how the water comes out. In places like Hong Kong we get most of our water from a river source in nearby Guangdong, and it’s heavily treated. It’s not that great, but I suppose it could be worse.

Then you have bottled waters, which as bad as it is for the environment, is usually where you can get some pretty good water. A few months ago my cousin-in-law who’s an expert on Japanese liquors brought back a couple bottles of water for me from the Suntory natural water range. There are three sources for this line – Mount Aso, from Kyushu, Mount Oku-daisen, and from the Southern Alps of Japan. I got two bottles – the Mount Aso and Mount Oku-daisen ones. It’s always refreshing to taste different waters and notice how different they can be. Both are fragrant waters – yes, water can be fragrant, not so much in that they smell like anything, but when you drink it there’s an aftertaste that rises up your nose. The Mount Aso is, I feel, a better water – more interesting, more complex, and a bit more aroma. The Mount Oku-daisen is lighter. Turns out the Mount Aso water has more dissolved minerals, which might explain why. This is not to say the Oku-daisen water was bad – far from it. But the Mount Aso water is better.

There are practical limitations to using bottled water. I try to avoid doing it for two reasons – cost, and the obvious wastefulness of using bottled waters. However, these days at work what I do is buying large bottles of either Volvic (another reliable supply) or this Scottish water from the local supermarket and adding it to my office supply. The reason is because our office uses a reverse-osmosis filtered water, which yields a sharp and flat water. If you use RO water for brewing, it is quite easy to get a bad brew – the tea will not be very flavourful and it often appears very rough on your tongue. Adding some of this mineral water in helps round out my tea and makes it much more palatable. Blending it also keeps the dissolved solids in my water low enough so that boiling it doesn’t produce sediments; if your water’s mineral content is too high it will leave a crust of minerals, which is a bit of a problem for an electric kettle. I’m not about to bring my tetsubin setup here for obvious reasons.

Sometimes I see people say things like “I use RO/distilled water because it’s pure”, which is pure nonsense. Yes, it’s pure in the sense that there’s nothing else in it. However, naturally occurring water will never be “pure” water. Tea aficionados of the past have always advocated spring water of various kinds for the best brewing experience – precisely because they contain interesting minerals that make the tea taste better. The famous Hupao spring in Hangzhou, for example, has a pretty high mineral content. Using distilled or RO processed water to brew tea is just a waste of good tea leaves. If you don’t believe it, try it side by side with a good water like Volvic. The difference should be night and day. In fact, even if you do believe it, try it anyway. The differences with using different water is very enlightening and helps any tea drinker understand which part of the tea is coming from the tea leaves, and which part of it is from the water. As I’ve said many times before, the most cost effective way of improving your cup is not buying better leaves, but getting better water.