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.

Grandpa style in action: G20 Hangzhou

Xi Jinping showing Obama how it’s done – use the lid to push away the leaves and then sipping from the gaiwan. Apparently nobody briefed Obama on what to do with a gaiwan with green tea in it, so he put the lid down and just drank from the really awkwardly shaped cup instead. He did, however, seem to manage the “use your teeth to filter the leaves” skill pretty well. Xi would know this tea well – he was the top official in Zhejiang for a number of years.

Yixing inventory #8: Tiehuaxuan Jiangji

This pot is one of the ones I use most heavily. I got this for a song because its handle was glued back on, but the gluing job was obviously very well done and there’s been no problem. The lion is quite detailed. The pot is stamped “tiehuaxuan zhi”. Tiehuaxuan is the name of a company during the Republican period making yixing pots, specializing especially in smaller pots (lion or shuiping) that have calligraphy and carving on them, like this one. They also make whole sets including pitchers and cups, but those get expensive. The seal under the lid is “Jiangji” referring, probably, to the maker Jiang Anqing who is known for making lion pots. 115ml.

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Generalist vs specialist

Those of you who know Japan well will notice that many of the best restaurants only do one thing, but they do it really well. Whether it’s the world-famous Sukiyabashi Jiro, or Owari-ya, a 550 years old shop that specializes in soba, or your run of the mill noodle, snack, or confection shop around the streets, many of the best food places in Japan sell only one type of thing. If they have other items on the menu, they tend to be complimentary to the main dish – and not usually the reason people go. In comparison, you have these generalist restaurants like Ootoya. They do everything – nothing particularly well, but they will have whatever you fancy that day, usually for a reasonable price. They are obviously catering to a different market, but I think you can probably guess that they also represent differences in quality. The soba you will get at Owari-ya is going to be far, far better than whatever soba you can get at one of these generalist stores. That’s just how it is. Owari-ya isn’t going to be expensive either – the price for a bowl is about the same as everywhere else. Places like Jiro’s are expensive, but they also give you the best fish they could find you that day. You are, in other words, paying for world-beating sushi. Paying a premium for that is quite ok.

I think similarly, teashops tend to run in these two lanes too. There are lots of generalist stores – they sell a bit of everything, specializing in none. These have a purpose. If you’re the only shop in the area, then having something of everything is going to be useful to the local customers who may want whatever they fancy. You also want to be able to cater to the customer who is still new to tea drinking – especially for Western facing vendors who have a physical shop whose clientele might be quite inexperienced.

Then you have specialists – people who only do one or two things well. A case in point – at the recent Hong Kong tea fair I once again visited the booth of a local tea outfit that presses their own cakes every  year. They do a lot of single village teas. In fact, every year they press village teas from about two dozen different places, ranging from Yiwu to Daxueshan and everything in between. It’s actually quite impossible – they obviously need different teams of people to do the pressing, because a single person (or single group of people) can’t travel that fast and still be able to collect good teas along the way during a single harvest season. Their teas are expensive, and as usual, really not that great.

Then there’s another outfit here that spends about 6 weeks every spring and presses one cake from teas blended from around the Yiwu area. That’s all they do every year. The price of the tea is actually lower, but the quality far better and will age well into the future. I buy some from them every year, and am happy to do so year after year.

In general, I think if you specialize in one thing and you really spend time on it, you’re going to be good at it – Malcolm Gladwell already covered that, even if not everyone agrees with his thesis. With tea, you can easily why that is the case. Someone who spends weeks, or months, or years in the same region drinking the same teas every single year is going to know the teas really well, and is going to be able to identify the strengths and flaws of the year’s harvest in ways that most of us cannot discern. Producers like this, if they put their mind to it anyway, are going to be able to locate and produce better teas. Compared to generalists who may have to rely on other sources, these specialists are going to have far better products.

This is not to say the specialists are best at everything. One of the families I visited in Dong Ding is quite famous for having generations of prize winners. They know Dong Ding inside out. They know stuff about the tea we probably won’t really understand even if they tried to explain to us. They can sniff it during the roast and know whether it’s too hot, whether the tea needs to be distributed better, whether it’s time to finish up. Yet, during our conversation we talked about other teas, and I took out the bag of aged puerh I was carrying with me for drinking on my trip – some 12 years old puerh. They were very curious – they rarely drink puerh, and know next to nothing about it. We tried it then and there. They could, of course, tell me if the tea is good/ok/bad, but aside from that, it’s all very new and they can’t tell you much more than that. In fact, the people who press cakes in Yiwu every year are the same way even with teas from places like Lincang – they don’t drink a whole lot of, say, Bingdao teas, and can give accurate, general assessments, but nothing more than that.

Consumers also fall into these two categories. Some of us are generalists – we drink everything and try everything. At the same time, however, most of us end up specializing in something, just like producers and vendors. A vendor might stock some of everything, but has a particularly wide selection of one type of tea because, well, that’s where their strength is. Tea Habitat, for example, is one of these, focusing on dancong even though they do have some of the other types. Drinkers also tend to gravitate towards certain tea types – whether through experience or preference. It’s human nature to do focus more on what you like or find interesting, and ignore what you dislike or find uninteresting. Matching the right vendor with your particular interests is a pretty important component of finding one’s tea happiness.

Knowing one’s own limitation is quite important here – in other words, knowing what you know and what you don’t know. We all only have so much time and ability. As I’ve said before – there are only so many ten years in one’s drinking life. Best not waste it.

Garage sale

As I mentioned earlier, I’m in the process of sorting my teaware, and am also looking to let go of some of the stuff I’ve collected over the years that I don’t want to keep anymore. It’s going to be listed on the page titled “Garage sale” you see at the navigation bar. The contents of that page will be updated as I find new things or as they find better homes.