Tea service is hard


Restaurant tea service is often bad, I think mostly because it’s difficult to get right. Of all the things that a server needs to do, making tea to serve a customer is probably one of the most time consuming. You have to gather at least 3 pieces of wares, put leaves into the pot, add hot water, then bring it over and pour it out for the customer plus all that cream and sugar business. Compared to coffee, where you really only need one cup for the coffee and usually only a button press for the actual liquid, it’s a lot of work.

Moreover, there are other hidden problems in tea service. Like yesterday morning when I drank this cup – the tea was supposed to be English breakfast, but the problem is the little metal pot they used had been brewing quite a bit of peppermint tea, it seems – my English breakfast tasted like peppermint English breakfast, which was, well, kinda gross.

I’ve always bemoaned the poor state of affairs in most tea service at restaurants, but as I have family in the F&B business, I have also come to appreciate exactly how much trouble it is to offer good tea in a restaurant setting. You can’t charge too much (certainly not more than a cup of specialized coffee) and you have to try to make it quick – all the while trying to offer something serviceable, and most of your clientele don’t really care. There’s a good reason why so much tea service is so mediocre. Nobody is really willing to pay for the good stuff.

Important people used big pots

This is from the National Palace Museum in Taipei, dated to the Kangxi period. This pot is part of the imperial collection – probably for use in the palace for whatever it is they fancy. It has some very nice enamel decoration on it, and supposedly a box was created in the Qianlong period for this item, although the box is now lost (in the back you see the corner of a box for something else). And, it’s big – probably a 400ml size.

Objectively good tea

A friend of mine had a grandma who loved drinking wine. However, she didn’t drink wine the normal way. She had nice red wines with ice. Yes, literal ice cubes inside the glass. That’s how she liked her wine, even if it’s some nice vintage first growth Bordeaux. You can imagine the horror, of course, of those serving the wine, but when an old lady wanted her wine that way and doesn’t give a damn about what you think (and she’s paying)… well, you give it to her that way.

I think in general we can agree that this is probably a sub-optimal way of serving wine. Nobody worth their salt in the wine industry would tell you to serve wines with ice cubes, unless it’s the crappiest box wines that are basically glorified fruit juice with alcohol. You also aren’t likely to go around asking for wines like that – because you know this would sound silly. Most of us, whether you think it or not, care at least somewhat about what other people around you think – and if you ask for wines with ice cubes when it comes to fine wines, it can make you look rather silly.

I am writing about this because a somewhat recent discussion in a facebook tea group talked about brewing oolongs with cooler water. My general stance on this is quite simple – brewing oolongs with water that isn’t very close to boiling is a waste of tea – sort of like having wine with ice cubes that end up diluting the wine. It doesn’t bring out the best in the tea, especially among higher end teas. If you’re paying good money for the leaves, then brewing the leaves with, say, 85C water, you’re basically throwing money away.

The argument I hear sometimes is that brewing at lower temperatures would help alleviate problems – bitterness, sourness, astringency, etc. Yes, that’s true, brewing at lower temperatures does reduce those things, but it also reduces the amount of flavour you’re getting out of the tea. Especially in the case of the more tightly rolled oolongs these days, if you use water that isn’t boiling it takes 2-3 infusions to even get the leaves to open up. Everything is on a reduced extraction schedule. You end up prolonging infusions or you end up with a weaker, flatter, less interesting brew. It’s like putting ice cubes in wine.

This is not to say you can’t have it that way – sure, if you really prefer it that way, go for it. It’s your money and your tea, after all, so drink however you’d like. That isn’t to say there is no absolute best way to brew it, and no objective way to judge a tea. The thing is, if you are skillful in brewing, none of those problems – bitterness, sourness, astringency – are actually problems. You can manage them away with the right ratio of leaves to water, with the right time for infusions, and having an instinct to switch it up as you go along depending on how the last cup went. You, as the person brewing the tea, are in full control. Using cooler water would help avoid you running into problems, but it also handicaps you in the maximum amount you can get out of the leaves – so it cuts both ways.  The real way to avoid them is to “git gud” – improve your skills and do it so you don’t run into problems with bitterness or unpleasant tastes, instead of handicapping the tea with warm water.

This also brings me to another factor that is rarely mentioned in online English language discussion on tea drinking – what you’re looking for is different. To many Chinese anyway, drinking a tea is not just about the flavour in your mouth the moment you swallow. How you judge a tea is as much about the tea’s lasting fragrance, instead of the ephemeral and momentary floral effervescence  that you get in your mouth. When I drink tea at the office, I particularly enjoy the fact that, half an hour after my last cup as I’m driving home from work, I can still taste the cup of tea I just had – its aftertaste glows in my mouth. With poor quality tea or weakly brewed tea, you can’t get that. Yes, the moment you get with a nice floral taste might be somewhat enjoyable, but the real difference marker between a good and a great tea is how long it stays with you. That sort of effect and experience you can only get if you brew your tea somewhat strong. It is only then that  you can relish it.

This is also why competition or commercial grading of tea happen in standard brews with boiling water – because once you’ve had enough teas, you quickly know what’s better, and what’s not. One of the key markers is how much stuff there is for the tea to give up – the more it has and the deeper the taste, the better the tea is. If you try a sip of the competition-brewed tea, they’re all really bitter, kinda nasty, and not very pleasant, but the good ones will show you a kinder, gentler side that will stay with you for a long time, whereas a bad tea is just bitter and thin. Taste matters on an individual level – some people will always prefer X over Y, even if by objective measures Y is better than X (the analogy I gave in the facebook thread was that some people will always like Big Mac over a nicely made gourmet burger with great ingredients). Just because some people are contrary doesn’t exclude the possibility that there’s an objective way to measure something we consume.

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.