Talent and skill

Every tea farmer’s association in Taiwan holds competition. Some of these are huge – the Lugu one, for example, attracts over 6,000 samples per competition (twice a year). Smaller ones get hundreds or a thousand entry. Every member of the association could enter a certain number of samples (often 10) per competition. Then, they are judged in groups with a panel of judges tasting them quickly and eliminating ones that are not good enough. Finally, there’s one “Special Prize”, which is the top prize, a tier of “First Prize” (number of which depends on the size of the competition), “Second Prize” and “Third Prize”, and also “Three Plum Blossom” and “Two Plum Blossom” for the competitions that have these grades. For Lugu, for example, you send in 22 jin of tea. 1 jin is used during the competition – tasting, etc. 1 jin is basically payment to the farmers association. The rest, the 20 jin, is tea that you’ll get back whether you win or lose. If you win, they get packed in the competition packaging of the right class. A “Special Prize” will sell for something like $3,000 USD a jin. The others are a lot lower in comparison, but still represent a markup compared to normal tea prices. So, entering and winning is good money.

The competitions are also there to reward skills. They began during the colonial period as a way for the government to encourage better quality production – to publicize people who made good tea, and to get farmers to strive for higher quality product. This purpose continued after Taiwan was returned to China in 1945. These days, it’s less of a quality issue and more of a marketing scheme, but there’s still an element of rewarding skill that’s involved – if you win the higher grade prizes, for example, you’ll get a plaque that goes with it saying what year, what competition, and what prize you got. A farmer who can hang a bunch of them in their shop (or, as is sometimes the case, has so many that they start stacking them up against the wall) can claim to be a better tea maker than others and sell their teas for more.

These days some vendors love to tell stories, almost more than selling tea they’re selling the farmer, especially when it comes to vendors who face a Western audience. So here’s a guy who you should probably at least try tea from:(Source)

Two young punks? Yes. Well, the guy on the right is called Zhuang Rongpu and is barely 30 years old, and he’s been in the tea production business for five years. His dad was a mushroom farmer, but he wanted to be a tea producer. So his dad helped him set up a brand new factory, which I visited on my trip this time. He’s won a number of “Special Prizes” in the last five years – at least one a year, from what I gathered. Considering that there are producers who never win one in their entire career, this is pretty remarkable.

Granted, he’s not in a hyper-competitive area like Lugu – he’s in Yuchi, a black tea production area. In terms of production procedures, black tea is really quite simple – withering, rolling, oxidation, drying. That’s it. As the local farmer association secretary said to us, “you can make it too”. He’s not wrong. We could. It won’t taste good, but we could.

If you ask a tea farmer/producer how to do something, they can tell you in great detail. They’re also often willing to tell you too – there really aren’t any secrets, so to speak. The devil is really in the details, and with something as simple as black tea, it is no exception. When we visited, for example, they just harvested some new leaves and were withering it.

The tea is just sitting there on a bed with air blowing underneath, and it’ll sit there for almost a full day. Unlike oolong, there’s no need to disturb it – in fact, you shouldn’t disturb it. The real trick, of course, is how to manage this – how much leaves to put on? How long do you wilt it for? When is the right time to move them to the roller? How long do you roll them for? At what speed? When do you stop the rolling and re-wrap the tea to roll again? How much longer? When do you stop rolling all together and move to oxidation? How long do you oxidize it for?

All of these have a simple answer – “depends”. They can give you ballpark figures, but precisely when is dependent on so many variables, it’s impossible to say with any kind of certainty. For example, in the trough above, they didn’t fill it to capacity – it is designed for a maximum 150 jin of raw leaves, but they only filled it about half full, because it’s easier to control the withering process. Since they had room anyway, they spread the leaves out on multiple troughs. It’s the tea producer’s job to assess when the tea is done withering and move on – and there’s no real objective measure that you can use to tell when that is. There’s no machine, at least not yet, that can replicate a human touch for these determination. So, our man here decides when it goes downstairs to the rollers. And his judgement at multiple steps along the way determine the quality of the final product.

Of course, this isn’t just about the producer – with bad leaves no matter how good a producer you are, the tea is still going to come out inferior. Farm management is also crucial. These guys don’t own any farms – they contract with farmers whose job is to grow the tea trees. They work together  on a plan for managing the plants, and to make sure they get what they need as raw materials. It’s a collaborative process. They’ve obviously got something good going.

Still, this is a producer with five years experience and no family history of tea making. It doesn’t sound like he should be making great tea, but he obviously is. While skill is something that accumulates over time as you get more practiced at doing something, there is also another factor – talent. Mr. Zhuang clearly has it in spades.

Tea Geek Paradise

I spent the past three days in central Taiwan doing fieldwork visiting tea farms and such. Once you’ve seen a few tea farms, they all start to blend in – farms on their own are not particularly interesting unless the farmer is doing something really interesting, or there is something weird about the farm. Likewise for tea production facilities – the machines are mostly the same, the processes similar, and the only real difference lies in things you can’t see – the producer’s skill, timing, weather, leaf conditions, that sort of thing.

And then there are places like this:

This is one of the five tea research stations of Taiwan, official units of research into all things tea – from developing new tea varietals, to cultivation techniques, to production improvements. This place isn’t open for public – you need to have a valid reason to request a visit in advance.

The tea station is quite large – they only use about 10% of the land they have because they don’t really have enough manpower to use any more. This is the place that developed Taiwan tea #8, #18, and #21 – the station was originally set up in the Japanese colonial period for developing technologies related to cultivation of assamica varietal imported to Taiwan. #8, #18, and #21 are all black tea varietals, with the #18 being the most popular these days for a variety of reasons.

The station is quite interesting – they don’t use any pesticides and herbicides, and only organic fertilizers from what I understand. The point, after all, is to test the plants’ abilities to withstand various growing conditions and select the strongest trees for selective breeding. Using pesticides and such will mask their weakness. In the above picture you see how there are lots of random plants growing under the trees – that’s what a farm that uses no herbicides look like. In most pictures of tea farms you’ll see the soil around the tea trees are barren and brown. Likewise, the leaves are full of marks of insect damage. This is of course because they don’t spray pesticides. They do use something called “tobacco water” – a natural concoction with an infusion of tobacco (leftover bits from the cigarette industry). The nicotine helps repel insects a little, but only lasts a couple weeks and spraying is a lot of work. Most farms wouldn’t use it, but they do because it helps control the insects somewhat without any chemical pesticides.

They also do all kinds of tests with production methods. This is necessary because for each varietal of tea the processing may be different – a certain tea may come out better with longer oxidation cycles, or needs slightly less time during withering, or so on. The Tea Research Station might not know what is the best method of making a certain tea – after all, that is dependent on a lot of factors – but they certainly do try to figure out new ways of production that will help farmers along. Different varietals also have different growing characteristics that changes production methods. #21, for example, has buds that will grow too old quite quickly, so the harvest window is relatively short. If it happens to be raining on those days, then a farmer may be forced to harvest in sub-optimal weather (normally, nothing is done during harvest on a rainy day). Those teas will be inferior. For someone who has a smaller field who wants a tea that is easier to work with, #18 is preferable.

They also offer classes – introductory, intermediate, and advanced ones on tea making skills. Unfortunately, sons and daughters of families of tea farmers have priority, and leftover spots (if there are any at all) are filled by people in the tea industry. Younger people in the tea making business I talk to generally have done some of these courses at some point – they learn the basics and use those skills at home when they help out. In many ways, this is probably their most important active service to the tea production community, even though it may be underappreciated.

As one of my colleagues said, this is the “Tea Geek Paradise.” It was very interesting visiting and talking to the staff there, surrounded by tea trees while geeking out about tea history. Doesn’t hurt that they have an amazing view of the Sun Moon Lake as well.

Weird blends

When you’re here to eat dim sum, the first thing that happens is you sit down, and they ask you what tea you want. Usually, your choices are as follows: shoumei, shuixian, puerh, jasmine. Some places offer some low grade tieguanyin instead of shuixian, but those are your basic choices.

So I was with some friends and we went to this place we’ve never been. Instead of actually getting a choice, they just plopped down some jasmine for us – which was very unusual. I think it was because we were chatting in English before sitting down, so I guess the staff figured we didn’t speak Cantonese and wanted to avoid dealing with us.

So I asked for some puerh instead. They quickly swapped the teapots and gave us what looked like puerh. So far, so good. Except when I tried to drink it, it tasted really, really weird.

At first I thought it’s a bad tea – some restaurants use really cheap, bad tea to save on money (even though they charge you $2 USD per person for the tea). Then, after a couple sips, it really became obvious something was really wrong. We mostly avoided the tea from that point on, and near the end of the meal, I pulled out the leaves.

It’s pretty clear here that something weird is happening. Some of the leaves are the typical puerh leaves – dark, wiry, somewhat stiff. The rest however are something different. The green stuff – what was it? I took a look, and it seemed like the tea is some kind of really low grade tieguanyin or something similar.

The question is – why would anyone do that? I have two theories, but neither are very satisfying. The first is simple – they made a mistake. That seems highly unlikely, because one look at the leaves and you’ll know it’s off. Of course, maybe they mixed it by accident and simply don’t care – it’s possible.

The other is that this is some really misguided idea of blending the teas thinking that this is a good idea – that the tieguanyin will help raise the aroma of the tea, while the puerh gives it body and bass. Well…. that simply didn’t work in this case. It was really, really weird tasting.

Buy less, buy better

These days I’m not doing much buying – there’s just no good reason to. Part of it, of course, is the slow realization that I no longer need anything. There’s only so much tea one can consume – assuming 10g a day, you’re talking 3.6kg a year, which isn’t that much more than 1.5 tongs of tea, roughly. That’s 15 tongs for ten years, or 60 tongs for basically 40 years. You really don’t need that much.

Of course, this is coming from someone who already has a lifetime supply of tea, so I suppose it can come across as one of those posts where someone rich is telling others to live simply. However, looking back, I think there’s something to be said about buying less but buying better, for the simple reason that the crap, the stuff that isn’t very good, will never be revisited. If you’re buying and storing puerh, and are holding onto that cheap tong of whatever that you picked up hoping that it’ll turn into something better, chances are it’s not going to happen – it will stay terrible, and you’ll never drink it, and ten years from now you wonder why it’s still there because it’s still bad and you have other better teas to drink.

I know I’ve talked about hitting hard with a hammer, but there’s a big caveat with that – you only do that when you know something is good and something you’d want to drink. Having a whole bunch of stuff that you hope will turn into something you may want to drink years from now is a terrible proposition – and will usually end up with just wasted space. There are warehouses full of crap in places like Guangzhou. Those will eventually have to come to the market. The price for old but mediocre tea will never go up much, even if it’s old.

Getting rid of the tea also presents a problem – I have no idea what to do with the tea that I don’t really want. If it’s something I wouldn’t want to drink, chances are I wouldn’t want to sell it – because it feels wrong to sell off tea that I know is no good. Tea also costs money to ship, which is not great. What exactly does one do with unwanted tea? Compost? It’s a problem and there isn’t even really a good solution.

The same logic can apply to teaware, which, of course, I also happen to be sitting on a lot of. My normal rotation of yixing pots, for example, consists of only about half a dozen pots. The rest of them just sit there to look pretty. It’s fun collecting, and I enjoy every piece. However… there comes a point when you have too many. I probably long crossed that line, so these days, only stuff that is really special are worth collecting. Otherwise….. forget it.

So, when choosing something to buy, buy less, but buy better. Better, of course, is the hard part. But eventually that will pay off in the long term.

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.