Wednesday March 29, 2006

Tea. Heaven.

Yes, it exists, and I don’t have to die to see it (although my sore throat today worsened while shopping, must be a punishment for all the goodness I was seeing).

It’s located in Beijing, no less. I used to think Beijing sucks. Now I think Beijing isn’t so bad after all. If I have to spend a year here, at least I can spend 52 weekends happily shopping for tea, looking at tea, drinking tea, and buying tea. Oh…

It’s actually very far, since the Beijing I know is mostly Dongcheng. This place, however, is in Xuanwu Qu, all the way at its western edge. It’s on a street called Maliandao. There’s no good way to get there. My girlfriend and I ended up cabbing from the Military Museum. It was a trip.

When we got off the cab, it was already impressive. I could see that the whole street, as far as my eyes could see, were lined with teashops on both sides. There were at least two dozen shops within my sight right away, and I resisted the urge to walk into every single one of them. Not all of them were particularly interesting looking. Most of them, in fact, look rather like the one next to it. They are all decorated in some sort of green, and interestingly, they all sell all kinds of tea, not any particular one. That I found rather interesting, since I had actually expected the stores to have a little more specialty. The other thing I noticed is that they were all rather empty. Granted, it’s a Wednesday and stuff, but they were mostly empty, and for the most part, looked rather eager as a potential customer looking type, like me, walked by.

We only went into one store, one that specializes in Puerh. The guy at the store, probably my age, was friendly enough. I asked him if they sell any raw loose tea. “No” was the answer. The only thing they have is cooked loose tea. If I want raw tea, I need to buy cakes, and they’re all rather new/green, and not well fermented. Hong Kong, after all, is puerh capital, and in the mainland they simply don’t have that stuff. In Hong Kong I buy raw, but aged, loose puerh all the time. No such luck here.

Then, halfway down the street while I was happily browsing, I saw a sign — it says something like “Beijing Puerh Capital”. Wow. What’s that? Puerh? Capital? Gotta check that out. Before we got there though, at the crossroad (turning into another street full of teashops) there was a little display where a tea company got a few tea makers to fry dragonwell in front of everyone. There was quite a crowd, and nobody was doing the frying at the particular moment, so we peeked, then walked towards this rather big tea shop. It probably isn’t a guoying company, but it felt like one with blank stares from the staff. I was walking around like an invisible ghost, and nobody paid me any attention. These people weren’t very nice. I think me being young doesn’t help at all. There’s always a discrimination against young buyers of tea everywhere, and this place was no exception. They think I either know nothing about tea or I’m not going to spend any money on it. Or both. Either way, it means I’m not worth the effort.

We quickly retreated out of that store and went to the “puerh capital” across the street, which is actually a tea mall. Inside, there are a lot of stores that are only divided by partitions. The stores, again, all look the same, and for all I can tell, we were basically the only two customers in the entire place today. We walked around the first floor, and went into a store that specializes in yixing teapots. I got myself a rather nice pot for 100 RMB. I tried, feebly, to bargain, but the guy wouldn’t budge and he could probably tell I liked the pot. 100 RMB, at the end of the day, was not bad for a pot of that quality, so I decided to forget it, suck it up, and pay. They were rather nice, and treated me to some tea. I also had a nice chat with him, and found that he used to sell tea as well, but business was hard because everyone else was also selling tea, so it’s difficult to differentiate yourself. I can see that.

The second floor of the place is why they call themselves the puerh capital. They were all puerh stores. Cakes galore. All of them were basically devoid of customers, so we got some solicitation. We stopped in one store, tried one of their raw cakes that’s from 2003, and from what I could tell, it was mellow and a little weak in taste. If it’s already so mellow now, I can’t imagine what it’ll be like in 20 years (probably won’t taste like anything). I didn’t buy it, and left.

I have to say though, I am really not very knowledgable about raw cakes. I can drink and taste the differences and can easily tell apart raw and cooked cakes, but I suck when it comes to evaluating raw cakes. The thing with raw cakes is that you need to have had the expereince of seeing through the process of fermentation of a batch of cakes to really be able to appreciate all the steps and the changes in taste that a cake goes through, and I simply don’t have that sort of experience. I am starting to gain some now, but am in very, very, very early stages. It’ll be years before I can be a good judge. In the meantime, I will have to pay tuition.

So… we left this place, went out again, and now the tea frying display actually has a guy working the wok. We stopped by and watched him for a few minutes. That was rather interesting, and you can really smell the fragrance of Dragonwell coming from the wok. It was interesting to see his technique.

There is a Carrefour at the end of the street, and before that, another tea mall (much bigger than the last one). We went into a puerh only store across the street from the tea mall, and I ended up buying a dirt cheap (80 RMB) cake of raw, 2003 tea. It’s not the highest quality, but I want to buy something cheap that I won’t feel bad about peeling off and drinking every two months to learn how things change. It tasted ok enough, and actually a bit more robust than the one at the other store (which cost 2x more).

Then we entered the big mall… wow….. 3 floors, all tea shops, and it was HUGE. The first floor probably consisted of more than 50 vendors, all in spaces that were about 100-200 sq. ft. It was dizzying.

We took a walk around, and I ended up turning into a joint that sells mainly tieguanyin. It was interesting, because although there were a 20 something year old girl and a 60 year old lady manning the store, it was obvious that the 20 something was the one who called the shots about the teas. I asked for a nongxiang tieguanyin, and they produced two. I find this an important strategy to adopt to combat the “young customer” syndrome — ask for something specific right away, so that they know you know at least something about what you’re buying. Use jargon if necessary. That way, you’ve established your credentials so that they know they can’t get away with selling you crap or lying to you.

Anyway, back to the nongxiang tieguanyin. The first one she brewed was interesting — nongxiang, but mellow. Not sour though, and it dies off a bit fast for a good tieguanyin. The leaves are dark, which, I guessed correctly, means that it was aged. She told me that it was actually vintage 1999, and roasted once a year to keep the taste. This is what they often do, usually only to teas that are slightly cheaper. It did produce a decent flavour though, and I liked it. The second nongxiang was clearly inferior, and I didn’t buy it. The tea cost 60 RMB for 100g, which is pretty cheap for what it is. I’m happy.

Then I asked for a qingxiang tieguanyin, and she told me that they have too many varieties and asked me to name a price and be more specific. We ended up settling on 800RMB a jin, going for body, not fragrance, and on the lighter side of qingxiang. She produced one that was pretty close, with emphasis on lightness. It’s an autumn tea, and the brew was nicely yellow. The trademark fragrance and af
tertaste of tieguanyin is there, and it was a sharp taste. Very nice. So I got some of that too. There’s a pot I liked, but they want 320 RMB for it, and by that time, I was rather tired and in no mood to bargain (not to mention no cash) so, that was the end of our tea trip.

I will definitely come back again.

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