Tea wise, I’ve spent more time in old Hong Kong shops this trip than anywhere else. This time I was actively looking at various options for roasted teas — suixian, yancha, tieguanyin, and the like. It’s always interesting talking to these folks who run these stores, because each of them give you something new that you don’t know, and when you see where they have contradictions, you can then start figuring out what’s market-speak, and what’s truth.
For example, I only found one shop that insists that they only do charcoal roast. In fact, the owner told me that “some charcoal just arrived — we’re going to start up the fires in a few days”. The others have all pretty much moved on to electric roasting, both because of space and cost, as well as, I suspect, the erosion of skill and the lack of people willing to spend two weeks in sweltering heat in a closed warehouse with lots of smouldering charcoal. I think it is indeed possible to taste the electric vs charcoal firing, having now tried a whole bunch of teas from different places, and I think it’s hard to say one’s definitely superior to the other. It is clear though that there is a lot more to roasting than just putting your tea over heat and hope for the best. Different people have mentioned the variations in temperature during the roasting of each tea needing to be refined so that you start and finish the right way. If you’re using charcoal, you also need to figure out when your tea is going in and coming out — apparently, different days of the charcoal have different characteristics, and the roaster needs to pay attention to that.
All these are probably best left to the pros. They have decades of experience and know how to do it. One mentioned to me how, when he was transitioning from charcoal to electric, the first few electric roasts he did were terrible — the timing was all wrong, and the tea was burnt. The same happened when teas got tighter in their rolling – it became more difficult. Those people with lots of experience can quickly adapt. DIY roasting is, I think, best avoided.