Restaurant tea service

You are at a beautiful restaurant, the dinner was very good, and you’re satisfied. Dessert is coming, and the server comes around and asks you “coffee or tea?” Being a civilized person, of course you said tea. Then, they come right back and bring you what I call the box of doom

And your heart sinks, because, well, you know.

Now, granted, if you’re at some fancy place, chances are they won’t do this kind of injustice to you. Instead, they’ll have a few menu options for you to choose from. But more often than not, as a non-flavoured, caffeinated tea drinker, the options are usually English breakfast, and maybe Earl Grey. If you’re lucky, the place has a few other options, such as an Assam, Ceylon, or even Darjeeling. If not, it’s going to be some random green tea, chamomile, and a really dodgy puerh.

It’s interesting to me that this happens often enough. Restaurants that spend a good deal of time and energy worrying about their food, their alcohol, and their decor, frequently pay too little attention to literally the last thing you’re likely to taste before leaving. Yes, it’s a First World Problem, but then, that’s what this whole blog is about isn’t it.

I’ve never worked in a restaurant or run one, but I recognize that tea service is difficult and fussy. I’d imagine it’s a costly exercise having to deal with brewing tea – you need a teapot, a cup, hot water, leaves, someone to deal with all that gear, plus sugar and cream. Compared to coffee, where you just present the drinker with a cup of coffee and cream and sugar… tea is annoying.

Yet, it doesn’t really make sense to me how neglected it is among restaurants. Take, for example, this tea menu:

The eagle eyed among you probably noticed a few weird things. Puerh listed as a black (1993 too!). A Zealong premium, which doesn’t seem to exist anymore on their own website, also black (why buy a Zealong black tea?). Yushan oolong from the national park – pretty certain anywhere with tea farms isn’t actually in the park itself – most likely it’s an area next to Yushan, more like an Alishan tea. Da Ya Qing is probably Dayeqing, a typical name for a yellow tea. Yuzu Kikucha, not kikicha. Now, what if I told you this is from the last page of the 100+ pages wine menu from Per Se, a Michelin three star restaurant in NYC owned by Thomas Keller? I’d imagine their wine list doesn’t have this many question marks on one page, so why is it ok with tea?

Now, typos aside, this tea menu is actually ok – it has nine options for those of us who want unflavoured, caffeinated tea, which is a lot more than most places offer. Of course, at a restaurant charging you hundreds of dollars per head, this is the least I’d expect. But then, even at super fancy places, the tea service can be underwhelming.

“Per Se is dated” I hear you say. Ok, how about the menu at Le Bernadin, a half dozen blocks down Broadway?

If you want caffeinated, non-flavoured tea, you’re stuck with Keemun or Dragonwell (not Dragon’s well). I guess you can drink sencha… but you know, there’s a reason nice Japanese places in Japan generally give you hojicha after a meal and not sencha. Sencha is not an after-meal drink, at all. Especially after heavy French food, you’d want something with a bit more weight. Le Bernadin’s tea menu veers too much on the light side – even Keemun might be too light. A malty Yunnan black would do much better (or, better yet, a heavily roasted TGY).

Which also gets me to the second part – the teaware. The teapots used are often impractical, looking more to impress visually than be good practically. They’re usually too big, which I understand – you want to avoid having to refill. But it also means there’s a lot of room for error for the drinker. Use too much leaves, and it comes out super strong. Use too little, and the tea is insipid, especially if it’s something that sells for $8 at a place with a tasting menu at $275. If the teapot has a mesh element, they’re impossible to clean properly, and after a few months or a year, will take on the smell and taste of whatever flavoured teas that are most commonly ordered at the restaurant. So then, when you order that sencha, it’s going to come with free vanilla and lavender flavour, whether you like it or not. And don’t get me started on baskets/infusers that are too small for the job.

Carrying tea is costly, just like any kind of inventory, and unlike wine, it goes bad. So it’s fairly understandable why you’d want to avoid having too much variety or just too much stock in general. I think for a restaurant menu, flavoured vs unflavoured should be about half and half. Easy to brew teas should be prioritized – blacks, roasted oolongs, hojicha, that sort of thing. Sencha, pan fried green teas, and other more delicate teas like light oolongs should be treated cautiously – if carried at all (and they also go stale very quickly). For example, that dancong on Per Se’s menu looks like a disaster in the making – I can imagine it being fragrant but also nasty bitter if brewed the normal western way in a big pot. How is that a good idea?

Look, I get it, tea isn’t something you can easily charge thousands of dollars for, unlike wine. While there’s a market for expensive-ish tea, these restaurants aren’t where you’d go for that. I’m not asking for home quality tea here, I just want something that isn’t nasty and leave me with a bad taste in the mouth as the last thing I ingest before standing up and walking out. For those of us who don’t drink coffee, there’s often no alternative but some bad English breakfast blend that taste like Lipton yellow label. For restaurants that supposedly care about things like taste, food source, sustainability, and all that other good stuff, you should care about the tea that you serve your customers.

Yixing Inventory #24: Nameless rough pot 1

This was my very first pot of this type. These rough, badly finished clay pots that are rather porous in nature. I’ve since acquire more of them, but this is the one I used for years for young pu. I bought this pot in 2008. It’s been used for young pu since then, although the past couple years it’s been left mostly on the shelf as I used other pots. Maybe I should bring it out again for some work. 110ml.

Yixing Inventory #23: Ghetto kintsugi

This is one of those pots I bought already broken. There’s some light carving on the side with words. The lacquer is bulging out – I suppose I could try sanding it down, which would probably make it look better than it does at the moment. It seems like the entire front was smashed into a few pieces and glued back together. It was a traumatic event. 95ml.

Yixing Inventory #22: Mengchen

I have a feeling I need to come up with something for the titles, otherwise there’s going to be a lot of “Mengchen” in this.

This is a pot with a nice, smooth clay, a “Mengchen” chop at the bottom, and not much else. It’s large, 160ml. One of those that I cleaned and actually (once in a while) use. I should put it back in rotation.

Yixing Inventory #21: Mengchen

Another typical “Mengchen” marked pot, which basically means nothing. These are wood chops, supposedly popular in the late Qing/Early Republic era. The pot is an interesting purple brown, with a smooth skin. The lid is very loose on this one, sitting a bit awkwardly on the pot, but it is otherwise quite functional. 130ml.

Yixing Inventory #20: Gemingchang

I’ve been delinquent in updating this series. Here goes.

This is a pot marked “Gemingchang”, a producer of Yixing pots in the proverbial “Late Qing, early Republic” period. There are lots of these on the market, many of them fake. I’ve got maybe half a dozen of these, and I think after a while you notice a few things. This shape here is a pretty classic one for this mark. The cut on the spout is usually sharp. Really nice, practical pots. 100ml

2005 Changtai group establishment commemoration tuo

The tea we drank for this past Sunday’s livestream was this tuo. On his site, Glen from Crimson Lotus Tea lists it as a 2003, because that’s what he’s been told the tea is from. The reason I have it here as 2005 is because of what’s on the wrapper – the wrapper claims this is for commemoration of the establishment of the Changtai Tea Group, which happened in April of 2005. Given that wording, the pressing of this tea cannot have happened before that, thus the year. It’s entirely possible that the tea is made with leaves that were a couple years old by then – nobody knows, and frankly, once you go past ten years or so, plus one or two years doesn’t matter.

What does matter, however, is the storage condition. One thing that I worry about when I buy aged teas from China these days is where it was stored – and sellers don’t always tell you that. If you can taste it in person, then it’s easy – just judge it by the tea. If you can’t though, then it’s a lottery. I bought a cake from 2007 recently that has been stored in Kunming the entire time, or at least it tastes like it – it’s like a cryogenically frozen tea, barely aged. It has some Kunming aged notes – leaves are a bit darker, tea brews a little more orange, but, it’s still tasting very young.

That’s not the case for this tea. I said on the stream it’s decent – and I might have undersold it a bit. I drank it once before the stream and once during. My initial impression, without knowing anything about the tea (I didn’t even look at the website) was that it tastes like something that’s been dry stored in Guangdong, with an ever so light hint of wetness. It seems like the story is that it was stored in Xishuangbanna – entirely possible, as I’ve had some pretty good teas that’s stored in Banna before that are similar. It has that slightly musty aged smell, but that’s not too strong. The tea, despite it being from Changtai, is pretty good.

The thing about Changtai is that since 2005 when they became Changtai group, the quality of their teas took a nosedive. They built their reputation on the early Yichang Hao stuff from 1999-2004. There was a fair amount of hype around the tea, whipped up by a few individuals online. However, the tea itself really was decent. It wasn’t worth the exorbitant, post-hype price, but it was decent tea. There’s a reason Changtai Tea Shop became Changtai Group.

Once that happened, however, something changed. I think it has to do with them ramping up production volume, but whatever happened, a lot of the teas they pressed just weren’t that great, and their top of the line stuff, the Yichang Hao pressing, was expensive. In some ways, I think that diluted the brand a lot – most people couldn’t afford their top flight stuff, so bought the lower grade ones. Those, however, was very average (or worse), and so people (like me) swore off Changtai tea as a result. They also did some private pressing for individuals – Wistaria’s 2007 Hongyin, for example, was processed by Changtai with materials that were sourced through them. But that does not reflect on their standard pressings.

These days when I do buy teas I mostly buy ones that are semi-aged – 10 years or so old is a normal thing to buy, instead of something brand new. At that point, you basically know what you’re going to get. When you buy a new tea, there’s a fair amount of risk involved – some teas never aged into anything decent. When you buy something that’s aged 10+ years, if the storage has been good, then the tea would be pretty nice to drink.

This tuo, at this moment, is pretty good. With his rather short Chinese new year 15% off sale (ends in a day or so I believe), you can buy a 100g tuo with at least 15 years of decent aging for $31.5. I don’t browse much in the Western-facing part of the tea market these days, but I believe this is a very good value for what you’re getting. If you don’t have much aged tea in your stash, this is a very good candidate for some decent aged tea.

Full Disclosure: I got one tuo for free. I probably won’t be buying more of these, but that’s largely because I am a hoarder who has more tea than I can drink in a few decades. I didn’t promise him I’ll say nice things about it.

15 years

Someone on the tea discord pointed out to me that my blog is now 15 years old. I started it on a whim sitting in the Quincy dining hall, waiting for some meeting. For the first 5 or 6 years of this blog, it was basically a diary of what tea I drank. Back then, everything was pretty new – at least new enough. There were a number of blogs out there each chattering in their own way. Most of them have fallen silent, while there are a handful of (relative) newcomers such as Cwyn’s blog or Wilson’s. Blogs, as we all know, has moved on.

After this blog moved to my own domain, I started writing less of the “daily tea” type of post and started writing more topical ones. I had felt that with enough time under my belt, I could start to say something interesting about things I’ve learned through the years of tea drinking. I don’t think very many people ever look at the old “daily tea” type of posts, but I know people still refer to some of the longer form pieces I’ve done since then.

Then of course, between work, kids, and a general lack of things that I feel I haven’t covered, posts trickled to a crawl. My main tea stash doesn’t live with me at the moment, so trying things from my own storage is difficult. I should, however, really work on cataloging my pots, even if just for my own use. I hope to work on that this year.

Online activity has now turned to other social media sites. There’s a vast array of content on Instagram, although I’ve always found that medium to be too superficial, more suited for marketing than anything else. Joining the tea discord recently (thanks to an invite from a kind soul) has rekindled that feeling that I talked about in 2007 of a “Constant Tea Meeting,” where people are, now in real time, sharing their tea escapades. Reading their comments, I feel old. On Sunday my time (Saturday night 9PM EST) I’ll be doing a livestream with Crimson Lotus Tea on their Youtube channel. I don’t know what we’ll talk about, but I’m guessing it might have to do with tea.

No, this isn’t the “I’m going to shut this down” post, even though every time I write something like this it sounds like that’s where it’s headed. If anything, seeing people refer to my random thoughts from the distant past tells me I should keep this up. I should probably spend a little more time to fix this place up and make sure I have a backup in case anything happens. In any case, maybe I’ll see a few of you on Youtube in a couple days.

Taobao price controls

I was just randomly browsing through Taobao the other day, looking to maybe buy a couple cakes of those mid-2000s Dayi that I finished up during the pandemic. Except, they’re all gone, and the seller that I bought them from no longer sells any Dayi of any kind. This was unusual, since he used to have quite a few of them and it’s unlikely he’s sold out of all. Now his store only sells stuff like Nanqiao… and nobody wants to buy mid-2000s Nanqiao when Dayi is only a little more expensive.

So I DMed the guy and asked what was happening. Turns out, recently something was going on and Dayi basically managed to get Taobao to kick off all these small time tea sellers selling Dayi. Now when you search for Dayi, the only people who sell them on Taobao are the official stores, and at prices that are way higher than what was possible only a few months ago. If you look for, say, 7542 from 10+ years ago, you get less than 20 hits. Previously, you’ll get literally endless pages of the stuff. Granted, there was a fair amount of fakes in there, and you have to be careful, but there were also lots of sellers selling real tea among them. Now they’re all gone. I can still get the tea from the guy I DMed if I want, but that’s not really something you can do if you don’t know Chinese or if you don’t already know who has the good stuff.

This means that if you are bargain hunting on Taobao, that door has just closed. It’s possible to find older teas from small producers that could be good, but those are a real lottery ticket and it’s very risky to do so. If you just want some cheap Dayi, chances are finding a vendor who is located in Guangdong and has physical access to a place like Fangcun is now the better bet.

This is a troubling development. It’s probably done in the name of protecting the brand and to kick out counterfeit goods, but also ends up stopping people from undercutting officially set prices. So, just know that if you now go on Taobao to check prices… what you see is not what really happens in the market place. A lot of these teas from the big brands are being traded at a level lower than what you see on retail there. You can go to www.donghetea.com or something like that to check wholesale prices, but that still doesn’t give you access to the retail market unless you already know someone who’s there.