Sticks or tea?

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If you think this is just a pile of sticks, you’re not wrong. It is, mostly, just a pile of sticks, with a few really broken leaves. It is, however, a bancha.

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Specifically, it’s called the three year bancha. I’ve seen bancha before, but most of them just look like lower grade green tea. This is quite something else. This is one of the many teas I got from the tea fair I attended in Kyoto. I’ve been slowly going through them one by one, and some are definitely more interesting than others. It seems as though Yuuki-cha used to sell this tea.

This particular one is from a farm not in the normal tea producing regions of Shizuoka or Kagoshima, where most Japanese green teas are grown these days, but in Miyazaki, next to Kagoshima on the southern side of Kyushu. The farm does a bunch of interesting things – growing black tea, a pan fried (as opposed to steamed) green tea, and this. The farm is located in a mountainous area, and as they tell you, looking up to Mount Aso, an occasionally active volcano in the middle of Kyushu.

The instructions on the back of the package says you should add the desired amount of the tea into a kettle, and boil and then turn to low heat for 20 minutes. Then you can drink as you please. What you get then is not so much tea in the normal sense of the word, where we brew leaves, but rather a bit of a soup using the sticks from the tea plant that’s been cut down and then roasted.

The package opens with obvious charcoal smell, and the tea itself is not very strong and quite mild. It’s the sort of thing you might just sip all day, and in this way not too different from cheap roasted oolongs in purpose, except in this case it’s even milder and softer, without much of the bitterness or sourness that can sometimes accompany roasted oolongs.

If you ignore the instructions and just brew this, what you’d get is just a cup full of roast and not much else – did I say it’s mild? What is funny to me is that this tea is still classified as “green tea,” even though it’s about as far from green tea as you can get while still calling it that. When we say Japanese green tea, I’m pretty sure nobody’s thinking of this.

Tea fair in Kyoto

While I was doing research and waiting for my books at the Urasenke School‘s library, I discovered that there was, that day, a tea fair across town at the Yoshida shrine near Kyoto University. Since the library closed at 3 anyway, I decided to hop over and take a look.

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The tea fair was a decent size – about 20-30 booths from various sellers. What was perhaps the most surprising was that about half of them were selling Chinese teas of various sorts. Like these guys:

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Or something like this:

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The Chinese tea they sold and were pushing were mostly oolongs of various sort, with some greens and puerh thrown in. Many are Taiwan based or Taiwan inspired. But I wasn’t here for Chinese tea.

The Japanese tea sellers were mostly from the area – selling Uji produced tea. I tried some and bought a few bags, although given my glacial rate of drinking Japanese greens, I don’t know when I’ll ever get to them. More interestingly though, I ran into a stall with sellers from, of all places, Miyazaki prefecture. Miyazaki is next to Kagoshima, which is now a major producer of Japanese teas, but Miyazaki, relatively speaking, doesn’t do much tea. These guys claim to be organic and all that, and more importantly, they make black tea. The few I tried were quite good – one almost reminiscent of Darjeelings. Needless to say, I came home with quite a few bags of tea.

Having a tea fair at a shinto shrine has other advantages too. It’s nicely shaded but still feels like a park, it’s got a hill behind it and I actually hiked over the hill to get to the fair, and it’s reasonably accessible. There was also a sho performance while I was there.

There are also some things that I’m reminded of as someone who doesn’t drink a lot of Japanese tea – first, that Japanese greens are brewed strong, and the idea is to coat your mouth with the taste, at least when they make it for you. It’s a sharp contrast with Chinese greens, which emphasize that refreshing lightness. Second, these people shake their teapots violently to get every last drop out. No such thing as a gentle tip – they literally hold the kyusu with two hands and shake the thing like it’s going to drop you money to get every last bit of water out, usually stopping when the last shake produces a lot of tea leaves. Finally, Japanese greens, in the grand scheme of things, are pretty cheap, even decent grade shincha. This partly has to do with the yen dropping like a rock in the past few months, but also reflects how prices have really risen in China, which is the other main source of green teas. They are also so different that direct comparisons are basically pointless.

Instant tea

So last time I tried K-cups for you, and the results are pretty bad. Well, I’m just wrapping up a work trip in Japan, and while here, I had the pleasure of staying at a place that offered this in the room

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For a country with a lot of tea, and where teabag is really commonplace, I’m not sure what compelled this particular hotel in Kyoto to give you these things instead. They are, basically, instant tea.

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There were two flavours – hojicha (brown) and sencha (green). I tried the hojicha first, because why not? I filled the cup with hot water

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Hojicha, as many of you know, is roasted green tea. It’s a restaurant favourite and many places give you that when you sit down for food. It’s not very sophisticated – it’s roasty, and often taste a bit burnt. That also means it’s hard to screw up. Well, this one… if I were just handed this without being told what it is, I wouldn’t know what it is, because it only has the faintest hint of hojicha taste. Coloured water is more like what it was, and a pretty tasteless one at all. If the k-cups were just bad tasting, this one was just bland, really bland.

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The sencha, unfortunately, is no better – equally bland. The only thing resembling tea is its green colour. There’s very little taste, no texture, and low aroma. It’s really quite baffling why anyone would try these and think “oh, let’s use these instead of teabags.” The only reason – and not a very good one – is novelty. However, when novelty comes at the price of the end result, it’s hard to justify the novelty value. This thing is probably a lot more energy intensive to make, cost more, and deliver less.

Lesson? Teabags, for what it’s worth, are pretty great and hard to improve upon. Don’t fix it if it ain’t broken.

K-cups

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Many of you have probably seen these machines, some of you probably use it on a regular basis at work or at home, and others have most likely at least heard about it. Keurig is one of these companies that make single-use pods for caffeinated (mostly) drinks. You stick the cup in the machine, you press a button, and out comes a cup of whatever it is that you were promised. Sounds good enough? I remember we had one of these almost 15 years ago at my workplace then, when these were still pretty novel. I never used it, of course, because back then the selection was almost entirely coffee. Nowadays they have everything you can name, and are much more common than before. The other big player in this market is Nespresso, of course, which is more common in Hong Kong but based on more or less the same idea.

This machine you see here was in our hotel room on a recent trip we made back to North America. Among the cups we got in the room were the above two – a Tazo Awake tea (basically an English breakfast blend) and a Celestial Seasonings Antioxidant Green Tea. In the name of science, I had to try them.

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Brewing the tea was of course pretty simple – you stick the cups in, you put water in, you press the button. Then out comes the tea. The first thing you might notice from this picture is that the green tea is really, really cloudy, while the black tea was ok, for the most part. If you were there, you’ll also note that the green tea is almost entirely devoid of any aroma – you can barely smell anything putting your nose up against the cup. The black tea was a little better, with a smell that is recognizable as an English breakfast blend of sorts.

The taste pretty much confirms what you can already guess – the green tea, if we can even call it that, was awful. The closest thing I’ve tasted that is like this is a really stale, really old green tea. It’s bitter, it’s devoid of any meaningful flavour, and it’s just…. plain nasty. I don’t discount the possibility that, in this small town hotel, the green tea has indeed been sitting around for a while. However, since they dropped off this pod at our request, that this could’ve been recycled multiple times also seems somewhat unlikely.

The black tea was drinkable – it’s not great by any stretch of imagination, but it’s drinkable. If in a pinch, I’d be ok with drinking this. If your alternative is a teabag from pretty much anywhere else, the teabag will win. The body of this cup is also quite thin, with a weak aroma and a weird aftertaste. It’s not spit-it-out bad (the way the green tea is) but it’s not exactly a winner.

I of course had no expectation of great tea coming in. You can pretty much guess this is tea of the nasty-grade variety. I was a bit surprised that the green tea is this bad – I expected something remotely drinkable, but instead got a flavourless bitter pill, basically. The leaves they use are of course teabag grade – you can see it’s the usual materials you find in teabags. I think the infusion method, which uses a drip-coffee style mini-filter, just doesn’t work for tea.

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On the Keurig website, buyers have rated the Tazo k-cup a 5 star. The Celestial Seasonings green tea, on the other hand, is 3.5 star. As you know, a 3.5 star rating is pretty much crap in the online world. Glad to know the buyers are somewhat discerning. It’s no wonder that they need to add the word “antioxidant” in there – the tea is not going to sell itself.

The thing that gets me about these things is cost. One k-cup will set you back about 90 cents USD per cup. In contrast, a teabag will be about 30 cents per cup if you buy one box, dropping to 20 cents if you are willing to buy in bulk (prices from Amazon). The green tea is a bit cheaper, but that thing shouldn’t be drunk even if it’s free. That means the k-cups are easily 3-4 times more expensive than the traditional teabag, yet it delivers a far inferior product. I would argue it’s really not much more convenient than a teabag either – unlike coffee, which is a bit of a pain to make on a per-cup basis, tea is actually quite easy to handle. In other words, get some teabags and stop paying extra for a terrible cup of tea.

Hindsight

Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. For those of us looking for aged puerh teas, I think we all wish we have the gift of seeing into the future, to learn how a tea will age over time and whether or not it will become great. Some will, many won’t. It might be useful to remember that not all teas will age well – the ones that are commanding high prices today may have done so, but there were more, probably far more, that were produced, consumed, and in some cases, tossed out. We know for a fact that not every cake will turn out great. Figuring that out is the difficult part.

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A couple years ago I retasted a cake that I bought when I lived in Beijing. At that time I thought the cake was ok – not great, but not horrible. I did note, however, that it was a bit thin. I drank it at the time brewing gongfu style, probably adjusting my brewing parameters as I went along. After that retasting, it went back into the storage and hasn’t been seen since.

Well, I’m on a trip now, and I pulled out a cake randomly to take with me on this trip to drink. This was the lucky draw. Drinking the tea grandpa style, I have to say the tea is not very good. It has that thin, metallic taste indicative of lower quality tea. It’s aged, yes, but not in a particularly pleasant way. The overall outcome, I think, is wanting. I have a lot of tea better than this, and there really isn’t a single reason why I would want to drink this now, or ever. If given a choice, a black tea from any decent coffee shop will trump this one in terms of pleasure it can deliver. My previous evaluation was too generous – I think I was giving it a chance, and this tea has blown that chance.

I’m sure I have many cakes like this one. We all do. I’m wondering what I should do with these – throw them away? Drink them? Keeping them is sort of silly, because they are really not going to improve at this point. Drinking them – well, they’re not really great and there are so many other, better things to drink. Since my consumption of tea is finite, drinking one of these necessarily means I’m not drinking one of my better teas. Throwing them away seems like the most logical and rational choice, even though it’s hard to get myself to do that. Perhaps I will thank myself later when I move and have less tea to carry.

Tea in the park

At most parks of a decent size in China you’ll find teahouses. These are places where you can sit down and have a cup of tea, and they are, more likely than not, going to have a menu that looks like this

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The choices are basically six different grades of green tea, one oolong, one tieguanyin, five floral teas, and one (probably cooked) puerh. You’ll see that prices are quoted in either per cup or per pot, and they are in RMB – not very cheap, by any means. The cheapest and the most expensive are both green teas, and the ones that are 48 are all the non-greens.

The best choice at places like this is actually bring your own tea – you can, for the unlisted price of 10 RMB, just buy hot water and a seat, basically, and use your own leaves. Or, if like me, you didn’t have the tea with you, well, there’s always this

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Green is by far the safest choice. This was a mid-priced one. If you go low the tea is going to be a bit nasty. Paying $10 USD for a glass of tea with like 3g of leaves is a bit rich, and is a bit of a waste. Then again, their profit margins on these things are sky high regardless. I’m pretty sure the entire cake of cooked puerh probably costs as much as one order here. I wouldn’t touch those with a ten foot pole.

Old people usually frequent these, and people can sit for hours, getting free water refills that come in these giant thermos

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Once you settle in though, it’s beautiful, especially if you’ve got a nice view. At the end of the day, the tea is not the point, the time spent in a park is. Sipping tea, talking with friends, watching the scenery – it’s an afternoon well spent.

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Why do we drink tea?

Aside from the fact that tea is addictive through caffeine, why do we drink tea?

Since I drink tea daily, it is not something that I spend a lot of time thinking about. For most of us, it’s already become such a routine that it’s just a simple part of day, but there is always a dimension of “why”, especially when it comes to trying to look for the finer teas, or to find teas that are particularly interesting.

I think on a very fundamental level, a tea should be pleasant. This means that when drinking tea, it should deliver pleasurable things to you. What those are may differ on an individual level, but generally, they should probably consist of fragrance, good taste, and good feeling. Teas that don’t fulfill these requirements can be, and often are, seen as failures.

Take green teas, for example, which is something I rarely talk about. Green tea for me was where it all started – I began drinking longjing, just like my grandfather did. I recently drank some green teas from my hometown, not too far from Suzhou where biluochun is produced, and I’m reminded of why people drink green tea and why it is in many ways the most desired tea. Green teas are very nice things to drink. They are fragrant. They are smooth, at least when you brew it correctly and the quality is not too bad. They are sweet. They aid your digestion and are refreshing. There is really no drink more perfect than a good cup of green tea.

Or consider an oolong I bought recently. It’s expensive, to be sure, but it is also fragrant, smooth, has long lasting aftertaste, complex, interesting, and has qi (most teas don’t, but that’s another topic for another day). It’s great, and it feels great to drink it. Everyone there enjoyed the tea.

Then you look at things like newly made puerh – and it all falls apart. Compared to green teas, new make puerh are very rough. They are rarely sweet, instead leaning much more to the bitter side. They can be fragrant, but not always. In fact, the ones that taste good right from the get go tend to be ones that will age poorly, especially if they exhibit, say, green-tea like beany fragrance. Contrast that with an aged puerh, where the rough edges have been worn down and the tea becomes sweet, smooth, and feels great to drink. It’s a big difference.

I used to subject myself to a never ending series of questionable teas, all in the name of learning. Even when a tea seems nasty, or worse, tasteless, I’ll persist to see what’s going on and see how it fares. With time and experience, however, it is now far easier to arrive at a conclusion about a tea’s inherent quality. It is rarely the case that teas will show you anything new or exciting that is different after your 3rd or 4th infusion. It is possible, but very rare, and the tea is usually some kind of oddball. Most teas, in most cases, you can figure out what’s going on very quickly. Being now much more willing to discard poor quality teas, it is nice to drink teas that are actually enjoyable. I reserve samples or other teas of unknown quality for when I drink with a group. In those cases, it is easier to compare different teas, to examine them, and to arrive at a conclusion about them quickly and much more accurately. The really nasty ones? You drink a few sips and you throw it away.

When I’m at home and drinking by myself, I increasingly find myself reaching for the tried and true – puerh that I have aged myself that are now very drinkable after 10+ years, things I have bought that I know are good, and other kinds of teas that are not going to give me a nasty surprise. After a while, there isn’t a whole lot left to learn in bad teas – they are bad, and that’s that. For puerh, it is somewhat useful to know why they are bad – whether it’s bad storage, or bad processing, or just bad leaves. For other teas, it’s not really material – if it’s bad, you shouldn’t drink it. Life is short, drink something nice. For that purpose, a well made green tea is almost unbeatable.

Early, early spring tea

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We have all heard of Mingqian longjing, longjing tea that is harvested prior to the Qingming festival. This is supposed to be the pinnacle of green teas, because they consist of the most tender shoots of the tea plant. Of course, in warmer places plants develop shoots earlier. A couple friends of mine who own a teashop here in Hong Kong have recently visited the Chaozhou area to look at the farms there, and to try to find good dancong that are strong and roasted – older style tea, basically.

They were shocked to find the leaves from above – these were leaves they picked from the tea plants they found in Chaozhou area, except they were there in late February to early, early March. Even in the south where it’s a bit warmer, it’s not that warm – normal tea plants in this area shouldn’t really be budding until mid to late March. Yet, here we are, with the tea farmers already beginning to harvest shoots and even leaves in late February. There were already teas that were made, getting ready for the spring season.

This came as a bit of a shock to them, because only a couple hours north by car in my friend’s hometown near Anxi, Fujian, they were nowhere close to harvesting yet. After some inquiries, they found that farmers in the Chaozhou region use some sort of growth boosters. They’re not quite sure what it is, but regardless, they fear the worst. It’s hard not to, given that this is China – food safety, as you may know, is a little bit of a problem there, what with fake milk powder, exploding watermelons, contaminated Chicken McNuggets, even fake table salt. Confidence in the system is, shall we say, low. So when something extraordinary like this happens, it rings all kinds of alarm bells.

While I understand that Gebbrelic Acid is used in other places as well as growth promoters for tea, I’m not sure if this is what’s used – in fact, nobody is, because the farmers themselves are not sure. Gebbrelic Acid is supposed to be safe, but we have no idea if that’s all that’s been pumped into the plants. The farmers buy branded agrochemicals from sales people, and use it on the tea, but usually they don’t know what chemicals are actually being sprayed. The result, at least for dancong producing regions, is what you see above – really fast growing leaves that are basically a month ahead of schedule. As we know, for things like tea, yield generally has an inverse relationship to quality – the more leaves you produce from the same amount of land and tea plants, the worse the tea itself is going to be. It’s the same idea in wine, where production volume is controlled for many appellations precisely because too high a production value will degrade quality. If you want to protect a brand, you don’t do that.

My friends are sufficiently worried that they didn’t buy any tea other than samples. They also said that many farmers from the area rinse their tea twice before brewing, a relatively unusual practice for oolongs, because they are also worried about pesticides residue and things like that. This is not the first time I’ve heard worries about dancong specifically – a few friends from Taiwan with good contacts in the mainland have also told me that I should try to avoid dancong in general, because they’re pumped full of chemicals you probably don’t want to ingest. Funny too, because although I usually don’t drink dancong at all, recently I bought a couple boxes, one of which is really quite good. Your run of the mill dancong, however, is usually quite difficult to brew and is thin on the mouth while having nice fragrance. It was never the best tea, and this is just one more reason to not drink it.

Of course, this isn’t a problem that’s limited to dancong – teas from China in general are often of suspicious quality. The list of worries is long. You can worry about things like pesticides and pollution. You can worry about the tea being fake. You can worry about bait and switch when buying. Unfortunately, the business climate in China is such that one can never be sure of what one’s buying. That’s why buying from Taobao, for example, is such a lottery – what you see and what you end up getting might not be quite the same. When buying loose leaf tea, it’s standard practice to want tea from the same bag that you sampled. When pressing cakes in Yunnan, you never let the tea out of your sight, and most certainly not let anyone do the pressing for you without being there yourself – this includes guarding the bags of tea when you sleep. Trust, unfortunately, is hard to come by, and there are too many cases of fraud of one sort or another to not be cynical when buying tea in China. It’s a sobering thought.