Guide to buying tea in China: Part I – where to go

Traveling to China soon? Want to buy some tea for yourself or someone else? I thought I should do a guide on what to do when you’re in China and looking for tea. Note: things I say here do NOT apply to Hong Kong or Taiwan. China’s commercial landscape for tea is pretty different from these two places and so they operate under separate rules.

First of all, we should start with the question of where to go to buy said tea. Now, if you can answer a few quick questions

1) Do you speak any Mandarin?

2) Are you buying for yourself?

3) Do you have a lot of time this trip?

If the answer to any of these three questions is a “no,” especially if you answer “no” more than once, then the answer is easy – you should go shop at one of the big chain stores for tea, such as Wuyutai (state run) or Tianfu (Taiwanese owned tea conglomerate). Buy whatever suits your fancy there, and move on to do your tourist thingy.

Before you say this is mercenary or too ismple – let me explain. If you don’t speak any Chinese, your likelihood of landing good tea at a local shop is pretty low. There might be some local specialty tea store that can deal with you in English, but your run of the mill tea shop on the street corner probably can’t. You may be able to get away with some sign language, but you need some luck and goodwill from the store owner to not get screwed in the process. Granted, even if you don’t speak Mandarin you can still go to see a tea market, just don’t expect any great bargains or a guaranteed positive experience doing it.

If you’re not buying for yourself – it’s hard buying tea for friends. If your friend is so unkind as to stick you with a tea buying mission while you’re on your trip to China, especially if you yourself are not too keen on buying tea on the trip, well, they pretty much deserve whatever you find convenient. Also, places like Wuyutai or Tianfu won’t screw you with fake tea – they’ll just screw you with higher prices. Lastly, the tea they sell will come in decent packaging, relatively speaking. This may be important if you’re buying a gift or for the unwashed who judge teas by their packaging materials.

If you’re on a short trip and barely have time to fit in a visit to the Forbidden City, then wasting half a day just to get to a tea market is probably not the best idea. You can buy tea online from your own home, but you can’t visit sites online (not really anyway). Go do your touristy thing and ignore the tea.

Now, if your answers to all three questions are “yes”, or if you feel adventurous enough and seeing a tea market is your idea of fun, then you should try to investigate what your city’s local tea mall is (there’s one in a lot of major cities). Some are pretty far from city center, while others are right inside the city. Big cities often have multiple markets. In Shanghai, for example, there’s the Tianshan tea market, which is not huge or great by Chinese standard, but it’s certainly more teashops than any visitor would’ve seen in person, and it’s very close to a subway station.

There are also a lot of small, local teashops. These fall into two categories. One is the run-of-the-mill kind, which are basically your neighbourhood tea shop. They will sell regular stuff – often lower end. Prices are probably not bad here, although if you look like a foreigner it’s quite possible that they will give you a “foreigner special” and screw you in the process. If you just need some basic, no name tea, and if you don’t care about packaging or what not, these might not be bad options. These stores look grubby, basic, usually sparsely decorated, maybe just with some tea canisters on the sides, and not much else. The owner likely lives in the store as well with his family.

There are now another kind of teashops – these are the high end stuff, and you’ll know it if you see it. They have nice decor, pretty sales girls, good looking teaware, and generally are trying to sell you “art” instead of “tea”. I’d personally stay away from all of these. They do sometimes offer nice tea, but they will never be a bargain. There is also a high likelihood that they’re merely dressing up very average tea as good and exclusive, and so you’re really no better off than just buying online.

The decision to go to a tea market is a little more complicated than that. If you hate green tea, only drink puerh, and you’re in Shanghai, you are probably better off trying to see if Eugene of Tea Urchin wants to meet up with you instead.  The thing is, puerh isn’t that popular in Shanghai, and while they will certainly have some at the tea markets, the selection will not be great, and prices may not be good either. If you are looking for green tea, you’ll have an endless supply there. If you want something not popular at the area you’re at, then it’s more of a crapshoot.

If you go to a tea market though, there’s a secondary level of “where to go” that now enters the equation. You will be confronted by rows and rows of teashops. You only have a day, or half a day, or whatever. Where should you go? Which shop should you enter to spend your precious tea shopping time at?

Obviously if you have something specific in mind, like a specialty store you read about, or a contact you made, then by all means go there. But if you are just visiting for the first time with no reference, then you should first consider what kind of tea you are interested in. You should almost always head into a store that only sells one kind of tea – if you want tieguanyin, look for a tieguanyin store. If you want white tea, try to find a white tea specialist. While this is by no means a guarantee that you’ll find great tea, it’s better than heading into one of the many generic stores that sell everything under the sun. To this end, learning what the characters for your favourite tea looks like could be useful, especially when you’re not looking for puerh. If you’re looking for puerh, stores that sell only one brand tend to have better stuff than stores that sell a hodgepodge of brands. However, stores that sell a hodgepodge are more likely to have bargains, provided you have time to find them and know what you’re doing. This usually require repeated visits. There is the same divide between high end store and grubby store at many tea markets. It is directly related to what your shopping experience will be like – whether it will be pleasant or not. This is hardly a good guage for quality though – grubby stores often can have very good tea, while a high end looking one can actually be selling inflated crap. So for these cases it’s really a matter of you being able to taste the difference.

These are basically your options for buying tea in China. There’s never really any reason to buy from a department store or anything like that. I will cover what you do once you enter a store in another post.

Price dislocation

I remember when I first started drinking puerh seriously almost ten years ago, a common argument that you see around the internet (Chinese, mainly) and among drinkers is that it’s cheap, so it’s worth bothering with. Oftentimes the comparison was with longjing – one jin of longjing was probably somewhere in the ballpark of 1200-2000 RMB back in the day, whereas the equivalent of good quality puerh was only a few hundred RMB. It was simply a lot cheaper to drink puerh, and so even if you have no intention of aging the tea, of dabbling in the aged tea market, of wanting to drink that taste, you can still enjoy good quality tea for a lot less money.

Fast forward ten years, the price for longjing has probably doubled in this period. At the same time, however, the price for newly made, good quality raw puerh has probably risen by about tenfold. Old tree teas from famous areas harvested during the spring now routinely command 2000+ RMB (and often much higher) per 357g cake. The value argument for buying new puerh to drink compared to other types of teas in the market has simply vanished in the past ten years. Yes, there are much cheaper cakes out there. You can still find, albeit with some difficulty now, cakes that sell for under 100 RMB a piece, but those appear far less frequently than before, and you can rest assured that the chances of finding quality tea among that pile of nameless and faceless cakes is quite low, much worse than before.

The interesting thing here is that prices for teas you can buy off websites that sell teas in English have risen by much, much less than what you can find in the markets here. Prices for some vendors have edged up a bit compared to previous years, and they have, just as mainland vendors have done, used tricks like making smaller cakes to make the sticker-shock less shocking. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there is a sort of glass ceiling for prices for new make puerh that is somewhere in the ballpark of $150 USD a cake. You almost never see that price point breached. Even for older teas, I very rarely see things that cost much more than about $200 a cake, which severely limits the options of what can be sold. In casual conversations with a few vendors about this, it’s pretty apparent that the market simply isn’t really ready to pay this kind of prices for tea, and when they do, it’s overwhelmingly in samples sales only, which doesn’t amount to much.

When you think about it, this necessarily means that something is going on with the quality of the leaves going into the cakes. One would be to lower the cost basis by using leaves from cheaper regions, but by and large, cheaper regions are cheaper for a reason. Laoman’e is cheaper not just because it’s less famous, but it’s seen as less age-worthy because it’s bitter. Vendors can also mitigate the rise in cost by using leaves from lesser trees from the same region. Whereas gushu teas are very expensive, you can often find leaves from younger trees (50-100 years old ones, or even younger) that cost a lot less.

It’s not just the price of raw materials that went up. Labour costs for everything in China has gone up. When I stayed in Beijing in 2006 for a year, the going rate for a teashop girl (and they’re almost all girls) was about 600-700 RMB a month, plus room and board. These days you’d be lucky to find someone for much below 2000. So while it is most certainly the case that the raw materials of the tea going into the cakes have gone up in prices, everything else has adjusted up too. You also have to remember that whereas in 2006 one USD was worth about 8 RMB, these days it’s only 6.24 RMB, which means everything, automatically, has gone up by about 25% before you even lift a finger.

The situation is definitely worse in the cases of vendors who have high cost structures – the need to maintain a brick and mortar shop, the need to buy long haul international plane tickets (and shipping the tea back to their home base), so on so forth. If the price for the tea they can sell hasn’t gone up much, and if the cost of any of these other things haven’t gone down much (they haven’t) then the only place they can squeeze out a profit is to lower their cost by using cheaper raw materials.

This kind of inflation is of course a direct consequence of China’s rapid economic development. There are very few things in our normal day to day life that has price rises of this sort – the only thing that we normally buy that goes through severe price fluctuations is oil. Even then, it’s only in the US where the gas prices reflect real changes in oil prices – in most developed countries tax is such a big part of the price of gasoline that the net effect of oil price changes resulting in an increase in pump prices is smaller. In other words, none of us, on a day to day basis, buy anything in our daily life that has shifted in cost and price as much as the puerh we’re buying.

So whereas in 2006 if someone posts on an internet forum, saying they want to buy a decent cake of tea for under $50, there were a lot of decent options, these days if you want a cake for under $50 that will age well, chances are you really have to scrape the bottom of the barrel, and even then the likelihood of finding something good is slim. As I’ve mentioned previously, the best bet is for teas that are 1) from before 2010 and 2) from vendors who don’t know current prices, and even then, one has to be very selective. Trying to find a new 2014 tea that’s under that price? Well, as a point of comparison, my new 2014 Dayi 7542 that I just bought cost me a bit over 30 USD. Dayi, of course, commands a premium over other brands, and I didn’t bother bargaining for one cake, but the fact is this cake, 10 years ago, would’ve cost about maybe 4-5 USD a cake. High prices are here to stay, so while it pains me to say this, as consumers we have to be aware that a dollar now is not like a dollar a few years ago, and we need to adjust our expectations accordingly. Otherwise, all you’ll get offered to buy are from the trash heap that nobody would want to buy in China itself.

Review: two films about Rikyu

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Rikyu is, for lack of a better comparison, the Mohammad of Japanese tea. All three of the formal schools claim descent from him, and among the many branches of tea ceremony most of them are intimately connected with the three schools. He has been almost sanctified in his treatment, and the image we now have of him, that of him in that square hat and black robe, is so deeply entrenched in the public imagination that one almost expects that to be him.

His greatest skill, I think, was not so much in the artistic arena, necessarily, but rather the political acumen that he possessed and the diplomatic skills he had to have in order to secure the continued patronage of two of the three unifiers of Japan, until, of course, his death at the order of the second of these three men, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Like Rikyu, we also have a fairly set idea of of what these men were like – the brash and dominant visionary that was Oda, the rags to riches Toyotomi, and the reserved and cunning Tokugawa. Toyotomi’s (well deserved) reputation as a trickster and his lowborn background certainly added to that intrigue. Working for these two men was probably no easy task, and in being able to hold the position of tea master for these two, and being the most prominent of what was a constellation of tea masters, Rikyu must have had something extra special.

The 1989 film “Rikyu” is a slow, methodical piece. There the director was very much trying to portray Rikyu as a man of few words, driven, by the circumstances, into impossible positions, but always found an exit through tea and, in doing so, was able to create and pursue his aesthetic goals. However, because of the way it was shot and the story was told, it makes the movie difficult to watch even for people like us who love tea. I once showed it to my class, and I could tell that for freshmen students, it was a bit too much. Of course, when watching a movie about the tea ceremony, one can’t expect to see fireworks and swordfights, but when a movie spends fifteen minutes (or what feels like fifteen minutes) on a slow, mumbling conversation in a dark tea room, and when characters’ emotions are expressed only through a sideways glance or a twitch of the lips, it makes many demands on the viewer to be attentive and focused, much as a tea services does to the host.

The new 2013 film “Ask this of Rikyu”, which I just watched here in Taipei at the Spot Threatre (a great arthouse threatre for those coming to visit), is pretty much the polar opposite of the 1989 film. While both movies are anchored around the eventual death of Rikyu through seppuku, the contrast in the way the story is told and the way the characters are depicted cannot be more different. For one (and rather jarring for me) this Rikyu is young – too young by a long shot. When he became tea master to Oda, he was 58, an old man by the standards of his day, whereas the Rikyu in this movie is depicted as someone who was only beginning life – no later than perhaps 30 years old or so. The rest of the movie saves up some surprises along the way, but the Rikyu we see here is a heroic one – one who wears his emotions on his sleeves, who says things that are, sometimes, quite blunt and not politically safe, and who, in many ways, died for his ideals in what sounded a lot like a clash between church and state, except the church here is one where its adherents were in pursuit of beauty, and Rikyu was their prophet. Toyotomi, in this narrative, was jealous of the invisible power that Rikyu wielded (along with other slights along the way) and decided to get rid of him. I find this part of Rikyu to be less believable - he would have had a hard time securing long term patronage with this sort of high and mighty attitude in that world.

The Rikyu in this new movie is also a showman, and that, I do believe. His father was involved in the warehouse business, and selling things, including his way of tea, was always going to be an important part of his life. Selling his way of tea, which was becoming popular especially with the teaching of Rikyu’s own teacher, Takeno Jōō, was an important job that he did very well. Convincing people that less is more and broken is beautiful is not an easy job; teaching this to samurai, especially ones like Toyotomi who came from literally nothing, is probably even harder. That Rikyu was able to do it and to popularize wabi tea to the point where it became the orthodox is remarkable. In this sense, he was sort of like a charismatic religious figure. He must have been a great diplomat and communicator to get through to people with his tea.

I also suspect that it was Rikyu the diplomat that ultimately did him in. Both movies focus on Rikyu’s clash with Toyotomi as having something to do with aesthetics; in the 1989 movie Toyotomi simply does not understand beauty, whereas in this new version he is jealous of and desires the power of beauty. I wonder, though, if the reality was more mundane than that. One of the jobs Rikyu performed was to make connections. The small, cramped tea rooms he served tea in was the cigar-smoke filled lounges of his day; deals were made and alliances were struck this way. Both movies hint at this, but do not really expand on it, choosing instead to focus on the aesthetics side of the narrative. But maybe Rikyu the diplomat and negotiator simply knew too much, and by 1591, when both the Hojo and the Tokugawa clan were pacified (one eliminated, other neutralized), he had Japan in his firm grip. Rikyu was no longer useful, and keeping him around was dangerous. All the talk about the statue on the gate and what not was simply a pretense – he just needed to get rid of someone who knew too much.

Of course this narrative is not movie material – it’s a pretty mundane story if it’s just about Rikyu possessing too many secrets, and nobody would want to watch that. When people see a movie about Rikyu, they want to see tea, and they want to see how great he was at putting together a comprehensive philosophy with how tea can and should be appreciated. This need drives how movie scripts are written, which then further reinforce our views of what Rikyu was like. Commercial interests of course also determine storytelling decisions, and I have no doubt the more cartoonish portrayal of characters in this newer version (as well as other things I’ll leave you to discover yourself) led to how the story is told here. I have not read the novel this new film is based on, so I have no basis for comparison that way. It was entertaining, certainly more so than the 1989 film, and at its best moments it did make me think about how I drink and appreciate tea. That, perhaps, is good enough.

Practical tea brewing advice

On this eve of the Lunar New Year, I thought I can offer some advice gleaned from over 15 years of tea drinking.

1) Use a vessel of suitable size — This means that if you’re drinking by yourself, don’t use a 300ml teapot unless you’re trying to make weak tea. Likewise, if you have a lot of people over (for holidays, for example) using that 100ml favourite of yours is really not a great idea. If you are short on wares, err on the side of small. You can always double up infusions and serve them together to fill volume, but it’s harder to deal with a large quantity of tea for a small number of people.

2) When rinsing, do not steep too long — I read in forums and other places sometimes of when people say things like “1 minute rinse”. I don’t know about you, but a 1 minute steep is no longer a rinse. Rinses are fast – 10-15 seconds at most. 1 minute, plus time to pour in and pour out water, really means more like 1 minute 30 seconds. That’s an eternity and you lose a lot of the “stuff” you should get from your tea. Don’t do it. Teas are never that dirty.

3) When brewing compressed puerh, break up the pieces — in the Western tea drinking culture I sometimes see a certain obsession with having whole pieces. I think this is partly because a lot of people drink mostly samples, so they like to see whole chunks, somehow, and oftentimes said chunks are thrown into the pot/gaiwan as a whole thing. This is not going to be good for your tea drinking experience – large chunks have a relatively small surface area for water-contact, and this is especially problematic when it’s compressed tightly. If you rinse it the water only touches the surface, and oftentimes the cores of those chunks might still be dry after one or two infusions. The proper way to do it is to break it up – yes, even if it means breaking some of the leaves. Chunks in the pot/gaiwan should be smallish, no more than about 1cm in diameter or so. If the tea is loosely compressed you can have bigger pieces. Ideally, it should actually be a mixture of chunks and loose leaves (from the same tea, of course). Remember, they all came from the same cake. As long as you’re not only brewing with fannings, it’s fine.

4) Adjust brewing time according to what your tongue tells you — a pretty common problem for novices is to ponder how long the infusions should be. Once you have thrown in the leaves, you’re stuck with your leaf/water ratio, so the only thing you can really adjust are 1) water temp and 2) time in steeping. The easier to adjust among those two is time, so you should adjust that accordingly. Is the tea way bitter/strong? Then be quick about pouring in and out. Is the tea getting weak? Lengthen the time of steeping. That’s not what the vendor recommended? Ignore the vendor. Do not ever automatically add time every infusion, as is often dispensed as advice for newer drinkers. It’s not a great idea.

5) Keep the water hot — aside from green teas, most teas should be brewed with water that’s kept very hot. That’s how you get the most “stuff” out of your tea, and gives you the most depth in flavour. If the brew is coming out too strong, you either added too much leaves or left the water in too long (or, possibly, the tea is just bad). Yes, you can get a really sweet, pleasant, and non-offensive brew by keeping the water to 60C. But you can just as well argue for cold-brewing aged oolongs overnight in the fridge. You can do it, but it’s really not the best use of the leaves. Leave the cold brewing for the cheap teas (where hot water can bring out some nasty bitterness if the tea is truly bad) and keep your water hot. Otherwise, you’re wasting perfectly good leaves.

6) Grandpa the tea when you’re finished — if you really liked the tea, one way to keep drinking it is to grandpa it.

On that note, may the year of the horse be one filled with good teas!

Temperature, humidity, and storage

I just got back from Southern Germany, where the land is flat and the beer is good. The weather was beautiful. I also came back with chapped lips, which led me to think about storing puerh tea in these places.

There’s a general consensus that the higher the temperature and the humidity the tea is stored in, the faster the tea changes. People disagree as to whether that’s a good thing or not, and some of it comes down to personal tastes (some people like their tea young tasting for reasons I don’t understand). Above a certain point, the high temperature and humidity will induce mold, which is generally seen as less desirable this day and age. However, under normal circumstances in natural settings, it is difficult to generate enough moisture to attain the level of humidity and temperature used in traditional storage facilities (we are talking +30C and relative humidity of 90% or even higher, in a tightly packed enclosed space). If you store your tea naturally, in an environment in which human beings are comfortable and not exposed to the elements, your worry shouldn’t be mold.

Instead, I think the worry should be too low a temperature/humidity. The problem, at least on an anecdotal level for me, is that tea stored too dry will begin to exhibit undesirable traits such as roughness, thinness, and lack of aroma, in addition to just not changing (or changing very slowly). I am presuming that the whole point of storing your tea is that it changes and ages – for those who want their tea young and fresh, you can stop reading now.

The dryness-induced changes are usually not very obvious problems, and may not even be apparent until you tried it side by side with a tea stored in a more optimal environment, at which point it becomes really clear that the tea stored in really dry climates is lacking something. Opinions are mixed on whether that can be revived, but it’s not at all clear that it is easy to do so without running risks.

Leaving aside why exactly higher temperature and humidity seems to allow teas to age in a more interesting manner, I suspect that it is not as simple as pointing to your humidity gauge and saying humidity is high in you neighbourhood. Since both of these factors are actually related to one another, I will attempt to talk about this in more absolute terms.

Hot air can hold more moisture than cold air. That’s just a matter of fact. Relative humidity in general is a poor indication of the amount of moisture in the air at any given time, unless you also give a temperature reading. So, if you look at this chart, you’ll see that at 30 degrees Celcius and 50% relative humidity, the air still has more moisture in it than 15 degree Celcius and 100% relative humidity. At the same time though, we know that the air has more capacity to suck in moisture – so it can dry things out faster. Experienced hands here who have long stored tea all believe that it is important for the tea to breath through the seasons – meaning that it goes through wet and dry periods. The winter, when it’s dry and cold (relatively) here, is when the tea rests. Then spring comes, when it’s quite wet, and then the summer, when it’s hot, and by the fall, it starts drying out again. And the cycle repeats itself. Slow changes in the climate seems to beget changes in taste.

I remember when I came back to Hong Kong one time during my study overseas, I noticed that one of my tongs of tea was moved to closer to the window, and this being early spring, it was extremely wet and warm in Hong Kong. The tong was almost wet to the touch – the tea, while not quite soaked, was certainly not dry. I moved it to a higher location on the shelves and, now, years later, the tea is no worse for wear, and in fact is quite nice last time I tried it. It has also certainly aged from when it was first purchased, when it was a green, young, rather bitter thing. That’s what we want after all – for that bitterness to recede and slowly replaced by aged tastes of sweetness.

So when I was in Germany, I noticed that the weather was quite warm, but it was very, very dry. It also gets cold rather quickly at night. Of course this is far from desert like climate, but it reminds me of Beijing, where the weather can also be pretty dry and warm. In my experience, places like that produce really badly stored cakes – they literally feel dry when you drink them, and are usually devoid of fragrance and flavour. Heat with too-low humidity is no good – the ones I’ve tried where they have been stored in high heat, low humidity places tend to be really, really nasty. When people use the term “dry storage” they really meant it in relation to “wet storage” or what I like to call traditional storage. It’s not “bone dry” storage. That’s what you do for mummies. I think the reason it’s dry during the day is because of the low temperatures at night, the moisture condenses, and over the course of the day as it heats up, the humidity drops because temperatures go up – and before there’s a real chance for the moisture to be evaporated again, temperature drops again at night, keeping things fairly dry during the day. I’m not sure what this does to tea, but I suspect it’s not a great environment.

Having said that, I generally think it’s not very wise to build elaborate pumidors to try to artificially inflate humidity for your storage. The reason is simple – it’s very risky, and you can easily cause mold or other undesirables. What you can probably do without much harm is to take precautions – don’t let too much airflow into your storage area, maybe add a little water container that has little risk of spillage. I really wouldn’t do more than that.

Tea is poison

I’m currently in Heathrow waiting for my plane to Munich, where I’m going to be giving a (pretty terrible and rough) paper that I’ve been working on regarding early ideas about tea in Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Specifically, I was trying to look at how people thought about tea’s connection with health. It was quite interesting, really, because for anyone trying it for the first time, tea is obviously doing something to your body. It’s not just water – it’s more than that. If you drink a strong cup of tea, it will do certain things to you – and these are effects that are universally noticed.

However, that doesn’t mean people all have the same conclusion when it comes to tea and what it does to your body. Whereas in the very early eighteenth century when tea was still a rare and unusual commodity, people writing about it were still most introducing it, by the mid century it was obvious that tea consumption had become very popular (with mentions of ladies drinking tea in the afternoon, people using tea in copious amounts, etc) worries about tea also increased. You start seeing people writing about it and saying it causes health problems – everything from physical problems to causing neurological diseases. In one instance, an author even claimed he tested and found that tea caused scurvy, which is of course the opposite of the truth (tea in fact cures scurvy with its vitamin C).

Then by the late eighteenth century, people seemed to have started to calm down a bit, and worried more about the economic effects of tea. This is when George Macartney was sent to China to try to persuade the Qianlong emperor to open up trade, only to be rebuffed. You see this anxiety reflected in writings at the time – a lot of pages devoted to the economic health of Britain and how tea was draining it. Tea is not physical poison, but it’s economic poison. People also drank a lot with their tea – adding alcohol in it. So it got mixed up with the whole temperance movement. Not quite tea as a poison itself, but tea as the conveyor of poison, in this case.

It’s only by the nineteenth century that we seem to see that subside as well – of course, things had changed a lot by then. But it’s pretty clear that for almost a hundred years, there were doubts, worries, anxieties, and uncertainties about this drink. Contrast that with today’s unequivocal belief that tea is healthy, in any circumstances, things have definitely changed. Is that really true though? I think, as with anything, tea is best only in moderation. Claims of the cure to cancer are, unfortunately, probably exaggerated.

Spare your friend

As a tea drinker, a very difficult thing to get asked to do is “just buy me something good” and then get handed some money. The motivation is basically the problem – friend (or family, or whatever) is going to China/India/Japan/Taiwan, and so, the asker thinks, why not get them to buy me some tea? Tea is everywhere in those places, what could go wrong?

A lot.

The touring friend may have no interest or expertise in tea. If they are not frequent visitors to these places, then chances are they are mostly going to be in the big cities, visiting the nice sites and interesting spots. Buying tea is fun – but on their own terms. If the friend is buying tea, and is not a tea drinker, the most likely place that’s going to happen is a tourist-trap shop or the big chains like TenRen. There’s nothing particularly wrong with those places, but is probably not what the asker had in mind.

Also, for someone with no real interest or knowledge in tea, buying tea is not an easy thing, especially in East Asia. There are a zillion choices and prices are opaque. The difficulty is that the shop owners will steer the friend to what they perceive to be tourist friendly teas. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it probably isn’t what the asker had in mind.

Also, these days, there are plenty of stores that sell online from those places, and the prices are not likely to be much higher. In Hong Kong or Japan, in the proper places anyway, the prices are not going to change depend on whether or not you’re a tourist – what you see is what you’re going to get. In China, and less so Taiwan, however, prices may or may not be what you’re supposed to get – I’ve heard prices quoted that are multiples of what I paid. It’s not a friendly thing to do, but it’s what they do. The friend may actually be buying overpriced tea that you can get online for much less. Going into a teahouse can also be quite stressful. Some places have high pressure sales tactic, especially if they are in a tourist area. It’s only really fun is the owners happen to be pleasant and the friend enjoys tea. That isn’t always going to be the case.

If the asker gives a list of things to let the friend get an idea of what he wants, that’s great – but that can also be a curse. If the friend is visiting a place that they might not go back to again, every hour spent getting the tea is every hour not spent seeing/hearing/experiencing things. And, the worse thing is, what they get can be wrong. So, they spent half an afternoon at a tea market getting the tea, but turns out it’s not quite right (say, a fall tea instead of spring, or a Fenghuang shuixian instead of a Wuyi shuixian – and we’re lucky if we got that close). Or, if they got a carte blanche, they come back with a bag of nuclear green TGY that is just plain nasty to anyone who’s drank tea for a while, but is really attractive for someone totally new. What then? The friend will feel terrible, the asker feels like s/he was cheated… it’s not a good situation when that happens.

There are actually a lot of choices out there to buy tea from the source. Not all of them are equally good, but there are definitely options. The only thing that is really hard to get overseas are the top end teas, and also some of the really rare things – but those aren’t likely to be found by the friend who is just visiting for a week. The rest, well, that’s what the internet is for.

I’ve been asked before to buy tea for people, and I found it hard to do even though I actually enjoy spending a whole day in a tea market. It’s harder for people who don’t know much about tea, and who are only visiting a certain place for a short period of time. It’s not a good way for them to spend their time, unless they go often and know the place well, so spare them and let them enjoy their vacation.

Lessons from a whisky masterclass

I dabble in drinking some whisky now and then. It has, interestingly, some similarities with tea drinking. In particular, I find the experience of drinking and analyzing whiskies to be quite similar to the process that you do with tea, except, very crucially, whisky has alcohol (and also can be consumed straight out of the bottle – and a relatively consistent experience, at that). So, I don’t drink much of it, but I like it.

I also think there are things we can learn, or not learn, from those who drink whiskies. Long time readers probably know that I’m not a big fan of tasting notes, and especially, I’m very skeptical of tasting notes that are full of flavour descriptors – hay, tobacco, straw, etc etc, abound in notes for puerh from many people. I’ve never had hay, or straw, or tobacco, so none of those things really mean all that much to me, and I’m not even sure it means all that much to many people (not to mention that I have a hard time believing tobacco is all the same – it’s like some tobacco smoker describing a flavour as “tea”). So, I generally try to avoid those things. Sweet and sour I use, and sometimes fruity or coolness or smoke, but that’s because I think it is a more elemental, basic sense – I try to avoid things that are quite specific. My vanilla is not really your vanilla.

So it is a rather pleasant surprise to see someone in the whisky review community who is talking about this very issue, and he does so in a very clear, straightforward manner. For those interested:

It’s slightly long, at 15 minutes, but he’s addressing the same issues – don’t just drink with your nose and your tongue. Pay attention to the body, the way the whisky (or in our case, tea) behaves in your mouth, the way it interacts with your body, the finish – how long it lasts and how deep it penetrates down your throat. So on, so forth. Most Taiwanese oolongs, for example, share some similar flavours, but what separates the good from the great are these bodily reactions/responses to the tea that cannot be captured by flavour descriptors. As I’ve said before, drink with your body.

Happy new year

Happy new year to everyone, and I hope you all have a new start on a good year – drinking many good teas and meeting many new tea friends. I, for my part, am starting a new job, with a new office, and I think I can finally setup a work tea setup again, with maybe a Kamjove and a small tray. Perhaps, finally, I can drink some more tea at work again. That’s a good start to the year!

Notes from Kyoto

I’ve been to Japan quite a few times by now, but there are always things that you notice on trips that you didn’t before.

1) Restaurants, at least here in Kyoto, almost all seem to serve hojicha or genmaicha as the tea of choice. Of the ones that I’ve gone to so far, that has always been the case. Some of these places are not exactly crap restaurants either, and the hojicha, as far as I can tell, are pretty decent. In one case, it was the most interesting hojicha I’ve ever had. I think sencha perhaps doesn’t go as well in many ways with a lot of cuisine, and I can sort of see why. Hojicha is a bit more neutral, and probably does a better job of making food go down easier than sencha could.

2) There really are a lot of teaware stores here. Last time I was here I ran into a teaware store near Daitoku-ji that sold me a few coasters that I think are really quite nice. This time, walking around the main shopping districts here in Kyoto, there are many more teaware shops that sell quality stuff. The prices range from reasonable to very expensive, and it all depends on what you’re going for. If you want a run of the mill kyusu, a few thousand yen will do. If you want a nice chawan from someone who’s probably a bit more than unknown, you’re going to have to shell out a few hundred thousand yen. Chawan styles that are most commonly sold here seem to be kyo-yaki that are very colourful and full of makie decorations with vibrant colours. There are your rakuyaki, of course, and there’s even a whole store devoted to just selling rakuyaki in Gion, and other styles are also sold here, but kyo-yaki is definitely the most common one. To just give you an idea:

PhotobucketThis is just another teaware store. For those who like browsing, if not buying for stuff, there’s no better place than Kyoto. You don’t find the same concentration of such stores elsewhere in Japan – you have to have a better idea of where to look.

3) I don’t drink much of Japanese tea at all, especially the green stuff, so I don’t usually shop for them. Prices, however, are expensive, and I think most of the high end stuff you’ll never see in the US. Prices on the high end seem to be somewhere in the 3000yen/100g range. Granted, this is retail in a touristy city in Kyoto, but like teas in Taiwan, China, and elsewhere, I think the outcome is the same – the best stuff stays at home.