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.

Kitano Tenmangu and Shōkōken

We are spending a quick few days in Kyoto, and one of the nice things about Kyoto is that there’s tea pretty much literally everywhere you go. Today we spent a little time at Kitano Tenmangu, an important Shinto shrine for the god Tenjin, the deification of the person Shigawara no Michizane, but more importantly, the shrine was also the site of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s famous Grand Tea Ceremony, held in 1587 and was supposed to run for 10 days, even though it ended up only being about two days. It was, for the most part, a grand show of power and patronage by Hideyoshi, but there was some tea involved as well.

Among the collections of Kitano Tenmangu are a number of artifacts related to the tea ceremony, as well as some good looking raku ware chawans. More interestingly, there’s a painting of the scene of the Grand Tea Ceremony, which also lists the famous teaware of the time that was used during this ceremony and who was present at which particular seating. Alas, no pictures allowed in the museum.

There’s also a nice teahouse that wasn’t very obvious given the hubbub surrounding the shrine, as it was the flea market/fair day. The teahouse is called Shōkōken.

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The sign suggests that this is the original building used by Hosokawa Tadaoki, a daimyo and a student of Sen no Rikyu, during the Great Tea Ceremony. But looking around, at least on the web, it seems as though the original building was moved to Kotoin in Daitoku-ji, and the one here might then be a re-creation. Either way though, the well is the original one they used.

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The house is quite big for a teahouse – and has a nice garden.

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As with a lot of other interesting sites, however, this teahouse is not open for viewing, so all you can do is to climb over the wall – at least climb high enough to see inside. It’s bitterly cold right now, so I don’t imagine it being a very pleasant experience to drink tea in such an environment, but in warmer days, I’m sure a tea session here would be exceedingly enjoyable.

Ways to cheat in tea

It’s been a busy few weeks, what with grading, trying to finish a few papers, so on so forth. One of the papers I was trying to write and still in pretty shambolic state is one on the Taiwanese industry. Among the more interesting documents I’ve come across are a set of articles of association for the Taipei Tea Merchants Association. They were always concerned with inferior, fake, or just bad tea, among other things. Taiwan teas, even back in the early 20th century, had a premium over mainland Chinese tea, and they were very keen to keep it that way. So, in an effort to prevent problems, they listed what was not allowed in terms of teas that they sell. These are:

1) Powdered tea – this is not matcha wannabes, but rather teas with significant amounts of powdered tea leaves mixed in to make the tea heavier, so you can sell for more. When the buyer gets it, he’ll notice that it’s mostly powder – and therefore overpaid. This is like you getting that last bag/bit of tea from the bottom of the barrel, and feeling cheated, but on a massive scale.

2) Tea stalks – this one is pretty self explanatory, I think. Can’t sell tea stalks as tea leaves.

3) Sun-exposed tea – probably also obvious – tea that has been exposed to the sun for long periods of time, at least that’s what the name implies

4) Fake tea – it’s not clear how this fakeness is achieved – is it not tea leaves at all? Something else?

5) Soaked tea – this is the best – dried used tea leaves being sold again. It actually does sort of work. Try drying out the leaves you’ve drunk, for some leaves it can look remarkable like new tea leaves and presumably someone can try to sell it in dried form. You will still even get some taste out of it, it’ll just be really watery.

6) Fire-burnt tea – tea that is too roasted/charred

7) Tea that has been adulterated with other materials, including spoiled, rotten teas, dirt, dust, etc

There’s also another category of tea – Tangshan cha, which is the term they used for mainland Chinese teas. In this case, it’s mainland tea being sold as Taiwan teas.

So it’s good to know that the tricks that vendors can be up to haven’t really changed all that much over the last hundred years. Buyers of puerh are quite familiar with this stuff, and buyers of other teas have also run into this sort of problem before. The way they solved it? Made it mandatory to sell/buy through a central exchange, to have regular inspectors (full time) who go and check the farmers/vendors, to make everyone a member of the tea production association, so they are more accountable, and to also educate the farmers. It worked.

Signup policy

Seems like there’s enough interest in the Curated Samples. I think in the interest of fairness, I need to institute some sort of lottery system, should demand exceed supply when I have the tea at hand.  Otherwise, it’s a “whoever saw the post first” deal and due to time zone differences, it’s deeply unfair for the parts of the world that is still sleeping, or are otherwise occupied and thus unable to write something before seats are all filled.

More on that later, when I actually have the teas ready and figured out the final pricing, etc. But my current thinking is that if demand does exceed supply, I’ll have a sort of lottery with names and the ones that come out will be the ones that get a seat, so to speak. Hope that’s all right with everyone.