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.

Steepster is useless

According to the folks at Steepster, you should love the website for six reasons.

1) It’s an online tea journal – this is the only point I agree with. It’s probably a pretty good and stress free way to keep a journal of the teas you’ve tried, which I personally think is a good way to help you learn and develop your tea palette. Trying new teas and writing down what you think about it is an important process that helps you think about what you just drank. So far, so good.

2) It’s a different way to discover new teas – ok, hard to argue with that, it’s new anyway, but at the end of the day, you have to buy and drink it. The problem is not so much that it helps people find new teas – yes, it does that to a degree, by showing you things that may be similar, at least according to their algorithm. But their reviews don’t seem to allow pictures, and usually there’s only one relatively useless picture of the tea, so to get anywhere, you still need to head to the vendor’s page to find out more about the tea. Unhelpfully, Steepster doesn’t link you to the vendor’s page for the tea, but only to the vendor, so you have to go through the trouble to find the tea anyway. While for some vendors this is easy to do, for others it’s a non-trivial task, especially if the vendor has weird categories, such as puerhshop.

3) It’s the largest – well, that’s both good and bad. The size of Steepster would make it seem like a good thing, and on some level, I suppose it is – it has more reviews of more teas than anywhere else on the web, and it benefits from its critical mass so that, right now at least, it seems like the only player in town. Other rating sites, of which I only know of one, are basically dead, which means nobody will bother to go visit.

The size, however, is also a problem. First of all, the rather endless stream of reviews on the site is more than overwhelming, and if you happen to be following a few dozen people, chances are you have no way of sorting out one review from the next. Also, for the most part, the network is pretty much anonymous – you have no idea who’s posting. The person posting a poor review of a black tea could be a lifetime green tea drinker who hates anything black. The person reviewing a wonderful Yiwu might be drinking raw puerh for the first time without telling you so, and thus describes it as tasting like a drain cleaner. You have the option to “like” a certain review, but like is more ambiguous than Amazon’s “did you find this review helpful?”. Like might mean you agree, or you liked what the person said for other reasons, or because you’re their friend… there’s no way to tell. The volume of information on teas, in written form, is completely overwhelming on this site.

It also is very unfriendly for people who reinfuse their teas multiple times, which most readers of this blog probably do. So, there’s no way to indicate what you do with your tea, other than in written form. Unless you’re the only reviewer, nobody will ever read it.

Moreover, because of the sheer volume of written information on the teas, the only thing that people actually will pay attention to is the ratings, in numerical form. That’s easy, simple to look at, and quick to comprehend. So far, so good, but there’s a problem – almost everything on the site rates somewhere between 70 and 85, which means that, as a mechanism for picking out teas to try, the score is almost entirely useless – how different is something that rates 78 really from something that rates 82, especially when each of them only have, say, 5 ratings each, three of which have no number attached?

Let’s take puerh for example, one of the genre of teas that I think are least reviewed there. Sorted by rating, it takes 36 pages for you to reach the first tea rated in the 60s. That’s 36 x 28 on each page, totaling slightly over 1000 teas, many of which, I’m sure, are no long available. If you look under Menghai Tea Factory, almost everything is within the narrow band of 71-81. As a selection guide, this is more or less utterly useless.

As someone pointed out on Teachat, the name of the vendor is fungible, so that someone might enter Menghai Tea Factory, while another person might attribute the same tea to Yunnan Sourcing. Likewise, referring to what I talked about earlier about teas being anonymous, it is quite possible that two or three or four tieguanyin being reviewed (with different impressions!) are actually from the same wholesaler, rendering the ratings rather moot.

Curiously, among the top ten rated puerh are a number of teas from Verdant Tea, which as Hster has uncovered, has some issues as a puerh vendor. Is that shop really that great, or is something else going on? I can’t say for sure. It might, however, have something to do with the fact that he seemed to have distributed samples to folks on Steepster. Verdant Tea in general seems extremely active on Steepster, which might explain something. Seems like that’s a good way to goose your ratings.

4) You’ll broaden your horizons and try new teas – same as 2, really, but here they’re talking about their revenue stream, aka vendor sponsored sampling, which at the moment seems dead. Also, referring to the above point about Verdant Teas, I wonder if the key to high ratings is to send non-offensive teas to a bunch of people who’ve only had teas from Teavana.

5) It’s a place to hang out and talk about all things tea – yes, but the discussion on Steepster is exceedingly shallow, mostly because it is not designed for anything more in depth. Each review can have comments, and once in a while, you might have good comments on one thread – if you can ever find such things, that is, buried deep within each thread for each tea. The discussion board is largely useless, because it is only categorized in the most general way possible, which means that it is nearly impossible to follow specific topics for very long. If you search for a term, the search engine will completely overload you with information again, in the most useless way imaginable – by highlighting every instance in every thread where the search term has been mentioned, ordered in the number of times that term has been mentioned in each thread (at least that seems to be the way they’re doing it). This means that the longest threads will tend to be read, whereas shorter threads will drop off the radar. That’s great if you’re looking for something exceedingly specific, but if you just want to find some discussion on, say, sencha… good luck.

6) It’s free. Well, it better be.

I’m not trying to rain on someone else’s parade, but Steepster, while it is a great tool for someone to keep a personal log of teas to drink, fails on the sharing and discovery part of the equation. Is there a better way? Perhaps, but I think to start it might be more useful to introduce/tweak features that will result in more depth in the comments, notes, and discussions. Right now, reading reviews on the site is like reading a stream of consciousness writing, much of which is completely useless to anyone other than the drinker. The scores, likewise, is not very useful as it is. It doesn’t even really help you weed out teas, unless perhaps the ones that are universally hated, but those seem to be few and far between. Lastly, it might help to, for example, be able to toggle whether or not a tea is still available – listing a bunch of teas that are no longer available high on a list when you click “teas” really isn’t a good way to introduce more people to good tea either.

I’m not sure if there’s the right balance of information and quality, but right now, Steepster is high on information, but low on quality – you get a lot of stuff, most of which is noise, and it’s set up in a way that makes it difficult to filter out the noise. I think something like TeaChat, flawed as it is and hampered by an ancient discussion board engine, is nevertheless in some ways a superior forum for talking about teas than the more newfangled, social-media craze inspired Steepster.

Addendum: Some, fans of Steepster, for example, may see this as an out-and-out attack on the site. I have zero financial or personal reason to hate the site – I signed up a while ago hoping that it will be a good forum for more discussion, but came away pretty disappointed. I think there is no progress if there’s no criticism. I’m not saying I’m the one qualified to do it, but on this blog, I tend to say what I think without dressing it up too much. As I’ve mentioned, I think Steepster is a great tool for one purpose – keeping the journal of teas you’ve drunk. I hope the site’s creators can improve on the other aspects of it so that the users there can engage in tea more deeply, maybe even without knowing it. That can come from all kinds of angles – changing their algorithm in what it recommends, improving the way comments/notes are displayed and scored, organizing the discussion page using tags, instead of just what looks like an unfiltered stream of threads on unrelated topics, etc. There is a lot of space to improve upon the site now that they’ve gotten people to use it – and don’t do what Digg did and screw everything up with a drastic revision that everyone ends up hating.

The importance of water

Water is a subject that I talk about from time to time, but it is very easy to get caught up in all the myriad discussions about this tea and that tea that you forget just how important water is to your tea drinking experience.The past two days I went to a local shop that just opened recently and which makes new pressings of Yiwu cakes. I like their stuff, and the quality is there. They are also a bit more traditional in their processing, so that the taste is not the high and floral stuff that you often find on the market today. In our conversation, we talked about old teas, and I also drank some old teas with them, including the remnants of a Fuyuanchang Hao from early 20th century. So, in the spirit of sharing, I brought with me some of my aged oolongs on the second day for them to try, since the owner is unfamiliar with a lot of them.

Well, trouble started when we began with an aged baozhong of mine that I know very well, and which yields a pleasant, sweet, and alluring cup. The problem is, that wasn’t really evident at all. Instead, we got a thin, barely there taste with a crisp but weak mouthfeel and only some notes of high aroma. This is not the tea I know – which is why it’s useful to get well acquainted with a tea. Granted, he didn’t use much leaves, but clearly, it was the water.

As I’ve mentioned multiple times before, water is the most cost effective way to make your tea better. So, I went downstairs to the local 7-Eleven, picked up a big bottle of Volvic, and mixed it in the current kettle and used that instead. The improvements are instant and immediate. It explains, also, why the old tea I had on the first day was a bit thin and boring. Turns out they’ve been using tap water, filtered with bamboo charcoal and then just boiled in your typical Kamjove boiler. They know it’s no good – but as a newly opened store, they have to make do with the water for now until they can come up with a better solution, since hauling water from local springs is a really hard thing to do, especially if you don’t have a car. As it is, however, the water is destroying the tea.

The really interesting thing is that I also use tap water, except these days I don’t even bother to filter it and simply boil it in my tetsubin. I think the difference in what I tasted between his brewing and my brewing is mainly down to the tetsubin and the filtering – you can get all paranoid about your water source and how it might contain harmful stuff if you don’t filter it, but the fact is, in most cases the water source doesn’t contain these heavy metals that your filter is built for, but they do take out all kinds of other things that make your tea better. I remember visiting a friend’s place here that used a pretty heavy duty filtration system, and the resulting tea is also thin, weak, and boring. If you’re a frequent drinker of lighter greens, it might work. For everything else, it’s probably a bad idea.

Buying good bottled water (not all are created equal) is probably one of the possible answers, but it’s probably not a great answer. Environmental concerns aside, it’s expensive, it comes in plastic that in some cases leech smell and taste, and it’s bulky. It’s useful in a pinch, but not a long term solution.

They do serve as a useful benchmark though. I like Volvic and Vittel, and for lighter teas, Iceland Spring, which also happens to be a really tasty water just for drinking purposes. Do water taste tests – pour four or five glasses of different waters, including your normal tea water post boil, and taste them as if your life depended on it. You will find that they’re different, and in some cases, your water may contain some really unsavoury tastes and smells. The body of the water will also be different, if you get water with varying levels of total dissolved solids. Use them then to brew the same tea – a tea you know very well. Try it, and you will find the tea you usually drink will taste different in some way. Include a distilled water in the sampling, so you can see how terrible it really is. Your tea with distilled water will be thin and sour.

It makes me think that perhaps more conscientious vendors can make water suggestions, but that might also get too complicated and drive people away. The fact is, water makes a huge difference, and not enough people pay attention to it. Every so often, you’re reminded that it’s important, but then it fades from memory and the cycle repeats itself.

On romanization

Vendors, read this.

Languages in East Asia are tough, at least for foreigners. They are some of the most difficult languages to learn in the world, and for tea drinkers who don’t speak or read such languages, they can be a bit of a pain to navigate. Since names for teas are already such issues, with vendors naming their own teas and also the confusion and lack of oversight of tea nomenclature. It doesn’t help, however, when romanization is itself an issue. This is more of an issue for Chinese and less so for Japanese, since there the romanization is pretty standard. Korean romanization can be a little weird too, with different competing systems (Jeolla in Revised Romanization vs Cholla in McCune–Reischauer, for example), but since Korean teas are, let’s face it, a relatively small universe with better sourcing information generally, I’ll ignore its issues for now.

For those of you who know Chinese, you probably know that there are two main romanization systems, Wade-Giles and Pinyin. Up until the early 90s, pretty much everyone used Wade-Giles except those in Mainland China, who used Pinyin. Then things flipped, and everyone started using Pinyin, and Wade-Giles is increasingly dropped with the exception of Taiwan, which finally adopted Pinyin two years ago. These are partly for political reasons, and partly because, well, a billion people can’t be wrong, I suppose. I personally reserve a special hatred of simplified characters, because in the simplification process much of the meaning of the proper characters are lost, but I realize that many people now simply cannot read proper characters, unfortunately.

Anyway, with two romanization system and the relatively recent date of conversion, you can imagine there are issues with their usage. The problem is further complicated by two things: 1) conventions from the past, and 2) the fact that many Chinese people, especially those from Taiwan and Hong Kong, never actually learned any romanization system at all. Chinese, as you probably know, consists of characters that do not have phonetic indicators – meaning that by looking at the characters, you can’t tell how to pronounce them. It’s awful for people trying to learn the language, but it’s great for the purpose of keeping lots of people who don’t use the same dialect sharing the same written language. For all these romanizations that we’re talking about, we’re only concerning ourselves with the use of standard Mandarin.

So we’ve got two main romanization systems, but a fair number of people who don’t really know either, and a lot of vendors who probably don’t know much or any Chinese, as well as the use of older customary romanizations that persist. One of the most obvious and common old conventional spelling that still exists today, as related to tea, is the use of puerh instead of the Wade-Giles p’u-erh and Pinyin pu’er. I use puerh, instead of the Wade-Giles or the Pinyin version. Another common one is tikwanyin, which in Wade-Giles should be t’ieh-kuan-yin and in Pinyin tieguanyin. One reason people have dropped Wade-Giles in favour of Pinyin is because Wade-Giles has finicky rules regarding the use of apostrophes, which are essential for accuracy, and also hyphens. Without those, or getting those wrong, renders Wade-Giles rather useless. Pinyin only has issues with apostrophes, which is easier to deal with and errors are often not fatal (although still frequently wrong).

Pinyin also includes strict rules with regards to how to separate words. Since Chinese is character-based, it is very tempting to put everything into separate characters and just be done with it. Using the cake from the last post as an example:

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The two big words are “yesheng” or “wild”. Then, above the 2005 is “xianliangban” or “limited edition”. After the 2005 are “Menghai laoshu yesheng tedingcha” or “Menghai (region) old wild tree special ordered tea”. At the bottom is “Chenguanghe tang chaye yanjiu zhongxin rongyu dingzhi” or “Proudly ordered by the Chenguanghe Tang Tea Research Centre”. Note, of course, the nonsensical “Chen kang ho tang Pu-erh Tea”.

Now, imagine if the bottom row is all separated (and capitalized, as is often done for reasons unknown) “Chen Guang He Tang Cha Ye Yan Jiu Zhong Xin Rong Yu Ding Zhi”. What’s going on is that by separating everything, it becomes very difficult to tell where one word ends and the next begins. When romanizing, one of the things the person doing the romanization is splicing the words into sensible units, following the rules I linked to above. If I see a row of romanized characters all separated into individual syllable, I often need to see the Chinese original to know what I’m looking at. Properly romanized, however, it is usually quite easy to figure out what we’re dealing with.

One of the worst offenders of romanization confusion is Hou De. For example, the puerh brand Xizihao is routinely romanized as Xi-zhi Hao (finally fixed in some 2011 new listings, but persist for the older ones). There are no hyphens in Pinyin, and no X in Wade-Giles, so this is really neither. Hou De routinely does this sort of mixing, but Guang’s certainly not the only one. In his defense, he probably never learned Pinyin, having grown up instead on zhuyin fuhao. Other vendors mix in capital letters when there should be none, separate words randomly, mix in Wade-Giles from time to time, or simply spell things wrong. Babelcarp has a truckload of such misspellings, helpfully linked to the most widely used one.

Another issue is more simple – some vendors choose to give you the name of the tea in translation, while others give you the name in transliteration. Biluochun and green snail spring are the same thing, but you wouldn’t know it unless you’ve learned that somehow. Likewise, you can see Keemun, the old conventional name for Qimen, often on websites and teas and what not. Qihong is Keemun black, but again, you wouldn’t know it unless you somehow already knew.

While most people can figure out that puerh and pu’er are the same thing, it’s harder when the difference is between tikwanyin and tieguanyin, or even oolong vs wulong. Ideally, we’ll all use the same thing, so there are no problems, but I choose, for example, to use oolong instead of the proper wulong romanization because of accessibility – the same reason why puerh is used instead of pu’er on this blog. Very often people will find oolong being the word on vendor pages, not wulong, and might wonder what wulong is when in fact it’s the same thing they’ve always had. I also thought about switching wholesale to use Pinyin exclusively, but the thought of somehow having to go back and fix past listings stops me. I suppose the only way for a consumer to wade through all this is to arm him/herself with some knowledge of Chinese, so that one’s not too reliant on vendors’ proclivities. Vendors can also help by using more Chinese in the websites – it never hurts, and in this day and age, easy to do. Unless, of course, if they decide to rename their low grade Yunnan black tea Golden Peanuts, or something.

Addendum: Sometimes I forget the original impetus for writing these things. Jakub, helpfully, reminded me with his comment. For things like proper names, one should string them together. So, Yunnan province is Yunnan Sheng. Menghai county should be Menghai Xian. Yiwu mountain should be Yiwu Shan, not Yi Wu shan or Yi Wu Shan. Gaoshan Zhai, or Guafeng Zhai, or any other village, are a little more ambiguous. Zhai, in this case, is really “village”, “hamlet”, or literally, “stockade”. So it should be treated the same way as sheng (province) and shan (mountain) and separated from the name.

Unintentional scams

One of the scams I’ve come across, as related to me by another tea seller, goes as follows.

You walk into a store with tins lining the wall. The tins are not labeled, and the store specializes in yancha. You go in, wanting to buy, say, shuixian. You ask for some. They ask you what price level of shuixian you want – since they have lots. You throw out a number, say 300 RMB/jin. They take one of the tins off the shelf, take out some tea, show it to you, and brew it for you. You sort of like it, but it’s not too great, so you ask them for something better. So they take the next tin out, and say “this is 400 RMB/jin”. You try it – it’s different from the last one, seems a bit better, but you’re not sure yet. So you try another one, this time from yet the next tin over. The tea is 500 RMB/jin now. It’s a bit similar to the first one, but not quite the same. Yancha, after all, share a lot of similar notes and are hard to differentiate just on visuals or taste alone. You end up settling for the 500 RMB/jin one (or any one of them) because it seems like it’s a good fit.

The trick, of course, is that there are only two kinds of teas in the store. They are stored in alternate tins in an ABABAB pattern. The 300/500 RMB ones were, say, tea A, while the 400/600 ones would be B. So when you try two that are just one level apart, they are indeed different. When you try ones that are two levels apart, well, by that time you’re on your third tea, and it’s been an hour since you tried the first one. You don’t remember it all that well anymore, and by manipulating some of the brewing parameters, the vendor can easily make it so that you think you’re drinking a similar, but different tea. Besides, we all know that more expensive wines taste better, so the same should apply for tea.

That’s not why I wrote about this scam, of course, although in and of itself it’s a cautionary tale of buying tea. One of the things in hster’s post that I linked to two days ago is that one should avoid Western reseller. There’s a good reason for that – because you can be an unwitting victim of the above-mentioned scam.

There are generally three ways a Western hemisphere based vendor can get their tea for sale. One is to go directly and source it – either from wholesale markets or resellers based in Asia, which is probably the most common way, or buy from farmers in the area, which probably also happens but less often than you think. The vendors can also buy from consolidators/wholesalers based in the West as well, with SpecialTeas (now Teavana…) and that type of thing. In that case, you’re basically buying teas for a markup for no good reason. The last is that they have some special connections for some reason, such as Guang of Hou De, who, from what I understand, has family members who are tea farmers. There aren’t too many of those around. This above list excludes those who are based in Asia but primarily sell to a Western audience, although for the most part, they are also just falling into the first category – someone like Jing tea shop in Guangzhou is basically buying teas from the Guangzhou market and then selling it to you at a markup.

What’s going on though, is that for those who are selling in the West, unless they take frequent trips to Asia or have some special connections, are generally just buying from some wholesaler and reselling said tea to you. The markup can be slight, or it can be very heavy. The problem with tea, and it’s the problem that enables the scam that I talked about earlier, is that tea is not labeled and is remarkably difficult to judge if you’re not in the right frame of mind. Let’s say you buy two tieguanyin. One’s marked at $15/100g, and has an interesting description. The other is marked at $25/100g, and has a breathless description. The pictures, of course, don’t tell you all that much, as they’re all about the same – some rolled, green leaves. You try them…. and then, unless you happen to compare them side by side, would you really know the difference? Is it going to be that obvious? What is the $15/100g’s seller’s markup is 100%, while the $25/100g’s is 400%, both of whom sourced from the same dealer? In other words – the more “expensive” tea is actually cheaper originally, because the person you bought it from is selling it for more?

There are endless possibilities for things such as this when you buy from Western based vendors. This is not to say that it is always a better deal to buy from Asian based ones, but at least there you’re more likely to run into unique things that other sellers aren’t selling – each local market is indeed a little different, and will offer you things that others can’t find. I even wonder if one might have better luck buying oolongs off Taobao – I haven’t experimented widely there, but even that could be a better deal than buying a “monkey picked” tieguanyin from online store X.

I’m not trying to say that every single Western based vendor is going to be terrible. By all means, if you find a tea you like from a certain vendor, then it’s perfectly fine to frequent that shop, but knowing full well that there’s always the possibility of a cheaper, better alternative out there. That’s why I have always advocated not getting sucked into buying from one vendor exclusively, regardless of what they have done for you in the past, and also to experiment widely in both providers and also the range of possible teas out there. This is true not just for us consumers, but also even for the tea vendors, who sometimes seem to form exclusive relationships with their Asian providers. That is also a dangerous path – one which can lead one’s customers to drink lots of overpriced, bad teas. Life’s too short for that.

Sage advice for newcomers

A fellow drinker way back in 2005/6 was hster, whom some of you may remember from the LJ Puerh Tasteoff that BBB organized back in the day. Seems like hster has restarted a blog after a long absence from the online tea scene, and has posted, among other things, some sage advice for those just starting out. It’s worth taking a look here.