Adventures with a thermos

So I’m currently in Shanghai doing some research, which means being in a library all day. This being China, you can bring a thermos into the library, and each reading room has a table for you to put your thermos along with everyone else’s. I figured that since I can’t drink tea otherwise, and I don’t want to wait till I get home before brewing some, I would try bringing tea in a thermos.

I had in mind not just the regular giant plastic water bottles that people use here (mostly seen in cabs) where they stick an obscene amount of tea in there and brew all day. I thought I would try something a little different, using a thermos with very good heat retention and see how the tea brews in there. It seems like an interesting thing to do – high heat, continuous brewing. Turns out it’s not such a great idea. The tea is very strong, obviously, because it is brewed for hours in very hot water. It brews super strong, but because of it, it’s hard to discern flavours. I think the effect was similar to what you might see in a samovar – long brewed strong tea that probably could use some dilution.

What’s most interesting is that when I poured out the contents and then diluted it with some water, the taste is, well, inferior. It just doesn’t taste quite right, since it’s a tea I know well. It’s also interesting that the wet leaves are very, very mushy – when I poured water in the cup it stirred up a lot of bits of tea leaves. Again, the effect is similar to boiling the tea for a long period of time. You extract everything out of it, and it loses all ability to be re-brewed.

So, long story short, if you are going to grandpa your tea on the go, use a vessel that loses heat normally over time, instead of something that retains heat exceptionally well. It doesn’t really work.

That white mist

We’ve all seen it before – that white mist on our cup of tea. If you don’t know what I’m talking, it’s this:

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The white stuff on the tea itself.

Some of you may have encountered people who say that this is a sign of good tea, or old tea, or whatever. I’ve always thought that this is probably just a mechanical thing with hot water and surface tension, or something like that. Well, turns out some Japanese scientists decided to investigate further. These are actually mico droplets of water that are levitating above the surface of the water itself and is not sensitive to what’s underneath – coffee, tea, water, detergent, etc. It seems like the density of the droplets are more dependent on temperature than anything else.

Anyway, here’s the press version of the story, and you can find the original paper here. Photo was taken by my friend Su from Malaysia.

Seven years in Portland

Some years ago, I gave my cousin living in Portland, Oregon this cake. I bought about a dozen of these when I was in Beijing, and I sent them one. I think it was 2007 when this happened, although it could also be in 2006. Either way, it’s been some years, and every time I visit them I would try a little bit of it. It’s gone through natural storage in their kitchen pantry in a ziploc bag. When I open it it usually smells of nothing.

The rest of my cakes, ever since I left Beijing, have been stored in Hong Kong, also in natural home storage. They were mostly in tongs, although I had a few loose cakes. I didn’t put them in any ziploc bags, so they were just sitting out there. I didn’t really drink that much of it over the years, so I still have about 10 of these. It’s actually rather scary how they’re all soon to be 13 years old teas now.

Recently I grandpa’ed a cake of the ones I stored in Hong Kong, so I got to know the taste of my tea really well. When I visited Portland over Christmas, I tried a little of it as usual, and I noticed that it’s obviously different from what I have at home. So I asked them for a little sample of the cake, and took it home. It’s impossible to tell if the teas tasted different because of the water or if it’s because the tea itself is different. My impression in Portland is that it is a little more fragrant, but also a bit thinner and sharper than what I have at home.

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So I brought it home, and decided to brew them side by side. The left one is the Portland one, the right one is the Hong Kong one. You can see that the Portland one is a bit lighter in colour.

So I took 3g of each (this is 3g you’re seeing, minus a little extra) and then brewed them. I brewed them for two infusions of five minutes each. The colour of the brew is not very obviously different in the first infusion, but somehow for the second it actually became more obvious.

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So the right one is a bit darker, surprise surprise.

The tastes of the teas are, as I expected, a little sharper, a little more floral, more “high” notes but less “bass” for the Portland stored one. The Hong Kong one is a little bit darker in tone, a little smoother in the body, and a little bit sweeter. Are the differences obvious? Yes. Are they still recognizable as the same tea? Also yes.

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Not a lot of information from either the dry leaves, the liquor colour, or the wet leaves visually. The effect of storing in Hong Kong, versus storing in Portland, is a bit like using different casks for scotch. Portland, in this case, would be the oak cask from start to finish, whereas Hong Kong is a little more like a sherry finished one. I think the Portland tea has definitely transformed less – it’s closer to the original, with a bit more bitterness retained and a little less change over time. The Hong Kong one is still bitter as well, but a little less so. I suppose preference for one or the other is really a personal choice, but to me the biggest knock against the Portland tea is that it feels sharp and thin. It’s not as pleasant when compared against the Hong Kong stored one.

The differences are solely due to storage – they were bought together and until I gave it to my cousin, the teas were stored together. This was a pretty interesting natural experiment.

Time

Time passes of course, and every time you make tea you have to consider that passage of time. Unless you’re making some abomination like instant tea powder, the amount of time you allow the leaves to interact with the water changes what your cup will taste like. Unlike coffee, which has many ways of brewing that more or less take time out of the equation (hello drip coffee), tea usually asks you to pay attention or you can suffer a nasty cup of astringency, especially if you’re dealing with run of the mill teabags. So controlling time has always been an important part of tea making.

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One way to do it of course is to use timers. These guys at Revolver in Vancouver, typical of many coffee joints, do it with timers (and cups that leave no space for tea leaves to move – you see them behind the chemex, but that’s another matter). I didn’t watch them for hours, so I don’t know if they make adjustments for different kinds of tea. A tightly rolled Taiwanese oolong would need probably 10 seconds to just open up, whereas a black tea will be well on its way to bitterness by then. In a cafe setting, you only get to drink once, so if it was screwed up, it’s over. Getting it to be palatable without under or overbrewing is very important. I can see why a cafe that brews the tea for you will need a timer.

Gongfu method is a little more forgiving – if you mess up one infusion, you can always adjust the next. I find timers distracting and more or less a waste of time in this sort of setting. You only need to know if the last cup was infused too long or too short, and adjust accordingly. Differences of one or two seconds on the timer isn’t going to change much of anything, because there are so many other things that can change as well – the speed you pour, the temperature of your teaware, how long you waited between infusions, etc, that will affect the outcome. I’ve even seen people claiming they need highly precise timers down to the hundredths of a second; that’s just being silly. Timers only get to be useful for tea brewing if you’re measuring something over 30 seconds. Splitting hair won’t help you make better tea.

More than just the immediate question of infusing tea though, tea drinking itself takes time, especially when done gongfu style. The time it takes to drink tea in a session is probably at a minimum 30 minutes. You need time to boil the water, and then drink a good 4-5 infusions; that’s half an hour right there, and that’s if you’re fast and are totally focused on the tea drinking itself. If you want to be doing something else while drinking tea, it can go on forever. When you have a cup of coffee, there’s a natural halflife of how long it can last – if you wait too long, it gets cold, and unless you dunk ice in it, the quality of the brew is gone. So you pretty much are limited by that amount of time, dependent on room temperature and such things. With gongfu style tea brewing and a ready supply of hot water, you can literally go on forever if you’re willing to drink tea flavoured water.

That explains why it’s so hard to find places that provide space for tea brewing in gongfu style. During the tea renaissance in Taiwan in the 70s and 80s there were a lot of these chayiguan, “tea art houses”, but the vast majority of them have died and very few survive with serious tea still being their main focus. In Hong Kong it never became a thing, because a customer will easily sit there for a few hours while paying only one price; here that price needs to be very high or you can’t cover rent. China, funny enough, is the only place that has a bunch of chayiguan, but most of them serve very mediocre teas at an unreasonable price. At the end of the day, none are very good options, and that’s all because tea takes time, easily a lot of it. In that amount of time you can sell a lot more cups of coffee.

I think this is probably why a lot of us, even in Asia, end up drinking at home, often alone. Some would have regular gatherings of friends who share the interest and drink together, at which point time passes pretty quickly as you go from tea to tea and chat about it in the meantime. Otherwise, committing to a couple hours of tea drinking together is not too easy to coordinate. Shops where you can hang out and meet others naturally are rarer still, and require a patient owner who is willing to put up with customers who lull around and not buying much and who can still pay the rent (while often doing the brewing themselves). It’s a difficult environment to survive in. If you have a local shop like that which also doesn’t gouge you for the privilege, cherish it.

While it probably isn’t too likely, here’s hoping that more interesting tea places open, or stay open, during 2015, and that all of you will have new and meaningful experiences with tea in this new year.

Taste calibration

Traveling with tea is important, lest you have to resort to desperate measures like drinking McDonald’s teabags. When I am on the road these days I usually bring one of my early 2000s puerh with me, because 1) puerh is made for traveling and 2) they taste great when drunk grandpa style, which is really the only way that is practical when on the road. I tend to know these teas well, so it’s always fun when you go to a different place, and you brew a cup, and the tea tastes different.

The only difference, other than not having my usual mug or what not, is the water. Specifically, it’s the tap water. I still remember when I first went to college in the great state of Ohio, and tasting the water there at the school, I wondered if I was drinking from some horrible swimming pool. I promptly bought a Brita, which didn’t do a lot other than removing some of that chlorine taste. It was horrid, and remains, to this day, some of the worst tap water I have had access to. These days I normally drink tea using Hong Kong tap water, which is a mixture of local reservoirs and river water from the East river in Guangdong, not exactly known for great water quality. The result is ok, but certainly not great.

So being here in Vancouver BC, where the tap water quality is great, comes as quite a nice change of scenery. The water here is a combination of lakes, creeks, and snow melt. It’s got a typical low mineral content taste, crisp, cold, and somewhat light in body. Drinking my Menghai tuo with this water makes the tea more floral – the “green” notes are far more present here than when I drink them in Hong Kong. My pet theory is that water with higher (but not too high) mineral content actually somehow manages to pull more “stuff” out of the tea than water with very low mineral content. The result is that lower mineral content water actually means more infusions for the same tea, at the cost of thickness/fullness in taste.

It is also a good reality check for a tea that you drink often – recalibrating your expectations with regards to a tea that you think you know well already. This is easily achievable without having to fly 10 hours to a new city – the many kinds of bottled waters out there can do that for you. For a good all-rounder that is available everywhere, Volvic is always a good option for tea. For those seeking lighter water, something from Iceland, with their glacier melt source, tend to provide a nice, crisp experience. Putting your own tap water in that spectrum helps situate where your water source is, and thus helping you figure out the most important ingredient in your teamaking other than the leaves. It’s a useful exercise and something that I recommend everyone to do every so often.

Childproofing

One of the consequences of having a child who is physically mobile is that having tea the usual way, which means with a piping hot stove, with various breakable teaware, is becoming a bit less practical. I could close the door and drink to my heart’s content, but I prefer not to do that. What it means is many more teas that are drunk grandpa style than ever before.

Doing so has affected the choice of tea I drink. One of the things I reach for most frequently now is actually the cheap tuo that I bought a lot of – one reason, of course, is that I have kilos of this tea, but it’s also because it does very well in a grandpa setting. Tea, as we know, is sensitive to preparation methods. When the tuo is drunk with a gongfu setup, it is mediocre – not very interesting, a bit boring, a bit bland. It doesn’t quite have the punch of better teas, and while it has 10 years of age, it’s not particularly exciting. In a grandpa setup, however, it actually brings out some nuances that are easy to miss in a gongfu setting. I would in fact say that the tea has improved doing so – I am rather happy drinking it day in, day out. It’s a joy.

Another tea I’ve been reaching for a lot is a 2002 Mengku cake that I bought years ago in Beijing, back when this blog was first starting. I have two tongs of this tea, and can get more at reasonable prices simply because there isn’t a huge demand for this tea. It’s not the best either – but certainly quite decent.

One type of tea that I do not grandpa, almost as a rule now, is newly made puerh. They are, by and large, terrible in that context. That is partly because most of the teas that I would subject to grandpa drinking tend to be on the cheaper side, and cheaper newly made tea is usually just horrible things. It’s also because without any aging, the rough edges are still, well, rough. You end up with really astringent, bitter, and unpalatable teas. If you add just a bit, then it’s nice and soft, but not as nice and soft as a fine green tea, which I would infinitely prefer to a new puerh as a grandpa option. In other words, they are never picked first.

This may also go some ways to explain why puerh has always been considered an inferior tea – when new they are simply not very good. When aged they are fine, but with prices now astronomical, they are no longer practical drinks for most people. Already, aged and new puerh tea of decent quality are being priced out of the market for regular tea drinkers. That is really a tragedy.

So about those choices

Well, when buying things there’s never a real “correct” answer. There is always someone who’s willing to buy a beachfront property in Kansas. The first thing you might notice about those choices is that they are largely anonymous – the stuff on the left side are mostly cooked puerh, and the right side are raw. The cooked pu are mostly CNNP wrappers, which doesn’t tell you much of anything. The stuff on the right are named, but only just – they are anonymous named tea cakes, in the sense that nobody would’ve heard of them anyhow. The green big tree you see half of is not the real deal, so it’s more or less the same as a CNNP wrapper.

The prices seem good – quoted in HKD, they are from about 180 to 500, with the 500 actually a cooked cake. The thing is, while these are sort of cheap (for this day and age), they are terrible value. The tea is likely to be bad – of the “this is awful” category. I tried a few of these while looking over these, just for the fun of it, and wouldn’t choose any of them, at any price. The rest – well, if the samples I tried are no good, chances are the others aren’t gems either.

To be honest though, I didn’t need to try to know that these were going to be bad. A few friends have commented to me privately after I posted this photo, basically saying “uh, these are all terrible”. If there’s anything like a general rule, it is that anonymous CNNP wrapper teas are going to be bad – you may find one out of a hundred that’s decent. The rest are just, well, horrible teas that were made in the dog days of the puerh industry, and ever since.

No-name brands like the ones on the right are no better. They are, 99% of the time, bad teas that are no good for aging. Some may be ok for current consumption, if it’s cheap enough and you’re not picky enough. The days of when no-name brand could be decent tea is behind us now – in the early to mid 2000s that may have been possible, because there were so many new outfits that were making tea. Now, however, it is most likely just trash tea that will age into nothingness.

Vendor choices, or lackthereof, is really a problem with buying tea. It is possible to choose a “best” tea within a given selection, yes, so even in this heap of what is basically no good tea, there will be one that seems better than others. It does not, however, mean it is a good idea to buy it – best among a bunch of junk is still junk. Within the online world, it is harder to make that judgement. I think a good way to try though, is to compare across vendors as much as possible. Even then, as I’ve said before, what’s available online is only a small fraction of total teas available in the real world, and much of the best teas never even leave the confines of China simply because the market demand for them is the highest there. The prices that online buyers will be willing to bear is simply not high enough for vendors to realistically bring the best goods to them. So, the pool of available choices are already poisoned, so to speak. Sometimes saying no is the best choice.

Hong Kong teashop ecology

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Despite its historical roots as an important trading post for tea, the Hong Kong of today is not that friendly towards teashops and the tea buying public. There is a lot of tea around – you encounter the drink everywhere. The default drink at a lot of places is weak, watered down tea. The favourite drink to order at a local restaurant is Hong Kong style milk tea. You can’t avoid the stuff. Yet, if you want a more “refined” experience drinking tea, or if you want tea that can be considered more specialized, this isn’t a friendly place.

The chief enemy here is really one that plagues the city for almost everything – high rent. The lack of land, the influx if large number of mainland tourists, and the sheer density of the city mean that every store front is precious. In a city that has always been built vertically to the extent that is possible given whatever current technology we possess, street-level stores are a precious commodity. When you stroll down some of the busiest shopping areas, you will see rows and rows of jewelry shops, luxury clothing stores, and pharmacies that cater to the mainland trade. Shops that cater to local needs are usually relegated to back streets and residential neighbourhoods. It’s a very strange sight.

In this context, it is very difficult for stores specializing in selling tea to survive. The first challenge is to overcome the rental market. Owners of stores often charge exorbitant rents for very small spaces if they happen to occupy good locations. Some even charge rent according to the amount of turnover the store does – so the more money the store makes, the more money the landlord makes. Unfortunately, tea businesses in general aren’t going to be that popular. There are really two paths to survival – one is to lower costs as much as possible, the other is to charge sky high profit margins to make the rent.

So for the cheap side, there are a few ways to do that. The first is to somehow own your own store – a number of older stores in Hong Kong do that, and are therefore impervious to rent increases. A lot of the shops on Bonham Strand, for example, are in this model. They bought their place fifty years ago, and aren’t looking to move. They make a decent living selling tea, and are happy doing it instead of, say, closing shop and renting it out to a fancy new restaurant. So they keep up their business and sell decent tea for cheap. They are, however, probably not profit-maximizing and shops like this are prone to closing when the older owners pass it on to their descendants.

The other option is to “go upstairs”, where the shops no longer operate on the ground floor, but move to a building inside. These are usually located in cheaper, older buildings, where they occupy what is basically an office space but renovated to be a teashop. Rents for these are much lower, and can often be supported by a small tea business. There are now a number of these in operation. I just visited one recently, called the House of Moments, where I took the above picture. The tea was all right, but it was rather expensive for what it was ($30 USD for an ounce of Taiwan roasted TGY). You pay for the space you occupy basically, and in Hong Kong, space is expensive.

The other option, which is to charge high margins, is really geared towards the gift/tourist trade. The Best Tea House has increasingly gone that way in recent years. There’s Fook Ming Tong, which is also just an expensive gift shop that happens to sell tea. Then there are things like TWG Tea, which shamelessly puts 1837 on their logo even though the company was founded in 2008, and whose colour scheme is an obvious attempt at ripping off Mariage Freres (whose 1854 on the logo is at least real). They usually occupy nice malls and have prominent displays. These places are really to be avoided by those of us who really want to buy decent tea – only visit if you want something with decent packaging.

It’s really rather unfortunate, but given the local infrastructure, there isn’t much that could be done. There’s a reason Taiwan has a relatively thriving tea scene – it’s cheap to set up a good shop and cheap to keep it running, where in Hong Kong it’s the opposite. If you were an alien visiting the city you’d think we all eat gold here, but in fact, it’s a place where small businesses have a hard time surviving. If you want to buy good tea when you’re in Hong Kong, visit Bonham Strand to try your luck. Otherwise, just skip right on ahead to somewhere else.

Don’t drink shincha

Well, I didn’t say that. Longtime readers may know that I am generally not a drinker of green teas, and especially Japanese greens, which tend to make me dizzy or feeling uncomfortable. The idea that shincha shouldn’t be drunk, though, isn’t coming from me. It’s from a man called Kaibara Ekken, an authority on Japanese herbs who lived during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. In his work Yojokun (Instructions on Nourishing Life) he said a few things about tea drinking (translation mine).

There are many people now who drink a lot of tea from dawn to dusk…drinking a little tea after a meal helps digestion and quenches thirst. Salt must not be added as it’s bad for the kidney. One must not drink tea with an empty stomach as it damages the spleen and the stomach. One must not drink too much of koicha, as it damages the qi generation of a person… People with weak constitution must not drink that year’s shincha at all. It will cause eye problems, anemia, and diarrhea. You should only drink shincha after the first month. For people with good constitution, drinking it after the ninth or tenth month should not be harmful.

In case the time here is confusing, the months referred to here are the lunar calendar dates. So for normal shincha harvesting would happen in the second month, which is around April. When he says one shouldn’t drink it until the first month, that means the lunar new year of the following year – that’s about a 10-11 months wait before drinking the tea. Ninth or tenth month would translate to about November or December.

The idea that green teas in general are cooling and isn’t a great thing to drink is not new, and many traditional Chinese medicine practitioners can tell you that excessive drinking of green tea is damaging to health. Kaibara is not alone in claiming this, but it’s interesting to see how emphatic he is with the idea that drinking shincha is pretty much a bad idea all around. Contrast that with the current obsession with drinking shincha as soon as possible, and the difference cannot be more obvious.

So by today’s standard, someone like him was probably drinking slightly stale green teas all the time. Interestingly enough, sencha, at least the ones I’ve had, actually do fine when aged a bit in an air tight container. I just had a little the other day – a can of a couple years old sencha that I opened but never finished. The tea brews a bright yellow, rather than the normal green, but it tasted very smooth and was actually quite decent. It also didn’t make me dizzy. I think these guys have a point.