Teapot testing

A couple years ago I wrote about how there are a few  people working on a new technology here that uses multiple lasers to analyze the chemical components of pretty much anything, and one of the things they could do is to test what’s in Yixing clay. I’ve been working with these folks since then to help them come up with ways that will have practical applications for people who use Yixing pots. They have also improved the technique they’re using as well as the sensitivity of the data, and I thought I can write an update on some of the things they’ve done recently with a few pots of mine.

Basically, I gave them four pots to test, without telling them previously what they were. The idea was to see if the analysis might yield any data that is interesting, and if so, what that might be. The pots I gave them were 1) a regular yixing pot I bought many years ago from a Shanghai tea market, 2) an antique that is an export to Japan, 3) a Japanese tokoname pot, and 4) a fake yixing (it’s so obvious it’s fake it’s pretty painful) but made in the style of a yixing pot, complete with “Zhongguo yixing” seal at the bottom, but the clay is obviously off, also bought from Japan. The experimenters also added one of their own, called “cheap” in the data you see below.

The way they do this analysis is to basically place the teapots on their testing platform, and do a series of laser shots to vaporize a little tiny bit of the teapot, then the second laser does a spectrum analysis of the puff that is created. It looks like this:

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So the results of the tests on the five teapots, visualized for simplicity, is as follows:

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The X and Y axis are simplifications of the actual data, of which they have about 51k datapoints for total for the five teapots. You can see that the yellow (Tokoname) and orange (fake yixing) almost completely overlap – and in fact if you go find the underlying data shows that there is basically no chance this is happening by accident. In other words, the fake yixing is probably of Japanese origin using Japanese clay that is substantially similar to tokoname clay.

This sort of thing is quite interesting, because if we can build up a database of teapots, then it’s possible to actually use the database to try to authenticate teapots, perhaps even periodize them if we have enough data. That’s for the long run, but it’s quite enticing a prospect.

In the short term though, there are other things that this can do – for example, testing for heavy metals. None of the teapots sampled had any traces of heavy metals, such as lead. Since the tests are conducted on multiple locations on the teapots, it is quite reliable and not down to a single datapoint. That in and of itself could be of interesting application as well, considering how so many people are worried about what’s in their teapots.

The drinkability test

As I mentioned last time, I’ve mostly been reduced to drinking tea grandpa style, and have no real prospects of doing a lot of gongfu in the near future. This, however, has proven to be a pretty interesting experiment, because drinking tea grandpa style not only significantly alters your preferences, it also alters your perceptions of why we drink tea and what makes a good tea.

One of the things you do when you drink tea gongfu style is you try (or at least should, anyway) to mitigate the negatives of a particular tea. Is it bitter? Is it sour? When brewing, you try to minimize those things and maximize the pleasurable parts of a tea. When you drink tea grandpa style, however, and especially when you do it like I do with quite a bit of tea leaves, what is actually being drunk is a fairly concentrated, never-ending brew of a tea. Since the water going in is usually boiling hot, it’s not really drinkable until at least a minute or two after the brew has begun. This means that the first few sips isn’t all that different from what you might get from a standardized taste test that you see in tea competitions or the quality evaluation table.

What this has done is to force me to think about what I want to drink, and why. Some teas that are acceptable in gongfu are all of a sudden undrinkable. They reveal to me a sharpness, or unpleasantness, that is otherwise not really detectable when brewed gongfu style, because I have used so many ways to soften the blow, so to speak. So in a sense, what this has done is to reveal to me what each tea is lacking, what the tea’s flaws are, and why it is not good to drink.

Funny enough, most of the teas that I love to hit up when I drink gongfu continue to be great in the grandpa style. It is usually the teas that are on the margins – teas that I felt were decent enough to drink – that have really shown their weakness through drinking them grandpa style. For example, the very cheap 2003 Menghai tuos that I bought a lot of. The tea is decent enough, and even in grandpa style is quite drinkable. However, it does have a bit of sharpness that will still take some time to fade, and makes it currently not my top choice. Another tea, a Yiwu Mahei from 2003 or thereabouts, is rather undrinkable using grandpa style – it is simply too sharp, there are some really unpleasant notes that come through. When drunk gongfu the tea is quite ok – not the greatest, but decent enough. When I grandpa it, I wonder why I bought it at all. It’s not a good thing.

This prolonged period of drinking grandpa style also reminded me of why green tea is favoured to begin with by so many – it’s really quite pleasant to drink in a cup, with just a little bit of leaves, and some water. It’s smooth, it’s fragrant, it’s refreshing. This is especially true of something like Longjing, which is, well, very refreshing. You can’t say the same for the heavy Japanese greens, which tend to overload you with umami. You also can’t say that for some of the more robust greens from other regions. Young puerh is simply too harsh in comparison, and is a much inferior drink. Green oolongs are a wholly different beast, and behave sometimes more like Japanese greens. Longjing is just right – it is what a drink needs to be, after dinner, washing out that heaviness with a little bit of crispness. It was what I started with on this tea journey, it’s what my grandpa favoured the most, and why this tea deserves so much respect.

Lacking practice

One of the most direct consequences of MiniN becoming bipedal mobile is that I have basically stopped drinking tea gongfu style at home. What with an open heat source hot plate, a tetsubin that is hot all over, easily broken teaware all over the table, and a curious, grabby kid, it’s simply too risky to drink tea this way in Hong Kong’s rather confined living environment. So for the past year or so, I’ve been basically reduced to drinking tea grandpa style. This includes everything – puerh, greens, oolongs, whatever it is that suits my fancy that day. It’s a big change.

Drinking tea grandpa style every day is not abnormal – in fact, drinking tea gongfu style every day is the abnormal thing to do. Millions of Chinese (and others) drink tea in a mug or a large cup with leaves in them – in fact, that’s the only way they take tea. I was just at a conference where the only tea is some really horrible green served in a paper cup with a plastic holder using lukewarm water that tastes terrible to begin with. Nobody seemed to have a problem with it – lacking options, I couldn’t do anything else either other than providing my own tea leaves.

What the prolonged grandpaing means for my tea consumption is quite revealing – I have jettisoned most younger puerh from my drinking. While some perform ok, most simply are not very tasty. If I want something like that, a green tea is far preferable. I do drink some of my older stuff this way – I’ve already consumed two cakes from around 2002 and 2003, and plan to do more of the same. I also have been drinking a ton of aged oolong, which are really good when grandpa’ed. In fact, I’d argue that they are often better that way than when drunk gongfu style, when the tea can become quite sour. Grandpa actually mitigates those problems.

Moreover, drinking tea this way reminds me of why people’s tea preferences are the way they are – because it works. Drinking young raw puerh simply isn’t very practical, because many taste terrible. When aged a bit, it can be really nice, but when not, they can be really hit or miss. The few that do well now drunk in big mugs are not teas that I consider good candidates for aging either.

When I need my gongfu fix I usually visit some teashop or another. I do miss my own teaware though – not really having the ability to drink tea at home means most of my teaware is laying fallow, which is sad. Whenever I see my lonely little teapots not having drunk a sip for months, I want to give them something. Then MiniN walks by and asks to do something, and the thought remains merely a thought.

Sticks or tea?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tea fair in Kyoto

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

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

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Or something like this:

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

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

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

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

Instant tea

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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