Competition trouble

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Many of you know that in Taiwan, they have tea competitions. The basic idea is that farmers would submit sample teas (ranging from 5 jin to 20 jin – one jin is 600g, depending on where, what, etc) for the competition. These got started by 1930 or so under Japanese rule. These days, some allow multiple entries while others only allow single entry per member of whatever association is holding that competition. The teas are judged anonymously, and then after multiple rounds of tastings a winner is declared with multiple winners of lower ranks underneath. Some teas are thrown out as not being good enough (and returned to the farmer). The teas that win a certain grade will then be packaged in sealed containers inside sealed boxes with dated labels, and then they would be returned to the farmers to sell.

The whole thing was supposed to encourage farmers to up their game and create better teas, and top winner for the big competitions, like the Lugu Tea Farmers Association one, could fetch prices of over 30,000 NTD (about 1000 USD) per jin in that special packaging. Compared to a normal price or about 3-4,000 NTD a jin for a top grade Dong Ding tea, that’s a big upgrade. For those 20 jin of tea the farmer is making 10x the normal amount. It also helps his sales for other stuff. Farmers who win the top prize can get a big wooden plaque to commemorate the win, and they frequently hang these in their shop to showcase their abilities. Some have so many they just stack them on the side of room because they don’t have enough space to hang all of them.

So this is all great right? Well, not so fast. There are troubles beneath the surface, some of which were topics of conversation between myself and some tea farmers/sellers that I have talked to in the last week I spent here in the middle part of Taiwan. The first is this: what you see is not really what you get. For example, when you see teas coming out of the competition for the Lugu Farmers Association, does it mean that all the tea came from Lugu? No, not at all. Many entries, if not most, use teas from higher elevation as the base for their entry. In fact, if you use local Lugu tea, you’re probably going to lose because the low elevation tea from Lugu simply don’t stand up to the much higher quality teas from higher areas. The thickness of the tea, the aroma, etc, are not up to normal judging standards. In other words, you can’t compete. So, when you end up with, say, Lugu Tea Farmers Association competition tea, know full well that the tea might be Dong Ding style (higher oxidation and roast) the base tea is probably not from the area.

Then you have the silly part – many (though not all) competitions allow multiple entries. So what happens is that a farmer can enter the same tea multiple times. This has a cost – when you submit 21 jin of tea, they only give you back 20 jin + 200 grams. They take a bit of the extra as a bit of profit, plus whatever entry fee they charged. Today someone told me that he entered a competition with ten entries, all with the exact same tea. Why? Because you never know. With just one entry, if you got unlucky and the 3g sample they picked out from your bag isn’t so great for whatever random reason, then you will get kicked out in a flash. If you were unlucky and got lined up (randomly) between two really good entries, then your tea is going to look bad in comparison. For his ten entries, he said three got rejected and the rest, some scored higher and some scored lower. It’s all a crapshoot to a certain extent. The top prize is going to be excellent, the top few levels are going to be pretty good, but there’s still a fair amount of randomness in there.

As a buyer, there’s definitely some value in these competitions – like I said, the quality of the tea that won a high level prize is going to be pretty good. You also need to pay through the roof for that – it’s going to be expensive, more than the normal stuff anyway. At the lower grades (three or two plum blossoms, for the Lugu competition) they are going to be comparably priced to the normal price for these teas. It’s a bit of an assurance, in some ways.

At the same time though, there are problems. First of all, you don’t really know exactly what you’re getting – unless you happen to be with the guy who made the tea, you’re not going to get to sample it. So you’re buying blind, really. There’s also that price premium, which for a normal drinker is really not worth paying – you can usually get good quality tea for less money if you know what you’re doing. Of course, since all oolongs look similar, it’s quite hard to do in practice, especially when it’s through multiple layers of middlemen and repackaging. People buy competition tea partly for this assurance. Partly though, it’s also for gifting – when you gift someone a box of unopened competition tea you’re basically telling them exactly how much you paid for the tea, since the prices are set.

There’s also the even more confusing competition for things like aged oolong. Here it’s really a crapshoot – you don’t even know what style of tea you’re getting. There are so many possible permutations – original roast level, age, area of origin, etc – none of which will be apparent to you (or anyone else, for that matter). It’s one thing to have aged competition tea from the past that are now old, it’s another to have a competition for aged tea. Unless you can sample from the source (that’s what the extra 200g is for) buying aged oolong competition tea is a fool’s errand.

Maliandao, ten years later

My first ever visit to Maliandao tea market in Beijing was in 2006, when I first arrived there as a young PhD student doing research for my dissertation. This was the heyday of the puerh boom, when prices of teas could literally double every week or two. As a budding tea addict, I spent quite a few weekends visiting the tea markets since the archives and libraries were closed on Saturdays and Sundays (well, they still do, mostly). I wrote my first physical description of the street here, with an update four years later here – and photos here. You can see how the street changed in the four years between those two posts. Some older malls died, others sprung up. Things, as they do in China, changed very quickly.

A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to go visit again after a day of meetings. This was getting late by tea market standards – most malls/shops closed by 6pm, so me arriving right around then meant that most of the malls were shut. There are two important things to note though. The first is that now you can take the subway to Maliandao – a huge improvement over the previous arrangement, where only a bus or a cab would do. If you get off at the Wanzi station on line 7, you’ll be right at the entrance to Maliandao. Back in the old days there was a gate with a horse on top marking this entrance (as you can see in my first post on the street). Alas, that gate has been demolished.

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The stores lining the two sides of the street are still there, many of them the same stores as before. I am actually rather amazed that given the high turnover of the tea stores in general, that these ones have such staying power. Maybe that street-front location is actually more valuable than I think.

I don’t really see many new developments this time – I think there’s one on the right hand side that’s new, but otherwise things have stayed more or less the same as before. When I first came here, you felt like you were on the outskirts of the city – there were some highrises, but most of the buildings were low and old. The tea malls were mostly either glorified sheds or, in many cases, open air rows of stores. Nowadays, those have mostly been replaced by highrises and especially residential developments. There’s also a fancy mall now right across the street from Chayuan at the end of the street. Back then when I visited eating was always a bit of a problem – the restaurants were pretty dodgy. Now the options are quite varied.

I did visit Xiaomei’s store. As I mentioned last time I saw her, she’s now the mother of three and has actually returned to her hometown to help take care of her kids, with her brother now manning the store (and soon to be father himself). Business, he said, is slow, especially after the anti-corruption crackdown so that people are buying less gifts than before. So he’s taken to selling stuff, including tea and teaware, on WeChat through an auction service. I notice that many of the stores around him look dead – maybe not quite literally, but tired, old, and not doing a lot of business, it seems. Their store is basically no longer selling any newer puerh – they still have some old stock from years ago, but nothing new since about 2011. Instead, they mostly sell white teas, focusing on the lower end stuff that sell for less than 100 RMB per 500g. He also mentioned how a lot of stores that borrowed money a few years ago are now having trouble repaying the banks – they take a pretty high interest rate and if you have most of your capital tied up in overpriced tea, you’re in trouble.

I walked around a bit more, peering into some fancy looking stores that were still open but not going into any. I know that most of these places would have exorbitant price tags, with new cakes selling for 1000 or more a cake. I honestly don’t have any interest in stuff like this – I can find teas like that anywhere, and I’m not that confident in finding stuff that is actually worth buying. Whereas in my younger days I probably would’ve happily sat down at any and all stores, asking to try some of their teas, I no longer really feel the need to bother tasting. The prices of new teas are so out of whack that I often find cheaper stuff that are a few years older. Since that’s the case, why do I need to chase new teas?

I did sit down at one store that looked interesting in Chayuan, at least among the stores that are still open (used to be that all the stores would be open pretty late – not anymore). I tried a couple things there – unimpressive 2007 teas that don’t have anything special over any other tea I can find easily, for the same kind of price.

As the market sorted itself out, I think the tea market is increasingly similar to other consumable goods – there’s the high end, the mid end, and the low end, and the lines are quite clear. A store like Xiaomei’s is very much in the low end – cheap tea, sold at a small profit, and going for volume. There are lots of high end stores in China too – teas that are supposed to be rare, exquisite, etc, selling for ridiculous sums. There’s also the vast middle – most of which is mediocre, but offered at mediocre prices. Thing is, back in 2006, when the market was probably best described as frenetic, there was a lot of mixing going on – and in a way, there were a lot more opportunities to find hidden gems. Now there are not going to be many hidden gems anymore – if you want good quality, expect to pay for it. Except, of course, you’re in China, so even if you pay you’re never sure if you’re getting what you were promised. That’s true of the food in front of you, and certainly true of the tea you’re buying. If someone sells you a tea and tells you it’s from ancient trees in Guafengzhai, for example, and wants 5000 RMB for that cake, could you really tell if the story checks out just by drinking the tea?

So in some ways I left Maliandao this trip a little sad – I felt a strong sense of nostalgia for the old, crazy tea market that was always abuzz with price changes and people hunting for good tea. That energy has gone, and is probably never coming back. I miss it.

YYX tasting

In response to my post about the YYX, one reader suggested that Phyll and I should do a Google hangout session. Google hangout is useful, but it’s not ideal for tea session – the most important issue is that you are not drinking the same cup. Even if you measure everything down to the exact decimal and brew using the exam same parameters and the same teaware, at the end of the day you’re not drinking from the same leaves and so will not share exactly what you have. Drinking in person is always better.

So obviously, the solution is for me to fly to LA and join Phyll and Will to have a tea session together instead. Will’s joining is fortuitous – not just because he’s another old tea friend from the area, but because he also possesses a few cakes of YYX – in his case he bought it from the Best Tea House directly in 2010, and then stored in his home in LA ever since. So in some ways his tea offers yet another example of differing storage of YYX. His storage condition can be called natural – while it was briefly stored in a pumidor, for most of its life the tea has just sat in a (mostly) closed cabinet in his home in Los Angeles with no additional moisture. I’d presume it’s air conditioned in the summer months.

We started our session with the comparison tasting – it would be bad otherwise if we leave it to the middle or the end of the session, when we might already be tea-fatigued. Instead of drinking it, say, competition style, we decided to drink them serially. Will’s was the first. One of the most obvious things to note about his sample is that it has some smoke – the smoke is fairly obvious and is noticeable even before brewing. The tea’s astringency and bitterness come through. Once you swallow it turns to a nice huigan that has some legs. We didn’t use a lot of leaves – 4g for a small gaiwan. We drank about 7-8 infusions before it becomes more or less flavoured sweet water, at which point we moved on. The wet leaves for Will’s sample are still greenish in tone (C in the photo).

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Second up was Phyll’s (A). There is one problem with Phyll’s tea, stored in his offsite wine cellar. The wine cellar uses wood drawers for the storage unit, and over the years it seems like the tea has picked up a fair amount of the wood smell. It was apparent to me when I unpacked the cake that was sent to me by Phyll, and I notified him as much. Leaving it around my house for two months before tasting it didn’t really diminish the wood smell, so it will probably take longer for it to happen. The wood smell and taste dominates the first few infusions, overpowering almost everything else. The tea is smoother than Will’s, with less astringency and less obvious bitterness, although that may have something to do with it being the second tea we’re drinking (the bitterness, anyway). There’s no aroma that is discernible because of the strong wood smell. The leaves are noticeably darker with a slightly more leathery texture. After about 4-5 infusions the wood smell/taste recedes and some of YYX’s base notes show up, similar to Will’s tea. In that they are not too different. The wet leaves are dark.

My cake came third in our tasting (B in photo). The first thing that Will noticed, as he was the one prying the tea from the cake, was that it was looser – the cakes have loosened over the years and it’s easier to pry open. I noticed the same when I tried the tea at home. The tea has lost any sense of astringency and is also not very bitter anymore. There is some fruity/plummy taste, and sweet in the back. There’s also a touch of sourness. The body seems slightly thinner, and as Phyll notes it’s lost the vibrancy of youth in comparison with the less-aged samples. Once you drink enough infusions, the tea reverts to similar base notes that you find in the other YYX we tried already, with maybe a touch more age to it than the others. The wet leaves are about the same colour as Phyll’s, surprisingly.

So, what’s there to learn here? Well, first, that there is a real difference among the teas. However, the differences are not huge – they are easily discernable to anyone who’s paying attention, but you can also tell, after some drinking, that they have the same base. Mine is the furthest along in the aging path – there’s no doubt about that. It has developed some of the notes that you start to get when a puerh has been aged long enough – plum, fruit, etc, and lost that more floral and astringent character of younger teas. Environment certainly matters – if you don’t believe that the smell of the storage environment can change how a tea tastes, a smell of Phyll’s cake will convince you otherwise. He’s already moved the cake out of the storage, but it will probably be some time yet before it can actually get rid of that smell, and chances are there will always be a trace of it remaining given how long it’s been in contact with that smell.

I do wonder how much aging has happened to Will’s cake – is it more or less in the same condition as when he bought it in 2010? The existence of smoke, the green wet leaves, and the astringency suggest that not a lot of aging has happened since. It’s great if you love your tea young, but I also suspect that it’s not so good if you like your teas aged and mellow. The tea doesn’t taste like a 15 year old tea.

Phyll’s cake, despite the extra wood smell, is smoother than Will’s. The 10 years it spent in the offsite storage with relatively higher humidity has done something to the tea. The low temperature probably prevented it from being more aged-tasting. It’s an interesting mid-point between Will’s tea and mine, and altogether somewhat different.

It will be interesting to try Phyll’s cake again after say a year or two, let the wood air out, and see if it changes/improves. It will also be interesting, now that I possess a cake, to see how the one stored in Hong Kong will diverge from the ones stored in LA. Maybe we can report back on this experiment after another year or two and see what happens then.

As for the rest of the tea session, we drank a mid 90s 7532 that tastes somewhat cooked due to storage conditions, the 2005 Yisheng that tastes classically Yiwu, 2006 Yangqing Hao Chawangshu, which is similar to the Yisheng except even smoother, but for me lacking a punch. We finished off with a very high end dancong that I procured a while ago that has exceptional qi. The teas were all decent, but it’s the companionship that is the best. It’s good to see old friends again, and now we all have old(ish) tea to share. I look forward to our next tea session!

Separated at birth

People who read this blog probably have all spent at least some time worrying about storage conditions for their puerh tea. There are lots of people who have written lots of things on this subject. Some are plain wrong. Others more plausible. At the end of the day though, there isn’t much hard data to go by, so it all ends up being a bit of a “he said, she said” sort of thing out there.

So it is a bit of a good fortune that I am now in possession of two cakes from the same batch that have been stored separately for over 10 years to compare. The cake in question is the Mengku Yuanyexiang (YYX). It gained fame originally because some people hyped it up around 2005/6 through the puerh magazines and online forums. The tea was produced by the Shuangjiang Mengku Rongshi factory, and exists in a thin and a thick paper version, with the thin paper version being naturally stored while the thick paper is traditionally stored. There was only one batch of each ever made, and while prices shot up when it became famous, the tea never really took off after that and is currently still on sale at places like Taobao for about $250 USD, although there seems to be only a few cakes left. Honestly, at that price it’s not really worth it, especially if the seller is an unknown quantity.

The cakes here in question come from two sources. One is mine – I bought mine from Taobao many years ago for something like $30 USD. The other cake is from a good old friend Phyll, who is an active photographer based in LA and who used to, many years ago, run the tea blog Phyll’s blog. He even has a tasting note for the YYX here. He bought it from Guang of Houde when they used to sell this tea. We have each acquired our cakes about 9-10 years ago, and have stored them since.

My storage is quite simple – it has always lived in Hong Kong since about 2007, in a normal environment, no extra humidity, no climate control, nothing more than just “leave it out there and let it age”. It’s mostly lived in closed shelves/boxes, but not air-tight ones. Phyll, on the other hand, has mostly stored his tea in his off-site wine storage unit with a permanent 15 degrees celcius temperature and a constant 75% RH. So while he lives in LA, this is not LA storage but really a controlled climate storage.

So about a month or so ago we decided to swap teas – we traded cakes, basically, since we each have more than one. I take my photos, usually, but since he’s a professional with much better equipment, this is what the teas look like.

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A is his, B is mine. There are a few things to notice here – mine is shinier, and it’s not an optical illusion or lighting problem. It really is. The brown is slightly darker/browner on mine as well, while his has a slightly greener undertone to the leaves. The paper on mine is more torn up, but that’s really just because the paper is extremely thin and tears up with any movement – and I’ve moved the tea a couple times. Aside from that, there’s no obvious difference. They smell a bit different, but that’s to be expected.

I actually have not tasted the teas yet. I have been holding on to the tea, trying to get it acclimated to Hong Kong before drinking. Sometimes air travel and what not can change things in the taste of a cake. I also just haven’t had the opportunity to really sit down and drink teas side by side. I hope to do so in the near future, so stay tuned.

Dealing with traditionally stored teas

A reader wrote in recently asking me about how to handle cakes that have been traditionally stored. The cake has obviously been through some traditional storage, as you can see here

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First of all, it’s useful to get a sense from looking and smelling the cake to see how heavy the storage was – how wet, for how long, basically. There are some hints. You can smell it. You can observe the amount of mold on the surface, although that’s not a good indicator because some people actually use brushes to brush off most of the spores. You can also open the cake up a bit to see what it looks like inside – if it’s really white inside or not. Really heavily stored cakes also often have some warping – they get so wet that they warp under pressure of all the other cakes on top and sometimes around them. This doesn’t look too bad.

The reader actually had two questions – will this cake contaminate the other cakes he owns, and how to deal with this – to make it get better, I suppose?

The first thing to note is that since mold can grow on anything, just putting your moldy cake in the same storage space as your other cakes is not automatically going to cause mold on other cakes, unless your storage environment allows it to happen (wet, basically). At 30% RH, that’s not going to happen to this reader’s storage situation. It could, however, impart a bit of a smell to the other cakes in the same container, so my advice was to put it separately, perhaps in something like an unsealed cardboard box, and just forget about it. This comes to the second point – often times the biggest problem with these traditionally stored teas, especially if they haven’t been out of their wet storage phase for too long, is that all you can taste is the musty, damp forest floor smell. The rich flavours that you can get from traditionally stored teas aren’t apparent yet, especially the sweeter flavours. To get rid of the sometimes pungent smell, the best way to deal with it is to just let it air out a bit. This is the one time when you do want a bit of airflow or at least air exchange. It takes time, but eventually the really obvious musty smell will go away and you will have something that’s more drinkable. These are probably drinkable now, but it should get better with age.

I also have friends who would brush off the spores themselves, although for your sanity and health I’d do that outdoors. Get a new toothbrush and just lightly brush them off. It really won’t change much of anything but it might look better, and to some people that’s actually an important psychological step in dealing with the tea, it seems.

When drinking traditionally stored teas, it’s often not a bad idea to throw away the first two steeps. A good old friend of mine who grew up drinking these often said the real taste doesn’t start to show up until about steep five. There’s a certain truth to that – everything before is really the storage talking. Definitely rinse the tea, probably twice, before trying it. If it’s still super pungent, you might want to let it sit some more, or throw away another infusion. Part of the fun is learning how they transform, and traditionally stored teas change in ways that are more obvious than naturally stored teas.

Finally, I should add that one of the most interesting things you can do is to try to find traditionally stored cooked puerh – they are actually quite different, and richer, than naturally stored ones, which tend to be rather boring. The traditional storage process also tend to get rid of the nasty, pondy taste. They also come cheaper. I’m not sure if any vendor out there is selling something like this, but if not, they should look for it because I think there’s a market for this stuff.

How many ten years?

A few days from now, this blog will be ten years old. I still remember sitting in the Quincy House dining room typing out my first post during a lull between my afternoon meetings and dinner. I certainly didn’t expect to still be writing this blog ten years later, nor did I know where I was going to be in five years’ time, never mind ten. The pace of the blog has certainly slowed – that’s what having MiniN and MicroN will do to your free time (Hobbes can tell you all about it). Even time dedicated to tea drinking has dwindled as demands piled up and my free time mostly consist of late night hours after the kids have gone to bed – when tea drinking isn’t such an advisable activity.

I have also evolved – back then I can remember everything was pretty exciting, I was very much in the exploration phase, and wanted to try everything new. I had already been drinking tea for some years by then, but writing the blog made me look at tea in a more analytic way than before, and reflecting on tea was an interesting pursuit. It still is, but over the years I have also learned what isn’t useful or interesting. Tea reviews, I’ve found, to be mostly a waste of time, for myself and for the readers. This is especially true since I moved back to Asia, so my source of tea is now very different from the vast majority of my readership. When everyone was buying tea samples from Hou De way back when, writing tea reviews together was exciting and interesting – I called it a constant tea meeting back in the day.

The fact that both those links are to places that are more or less dead shows you how things have changed. The online conversation has moved on to places like Reddit and Facebook, and new types of sites, such as TeaDB, appeared. Older conversation partners have mostly dropped off – only the indomitable Hobbes and Stephane remain, and Stephane’s is, at the end of the day, a storefront (although I’m glad to see he finally created a real store). It’s not surprising – people move on, blogging as a medium has changed considerably, and tea itself has also changed.

One of these changes is that now there’s a wider-than-ever availability of teas to the Western consumer. However, there are still conspicuous absences in this marketplace, especially when it comes to Chinese tea. I don’t see many teas that are proper, traditional style tieguanyin, for example. I also don’t see much high-end tea – much of what is sold as high end online is really the mid-range in China or Taiwan – the truly high end stuff never make it abroad, because the prices are prohibitive. The diversity of tea availability is, therefore, a bit of a red-herring – a lot of it is really just more of the same with a different name, but sometimes offered at greatly varied prices due to marketing, hype, etc. That’s why it was especially sad to see die as Tony had to move on in life – he was one of the few people offering genuinely interesting teas and who was always working to find new stuff.

The passage of time also has me thinking – how many 10 years do we all have? Not to go all philosophical on you, but as tea drinkers who buy and store puerh, we are all betting on the future condition of what we own now. Ten years ago when I really got started buying teas to store, I had, as many of you, hoped that after ten years I will have some wonderful semi-aged teas to drink. Do I? Yes I have some stuff, but not as much as I’d like. Early purchases are by definition almost always going to be problematic – they’re tuition. Then you slowly learn what’s actually good, what’s not, and what will become better when stored. This is the key, really. A tea that tastes wonderful now may not be any good in the future. I’ve got some in my own collection, and I’ve tasted many more. Before you know it, ten years are gone and you’ve barely got a collection going. As a very experienced tea friend said to me recently:

But my motto is now , if I don’t like the tea better than when it was new 5 years down the road , I’m not gonna bother storing it anymore. Waste of space. The problem with the new teas these days is that they taste wonderful new, but 5 years on, 10 years on, they do not become better. They become acceptable. IMO, a puerh should taste better as you store it if it is to age well. So you buy a cake, it’s robust, smoky, bitter and strong and even harsh but 5 years down the road, it has improved a little, 10 years down the road smokiness is gone, 15 years a marked improvement but still harsh 20 years it becomes drinkable. That’s from my personal experience. If you buy a cake and it’s not all that and gives you a honey taste after 10 yrs or ceylon tea or tobacco, it’s not the traditional puerh. Really, if you want to drink something that tastes like tobacco, go buy a cigarette and steep that!!!

That’s very true – I’ve tasted so many teas that are made more recently that have aged into something like hongcha or tobacco or even nothingness – that’s not what aged puerh is, whatever the storage condition. That strength that you get from a cleanly stored 7542 from the 80s or 90s, or a Xiaguan 8653, well… it’s not tobacco and not honey nor hongcha, but it’s good. I miss that taste. I get it occasionally, but not often enough. It’s what drew me to this tea and it’s what keeps me in it, when I drink something like that anyway. I’m drinking my cheap Menghai tuo now, but it has that taste. There’s a reason I keep coming back to this tea. Of course, it’s also because I happen to have lots of it. My own lessons have taught me that I should look out for teas like this one – if I drink a lot of it, that means it’s good, and it means I should find more of it and buy in bulk when I see them. Too bad it’s harder and harder to find good tea on the market for a good price. How many ten years do we all have? Not enough.

Storing Pu’er tea – You are the final master

As long time readers of my blog know, I’m pretty allergic to marketing-speak, especially when the vendor is spewing disinformation. Well, I got an email a couple days ago from an outfit called Misty Peak, which I’ve never heard of but who had somehow harvested my blog email to put on their mailing list. The title of the email is the title of this post – Storing Pu’er tea – You are the final master. Yes. You can read the email here.

Basically, the email tells you how to store your tea, which seems informative enough, until you actually read it. To summarize the five points:

  1. You need circulating air – apparently the tea needs to breath or it’ll suffocate.
  2. There are two kinds of storage – dry and wet. Wet storage is when humidity is 50% or higher. Dry storage is “much drier condition.” No, 50% is not a typo.
  3. Temperature – between 55 and 80F (that’s 13 to 27 real degrees for the rest of the world)
  4. Store tea with other similar teas, turn over your tea every six months so “the leaves are getting exposure to the elements” and store it in porous containers, like wood or clay. If your got your tea in bags, throw away the bags or drink them quickly. The perfect place to store tea in a house is the top shelf of your closet – put it near a bowl of water and introduce a humidifier if it’s too dry. “There should be plenty of fresh air coming in as you open that door often and perhaps leave it ajar from time-to-time with a window open.”
  5. “Caravans of horses and mules travelled thousands of miles by foot over snow-capped mountains and through sun-heated desserts [sic].” So have fun. “Place some in your cabinet, some in your closet, and maybe even some on your porch. Just remember, this tea was cared for and crafted with absolute mastery and now it is up to you to learn to store it with care and prepare it with patience. You, my dearest tea friend, are the final master in this tea’s journey.”

Now, if you haven’t figure it out already – do not follow any of this “advice” if you care about your tea at all.

Let’s start with point 1. Airflow is pretty much a bad idea, and the theory that puerh needs fresh air to age is simply bogus. Fresh air can do a lot of things, but most of it will destroy your tea. If you want your tea to retain its aroma and age well, stick it in a place with low airflow that isn’t too damp. The fastest I’ve ever seen mold grow on my cake was on a coffee table with good airflow. A few days of continuous rain and it started growing stuff. Don’t do it.

The definition of dry and wet here is so off it’s laughable. Wet (I think they mean traditional in my usage) is a lot wetter than “50%” humidity – in fact, 50% is positively dry. Anything drier is going to kill your tea, and even a constant 50% will pretty much ensure your tea never really age at all. The idea that 50% or higher is wet is… simply amazing in its ignorance coming from a vendor. Certainly no vendor in Asia will call that wet.

Temperature – well, this is a sort of reasonable, if somewhat low, range. Temperature is not going to kill you here, but if it’s too cold for too long your tea won’t change much either. The reason Malaysian teas age a bit faster is because they’re generally hotter there. If your temperature is a constant 15 degrees your tea once again won’t age much at all.

Point 4 pretty much repeats what comes before, except that as people who have tried storing teas in clay can tell you – clay is very, very dangerous, and can easily kill your tea by helping mold grow. It’s not a porous material at all – certainly not porous enough. Wood, even, is pretty risky, and wood has the additional risk of smell coming from the wood itself. Sometimes simple is best – paper box with a tiny opening, a closet that is almost always closed in an area that isn’t too damp, avoid direct sunlight, etc. You can experiment with additional moisture via bowls of water if your area is dry, but humidifier is a pretty risky thing to use and I’d caution against it. You only need to screw up once to mess up your whole stash.

Point 5 is so comical as to invite laughter, or if I’m less charitable, I’d think they’re actively trying to get you to screw up your tea so that you’d have to buy more from them. Put your tea on your porch? Really? Caravans traveled through snow-capped mountains and sun-heated deserts? Not really – not usually anyway. They mostly traveled through passes (instead of over the mountains) and on plains through oases. You’d avoid deserts if you can help it at all. And don’t get me started on the bit that I haven’t quoted about dead horses and coming back to the tea years later.

So with this email, I was curious who these guys were, so I went to their website. I see they only do puerh, which is disappointing – for an outfit that only does puerh, the advice they’re giving you is astonishingly bad. I went to their “About” and “FAQ” pages, and noticed a few interesting things

“Our tea is the only tea on the market grown and processed by one family from trees planted in Yunnan China before the advent of electricity, 200-500 years ago.”

Pretty sure this statement is not true. There are lots of people selling single family teas from old tea trees in China (real or fake), but I guess if it’s in China it’s not happening?

“In 2014, the online tea community on the world’s largest tea review website, Steepster, rated us the #1 Pu’er Tea in the world out of over 5,000 different Pu’er teas with over 10,000 voting people!

Oh, Steepster…..

“Now the tea is available in over 370 select shops in the North America, Europe, Asia, and South America.”

Let’s see… 370 shops, but only one farm, and only 200-500 years old trees. That’s A LOT OF TREES FOR ONE FARM. Does this pass the smell test? You be the judge.

“First company in the world to change the shape of Pu’er Tea.”

You clearly haven’t bought any gongyicha before. You made a triangle in 2015. These guys made an elephant in 2013. There are also countless examples of other people who did this sort of thing way earlier. First in the world? Really? Have you ever been to a tea market in China? Obviously not.

Anyway, I think I’ve made my point. Avoid these clowns, and stop putting me on your junk mail list.

Nowhere to buy tea

A few days ago a group of Korean students came as a delegation, and during lunch we somehow got on the topic of tea, and specifically, where one could buy some Chinese black tea in Hong Kong. Funny enough, after thinking about it a little, my answer was basically – nowhere.

It’s of course not really true that there was nowhere to go. You have your choice from supermarket tea to specialty food stores to specialized tea shops, but a place that I can truly recommend for good, reasonably priced, Chinese black tea? It doesn’t really exist.

That in and of itself is sort of odd – after all, Hong Kong is big on tea drinking. However, people here don’t drink much Chinese black tea. When drinking black tea (hongcha) they generally prefer “western” teas – usually from the Indian subcontinent, but often probably mixed in with stuff from Africa or elsewhere. They are drunk in more formal settings, such as afternoon tea service at cafes and hotels, or they are drunk in the Hong Kong style mixed drinks – in which case the teas are blends created expressly for the purpose, and are usually devoid of origin. They also come in containers meant for food service, like these guys. I doubt anyone wants 2 packs of 5lb teas for home use.

So when you want to buy loose leaf black tea, other than the usual suspects at the supermarkets, you have your choice of overpriced foreign vendors and overpriced local vendors. Buying keemun from, say, Whittard of Chelsea, seems exceedingly silly when you’re in Hong Kong. Local stores either don’t stock very high grade black teas, because there’s no real market for it, or they stock reasonable quality ones but then charge you through the roof for it. Also, Hong Kong tea stores are not great for packaging. It’s fine when you want it for yourself, but if you were going to gift it, it’s not so good.

Similar dynamics are at play when looking for tea elsewhere in greater China as well. When you’re in Taiwan and you want green tea, you either buy Japanese green tea or you go home. Chinese greens in Taiwan, from what I’ve seen anyway, are in pretty much the same position as black teas in Hong Kong – you can either get really low grade stuff or you can be prepared to be charged through the roof for teas that are often not that great anyway. Local taste is not in it, so there’s no real market demand. You can say the same for puerh in Shanghai, for much the same reason – much of the puerh I’ve seen there is not great, or too expensive. I’m sure there are more private vendors in Shanghai who deal in this stuff, but as a visitor looking for stores, it’s terrible.

In the end, I took the students to a local tea shop that I like and they were quite happy to buy some white tea and some tieguanyin instead. Everyone went home happy.

Verdant Tea strikes again

Some of you may remember a little controversy over a cake that Verdant Tea used to sell , which wasn’t quite the amazingly special tea it claimed to be. Well, a new controversy has arrived through a Reddit thread. Calling these controversy is really giving too much credit to Verdant though, because in both cases the questions far overwhelm the response they gave – things, basically, don’t check out. The Reddit thread includes comments by TwoDog of White2Tea and Scott of YunnanSourcing – yes they are vendors but they are low-BS vendors, whereas Verdant’s BS meter is sky high. You should look through that thread.

The story is this – there’s this puerh that Verdant sells that they claim to be from a single 1800 years old tree. In general, people think that older trees are better, and are willing to pay through the nose to get it. I’m not going to link to the tea, which is sold out anyway, but will instead show you a screengrab.

 photo Verdant screen grab.png

First of all, you may note that for 100g, $60 isn’t a lot of money for a tea that claims to be as rare and special as a 1800 years old tree should. In fact, it is very cheap, cheaper than all old tree or ancient tree teas on the market today, by a pretty wide margin too. There’s a reason we say “if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.” Well, this price is way, way too good to be true, especially coming from an American vendor who will naturally have a much higher overhead.

But that’s not the only problem. There are a lot of things that don’t really check out in this story. For example, this is one productive tree! 100 cakes were pressed, with 100g each, that’s 10kg of processed tea leaves. This means the tree would’ve had to have produced 40kg of raw leaves for this much processed leaves be available for pressing. 40kg for a single tree that is so old – it’s seriously risky and damaging to the tree if this were really done, because older trees that aren’t pruned regularly don’t really grow very fast, and to harvest this much tea from it would literally kill the tree.

Not to mention that it’s impossible. This issue was reposted on Steepster, where the wife of Verdant Tea’s proprietor, Lily Duckler, responded to the criticism. Scott of Yunnan Sourcing followed up with a response of his own (in the second last thread on the page). Basically, trees of this nature are now all under state protection, and harvesting from them is usually a serious crime. I have no illusion that some illegal harvesting is going on, but this isn’t 2005 anymore when anyone and everyone can harvest whatever tea they want from whatever tree they want. It’s a lot more difficult now to get access to the fields of ancient trees, many of which have been designated as protected and thus off limits (or limited severely in quantity). That a tree this old can be harvested with impunity and obvious disregard for its long term health is not going to happen.

Scott’s response also highlighted another issue that was obviously problematic for me when I saw the page – for a vendor so keen on producing photos and videos of their trips, conspicuously absent are good photos and/or videos of the tree in question. There’s one poorly shot one in the product page, but that’s it. Lily Duckler’s response beats around the bush about other trees (some of the photos there, as Scott points out, are of trees from different tea regions entirely and has nothing to do with this village, contra Duckler’s claim) and doesn’t actually talk about the tree in question. Why not? There are pictures of other trees, but no more of the ones for which they’re selling the tea? That’s very odd, to say the least. What there are pictures of, however, are plantation tea trees in the background – the picture with the hut at the bottom? See those rows in the back on the slope? Wonder what they are? Plantation teas.

I don’t really care about pictures all that much – it’s about the tea, after all, and not the tree. Even if there are trees of that age in the area, there is no indication at all from Lily Duckler’s response that they have any proof that the tea they got is from those old trees. She mentioned, specifically, that these cakes took up a whole year’s harvest, which would imply that when they got there to buy the tea and have them pressed into cakes, the teas were already harvested and in bags. As anyone with any familiarity with Yunnan tea buying knows, buying processed leaves from bags from vendors, especially if you’re new to the area and a foreigner, is a very, very risky business. Most likely, you’ll get low grade stuff taken in from lesser regions being sold as premium goods in the more expensive regions. This has been and continues to be a problem. The really conscientious tea makers go out there themselves and harvest with the guys, oversee the entire process in person (because otherwise their good tea will get swapped out) and take the tea away with them, leaving no chance for any kind of fishy business. A few friends of mine who are serious about pressing cakes all follow this to a letter, which means spending a month or more in Yunnan every harvest season to see this done. If you don’t, you run a pretty high risk of seeing your tea get changed into something else, or at least adulterated, which is bad enough given the prices of these tea. Yet, we have no indication that these teas are in fact from those trees. The only response is “trust us” which, unfortunately, is really not good enough for the Yunnan puerh scene.

Am I being overly harsh and assume the worst of human beings? Yes and no. Yes, because I do assume the worst in the case of tea growers in Yunnan. No, because I think they are perfectly justified in doing so. You have to remember – this is the first time in history that farmers in this region have a chance to live above subsistence. These are not Bordeaux wine makers living out of old chateaus with centuries of winemaking wealth behind them. This is the first time in history for farmers here to finally buy a nicer appliance, buy a car, send kids to school in a dependable manner, have a bit of money leftover for retirement – stuff that others in the cities have enjoyed for much longer. These guys have to be hard at work trying to get as much money as they can out of their tea. The boom in puerh tea has been going on for ten years now, so conditions are nicer than when it first started, but these guys are by no means economically secure, and it is crazy to think that a farmer would give up literally tens of thousands of US dollars (and that’s how much 10kg of tea from a 1800 years old tree would be worth on the open market) to instead sell to an American guy with an online shop for something like $1000-2000 USD (Verdant couldn’t have paid more than maybe $15-20 a cake given overhead and associated costs). Giving up that much money – money that can substantially improve lives, if not for the farmer himself then for his community – would be crazy. If they’re indeed in a collective, even if the farmer himself is super-altruistic and doesn’t care for money, he would probably sell the tea to pay for school renovation, public works projects, road repairs, etc. He wouldn’t virtually give it away to some American guy to sell online, unless of course the tea is not what Verdant thinks it is. As Scott said in the thread on Steepster, if the tea really is what it is then Verdant just ripped off this Mr. Zhou and should feel ashamed.

Finally, there’s the issue of vendor responsibility. If the tea is not what it is, and I most certainly think it’s not, then it’s the same old question – is Verdant the con man or is Verdant being conned? Given their track record, I’m leaning towards the former. After all, this is a shop that sells low priced Shandong (Laoshan) green tea as if they’re premium products, and which marketed that Star of Bulang as if it’s a special cake. I find no reason to believe any of these claims made by them. Whether or not they sincerely believe them themselves is actually irrelevant. If they do, then they are too naive to do business in the tea world in China and shouldn’t be in the market, because they are just passing on cons from Chinese vendors to Western consumers without weeding out the bullshit, which is what they’re being paid to do. If they do not believe their own marketing, then they’re the con man themselves. Either way, the conclusion is the same – stay away from them as there are better vendors out there.

Traditional tieguanyin

I remember when I first started drinking tea seriously about twenty years ago, tieguanyin was really wonderful. They were tasty – really good stuff. I’m sure people still older will tell me that I know nothing of even better tea from earlier times, but I still remember that in the 90s it was entirely normal to get tieguanyin with real red borders on the leaf, with a green center, and a lovely fragrance and especially aftertaste that is only there when you try tieguanyin and nothing else. The tea has a reason to be famous, after all.

Then something happened, and all of the tea on the market became these really horrible nuclear green stuff that taste like they were glorified perfume in a leaf with no depth. This is now the main trend of tieguanyin – really green, but lacking body and having little rebrew value. The teas don’t have that deep aftertaste that made tieguanyin great. You no longer see leaves that have a red border – in fact, when you look at unrolled leaves, you rarely see any kind of evidence of oxidation at all. The leaves also look like they were mutilated by some sadistic tea-abuser. The edges are jagged – broken, really, and not in the normal way. I’ve heard stories about how they do it partly to remove the redness, because if they keep any of the edge the tea will brew a little redder and that will lower the value of the tea in the market. I don’t know if there’s any truth to that, but it’s pretty clear that any sign of oxidation, well, it’s gone. They are expensive too, even though the quality, at least in my eyes have worsened, and I know I’m not alone in holding this opinion.

In the last couple years though I’m starting to see some encouraging signs that people are once again taking seriously the idea that an oolong should at least be somewhat oxidized, and maybe even roasted too. I have begun seeing producers who try to make tieguanyin in more traditional method, with a taste that is a bit closer to (but still not quite) what I have come to like in the past. This is a move in the right direction, and I hope the taste for more traditional style tieguanyin will make a comeback, which can only be a good thing. In the meantime though, Wuyi tea is increasingly green. You win some, you lose some I guess?