The taste of water

Most of your cup of tea consists of water – and what water you use has a huge effect on how your tea tastes. It is an important thing to remember when trying a tea – what water are you using, and what does it do to your tea?

Most of us rely on some kind of tap water supply for regular drinking. Where your municipality gets its water changes how your tea tastes. When I lived in Pacific Northwest I remember the water tasting very fresh and is often very cold even in the summer – it’s snowmelt so that’s how the water comes out. In places like Hong Kong we get most of our water from a river source in nearby Guangdong, and it’s heavily treated. It’s not that great, but I suppose it could be worse.

Then you have bottled waters, which as bad as it is for the environment, is usually where you can get some pretty good water. A few months ago my cousin-in-law who’s an expert on Japanese liquors brought back a couple bottles of water for me from the Suntory natural water range. There are three sources for this line – Mount Aso, from Kyushu, Mount Oku-daisen, and from the Southern Alps of Japan. I got two bottles – the Mount Aso and Mount Oku-daisen ones. It’s always refreshing to taste different waters and notice how different they can be. Both are fragrant waters – yes, water can be fragrant, not so much in that they smell like anything, but when you drink it there’s an aftertaste that rises up your nose. The Mount Aso is, I feel, a better water – more interesting, more complex, and a bit more aroma. The Mount Oku-daisen is lighter. Turns out the Mount Aso water has more dissolved minerals, which might explain why. This is not to say the Oku-daisen water was bad – far from it. But the Mount Aso water is better.

There are practical limitations to using bottled water. I try to avoid doing it for two reasons – cost, and the obvious wastefulness of using bottled waters. However, these days at work what I do is buying large bottles of either Volvic (another reliable supply) or this Scottish water from the local supermarket and adding it to my office supply. The reason is because our office uses a reverse-osmosis filtered water, which yields a sharp and flat water. If you use RO water for brewing, it is quite easy to get a bad brew – the tea will not be very flavourful and it often appears very rough on your tongue. Adding some of this mineral water in helps round out my tea and makes it much more palatable. Blending it also keeps the dissolved solids in my water low enough so that boiling it doesn’t produce sediments; if your water’s mineral content is too high it will leave a crust of minerals, which is a bit of a problem for an electric kettle. I’m not about to bring my tetsubin setup here for obvious reasons.

Sometimes I see people say things like “I use RO/distilled water because it’s pure”, which is pure nonsense. Yes, it’s pure in the sense that there’s nothing else in it. However, naturally occurring water will never be “pure” water. Tea aficionados of the past have always advocated spring water of various kinds for the best brewing experience – precisely because they contain interesting minerals that make the tea taste better. The famous Hupao spring in Hangzhou, for example, has a pretty high mineral content. Using distilled or RO processed water to brew tea is just a waste of good tea leaves. If you don’t believe it, try it side by side with a good water like Volvic. The difference should be night and day. In fact, even if you do believe it, try it anyway. The differences with using different water is very enlightening and helps any tea drinker understand which part of the tea is coming from the tea leaves, and which part of it is from the water. As I’ve said many times before, the most cost effective way of improving your cup is not buying better leaves, but getting better water.

Grandpa style in action: G20 Hangzhou

Xi Jinping showing Obama how it’s done – use the lid to push away the leaves and then sipping from the gaiwan. Apparently nobody briefed Obama on what to do with a gaiwan with green tea in it, so he put the lid down and just drank from the really awkwardly shaped cup instead. He did, however, seem to manage the “use your teeth to filter the leaves” skill pretty well. Xi would know this tea well – he was the top official in Zhejiang for a number of years.

Generalist vs specialist

Those of you who know Japan well will notice that many of the best restaurants only do one thing, but they do it really well. Whether it’s the world-famous Sukiyabashi Jiro, or Owari-ya, a 550 years old shop that specializes in soba, or your run of the mill noodle, snack, or confection shop around the streets, many of the best food places in Japan sell only one type of thing. If they have other items on the menu, they tend to be complimentary to the main dish – and not usually the reason people go. In comparison, you have these generalist restaurants like Ootoya. They do everything – nothing particularly well, but they will have whatever you fancy that day, usually for a reasonable price. They are obviously catering to a different market, but I think you can probably guess that they also represent differences in quality. The soba you will get at Owari-ya is going to be far, far better than whatever soba you can get at one of these generalist stores. That’s just how it is. Owari-ya isn’t going to be expensive either – the price for a bowl is about the same as everywhere else. Places like Jiro’s are expensive, but they also give you the best fish they could find you that day. You are, in other words, paying for world-beating sushi. Paying a premium for that is quite ok.

I think similarly, teashops tend to run in these two lanes too. There are lots of generalist stores – they sell a bit of everything, specializing in none. These have a purpose. If you’re the only shop in the area, then having something of everything is going to be useful to the local customers who may want whatever they fancy. You also want to be able to cater to the customer who is still new to tea drinking – especially for Western facing vendors who have a physical shop whose clientele might be quite inexperienced.

Then you have specialists – people who only do one or two things well. A case in point – at the recent Hong Kong tea fair I once again visited the booth of a local tea outfit that presses their own cakes every  year. They do a lot of single village teas. In fact, every year they press village teas from about two dozen different places, ranging from Yiwu to Daxueshan and everything in between. It’s actually quite impossible – they obviously need different teams of people to do the pressing, because a single person (or single group of people) can’t travel that fast and still be able to collect good teas along the way during a single harvest season. Their teas are expensive, and as usual, really not that great.

Then there’s another outfit here that spends about 6 weeks every spring and presses one cake from teas blended from around the Yiwu area. That’s all they do every year. The price of the tea is actually lower, but the quality far better and will age well into the future. I buy some from them every year, and am happy to do so year after year.

In general, I think if you specialize in one thing and you really spend time on it, you’re going to be good at it – Malcolm Gladwell already covered that, even if not everyone agrees with his thesis. With tea, you can easily why that is the case. Someone who spends weeks, or months, or years in the same region drinking the same teas every single year is going to know the teas really well, and is going to be able to identify the strengths and flaws of the year’s harvest in ways that most of us cannot discern. Producers like this, if they put their mind to it anyway, are going to be able to locate and produce better teas. Compared to generalists who may have to rely on other sources, these specialists are going to have far better products.

This is not to say the specialists are best at everything. One of the families I visited in Dong Ding is quite famous for having generations of prize winners. They know Dong Ding inside out. They know stuff about the tea we probably won’t really understand even if they tried to explain to us. They can sniff it during the roast and know whether it’s too hot, whether the tea needs to be distributed better, whether it’s time to finish up. Yet, during our conversation we talked about other teas, and I took out the bag of aged puerh I was carrying with me for drinking on my trip – some 12 years old puerh. They were very curious – they rarely drink puerh, and know next to nothing about it. We tried it then and there. They could, of course, tell me if the tea is good/ok/bad, but aside from that, it’s all very new and they can’t tell you much more than that. In fact, the people who press cakes in Yiwu every year are the same way even with teas from places like Lincang – they don’t drink a whole lot of, say, Bingdao teas, and can give accurate, general assessments, but nothing more than that.

Consumers also fall into these two categories. Some of us are generalists – we drink everything and try everything. At the same time, however, most of us end up specializing in something, just like producers and vendors. A vendor might stock some of everything, but has a particularly wide selection of one type of tea because, well, that’s where their strength is. Tea Habitat, for example, is one of these, focusing on dancong even though they do have some of the other types. Drinkers also tend to gravitate towards certain tea types – whether through experience or preference. It’s human nature to do focus more on what you like or find interesting, and ignore what you dislike or find uninteresting. Matching the right vendor with your particular interests is a pretty important component of finding one’s tea happiness.

Knowing one’s own limitation is quite important here – in other words, knowing what you know and what you don’t know. We all only have so much time and ability. As I’ve said before – there are only so many ten years in one’s drinking life. Best not waste it.

Different shades of fakes

When we say a tea is fake, what do we really mean? This is really an interesting epistemological problem because not only are we asking what “fake tea” means, but also how we can determine when something is fake. As is the case with a lot of things, there are varying shades of fakeness. I’ll try to go through them from most severe to least severe.

1. Bad tea as good. This is the worst of the worst – tea that is spoiled or been brewed or otherwise ruined being sold as good, new tea, so on so forth. The possibilities for this category are really endless, since there are a million ways to make something out of nothing. Among them is the cake I blogged about recently where it was a mix of raw and cooked puerh, and the raw leaves were completely tasteless and flavourless – probably leaves already brewed and then dried again to be pressed.

2. The selling of non-teas as tea. In the West these would be called tisane, but are then sold as teas. This happens more in China than anywhere else. I still remember way back when I was still in high school, I was in an organized group tour of Fujian province. We visited some places, including Wuyi mountains. We were taken to a tea shop, and of course we were served some teas. One of the last things they showed us was this thing the guy called “one leaf gan“. Gan, of course, is Chinese for the sweet sensation you get from drinking tea. The tea was sold as something special, etc etc, and how only a couple leaves in a cup will leave a nice gan taste in your mouth. Since this was a tour organized by the local government authorities, I thought it would be ok to buy some of this as a souvenir (i.e. not too likely to be cheated). Needless to say, I way overpaid for what I now know as kuding cha. Rookie mistake there.

There’s a lot of other types of things that get sold as teas even though they’re really not, with Yunnan being a particularly rich source of these alternative plants that people then harvest to make into tea in order to capitalize on the puerh craze. One that you might see more often is yabao. These are buds that look a little like tiny bamboo shoots, and is most often sold by puerh vendors as wild, ancient tea buds. In fact, quite often these aren’t even from camellia sinensis trees. These buds are quite cheap but are often upsold as rare, wild, etc, and with a price tag to match. They don’t age, so buying them for aging is really a bad idea. They are also very cold in nature in Chinese medicine terms, and can cause stomach problems for some people. You can even find them in cake forms, like this and this for example on Taobao. Similarly, you might see “teas” like camellia taliensis being sold as puerh. My suggestion is avoid all these pseudo-teas unless you explicitly want them.

3. Obscuring origins. This is where things get tricky. When you think about it, nothing is stopping a vendor from heading down to the nearest Chinatown supermarket, buy up a bunch of tins of tea that cost $5 each, empty them, and repack them as premium teas and reselling them to you at 4x the markup. If you’re buying tea at $20 an ounce, you’re probably not buying $5 cans of tea from Chinatown, so you would be none-the-wiser. There’s also the rather common practice of intentionally selling something as something else. For example, in Nantou county the only place you can probably name as a tea producing area is probably Dongding, which is famous for its oolong. You have probably never heard of Mingjian, which actually produces a lot more tea but is on lower elevation with flat land and mostly machine-harvested. However, better teas from the Mingjian area is often, if not always, sold as Dongding. Try go out and find a Mingjian tea – you won’t find many vendors selling that.

The reason is of course money. Dongding gets a better price. Unless you know the areas well and the teas well, you probably can’t tell the difference if you just drink them. Because tea has no inherent labels, anything can be sold as anything else. For things that are obviously far apart, it’s hard to do, but for things that are closer together – location, style, etc, it’s not hard to do at all. Witness all the uproar in Taiwan about imported oolongs from Vietnam, for example, or all the maocha being imported to places like Lao Banzhang which are then sold to outsiders buying them to press into their LBZ cakes when in fact the teas are not LBZ at all. Because there is so much variation in tea from cup to cup, it’s very easy to obscure this sort of thing and sell one tea as A when it’s in fact from B. Unless the person doing the buying knows the area intimately well, and in the case of puerh, follows the tea their entire way from tree to cake, it’s very easy to get sold something completely different.

4. Inflating statistics. This is sort of similar to the previous one, but in things like the age of the tea, the age of the tree that produced the tea, that sort of thing. For example – how do you determine age on an aged oolong? There are ways – the shape of the leaves, the taste, the colour, but those things are subtle, and unless you’ve seen and drunk a lot of aged oolongs, it’s not going to be easy to judge. If a vendor says their aged oolong is 30 years old, what do you do with that information? I can tell you right now that it’s not hard finding aged oolongs that are 20+ years old, but it’s a lot harder to find nice aged oolongs 30+ years old. The price difference is pretty significant, but so is the taste. Someone selling a tea to you claiming it’s over 30 years old is going to be charging you a lot more money than it would be at 20+ but unless you can objectively judge it yourself, the room for, well, inflated claims are high. I’ve had some aged oolong from Taiwan that are almost certainly faked – but done quite well so that it’s very hard to spot. If I hadn’t had hundreds of aged oolongs, I would’ve fallen for them too.

It’s even worse with age of trees, and we’ve seen plenty of controversies in the past few years with vendors making somewhat outrageous claims with the age of tea trees. The much harder to verify claims is when someone moves up one age bracket – going from, say, 100 years old trees to 2-300 years old. Or having teas that are actually mixed being sold as pure old tree material. Again, the room for error is quite large here.

In a funny way, pressed puerh tea is probably the most transparent in the market for this sort of thing. Especially for older teas, there’s a pretty good record of documentation for a lot of productions, and this is information freely available on the web. There’s good agreement on what different era teas look like and the type of packaging they come with. Loose leaf tea is a lot harder to judge as a result, but aged puerh is relatively easy to spot fakes for in the eyes of the experienced. So even though aged puerh is one of the most heavily faked areas, because of the promise of money, it is also where one could, if one does enough studying, relatively safely navigate the waters. Staring at a bag of loose oolong and trying to figure out how much it’s worth is actually quite a bit more difficult.

5. Finally we’ve got stories. I think it’s safe to say that there are now two kinds of online vendors in the West. The first are the no-story vendors. You have people like White2Tea who is now eschewing any kind of story-telling. He might as well just give his teas Greek letters as names and just put “tea” in product description, since tasting notes are generally worthless anyway given the infinite variation of water, brewing parameters, and teaware producing different kinds of tastes. You have people like Yunnan Sourcing who just describe the item without much fanfare. I tend to prefer this style of tea selling – you’re, hopefully, buying just the tea.

Then you have story-tellers. Vendors in this category tend to focus on personalities – either the vendor him/herself, or the people who supposedly are making the tea they are selling. The former type tend to be marketed as some kind of tea-master, tea-monk, or whatever pseudo-religious type of personality you prefer. You see this in Asia and you see this in the West as well. All I can say about them is this – it’s always a healthy idea to shop around, because the truths that one person has discovered about tea cannot be the only truth. All too often, I see people who have gone down the rabbit hole and follow their master into some pretty dubious territory of paying top dollar for inferior tea and teaware. When you have identified one “master” to follow and believe every word they say about tea, this sort of thing tends to happen. There are always ones who then “wake up” from this slumber and discover that they’ve been conned, but usually that’s only after some time and a lot of money spent. I certainly think I spent more money than I should have at the Best Tea House, although thankfully I never bought that much tea from them either owing to my discovery of cheaper, better sources relatively quickly, and not spending that much time in Hong Kong in my formative years of tea drinking.

The type of vendor that focus on the tea farmers I only really see in the West. I think there’s a certain exoticism that comes attached to this marketing ploy, and the consumer is paying for what they perceive as authenticity. If I buy from this vendor, then I’m pretty much buying direct from the farmer who made this tea I’m drinking with their bare hands! Or so the thinking goes. There’s definitely a certain attractiveness to this idea. I personally like visiting tea farms as well, if for nothing else than to talk to the farmers and see what they’re up to. They are, generally speaking, nice people (but of course, I’m also always a potential customer). The problem is, most of these farmers are also making teas that are, well, mediocre. I can’t tell you how many forgettable visits I’ve had of farmers whose teas are just “meh,” or worse. Just because a tea is direct from some farmer doesn’t mean it’s good. Traditionally, nobody bought direct from farmers. In the old days teashops in major cities would buy from middlemen who went to the mountains to purchase maocha from the farmers. These shops would then blend, process, and package the tea. and then resold to the end consumer. The processing often includes additional roasting and that sort of thing. There’s nothing inherently “authentic” about buying direct from the farm – if anything it’s a pretty recent phenomenon from the past few decades as transportation to a lot of tea farming areas improved so that any random person can drive up and visit.

There are also those pictures – oh those lovely pictures of tea plants in neat rows with mountains in the back. What they might not show you is how the person taking the photo might be standing on the ditch next to the highway that’s 10ft behind them, or the undergrowth that are all yellow because they just sprayed herbicide on them last week, or other similar things. Farmers are also vendors, and quite often some farmers will also carry teas made by others for one reason or another. Farmers, I hate to say, also tell lies to sell their teas, and these lies are then retold to the Western consumer in “authentic” form through instragram-filtered photos and neat little videos. Are these fakes? Strictly speaking, no. But it’s important to remember that what you’re buying and drinking is the tea. There are genuine farmers doing interesting things with their teas, but those are pretty rare. Most of the time, the teas are replaceable and paying extra for the story you’re told is really nothing but smoke-and-mirrors.

Someone pointed out to me that much of this marketing of farmers is quite similar to what’s been going on for far longer in the wine industry. There’s certainly a bit of parallel there, but also important differences. The first is that wineries tend not to sell other people’s wines, for obvious reasons. It’s also not that easy (nor profitable) to fake newly produced wines from other places – unless it’s a Romanee Conti or something equally exalted. Appellation control is nonexistent for tea. So…. yes, there are similarities, but also important differences. What works for the wine industry may not be such a great idea for the tea industry, because the nature of the products are inherently different. Maybe we will see things evolve from here that works better for tea, but a farmer-focused approach is, I think, quite misguided as currently done.

The advice I have for newcomers is the same as always – drink around. Talk to people – different kinds of people. Don’t get too attached to one vendor. Compare and be critical. The internet makes all this possible. Use it.

Organic standards

Everyone likes the idea of organic foods. No pesticides, natural fertilizers, etc. What’s not to like?

Well, cost is the first issue. An organic farmer who doesn’t use pesticides is going to have productivity issues. For tea, it can be a pretty devastating drop in overall production. Mr. Gao from Shiding, who grows tea more or less wild on his farm, once told me that his yield is about 10% of what other farmers around him get. A more “conventional” organic farmer in central Taiwan told me that he’s probably getting 30-40% of what he would if he were to farm things conventionally. If you go to the farms you can see the bugs and the weeds – things that hinder productivity in terms of raw tea production. Leaves that are bitten may have that interesting taste, but when whole trees are decimated by bugs that are eating almost all your buds, then you’ve got no tea left to make that beautiful Dongfangmeiren with.

Which means this is all going to cost more. So on the one hand, we love the idea of organic teas, but on the other, are we willing to pay more for it? The taste difference may or may not be apparent – there are so many factors involved in tea production that it’s hard to judge exactly what’s due to the farming methods and what’s due to craft post-harvest. Also, if a farmer’s productivity is only 10% normal, are you really going to be willing to pay 10x the price to get the same amount of tea? That can get quite expensive very quickly.

Conventional farmers, who are still most of them, don’t really seem to think there’s much of a problem. The price pressures of cheaper alternatives – in Taiwan’s case, Vietnam teas and lowland, machine harvested teas – make it so that they feel they just need to maximize the production to get what they can out of the farms. These are not farmers making a lot of money selling a few kilos from supposed ancient tree teas in Yunnan. Regular teas in Taiwan is not very expensive and they harvest 5-6 times a year just to make costs and make a living. The transition to organic methods is very tricky and involves a few years of really low production as the farm recalibrates to a new normal. From what I understand, that’s not an investment most people are willing to make.

More interestingly, during one of my conversations with a farmer who does some organic farming, he said it would actually be better if the organic standards were loosened a bit. At first this sounded counter-intuitive – wouldn’t that be worse? But he has a point as he tried to explain to me. Basically, right now the standards are fairly stringent. That’s great for those of us who are worried about things like pesticides, etc, but in many cases these small-plot farms are right next to other farmers that are practicing conventional farming methods, often farming things that aren’t even tea. If your next door neighbour sprays pesticides, you need them to tell you the day before so you can prepare. You want to make sure that they don’t end up on your tea that then end up in the sample bag that gets sent to the testing centers for organic certification. His argument was this – stringent standards makes it too hard and too risky for people to transition. If you tried, and then failed, then you just invested a lot of time and lost income for basically nothing. That’s not good – and especially no good if you weren’t the one cheating, but you just got caught up because something happened around you. So, his logic goes, if the standards were a little looser, more farmers would actually try to participate and in the end, more organically farmed teas will be available, which is better for everyone. It wasn’t what I expected, but it was a refreshing look at this issue.

Taobao lottery: The raw and the cooked

Every so often I buy some tea from Taobao. Sometimes it’s a cake I already know and like and am just stocking up a little more. More often it’s something random – given that there’s MiniN and MicroN in the picture, my days of roaming the tea market for days on end is more or less over (at least for now). So, instead, I get to virtually shop online through the wonder that is Taobao, where Jack Ma claims the fake goods are better than the real deal.

Well, here’s a fake that isn’t better than the real deal. The reason I bought this cake is because the wrapper suggests that this may be related to a small boutique whose tea I have some faint interest in, and that this tea is sold as a 2003 tea. Given the lowish price (under 100 RMB) I figured I can buy a lottery ticket. Worst case, it’s just a bad tea and I chalk it up to eating a bad meal somewhere, or something. The cake looks ok-ish in person

 photo 6051820F-0C93-4602-821B-176A543C053D.jpg

 photo 3C2E55F9-1490-4F4C-B642-850EFA00E989.jpg

The smell though put me off. When I smelled the tea after it arrived it smelled like cooked puerh, which is odd, since this is supposed to be a raw tea. There was no hint of rawness in the smell – none of that sweet aroma of aging tea, or the youthful greenness that you get with a younger tea (as befits a Kunming stored puerh). Instead, just a faint whiff of cooked puerh. I chalked it up to potentially the couple bags of cooked puerh samples the seller threw in with the cake.

There are some oddities on the cake itself – hard to see with any kind of picture but apparent if you examine it in detail. There are some leaves that look funny, with little white dots that are uncharacteristic of dry Kunming storage. But, that alone isn’t going to be enough to warn anyone.

Then I brewed it, and that’s when everything became really obvious. The tea is actually a mix – a mix of raw and cooked leaves, to be exact. The tea brews brown, like a cooked tea, and smells of cooked puerh. There’s no hint of rawness in the tea. The wet leaves look like this

 photo C3D83973-512F-4A89-BC01-E254CD67B40C.jpg

You can see that there’s a mix here – the cooked tea is the dark stuff, and this is the variety that is very cooked – they’re carbonized, hard leaves that don’t really bend, not the soft stuff you might see from Menghai. In other words, this is cheap stuff. The raw tea is probably worse – I suspect it is brewed tea leaves that are then dried again, because if they were using new leaves there’s no way that the tea doesn’t impart any taste, but as it is there’s almost no raw, new tea taste to it despite the tea consisting of mostly raw leaves. I only took a couple small sips before dumping the whole lot.

What’s the lesson here? Well, anything is possible, even stuff you thought impossible. Judge a tea on its own merits and not on what the vendor is telling you, and sometimes the truth is pretty disgusting. And Jack Ma is wrong at least when it comes to tea – the vast majority of the fakes are horrible things that should never be drunk.

Mechanization, specialization, homogenization

Forty years ago, almost everything related to tea production in a place like Taiwan was done by hand. Leaves were hand picked, they were withered by hand, kill green was done manually, and then rolled by hand and then dried also manually. There were tools, of course, that helped one along in the process, but by and large they were not mechanized and required physical labour. As you can see below from this video of traditional rolling techniques, it’s hard, hard work.

Soon after a plethora of machines were introduced and the toughest processes, such as kill green, rolling, and drying were handled mostly by these machines. This isn’t to say the process isn’t still physically demanding, but it probably beats trying to roll tea leaves with hands and feet for hours at a time. Those who grew up on tea farms and who are 40-50 years old now are probably the last generation who remember (and have tried their hands at) making tea the old fashioned way.

These days there’s a mechanized farm tool for every step of the process, although not all of them are used all the time. Take picking for example. There are lots of harvesters out there. They range from smallish hand held machines that look like big horizontal hair clippers to vehicles that are small combines. A farm can choose to use a harvester some of the time, but not all the time. One farmer told me, for example, that for the summer picking they use the harvester because it’s just faster and easier, and since summer tea is crap (and only sells for cheap) there’s no reason to do anything more for it. On the other hand, for spring and winter harvest when the prices can be better, you want to have the leaves picked by hand so that the quality comes out higher. Machine harvested teas just aren’t as good.

There are, however, some steps that are always done with the aid of machines these days. Generally speaking, kill green, rolling, and drying are all done by machines. More importantly, they are done by people who often aren’t involved in the other processes.

Here’s the thing. In the old days when everything was done by hand, you gather the family and your hired help to do whatever you need to do to harvest the tea and process them efficiently. There’s only so much time for this sort of thing after you picked the leaves, and because of constraints like weather, you only have certain days when this was possible. You get all the manpower you need, pick the tea, wither them, let them bask in the sun for a little bit, wait for the oxidation to kick in to the right amount, kill green, roll them, dry them. All this was done in house, because if it’s all requiring physical labour then that’s where you’re going to find that labour. Even kids helped out if they could, and young men and women were hired to help do the parts that need extra hands – picking and rolling, for example. Roasting can wait, everything else had to be done immediately once the leaves are off the trees.

Nowadays though, most farmers no longer do the middle parts. Some only harvest and then hand the rest of the processing to people who specialize in them. Others might also take care of the withering but not what comes after. Part of the reason is mechanization – there’s no real reason for every farmer to buy a rolling machine or a kill green machine that’ll be left unused most of the time, whereas people who invested in them have a reason to basically rent it out to others who don’t own them. It makes sense – why would a village with 100 tea farmers have 100 rolling machines? That would make no sense.

This kind of specialization though has a cost, albeit not necessarily one that is very apparent. What we are seeing is a kind of homogenization of tea production. Back in the day, when a farmer was involved in all steps of the production process, the tea really was his – the taste you get at the end is his and his alone. These days, farmer A’s tea may taste very similar to farmer B’s tea because they both sent their tea to be processed by processor C and dryer D. What you’re tasting is therefore the combined work of all these people, and not just a farmer A or farmer B’s product.

I asked a farmer what would happen if he owned a rolling machine or a kill green one and invited a technician to come in to help. He said they’d simply refuse – there’s no reason for them to make their way to an unfamiliar setup to do work when they can easily do what they do at their own place, or at a place where they can work while having the farmers bring in the tea. This farmer I talked to still insists on withering his own leaves by hand, but even that’s less common these days. Between the difficulty of doing this and the downward price pressure of import Vietnamese tea, there just isn’t a lot of good reasons for someone to keep insisting on making things on their own.

There are, of course, skills that remain in the hands of those who produce tea and will change the way it tastes. For example, roasting is a big part of the final taste of the product for Taiwanese oolong. Roasting, for the most part, is usually still done in house. In fact, a few of the farmers I met on this recent trip didn’t want me to see their roasting process. I don’t think they have much to fear. Aside from the obvious fact that I wouldn’t be able to reproduce whatever they were doing even if I got to see all of it in detail, this is very much a process that requires lots of hands on experience to learn, and especially the ability to adjust on the fly based on weather, the tea’s condition, etc. These are things that an outsider cannot easily figure out quickly. Maybe someone who’s well steeped in the arts of charcoal roasting can glean something from this, but I doubt it.

 photo F03091E3-7FBE-4F0A-9EF3-6E753CB2D7F4.jpg

So when you see a vendor tell you “this tea was produced by Mr. X of Y”, in almost all cases it means the tea was grown on Mr. X’s farm and perhaps Mr. X was involved in the processing of the tea at some point, but for the most part the actual processing of the leaves are usually left to someone else to do. There are a few exception to this rule. Mr. Gao, an organic farmer based in Shiding near Taipei, is one, but his tea is exorbitantly expensive as a result of his wild farming techniques and hand made processes. One could have a debate about whether or not it is worth it, but a tea that is easily 4-5x normal prices (or more) isn’t going to find a very wide audience. Outside of that kind of very specialized production, most teas you drink are, to some degree, a commercialized production that is run mostly on volume, rather than specific “craft,” whatever that is. There’s nothing wrong with it – being able to work with a kill green or rolling machine skillfully is also something you need to master through experience and time. It’s just that there’s a certain homogeneity to this process that is obscured by the smallholding farmer arrangement you find in a place like Taiwan. Some farmers were lamenting to me the loss of individual taste. In our industrialized world though, maybe it’s the price we have to pay.

Health claims and bad marketing

A few months ago I noticed that my blog’s email address was harvested by Misty Peak and they started sending me junk mail. I never paid them much attention until their email about storing puerh that’s full of errors arrived at my inbox. Well, yesterday I just got another rather amusing email. This one’s about health claims, arguably the worst of all marketing ploys for tea. Let’s examine the email, shall we?

Like the water we drink, the food we eat, and even the medication we may use, quality is key when selecting and consuming Pu’er tea. It is very often prescribed for cholesterol, weight loss, high blood pressure, anemia, diabetes, and poor circulation, so understanding how to actually use this tea as a tool is important. 

Prescribed? Really? Who “prescribes” tea, specifically for the ailments named? Yes, there’s some (hard to prove) evidence out there that tea in general may help, but to compare it to medicine, well…

Then we got “5 tips” which, of course, is where the gems are

1- How much to drink?

Read your body in the beginning and give careful attention to how you feel before, during, and after drinking this tea. It has tremendous energy, so give it the attention it deserves when first introduced to it. We suggest atlas 3 cups/pots per day, each being 5-8 ounces. Simply pouring this tea a few times a week will not give you the desired results for your health, although it will be enjoyable. Find the time to begin to incorporate the tea into your day. 

Translation: Drink a lot of this tea, and I mean a lot. Usually when referring to “cups” like this the text is trying to say that we should be preparing a fresh cup/pot of it using fresh leaves. Three rounds a day is quite a bit of tea no matter how you drink your tea.

2- When to drink our tea?

It is best to drink the tea when your stomach is not completely empty, unless you plan to eat shortly thereafter. Three times a day is recommended, at least. For weight loss, drink Pu’er tea 20-60 minutes after your meals, giving it its wonderful ability to flush the body of oils and cholesterol that may have been consumed while eating. It will also give you a clean feeling. This is not always easy to manage, so if you can only find one or two times to enjoy the tea, make the time worthwhile. Turning off a phone or finding a relaxing place to drink makes the experience more enjoyable and the energy of the tea stronger. Drinking our Pu’er tea will give you a great relaxing, even meditative, feeling, so learn how you feel first with the tea and go from there. We recommend starting your day with it, even if that means drinking it with your morning coffee, if need be. 

That last line is where things start to really go wrong. Up till now, the email is mostly just junk marketing material that we see all the time – tea may be healthy for you, etc etc (more on that later). Suggesting people should drink tea AND their coffee together in the morning, however, can be a little more dangerous – puerh can be pretty punchy, caffeine wise, and getting an unwanted caffeine buzz is no joke, coming from someone who’s experienced it before. In serious cases it can lead to uncontrollable muscle contractions and heart palpitations. But, of course, they have to keep suggesting that you should drink loads of their tea.

3- Can I drink too much tea?

The simple answer is yes, but that would take a tremendous amount of consumption. The tea is high in L-Theanine, which has many health benefits, but one of the greatest benefits of it is how it contracts some of the negative properties of caffeine. So if one is sensitive to caffeine, drinking a great amount of this tea will still be less harmful because of this amino acid that is present.  Consuming too much liquid, liters and gallons at a time, is absolutely not suggested. The average tea drinker in China will consume upwards of 2-4 gallons of tea in a given day, so consuming a few extra cups for us would not be considered harmful, but do pay attention to your body. 

And continuing from the last line of that last section, here’s where they go off the deep end. L-Theanine can “contracts [sic] some of the negative properties of caffeine”? Where on Earth did they come up with that idea? I did a quick search on Pubmed, and this article suggests that presence of both amplify the effects of the other. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything suggesting that L-Theanine can counteract anything from caffeine – that idea is simply ridiculous. To suggest people who might be caffeine sensitive that it’s ok to drink lots of puerh is irresponsible at best. Also, L-Theanine is present in every tea, in similarly small amounts. There’s really not much meaningful difference between one type of tea or another if you’re talking about things like caffeine and L-Theanine content, especially since the biggest variable is how much leaves you’re using and not the type of tea you’re drinking (one would often use more leaves to prepare some types of teas than others, for example).

And 2-4 gallons? Did anyone stop for a second and think about how much liquid that is? The average person doesn’t drink 2 gallons of water in a day. Even if they really meant liters (three obvious typos so far, time to proofread your emails) it’s still a lot of tea – irresponsibly so when asking the question of “can I drink too much tea.”

4- Is it okay to mix the tea with other teas?

No. Plain and simply, think of tea (and all foods) as medicine. When we unknowingly combine or blend them and their properties (warming/cooling/energizing/relaxing/ect), we are creating chemical reactions within our bodies that may not work well together. Teas are often blended in tea shops or malls haphazardly, only basing the blends of what tastes good, rather than what is chemically beneficial to our bodies. Our tea is completely unblended and unaltered from its raw state. It is picked, fired, rolled by hand, then dried under the sun, as it has been for thousands of years. It is best to not add herbs or other teas to the tea if not experienced. 

Hahahahahaha.

5- Is any Pu’er tea okay?

Just because it is Pu’er  (Pu-erh) tea does not mean it is good for you. In fact, the most counterfeited tea in the world is Pu’er tea. Doctors recommend us to drink 8 cups of water each day, but the real key is to consume 8 clean cups of water each day; the same goes for tea. Consuming tea that has been treated with careful attention is critical. Our tea is hand-picked, hand processed, never touched a machine or a chemical, organic, and picked from trees older than America. Quality is key if we want great results. 

I’m pretty sure that the spring 2016 tea they’re selling for $55 per 200g is not from trees as old as claimed – the current market is such that this kind of price really isn’t going to get you very good raw materials, certainly not early spring materials from trees of this age. So claiming that other people are potentially selling counterfeits while theirs is the genuine article really rings hollow. Twodog recently wrote a piece on the subject so there’s no need for me to repeat the information, but needless to say, age statements on trees are mostly overinflated, with Verdant being a prime example of ridiculous age statements and these guys not far behind. I recently had a chat with a tea vendor who started pressing cakes a dozen years ago, and a tree that’s over a thousand years old would yield, at most, a couple kilos of finished tea leaves for pressing. Verdant’s 10kg per tree output – well, they’re selling a fantasy. Misty Peak has proven to be pretty good at ridiculous marketing statement as well, and this is yet another case of that.

In conclusion: I should add that I have never bought anything from them, nor do I intend to. It seems like most vendors want to claim some health benefits for tea – weight loss, diabetes, etc. There’s actually not much real research on the subject that proves that drinking tea will do any of these things. Most research (and I’ve looked at quite a few papers of this type) are about how specific chemical compounds may have some effects on helping to treat certain diseases, with most of this research done on mice. Usually the dosage of these chemicals are much higher than what you could possibly get from drinking. L-Theanine, for example, is regularly used in 150 or 200mg dose, when one gram of tea only contains about 6mg. You’re not going to start drinking 30g of tea a day (assuming 100% extraction/absorption, which isn’t going to happen) just to try to get 200mg into your body.

Actual clinical research on tea’s health effect on the body is very thin – for example this recent paper talks about diabetes and the lack of studies of how tea may or may not help. The few studies I’ve seen before that actually try to study real people drinking tea usually have one or two cup a day as the limit, mostly because it’s very hard to find people who would drink more a day on a regular basis – it’s not something you want a lot of. The results are usually mixed, because life’s complicated and nailing down tea as the main reason why there’s an effect is hard to prove. People who drink tea in the West on a regular basis, for example, may tend to be people who eat healthier diets or predisposed to certain things, so these complicate the results. Misty Peak’s marketing is misleading, but worse, it also suggests practices that can be downright dangerous for some people, and is quite irresponsible in making unsubstantiated claims. It’s one thing to spew nonsense about storing puerh – worst case is you get some moldy tea if you really left it on your porch open to the elements. It’s quite another thing to tell people who are caffeine sensitive it’s ok to down three cups of puerh a day.

Confusions of the aged

Markets sometimes freeze. We saw that with devastating results in the market for mortgage-backed securities starting in 2007. Trading collapsed because people didn’t know how to value these assets properly. Holders of them don’t want to sell because they think they’re being lowballed, while buyers don’t want to offer more because they don’t think it’s worth any more. The lack of transactions sometimes make things worse, because without recent trades it’s even harder to evaluate how much these assets are actually worth, making the problem worse. So sometimes the default ends up being inaction. In the case of these securities, the ones who were left holding the bag ended up eating all the losses.

But this is a blog about tea. The reason I brought this up is because there’s a bit of a freeze going on nowadays as well in the market for aged oolongs in Taiwan. If you’ve been reading this blog for a long time you would know that I started seriously exploring this genre of tea beginning in 2007. Back then it was quite easy to find good aged oolong for a reasonable price. Unfortunately, that is no longer true. It’s harder now to come by decently aged (20+ years) oolongs for prices that are still pretty reasonable. People have been trying to hype up the market in recent years, leading to rising prices. China’s entry into this, of course, is a big factor, as with almost every other asset class on this planet. Chinese buyers are buying up old tea for no reason other than to have something different, and in this case they’re driving up prices here as well, just like with puerh.

There are some differences though. The first is that aged oolongs have no labels to go by, no cake shape to ponder, no wrappers and neifei to identify the tea. This means that one bag of aged oolong, at least from looks alone, don’t always look very different from another bag. Experienced drinkers can tell some clues from the dry leaves – their shape, their colour, their smell – that give you hints of what the tea is like, but for most people, this is pretty hard to do without a lot of contact with a wide variety of aged oolongs. It’s not easy. The lack of packaging means that unlike puerh, it is hard to say “I have this 30 years old competition grade oolong” that will easily convince another, probably less experienced buyer. The tea does all the talking and one is best to ignore any kind of information given to you by the seller.

This means that there’s always going to be a ceiling to the price of aged oolong – without the assurance of any kind of packaging, and with the wide variety of states in which an aged oolong can present itself, it is very hard for the common drinker to know what they’re buying, which means that people aren’t willing to pay a lot of serious money for it. Except in one case, that is – old competition teas. If you have a box of unopened 30 years old competition tea from Lugu, for example, it’s going to be worth some serious money. A jin can easily be $1000 USD or more. If the box doesn’t look like it’s been through a couple hurricanes, you can readily sell it for good money.

This creates a dilemma for the seller though. On my recent trip to Taiwan I talked to an owner of an old tea shop. He recently sold a bunch of these old competition teas to a collector/vendor for about $1200 a box each. Thing is, he has a couple bags of this tea left that is from the same year, but how should he price these? He wants to get the same money from selling these as he got from the boxed ones, because, as he claims, the tea is the same. I looked at the tea – it looks fine, smells fine, but at the price he’s quoting, it’s far too expensive. He even brewed some for me, just for sharing. It was decent, but honestly nothing too great. I’ve gotten far better, even in recent years, for a lot less money. Out of the packaging, aged oolongs just aren’t worth that much.

So instead he has these two aged oolongs he sells at a more pedestrian price (about $250 USD/jin) but which are really no good at all – it’s got a moldy smell and just isn’t very pleasant to drink. Because of the prices he was able to sell his other teas at, however, he has good reason to feel this is perfectly reasonable. I can see why, although I honestly don’t think anyone should buy these aged oolongs at these prices.

I also encountered a tea farmer who sold some family aged teas for a similarly high price, partly because the family is somewhat famous in the Dong Ding area. So, even for his 5 years old tea that barely tastes like aged anything at all, he also wants the same high price. What is someone supposed to do with that?

There’s also the aforementioned old tea competitions now – new competitions of aged teas. So instead of selling to random people, many vendors simply prefer to enter their aged oolong into these competitions. If the tea is decent, then they’re pretty much guaranteed at least a low ranking in these, which means getting official packaging, which also means that people then are much more willing to pay a higher price for the tea. So why sell it at all? Since the category is aged tea, just enter some this year, enter some next year, until you run out of your supply. It’s really pretty easy to do.

In the meantime, there’s an endless parade of stuff that is subpar – sour tea, badly roasted tea, moldy tea, stuff that isn’t really aged but pretending to be, etc. The possibilities are endless, and many of them are being peddled as aged oolong. Some of them make their way to Western vendors, at prices that are quite high but at qualities that are not. Many others are being sold locally at shops that tell a good tale. Either way, the consumers suffer. It’s too bad, but it’s all too common.

So, unlike some years ago, finding good aged oolong is no longer easy. It’s possible, but prices are now higher, and the quality is generally lower. When you find the good stuff, the vendor often doesn’t even want to sell. I guess that’s true almost universally for all things tea in the past ten years. It’s just sad to see that this is happening to the type of tea that I love to drink.

Competition trouble

 photo C0B91405-5B83-48F6-9BB0-8C36D5E45169.jpg

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.