2019-2021 7542s

Yesterday I went with a friend of mine to a local Dayi store to drink the new 7542s. We had three – from 2019 to 2021 (left to right). The reason we went is simple – the new 7542s are priced to the heavens. The new 7542 this year, for example, is well over 1000 RMB a cake. On Taobao it is selling for roughly 1500+ per cake, which is about $230 USD. The green wrapper version of the 7542 from last year is now double that at 3000+. It was a “special” year, some 80th anniversary cake, basically. The 2019 is about the same price as the 2021. None of these prices make any sense.

They especially don’t make sense when you drink them. The 2021 one feels insipid, high fragrance, but lacking in body. The 2020 one is better – obviously so. It’s got a solid mouthfeel and rounded profile. The tea is decent, but at $450 USD a cake, you have a LOT of alternatives and the 7542 does not stand out as a good purchase. Likewise for the 2019 – the tea, which is pretty standard factory fare, has no real business being this expensive. The 2018, funny enough, is only a fraction of the price.

It’s clear that Dayi has switched strategies once again. Long gone are the days when they do 10+ pressings of 7542 a year. These years it’s just once, and they limit the production amount. This is, I think, mostly to drive up prices. For the price of one of these cakes you can find a tong of some older 7542 with 10 years of storage on it. There isn’t that much immediate demand to consume this tea – nobody’s drinking this for fun. In fact, any kind of blemish on the packaging on these teas immediately result in a discount, so people are loathe to even handle them lest they lose value. God forbid there’s “tea oils” on the wrapper or a tiny dent on your box. These are, now more than ever, vehicles for alternative investment and not for drinking. If you want to drink something, find a not-sought-after Dayi recipe from like 2009 and buy away. If well stored, they offer good value for money. These 7542s are for people who have too much cash and nowhere to spend it.

In Memoriam: Kihara-san

About ten years ago when I first got back to Hong Kong, I was wandering around in the pre-children days and went to Lau Yu Fat to see if they had anything interesting to sell. When I got there someone was already sitting there with old Mr. Lau, drinking some tea. It was a Japanese couple and they were having some tieguanyin. I joined in, wanting to try some puerh or another. The tea was not very remarkable. I don’t even remember if I bought anything that day – I may have out of politeness. But as I was just doing research that ended up in the article A Foreign Infusion, I had a fun and exciting conversation with this Japanese aficionado of Chinese tea. Afterwards, we exchanged contact info.

I didn’t expect much from it, to be quite honest. While I’ve met many people over the years over tea tables, the number of people I’ve actually kept in touch with any regularity is small. Kihara-san, though, was different. He loved traveling, tea, and good food. Hong Kong was a frequent stop for him and his wife, and they would visit at least a couple times a year, always staying for just a night in the same hotel. I also happened to go to Japan every year or so. Before I knew it, I would be meeting him a few times a year, over food, tea, or both, and inviting him to places that I know. We even once met while we were both in Taiwan, with him taking me to a place he knows near the Taoyuan airport. Good times.

Before the pandemic hit, we had plans to go out for sushi together next time I visited Tokyo. While the Sukiyabashi Jiro is world famous for the documentary and the three Michelin star, Kihara-san thought it was “too old fashioned – too conservative.” This other place, he said, would be more exciting. I had also wanted to finally see, in person, his heirloom teapot that he inherited from his grandfather, who was a trader in Nagasaki. It’s a zhuni pot, Siting shaped, and beautiful. I’ve seen many such pots on sale before, but it’s always special to handle one that’s got family history.

A year ago on June 18th, as he often did, he posted a photo of a sukiyaki place that he went to. It was the same place he recommended me to go almost exactly two years prior that served up some good beef in some basement in Ginza. 好食, he said, which is Cantonese for tasty. I implored him not to taunt people like me who were, at the time, locked down and unable to travel anywhere. The next morning, I received a reply – this time from his wife, saying that he had suddenly passed away in his sleep that night.

The news was shocking – while he had been having health issues, he seemed to be on the path to recovery. The passing was sudden. The loss, irreplaceable. A year later, I still haven’t been able to go to his tomb and pay my respects. I haven’t quite reconciled with the fact that I’ll never see this friend again, to enjoy discussions with him over good food and tea. My heart goes out to his widow, who had to navigate this awful year coupled with the passing of her husband. I know I’m not along in mourning for our friend – he had many friends all over the world, and it’s a testament to Kihara-san’s magnetic charisma.

On this memorial day of his passing, I am having some roasted tieguanyin, something I know Kihara-san would very much like. I hope that, in the great beyond, he could be enjoying as much good tea as he would like to have. Kihara-san, you’re very much missed.

Restaurant tea service

You are at a beautiful restaurant, the dinner was very good, and you’re satisfied. Dessert is coming, and the server comes around and asks you “coffee or tea?” Being a civilized person, of course you said tea. Then, they come right back and bring you what I call the box of doom

And your heart sinks, because, well, you know.

Now, granted, if you’re at some fancy place, chances are they won’t do this kind of injustice to you. Instead, they’ll have a few menu options for you to choose from. But more often than not, as a non-flavoured, caffeinated tea drinker, the options are usually English breakfast, and maybe Earl Grey. If you’re lucky, the place has a few other options, such as an Assam, Ceylon, or even Darjeeling. If not, it’s going to be some random green tea, chamomile, and a really dodgy puerh.

It’s interesting to me that this happens often enough. Restaurants that spend a good deal of time and energy worrying about their food, their alcohol, and their decor, frequently pay too little attention to literally the last thing you’re likely to taste before leaving. Yes, it’s a First World Problem, but then, that’s what this whole blog is about isn’t it.

I’ve never worked in a restaurant or run one, but I recognize that tea service is difficult and fussy. I’d imagine it’s a costly exercise having to deal with brewing tea – you need a teapot, a cup, hot water, leaves, someone to deal with all that gear, plus sugar and cream. Compared to coffee, where you just present the drinker with a cup of coffee and cream and sugar… tea is annoying.

Yet, it doesn’t really make sense to me how neglected it is among restaurants. Take, for example, this tea menu:

The eagle eyed among you probably noticed a few weird things. Puerh listed as a black (1993 too!). A Zealong premium, which doesn’t seem to exist anymore on their own website, also black (why buy a Zealong black tea?). Yushan oolong from the national park – pretty certain anywhere with tea farms isn’t actually in the park itself – most likely it’s an area next to Yushan, more like an Alishan tea. Da Ya Qing is probably Dayeqing, a typical name for a yellow tea. Yuzu Kikucha, not kikicha. Now, what if I told you this is from the last page of the 100+ pages wine menu from Per Se, a Michelin three star restaurant in NYC owned by Thomas Keller? I’d imagine their wine list doesn’t have this many question marks on one page, so why is it ok with tea?

Now, typos aside, this tea menu is actually ok – it has nine options for those of us who want unflavoured, caffeinated tea, which is a lot more than most places offer. Of course, at a restaurant charging you hundreds of dollars per head, this is the least I’d expect. But then, even at super fancy places, the tea service can be underwhelming.

“Per Se is dated” I hear you say. Ok, how about the menu at Le Bernadin, a half dozen blocks down Broadway?

If you want caffeinated, non-flavoured tea, you’re stuck with Keemun or Dragonwell (not Dragon’s well). I guess you can drink sencha… but you know, there’s a reason nice Japanese places in Japan generally give you hojicha after a meal and not sencha. Sencha is not an after-meal drink, at all. Especially after heavy French food, you’d want something with a bit more weight. Le Bernadin’s tea menu veers too much on the light side – even Keemun might be too light. A malty Yunnan black would do much better (or, better yet, a heavily roasted TGY).

Which also gets me to the second part – the teaware. The teapots used are often impractical, looking more to impress visually than be good practically. They’re usually too big, which I understand – you want to avoid having to refill. But it also means there’s a lot of room for error for the drinker. Use too much leaves, and it comes out super strong. Use too little, and the tea is insipid, especially if it’s something that sells for $8 at a place with a tasting menu at $275. If the teapot has a mesh element, they’re impossible to clean properly, and after a few months or a year, will take on the smell and taste of whatever flavoured teas that are most commonly ordered at the restaurant. So then, when you order that sencha, it’s going to come with free vanilla and lavender flavour, whether you like it or not. And don’t get me started on baskets/infusers that are too small for the job.

Carrying tea is costly, just like any kind of inventory, and unlike wine, it goes bad. So it’s fairly understandable why you’d want to avoid having too much variety or just too much stock in general. I think for a restaurant menu, flavoured vs unflavoured should be about half and half. Easy to brew teas should be prioritized – blacks, roasted oolongs, hojicha, that sort of thing. Sencha, pan fried green teas, and other more delicate teas like light oolongs should be treated cautiously – if carried at all (and they also go stale very quickly). For example, that dancong on Per Se’s menu looks like a disaster in the making – I can imagine it being fragrant but also nasty bitter if brewed the normal western way in a big pot. How is that a good idea?

Look, I get it, tea isn’t something you can easily charge thousands of dollars for, unlike wine. While there’s a market for expensive-ish tea, these restaurants aren’t where you’d go for that. I’m not asking for home quality tea here, I just want something that isn’t nasty and leave me with a bad taste in the mouth as the last thing I ingest before standing up and walking out. For those of us who don’t drink coffee, there’s often no alternative but some bad English breakfast blend that taste like Lipton yellow label. For restaurants that supposedly care about things like taste, food source, sustainability, and all that other good stuff, you should care about the tea that you serve your customers.

Yixing Inventory #20: Gemingchang

I’ve been delinquent in updating this series. Here goes.

This is a pot marked “Gemingchang”, a producer of Yixing pots in the proverbial “Late Qing, early Republic” period. There are lots of these on the market, many of them fake. I’ve got maybe half a dozen of these, and I think after a while you notice a few things. This shape here is a pretty classic one for this mark. The cut on the spout is usually sharp. Really nice, practical pots. 100ml

2005 Changtai group establishment commemoration tuo

The tea we drank for this past Sunday’s livestream was this tuo. On his site, Glen from Crimson Lotus Tea lists it as a 2003, because that’s what he’s been told the tea is from. The reason I have it here as 2005 is because of what’s on the wrapper – the wrapper claims this is for commemoration of the establishment of the Changtai Tea Group, which happened in April of 2005. Given that wording, the pressing of this tea cannot have happened before that, thus the year. It’s entirely possible that the tea is made with leaves that were a couple years old by then – nobody knows, and frankly, once you go past ten years or so, plus one or two years doesn’t matter.

What does matter, however, is the storage condition. One thing that I worry about when I buy aged teas from China these days is where it was stored – and sellers don’t always tell you that. If you can taste it in person, then it’s easy – just judge it by the tea. If you can’t though, then it’s a lottery. I bought a cake from 2007 recently that has been stored in Kunming the entire time, or at least it tastes like it – it’s like a cryogenically frozen tea, barely aged. It has some Kunming aged notes – leaves are a bit darker, tea brews a little more orange, but, it’s still tasting very young.

That’s not the case for this tea. I said on the stream it’s decent – and I might have undersold it a bit. I drank it once before the stream and once during. My initial impression, without knowing anything about the tea (I didn’t even look at the website) was that it tastes like something that’s been dry stored in Guangdong, with an ever so light hint of wetness. It seems like the story is that it was stored in Xishuangbanna – entirely possible, as I’ve had some pretty good teas that’s stored in Banna before that are similar. It has that slightly musty aged smell, but that’s not too strong. The tea, despite it being from Changtai, is pretty good.

The thing about Changtai is that since 2005 when they became Changtai group, the quality of their teas took a nosedive. They built their reputation on the early Yichang Hao stuff from 1999-2004. There was a fair amount of hype around the tea, whipped up by a few individuals online. However, the tea itself really was decent. It wasn’t worth the exorbitant, post-hype price, but it was decent tea. There’s a reason Changtai Tea Shop became Changtai Group.

Once that happened, however, something changed. I think it has to do with them ramping up production volume, but whatever happened, a lot of the teas they pressed just weren’t that great, and their top of the line stuff, the Yichang Hao pressing, was expensive. In some ways, I think that diluted the brand a lot – most people couldn’t afford their top flight stuff, so bought the lower grade ones. Those, however, was very average (or worse), and so people (like me) swore off Changtai tea as a result. They also did some private pressing for individuals – Wistaria’s 2007 Hongyin, for example, was processed by Changtai with materials that were sourced through them. But that does not reflect on their standard pressings.

These days when I do buy teas I mostly buy ones that are semi-aged – 10 years or so old is a normal thing to buy, instead of something brand new. At that point, you basically know what you’re going to get. When you buy a new tea, there’s a fair amount of risk involved – some teas never aged into anything decent. When you buy something that’s aged 10+ years, if the storage has been good, then the tea would be pretty nice to drink.

This tuo, at this moment, is pretty good. With his rather short Chinese new year 15% off sale (ends in a day or so I believe), you can buy a 100g tuo with at least 15 years of decent aging for $31.5. I don’t browse much in the Western-facing part of the tea market these days, but I believe this is a very good value for what you’re getting. If you don’t have much aged tea in your stash, this is a very good candidate for some decent aged tea.

Full Disclosure: I got one tuo for free. I probably won’t be buying more of these, but that’s largely because I am a hoarder who has more tea than I can drink in a few decades. I didn’t promise him I’ll say nice things about it.

15 years

Someone on the tea discord pointed out to me that my blog is now 15 years old. I started it on a whim sitting in the Quincy dining hall, waiting for some meeting. For the first 5 or 6 years of this blog, it was basically a diary of what tea I drank. Back then, everything was pretty new – at least new enough. There were a number of blogs out there each chattering in their own way. Most of them have fallen silent, while there are a handful of (relative) newcomers such as Cwyn’s blog or Wilson’s. Blogs, as we all know, has moved on.

After this blog moved to my own domain, I started writing less of the “daily tea” type of post and started writing more topical ones. I had felt that with enough time under my belt, I could start to say something interesting about things I’ve learned through the years of tea drinking. I don’t think very many people ever look at the old “daily tea” type of posts, but I know people still refer to some of the longer form pieces I’ve done since then.

Then of course, between work, kids, and a general lack of things that I feel I haven’t covered, posts trickled to a crawl. My main tea stash doesn’t live with me at the moment, so trying things from my own storage is difficult. I should, however, really work on cataloging my pots, even if just for my own use. I hope to work on that this year.

Online activity has now turned to other social media sites. There’s a vast array of content on Instagram, although I’ve always found that medium to be too superficial, more suited for marketing than anything else. Joining the tea discord recently (thanks to an invite from a kind soul) has rekindled that feeling that I talked about in 2007 of a “Constant Tea Meeting,” where people are, now in real time, sharing their tea escapades. Reading their comments, I feel old. On Sunday my time (Saturday night 9PM EST) I’ll be doing a livestream with Crimson Lotus Tea on their Youtube channel. I don’t know what we’ll talk about, but I’m guessing it might have to do with tea.

No, this isn’t the “I’m going to shut this down” post, even though every time I write something like this it sounds like that’s where it’s headed. If anything, seeing people refer to my random thoughts from the distant past tells me I should keep this up. I should probably spend a little more time to fix this place up and make sure I have a backup in case anything happens. In any case, maybe I’ll see a few of you on Youtube in a couple days.

Taobao price controls

I was just randomly browsing through Taobao the other day, looking to maybe buy a couple cakes of those mid-2000s Dayi that I finished up during the pandemic. Except, they’re all gone, and the seller that I bought them from no longer sells any Dayi of any kind. This was unusual, since he used to have quite a few of them and it’s unlikely he’s sold out of all. Now his store only sells stuff like Nanqiao… and nobody wants to buy mid-2000s Nanqiao when Dayi is only a little more expensive.

So I DMed the guy and asked what was happening. Turns out, recently something was going on and Dayi basically managed to get Taobao to kick off all these small time tea sellers selling Dayi. Now when you search for Dayi, the only people who sell them on Taobao are the official stores, and at prices that are way higher than what was possible only a few months ago. If you look for, say, 7542 from 10+ years ago, you get less than 20 hits. Previously, you’ll get literally endless pages of the stuff. Granted, there was a fair amount of fakes in there, and you have to be careful, but there were also lots of sellers selling real tea among them. Now they’re all gone. I can still get the tea from the guy I DMed if I want, but that’s not really something you can do if you don’t know Chinese or if you don’t already know who has the good stuff.

This means that if you are bargain hunting on Taobao, that door has just closed. It’s possible to find older teas from small producers that could be good, but those are a real lottery ticket and it’s very risky to do so. If you just want some cheap Dayi, chances are finding a vendor who is located in Guangdong and has physical access to a place like Fangcun is now the better bet.

This is a troubling development. It’s probably done in the name of protecting the brand and to kick out counterfeit goods, but also ends up stopping people from undercutting officially set prices. So, just know that if you now go on Taobao to check prices… what you see is not what really happens in the market place. A lot of these teas from the big brands are being traded at a level lower than what you see on retail there. You can go to www.donghetea.com or something like that to check wholesale prices, but that still doesn’t give you access to the retail market unless you already know someone who’s there.

7542s

Since there’s no travel or anything of that sort in the pandemic, tea buying has to go online (well for those of us who used to do it in person anyway). One thing I’ve done recently is try about a dozen different 7542s from 10+ years ago. These are all from about 2006-2010. The advantage of this is that none of them are too expensive – the most expensive one is still under 1000 RMB, which, for a 10+ year tea, isn’t so bad. The cheapest is around 300 RMB, which at $50 is a lot cheaper than even a lot of newer teas. All of them I bought off Taobao. Retail is usually not much above wholesale prices, which you can get a rough check on with sites like Donghe. They even have an English version of the site.

The prices are reasonable because there just aren’t a lot of buyers. Some years ago I was musing about how in ten or twelve years, there will be a lot of people sitting on a lot of aged tea and they are going to let them go at prices that weren’t too far away from what they paid. The supply is too large and demand relatively small for these teas to rise astronomically like the stuff from the 1990s. If you are an “investor” and looking for capital gains on your tea, you buy those special production stuff from Dayi instead of 7542s. If you’re a drinker, you’re probably not storing 7542s en masse. There were a lot of these made, and the volume drinkers (restaurants, etc) aren’t using Dayi anymore in their teapots.

Storage for these tea is paramount – if you go on Taobao and you buy the same production from Kunming, the taste is a lot younger than some guy selling it from Guangdong. Location is no guarantee – a seller in Guangdong could’ve bought his lot from some guy in Kunming, or Beijing, or whatever. So finding the right guy with the right storage at the right price takes a bit of guesswork and luck, but once you find it, it’s worth it.

What’s the result of my tastings? Well… they’re all pretty decent. 7542s, from batch to batch, could have fairly obvious differences, although these differences are more obvious the more experienced you are drinking pu. One of the teas I bought, from 2007, has a distinct fruity taste up front, while another one costing double does not, but is instead stronger and lasts longer in the cup. Is the more expensive one a better tea? Yes, certainly. Is it worth the extra price? That’s much harder to say. It probably depends on how much those $50 is worth to you.

There is also the risk of buying fakes, that’s unavoidable when dealing with Dayi or any of the major factories. You could try to get yourself a black light and play with the labels, you could do comparisons, but at the end of the day, once you’ve had enough 7542s, you can tell the basic 7542 taste almost immediately – fakers don’t normally use decent tea, otherwise they can’t make money (they’re better off selling it as “ancient tree single village tea” or some such). There was a point in time when fake teas could be as good as real ones, but not in the 2006-2010 timeframe (or later).

Staying at home

The world’s in a lockdown. Those of us in Hong Kong have gone through this phase already – the whole panic buying of food and toilet paper, the closing of schools (which are still closed, at least physically, and probably for the whole semester), and the avoidance of social contacts. It does work – I think people I know here generally feel fairly safe from the virus, as cases are known and isolated very quickly, and close contacts have to go through enforced quarantine, which are difficult but perhaps necessary.

I’m teaching my history of tea course this semester for the first time here in Hong Kong (I’ve taught it once in the US some years ago). It’s a real bummer – not being able to share, physically, what I’m doing when we do live demonstrations. That portion of the class has instead turned into a kind of cooking show where the students get to watch me muck around with tea and teaware, helped by my intrepid teaching assistant as a makeshift cameraman and interlocutor. Granted, there are silver linings too – there always are. Because I was doing this at home, I could actually light a real fire using charcoal instead of having to use a heat plate (which is already probably illegal to use in a classroom). Students get to see just how much hassle you have to go through to get a fire going to boil some water for tea. There’s a reason people had servants do this kind of work.

In the meantime, my daily tea consumption is mostly grandpa style brews of various aged oolongs, and the occasional puerh. As I was making myself the cup of tea yesterday, I realized that the mug I use is almost 30 years ago – time flies. In that way, time will fly for this virus too, and life will, eventually, get back to normal. In the meantime, stay safe and healthy everyone, and enjoy the little things while practicing social distancing.

Hadong

I’ve never been to Hadong, Korea’s tea producing area. A couple months ago I got to go with a group of researchers as part of our collaborative research project, Making Modernity in East Asia. Our little sub-group specifically looks at food technologies and how tranformations of these basic elements of food production in the 19th and 20th centuries changed East Asia – as well as sharing commonalities through the borders of East Asian countries in traditional food-making techniques.

Tea of course is one of these elements. Going to Hadong was, well, interesting. The area is situated between Jeolla and Gyeongsangnam-do, where there were a fair number of Buddhist temples and a more mountainous area. Driving from Busan it’s a few hours, and once you arrive there you really see the sort of landscape that is typical of Korea – it’s hard to describe, but seeing the way the hills are silhouetted against the landscape, traditional Korean landscape paintings make more sense.

We visited a small local farm. The first thing interesting is that the trees are tiny – I’m used to seeing tea trees in places like Taiwan, Southern China, and Japan, and they’re all a lot bigger and taller. Perhaps this is a regional preference, but I also suspect it has to do with the climate – it’s a lot colder in Korea and plants would grow slower as a result. This is sort of like how lower elevation teas can produce more compared to higher elevation ones.

The really interesting thing about the farmer is that for his roller, he’s using Taiwanese machinery from a factory in Sanxia. Sanxia, of course, makes green tea. This makes perfect sense, really.

But the kill green is done on a wok custom made to order by the farmer

The wok is ceramic. It’s heavy, and it’s deep. You can smell a little of the tea residue while you’re near it. The farmer claims that he tried a few different shapes and settled on this one.

We, of course, had some tea. Korean green tea… well green teas in general are not really my thing. I started out drinking dragonwells back in the day but nowadays I almost never touch greens, mostly because it’s something that physically doesn’t agree with me all that well, and I also don’t find interesting. In Korea, when they brew greens, they do it in a style that is somewhat similar to Japanese brewing – low temperature, a few infusions, but the taste, because of its wok kill green process, is closer to Chinese style greens. The farmer may also have been brewing on the lighter side, but for someone like me it doesn’t hold a lot of interest.

The cardinal sin of Korean greens, though, is the cost. The teas are fine as they are – and if you’re interested in greens they can be pretty decent. However, the good stuff is quite expensive. On a per gram basis, Korean greens are really high priced, at least among all the ones I’ve encountered before. I think this is partly owing to the relative small scale of the farmers and the limited amount of production in the local area. There is also the typical preference for local tea, so they’re willing to pay more for domestically produced teas than others. What you end up having is teas that are too high priced for foreigners to consume, relatively speaking. There are, I believe, some larger scale farms that sell cheaper varieties, but those aren’t all that interesting either.