Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taste calibration

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

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

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

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

Childproofing

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

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

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

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

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

So about those choices

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

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

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

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

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

Hong Kong teashop ecology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t drink shincha

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

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

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

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

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

Relativism in tea

A long time ago, I talked about tea blogging as a community of people who are virtually talking about drinking tea together in a never-ending session. Things have really quieted down since then. Blogs, as a form of writing, seems to be at least dying, overtaken by social media in various guises. Sometimes you still have new entrants in this field, however, and recently there were a couple posts, one by the vendor TwoDog, and the other by Cwyn, a sometime visitor of this site, about relativism in tea. The claim here is simple, if I’m allowed to reduce them a little bit. Basically, the idea is that we should approach teas with a clean slate, and that opinions shouldn’t be formed based on other people’s views of the tea. So far, so good. Then the claim, made in slightly different ways, come out of both posts – that all opinions are equally valid because there’s no real absolute in tea, and that experts, real or imagined (and there are plenty of imagined ones out there), don’t know any better. That I’m not so sure about.

This type of claim I see often, and basically boils down to the idea that opinions are all equally valid. On some level this may be true, if it’s a matter of preference. What I mean is, when given a choice of, say, a menu of food items, each person have their own matrix of preferences that will guide them to choose one out of the many things on that menu. Some will choose none at all, others may have to be limited by the size of their stomach. That choice is an opinion, and the chooser has the liberty to do whatever s/he wants. They may be picking based on taste, allergies, religion, politics, or any number of factors. It’s hard for anyone to say “you shouldn’t have picked the chicken.”

At the same time though, that doesn’t mean that one cannot make claims about absolute quality of the food on this given menu. For example, if the choices on the menu include the following items: a McDonald’s hamburger, a simple grilled flank steak, and a slow cooked beef stew from a top restaurant, I think it is pretty easy for most people to say that the slow cooked beef is the best food item among the choices, even though not everyone will choose to, or even want to, eat that. There will be outliers who prefer the hamburger, even. Others, Hindus for example, will reject the entire menu because it’s all Not Food for them. But even then, objectively, they can probably say that the slow cooked beef is the highest quality item here.

Teas are no different. There are, objectively, teas that are better and teas that are worse. The high elevation, hand crafted Darjeeling is probably a better tea than the Liptop tea bag, but there might be times when I’d rather drink the Lipton (admittedly not too many). One is a judgement of quality, the other is an expression of preference. It’s quite easy to mix the two.

More importantly, the experience of the person expressing that opinion also matters. I asked my cousin, who’s a professional sommelier, about ideas of absolute quality in wine – does it exist? Do people talk about these? It’s pretty easy to say that a First Growth Bordeaux is a better wine than the $5 a litre box wine you find at your local supermarket. At the same time, the guy who’s only drunk First Growth wines and who’s never had a bad wine, so to speak, is actually probably less able to judge a wine than someone who’s drunk the whole range, good and bad, because he lacks the reference points for making an informed judgement. What you get in the end is just first impressions, with references that may or may not be relevant, and is indeed utterly useless precisely because it’s ungrounded in experience.

Similarly, when TwoDog talks about approaching a tea as a beginner, well, a true beginner won’t know what’s what, and in my experience, most beginner to puerh all have one instant response to this stuff – it’s really bitter. That’s it. That’s the first thing that hits them, and quite a few can’t let go of that beyond the “but it’s so bitter”. Some may move beyond it and find other things about the tea, but it actually does take experience with a certain type of item in order to be able to pass a decent judgement on it. If you really approach something as a real beginner, you will end up with reviews like this four year old at the French Laundry. It’s honest, it’s unpretentious, she’s not probably all that impressed by the pomp and circumstance, but it’s also something we look at and say “well, the kid doesn’t know what she’s dealing with,” and end up with “let me eat that.” Never mind that she rejected half of the good stuff. So, my point is – there’s a good and bad, and experiences do matter. They’re certainly not foolproof, and there will be differences of opinion, but if you stick a few tea in front of a bunch of people who all live and die by drinking tea, chances are their preferences will be similar. The preferences will be more disparate when the teas sampled are more diverse, but in general there will be a consensus on which one’s better and which one’s worse.

Having dispensed with absolute relativism, I do agree with Cwyn in the uselessness of tea reviews online, but not for reasons of relative opinions. Rather, they’re useless because nobody controls for the most important input into the tea – water. Unless we all start using the same thing as our standard tasting water, what you put into the cup is going to drastically affect how it comes out. Someone who uses a reverse osmosis filtration at home is going to have a lot of tea come out absolutely horribly. In some places, whether you’re drinking water from the snow melt in the spring or the summer rains probably will also change how your teas taste. Without controlling for that, all reviews are at best suggestive. There’s a reason I pretty much stopped writing tea reviews on this blog – they’re not useful and they don’t serve any real purpose, not even really for myself anymore at this point. So, I don’t do them.

So what’s the point of me writing all this? Well, I think it does matter for us to critically reflect on what tea we’re drinking, to examine them, to analyze them, and to learn from them. Addition of experience will enhance tea drinking, because it adds one more frame of reference and will enrich all future tea drinking activity, even if it’s a bad tea. If this is a hobby (and if you’re reading this, it probably is) then you should most definitely go out and enjoy and at the same time critique what you’re drinking. There are lots of good tea out there, there are also lots of bad tea out there, but exploration is half the fun. Besides, there’s a tea for every occasion, even if that tea sometimes happens to be a Lipton teabag.

Travel with no tea

Normally when I travel overseas, I bring my own tea. This way I have an assured supply of decent tea, so long as I can find hot water. On my most recent trip, however, I decided to not bother and see what happens. Granted, I was going to Japan, so things are a little easier in that it’s a tea drinking country. I know I’ll be able to find tea here and there. With a one year old in tow, it’s just easier to travel with as little as possible.

It also ended up being a good look at how normal people can consume tea. I think doing this across many countries can also tell you, generally, how much tea that place drinks. In Japan’s case, the answer is obviously a lot. The kinds of tea that I ended up drinking include a large number of bottled teas – from cheap roasted oolong to sencha ones, bought from vending machines or in some cases convenience stores. I consumed a number of hotel teabags, which include a Lipton Darjeeling (doesn’t taste like anything from Darjeeling), a Lipton Ceylon (what you’d expect), some unbranded oolong tea (cheap Chinese restaurant tea) and some unbranded sencha (meh). At various restaurants tea is offered as a matter of course, with hojicha being the most likely beverage given.

One of the rooms I stayed at, this one at a ryokan, also gave me this

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Which is a basic sencha kit. You can see the kyusu is cheap, but if you’re going to let regular guests use it, it’s probably wise to use cheap kyusus. It has everything you need – two cups (more if there were more guests, I believe), a pot, a water container, two chataku, a towel, and two types of tea – a sencha and a hojicha. The sencha is bagged, while the hojicha is not. I suspect it mostly has to do with the fact that the sencha was going to be difficult to clean out of the kyusu so they bagged it for convenience. The teas are actually decent quality.

Now, this is all in a country that produces a large amount of tea, where every hotel room has a water kettle, and generally is friendly to tea drinkers. If I had brought my own tea, I would’ve just drunk those plus maybe some bottles, which is not too bad.

Contrast that with Korea, though, and you can see that Korea, in general, is not a tea friendly place. Hotel rooms at two pretty decent hotels have no provision for good hot water – you need to either use the coffee machine, which is mostly a horrible idea, or you ask the hotel to bring hot water to you, which they do but in carafes that have carried coffee before, thus defeating the purpose of asking for water in the first place. Restaurants do not routinely offer caffeinated tea as a beverage. I brought my own tea there, but it was a frustrating experience. Your best bet is to go to the nearest coffee shop and buy that anonymous black tea they have. It’s a much sadder place for a tea drinker. It’s at more or less the same level as traveling to the US. Koreans drink coffee.

From my experience, if you’re not happy drinking anonymous bagged black tea all day long from paper cups, only Japan and Taiwan are safe places to travel without any tea of your own. Even mainland China is dicey – you need to hit tourist spots to find those tea stands that sell you cheap but decent green teas. Although at least in China, good hot water is to be had everywhere, so bringing your own is made much easier.