Guide to buying tea in China: Part II – what to do

So let’s say you settled on a tea store and you’re about to go in. What then?

First of all – if a shop already has some patrons in there, and I don’t know the shop owner already, I don’t go in. There is no rule that says you can’t walk into a store with customers, but generally, unless it’s a big store with more than one tea table and more than one free storekeep, I’d avoid those and wait for them to clear. If you can invest multiple visits to the same market, then by all means go in and get to know them, but if this is your only visit, it’s usually not a great idea.

For the purpose of “what to do” there are really two kinds of shops that we’re talking about. There are puerh shops, and there are everything else.

Puerh shops – These are relatively simple. The reason is because the teas they sell are all on display – they are usually part of the wall decoration, so you know exactly what the shop sells. There are shops that only sell a single maker’s cakes, and there are shops that sell from a variety of makers. Either way – you know what you see in front of you, assuming you can read Chinese, and you can just point and say I want to try this, or at least look at it.

For stores that refuse to give you an opportunity to try a tea, unless said tea is in the extremely expensive (i.e. 3000 RMB or above per cake) territory, you should probably just walk out now. Of course, walking in and demanding to try an expensive cake right away may rub people the wrong way as they might think you’re just mooching tea off them, so some diplomacy is usually useful here.

I’ve said before that it is sometimes useful to demonstrate that you’re not a complete neophyte when it comes to buying puerh. Being able to wrap a cake properly helps that, as is sounding somewhat knowledgeable. However, that’s not necessarily that useful. Unfortunately, it comes down to tasting.

There is always going to be a bit of song and dance when it comes to trying new cakes with a new store – the owner is trying to figure out what you like, you’re trying to figure out what the tea is like (and the owner too). Sometimes it doesn’t work and you just have to bail and go somewhere else. Sometimes you get to engage a bit more. It kinda depends. Remember though – you have a lot of tea stores around you and you’re not at a loss for options. If the first place you picked end up pushing terrible teas on you, or keep insisting you should drink cooked when you want raw, go somewhere else.

Picking the right tea in the store to try is always hard, and is made a bit easier if you read Chinese. Picking something that will radio your interests to the owner is useful. If you are interested in big factory teas, choose one of those. If you want something from a smaller outfit, do that. If you want Yiwu, ask them what Yiwu you have. These are also ways in which you can show you know more than nothing.

Non-puerh shops - These are infinitely harder. The first problem is you can no longer see what’s on offer. Assuming you took my advice and walked into a store that only sells one type of tea, say, yancha, you know that the vast majority of the teas they have are yancha (they might dabble in a few things on the side, but that’s usually not advertised). The problem is, they have all these cans, or boxes, or whatever they choose to contain their teas in. There are labels on them, but by and large, labels on boxes or cans in Chinese tea shops have nothing to do with their actual contents. In a giant cardboard box with the words “Dahongpao” on it, for example, you might find smaller bags of tea of various sizes. Only the owner knows what they are. So your only way to get to try whatever it is is to ask.

A very common question that an owner would ask you, once you tell them you want to try some yancha, is some variation of “what price range are you looking at?” This is the single most annoying question in the entire tea tasting process at a tea shop in China. It’s difficult to answer. Telling them a high number basically tells them you’re there to be skinned alive. Telling them a low number might mean time wasted drinking crap. It’s also a place where they can easily manipulate the teas they show you to get you to pay what they want you to pay.

One way perhaps to circumvent that is to first ask to look at multiple teas. Learning how to judge teas by look, at least a little, is useful here. Unfortunately there’s no hard and fast way to learn how to do that – and some teas can look ok and taste like garbage. After you looked at a few, try the one that looks the most promising.

There are a number of things they can do to sell you the tea they want to sell. By starting you off with a bad tea, for example, the next thing you taste will be amazing, even when it’s actually just an ok tea. They can also do it the other way – show you something that’s ok, then a bunch of stuff that’s no good. After the third one you’d give up and buy the first, even though it’s entirely possible you’d find much better tea next door, or they have even better stuff that they haven’t shown you. Prices is also a problem – three teas that they are willing to sell you at, say, 300, 400, and 500 a jin can also be sold at 1300, 1400, 1500 a jin, and you wouldn’t know the difference unless you know what a tea that sells for 1500 should generally taste like. Shopping for good loose tea is not easy and is a lot tougher than shopping for puerh. It takes real practice.

More on teashops and tastings next time.

Guide to buying tea in China: Part I – where to go

Traveling to China soon? Want to buy some tea for yourself or someone else? I thought I should do a guide on what to do when you’re in China and looking for tea. Note: things I say here do NOT apply to Hong Kong or Taiwan. China’s commercial landscape for tea is pretty different from these two places and so they operate under separate rules.

First of all, we should start with the question of where to go to buy said tea. Now, if you can answer a few quick questions

1) Do you speak any Mandarin?

2) Are you buying for yourself?

3) Do you have a lot of time this trip?

If the answer to any of these three questions is a “no,” especially if you answer “no” more than once, then the answer is easy – you should go shop at one of the big chain stores for tea, such as Wuyutai (state run) or Tianfu (Taiwanese owned tea conglomerate). Buy whatever suits your fancy there, and move on to do your tourist thingy.

Before you say this is mercenary or too ismple – let me explain. If you don’t speak any Chinese, your likelihood of landing good tea at a local shop is pretty low. There might be some local specialty tea store that can deal with you in English, but your run of the mill tea shop on the street corner probably can’t. You may be able to get away with some sign language, but you need some luck and goodwill from the store owner to not get screwed in the process. Granted, even if you don’t speak Mandarin you can still go to see a tea market, just don’t expect any great bargains or a guaranteed positive experience doing it.

If you’re not buying for yourself – it’s hard buying tea for friends. If your friend is so unkind as to stick you with a tea buying mission while you’re on your trip to China, especially if you yourself are not too keen on buying tea on the trip, well, they pretty much deserve whatever you find convenient. Also, places like Wuyutai or Tianfu won’t screw you with fake tea – they’ll just screw you with higher prices. Lastly, the tea they sell will come in decent packaging, relatively speaking. This may be important if you’re buying a gift or for the unwashed who judge teas by their packaging materials.

If you’re on a short trip and barely have time to fit in a visit to the Forbidden City, then wasting half a day just to get to a tea market is probably not the best idea. You can buy tea online from your own home, but you can’t visit sites online (not really anyway). Go do your touristy thing and ignore the tea.

Now, if your answers to all three questions are “yes”, or if you feel adventurous enough and seeing a tea market is your idea of fun, then you should try to investigate what your city’s local tea mall is (there’s one in a lot of major cities). Some are pretty far from city center, while others are right inside the city. Big cities often have multiple markets. In Shanghai, for example, there’s the Tianshan tea market, which is not huge or great by Chinese standard, but it’s certainly more teashops than any visitor would’ve seen in person, and it’s very close to a subway station.

There are also a lot of small, local teashops. These fall into two categories. One is the run-of-the-mill kind, which are basically your neighbourhood tea shop. They will sell regular stuff – often lower end. Prices are probably not bad here, although if you look like a foreigner it’s quite possible that they will give you a “foreigner special” and screw you in the process. If you just need some basic, no name tea, and if you don’t care about packaging or what not, these might not be bad options. These stores look grubby, basic, usually sparsely decorated, maybe just with some tea canisters on the sides, and not much else. The owner likely lives in the store as well with his family.

There are now another kind of teashops – these are the high end stuff, and you’ll know it if you see it. They have nice decor, pretty sales girls, good looking teaware, and generally are trying to sell you “art” instead of “tea”. I’d personally stay away from all of these. They do sometimes offer nice tea, but they will never be a bargain. There is also a high likelihood that they’re merely dressing up very average tea as good and exclusive, and so you’re really no better off than just buying online.

The decision to go to a tea market is a little more complicated than that. If you hate green tea, only drink puerh, and you’re in Shanghai, you are probably better off trying to see if Eugene of Tea Urchin wants to meet up with you instead.  The thing is, puerh isn’t that popular in Shanghai, and while they will certainly have some at the tea markets, the selection will not be great, and prices may not be good either. If you are looking for green tea, you’ll have an endless supply there. If you want something not popular at the area you’re at, then it’s more of a crapshoot.

If you go to a tea market though, there’s a secondary level of “where to go” that now enters the equation. You will be confronted by rows and rows of teashops. You only have a day, or half a day, or whatever. Where should you go? Which shop should you enter to spend your precious tea shopping time at?

Obviously if you have something specific in mind, like a specialty store you read about, or a contact you made, then by all means go there. But if you are just visiting for the first time with no reference, then you should first consider what kind of tea you are interested in. You should almost always head into a store that only sells one kind of tea – if you want tieguanyin, look for a tieguanyin store. If you want white tea, try to find a white tea specialist. While this is by no means a guarantee that you’ll find great tea, it’s better than heading into one of the many generic stores that sell everything under the sun. To this end, learning what the characters for your favourite tea looks like could be useful, especially when you’re not looking for puerh. If you’re looking for puerh, stores that sell only one brand tend to have better stuff than stores that sell a hodgepodge of brands. However, stores that sell a hodgepodge are more likely to have bargains, provided you have time to find them and know what you’re doing. This usually require repeated visits. There is the same divide between high end store and grubby store at many tea markets. It is directly related to what your shopping experience will be like – whether it will be pleasant or not. This is hardly a good guage for quality though – grubby stores often can have very good tea, while a high end looking one can actually be selling inflated crap. So for these cases it’s really a matter of you being able to taste the difference.

These are basically your options for buying tea in China. There’s never really any reason to buy from a department store or anything like that. I will cover what you do once you enter a store in another post.

Price dislocation

I remember when I first started drinking puerh seriously almost ten years ago, a common argument that you see around the internet (Chinese, mainly) and among drinkers is that it’s cheap, so it’s worth bothering with. Oftentimes the comparison was with longjing – one jin of longjing was probably somewhere in the ballpark of 1200-2000 RMB back in the day, whereas the equivalent of good quality puerh was only a few hundred RMB. It was simply a lot cheaper to drink puerh, and so even if you have no intention of aging the tea, of dabbling in the aged tea market, of wanting to drink that taste, you can still enjoy good quality tea for a lot less money.

Fast forward ten years, the price for longjing has probably doubled in this period. At the same time, however, the price for newly made, good quality raw puerh has probably risen by about tenfold. Old tree teas from famous areas harvested during the spring now routinely command 2000+ RMB (and often much higher) per 357g cake. The value argument for buying new puerh to drink compared to other types of teas in the market has simply vanished in the past ten years. Yes, there are much cheaper cakes out there. You can still find, albeit with some difficulty now, cakes that sell for under 100 RMB a piece, but those appear far less frequently than before, and you can rest assured that the chances of finding quality tea among that pile of nameless and faceless cakes is quite low, much worse than before.

The interesting thing here is that prices for teas you can buy off websites that sell teas in English have risen by much, much less than what you can find in the markets here. Prices for some vendors have edged up a bit compared to previous years, and they have, just as mainland vendors have done, used tricks like making smaller cakes to make the sticker-shock less shocking. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there is a sort of glass ceiling for prices for new make puerh that is somewhere in the ballpark of $150 USD a cake. You almost never see that price point breached. Even for older teas, I very rarely see things that cost much more than about $200 a cake, which severely limits the options of what can be sold. In casual conversations with a few vendors about this, it’s pretty apparent that the market simply isn’t really ready to pay this kind of prices for tea, and when they do, it’s overwhelmingly in samples sales only, which doesn’t amount to much.

When you think about it, this necessarily means that something is going on with the quality of the leaves going into the cakes. One would be to lower the cost basis by using leaves from cheaper regions, but by and large, cheaper regions are cheaper for a reason. Laoman’e is cheaper not just because it’s less famous, but it’s seen as less age-worthy because it’s bitter. Vendors can also mitigate the rise in cost by using leaves from lesser trees from the same region. Whereas gushu teas are very expensive, you can often find leaves from younger trees (50-100 years old ones, or even younger) that cost a lot less.

It’s not just the price of raw materials that went up. Labour costs for everything in China has gone up. When I stayed in Beijing in 2006 for a year, the going rate for a teashop girl (and they’re almost all girls) was about 600-700 RMB a month, plus room and board. These days you’d be lucky to find someone for much below 2000. So while it is most certainly the case that the raw materials of the tea going into the cakes have gone up in prices, everything else has adjusted up too. You also have to remember that whereas in 2006 one USD was worth about 8 RMB, these days it’s only 6.24 RMB, which means everything, automatically, has gone up by about 25% before you even lift a finger.

The situation is definitely worse in the cases of vendors who have high cost structures – the need to maintain a brick and mortar shop, the need to buy long haul international plane tickets (and shipping the tea back to their home base), so on so forth. If the price for the tea they can sell hasn’t gone up much, and if the cost of any of these other things haven’t gone down much (they haven’t) then the only place they can squeeze out a profit is to lower their cost by using cheaper raw materials.

This kind of inflation is of course a direct consequence of China’s rapid economic development. There are very few things in our normal day to day life that has price rises of this sort – the only thing that we normally buy that goes through severe price fluctuations is oil. Even then, it’s only in the US where the gas prices reflect real changes in oil prices – in most developed countries tax is such a big part of the price of gasoline that the net effect of oil price changes resulting in an increase in pump prices is smaller. In other words, none of us, on a day to day basis, buy anything in our daily life that has shifted in cost and price as much as the puerh we’re buying.

So whereas in 2006 if someone posts on an internet forum, saying they want to buy a decent cake of tea for under $50, there were a lot of decent options, these days if you want a cake for under $50 that will age well, chances are you really have to scrape the bottom of the barrel, and even then the likelihood of finding something good is slim. As I’ve mentioned previously, the best bet is for teas that are 1) from before 2010 and 2) from vendors who don’t know current prices, and even then, one has to be very selective. Trying to find a new 2014 tea that’s under that price? Well, as a point of comparison, my new 2014 Dayi 7542 that I just bought cost me a bit over 30 USD. Dayi, of course, commands a premium over other brands, and I didn’t bother bargaining for one cake, but the fact is this cake, 10 years ago, would’ve cost about maybe 4-5 USD a cake. High prices are here to stay, so while it pains me to say this, as consumers we have to be aware that a dollar now is not like a dollar a few years ago, and we need to adjust our expectations accordingly. Otherwise, all you’ll get offered to buy are from the trash heap that nobody would want to buy in China itself.

Notes from Beijing

Writing after a trip to Beijing, I visited some old friends and made some observations of what’s going on here

1) Maliandao is growing up – literally. There’s another one or two new tea malls that have popped up – with rather empty storefronts. I think it is safe to say that at some point the malls have oversupplied the amount of space people really need/can sustain. While some stores that were around when I lived here in 2006 are still here, going strong, many others have died. Some others yet have migrated out of Maliandao to other places in the city – usually these are the higher end places that do more of their own custom pressings, etc. Some of my old contacts are now no longer there, and some of my tea friends in the city also no longer visit Maliandao.

2) Among the stores that have stayed is Xiaomei’s, an old friend whom Hobbes has blogged more about than I. I go see her pretty much every time I visit Beijing. The amount of tea she has stocked up in her store grows every time, to the point where now it’s just a narrow corridor going in with boxes on the sides.

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You might also notice junior there, learning the trade (and yes, drinking tea) at the tender age of one. She’s been busy having a family too, now the mother of three. Time flies! Alas, she has no more of the Yisheng cake, but some of her old pressings are still available (though, oddly, not all on her Taobao store). I bought some, as it’s not bad and for teas that are about seven years old, not a bad value.

3) White tea is still the tea of the month. It all started with the tieguanyin craze, some ten plus years ago. Then people caught on to puerh, and that went on for a while (still going on, sort of). And then you have the black teas – things like jinjunmei were sold at astronomical prices, and now every other store in Maliandao seems to sell white tea, from Fuding and other places. Xiaomei has also started doing a lot of white teas from a few years ago – puerh raw material prices are such that business is difficult to do, as you need to spend a lot of money on inventory. For smaller operators like her, that’s a big risk. White teas are cheaper and the sales more reliable, so she, like many others, have gone and pressed white teas into cakes (that’s what some of the cakes for sale on her Taobao shop are). I tried a couple, which were not bad, including this one. She gave me a couple for me to store in Hong Kong and compare, and I’m supposed to report back in ten years. I guess we’ll see.

4) New teas, as we all know, are increasingly unaffordable. The bargains are still in lesser-known brands from 5-10 years ago, preferably from secondary sellers who are selling what they bought up a few years ago. The thing with buying from official vendors is that while you’re sure of its authenticity, you have to pay (usually) the MSRP, which the producers raise every year to make it possible to continue selling young teas. So you have the situation where 5 year old teas are now easily over 600-800RMB a cake, even if it’s relative crap. New make old tree teas easily bust 1600 RMB a cake these days retail, regardless of region. To protect their market, they have to raise prices for older teas to be above that, otherwise nobody would buy them. So, the key is to find those bargains from a few years ago, and try to snap those up. Not easy to do when you only have a few days in the market, but in the long run that’s where the value is.

5) Dayi’s new 7542 is interesting. They have loosened their compression a bit, so the cake isn’t a hard-as-stone disk anymore. We’ll see how that experiment ends. I bought one just for laughs.

Some need for disclosure

A reader recently wrote me asking me about this “Hong Jing Tian 100 Years Old Tea Trees” puerh. Leaving aside the very obvious question marks of why decent tea leaves would and should be used to make cooked puerh in minituo form, the question was actually about what was in the minituos themselves. I’ll let the original email do the explaining:

I figured that since the tuos seem to have been shaped by one person, a sort of tea master, it had some care to it. The description doesn’t say that the puerh contains any additional herbs. I didn’t really
think that the tea contained rhodiola rosea, I thought the name is maybe a marketing thing or taste inspiration. $11 bought me 10 mini tuos, and I consumed 1 tuo in a 150 ml gai wan style yixing pot in short steeps. The thing is, I think that rhodiola is really in there, I got incredible, somewhat uncomfortable heart and gut heat that lasted for hours, chased the whole 10 steeps I did with a half glass of milk, and this is a shou, mind you. I’m certain rhodiola is in there.”

Rhodiola rosea is an herb that’s used in Chinese medicine, and in Chinese it’s called hongjingtian. It’s slightly bitter but turns sweet, and is used to, among other things, help circulation and aids those with a weakness in breathing, etc. It’s a stimulant, basically. Vesper Chan, who is the owner of the Best Tea House in Hong Kong and presumably the “Mr. Chan” referred to in the product description, does indeed sells cooked puerh mixed in with this herb, so I’m pretty sure that this herb is in these minituos as well. Mind you, Mr. Chan doesn’t actually produce anything himself – he at best commissions someone else to do it.

The real issue here is that the inclusion of this herb in this tea is not mentioned anywhere in the product description. My reader who emailed me at least knows what hongjingtian is, and just thought that this was a poetic name for a tea. The fact that it might be mixed in never crossed her mind, and of course it made her quite uncomfortable. I’ve actually tried a similar product at the Best Tea House before (in brick form, rather than minituo – and seems like they sell them in cakes these days), and didn’t like it for pretty much the same reason – it made me felt rather uncomfortable afterwards. At least I knew what I was drinking.

I suppose it is ok for people to do experimental things with teas – some of you might remember some years back, crab’s feet, another herb, was added to puerh. That stuff also did funny things to me, and after about a couple years of lots of products with crab’s feet in them, they disappeared from the market. I’m pretty sure anyone who stocked up on them back in the day are still trying to sell their stock, or just tossed them.

It is absolutely necessary for a vendor to 1) research what they’re actually selling, and 2) if it contains anything that is non-obvious and also of material significance, such as an unnamed herb in the tea, then it should absolutely be disclosed clearly in the product description. If I didn’t know Chinese, I would never know what this Hong Jing Tian is – you’d think it’s a brand name or something. Even an educated buyer like my reader here thought it was just a marketing name, not what’s actually in the minituos. If someone, say, had an allergic reaction to it, or if they’re taking medication that would be interfered with by this herb, well, the consequences could be a little more serious than just a fast beating heart. It’s generally recommended that one should not take Chinese medicine if one were taking any western medication. Here in Hong Kong, doctors routinely remind patients not to do both at the same time, because unintended and sometimes serious consequences can follow. In most cases, they have no idea what the reactions might or might not be, so it’s just a good blanket policy.

It’s also worth remembering that in Chinese medical tradition, an herb is almost never taken alone (mind you I’m no expert on this matter – perhaps some readers can elaborate more). They are usually given in a prescription that mixes a number of herbs together that neutralize each other’s toxicity and negative effects while enhancing their medical value, at the same time targeting the patient’s underlying problems. Herbs that might work for one patient can be deemed too strong or inappropriate for another, because of differing body constitution. Taking herbs on their own, especially in unknown dosage (we have no idea how much rhodiola rosea is in this tea after all), is not something you’d do with a western prescription drug, so why do people think that doing so with herbal medicine would be ok? I never really understood the desire to mix medicinal herbs with tea, or the sale of these exotic herbs as drinks on their own – unlike tea, which is a proven beverage over hundreds of years, many of these herbs are relatively newfangled as standalone drinks. In this case, I even suspect the inclusion of the herb might be because the base cooked puerh really isn’t all that great, and the addition of rhodiola rosea is there to give it a fuller flavour and a better aftertaste. It’s also selling at quite a premium – $11 for 10 minituo is an extremely high price to pay – that’s $11 for 50 gram of cooked puerh, meaning a cake equivalent would be $77. Most of us would balk at that price for even a cake of supposed premium cooked puerh.

So I guess buyer beware, and to sellers out there – please do your homework and tell consumer what they ought to know. There are more online vendors than ever, most of them simply middleman between Asian vendors (like Vesper Chan) and the Western consumer. Some know a lot about what they’re selling, others, well, less so. Just because they travel there a few times a year and buy stuff and take pretty pictures doesn’t automatically make them good vendors. Choose wisely.

Gift boxes

My parents get gifted tea from time to time. Generally, if you’re Chinese, you probably receive gift teas faster than you can drink them. Over the past decade, the packaging for these teas have gotten more, and more, and more ridiculous. Here’s an example we recently got:

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Now, a big box is pretty much de rigueur these days for gift tea. The box, it seems, must not be any smaller than about one foot by about a foot and half. Otherwise, it’s not a real gift. Now, the really fancy ones, like this, comes in a sleeve, so…

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Yeah, this is the actual box. What does that say? Why does it say Diamond sutra, instead of tea? Well, this is a Buddhism inspired tea, apparently, and the tea itself is some foshou (Buddha’s hand), a varietal. It’s from Fujian, and made as an oolong. The whole connection is explained once you open the box.

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So there’s this sutra, literally, in the box in the form of a little booklet (note the nice touch of printing it on paper on what looks like a scroll). Then there’s that white piece of paper that explains everything

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I won’t bore you with the details, but the fun part is – they claim that among teas made in Fujian, there are the “Three Saints in the Clouds”, which are, in order, Gold Foshou (jinfoshou) , Silver Shuixian (yinshuixian), and Iron Guanyin (tieguanyin). Note how tieguanyin, generally seen as the best of the bunch among southern Fujian teas, is relegated to third place – if gold foshou comes before it, it must be better, no? Oh, and that sutra – it’s there so you can read the sutra while you drink tea, because foshou (because of its supposed Buddhist connection in origin, etc) is particularly suited to Buddhists for meditation and what not. Needless to say, it’s all humdrum marketing speak.

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Note how the actual amount of tea takes up less than half of the space of the box – the rest is actually just wasteful styrofoam. There are 20 bags here, each containing 7g of tea – so basically about 140g of tea.

Now for the actual tea:

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Honestly – looks worse in person than on picture. It’s a mess – most of it is broken bits, and the leaves that are intact are a mixed bag, including leaves that are obviously “yellow leaves”. Compared it with another gift tea we received a while ago that I talked about – a supposed dahongpao.

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While I usually hesitate to judge teas by the way the leaves look, in this case, I have to say it’s pretty obvious something is not quite right with the foshou. Yes, this bag is 10g instead of 7 – one reason I dislike these pre-packaged bags of tea is that they limit you to whatever pre-set amount of tea is in the bags.

The foshou tasted acceptable on first sipping, but can’t do three infusions without starting to taste like water. I guess if the drinker is just sipping it grandpa style, it’s all right. Otherwise, it’s crap.

It’s really an unfortunate side effect of the gift culture in China that these giant boxes are so common. Aside from the need to dream up new marketing speak for them, they are also incredibly wasteful. The teas don’t have to match, at all, what’s on the box. Without opening the tea it’s impossible to tell whether it’s any good or not. I just wish they were more sensible – a nicely designed tin can, with a bag inside, would be infinitely better than these packaging. Oh, one can hope, I suppose.

Review: two films about Rikyu

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Rikyu is, for lack of a better comparison, the Mohammad of Japanese tea. All three of the formal schools claim descent from him, and among the many branches of tea ceremony most of them are intimately connected with the three schools. He has been almost sanctified in his treatment, and the image we now have of him, that of him in that square hat and black robe, is so deeply entrenched in the public imagination that one almost expects that to be him.

His greatest skill, I think, was not so much in the artistic arena, necessarily, but rather the political acumen that he possessed and the diplomatic skills he had to have in order to secure the continued patronage of two of the three unifiers of Japan, until, of course, his death at the order of the second of these three men, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Like Rikyu, we also have a fairly set idea of of what these men were like – the brash and dominant visionary that was Oda, the rags to riches Toyotomi, and the reserved and cunning Tokugawa. Toyotomi’s (well deserved) reputation as a trickster and his lowborn background certainly added to that intrigue. Working for these two men was probably no easy task, and in being able to hold the position of tea master for these two, and being the most prominent of what was a constellation of tea masters, Rikyu must have had something extra special.

The 1989 film “Rikyu” is a slow, methodical piece. There the director was very much trying to portray Rikyu as a man of few words, driven, by the circumstances, into impossible positions, but always found an exit through tea and, in doing so, was able to create and pursue his aesthetic goals. However, because of the way it was shot and the story was told, it makes the movie difficult to watch even for people like us who love tea. I once showed it to my class, and I could tell that for freshmen students, it was a bit too much. Of course, when watching a movie about the tea ceremony, one can’t expect to see fireworks and swordfights, but when a movie spends fifteen minutes (or what feels like fifteen minutes) on a slow, mumbling conversation in a dark tea room, and when characters’ emotions are expressed only through a sideways glance or a twitch of the lips, it makes many demands on the viewer to be attentive and focused, much as a tea services does to the host.

The new 2013 film “Ask this of Rikyu”, which I just watched here in Taipei at the Spot Threatre (a great arthouse threatre for those coming to visit), is pretty much the polar opposite of the 1989 film. While both movies are anchored around the eventual death of Rikyu through seppuku, the contrast in the way the story is told and the way the characters are depicted cannot be more different. For one (and rather jarring for me) this Rikyu is young – too young by a long shot. When he became tea master to Oda, he was 58, an old man by the standards of his day, whereas the Rikyu in this movie is depicted as someone who was only beginning life – no later than perhaps 30 years old or so. The rest of the movie saves up some surprises along the way, but the Rikyu we see here is a heroic one – one who wears his emotions on his sleeves, who says things that are, sometimes, quite blunt and not politically safe, and who, in many ways, died for his ideals in what sounded a lot like a clash between church and state, except the church here is one where its adherents were in pursuit of beauty, and Rikyu was their prophet. Toyotomi, in this narrative, was jealous of the invisible power that Rikyu wielded (along with other slights along the way) and decided to get rid of him. I find this part of Rikyu to be less believable – he would have had a hard time securing long term patronage with this sort of high and mighty attitude in that world.

The Rikyu in this new movie is also a showman, and that, I do believe. His father was involved in the warehouse business, and selling things, including his way of tea, was always going to be an important part of his life. Selling his way of tea, which was becoming popular especially with the teaching of Rikyu’s own teacher, Takeno Jōō, was an important job that he did very well. Convincing people that less is more and broken is beautiful is not an easy job; teaching this to samurai, especially ones like Toyotomi who came from literally nothing, is probably even harder. That Rikyu was able to do it and to popularize wabi tea to the point where it became the orthodox is remarkable. In this sense, he was sort of like a charismatic religious figure. He must have been a great diplomat and communicator to get through to people with his tea.

I also suspect that it was Rikyu the diplomat that ultimately did him in. Both movies focus on Rikyu’s clash with Toyotomi as having something to do with aesthetics; in the 1989 movie Toyotomi simply does not understand beauty, whereas in this new version he is jealous of and desires the power of beauty. I wonder, though, if the reality was more mundane than that. One of the jobs Rikyu performed was to make connections. The small, cramped tea rooms he served tea in was the cigar-smoke filled lounges of his day; deals were made and alliances were struck this way. Both movies hint at this, but do not really expand on it, choosing instead to focus on the aesthetics side of the narrative. But maybe Rikyu the diplomat and negotiator simply knew too much, and by 1591, when both the Hojo and the Tokugawa clan were pacified (one eliminated, other neutralized), he had Japan in his firm grip. Rikyu was no longer useful, and keeping him around was dangerous. All the talk about the statue on the gate and what not was simply a pretense – he just needed to get rid of someone who knew too much.

Of course this narrative is not movie material – it’s a pretty mundane story if it’s just about Rikyu possessing too many secrets, and nobody would want to watch that. When people see a movie about Rikyu, they want to see tea, and they want to see how great he was at putting together a comprehensive philosophy with how tea can and should be appreciated. This need drives how movie scripts are written, which then further reinforce our views of what Rikyu was like. Commercial interests of course also determine storytelling decisions, and I have no doubt the more cartoonish portrayal of characters in this newer version (as well as other things I’ll leave you to discover yourself) led to how the story is told here. I have not read the novel this new film is based on, so I have no basis for comparison that way. It was entertaining, certainly more so than the 1989 film, and at its best moments it did make me think about how I drink and appreciate tea. That, perhaps, is good enough.

Drink your tea now, part 2

It was a busy weekend with a couple tea friends coming separately, one from Japan and one from Taiwan. Tea is an amazing thing that brings you friends, people who you otherwise would never meet and never interact with, if not for your shared interest in this particular variety of caffeine uptake. I’m always thankful for that.

I’m also reminded of something I only wrote about recently – drink your teas, don’t save them, because bad things happen to them, if not to you.

I have many bags of aged oolongs. Some I value more than others. There’s this 80s aged dongding that I have a few bags of that I love, and which I haven’t really drunk for at least a year now, because I feel that it’s too precious to drink. The only problem is, Hong Kong is really not a great place to store oolong, and if any sort of moisture got into the tea, it gets sour.

That’s what happened – I was hoping to serve this tea to my friend, and when I brewed it, something was obviously wrong. Yup… it’s turned sour. Funny enough, it was the most sour when I first reopened the bag that day. I’ve had the tea twice since then, and it’s not as bad. It didn’t help that the bag is quite full of broken leaves because it was near the bottom of the bag at the teashop where I bought it.

Thankfully, the other bags are not opened and should be ok, but a reminder to myself that it’s usually a good idea to just drink your tea, especially if it’s something that is somewhat perishable. Puerh is more immune to that, but oolongs and greens are not easily stored safely. Drink them, or lose them.

The original Oriental Beauty

As some of you know, I’m a historian in my day job, and my new project is working on the history of how ideas (drinking practice, health concerns, etc) and technologies (plantation methods, processing techniques, etc) pertaining to tea moved across borders. Taiwan turns out to be the most interesting place to look at, because of its close connection with China, but at the same time because of its distinctive history and geopolitical location, thanks to it being under Japanese jurisdiction for the first half of the twentieth century. It ends up being a nice, big melting pot of stuff, perfect for my purposes.

As a result, a side story I’ve been pursuing on and off is the history of the tea Oriental Beauty (dongfangmeiren), more commonly known locally as Pengfeng tea (bragger’s tea). There are two kinds of legends surrounding the origins of this tea. One has something to do with nomenclature – the name Oriental Beauty. You have probably read this online somewhere, most likely from some vendor trying to sell you tea, but the story usually involves some queen of the United Kingdom (some say Victoria, others Elizabeth II) drinking it, finding it absolutely marvelous, and therefore giving it this nice name. This story is almost certainly false, and is made up to sell tea.

The most common name for the tea in the local community, Pengfeng tea, means bragger or bluffing tea. The idea is that the farmer who originally made the tea was able to sell it for such a high price, he bragged to his friends and neighbours, none of whom believed him. So, the name of the tea was born.

This story has always sounded sort of true, but like many such stories, there are lots of slightly different versions, making you wonder whether it’s true or not. What we do know is that the tea was from Beipu. The farmer was probably surnamed Jiang 姜 and there were large sums of money involved. Exactly how large, nobody knows. Everything I saw was a “it is said that” sort of version.

Everything, until today.

On my last trip to Taiwan I was able to get a copy of many issues of a journal called Taiwan no chagyo, or Taiwan’s Tea Industry. It was a trade journal from the colonial period. I have been going through the issues to look for information on all sorts of things, and today, reading one issue from 1933, I came across this

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Bingo. The headline is “A high class tea worth a thousand yen”. Not a thousand yen for one jin, mind you, but a hundred jin, which doesn’t sound like a lot of money, until you figure out that the average jin of tea back then sold for a yen or less – so one jin of tea that sells for 10 yen was, indeed, an astronomical sum. The tea was one of the participants in a local tea competition, and it broke the 300 point mark in whatever scale they were using to grade the teas. The buyers included the governor’s office. It was obviously a cheap and easy way to promote better tea production – encouraging farmers to make better tea and they would be rewarded too with great prices if their tea were good. As the Taiwanese government was trying hard at that time to increase the production quantity and quality of tea for export, it made sense to pull a PR stunt like this.

The tea probably already existed by this time, but this was what made it famous. It probably is also where the name Pengfeng originally came from – maybe not so much a bragger in the liar sense of the word, but the farmer getting rather pleased with himself and annoying all the neighbours. Either way, it’s very gratifying to have found the smoking gun, so to speak, for the story, and it’s good to know that sometimes some of these legends do have some basis in fact.

Drink your tea now

Many of you reading this are probably sitting on more tea than you can consume in your lifetime, or at least some multiples of years, if not decades. For those of you who fit that description, I have a story for you.

A relative of a family friend recently passed away due to a heart attack. It seems like he was interested in a number of things, tea being one of them, and teapot being another. I was called in to take a look at what’s there, to see what can be done about it. I brought along a couple of friends who are tea vendors, since I wasn’t going to buy what could be a couple hundred cakes of stuff.

Turns out there weren’t a couple hundred cakes – there were maybe 60 or 80, plus some random liu’an, so on and so forth.

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You can see some of the cakes here. You might notice a few things, one being that almost all of the tea is still shrink wrapped. The second is that they all look old. These teas seem to be purchased from multiple vendors over a number of years, but probably bought no earlier than maybe the early 2000s or so. Some of the teas are supposed to be 70s or 80s tea, more are 90s or maybe early 2000s. Some are cooked, others raw. It’s not a big collection, but it’s a collection.

And the guy never got to drink any of these.

Among these cakes is one, placed in a box on its own. We opened it, and before us was the classic Red Label wrapper. When I picked it up, however, it felt funny – too light, and the cake’s shape is not right. Upon further examination, it is pretty clear that this must’ve been a fake, and not a very good one either. The price he paid, however, was real – the price tag was still on it from a department store in Hong Kong, for the grand price of $120000 HKD, which is about how much a cake of the 50s Red Label would’ve cost about 8-10 years ago. These days it’s more like $100000 USD a cake.

It’s still shrink wrapped too.

It’s hard to tell what kind of condition most of the cakes are in, since they’re wrapped so carefully from the vendors. It’s pretty obvious that most of them are pretty wet – some terribly so. The cakes that were not shrink wrapped were on the heavy side of traditional storage, to the point where they would be rather heavy going for those who are not used to the taste, and would depress the relative resale value. But it seems like the guy liked it that way – he has a lot of cooked tea, and heavy-going seems to be his preferred profile.

Of course, I don’t know what he’s drunk, so maybe he consumed most of his teas already. He passed before getting to 70, so while he wasn’t exactly young, he wasn’t very old either by today’s standard. The Red Label, I suspect, was a pride and joy, and he kept it separately because he paid dearly for it. Even though it’s a fake, or maybe precisely because it’s a fake, he was the only one who was going to be able to really enjoy the tea – he would think he’s drinking the real thing, and since we know that paying more for wine gives you more enjoyment for it, I think the same pattern probably applies to tea. He would’ve really loved the taste of the cake, thinking that one session is costing him upwards of $2000 USD.

Many of us sit on tea that we say to ourselves “I’ll drink it for that special occasion” or “I’ll wait till later before I enjoy it” or “I can’t bear the thought of drinking all of it.” Well, don’t let that hold you back, because chances are you are the only one who’s going to enjoy it. We can always delude ourselves to think that maybe our kids, or relatives, or whoever, will like tea, but more often than not, it’s just not the case. At least here in Hong Kong, there’s the option of selling it back to people who are in the tea trade (my vendor friend seems to do it a couple times a year – called by various friends of friends, etc). Good luck doing that in the States or Europe. So, drink up!