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!

The dangers of dry and cold

Well, regular readers know that I’m skeptical of storage conditions that are too dry or too cold. The combination of these two things is generally not good news for puerh tea. It makes for bad tea.

I recently bought a few cakes through Taobao from a vendor in Tianjin. I’ve bought from them before, years ago. Their tea is not that bad. These teas I got are not bad tea per se, but the storage on them has made them pretty poor. Specifically, the cakes (all different) all share a slightly sour, thin, and unpleasant note. Two of the teas are themselves very decent originally – the base tea still shines through, a bit, but without any of the thickness and richness you’d hope to see from teas that are 7-10 years old. Instead, they are just…. sour and a bit bland. If I have teas that old that taste like this, I’d be disappointed.

One of the cakes is a nice Yiwu that I know didn’t taste like that when first made, because I tried it way back when it first came out. I never bought any, because it was out of my budget at the time living on grad student stipend. I wish I had some, and was hoping that this cake would be ok, but it’s not – not in this condition.

Tianjin is typical north China – cold, not too damp, although probably damper than some of the more inland places like Beijing. This is why I normally don’t like to buy teas that are stored in any of these drier climates – they taste bad. The damage in taste is also not obvious when you’re buying online – the cakes, even when held in person, look perfectly fine. There’s no really obvious sign that something is awry, until you put it in water and try it.

This is not to say the tea hasn’t changed – it has. The colour has changed, the taste is also not what you’d see when it’s new. But as a tea that is getting better with age? No, not really. Just because a tea changes over time doesn’t mean it’s changing for the better over time, and a lot of people in these areas have never had a good tasting 10 year old to compare against, so it’s not obvious to them what’s wrong with teas like this.

Now the next question is whether some wet weather storage in Hong Kong can salvage the tea. I’ll let you know in a few years.

Priced out of the market

As everyone knows, the prices of puerh has been rising, rising, and rising. The reasons are many – more people are drinking it than ever before, and moreover, there are even more people who think it might be a good investment. I still remember when many cakes, new, could be had for a dollar or two. Well, those days are long, long gone. Back then, buying puerh to drink was a real value proposition – you can get decent tea for a small fraction of the price of a good oolong. These days, a good puerh probably costs more.

The problem is, like many other such goods, these days they are priced in such a way as to make it simply not worth it anymore. For example, recently I tried the Wisteria and Baohongyinji that was offered at both White2tea and Origintea. It’s not a bad tea – it has qi, for one, which is rare enough. It’s full, etc. It’s also ridiculously expensive, right in line with a real Bingdao gushu tea, and is absolutely not worth the money if you are thinking of buying cakes of it. These days real gushu teas routinely cost 2-3000 RMB a cake, and plenty of fake ones claiming to be real at least have real gushu prices, even if the leaves are not the real thing. This puts the tea simply out of reach of most people – ordinary or even not so ordinary folks. If you want, say, a tong of tea that costs 3000 RMB a cake, that’s 21000 RMB, or $3300 USD a tong for tea that is new. Frankly, that’s a lot of money, and given all the risks of storage that you run yourself if you store it – water, fire, mold, sun, etc etc, it’s almost insurance worthy.

Some tea producing areas are also slightly more worthy than others – Lincang, where Bingdao is located, happen not to be one of them. I find Lincang teas generally to be rather boring and subpar when compared with teas from the Yiwu or Menghai regions that are of similar level of quality. The prices of teas from Lincang used to be dirt cheap. Well, that isn’t true anymore.

I also get nostalgic when drinking some of my older teas that I myself bought and stored over the years, thinking that sadly, unless I pay through the roof, I won’t have teas of this type of quality to drink in the distant future. I had a Spring 2006 Bangwei the other day that I bought back when I was living in Beijing. It’s a wonderful tea, full of flavour and body and aging nicely. It cost me something like 150RMB a cake back then, which was a king’s ransom for a cake of new tea at that time. Now, the same thing, if made in 2014, would probably cost 1000 RMB or more a cake. It’s insane.

I wonder if this is sustainable – at some point, we’ll run out of buyers for these crazy prices and things might at least not get more expensive exponentially every year. It doesn’t mean prices will come down – we’ll never see 150RMB a cake for that Bangwei again. We might, however, see some of the more newfangled tea regions that command extraordinary prices come down a bit, especially if the aging isn’t going so well. For example, the Yuanyexiang which some of you know has been stagnant in price in the last few years, despite a heavy ramp up in prices of a lot of other teas. It can be found for about 1300 RMB a cake on Taobao, and they look to be the real deal. That’s a much cheaper price than a lot of new teas for a cake that’s over 10 years old now with some age. Why? Because it hasn’t really changed much in the last few years, and hasn’t really gotten much better. It’s a fine tea, and given the relative prices of new teas versus old, it might actually be a reasonable purchase again. As more and more older teas like this appear on the market, I wonder if it will keep a lid on new tea prices as people simply stop buying them. Of course, the same thing has been said years ago, and it hasn’t happened yet.

This is why I almost never buy new teas these days, and have also not bothered to sample many new teas – what’s the point if I am not in the market to buy them? I try a few every year, just to get my tastebuds going, but by and large, I no longer bother. I also find myself increasingly disliking the taste of new make puerh – when there’s so much older stuff I can have at my fingertips. Hopefully, perhaps, pricing adjustment will come, and not a moment too soon.

Good teas are all alike…

.. and bad teas are bad in their own special ways.

Paraphrasing Tolstoy only gets you so far, but in this case, I think it works. Good teas are indeed mostly similar – they are strong, have good body, last a lot of infusions, hit all parts of your mouth when you drink it, and most importantly, taste good. Some might throw in good qi as a bonus, but not every tea has qi, not even good ones (good luck finding qi in a longjing). Nevertheless, like A student papers, there’s not a lot to say other than “it’s good”. You can wax philosophical about how good it is, but that’s not strictly necessary.

Likewise, true failures of the worst kind, the Fs of teas, are also easy to deal with. They’re so bad that they do not merit any kind of time to examine – everything is wrong. They are easy to dismiss.

It’s really the middle ground – the Bs and Cs and Ds of teas, that take the most time to analyze, to grade, and to judge. They have flaws, sometimes minor, sometimes major, but they are flawed in different, diverse ways. Most importantly, for those of us buying teas, they might be bad in ways that are not easy to spot right away. Using the metaphor for paper grading, it’s like a ten pager that starts out strong and then, by page 4, falls apart, contain plagiarized passages, has no proof, can’t spell, etc. You wouldn’t know it if you only read the first couple pages, but if you look more carefully, the problems can be there and be really obvious.

I just tried a few cakes I bought off Taobao recently, and they are all bad in different ways, which is what prompted this post. One, a supposed Yiwu that’s got some name recognition, is bland – seems to be a product of bad, dry, and aired-out storage, even though it has good throatiness. The other, a bulang, packs strong flavours but is intensely, intensely bitter. Yes, it might go away eventually, but probably not, not fast enough anyway. A third has a weird flavour that I associate with strange mainland storage – it’s a sample the vendor threw in, and it’s just, well, strange. Unfortunately, none of them were worth my time, and all of them were bad/strange in their own ways.

Then there was a dahongpao I received a while ago as a gift. These days, all mainland yancha arrive in pre-packed packets, and they are virtually indistinguishable from one another. Gifts can run the gamut from really great tea to really poor. This one, unfortunately, leans on the latter. It’s bland – just not rich and full enough to be called a dahongpao, and is probably just some cheap yancha from the outlying areas.

Learning to spot these things take time, effort, and usually some tuition. It’s very easy to be led down the wrong path by the wrong vendors. This is especially true if you happen to visit mostly one vendor for your teas – if all the teas are bad in the same way, it’s not easy to figure out that it’s actually a sign of poor quality, as opposed to just the way it is. Take bad storage for example – you won’t notice a storage problem if all the teas you have share the same type of storage problem. In that case, you’d just think that’s how things are. Unless and until you’ve tried something else, and it’s totally different, do you realize that something is wrong with the original teas you’ve had. Figuring out what that is takes even more time. The same can be said of teas that claim a certain place of origin, but isn’t actually from that place, or teas that are supposedly processed a certain way, but isn’t. Then there are just the teas that are bland or low quality. All of these require comparison to highlight. So comparison is the key to learning how to spot bad tea.

The job of any vendor is to sell you the tea they’ve got, so in tasting notes you’ll always see things highlighted – aromas, mouthfeel, or worst of all, qi, that ephemeral quality that most people have never experienced, or only think they’ve experienced. For that bitter bulang I just talked about, for example, the vendor might say it’s long lasting and powerful, never mind that it’s like swallowing a bitter pill every time you take a sip. For that Yiwu that I thought was weak, you’ll get notes like “floral and penetrating” because it’s got a bit of throat action going on. The dahongpao I just referred to as bland would be “fruity” and maybe “delicate.” As for qi, out of 100 teas 99 have no qi to speak of – drinking chicken soup can equally give you that rush of warmth and sweat that some point to as evidence of qi. Qi does, I believe, exist in some teas, but they are rare. That’s another post.

Artisanal ≠ Good

It’s pretty common to see listings of tea with the word “artisnal” thrown in there. What does the word really mean in these context? Obviously it’s derived from the word “artisan” and generally mean that the tea you’re about to buy was made by an artisan. Ok, so far so good. So what?

More specifically, when is a tea not made by an artisan?

I suppose you can use this term to apply to teas that are purely hand made, farmed without machinery, and so on. I can assure you, however, that any tea you buy online does not fall into that category – teas like that are exceedingly expensive and very rarely done. Lots of farmers in China and Taiwan are independent farmers, but almost all of them use machinery as aids in the process of producing the tea. This can be large scale farming equipment, to something as simple as a roller and a shaqing machine for their teas. For oolongs, for example, rolling is a particularly backbreaking task – takes forever, lots of work, and hand (or foot) rolled teas are not as pretty as machine rolled ones. So these days they’re all machine rolled. Those balled up oolongs you love so much from Taiwan? It’s thanks to the machines that you have that shape.

Nor should we romanticize the past as some golden age when people made everything by hand. Sure, they did that, maybe, but that’s mostly because they couldn’t afford the machines that would make their life easier. Nobody prefers to spend hours rolling a ball of tea or sweating in front of a giant wok frying the tea when they can just do it more evenly, more predictably, and with less effort by the possession of a machine. These contraptions exist for at least a century now. I’ve read colonial period Taiwanese books on tea horticulture that detail the use of these things – rollers, shaqing, shakers, whatever you need. The problem was not so much invention – that’s the easy part. The problem was access. It was too expensive to afford a lot of these things. So at first, a whole village would invest in one and people would take turns using it. Then, as the cost of the machinery got lower over time, everyone had one.

We saw this type of change happen in Yunnan as well in the past decade. Before 2004, and before the crazy boom of puerh prices, Yunnan farmers were dirt poor. People cut down tea trees, sometimes really old ones, to plant rubber trees instead, because rubber was worth a lot more. Those who kept their tea trees got lucky, and now many of them have machines to aid them in the processing of teas – shaqing being most common, but also other measures. Tea picking has also been farmed out, often times, to people from poorer areas or villages. It’s hard work, and those farmers lucky enough to live in rich tea villages don’t really want to do that stuff anymore.

There’s also the relative skillsets involved – just because you made it by hand doesn’t automatically make it better. An old tea hand I know in Taiwan told me that a certain tea farmer in Pinglin used to be good – in the days of their grandfather, but the skills have either been lost or just not there, and so this generation’s teas are so-so. Some people are just better at some things than other, and variation is to be expected. Within a whole group of people, some will be better at a task than others. They can all do things basically the same way and the outcomes will be different. An artisanal tea grown in, say, Lantau Island in Hong Kong is still going to be terrible, because the climate just isn’t right and the tea is grown in a pretty bad environment. The skills of the artisan also just isn’t there (yes, I’ve tried the tea). Artisanal doesn’t mean anything.

Even long history is no protection – yes, they might have family secrets passed down if the family’s been in the business for a long time, or they might not. In fact, think of it another way, a family might be in a tea business for so long not because they were successful, but because they weren’t successful enough (and thus didn’t make enough money) to move into other more lucrative ventures. Very few people choose to remain smallholding tea farmers if they had a choice – tough work and low reward even with machinery as aids, especially in a rapidly industrializing society with lots of new opportunities. Better off going to school and becoming an engineer. Before you say I’m just being cynical, I have family relatives whose families did make tea and then moved away from it. It’s a very real option and most people, when given the choice, will choose to leave the farm.

Then you have stuff like this

Yes, some of you will object that this is large scale industrialized tea made for mediocrity. That’s right, but there’s lots of skill here, and the fact that a tea blender can easily re-create a recipe given the raw ingredients just by tasting is nothing short of amazing.

So next time you see that description of the tea you want to buy as “artisanal”, please remember that it means basically nothing.

Playing with fire

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I’ve had this for a couple years now, but I haven’t tried using it until now. Living in an urban environment is not really conducive to using charcoal to boil stuff, especially in a hot place like Hong Kong where the weather is rarely cold enough for this sort of thing. There’s something wrong about lighting it up indoors when it’s 33 degrees outside.

Not having a yard or a barbeque at home, lighting up the charcoal means doing it right in the stove, which is a little harder than the tonnes of space you’re afforded in a barbeque. The easy way to do this is just to light it up in a charcoal chimney or some such, but without any of those tools, I was reduced to starting a fire in these stoves. Obviously, practice makes perfect, and since I don’t have practice, it took a few tries. Turns out, the trick is pretty simple – fan really hard once you’ve got a little fire going in there. Constructing the charcoal so that there’s good airflow is obviously important. Once started, all you have to do is to add enough fuel to make sure there’s enough heat coming off.

Using this setup really does change how you approach the tea. First of all, you don’t have a lot of water to work with, so you’ll economize. If you’re used to throwing water everywhere, well, if you do that with this setup, you’ll be out of water before you get your first brew. With my normal pot, I can get about 4 infusions out of this little kettle. It takes 15 minutes to bring cold water to a boil using this setup. So, obviously, you won’t waste water.

You also need to just sit there and not multitask, because multitasking is impossible. It’s quite easy to walk away from a tea session, attend to something, and then come back and continue if you have an electric setup. With this, you can’t easily do that. The water won’t wait, and will keep boiling, and the fuel also won’t wait. If you go away for 20 minutes, your water will probably boil dry, your kettle might crack, and your fuel might start running low. You don’t want to restart a fire. That’s hard work. There’s a reason in those paintings it’s always the servant boy doing that.

Now, does it actually make any real difference?

I don’t think so. I certainly don’t think any of those claims about “oh, charcoal boiled water is sweeter” or any such thing. Heat is heat, and while the charcoal does smell nice (I used longyan – or longan – wood charcoal), it doesn’t really do anything particular to the water. My normal kettle boils it just as hot, as far as I can tell. The biggest difference is probably atmospherics – you feel different doing this. There’s also probably some difference in the material of the kettle itself – iron, in my case, versus clay. I don’t think the source of heat makes any difference there.

You do, however, learn to love your tea towel, because you need it. For this kettle, the handle gets hot, so without a towel it’s untouchable. If I want to do this a lot, I might want to get a slightly bigger kettle, so that the handle won’t get as hot (but with a definite tradeoff in boiling time) or I can try to buy another kettle with a top handle made of something like rattan.

This sort of setup also forces you to drink certain kinds of tea – I’m not going to drink a puerh that will go on for many infusions, because it’s quite impractical to come back to the tea later on, and so you want to pick something that will be done in a few kettles of water, at most. With that in mind, I picked an older dahongpao. It came out beautifully.

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