Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. For those of us looking for aged puerh teas, I think we all wish we have the gift of seeing into the future, to learn how a tea will age over time and whether or not it will become great. Some will, many won’t. It might be useful to remember that not all teas will age well – the ones that are commanding high prices today may have done so, but there were more, probably far more, that were produced, consumed, and in some cases, tossed out. We know for a fact that not every cake will turn out great. Figuring that out is the difficult part.

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A couple years ago I retasted a cake that I bought when I lived in Beijing. At that time I thought the cake was ok – not great, but not horrible. I did note, however, that it was a bit thin. I drank it at the time brewing gongfu style, probably adjusting my brewing parameters as I went along. After that retasting, it went back into the storage and hasn’t been seen since.

Well, I’m on a trip now, and I pulled out a cake randomly to take with me on this trip to drink. This was the lucky draw. Drinking the tea grandpa style, I have to say the tea is not very good. It has that thin, metallic taste indicative of lower quality tea. It’s aged, yes, but not in a particularly pleasant way. The overall outcome, I think, is wanting. I have a lot of tea better than this, and there really isn’t a single reason why I would want to drink this now, or ever. If given a choice, a black tea from any decent coffee shop will trump this one in terms of pleasure it can deliver. My previous evaluation was too generous – I think I was giving it a chance, and this tea has blown that chance.

I’m sure I have many cakes like this one. We all do. I’m wondering what I should do with these – throw them away? Drink them? Keeping them is sort of silly, because they are really not going to improve at this point. Drinking them – well, they’re not really great and there are so many other, better things to drink. Since my consumption of tea is finite, drinking one of these necessarily means I’m not drinking one of my better teas. Throwing them away seems like the most logical and rational choice, even though it’s hard to get myself to do that. Perhaps I will thank myself later when I move and have less tea to carry.

Tea in the park

At most parks of a decent size in China you’ll find teahouses. These are places where you can sit down and have a cup of tea, and they are, more likely than not, going to have a menu that looks like this

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The choices are basically six different grades of green tea, one oolong, one tieguanyin, five floral teas, and one (probably cooked) puerh. You’ll see that prices are quoted in either per cup or per pot, and they are in RMB – not very cheap, by any means. The cheapest and the most expensive are both green teas, and the ones that are 48 are all the non-greens.

The best choice at places like this is actually bring your own tea – you can, for the unlisted price of 10 RMB, just buy hot water and a seat, basically, and use your own leaves. Or, if like me, you didn’t have the tea with you, well, there’s always this

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Green is by far the safest choice. This was a mid-priced one. If you go low the tea is going to be a bit nasty. Paying $10 USD for a glass of tea with like 3g of leaves is a bit rich, and is a bit of a waste. Then again, their profit margins on these things are sky high regardless. I’m pretty sure the entire cake of cooked puerh probably costs as much as one order here. I wouldn’t touch those with a ten foot pole.

Old people usually frequent these, and people can sit for hours, getting free water refills that come in these giant thermos

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Once you settle in though, it’s beautiful, especially if you’ve got a nice view. At the end of the day, the tea is not the point, the time spent in a park is. Sipping tea, talking with friends, watching the scenery – it’s an afternoon well spent.

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Why do we drink tea?

Aside from the fact that tea is addictive through caffeine, why do we drink tea?

Since I drink tea daily, it is not something that I spend a lot of time thinking about. For most of us, it’s already become such a routine that it’s just a simple part of day, but there is always a dimension of “why”, especially when it comes to trying to look for the finer teas, or to find teas that are particularly interesting.

I think on a very fundamental level, a tea should be pleasant. This means that when drinking tea, it should deliver pleasurable things to you. What those are may differ on an individual level, but generally, they should probably consist of fragrance, good taste, and good feeling. Teas that don’t fulfill these requirements can be, and often are, seen as failures.

Take green teas, for example, which is something I rarely talk about. Green tea for me was where it all started – I began drinking longjing, just like my grandfather did. I recently drank some green teas from my hometown, not too far from Suzhou where biluochun is produced, and I’m reminded of why people drink green tea and why it is in many ways the most desired tea. Green teas are very nice things to drink. They are fragrant. They are smooth, at least when you brew it correctly and the quality is not too bad. They are sweet. They aid your digestion and are refreshing. There is really no drink more perfect than a good cup of green tea.

Or consider an oolong I bought recently. It’s expensive, to be sure, but it is also fragrant, smooth, has long lasting aftertaste, complex, interesting, and has qi (most teas don’t, but that’s another topic for another day). It’s great, and it feels great to drink it. Everyone there enjoyed the tea.

Then you look at things like newly made puerh – and it all falls apart. Compared to green teas, new make puerh are very rough. They are rarely sweet, instead leaning much more to the bitter side. They can be fragrant, but not always. In fact, the ones that taste good right from the get go tend to be ones that will age poorly, especially if they exhibit, say, green-tea like beany fragrance. Contrast that with an aged puerh, where the rough edges have been worn down and the tea becomes sweet, smooth, and feels great to drink. It’s a big difference.

I used to subject myself to a never ending series of questionable teas, all in the name of learning. Even when a tea seems nasty, or worse, tasteless, I’ll persist to see what’s going on and see how it fares. With time and experience, however, it is now far easier to arrive at a conclusion about a tea’s inherent quality. It is rarely the case that teas will show you anything new or exciting that is different after your 3rd or 4th infusion. It is possible, but very rare, and the tea is usually some kind of oddball. Most teas, in most cases, you can figure out what’s going on very quickly. Being now much more willing to discard poor quality teas, it is nice to drink teas that are actually enjoyable. I reserve samples or other teas of unknown quality for when I drink with a group. In those cases, it is easier to compare different teas, to examine them, and to arrive at a conclusion about them quickly and much more accurately. The really nasty ones? You drink a few sips and you throw it away.

When I’m at home and drinking by myself, I increasingly find myself reaching for the tried and true – puerh that I have aged myself that are now very drinkable after 10+ years, things I have bought that I know are good, and other kinds of teas that are not going to give me a nasty surprise. After a while, there isn’t a whole lot left to learn in bad teas – they are bad, and that’s that. For puerh, it is somewhat useful to know why they are bad – whether it’s bad storage, or bad processing, or just bad leaves. For other teas, it’s not really material – if it’s bad, you shouldn’t drink it. Life is short, drink something nice. For that purpose, a well made green tea is almost unbeatable.

Early, early spring tea

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We have all heard of Mingqian longjing, longjing tea that is harvested prior to the Qingming festival. This is supposed to be the pinnacle of green teas, because they consist of the most tender shoots of the tea plant. Of course, in warmer places plants develop shoots earlier. A couple friends of mine who own a teashop here in Hong Kong have recently visited the Chaozhou area to look at the farms there, and to try to find good dancong that are strong and roasted – older style tea, basically.

They were shocked to find the leaves from above – these were leaves they picked from the tea plants they found in Chaozhou area, except they were there in late February to early, early March. Even in the south where it’s a bit warmer, it’s not that warm – normal tea plants in this area shouldn’t really be budding until mid to late March. Yet, here we are, with the tea farmers already beginning to harvest shoots and even leaves in late February. There were already teas that were made, getting ready for the spring season.

This came as a bit of a shock to them, because only a couple hours north by car in my friend’s hometown near Anxi, Fujian, they were nowhere close to harvesting yet. After some inquiries, they found that farmers in the Chaozhou region use some sort of growth boosters. They’re not quite sure what it is, but regardless, they fear the worst. It’s hard not to, given that this is China – food safety, as you may know, is a little bit of a problem there, what with fake milk powder, exploding watermelons, contaminated Chicken McNuggets, even fake table salt. Confidence in the system is, shall we say, low. So when something extraordinary like this happens, it rings all kinds of alarm bells.

While I understand that Gebbrelic Acid is used in other places as well as growth promoters for tea, I’m not sure if this is what’s used – in fact, nobody is, because the farmers themselves are not sure. Gebbrelic Acid is supposed to be safe, but we have no idea if that’s all that’s been pumped into the plants. The farmers buy branded agrochemicals from sales people, and use it on the tea, but usually they don’t know what chemicals are actually being sprayed. The result, at least for dancong producing regions, is what you see above – really fast growing leaves that are basically a month ahead of schedule. As we know, for things like tea, yield generally has an inverse relationship to quality – the more leaves you produce from the same amount of land and tea plants, the worse the tea itself is going to be. It’s the same idea in wine, where production volume is controlled for many appellations precisely because too high a production value will degrade quality. If you want to protect a brand, you don’t do that.

My friends are sufficiently worried that they didn’t buy any tea other than samples. They also said that many farmers from the area rinse their tea twice before brewing, a relatively unusual practice for oolongs, because they are also worried about pesticides residue and things like that. This is not the first time I’ve heard worries about dancong specifically – a few friends from Taiwan with good contacts in the mainland have also told me that I should try to avoid dancong in general, because they’re pumped full of chemicals you probably don’t want to ingest. Funny too, because although I usually don’t drink dancong at all, recently I bought a couple boxes, one of which is really quite good. Your run of the mill dancong, however, is usually quite difficult to brew and is thin on the mouth while having nice fragrance. It was never the best tea, and this is just one more reason to not drink it.

Of course, this isn’t a problem that’s limited to dancong – teas from China in general are often of suspicious quality. The list of worries is long. You can worry about things like pesticides and pollution. You can worry about the tea being fake. You can worry about bait and switch when buying. Unfortunately, the business climate in China is such that one can never be sure of what one’s buying. That’s why buying from Taobao, for example, is such a lottery – what you see and what you end up getting might not be quite the same. When buying loose leaf tea, it’s standard practice to want tea from the same bag that you sampled. When pressing cakes in Yunnan, you never let the tea out of your sight, and most certainly not let anyone do the pressing for you without being there yourself – this includes guarding the bags of tea when you sleep. Trust, unfortunately, is hard to come by, and there are too many cases of fraud of one sort or another to not be cynical when buying tea in China. It’s a sobering thought.

When to give up

At what point do you give up on a cake that you have kept for aging?

I ask this because it is an important question for those of us sitting on tea. If you are a buyer of puerh and have stored some for aging, at some point you need to take them out and start drinking – after all, that’s the point. When you first start, it is likely that you bought more or less indiscriminately. You may have purchased teas based on recommendations by others who are supposed to, perhaps, know more than you. You may have bought because of the reputation of the vendor. You may have also bought because you liked how the tea tasted then. Afterwards, a few years later, perhaps, you take out that same cake again and discover that it’s changed, but not necessarily for the better. What do you do? You tell yourself “well, it’s just going through that awkward phase; it’ll get better” and put it back in storage.

What if the same thing happens two years later? Four? Ten? When do you just tell yourself “this was a terrible purchase and it’s never going to get better”?

I have a bunch of stuff like this. Some I bought because they were cheap at the time and I figured I could afford to gamble. Some because, well, I didn’t know better. Some because they seemed decent at the time, but subsequently has turned out to be quite terrible. I know my aging environment is fine, because I have a number of teas that I stored myself for ten years now that are quite drinkable. So the aging environment isn’t the problem; the tea is.

It’s true that sometimes teas do go through an awkward phase. They have lost that initial sweetness/floral fragrance that are characteristic of new teas, but have not yet developed old tea taste. It’s that weird in between state where it’s really a pretty bad thing to drink. However, I also think that there are many teas out there that simply cannot and will not age. This is mostly because of bad processing to start off with. If your tea was processed like a green tea, bad news, it’s not going to get better. Aged green tea will never develop that complex and rich flavour of puerh that you should be striving for (and if you are one of those people storing tea to preserve its flavours and fragrance, you’re in the wrong business). A telltale sign of a tea that is processed like a green tea is a beany taste – think a fresh biluochun, a classic beany tea. If your tea smells like a longjing or a biluochun, it’s time to drink it fast because it’s not going to get better.

There are, I think, storage environments where the tea will also die, and I suspect (although without firm proof, because I haven’t tried) that once killed by bad storage, the tea will never recover. There are of course two types of death by storage. The first is the obvious – heavy mold, bad mold (golden flowers), extensive sun exposure, etc. The second is more subtle – environment that has strong odd smells (medicine cabinet, for example), too close to the sea (it will get salty), too dry (the tea will taste thin), etc. Some of these in the second category need not be fatal, if recovered sufficiently quickly – a week in a medicine cabinet won’t do anything bad to your tea. Three years, however, and you have a different problem.

So if your tea is aging poorly either because it was bad to start off with, or because it has had bad storage, at some point you should just give up on it. Even though it may taste great initially, it’s no guarantee that it will age well – many well known teas were terrible when they were young, being very bitter, astringent, smoky, etc. When you want to give up is of course up to you, but I think by year five, if the tea is getting thin, more and more bitter, or otherwise exhibiting signs that it is not aging well at all, it may be time to reconsider the value of keeping it long term. As a comparison, it is useful to keep a cake of Menghai 7542 around as a control. It is, after all, the standard puerh cake. If your 7542 is aging badly, then it’s your environment. If your 7542 is aging well and your other cake isn’t, well, it’s the cake. Hope is, of course, what keeps us alive and living, so hoping that your tea will recover is a natural thing. Sometimes though, it is useful to admit defeat, drink up the tea (or get rid of it) and save some space. You’ll thank yourself next time you move.

Breakfast tea

On my recent trip to Shanghai I made a stop in my hometown. I stayed the night, and the next morning my hosts brought me to a teahouse to have something very local – breakfast tea, with noodles

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The noodles are in the bowl in an aged mushroom broth. The other stuff you see, from left to right, are pork chop, ginger strips, bamboo shoots, veggies, and smoked fish. All of these are supposed to be thrown on top of the noodles before consumption. As for the tea? Local Yushan green tea, which is not exactly the most elegant thing on Earth, is rather sweet, and goes down really well with local noodle breakfast.

When I first drank the tea, it’s the typical Yushan green tea taste. After the noodles, though, it actually got sweeter – partly because it’s a bit more diluted now, having been refilled with water, but partly also because I just had a bowl of noodles. Food, of course, changes how you perceive your tea, which is why I normally don’t eat snacks when I drink tea.

When you drink a lot of tea gongfu style, it is easy to forget that there is a world of people, in fact, the majority of drinkers in China, who drink green tea day in, day out. Tea is also mostly drunk with meals, and a really strong, bitter tea doesn’t often go well with a lot of food. On the other hand, green tea, with its refreshing and sweet taste (if it’s good, anyway) goes down great with a lot of foods. This is especially true if the local cuisine is a little heavier in taste. In Guangdong, where the local cuisine is more delicate, a stronger tea (like cooked puerh) might actually contrast well with the food. Food and tea pairing is definitely something people should start working on, although I think it is not easy to do – mostly because of the problems of preparation (what do you do when you’re halfway into a meal – rebrew new tea? You can have some serious caffeine problems that way). Maybe someone should think about how to resolve these issues.

Adventures with a thermos

So I’m currently in Shanghai doing some research, which means being in a library all day. This being China, you can bring a thermos into the library, and each reading room has a table for you to put your thermos along with everyone else’s. I figured that since I can’t drink tea otherwise, and I don’t want to wait till I get home before brewing some, I would try bringing tea in a thermos.

I had in mind not just the regular giant plastic water bottles that people use here (mostly seen in cabs) where they stick an obscene amount of tea in there and brew all day. I thought I would try something a little different, using a thermos with very good heat retention and see how the tea brews in there. It seems like an interesting thing to do – high heat, continuous brewing. Turns out it’s not such a great idea. The tea is very strong, obviously, because it is brewed for hours in very hot water. It brews super strong, but because of it, it’s hard to discern flavours. I think the effect was similar to what you might see in a samovar – long brewed strong tea that probably could use some dilution.

What’s most interesting is that when I poured out the contents and then diluted it with some water, the taste is, well, inferior. It just doesn’t taste quite right, since it’s a tea I know well. It’s also interesting that the wet leaves are very, very mushy – when I poured water in the cup it stirred up a lot of bits of tea leaves. Again, the effect is similar to boiling the tea for a long period of time. You extract everything out of it, and it loses all ability to be re-brewed.

So, long story short, if you are going to grandpa your tea on the go, use a vessel that loses heat normally over time, instead of something that retains heat exceptionally well. It doesn’t really work.

That white mist

We’ve all seen it before – that white mist on our cup of tea. If you don’t know what I’m talking, it’s this:

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The white stuff on the tea itself.

Some of you may have encountered people who say that this is a sign of good tea, or old tea, or whatever. I’ve always thought that this is probably just a mechanical thing with hot water and surface tension, or something like that. Well, turns out some Japanese scientists decided to investigate further. These are actually mico droplets of water that are levitating above the surface of the water itself and is not sensitive to what’s underneath – coffee, tea, water, detergent, etc. It seems like the density of the droplets are more dependent on temperature than anything else.

Anyway, here’s the press version of the story, and you can find the original paper here. Photo was taken by my friend Su from Malaysia.

Seven years in Portland

Some years ago, I gave my cousin living in Portland, Oregon this cake. I bought about a dozen of these when I was in Beijing, and I sent them one. I think it was 2007 when this happened, although it could also be in 2006. Either way, it’s been some years, and every time I visit them I would try a little bit of it. It’s gone through natural storage in their kitchen pantry in a ziploc bag. When I open it it usually smells of nothing.

The rest of my cakes, ever since I left Beijing, have been stored in Hong Kong, also in natural home storage. They were mostly in tongs, although I had a few loose cakes. I didn’t put them in any ziploc bags, so they were just sitting out there. I didn’t really drink that much of it over the years, so I still have about 10 of these. It’s actually rather scary how they’re all soon to be 13 years old teas now.

Recently I grandpa’ed a cake of the ones I stored in Hong Kong, so I got to know the taste of my tea really well. When I visited Portland over Christmas, I tried a little of it as usual, and I noticed that it’s obviously different from what I have at home. So I asked them for a little sample of the cake, and took it home. It’s impossible to tell if the teas tasted different because of the water or if it’s because the tea itself is different. My impression in Portland is that it is a little more fragrant, but also a bit thinner and sharper than what I have at home.

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So I brought it home, and decided to brew them side by side. The left one is the Portland one, the right one is the Hong Kong one. You can see that the Portland one is a bit lighter in colour.

So I took 3g of each (this is 3g you’re seeing, minus a little extra) and then brewed them. I brewed them for two infusions of five minutes each. The colour of the brew is not very obviously different in the first infusion, but somehow for the second it actually became more obvious.

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So the right one is a bit darker, surprise surprise.

The tastes of the teas are, as I expected, a little sharper, a little more floral, more “high” notes but less “bass” for the Portland stored one. The Hong Kong one is a little bit darker in tone, a little smoother in the body, and a little bit sweeter. Are the differences obvious? Yes. Are they still recognizable as the same tea? Also yes.

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Not a lot of information from either the dry leaves, the liquor colour, or the wet leaves visually. The effect of storing in Hong Kong, versus storing in Portland, is a bit like using different casks for scotch. Portland, in this case, would be the oak cask from start to finish, whereas Hong Kong is a little more like a sherry finished one. I think the Portland tea has definitely transformed less – it’s closer to the original, with a bit more bitterness retained and a little less change over time. The Hong Kong one is still bitter as well, but a little less so. I suppose preference for one or the other is really a personal choice, but to me the biggest knock against the Portland tea is that it feels sharp and thin. It’s not as pleasant when compared against the Hong Kong stored one.

The differences are solely due to storage – they were bought together and until I gave it to my cousin, the teas were stored together. This was a pretty interesting natural experiment.


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.