Explaining the impossible bargain

Sometimes when shopping for tea, one comes across the impossible bargains – prices that are simply too good to be true. Over the years, I’ve found those to fall into three main categories.

1) It really is too good to be true. This is probably something that isn’t what it claims to be, or possibly, not the whole truth. There’s often some fudging going on with these – an aged tea that isn’t quite aged, old tree tea that is, well, not that old, high mountain tea from areas that really don’t qualify, etc. “Revivals” or “the area of XXX” or “1990s” are all labels that may pertain to these sort of teas. So, in other words, these are trying to upsell as much as possible. There’s a reason they are so cheap.

2) The seller has no idea what s/he is selling. This happens most often in smaller shops, out of the way shops, shops with really old stock, or personal sales – people who don’t know what they’re doing. They are also invariable teas that are older – if it’s new tea, and s/he had to buy it and resell it on the open market, they’re not going to get good prices that you can pass on to the customer unless they operate at a loss. You have people who inherit old puerh cakes by the boatload and throw them away thinking they’re stale tea. You have people selling their own collection on the cheap because they’re in a hurry to get cash. You have sellers who just want to get rid of something and don’t care what prices it goes at. These are real bargains, if you can find them, but they are pretty rare. It also takes a lot of energy to seek these out.

3) The seller knows exactly what s/he is doing and doesn’t care. I’ve met some of these before, and these are the most interesting cases.

Modern economics has as one of its basis the assumption that actors are, by and large, rational. They generally do things that are in their own best interests, and sellers of a commodity like tea would, normally, behave that way. If the market price is $100/jin for a given tea, then a seller who sells it for considerably less must have some reason to do so – the reasons should include some return on the lower price they accept. That could be liquidity (like the guy who needs cash now) or relationship building (selling you something cheap so you’d come back for more). Or maybe it’s part of the business strategy (hypermarkets). There’s a good reason they do such things.

But over the years I’ve met a few sellers who don’t care, and whose motivations for selling at below market defies economic logic. I’ve bought cakes before from people who know it sells for, say, $250 a piece on the market, but sold to me for half the price. I’ve bought aged oolongs that are quoted at the same price they were sold 30 years ago (granted, prices for Dongding in the mid-80s was high), when the same tea can only be had at other joints for 3x the price. Why?

Oftentimes the answer I’ve gotten goes something like this: I sell this tea for cheap because I need to sell to my own customers. However, these are customers who generally don’t do a lot of business. For example – I only go to Taiwan a few times a year, and I buy, at most, a few jins (one jin = 600g) at any given shop. My total purchase within a year at any one shop will probably not exceed 10jin. That’s peanuts. While I was there this time, one of the shops was readying a shipment of 20jin of Dayuling for a store in Tokyo. I’ve sure that order alone outpriced whatever I bought by a factor of 5 or more. What’s the point of keeping customers like me happy?

The answer to this rather silly question is that to some, wringing maximum amounts of money is not quite the point. It’s somewhat interesting, as the rationale told to me is usually something like “well, I have to make sure I have stuff for you guys” or “I don’t know how to just mark it up like them.” There are also others who do it to stick it in people who change prices monthly for their tea – although in these cases selling tea tend to be a sideline of sorts to something else. Also, if they know that the buyer is a vendor, the price is not as friendly – therefore in these cases, buying small quantities through retail is actually better than buying dozens of jins of tea wholesale.

I’m not complaining about this, of course, if I’m the beneficiary. It’s just an interesting case where the textbook assumptions in economics fails. I think for these sellers, they derive pleasure in actually selling to retail customers who are loyal and come back year after year. Earning an extra 200 HKD or not on that sale is not that important to them. This is also why I have, over the years, stopped going to places that keep their prices very current – there’s something cold and unfriendly about places like that. I might not get the latest fashionable tea from them, but what I do get is a very nice reliable supply of teas that I like. That’s good enough.

Diversity

When I spend any amount of time in Taiwan, a lot of tea is almost inevitable. This is not only because I actively seek it out, which I definitely do, but also because even at places where you aren’t looking for tea, it comes to you.

So, in the past five days, I’ve had

Early 90s Alishan
A couple aged Oriental beauties
An old baozhong
Fall 2013 Gaoshan
1950s “Paperless” Red Label
Two 2013 Fall productions Yiwu from Wisteria
2013 Dayuling
Three or four aged baozhongs, various ages
Two new baozhongs, 2013 Fall
One aged dongding, or something similar
Another 90s Alishan
A 2013 gaoshan
An aged cooked puerh
A 1980s teabag of aged oolong
A very nice aged shuixian
Two award winning, slightly aged Oriental Beauties
A 2012 Winter Gaoshan
A beautiful 2012 Beipu black tea
A perfectly stored early 90s Gaoshan
A 30 years old dongding, reroasted
A 25 years old dongding
A wet 30 years old baozhong

And this is with only one tea shopping trip (to Wenshan and a couple old haunts) – the rest were just drinking with people.

There’s also a wide variety of places that I ended up at, from teashops that have bags of tea littering the floor

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To various types of more refined establishments, one of which happened to be a Nanguan studio where we basically enjoyed a private show, with tea

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It’s hard not to be picky about your tea when you live in a place like this. It’s also a place where you can enjoy tea high or low – whether it’s a casual cup of tea from one of those chains that serve it cold with ice and shaken, or fancy with the full setup and some exotic tea with a story to match in someone’s home. There’s something for everyone here who drinks tea – if you haven’t been here (and are reading this blog), you should.

Back to the Island of Tea

How do you know you’re in the Island of Tea?

Well, not immediately, but when you check in to your hotel, and you walk around a bit, and notice that less than a block away at the street corner, there’s this

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and this

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and best of all

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Did I mention this is all on the same street corner? And of course, within the same block and half radius, there’s at least two or three more shops that only sell tea.

But still, this could be just the one district where there are a bunch of tea shops. Well…. until you get back to your room, flip on the tv, do some channel surfing, and while doing so, finding that two of the tv shopping networks sell tea (among more normal things, like women’s underwear). Yes, they sell tea via tv.

In retrospect, I really should’ve recorded it via video, but I’ll spare you the hard sell, since it involves a lot of yelling about how great a deal is. The first channel was selling puerh.

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As you can see, only 3 and half minutes remaining, so I didn’t catch the initial pitch. In any case, they were too excited about this amazing deal to actually tell me how much tea they were selling for the price they were quoting, and they had to keep reminding me how there’s only a few minutes left. From this chart, I figured the following:

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It seems like they were claiming that they had this great cake from year 2000, somehow broke it up and made them into mini-tuos – don’t ask me how, why, or whether that’s even possible. Anyway, that’s the claim, and for the low, low price of 1980 NT (about $60 USD) you can get a can of these minituos. If you buy five! You can even get a free ceramic cup! In case you want to see what cake it is:

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As the last line said, the preciousness of this tea does not need to be said.

The other channel was selling something a little more conventional

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Yes, Cuifeng, in Hehuan Mountain, winter harvest. What sounds like half a jin (300g) for 2760 NT, about 90 USD, which is really not very cheap at all. To prove that it’s really high, they of course had to bring out the maps

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Oh, and if you buy 4 jins total, they’d give you a free 4oz sampler of the same tea!

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Yes, welcome to Taiwan.

I was tagged

So Michael J. Coffey tagged me to answer these “confessions of a tea blogger.” Here goes

1) First, let’s start with how you were introduced & fell in love with the wonderful beverage of tea.

Growing up in Hong Kong, I don’t think anyone is actually “introduced” to tea. You just drink it as a matter of course, because it’s everywhere, whether it’s the diluted tea water you get at local crap restaurants or the stuff you get when you go out for dim sum, you encounter tea every single day, in all shapes and sizes. So tea, as it were, was always a part of my life. My grandfather was never far from his tea – in fact, he almost never drinks plain water. So some of my earliest memories are people just sipping their cups when they come to visit, etc.

As for falling in love with it, I suppose it took place during college, when I bought a little bit of mingqian Longjing, wondering why this particular Longjing cost 5x the regular stuff. Well, turns out it was indeed a lot better than the regular stuff, and it’s been a one way street since.

2) What was the very first tea blend that you ever tried?

This is when you know the questions were written by someone who drinks mostly Western style tea, if we can call it that. Blends? I don’t know, probably some Lipton tea they use in restaurants here in Hong Kong. What else? I’ll be surprised if this isn’t the answer for pretty much everyone out there.

3) When did you start your tea blog & what was your hope for creating it?

January 28, 2006. That makes this blog almost 8 years old. It started out as, really, just a journal for myself to record what I drank and what I thought about the tea, on that most horrible (and now dead) of platforms, Xanga. Back then I think there were only three blogs on tea that I know of – Teamasters, which is still in the same business; Chadao, which has been dormant for a long time, and The Mandarin’s Tea, which has morphed a bit. There was also the Livejournal Puerh community, which has died a long time ago (and LJ is not far behind). Things were a lot simpler back then.

4) List one thing most rewarding about your blog & one thing most discouraging.

Rewarding: meeting people, sometimes in real life, who I otherwise wouldn’t have met, because I write this blog and they read it and we get in touch somehow. Discouraging: when obvious misinformation is spread and sometimes, despite my feeble attempts, it persists. The tea world is a much better place without all the myths and sales pitches.

5) What type of tea are you most likely to be caught sipping on?

Darker oolongs or puerhs, depending on the day.

6) Favourite tea latte to indulge in?

Huh? No thanks.

7) Favourite treat to pair with your tea?

Usually nothing.

8) If there was one place in the world that you could explore the tea culture at, where would it be & why?

I haven’t been to India yet, and would love to go see some tea plantations there. It’s a totally different mode of operation.

9) Any tea time rituals you have that you’d like to share?

Don’t complicate things when they are not necessary.

10) Time of day you enjoy drinking tea the most: Morning, Noon, Night or Anytime?

Afternoon, usually. People act surprised when I tell them I only have one tea a day normally. I try not to overdose.

11) What’s one thing you wish for tea in the future?

More people caring about it and less marketing-speak, but there’s no chance of the latter, I’m afraid.

– Whom do you tag?

I think Dr. Hobbes is untagged until now.

Raising a yixing pot

How to season teapots? That was one of the comments on my last post. It’s actually not that difficult, although advice on the internet being what they are, and just from the first page of google results looking for “how to raise a yixing teapot“, I see some instructions that are of dubious utility (the first link, funny enough, has pictures of a ceramic cup, not yixing pot, and the second step of the second set of instructions is a death wish for a pot, as I will explain shortly). The basic premise is – keep it simple, and don’t do anything that will endanger your pot.

Before you use the pot, the instructions will tell you to do the following:

1) Clean the pot. 2) Boil it. 3) Brew some tea in it and then discard the tea. 4) Use

Now, the general outline of this I can agree with. Cleaning the pot is simple enough – wash it with water and clean out any debris that might be in the pot, which in brand new pots is often present. If you’re buying antiques or older pots, you may need to do more deep cleaning – ranging from acid baths to bleach baths. For pots that are new, that’s unnecessary.

I think I have, at some point in the life of this blog, also mentioned the need to boil a teapot. I have to say I no longer think boiling is a good idea, and since it is a very risky activity, I do not encourage people to do it unless they have a death wish for their pot. I have personally damaged two of my pots in the process of boiling them, and I am not sure if there’s any good reason to do so that cannot be achieved just by soaking the pot in very hot water for an hour in a pan/bowl that has been pre-warmed (along with the pot) and covered and perhaps insulated. The theory behind boiling the pot is that it opens up the (some say mythical) pores on the surface of the pot and “prime” them for seasoning. I’m not sure of the truth of this need – but if you believe in it, I think a hot soak will do the trick.

The problem with boiling is that even if you simmer, at the lowest heat, the water will still bubble up, unless your heat is so low that the water is kept only warm, and not hot, in which case you are doing what you can do with just a covered bowl with no heat source. When the water bubbles, however, the parts of the teapot in the pan will rattle, either a little or a lot, depending on your luck, and once in a while, it will rattle in such a way as to damage it – usually the victim is the tip of the spout or the edge of the lid. If you insist on boiling, start with cold water with the pot already in the pan and heat everything up, very slowly, together. Putting the pot in boiling water, like Verdant suggests, is extremely risky. Putting anything extra, like a spoon in the pot (as they also suggest) is even riskier – the less things the pot can knock against, the better. I know people here who boil with some elaborate contraption they’ve devised with wet towel lining the inside of a rice cooker or something along those lines. I, frankly, don’t see the point.

Whatever your belief regarding yixing clay’s porosity, I can personally attest that they do soak up smell very well. For example, the pair of pots in my last post – I just tried, for the sake of experimentation, to brew some tea in the relatively unseasoned pot the other day without doing any cleaning. What I got was a slightly salty and old-sock like smell from the pot and the tea – and the tea did not recover even when I transferred it to another brewing vessel. This tells me I needed to clean it, and it also tells me what many yixing users already know – the pots do, over time, take on smells. In this case, it’s the musty smell of whatever storage facility it was in.

So having picked a tea to use the pot with (I’d generally suggest wide genres – oolongs, pu, black, greens, and not be too fussy with specificity – as in a previous post) I normally will actually soak the pot in said tea – spent leaves are fine – for some time, usually a few hours at a time, and refresh if deemed necessary. This should drive away the fresh clay smell (a mixture of sandy and clay-y). Then, your pot is more or less ready to use.

When using it, I almost never pour water over the pot, nor tea. There’s a reason for this, especially if your water source is high in minerals – over time, there will be a nasty ring of mineral deposits on your pot, usually right around the edge of the rim of the lid. This rim will be difficult to clean. The point of using the brush, as some of you might have seen people do, is to distribute the water evenly throughout the pot, so that this line of mineral doesn’t form (or at least, form a lot slower). Also, as a good chemist friend pointed out a long time ago, pouring water over a pot actually helps it to lose heat faster – that water evaporating off the surface of the pot is taking heat away from your pot. I do not believe that there is any tangible and discernable benefit to pouring water over the pot. Some believe the extra heat (if any) will help get more flavour out of the tea, but since your infusions are quick (a few seconds) and the difference in temperature between water in the pot and water-on-pot is minimal (a few degrees, at most?) I have a hard time imagining a physical process that will help you extract meaningful amounts of flavour out of the leaves in that short period of time.

Now, you will often read about the need to polish your pot, usually with the suggestion of using a wet towel, maybe with tea, after every single use. I normally don’t do this either, for another reason – very frequent use of a wet towel to polish your pot will result in what people often call, derisively, “the monk shine.” 和尚光 This is in reference to a Buddhist monk’s shiny, hairless head (although in reality, any bald head will do). Pots that have been over-buffed will be really shiny. Some people prefer it that way, others think it crass. The right hand pot in my last post, in person at least, is borderline “monk shine.” Personally, I prefer my pots seasoned but not shiny – like the lion pot here. If cleaning is a must (and sometimes it is – because of stains, etc) wet a cloth with warm water, and wipe, gently, the pot while it is warm.

When done drinking, clear the pot of leaves and rinse it out if you wish. Whatever you do, please do keep the lid off until the pot is absolutely dry. I know people who close the lid while it’s still wet because they want to season the inside. Sometimes it’s tea in there, other times it’s wet with clear water, but even then, when I open the lid of those pots, sometimes I can smell a bit of an off smell – mold. It’s far too easy to grow something in a pot if it’s wet and closed. Dry it out. If you use your pot often enough, it’ll season through use. There’s no need to rush, and if you forgot to clear the pot just once, you’ll have to start over by cleaning it inside out. There’s nothing worse than realizing that you forgot some tea in a pot you left around because you wanted to season it, and to discover that what was tea has now turned into a gooey, sickly smelling gel-like substance. I’ve done it before, and it’s nasty. Clean, and keep the lid off.

Finally, a word of etiquette – I was chided a long time ago for doing this by friends with far more experience. If you are drinking tea with friends and you want to admire someone else’s pot, ask before you pick it up, and when you pick it up, keep either the lid or the body on the table when you look at the other part of the pot. Never, ever hold the pot in one hand while you hold the lid in the other (or worse, the same hand) when you’re peering into the pot. Even if you think you have steady hands, all it takes is one accident. Two hands on one pot or one lid is far better than thumb and index on the lid’s knob while your hand holds the pot itself. It’s someone else’s pot, and someone else’s effort – the pot might not be worth a lot, but the time and effort and the memory it comes with are not replaceable. Minimize the risk to others by respecting their wares. You can always break your own teapots.

Addendum: A friend also suggested I add two things to the etiquette section. The first is don’t knock someone else’s pot against itself – in other words, don’t use the lid and hit the body of the pot with it. Yes, some people do that to test to see if the pot rings, but yes, it sometimes can damage the lid or the body of the pot. It happens, and you don’t want to be the one doing it. The other thing not to do is to start doing water tests or whatever else tests you do with pots as if you’re buying them – it’s someone else’s pot. They already bought it. Unless they asked you to evaluate it, don’t. You don’t size up someone’s kid (or cat, or car) and start testing their IQ or kicking the tires, so why would you do that with a teapot?

Separated by accident

Some friends have been saying I should post more of my pots online. Well, here’s one, or two, rather

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I’m a real sucker for these pairs with matching pouches, conveniently colour coded so that they are easily identifiable without needing to fish them out and check. There’s a reason that’s necessary

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As you can see, they are different – but actually, not that different. The two were clearly made the same way. The only thing is, the one on the left seemed to have, early in its life, suffered an accident. The tip of the spout seems to be filed down to give it the current appearance. It should’ve looked like the one on the right, but for reasons of accident, it isn’t (there’s some residual damage under the spout). As a consequence, whoever owned the pair probably never really used the broken pot, and stuck with the one that isn’t broken. So, now you have even more difference – one has a lovely, shiny patina, the other one has none. If you want evidence that Yixing clay seasons over time, well, this is exhibit A.

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You can see that under the lid the clay of both pots are virtually identical.

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You can think of these as identical twins who suffered different fates. One got an unlucky break early on, and as a result, is loved that much less and spent that much less time with the owner of the pot. Whoever owned it took enough care to fix the broken pot – it probably had an ugly break of the tip and so the tip was filed down for aesthetics, but for whatever reason, it never got the attention it needed. The other got everything – loving care, attention, all the tea it needed to nourish its surface. So, many years later, I see the end result of it. It is probably safe to say that most will find the seasoned pot much more pleasing to the eye, but now that I am the owner of these two, maybe I’ll try to right the wrong and give the broken pot some love. It deserves it after all these years.

Buying yixing pots

As somebody with a, er, teapot problem, which has only gotten worse since then, I thought maybe I should summarize what I’ve learned and unlearned through the years.

The first thing you learn when you set out buying yixing pots probably go something like this

1) You should only use one tea for one pot

Then there’s a whole slew of supposed “practical” advice, things like how the lid should fit well, how the spout and handle and top of the pot should be level, how things should all line up perfectly, filter vs no filter…. etc. This is before you start bothering with things like clay, which is a whole another hornets’ nest.

I think after having bought a whole bunch of pots, and using pots basically exclusively to brew tea for years, I can say that almost all of those beginner advice are bogus.

Take, for example, the bit about using only one tea for a pot. I suppose that’s sort of true, to a small extent, in that the tea does impart some flavour on your pot over long term use. The pot I usually use for my older, traditionally stored puerh, for example, smells like the tea it brews. When I pour water into the pot, it comes out brown. If I try to brew younger stuff in it, it’s going to get contaminated with the flavours of the storage heavy tea. So, in those cases, yes, you probably want to separate them to avoid too much interference.

At the same time though, it’s entirely pointless and silly to divide the teas into ever finer divisions and brew only that tea in one pot. For example, you can cut oolongs up into a million classifications – tieguanyin, shuixian, yancha, dancong, Taiwanese gaoshan, and within each of those big categories, you can further subdivide them into mountains, seasons, etc etc. The possibility is endless, and very early on I also thought maybe I needed to do that. Then it occurred to me – no, you don’t need to do that. First, the teas themselves, while distinct in taste, are not going to impart such a significant flavour effect on the pot that makes it easily distinguishable. Second, by doing so, you need a million pots, each of which see relatively little use. Third, observing others who have gone before me, such as folks who’ve been doing this for 50 years, they generally don’t care that much – oolongs go into the oolong pots, puerh likewise, and that’s that. So far, I’ve found that it works. You might, for reasons I already stated, want to divide them into two or three categories (heavy roast vs light roast, for example) but otherwise, just let it be.

As for the more structural things with teapots, I think in general those rule of thumbs are useless. Take, for example, lid fit. The easy version of the lid fit test says that you should be able to stop the flow of water if you hold onto the air hole. The more robust, and in my opinion silly, version of the test claims that the lid ought to stay in place and not fall if you fill the pot with water, hold the spout close, and flip the pot over. The idea of this is that this is a sign of good craftsmanship – that the lid fits well because the craftsmen make good pots. That’s true if your pot is made entirely by hand, like this video of master Zhou Guizhen. However, in these days of mold-assisted making (this is a nice series of pics that show how it’s done – and it’s an old technique), or much more likely (if you’re buying low priced pots) full on liquid-clay-in-mold pots (i.e. pouring a liquid clay into the mold, then remove mold after it dries a bit to reveal a pot) there is very little value in a well-fitting lid if it’s just the result of an industrial process that churns out massive amounts of pots. You can see the images here of a CCTV report on the mass manufacture of dubious yixing pots here (sorry, in Chinese, but you can see the images). Labour isn’t so cheap in China anymore. That $30 yixing pot you just bought is not going to be fully, or even partially, hand made. So stop imagining that the lid fit has anything to do with worksmanship.

Nor do things like this really help with brewing tea. A tight fitting lid doesn’t aid tea brewing in any real way. The same can be said of the level line between the spout, handle, and pot – you don’t want the spout a lot lower than the top of the pot, but it’s not going to kill you, or your tea, if it’s not perfectly level (and again, getting it perfectly level is a lot easier if it’s mass manufactured in molds). The value of these tests are dubious, at best.

What I think one should watch out for, insofar as structural things are concerned, generally have to do with pouring and the mechanics of water/tea going in, and water/tea coming out. I think a very important thing to watch for, when buying pots, is how long it takes for the tea to pour out. If it’s slow, then you’re going to be frustrated and have trouble using the pot. This has to do with the size of the airhole and the shape and size of the spout. Also, just testing it with water is not always good – tea has somewhat higher viscosity than water, and I’ve used pots before that seem to work well with water, but when you throw tea in it the pot slows to a trickle. It’s annoying, but it happens, and if you’re buying online, unfortunately you’re on your own.

Another thing is size – it seems like a lot of folks in North America and Europe love the smaller pots, especially things sized around 60ml. I, for one, cannot understand why. I find pots that sized far too small, and are not very good for general usage, even if just brewing for one person. Yes, using a small pot does reduce the amount of tea you use, which is a little more economical, but I also find that it makes controlling brewing a lot harder. I also believe that most of the stuff available on the market at that size tend to be mass produced stuff of low quality – it’s not economical for the producers to hand make these kinds of pots. My personal preference is for something around 100ml, which, after accounting for the tea, is usually one big cup per brew, or a few small cups.

Who made the pot also seems to be something folks worry about, a lot. I think part of it is just wanting to know about the product you bought – there’s a seal on the pot, so naturally you want to know what it says, which is usually some person’s name. Then, you want to know who that person is. In 99.9% of the cases, however, that person is basically a nameless craftsman who toils in the yixing teapot industry. Having someone’s name on a pot does not actually mean they made it – oftentimes (as the CCTV videos I linked to discuss) they are subcontracted out to lesser workers who use the seal of the slightly-more-famous person so that they can sell the pot, possibly using molds to aid in the uniformity of the product. So, while it’s nice to know “who made it”, the real answer is, sadly, a lot more complicated and a lot less alluring. When a pot is in the tiny fraction of pots where the maker is famous, there’s a high likelihood that it’s a fake. In cases where it’s not fake, you already know what it was because you paid thousands, if not tens of thousands or even millions, for the privilege of owning that pot.

All this and I haven’t bothered with talking about clay, which is another beast entirely and not something I want to touch on here. What I will say though is this – worrying about and obsessing over what type of clay a certain pot is is definitely a waste of time. Demanding vendors to tell you that sort of info will usually provoke some answer, but the answer, more likely than not, is probably just made up or at best an educated guess. It also is basically entirely meaningless in terms of what it actually does to your tea. I personally believe the density of the clay and the size of the particles have more to do with your tea’s outcome than the type of clay. Whether a pot is dicaoqing or benshanluni really makes very little difference to a tea drinker, unless the tea drinker also happens to be a big pot collector with the intention to collect different types of clay (in which case, buying over the internet is the wrong thing to do).

So, I suppose if I need to summarize my thoughts on buying yixing pots, it’s this: focus on the function and cut out the noise. The noise includes anything that forms a “background story” that helps sell a pot – name, clay, story of acquisition, etc. Instead, function – clay density, size and shape, water flow – are the things to watch out for. If it’s too good to be true – claims of fully hand made and the price is anywhere under, say, $100, or “Republican” or “Qing” and it’s only $300 …. you should think twice about the reliability of that seller and their value proposition. On the other hand, high prices don’t mean quality either. All this does mean that buying pots over the internet is generally not a great idea. Unfortunately, for most of my readers, that makes buying teapots a tough call. Try to find vendors who have good access, usually on the ground or have deep connections with suppliers, and don’t get too carried away like me.

Hong Kong milk tea

While we’re on the subject of what regular people drink, it’s hard not to talk about the traditional Hong Kong milk tea.

Normally, milk tea of any sort usually consist of some milk or cream and a regularly brewed black tea of some type, maybe lipton or something along those lines. Hong Kong milk tea doesn’t follow that. It’s a very heavy blend of evaporated milk and tea. Witness the colour

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These things are usually served without any sugar. You can add your own, if you want, as sugar is usually on the table in large quantities. The way this stuff is brewed is what some people call the “stocking milk tea” – it actually is a cotton bag that looks like a long sock, with tea inside. They use two pitchers with no lids. The brewer repeatedly pour boiling water (after the first infusion, tea) back and forth between the two, while having it on the heat source so it’s kept at a very high temperature. They do this until it reaches the desired strength, which is somewhere between super strong and incredibly strong. Then, to serve, they add a few big spoonfuls of evaporated milk and then pour the tea into it with force – the “clash” between the two elements is important, and the resulting drink is a very smooth tea/milk concoction. Without the milk, the tea itself is a very bitter, sour, and strong drink that isn’t very good.

The tea they use is pretty low grade stuff, and is usually a blend of various kinds of teas. The base is this

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The right hand bag is the tea (left side is coffee). If you really want, you can buy a bag of this stuff over Taobao at the paltry price of 168 RMB for 5lbs (incidentally the Taobao page also has a couple pictures of people making this tea). They claim this is Ceylon black tea, with different grades mixed in. Oftentimes various restaurants will use these as a base and may or may not add things to the mix to create their own flavour – cooked puerh for example is sometimes used to give the tea more body.

Evaporated milk (right) is the preferred fat source in Hong Kong.

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I think in Singapore you see condensed milk instead (left), which is already sweet. The results are very different. There are also different kinds of evaporated milk. Something you run into sometimes is a particularly nasty one – basically imitation evaporated milk made using mostly vegetable fat and milk powder. It looks like the real deal, but the taste is off, and the body is thin and gross.

There are other variations on a theme, most notably the yuenyeung (pinyin: yuanyang) which is a perculiar mixture of half coffee, half tea, plus milk. I’m not a fan, but it has its devotees.

You’d think something like this should be pretty simple, but I’ve been to restaurants where the result is so horrible I’ve never gone back again. It’s really one of those drinks that can define your shop, and if your ability to make this singularly Hong Kong drink is not there, your business will suffer.

Tea and sugar

These two things do go together, sort of. Like this HK style french toast (two slices of deep fried white bread with peanut butter in the middle) and lemon tea.

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I normally don’t drink my tea with any sort of sugar, as you can probably imagine. But sometimes I’m reminded why so many people do – it really softens the tannins in the tea, and tannins in tea, when it’s strong, can be pretty nasty.

The point was driven home while I was in Turkey, which, to my surprise, is mostly a tea drinking country, despite the fame of its coffee tradition. Tea was cheaper, and drunk far more often, than coffee. The preferred tea is samovar style – super concentrated concoction watered down. This process makes sense especially in settings where you need to make a lot of tea quickly – you make as strong a brew as possible, without regard for how it tastes, and then you water it down so that it’s more palatable. That’s how tea is made in Hong Kong too in most places – the tea is made super strong, with repeated boilings of leaves with water, and then you finally water it down to the desired strength.

The watering down, however, is also where things go wrong – usually when it’s still too strong when watered down. While in Turkey I sometimes would add a cube of sugar (two always comes with your cup) because they made the tea too strong. While that can be nice, sometimes, when it’s overly strong, it can be pretty unpalatable, since the tea itself isn’t much to write home about. Adding that sugar, however, magically transforms it into a much softer, gentler drink – the tannins are gone. What was a pretty strong and pretty harsh drink is now quite nice, and with one cube, you still only barely taste the sweetness. This is especially true if you then wash it down with some baklavas – or maybe it’s the other way around.

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Cream, of course, has a similar effect, but cream influences the way tea tastes far more than sugar does. A small amount of sugar has a fairly neutral effect on the taste, but a small amount of cream is just nasty, making your tea look like sewage, while a large amount will of course change everything. I’m not about to dunk two cubes of sugar in all my tea every day, but sometimes it’s good to be reminded of why most of the rest of the tea drinking public love their sugar with tea.