Dealing with traditionally stored teas

A reader wrote in recently asking me about how to handle cakes that have been traditionally stored. The cake has obviously been through some traditional storage, as you can see here

 photo 2016-02-10 16.37.16.jpg

First of all, it’s useful to get a sense from looking and smelling the cake to see how heavy the storage was – how wet, for how long, basically. There are some hints. You can smell it. You can observe the amount of mold on the surface, although that’s not a good indicator because some people actually use brushes to brush off most of the spores. You can also open the cake up a bit to see what it looks like inside – if it’s really white inside or not. Really heavily stored cakes also often have some warping – they get so wet that they warp under pressure of all the other cakes on top and sometimes around them. This doesn’t look too bad.

The reader actually had two questions – will this cake contaminate the other cakes he owns, and how to deal with this – to make it get better, I suppose?

The first thing to note is that since mold can grow on anything, just putting your moldy cake in the same storage space as your other cakes is not automatically going to cause mold on other cakes, unless your storage environment allows it to happen (wet, basically). At 30% RH, that’s not going to happen to this reader’s storage situation. It could, however, impart a bit of a smell to the other cakes in the same container, so my advice was to put it separately, perhaps in something like an unsealed cardboard box, and just forget about it. This comes to the second point – often times the biggest problem with these traditionally stored teas, especially if they haven’t been out of their wet storage phase for too long, is that all you can taste is the musty, damp forest floor smell. The rich flavours that you can get from traditionally stored teas aren’t apparent yet, especially the sweeter flavours. To get rid of the sometimes pungent smell, the best way to deal with it is to just let it air out a bit. This is the one time when you do want a bit of airflow or at least air exchange. It takes time, but eventually the really obvious musty smell will go away and you will have something that’s more drinkable. These are probably drinkable now, but it should get better with age.

I also have friends who would brush off the spores themselves, although for your sanity and health I’d do that outdoors. Get a new toothbrush and just lightly brush them off. It really won’t change much of anything but it might look better, and to some people that’s actually an important psychological step in dealing with the tea, it seems.

When drinking traditionally stored teas, it’s often not a bad idea to throw away the first two steeps. A good old friend of mine who grew up drinking these often said the real taste doesn’t start to show up until about steep five. There’s a certain truth to that – everything before is really the storage talking. Definitely rinse the tea, probably twice, before trying it. If it’s still super pungent, you might want to let it sit some more, or throw away another infusion. Part of the fun is learning how they transform, and traditionally stored teas change in ways that are more obvious than naturally stored teas.

Finally, I should add that one of the most interesting things you can do is to try to find traditionally stored cooked puerh – they are actually quite different, and richer, than naturally stored ones, which tend to be rather boring. The traditional storage process also tend to get rid of the nasty, pondy taste. They also come cheaper. I’m not sure if any vendor out there is selling something like this, but if not, they should look for it because I think there’s a market for this stuff.

How many ten years?

A few days from now, this blog will be ten years old. I still remember sitting in the Quincy House dining room typing out my first post during a lull between my afternoon meetings and dinner. I certainly didn’t expect to still be writing this blog ten years later, nor did I know where I was going to be in five years’ time, never mind ten. The pace of the blog has certainly slowed – that’s what having MiniN and MicroN will do to your free time (Hobbes can tell you all about it). Even time dedicated to tea drinking has dwindled as demands piled up and my free time mostly consist of late night hours after the kids have gone to bed – when tea drinking isn’t such an advisable activity.

I have also evolved – back then I can remember everything was pretty exciting, I was very much in the exploration phase, and wanted to try everything new. I had already been drinking tea for some years by then, but writing the blog made me look at tea in a more analytic way than before, and reflecting on tea was an interesting pursuit. It still is, but over the years I have also learned what isn’t useful or interesting. Tea reviews, I’ve found, to be mostly a waste of time, for myself and for the readers. This is especially true since I moved back to Asia, so my source of tea is now very different from the vast majority of my readership. When everyone was buying tea samples from Hou De way back when, writing tea reviews together was exciting and interesting – I called it a constant tea meeting back in the day.

The fact that both those links are to places that are more or less dead shows you how things have changed. The online conversation has moved on to places like Reddit and Facebook, and new types of sites, such as TeaDB, appeared. Older conversation partners have mostly dropped off – only the indomitable Hobbes and Stephane remain, and Stephane’s is, at the end of the day, a storefront (although I’m glad to see he finally created a real store). It’s not surprising – people move on, blogging as a medium has changed considerably, and tea itself has also changed.

One of these changes is that now there’s a wider-than-ever availability of teas to the Western consumer. However, there are still conspicuous absences in this marketplace, especially when it comes to Chinese tea. I don’t see many teas that are proper, traditional style tieguanyin, for example. I also don’t see much high-end tea – much of what is sold as high end online is really the mid-range in China or Taiwan – the truly high end stuff never make it abroad, because the prices are prohibitive. The diversity of tea availability is, therefore, a bit of a red-herring – a lot of it is really just more of the same with a different name, but sometimes offered at greatly varied prices due to marketing, hype, etc. That’s why it was especially sad to see Origintea.net die as Tony had to move on in life – he was one of the few people offering genuinely interesting teas and who was always working to find new stuff.

The passage of time also has me thinking – how many 10 years do we all have? Not to go all philosophical on you, but as tea drinkers who buy and store puerh, we are all betting on the future condition of what we own now. Ten years ago when I really got started buying teas to store, I had, as many of you, hoped that after ten years I will have some wonderful semi-aged teas to drink. Do I? Yes I have some stuff, but not as much as I’d like. Early purchases are by definition almost always going to be problematic – they’re tuition. Then you slowly learn what’s actually good, what’s not, and what will become better when stored. This is the key, really. A tea that tastes wonderful now may not be any good in the future. I’ve got some in my own collection, and I’ve tasted many more. Before you know it, ten years are gone and you’ve barely got a collection going. As a very experienced tea friend said to me recently:

But my motto is now , if I don’t like the tea better than when it was new 5 years down the road , I’m not gonna bother storing it anymore. Waste of space. The problem with the new teas these days is that they taste wonderful new, but 5 years on, 10 years on, they do not become better. They become acceptable. IMO, a puerh should taste better as you store it if it is to age well. So you buy a cake, it’s robust, smoky, bitter and strong and even harsh but 5 years down the road, it has improved a little, 10 years down the road smokiness is gone, 15 years a marked improvement but still harsh 20 years it becomes drinkable. That’s from my personal experience. If you buy a cake and it’s not all that and gives you a honey taste after 10 yrs or ceylon tea or tobacco, it’s not the traditional puerh. Really, if you want to drink something that tastes like tobacco, go buy a cigarette and steep that!!!

That’s very true – I’ve tasted so many teas that are made more recently that have aged into something like hongcha or tobacco or even nothingness – that’s not what aged puerh is, whatever the storage condition. That strength that you get from a cleanly stored 7542 from the 80s or 90s, or a Xiaguan 8653, well… it’s not tobacco and not honey nor hongcha, but it’s good. I miss that taste. I get it occasionally, but not often enough. It’s what drew me to this tea and it’s what keeps me in it, when I drink something like that anyway. I’m drinking my cheap Menghai tuo now, but it has that taste. There’s a reason I keep coming back to this tea. Of course, it’s also because I happen to have lots of it. My own lessons have taught me that I should look out for teas like this one – if I drink a lot of it, that means it’s good, and it means I should find more of it and buy in bulk when I see them. Too bad it’s harder and harder to find good tea on the market for a good price. How many ten years do we all have? Not enough.

Storing Pu’er tea – You are the final master

As long time readers of my blog know, I’m pretty allergic to marketing-speak, especially when the vendor is spewing disinformation. Well, I got an email a couple days ago from an outfit called Misty Peak, which I’ve never heard of but who had somehow harvested my blog email to put on their mailing list. The title of the email is the title of this post – Storing Pu’er tea – You are the final master. Yes. You can read the email here.

Basically, the email tells you how to store your tea, which seems informative enough, until you actually read it. To summarize the five points:

  1. You need circulating air – apparently the tea needs to breath or it’ll suffocate.
  2. There are two kinds of storage – dry and wet. Wet storage is when humidity is 50% or higher. Dry storage is “much drier condition.” No, 50% is not a typo.
  3. Temperature – between 55 and 80F (that’s 13 to 27 real degrees for the rest of the world)
  4. Store tea with other similar teas, turn over your tea every six months so “the leaves are getting exposure to the elements” and store it in porous containers, like wood or clay. If your got your tea in bags, throw away the bags or drink them quickly. The perfect place to store tea in a house is the top shelf of your closet – put it near a bowl of water and introduce a humidifier if it’s too dry. “There should be plenty of fresh air coming in as you open that door often and perhaps leave it ajar from time-to-time with a window open.”
  5. “Caravans of horses and mules travelled thousands of miles by foot over snow-capped mountains and through sun-heated desserts [sic].” So have fun. “Place some in your cabinet, some in your closet, and maybe even some on your porch. Just remember, this tea was cared for and crafted with absolute mastery and now it is up to you to learn to store it with care and prepare it with patience. You, my dearest tea friend, are the final master in this tea’s journey.”

Now, if you haven’t figure it out already – do not follow any of this “advice” if you care about your tea at all.

Let’s start with point 1. Airflow is pretty much a bad idea, and the theory that puerh needs fresh air to age is simply bogus. Fresh air can do a lot of things, but most of it will destroy your tea. If you want your tea to retain its aroma and age well, stick it in a place with low airflow that isn’t too damp. The fastest I’ve ever seen mold grow on my cake was on a coffee table with good airflow. A few days of continuous rain and it started growing stuff. Don’t do it.

The definition of dry and wet here is so off it’s laughable. Wet (I think they mean traditional in my usage) is a lot wetter than “50%” humidity – in fact, 50% is positively dry. Anything drier is going to kill your tea, and even a constant 50% will pretty much ensure your tea never really age at all. The idea that 50% or higher is wet is… simply amazing in its ignorance coming from a vendor. Certainly no vendor in Asia will call that wet.

Temperature – well, this is a sort of reasonable, if somewhat low, range. Temperature is not going to kill you here, but if it’s too cold for too long your tea won’t change much either. The reason Malaysian teas age a bit faster is because they’re generally hotter there. If your temperature is a constant 15 degrees your tea once again won’t age much at all.

Point 4 pretty much repeats what comes before, except that as people who have tried storing teas in clay can tell you – clay is very, very dangerous, and can easily kill your tea by helping mold grow. It’s not a porous material at all – certainly not porous enough. Wood, even, is pretty risky, and wood has the additional risk of smell coming from the wood itself. Sometimes simple is best – paper box with a tiny opening, a closet that is almost always closed in an area that isn’t too damp, avoid direct sunlight, etc. You can experiment with additional moisture via bowls of water if your area is dry, but humidifier is a pretty risky thing to use and I’d caution against it. You only need to screw up once to mess up your whole stash.

Point 5 is so comical as to invite laughter, or if I’m less charitable, I’d think they’re actively trying to get you to screw up your tea so that you’d have to buy more from them. Put your tea on your porch? Really? Caravans traveled through snow-capped mountains and sun-heated deserts? Not really – not usually anyway. They mostly traveled through passes (instead of over the mountains) and on plains through oases. You’d avoid deserts if you can help it at all. And don’t get me started on the bit that I haven’t quoted about dead horses and coming back to the tea years later.

So with this email, I was curious who these guys were, so I went to their website. I see they only do puerh, which is disappointing – for an outfit that only does puerh, the advice they’re giving you is astonishingly bad. I went to their “About” and “FAQ” pages, and noticed a few interesting things

“Our tea is the only tea on the market grown and processed by one family from trees planted in Yunnan China before the advent of electricity, 200-500 years ago.”

Pretty sure this statement is not true. There are lots of people selling single family teas from old tea trees in China (real or fake), but I guess if it’s in China it’s not happening?

“In 2014, the online tea community on the world’s largest tea review website, Steepster, rated us the #1 Pu’er Tea in the world out of over 5,000 different Pu’er teas with over 10,000 voting people!

Oh, Steepster…..

“Now the tea is available in over 370 select shops in the North America, Europe, Asia, and South America.”

Let’s see… 370 shops, but only one farm, and only 200-500 years old trees. That’s A LOT OF TREES FOR ONE FARM. Does this pass the smell test? You be the judge.

“First company in the world to change the shape of Pu’er Tea.”

You clearly haven’t bought any gongyicha before. You made a triangle in 2015. These guys made an elephant in 2013. There are also countless examples of other people who did this sort of thing way earlier. First in the world? Really? Have you ever been to a tea market in China? Obviously not.

Anyway, I think I’ve made my point. Avoid these clowns, and stop putting me on your junk mail list.

Nowhere to buy tea

A few days ago a group of Korean students came as a delegation, and during lunch we somehow got on the topic of tea, and specifically, where one could buy some Chinese black tea in Hong Kong. Funny enough, after thinking about it a little, my answer was basically – nowhere.

It’s of course not really true that there was nowhere to go. You have your choice from supermarket tea to specialty food stores to specialized tea shops, but a place that I can truly recommend for good, reasonably priced, Chinese black tea? It doesn’t really exist.

That in and of itself is sort of odd – after all, Hong Kong is big on tea drinking. However, people here don’t drink much Chinese black tea. When drinking black tea (hongcha) they generally prefer “western” teas – usually from the Indian subcontinent, but often probably mixed in with stuff from Africa or elsewhere. They are drunk in more formal settings, such as afternoon tea service at cafes and hotels, or they are drunk in the Hong Kong style mixed drinks – in which case the teas are blends created expressly for the purpose, and are usually devoid of origin. They also come in containers meant for food service, like these guys. I doubt anyone wants 2 packs of 5lb teas for home use.

So when you want to buy loose leaf black tea, other than the usual suspects at the supermarkets, you have your choice of overpriced foreign vendors and overpriced local vendors. Buying keemun from, say, Whittard of Chelsea, seems exceedingly silly when you’re in Hong Kong. Local stores either don’t stock very high grade black teas, because there’s no real market for it, or they stock reasonable quality ones but then charge you through the roof for it. Also, Hong Kong tea stores are not great for packaging. It’s fine when you want it for yourself, but if you were going to gift it, it’s not so good.

Similar dynamics are at play when looking for tea elsewhere in greater China as well. When you’re in Taiwan and you want green tea, you either buy Japanese green tea or you go home. Chinese greens in Taiwan, from what I’ve seen anyway, are in pretty much the same position as black teas in Hong Kong – you can either get really low grade stuff or you can be prepared to be charged through the roof for teas that are often not that great anyway. Local taste is not in it, so there’s no real market demand. You can say the same for puerh in Shanghai, for much the same reason – much of the puerh I’ve seen there is not great, or too expensive. I’m sure there are more private vendors in Shanghai who deal in this stuff, but as a visitor looking for stores, it’s terrible.

In the end, I took the students to a local tea shop that I like and they were quite happy to buy some white tea and some tieguanyin instead. Everyone went home happy.

Verdant Tea strikes again

Some of you may remember a little controversy over a cake that Verdant Tea used to sell , which wasn’t quite the amazingly special tea it claimed to be. Well, a new controversy has arrived through a Reddit thread. Calling these controversy is really giving too much credit to Verdant though, because in both cases the questions far overwhelm the response they gave – things, basically, don’t check out. The Reddit thread includes comments by TwoDog of White2Tea and Scott of YunnanSourcing – yes they are vendors but they are low-BS vendors, whereas Verdant’s BS meter is sky high. You should look through that thread.

The story is this – there’s this puerh that Verdant sells that they claim to be from a single 1800 years old tree. In general, people think that older trees are better, and are willing to pay through the nose to get it. I’m not going to link to the tea, which is sold out anyway, but will instead show you a screengrab.

 photo Verdant screen grab.png

First of all, you may note that for 100g, $60 isn’t a lot of money for a tea that claims to be as rare and special as a 1800 years old tree should. In fact, it is very cheap, cheaper than all old tree or ancient tree teas on the market today, by a pretty wide margin too. There’s a reason we say “if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.” Well, this price is way, way too good to be true, especially coming from an American vendor who will naturally have a much higher overhead.

But that’s not the only problem. There are a lot of things that don’t really check out in this story. For example, this is one productive tree! 100 cakes were pressed, with 100g each, that’s 10kg of processed tea leaves. This means the tree would’ve had to have produced 40kg of raw leaves for this much processed leaves be available for pressing. 40kg for a single tree that is so old – it’s seriously risky and damaging to the tree if this were really done, because older trees that aren’t pruned regularly don’t really grow very fast, and to harvest this much tea from it would literally kill the tree.

Not to mention that it’s impossible. This issue was reposted on Steepster, where the wife of Verdant Tea’s proprietor, Lily Duckler, responded to the criticism. Scott of Yunnan Sourcing followed up with a response of his own (in the second last thread on the page). Basically, trees of this nature are now all under state protection, and harvesting from them is usually a serious crime. I have no illusion that some illegal harvesting is going on, but this isn’t 2005 anymore when anyone and everyone can harvest whatever tea they want from whatever tree they want. It’s a lot more difficult now to get access to the fields of ancient trees, many of which have been designated as protected and thus off limits (or limited severely in quantity). That a tree this old can be harvested with impunity and obvious disregard for its long term health is not going to happen.

Scott’s response also highlighted another issue that was obviously problematic for me when I saw the page – for a vendor so keen on producing photos and videos of their trips, conspicuously absent are good photos and/or videos of the tree in question. There’s one poorly shot one in the product page, but that’s it. Lily Duckler’s response beats around the bush about other trees (some of the photos there, as Scott points out, are of trees from different tea regions entirely and has nothing to do with this village, contra Duckler’s claim) and doesn’t actually talk about the tree in question. Why not? There are pictures of other trees, but no more of the ones for which they’re selling the tea? That’s very odd, to say the least. What there are pictures of, however, are plantation tea trees in the background – the picture with the hut at the bottom? See those rows in the back on the slope? Wonder what they are? Plantation teas.

I don’t really care about pictures all that much – it’s about the tea, after all, and not the tree. Even if there are trees of that age in the area, there is no indication at all from Lily Duckler’s response that they have any proof that the tea they got is from those old trees. She mentioned, specifically, that these cakes took up a whole year’s harvest, which would imply that when they got there to buy the tea and have them pressed into cakes, the teas were already harvested and in bags. As anyone with any familiarity with Yunnan tea buying knows, buying processed leaves from bags from vendors, especially if you’re new to the area and a foreigner, is a very, very risky business. Most likely, you’ll get low grade stuff taken in from lesser regions being sold as premium goods in the more expensive regions. This has been and continues to be a problem. The really conscientious tea makers go out there themselves and harvest with the guys, oversee the entire process in person (because otherwise their good tea will get swapped out) and take the tea away with them, leaving no chance for any kind of fishy business. A few friends of mine who are serious about pressing cakes all follow this to a letter, which means spending a month or more in Yunnan every harvest season to see this done. If you don’t, you run a pretty high risk of seeing your tea get changed into something else, or at least adulterated, which is bad enough given the prices of these tea. Yet, we have no indication that these teas are in fact from those trees. The only response is “trust us” which, unfortunately, is really not good enough for the Yunnan puerh scene.

Am I being overly harsh and assume the worst of human beings? Yes and no. Yes, because I do assume the worst in the case of tea growers in Yunnan. No, because I think they are perfectly justified in doing so. You have to remember – this is the first time in history that farmers in this region have a chance to live above subsistence. These are not Bordeaux wine makers living out of old chateaus with centuries of winemaking wealth behind them. This is the first time in history for farmers here to finally buy a nicer appliance, buy a car, send kids to school in a dependable manner, have a bit of money leftover for retirement – stuff that others in the cities have enjoyed for much longer. These guys have to be hard at work trying to get as much money as they can out of their tea. The boom in puerh tea has been going on for ten years now, so conditions are nicer than when it first started, but these guys are by no means economically secure, and it is crazy to think that a farmer would give up literally tens of thousands of US dollars (and that’s how much 10kg of tea from a 1800 years old tree would be worth on the open market) to instead sell to an American guy with an online shop for something like $1000-2000 USD (Verdant couldn’t have paid more than maybe $15-20 a cake given overhead and associated costs). Giving up that much money – money that can substantially improve lives, if not for the farmer himself then for his community – would be crazy. If they’re indeed in a collective, even if the farmer himself is super-altruistic and doesn’t care for money, he would probably sell the tea to pay for school renovation, public works projects, road repairs, etc. He wouldn’t virtually give it away to some American guy to sell online, unless of course the tea is not what Verdant thinks it is. As Scott said in the thread on Steepster, if the tea really is what it is then Verdant just ripped off this Mr. Zhou and should feel ashamed.

Finally, there’s the issue of vendor responsibility. If the tea is not what it is, and I most certainly think it’s not, then it’s the same old question – is Verdant the con man or is Verdant being conned? Given their track record, I’m leaning towards the former. After all, this is a shop that sells low priced Shandong (Laoshan) green tea as if they’re premium products, and which marketed that Star of Bulang as if it’s a special cake. I find no reason to believe any of these claims made by them. Whether or not they sincerely believe them themselves is actually irrelevant. If they do, then they are too naive to do business in the tea world in China and shouldn’t be in the market, because they are just passing on cons from Chinese vendors to Western consumers without weeding out the bullshit, which is what they’re being paid to do. If they do not believe their own marketing, then they’re the con man themselves. Either way, the conclusion is the same – stay away from them as there are better vendors out there.

Traditional tieguanyin

I remember when I first started drinking tea seriously about twenty years ago, tieguanyin was really wonderful. They were tasty – really good stuff. I’m sure people still older will tell me that I know nothing of even better tea from earlier times, but I still remember that in the 90s it was entirely normal to get tieguanyin with real red borders on the leaf, with a green center, and a lovely fragrance and especially aftertaste that is only there when you try tieguanyin and nothing else. The tea has a reason to be famous, after all.

Then something happened, and all of the tea on the market became these really horrible nuclear green stuff that taste like they were glorified perfume in a leaf with no depth. This is now the main trend of tieguanyin – really green, but lacking body and having little rebrew value. The teas don’t have that deep aftertaste that made tieguanyin great. You no longer see leaves that have a red border – in fact, when you look at unrolled leaves, you rarely see any kind of evidence of oxidation at all. The leaves also look like they were mutilated by some sadistic tea-abuser. The edges are jagged – broken, really, and not in the normal way. I’ve heard stories about how they do it partly to remove the redness, because if they keep any of the edge the tea will brew a little redder and that will lower the value of the tea in the market. I don’t know if there’s any truth to that, but it’s pretty clear that any sign of oxidation, well, it’s gone. They are expensive too, even though the quality, at least in my eyes have worsened, and I know I’m not alone in holding this opinion.

In the last couple years though I’m starting to see some encouraging signs that people are once again taking seriously the idea that an oolong should at least be somewhat oxidized, and maybe even roasted too. I have begun seeing producers who try to make tieguanyin in more traditional method, with a taste that is a bit closer to (but still not quite) what I have come to like in the past. This is a move in the right direction, and I hope the taste for more traditional style tieguanyin will make a comeback, which can only be a good thing. In the meantime though, Wuyi tea is increasingly green. You win some, you lose some I guess?

Teapot testing

A couple years ago I wrote about how there are a few  people working on a new technology here that uses multiple lasers to analyze the chemical components of pretty much anything, and one of the things they could do is to test what’s in Yixing clay. I’ve been working with these folks since then to help them come up with ways that will have practical applications for people who use Yixing pots. They have also improved the technique they’re using as well as the sensitivity of the data, and I thought I can write an update on some of the things they’ve done recently with a few pots of mine.

Basically, I gave them four pots to test, without telling them previously what they were. The idea was to see if the analysis might yield any data that is interesting, and if so, what that might be. The pots I gave them were 1) a regular yixing pot I bought many years ago from a Shanghai tea market, 2) an antique that is an export to Japan, 3) a Japanese tokoname pot, and 4) a fake yixing (it’s so obvious it’s fake it’s pretty painful) but made in the style of a yixing pot, complete with “Zhongguo yixing” seal at the bottom, but the clay is obviously off, also bought from Japan. The experimenters also added one of their own, called “cheap” in the data you see below.

The way they do this analysis is to basically place the teapots on their testing platform, and do a series of laser shots to vaporize a little tiny bit of the teapot, then the second laser does a spectrum analysis of the puff that is created. It looks like this:

 photo PLEAF 1.jpg

So the results of the tests on the five teapots, visualized for simplicity, is as follows:

 photo PLEAF chart.gif

The X and Y axis are simplifications of the actual data, of which they have about 51k datapoints for total for the five teapots. You can see that the yellow (Tokoname) and orange (fake yixing) almost completely overlap – and in fact if you go find the underlying data shows that there is basically no chance this is happening by accident. In other words, the fake yixing is probably of Japanese origin using Japanese clay that is substantially similar to tokoname clay.

This sort of thing is quite interesting, because if we can build up a database of teapots, then it’s possible to actually use the database to try to authenticate teapots, perhaps even periodize them if we have enough data. That’s for the long run, but it’s quite enticing a prospect.

In the short term though, there are other things that this can do – for example, testing for heavy metals. None of the teapots sampled had any traces of heavy metals, such as lead. Since the tests are conducted on multiple locations on the teapots, it is quite reliable and not down to a single datapoint. That in and of itself could be of interesting application as well, considering how so many people are worried about what’s in their teapots.

The drinkability test

As I mentioned last time, I’ve mostly been reduced to drinking tea grandpa style, and have no real prospects of doing a lot of gongfu in the near future. This, however, has proven to be a pretty interesting experiment, because drinking tea grandpa style not only significantly alters your preferences, it also alters your perceptions of why we drink tea and what makes a good tea.

One of the things you do when you drink tea gongfu style is you try (or at least should, anyway) to mitigate the negatives of a particular tea. Is it bitter? Is it sour? When brewing, you try to minimize those things and maximize the pleasurable parts of a tea. When you drink tea grandpa style, however, and especially when you do it like I do with quite a bit of tea leaves, what is actually being drunk is a fairly concentrated, never-ending brew of a tea. Since the water going in is usually boiling hot, it’s not really drinkable until at least a minute or two after the brew has begun. This means that the first few sips isn’t all that different from what you might get from a standardized taste test that you see in tea competitions or the quality evaluation table.

What this has done is to force me to think about what I want to drink, and why. Some teas that are acceptable in gongfu are all of a sudden undrinkable. They reveal to me a sharpness, or unpleasantness, that is otherwise not really detectable when brewed gongfu style, because I have used so many ways to soften the blow, so to speak. So in a sense, what this has done is to reveal to me what each tea is lacking, what the tea’s flaws are, and why it is not good to drink.

Funny enough, most of the teas that I love to hit up when I drink gongfu continue to be great in the grandpa style. It is usually the teas that are on the margins – teas that I felt were decent enough to drink – that have really shown their weakness through drinking them grandpa style. For example, the very cheap 2003 Menghai tuos that I bought a lot of. The tea is decent enough, and even in grandpa style is quite drinkable. However, it does have a bit of sharpness that will still take some time to fade, and makes it currently not my top choice. Another tea, a Yiwu Mahei from 2003 or thereabouts, is rather undrinkable using grandpa style – it is simply too sharp, there are some really unpleasant notes that come through. When drunk gongfu the tea is quite ok – not the greatest, but decent enough. When I grandpa it, I wonder why I bought it at all. It’s not a good thing.

This prolonged period of drinking grandpa style also reminded me of why green tea is favoured to begin with by so many – it’s really quite pleasant to drink in a cup, with just a little bit of leaves, and some water. It’s smooth, it’s fragrant, it’s refreshing. This is especially true of something like Longjing, which is, well, very refreshing. You can’t say the same for the heavy Japanese greens, which tend to overload you with umami. You also can’t say that for some of the more robust greens from other regions. Young puerh is simply too harsh in comparison, and is a much inferior drink. Green oolongs are a wholly different beast, and behave sometimes more like Japanese greens. Longjing is just right – it is what a drink needs to be, after dinner, washing out that heaviness with a little bit of crispness. It was what I started with on this tea journey, it’s what my grandpa favoured the most, and why this tea deserves so much respect.

Lacking practice

One of the most direct consequences of MiniN becoming bipedal mobile is that I have basically stopped drinking tea gongfu style at home. What with an open heat source hot plate, a tetsubin that is hot all over, easily broken teaware all over the table, and a curious, grabby kid, it’s simply too risky to drink tea this way in Hong Kong’s rather confined living environment. So for the past year or so, I’ve been basically reduced to drinking tea grandpa style. This includes everything – puerh, greens, oolongs, whatever it is that suits my fancy that day. It’s a big change.

Drinking tea grandpa style every day is not abnormal – in fact, drinking tea gongfu style every day is the abnormal thing to do. Millions of Chinese (and others) drink tea in a mug or a large cup with leaves in them – in fact, that’s the only way they take tea. I was just at a conference where the only tea is some really horrible green served in a paper cup with a plastic holder using lukewarm water that tastes terrible to begin with. Nobody seemed to have a problem with it – lacking options, I couldn’t do anything else either other than providing my own tea leaves.

What the prolonged grandpaing means for my tea consumption is quite revealing – I have jettisoned most younger puerh from my drinking. While some perform ok, most simply are not very tasty. If I want something like that, a green tea is far preferable. I do drink some of my older stuff this way – I’ve already consumed two cakes from around 2002 and 2003, and plan to do more of the same. I also have been drinking a ton of aged oolong, which are really good when grandpa’ed. In fact, I’d argue that they are often better that way than when drunk gongfu style, when the tea can become quite sour. Grandpa actually mitigates those problems.

Moreover, drinking tea this way reminds me of why people’s tea preferences are the way they are – because it works. Drinking young raw puerh simply isn’t very practical, because many taste terrible. When aged a bit, it can be really nice, but when not, they can be really hit or miss. The few that do well now drunk in big mugs are not teas that I consider good candidates for aging either.

When I need my gongfu fix I usually visit some teashop or another. I do miss my own teaware though – not really having the ability to drink tea at home means most of my teaware is laying fallow, which is sad. Whenever I see my lonely little teapots not having drunk a sip for months, I want to give them something. Then MiniN walks by and asks to do something, and the thought remains merely a thought.

The death of a tea fair

I’ve been going to the Hong Kong International Tea Fair for maybe six years in running now, and every single year, it is getting smaller and sadder. The fair is part of the larger Hong Kong Food Expo, where mostly food vendors show up in force to sell people stuff – a lot of food producers, mostly processed food of one type or another, but also foreign firms, come here to set up stalls and sell anything from prosciutto to instant noodles. Locals, many private individuals (as opposed to businesses) flock to the expo to buy food – literally boxes of noodles, sauces, etc. It’s crowded and it’s one of the biggest fairs of the year (the other probably being the book fair and the wine fair).

The tea fair used to take up an entire floor of the food expo. This year it takes up less than half a floor. Scenes like this are quite common:

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What’s going on?

Well, first of all, from friends who do exhibits there every year, they say that the price of a stall is simply too high. Depending on the size, it could cost you a couple thousand dollars (USD) or more to buy a place, and the place you get may not necessarily be in a very good area. Obviously, to reap the benefits, you’d have to make some business contacts and maybe also sell some tea on the side. This is where it seems the problem is. For a local vendor, this is mostly a chance to showcase their stuff and to get their name out. Except, for many local stores, they already have a storefront – people who would go to the tea fair tend to be the same people who would roam the stores anyway, and since Hong Kong is not huge, most people know most of the stores. So, the tea fair ends up being a chance to simply meet your regulars. You can do that in your own shop, and save a few thousand dollars.

For people coming from overseas, there’s obviously more at stake – not only are you paying for the stall, you’re also paying hotel, airfare, etc. Some, it seems, obviously think it’s worth it to come every year. Jukro, from Korea, for example, have always been here. I always buy something from them, partly because it’s the only time I get to do so. But tellingly, I didn’t see them this year.

Others are government sponsored, so someone else is footing the bill. There are various provincial governments in China that send delegations. The Japanese government is generous in sending tea suppliers here to promote their tea, especially some organization from Kyushu tend to have a big presence here. This year was no different, and at least 4-5 manufacturers came, featuring teas from Kagoshima and Miyazaki. They also setup a nice tearoom to showcase their culture, not just the leaves

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The problem is that it’s really not clear what this tea fair is for. After all, it only runs for three days, and for two of those days, it’s open only to people in the industry – regular visitors for the food expo (which is already drawing big crowds) aren’t allowed into the tea fair. I never quite understood why – I suppose the idea is to make it conducive to people discussing business, but as far as I can see, there isn’t a lot of that going on – most of the people visiting are people like me, who get in through some vague claims of professional status – I am, after all, researching tea culture – and who are then going around essentially as someone who is a regular consumer. Only on the last day are the regular shoppers allowed in. This is the day when a lot of random business gets done by the vendors – selling the samples they brought, getting their name out to regular consumers who are not going to have heard of them before, so on, so forth (it also is the only day of the tea fair that falls on a weekend).

When you think about it though – who are these tea professionals, exactly? Who in Hong Kong is going to be prowling the tea fair looking for new suppliers? There are plenty of tea fairs in China – just in nearby Guangzhou and Shenzhen there are multiple tea fairs every year, so people in those areas really don’t need to come here. Locals – who exactly are these professionals? There are no tea shops to speak of that will look for special suppliers. Everything from China can be bought through Taobao, and is regularly done so. The ones that aren’t bought through Taobao are purchased either in person during trips, or at shops in Hong Kong. In other words, locals really don’t have a lot of demand. Then there are the misguided firms that come here for no good reason – like the first picture, if you are selling farm equipment in Hong Kong, you’re really in the wrong city.

If you run a big restaurant or hotels, chances are you already have suppliers. The suppliers, who are the importers, could of course go to the tea fair to discover new teas, but are there really enough of these in Hong Kong to make it worthwhile for these people to come here? Judging by what I saw, not really.

Nor is it really that useful as a branding/outreach sort of venue. Because it is only open to the public on one day, that day tends to be crowded. It’s also not very fun when it’s crowded, because tasting becomes difficult. This is not for want of trying – a few years ago I remember there were big stalls from Dayi, Xiaguan, a few tieguanyin producers, etc. Those are pretty much all gone – I didn’t see anything like that this year. Even the stall for the Hong Kong milk tea  company that holds a competition every year has shrunk considerably. It also doesn’t help that the location is really tucked away into a corner of the exhibition center – it’s not going to attract crowds. So, in that sense, it’s not doing a good job attracting regular customers either who might move the needle for firms to decide to exhibit here.

So what we see is the slow but obvious death of the Hong Kong tea fair – which is sad, because it’s nice to see some interesting vendors selling weird stuff. I remember fondly when a couple of years ago an Okinawa producer came here with some really nice black tea. I bought a little bit for fun, but they have never been seen since. Maybe if the trade council, which runs the fair, moves it to a dedicated day, with lower rates for exhibitors, we can revive this – after all, Hong Kong is quite convenient for people from other places to visit, but it’s also an expensive city, so it has to be worthwhile for them to do so. The current format for the tea fair simply isn’t good enough, and with competition from mainland, if they don’t do something soon, I predict that in a couple years we’re going to see this fair fold altogether. That will be too bad.