300 years old tea

I didn’t see this when it came out, but apparently, they found a box of tea from 1698. I only saw this because I’m now reviewing a book called Empire of Tea: The Asian Leaf that Conquered the World. What’s interesting, first and foremost, about this tea, at least from the somewhat grainy picture that they showed, is that the leaves are still green. Moreover, that this is unmistakably green tea – small buds, processed in ways that looks to be quite similar to what we consume now as greens. The fact that it kept its colour is quite interesting. I wonder how they have stored it in the intervening years, and what process the tea was produced under. Of course it’s a pity that they won’t let anyone try it, but it’s quite interesting nevertheless.

Fake Dayi

A few months ago a local tea friend Zach and myself went to the Dayi store in Shum Shui Po to try a few teas. I also brought two things along for this tasting:

Now at first glance this may look like a Gold Dayi on the right and the Huangjin Suiyue on the left – except these two are both fakes I bought from Taobao, deliberately, so that we can check out what fake teas are made of these days.

Those who are wrapperologists can tell you right away that the left side one is fake – because the real one has gold words that are shiny, while this one’s words in the center are not. The right side one though, at least looking at a picture like this, isn’t nearly as obvious. In fact, when we put it against the real deal at the Dayi store, it’s not immediately clear which one is real – the real one is a little brighter in colour, but this isn’t the sort of thing you’d notice unless you put a real and a fake side by side.

However, one thing was obvious:

The real cake was a lot bigger than the fake one – and in fact, if you weigh the fake one, it only came in at 330g or so. For an older cake this is entirely possible – shrinkage happens a little, and also bits and pieces breaking off the edge. For a newish cake like this though, being off by 30g is not possible.

The back looked ok – might look a little iffy for the wrapperologists out there, but once again, not screaming fake:

Put under a black light, the label doesn’t exactly pass the test:

There’s a bit of that neon glow, but compared to the real thing, it’s obvious this is a fake

You can’t do any of these unless you already paid for the fake though, so obviously, don’t buy Dayi from Taobao that are obviously too cheap to be true.

The cakes themselves also look markedly different once unwrapped. The fake/real differences are obvious.

The taste, I have to say, was no contest. This isn’t 2004, when it was more profitable to sell decent teas under the Dayi label than your own. These days if you have decent tea, selling under your own label probably would get you more money than trying to fake the difficult-to-replicate packaging that Dayi uses. Back in the day if you were a no-name brand, you’ll have trouble moving your tea for 30 RMB a cake. These days, if you have a nice story, you can easily sell it for hundreds of RMB a cake without the trouble of faking. So, nobody does it with nice tea anymore. Instead, you get crap – which is exactly what these two fake cakes were.

The story was similar for the Huangjin suiyue, so I won’t repeat the same slew of pictures – we also didn’t take as many of that one because it was an even lower quality fake that didn’t really pass muster once you hold it in your hands. The Gold Dayi you have to do some comparison to be sure the fake is, well, a fake. Until you open the wrapper, anyway, then the dust and the terrible compression will tell you all you need to know.

Yixing inventory #15: Gongju

Yes, this is the third so far I’ve posted with the same wooden chop “gongju”. After you see enough of these you start to get a sense of the different makers’ styles. Gongju wooden stamped ones like these tend to have a thin spout relative to the body, with an angled cut at the tip of the spout, and thin handles. The lip on the lid is short. They often pour a bit slow because of the smaller spout, which may or may not be a good thing depending on your needs. 160ml.

Yixing inventory #12: Zini water dropper

Not all yixing pots were used for tea brewing, or at least that’s the way it seems sometimes. In things like senchado sometimes they were used for water cooling/pouring rather than tea making. It’s not always clear to me why one is designated as water dropper rather than teapot. When there’s a pair sometimes one gets assigned one job and the other the job of tea making. In any case, this pot is called “zini suichu” which literally means purple clay water dropper. 145ml.

The taste of water

Most of your cup of tea consists of water – and what water you use has a huge effect on how your tea tastes. It is an important thing to remember when trying a tea – what water are you using, and what does it do to your tea?

Most of us rely on some kind of tap water supply for regular drinking. Where your municipality gets its water changes how your tea tastes. When I lived in Pacific Northwest I remember the water tasting very fresh and is often very cold even in the summer – it’s snowmelt so that’s how the water comes out. In places like Hong Kong we get most of our water from a river source in nearby Guangdong, and it’s heavily treated. It’s not that great, but I suppose it could be worse.

Then you have bottled waters, which as bad as it is for the environment, is usually where you can get some pretty good water. A few months ago my cousin-in-law who’s an expert on Japanese liquors brought back a couple bottles of water for me from the Suntory natural water range. There are three sources for this line – Mount Aso, from Kyushu, Mount Oku-daisen, and from the Southern Alps of Japan. I got two bottles – the Mount Aso and Mount Oku-daisen ones. It’s always refreshing to taste different waters and notice how different they can be. Both are fragrant waters – yes, water can be fragrant, not so much in that they smell like anything, but when you drink it there’s an aftertaste that rises up your nose. The Mount Aso is, I feel, a better water – more interesting, more complex, and a bit more aroma. The Mount Oku-daisen is lighter. Turns out the Mount Aso water has more dissolved minerals, which might explain why. This is not to say the Oku-daisen water was bad – far from it. But the Mount Aso water is better.

There are practical limitations to using bottled water. I try to avoid doing it for two reasons – cost, and the obvious wastefulness of using bottled waters. However, these days at work what I do is buying large bottles of either Volvic (another reliable supply) or this Scottish water from the local supermarket and adding it to my office supply. The reason is because our office uses a reverse-osmosis filtered water, which yields a sharp and flat water. If you use RO water for brewing, it is quite easy to get a bad brew – the tea will not be very flavourful and it often appears very rough on your tongue. Adding some of this mineral water in helps round out my tea and makes it much more palatable. Blending it also keeps the dissolved solids in my water low enough so that boiling it doesn’t produce sediments; if your water’s mineral content is too high it will leave a crust of minerals, which is a bit of a problem for an electric kettle. I’m not about to bring my tetsubin setup here for obvious reasons.

Sometimes I see people say things like “I use RO/distilled water because it’s pure”, which is pure nonsense. Yes, it’s pure in the sense that there’s nothing else in it. However, naturally occurring water will never be “pure” water. Tea aficionados of the past have always advocated spring water of various kinds for the best brewing experience – precisely because they contain interesting minerals that make the tea taste better. The famous Hupao spring in Hangzhou, for example, has a pretty high mineral content. Using distilled or RO processed water to brew tea is just a waste of good tea leaves. If you don’t believe it, try it side by side with a good water like Volvic. The difference should be night and day. In fact, even if you do believe it, try it anyway. The differences with using different water is very enlightening and helps any tea drinker understand which part of the tea is coming from the tea leaves, and which part of it is from the water. As I’ve said many times before, the most cost effective way of improving your cup is not buying better leaves, but getting better water.