Playing with fire

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

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

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

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

Now, does it actually make any real difference?

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

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

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

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Not all old tea is good

We are always told that older teas are, somehow, better. Imagine if your old tea came from here though

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This is a tea display from a grocery shop not too far from my home. They sell some pretty dubious teas, not sourced from this little display, of course. Nevertheless, if you ever need convincing that storage environment matters, this is it – it’s exposed to the sun, probably really hot, and hasn’t been cleaned in decades. God forbid you end up with a cake from here.

Taking a break from brewing

No, not me. The tea.

Some of you already know this or have experienced this first hand. Sometimes when you are drinking a tea, you reach a point where you feel the tea is no longer capable of giving you much of anything. At this point, the instinctive thing to do is to dump it, and then start over, or just call it a day.

However, one way to deal with this is to actually let the tea rest – not for a few minutes, but for a few hours, or maybe even overnight. You can just leave it in your gaiwan or yixing. I’m not sure what the mechanism is, but it does seem to me sometimes a tea will get pushed and pushed, and it seems to run out of juice and you get nothing other than slightly sweet water. However, I suspect what’s going on is that as the leaves are still wet, something in the leaves break down during the resting time, and the tea therefore yields some more to you. Moreover, your tastebuds might be getting a rest too, so all of a sudden you’re fresher, and the tea, in some ways, also seems fresher.

I grandpa a lot of teas these days, as my workplace is not very gongfu friendly. I was drinking my usual aged tieguanyin the other day at work, and at the end of the day, drained the cup and left the leaves in there, lid open. The next morning, I came in, poured the cup full of hot water, put the lid on, and “baked” the tea for probably half an hour. The result was a pretty flavourful tea that was surprisingly interesting – even more than normal, with a good minty feeling that normally isn’t very obvious in this aged tieguanyin. I ended up having another cup of this tea before finally giving up on it and throwing the leaves out.

I’m not sure what happened, but I’m pretty certain the flavours I got the next morning was a little different from the usual, as I drink this tea pretty often. I suspect something happened overnight that made it taste a little different – possibly some kind of chemical breakdown, possibly the effect of it drying, or maybe the morning sun shining on the leaves did something. Regardless, something happened, so I got a different flavour profile than if I had just poured another cup. It’s as if I was drinking a different, but somewhat related tea.

I know others who do this too, but in different ways. Some will keep long-brewing the tea for hours, others will let the tea rest for a few hours and return to it half a day later. Regardless, resting the tea, somehow, seems to revive it a bit, just enough to give you a few more interesting cups. Of course, that may not necessarily be what you want all the time – a crappy tea isn’t going to magically transform into something amazing with this technique, but if you think a good tea is about to die on you, let it go and come back later. You could be surprised, though, I should caveat, not always pleasantly.

Flights of tea

I was recently in Vancouver and then Portland, Oregon to visit friends and family. One of the things I did was to arrange a tea meeting with ABX, whom I’ve met before when we visited Serenity Art together (the store has since closed and reopening is uncertain). I also contacted David Galli of the rather grandly named Portland Tea Enthusiasts’ Alliance, which is actually a tea space that’s shared with a wine tasting/education outfit and offers classes and tea meetings of various sorts. We ended up settling on drinking tea there.

I promised the two of them that I would bring some aged oolongs of various sorts for them to try, and I ended up taking with me about six different teas, all aged oolongs of one kind or another that I have gathered from one place or another. The result of the tasting, unbeknownst even to me at the time, was a comparison of different aged oolongs and their characteristics.

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We ended up drinking seven teas, six of them aged oolongs and one a cooked/raw mixed brick from the 80s. Most of the aged oolongs, other than one, was tasted in a pot I brought along for the ride. I also ended up doing most of the brewing, so it turned out to be a pretty reasonable proxy for a controlled tasting of the teas.

I think there’s actually quite a bit of value in drinking teas this way. Comparing teas that are, ostensibly, in the same genre, it is quite possible to discern the more subtle differences in the teas by having them back to back. Whereas when drunk separately, they might each have their own strong or weak points, drinking them together, one by one, it is easier to say “this tea is better than that tea because…”. The same, of course, can be done through cupping, but cupping a tea is a lot less fun.

There are some general rules that I try to follow when constructing such tastings though. The first is that one should always start light and end heavy. Going the other way will seriously disrupt the tastebuds, and will often result in sub-optimal experiences. Drinking a green tea right after a heavy, pungent puerh is probably not a very good idea, especially in attempting to detect the high notes of the green tea. It’s generally a much better idea to go from the light and airy to the full bodied and deep teas. I suspect the same is true for wines.

Also, I think it is useful to taste things that share some similarity. Drinking, say, a sencha, then a white tea, then a young puerh, then an aged oolong, for example, can be fun, but I think there is less to be gained in the experience. Drinking the same kinds of tea over a short session, on the other hand, allows for more direct comparison. Differences in aroma, mouthfeel, longevity, and depth become very obvious.

There are also unexpected surprises. The puerh we had at the end, for example, seemed very sour. I think if we had tried that early on, it wouldn’t appear as sour, but because it came after a long line of aged oolongs that are mostly sweet, the sourness was magnified somehow. To me, the tea also tasted somewhat unpleasant overall – it’s hard to pinpoint what was wrong with it, but I know that if it weren’t preceded by the teas that it did, I probably would have liked the tea more.

It would’ve been nice though if I had more time to drink with the two of them. Alas, we only had a few hours, and so some of the teas were still drinkable when we abandoned them for other things. I do wish David good luck though in setting up this new space, and it’s Portland’s good fortune to have a number of locations to drink teas of different kinds.

A pile of aged oolong

I just came back from another trip to Taiwan, this time having a few days between work and tea hunting. Taiwan really is the island of teashops, and the kicker is, quite a few of them are very decent places, with good tea and run by good people. As one of my commenters mentioned, they don’t try to rip you off the way they do in the mainland.

While MadameN and I were a little early to our dinner destination for a meeting with some colleagues from grad school, we decided to take a quick stroll around the restaurant and look at the amazing coffeeshops that are in the vicinity of the restaurant. While doing that, we ran into a tea store that looked as terrible as you can imagine – old, slightly broken and very dirty shelves, lined with bags of tea that have been stacked into pyramids, a common feature of many community teashops in Taipei. On the far end of the shop are bags and bags of teas, and some puerh cakes lining the wall. I decided to try my luck and walked in, asking if they have any aged tea. The woman who was in the store said she has to ask her dad, who really runs the operation, and ten minutes later, the dad walked into the store.

I expected nothing when I walked in, since most of these stores have nothing other than reroasted-to-death “aged” oolong for sale. However, in the subsequent twenty minutes, which was all the time I had, he brought out about five different aged oolongs for me to taste, each one decent, some better than others. It was clear that my twenty minutes were not enough. I decided to go back the next day.

So the next afternoon, after meeting up with Action Jackson, I went back to the store. We tried many teas.

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Aside from the rather obvious advantage of trying teas this way, which is that you can drink as much or as little as you want, while comparing them honestly without any interference with the brewing skills and parameters, it also allows you to literally throw away teas that are no good. What you’re seeing here is already after a few teas have been thrown out, with three young gaoshan oolongs, two aged oolongs, and one roasted one. More were tested before we stopped after having tasted a dozen or so teas.

The shop’s proprietor also showed us his rather unique way of roasting teas. It is an interesting use of what looks like an oven, because it’s not what it seems

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Whereas the exterior of the oven looks like, well, an oven for maybe baking bread, once you open it up you can see that the heat is actually being provided by charcoal at the bottom of the oven, with pans of teas being roasted above it. It’s actually not a bad idea – this way, he can do charcoal roasting while keeping the room’s temperature to a reasonable level, and also limits the amount of charcoal he needs to use as well as being able to roasted a relatively small batch at a time. To the left of the oven is where he rests his recently roasted tea, and to the right, with the big white bags, are aged oolongs of one kind or another – no vacuum pack, no jars, nothing, just plain bags with good aged teas that are surprisingly not bitter at all. Nor does he re-roast the tea, ever, because, as he himself correctly states, once you reroast an aged tea it loses the aged flavour. I heartily agree.

In the end we all walked out of the store laden with tea, all sold at a very reasonable price. Having spent many days tea hunting in Taipei both on previous trips and this one, I can safely say that oftentimes the best shops for buying tea are also the ugliest looking, messiest, and dirtiest ones, with bags of teas piled everywhere, old, sometimes broken pots lining the shelves, and the most disorganized tea tables you’ve ever encountered. The shops that are neat, clean, with nice rows of boxed teas lit with mood lighting and packaged in designer bags are, more often than not, rather mediocre and rarely surprising. They might have a few things that are rare, interesting, or, better yet, sold with a story, but you have to pay a pretty penny for them, and I’m not sure if that’s worth the money, because what you can drink is the tea, and not the story.

The learning curve

If you are serious about tea, meaning that you are spending time thinking about the teas you’re drinking, learning about their nuances, and doing things like reading this blog, then chances are you have discovered that there’s a pretty steep learning curve to tea drinking in general, and puerh teas in particular. With any kind of tea this is hard enough – the different types of teas that exist, with different locations of origins, processing, and grades. The different ways to brew them, and what water to use with what, and the brewing parameters. There are so many moving parts that to say that you have “mastered” tea in any form is a claim that can serve as Exhibit A of human hubris. There’s always a learning process, and there’s always something you can discover about a tea you’ve already had many times before. This is what makes the hobby fun.

There are, however, ways to speed up the learning process and allow you to delve deeper into the art and science of tea appreciation on various levels. What triggered the writing of this particular post is a recent tea session I had at one of the stores in Hong Kong that sells puerh. Over the course of an afternoon, I drank, with some of my friends, about five or six teas. The youngest of the lot was from 1998, and the oldest was about 30 years old. The fact of the matter is, for tea drinking in general, and puerh in particular, it is important to sample a wide range before you really have a clear idea of what’s out there, and what’s possible given the complexity of teas. The tea aficionado is really building a mental library of teas that s/he can recall and compare against. In so doing, s/he is learning about the different teas and whether something is good, bad, or just different.

Likewise, for aging teas, it is crucial to know what you’re trying to get to before you even know what you’re aging for. I see people talking about building their young puerh collection hoping to age them into something great, except the only aged teas they have had may be some third rate 1990s teas that are, at best, poorly stored, or sometimes even none at all. This is not to poo-poo those who have not had the opportunity to try these things, but if you haven’t had a properly aged tea from a variety of storage conditions and starting points, how would you even know what you’re trying to get to? Is it a “wetter” taste that you’re after, or do you want a dry stored taste? Do you want something sweet, or something smokey? We had a brick from 1997 that was still, even as I drank it with the friends a few days ago, extremely powerful. It was strong, smokey, very active, and got us all tea drunk. It was, in other words, a very potent tea, but even now, 15 years after production, it is still too harsh to drink. Sure, it has great aging potential, but how many 15 years do you have that you can just hold on to these things forever? When new, the tea must have been extremely smokey and also super-strong – to the point where many might give up on it all together. Also, keep in mind that this brick has been aged 15 years in Hong Kong, a pretty hot and humid condition. If it’s aged in, say, Chicago, how long would it take to just get the tea to its current condition as I tried it? More than 15 years, I can guarantee you. Then what?

The same can be said of aged oolongs. Many aged oolongs I’ve seen for sale, both in Asia and online, are really terrible teas that have been roasted to death. They are not so much aged but charcoalized. They’re sweet and nice, sure, but they’re also not what I’d consider a great aged oolong, which should be fragrant, active, and isn’t one dimensional. For example, how much sourness is acceptable, and how much is too much? Sure, individual taste plays a part in this, but there’s also some basis for a universal yardstick. Alas, unless you’ve walked through Taipei and tried dozens of aged oolongs from different stores, ranging from the amazing to the terrible, it is impossible to say with any kind of certainty “this is a great aged oolong”.

What I want to say is that while it may be very tempting to just drink lots and lots of new teas and read other people’s blogs, books, and magazines to learn about tea, there’s nothing that will prepare you for a lot of these deeper questions except personal experience. One could theorize all they want with regards to aging potential, durability, etc, but a crucial question is – what will it age into? Is it going to be soft and sweet? Harsh and smokey? Fragrant and floral, or woody and deep? There are many possible endpoints (unknown) in addition to the infinite starting points (known). Unless you have tried many potential endpoints, how, if at all, can you determine which start points link up with which endpoints?

So the life of the foreign tea aficionado is made considerably harder by the lack of availability of good, aged teas, which are distinctly absent from the market. For example, how many versions of Menghai factory (not some other imitation) 7542s from 2000 or before are there on the market? In what condition? How about 8582? Or 7582, of which I bought one cake while shopping, and which one of my friends said “this will be an interesting reference piece”? Or how about Xiaguan’s 8653 from the 80s and 90s? Here you can find them ranging from dry to very wet, with different batches (which all taste somewhat different, if you pay attention) and with varying quality. I certainly haven’t figured it all out – not by a long stretch, but I feel at least I am lucky to have access to things like this, through stores that sell them and friends who have them. It greatly flattens the learning curve of figuring out aging of tea and what not. When your access to old tea is limited to second string products and, in many cases, discards from the Asian market, what does that mean for your learning of how to age teas?

Alas, I don’t think there’s much to be done in the way of solving this problem. This post is, unfortunately, a negative one – I don’t have any solutions to propose, other than to try more tea, except that the availability of old teas is such that this is not really possible as an option. I can count on one hand the outfits that offer aged teas for sale, and of these, I think only one or two are actually worth bothering with. So, until then, I’d advise travel to parts of Asia with good, aged teas, as a temporary remedy. There really aren’t many other ways, unfortunately.

A good tea trip

Being close to Taiwan is probably one of the biggest perks of being in Hong Kong, at least from the perspective of a tea lover. I count aged oolongs as the tea that I can drink day in, day out, and Taiwan is probably the best place to find such things. Even though MadameN and I only went there for three days this time, it did not disappoint.

The Candy Store is of course my first stop, and I returned to find that the laobanniang still remembers me and that I was a seeker of aged oolongs. I spent a few hours sitting there, drinking tea and digging through big metal cans with her, and among the teas I tasted there were two or three that seemed quite decent. One, the last one I tried that day, was very similar to The One That Got Away, and I dare not make the same mistake twice. So I ended up taking home the whole bag of tea that she had, all 2kg of it.

There were smaller successes too, as I went from shop to shop in Taipei looking for things. I replenished my supply of aged oolong, which, while not exactly running low, is low enough for me to have withheld consumption of aged oolongs for a while, opting instead to drink teas that are more readily available. Now, I am sitting in my office sipping an inexpensive aged tieguanyin that I bought on this trip that has the right mix of aged taste, sweetness, and throatiness. Yum.

Having then punctuated the trip with a visit to the magnificent Taroko park, we returned to Taipei and picked up the tea I wanted. On the last day, before our departure, I met up with a dear tea friend from Japan who is both knowledgeable and incredibly generous, and together we visited a tea lover/maker/seller who brewed a series of quite interesting, younger puerhs, some of which are the best young puerh I have had in a while. That’s the other thing about Taiwan – in addition to lots of shops, it has a high number of people who are very keen on tea and who spend a lot of time thinking about it, drinking it, and in some cases, making it. Others are then attracted to Taiwan and visit, therefore further exchanging ideas and teas. It’s a very fertile environment in which to advance one’s own tea appreciation, and I can’t think of a better place for tea than that.

With our bellies full of good tea, our tea companion took us to the airport and sent us off. Four days is far too short for a trip, but it was an invigorating one. I’ll be back for more, and soon.

The one that got away

Today’s tea is probably my last, seriously brewed tea I’ll have in the United States for quite some time.  Tomorrow the movers will be coming to pack my things up and send them on their merry way to Hong Kong.  So, to commemorate the occasion, I thought I should drink something different, something interesting.  After some dithering and going over the many teas I have, I settled on one that has special meaning to me, because it’s the one that got away.

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Back in 2007 when I was still in Taiwan, I was a frequent visitor to the various old teashops in Taipei to look for aged oolong.  At that point I don’t think many people were selling aged oolongs online, aside from a handful at Houde, and there was very little information on such things.  I hunted high and low for these things, good, bad, and everything in between.  It was a fun experience, and I learned a lot just by tasting the different teas and talking to different people who sell them.  One store in particular, as my old-time readers will remember, I affectionately called the “Candy Store” because buying things from there made me felt like a kid in a candy store – lots of goodies, and the thrill of having to hunt them down.

Late in my stay in Taipei, perhaps a week or two before I had to leave, I went to the Candy Store again and found a few things that looked interesting.  One of them was a small, perhaps 2-3kg bag of rolled oolong with a label that said it was from the 80s, a Dongding competition tea.  I only got to try the tea after I left Taiwan, because I had no time to do it before flying out.  By the second or third time I tried the tea, it became obvious that this tea is really good, and I wanted the whole bag.  However, it was too late, and when I asked a friend to visit the store again for this tea, it was all gone.

This is what spurred me to buy in bulk whenever I like a tea now – I think back in the day I felt less confident in my ability to tell good from bad apart, and tended to buy in smaller quantities because of it.  These days, I’m more sure of what I like and don’t like and also my ability in telling good from bad, so when I find something that I think checks all the boxes, I tend to buy in bulk – a few kilos at a time, so that the misfortune of not having a good tea when I want it is no longer there.

What I drank today is the very last bit of this tea, the last of the 4oz that I bought when I first visited the Candy Store.  Drinking it today, there’s still that nice, peachy taste to it, but it had also gotten a darker taste, a more aged flavour, if you will, that wasn’t there when I bought it.

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The tea looks a lot darker, although I think at least part of it is because there was a lot of dust in the bag, and that the cup is much deeper than the one in the original photo from three years ago.  Nevertheless, this is still a great tea, with depth, fullness, and qi.  I wish I have more, but I don’t.  It was one of the first teas I drank after coming back to the US from my long sojourn in Asia during 2006-7, and it is the last serious tea I’m drinking before I fly back to Asia, ending almost fifteen years in North America.  The next two days I’ll have to subsist on grandpa style teas, and then, back to home base.  See you on the other side.

Graduation

In 2004 I bought myself a box of Dahongpao from the Best Tea House.  I told myself that this was going to be a tea that I will keep for the duration of my graduate studies, and that, when done, I’ll celebrate by opening it and drinking it.  The original plan was that I will leave it sealed until then, aging it for five or six years, and have something nice to drink at the end of it.  Since my school’s official colour is crimson, I thought it’s the most fitting tea, in many ways.  I ended up opening the box for MadameN‘s graduation two years ago, but finally, after many years of sweat and toil, I have a reason of my own to do so.

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Now, owing to administrative silliness, I actually got my degree in November last year, but since it’s rather impractical to have three occasions a year that has people dressed in large, crimson coloured bags, everyone does it in May.

Likewise, the actual tea drinking didn’t happen the day of the ceremony.  Rather, it took place two days later, when I was in New York visiting the Mandarin’s Tearoom and friends.  It’s been two years since I took this tea out, and even when I was opening it, I was quite aware that I no longer hold this tea in as high regard as I used to – I don’t think it is that great anymore, certainly not for the price.  Whereas many years ago, when I bought it, it was something that I thought was truly good, now the tea seems merely decent.  The brewing confirmed it.  The tea still has nice qi, I think, which warms, but the mouthfeel is a little flat, and the taste slightly muted.  While I didn’t pack the pot to the hilt, it was enough leaves to make a decent cup.  Yet what came out seemed a little flat.

This, then, is also a graduation of some sort.  We all have moments like this at some point in our tea drinking career.  Teas that, when we were younger, we thought were great, full, and flavourful will almost always appear less interesting, less full over the years.  Some of us got started drinking flavoured teas but have long since swore off such things.  Others may occasionally return to the qingxiang oolongs or green teas that got us into tea in the first place, but find far more pleasure drinking different types.  Still others will turn to cooked puerh from time to time, but would much prefer aged teas, even though cooked puerh may very well have been the “gateway drug.”  The same can be said of vendors too.  Vendors who, early on, seem to offer great selections would often, upon closer inspection and more experience, look like overpriced teas for mediocre quality.  Drinking this dahongpao this time, some of these thoughts definitely crossed my mind.

While I don’t think I will buy another box of this dahongpao from the Best Tea House anymore, it doesn’t mean I will toss this tea — certainly not.  It’s still good tea, just not great, and factoring in the price, there are better options.  There is one more calculation involved though.  Even though it may not be the best tea, it was what I wanted myself to have all those years ago as a graduation celebration.  I have kept it all these years, hauling it around with me while I moved from place to place, and that sentimental value is not something that a far better dahongpao can replace.  Perhaps I’m overly sentimental, but even if someone offers me some dahongpao from the original three trees in exchange of what’s left in this box, I don’t think I’ll take that trade.  This is why many of us, even when we already have shelves full of teas of dubious quality aging, still have a hard time parting with them.  They are pieces of personal history and memory that, once gone, can never truly be replaced.