“To the Hong Kong Police:
You turn out because of your orders
But we are all brothers
One look at me, and you know I won’t fight you
So why don’t you go back and have a sip of tea instead”
Another tea afternoon with some friends. This Saturday was spent mostly drinking Chenyuan Hao, although not exclusively. In reverse time order (and also the order in which we drank the teas)
1) Dayi 2012 Longyin (Dragon Seal). This thing is about 800 RMB now, for a cake that is barely a year old. It’s a silly price for something that is basically a few steps above your regular run of the mill big factory productions – it’s not that great, a little smokey, and well, you can hold on to this for ten years and see what happens. At that price point there are a lot of better teas. It’s probably great if you had gotten in at, say, 200 RMB, so you can sell it now for a handsome profit. Getting it now is rather dumb, I think.
2) 2007 Chenyuan Hao Yiwu King vs 2007 Wisteria Red Label
I had high hopes for the Chenyuan Hao Yiwu, which is supposedly a pretty small run and made with good material. We compared it with Zhou Yu’s Red Label from the same year, region unknown. The result is rather surprising – it was no contest. Zhou Yu wins hands down. The Yiwu, while decent, is quite commonplace – it’s not that hard to find teas like it (CGHT, for example). Zhou Yu’s tea, on the other hand, has some “special sauce” in it.
3) Chenyuan Hao 2006 Nannuo
This tea starts out really promising, nice taste and all, but somehow drops off rather quickly into a somewhat sour and thin tea that isn’t very good at all. I inquired afterwards about its price, and turns out it’s rather cheap for a small run 2006 tea. No wonder.
4) Chenyuan Hao 2001 Yiwu
Something is really weird with this tea. I’m not sure if it’s the storage or the original material, but it’s quite disappointing – given that it’s 12 years old and from a maker that does make nice teas. If you have a cake like this, it’s a waste of 12 years.
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.
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 fellow drinker way back in 2005/6 was hster, whom some of you may remember from the LJ Puerh Tasteoff that BBB organized back in the day. Seems like hster has restarted a blog after a long absence from the online tea scene, and has posted, among other things, some sage advice for those just starting out. It’s worth taking a look here.
The last time I explicitly wrote about blogging about tea, it was more than four and half years (!!!) ago. The post, which is still on the hibernating Cha Dao blog, talked with enthusiasm about how tea blogging is like a “constant tea meeting” which enables us to share our experiences, exchange views, and in general meet like-minded people who are interested in the same thing you are. It was a pretty optimistic post, and the youthful exuberance is obvious.
The whole blogging scene has changed much since then. I think among all the blogs from the time when that post was written, and not counting blogs associated with vendors that try to sell things (either physical goods, or advertisements) only the ever diligent Hobbes remains. Lew’s Babelcarp is still an essential resource for those who haven’t fully mastered the mysteries of the Chinese language. Of course, Bearsblog is around, but it wasn’t there in that form when I last wrote about blogging. BBB’s previous project, the Puerh Community, has basically died, due in no small part, I think, to the fact that livejournal is not the most friendly place to conduct such business anymore. Mike Petro’s Puerh.net has been dormant for many years, and I think we have lost hope for its return. There have also been many personal blogs have were around at the time, or about to spring up. Many, in the intervening years, have died. Others, too numerous to name, have sprung up, although even some newcomers are already showing signs of slowing down, often the first hints of death for any blog. It’s not really a surprise that they come and go – tea blogging takes time, effort, and money. It’s no wonder that after a while, people give it up. Heck, even this blog was relatively dormant for stretches of time, especially when I was trying to finish my dissertation. Of course, many, if not all, of these people are probably still drinking tea. Some blogs, after all, do show signs of life once in a while.
Of course, the overall sum of things on the internet about tea has grown, not shrunk. Among blogs, of the few surviving ones from when I first wrote about this topic, most have turned into vendors of some sort. Stephane was already around back then, and is still selling tea and teaware from Taiwan today. Toki now has his own online store, and a physical presence as well in New York City. Gongfugirl is, from what I understand, a co-owner of Phoenix Tea. Imen still runs her TeaHabitat from the web. There are others, of course, but then we start to veer off from Chinese tea, and the universe gets bigger all of a sudden.
Then there are vendor blogs, which are too numerous to name. Those without a blog or something similar back then have often now included one, in order to provide better, in depth information for the customers. Teachat still exists as a good beginner type forum for all sorts of things, and it’s to Adagio‘s credit that they run it at arm’s length, so that people can talk about other vendors, teas, and what not on there freely (the software, however, can really use an update). Twitter, of course, is a great leap forward in this regard, and enables many to send out timely information and updates to thousands of people directly. I also discovered that it’s a good way to let people know about new postings on this blog, and increasingly traffic comes from Twitter feeds, not more traditional channels.
There are also social networks of sorts that have sprung up that are specific to tea, although personally I have not found them to be most interesting or rewarding. I know of Steepster and Ratetea, but neither seem particularly suited to the task of categorizing loose tea and even then, meaningful reviews are rarely shorter than an average posting on the Half Dipper, haikus notwithstanding. The “constant tea meeting”, I think, needs to be conducted in the long form, and a short, snippet view of tea just doesn’t work that well when describing the nuances of the fourth steep of a Menghai 2005 7542.
On some level, this reflects a general trend in the online world – blogs are now very specialized things, generally speaking. Those who used to use blogs for personal reasons have migrated to twitter, or to places like Tumblr. In fact, I think Tumblr might work very well as a kind of continuation of the tea exchanges that I originally thought we’re doing online.
Of course, in real life, groups like the LATA and others are still thriving, and without all these online communities of one sort or another, I don’t think many of these groups would ever have been possible. I, for one, have met dozens of tea friends entirely because they read my blog, and we happen to be in the same place. Some of these exchanges are very enlightening, and I have learned much from them. It’s worth it, in the end, to keep this up, both in treasure and time. If others reading it feel it’s worth something to them, well, I suppose that’s why they keep reading.
One of the teas acquired on this trip, albeit in a very small quantity, is a little bag of this Jingmai 2010 loose puerh.
Jingmai is a nice area, with teas that are very fragrant and generally having a good body. It’s one of the more pricey teas out there, as regions go, although I very rarely buy it because I prefer teas from other places. Nevertheless, a good Jingmai is a pleasure, and this one is a good one. This is from a friend’s friend whom I met in Taipei this time, who has had a career in tea making/selling and is now semi-retired, as far as I can tell. Nevertheless, he still gets cakes made and sells them, and this Jingmai was one such production.
The tea is really quite nice in that it is full, complex, and long lasting. By now, whether a tea is good or not is usually quite immediately obvious – within a sip or two it is possible to tell between bad, ok, good, and great tea, and this is mostly in the last category. Teas like this are hard to find, whether among vendors online or off, and drinking it at the time and also this time at home, it ignites a sense of excitement in me that I haven’t had for a while, mostly because of the lack of time to drink good tea. Teas like this is why I keep drinking and searching for good tea.
Alas, there isn’t much of this tea left – only a small bag or so, as the man himself has sold the rest and only kept maybe half a kilo for his own consumption. Drinking tea that day with him and his friends, my tea friend, and MadameN, I could sense a calmness and satisfaction that is hard to find in a more commercial setting. That is the other thing about drinking good teas – one can’t be too greedy, for good teas, wherever they’re from, will eventually run out. The point is really to savour the moment and enjoy it, not chasing shadows that shape-shift and prove ever so elusive. Determined attempts in such elusive quests will only end in disappointments.
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.
*MarshalN: Last installment, see prior posts for what came before. This is the part where he talks about making tea. At the end he includes a few paragraphs from Ch’asu, but I will post those at some other opportune time. A reminder of the source of this:
Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living, 1937, New York: The John Day Company, pp. 221-31.
Usually a stove is set before a window, with good hard charcoal burning. A certain sense of importance invests the host, who fans the stove and watches the vapor coming out from the kettle. Methodically he arranges a small pot and four tiny cups, usually smaller than small coffee cups, in a tray. He sees that they are in order, moves the pewter-foil pot of tea leaves near the tray and keeps it in readiness, chatting along with his guests, but not so much that he forgets his duties. He turns round to look at the stove, and from the time the kettle begins to sing, he never leaves it, but continues to fan the fire harder than before. Perhaps he stops to take the lid off and look at the tiny bubbles, technically called “fish eyes” or “crab froth,” appearing on the bottom of the kettle, and puts the lid on again. This is the “first boil.” He listens carefully as the gentle singing increases in volume to that of a gurgle,” with small bubbles coming up the sides of the kettle, technically called the “second boil.” It is then that he watches most carefully the vapor emitted from the kettle spout, and just shortly before the “third boil” is reached, when the water is brought up to a full boil, “like billowing waves,” he takes the kettle from the fire and scalds the pot inside and out with the boiling water, immediately adds the proper quantity of leaves and makes the infusion. Tea of this kind, like the famous “Iron Goddess of Mercy,” drunk in Fukien, is made very thick. The small pot is barely enough to hold four demi-tasses and is filled one-third with leaves. As the quantity of leaves is large, the tea is immediately poured into the cups and immediately drunk. This finishes the pot, and the kettle, filled with fresh water, is put on the fire again, getting ready for the second pot. Strictly speaking, the second pot is regarded as the best; the first pot being compared to a girl of thirteen, the second compared to a girl of sweet sixteen, and the third regarded as a woman. Theoretically, the third infusion from the same leaves is disallowed by connoisseurs, but actually one does try to live on with the “woman.”
The above is a strict description of preparing a special kind of tea as I have seen it in my native province, an art generally unknown in North China. In China generally, tea pots used are much larger, and the ideal color of tea is a clear, pale, golden yellow, never dark red like English tea.
Of course, we are speaking of tea as drunk by connoisseurs and not as generally served among shopkeepers. No such nicety can be expected of general mankind or when tea is consumed by the gallon by all comers. That is why the author of Ch’asu, Hsü Ts’eshu, says, “When there is a big party, with visitors coming and coming, one can only exchange with them cups of wine, and among strangers who have just met or among common friends, one should serve only tea of the ordinary quality. Only when our intimate friends of the same temperament have arrived, and we are all happy, all brilliant in conversation and all able to lay aside the formalities, then may we ask the boy servant to build a fire and draw water, and decide the number of stoves and cups to be used in accordance with the company present.” It is of this state of things that the author of Ch’achich says, “We are sitting at night in a mountain lodge, and are boiling tea with water from a mountain spring. When the fire attacks the water, we begin to hear a sound similar to the singing of the wind among pine trees. We pour the tea into a cup, and the gentle glow of its light plays around the place. The pleasure of such a moment cannot be shared with vulgar people.”
In a true tea lover, the pleasure of handling all the paraphernalia is such that it is enjoyed for its own sake, as in the case of Ts’ai Hsiang, who in his old age was not able to drink, but kept on enjoying the preparation of tea as a daily habit. There was also another scholar, by the name of Chou Wenfu, who prepared and drank tea six times daily at definite hours from dawn to evening, and who loved his pot so much that he had it buried with him when he died.
The art and technique of tea enjoyment, then, consists of the following: first, tea, being most susceptible to contamination of flavors, must be handled throughout with the utmost cleanliness and kept apart from wine, incense, and other smelly substances and people handling such substances. Second, it must be kept in a cool, dry place, and during moist seasons, a reasonable quantity for use must be kept in special small pots, best made of pewter-foil, while the reserve in the big pots is not opened except when necessary, and if a collection gets moldy, it should be submitted to a gentle roasting over a slow fire, uncovered and constantly fanning, so as to prevent the leaves from turning yellow or becoming discolored. Third, half of the art of making tea lies in getting good water with a keen edge; mountain spring water comes first, river water second, and well water third; water from the tap, if coming from dams, being essentially mountain and satisfactory. Fourth, for the appreciation of rare cups, one must have quiet friends and not too many of them at one time. Fifth, the proper color of tea in general is a pale golden yellow, and all dark red tea must be taken with milk or lemon or peppermint, or anything to cover up its awful sharp taste. Sixth, the best tea has a “return flavor” (hueiwei), which is felt about half a minute after drinking and after its chemical elements have had time to act on the salivary glands. Seven, tea must be freshly made and drunk immediately, and if good tea is expected, it should not be allowed to stand in the pot for too long, when the infusion has gone too far. Eight, it must be made with water just brought up to a boil. Nine, all adulterants are taboo, although individual differences may be allowed for people who prefer a slight mixture of some foreign flavor (e.g., jasmine, or cassia). Eleven, the flavor expected of the best tea is the delicate flavor of “baby’s flesh.”
Continued from the last post
In such a congenial atmosphere, we are then ready to gratify our senses, the senses of color and smell and sound. It is then that one should smoke and one should drink. We then transform our bodies into a sensory apparatus for perceiving the wonderful symphony of colors and sounds and smells and tastes provided by Nature and by culture. We feel like good violins about to be played on by master violinists. And thus “we burn incense on a moonlight night and play three stanzas of music from an ancient instrument, and immediately the myriad worries of our breast are banished and all our foolish ambitions or desires are forgotten. We will then inquire, what is the fragrance of this incense, what is the color of the smoke, what is that shadow that comes through the white papered windows, what is this sound that arises from below my fingertips, what is this enjoyment which makes us so quietly happy and so forgetful of everything else, and what is the condition of the infinite universe?”
Thus chastened in spirit, quiet in mind and surrounded by proper company, one if fit to enjoy tea. For tea is invented for quiet company as wine is invented for a noisy party. There is something in the nature of tea that leads us into a world of quiet contemplation of life. It would be as disastrous to drink tea with babies crying around, or with loud-voiced women or politics-talking men, as to pick tea on a rainy or a cloudy day. Picked at early dawn on a clear day, when the morning air on mountain top was clear and thin, and the fragrance of dews was still upon the leaves, tea is still associated with the fragrance and refinement of the magic dew in its enjoyment. With the Taoist insistence upon return to nature, and with its conception that the universe is kept alive by the interplay of the male and female forces, the dew actually stands for the “juice of heaven and earth” when the two principles are united at night, and the idea is current that the dew is a magic food, fine and clear and ethereal, and any man or beast who drinks enough of it stands a good chance of being immortal. De Quincey says quite correctly that tea “will always be the favorite beverage of the intellectual,” but the Chinese seem to go further and associated it with the highminded recluse.
Tea is then symbolic of earthly purity, requiring the most fastidious cleanliness in its preparation, from picking, frying and preserving to its final infusion and drinking, easily upset or spoiled by the slightest contamination of oily hands or oily cups. Consequently, its enjoyment is appropriate in an atmosphere where all ostentation or suggestion of luxury is banished from one’s eyes and one’s thoughts. After all, one enjoys sing-song girls with wine and not with tea, and when sing-song girls are fit to drink tea with, they are already in the class that Chinese poets and scholars favor. Su Tungp’o once compared tea to a sweet maiden, but a later critic, T’ien Yiheng, author of Chuch’üan Hsiaop’in (Essay On Boiling Spring Water) immediately qualified it by adding that tea could be compared, if it must be compared to women at all, only to the Fairy Maku, and that, “as for beauties with peach-colored faces and willow waists, they should be shut up in curtained beds, and not be allowed to contaminate the rocks and springs.” For the same author says, “One drinks tea to forget the world’s noise; it is not for those who eat rich food and dress in silk pyjamas.”
It must be remembered that, according to Ch’alu, “the essence of the enjoyment of tea lies in appreciation of its color, fragrance and flavor, and the principles of preparation are refinement, dryness and cleanliness.” An element of quiet is therefore necessary for the appreciation of these qualities, an appreciation that comes from a man who can “look at a hot world with a cool head.” Since the Sung Dynasty, connoisseurs have generally regarded a cup of pale tea as the best, and the delicate flavor of pale tea can easily pass unperceived by one occupied with busy thoughts, or when the neighborhood is noisy, or servants are quarreling, or when served by ugly maids. The company, too, must be small. For, “it is important in drinking tea that the guests be few. Many guests would make it noisy, and noisiness takes away from its cultured charm. To drink alone is called secluded; to drink between two is called comfortable; to drink with three or four is called charming; to drink with five or six is called common; and to drink with seven or eight is called [contemptuously] philanthropic.” As the author of Ch’asu said, “to pour tea around again and again from a big pot, and drink it up at a gulp, or to warm it up again after a while, or to ask for extremely strong taste would be like farmers or artisans who drink tea to fill their belly after hard work; it would then be impossible to speak of the distinction and appreciation of flavors.”
For this reason, and out of consideration for the utmost rightness and cleanliness in preparation, Chinese writers on tea have always insisted on personal attention in boiling tea, or since that is necessarily inconvenient, that two servants be specially trained to do the job. Tea is usually boiled on a separate small stove in the room or directly outside, away from the kitchen. The servant boys must be trained to make tea in the presence of their master and to observe a routine of cleanliness, washing the cups every morning (never wiping them with a towel), washing their hands often and keeping their fingernails clean. “When there are three guests, one stove will be enough, but when there are fix or six persons, two separate stoves and kettles will be required, one boy attending to each stove, for if one is required to attend to both, there may be delays or mix-ups.” True connoisseurs, however, regard the personal preparation of tea as a special pleasure. Without developing into a rigid system as in Japan, the preparation and drinking of tea is always a performance of loving pleasure, importance and distinction. In fact, the preparation is half the fun of the drinking, as cracking melon-seeks between one’s teeth is half the pleasure of eating them.
This is a cake that I received from Toki, proprietor of Mandarin’s Tearoom, way back when. It wasn’t too long after we met, if I remembered correctly, and he gave it to me when we met up one of those times in New York City. Strictly speaking, this doesn’t belong to the retaste project, because I have been lugging this tea around with me in various parts of the US, rather than storing it in Hong Kong. It has spent time in Boston, Ohio, New York state, and Maine. I drank it once before after receiving this cake, and am now trying it for the second time.
The cake is full of little buds, and very few larger leaves. I remember when I first tried it, the tea was somewhat smokey, and was not the most pleasant to drink. It’s rather loose, compression wise, and after a few years of moving around, the wrapper has accumulated a fair amount of broken leaves and bits. I brewed those instead of breaking more leaves off.
The resulting cup is rather interesting – a nice minty taste that touches the throat, a good, solid, Yiwu profile, and reasonable viscosity. There is still just a hint of that smoke left in there somewhere. It tastes like old tree tea to me, and these days, those things cost a pretty penny. It’s a pretty good tea, and I can see it getting better over time. I guess my roaming US storage didn’t kill it, now I wonder if my Hong Kong storage can improve the tea.