Adventures with a thermos

So I’m currently in Shanghai doing some research, which means being in a library all day. This being China, you can bring a thermos into the library, and each reading room has a table for you to put your thermos along with everyone else’s. I figured that since I can’t drink tea otherwise, and I don’t want to wait till I get home before brewing some, I would try bringing tea in a thermos.

I had in mind not just the regular giant plastic water bottles that people use here (mostly seen in cabs) where they stick an obscene amount of tea in there and brew all day. I thought I would try something a little different, using a thermos with very good heat retention and see how the tea brews in there. It seems like an interesting thing to do – high heat, continuous brewing. Turns out it’s not such a great idea. The tea is very strong, obviously, because it is brewed for hours in very hot water. It brews super strong, but because of it, it’s hard to discern flavours. I think the effect was similar to what you might see in a samovar – long brewed strong tea that probably could use some dilution.

What’s most interesting is that when I poured out the contents and then diluted it with some water, the taste is, well, inferior. It just doesn’t taste quite right, since it’s a tea I know well. It’s also interesting that the wet leaves are very, very mushy – when I poured water in the cup it stirred up a lot of bits of tea leaves. Again, the effect is similar to boiling the tea for a long period of time. You extract everything out of it, and it loses all ability to be re-brewed.

So, long story short, if you are going to grandpa your tea on the go, use a vessel that loses heat normally over time, instead of something that retains heat exceptionally well. It doesn’t really work.


One of the consequences of having a child who is physically mobile is that having tea the usual way, which means with a piping hot stove, with various breakable teaware, is becoming a bit less practical. I could close the door and drink to my heart’s content, but I prefer not to do that. What it means is many more teas that are drunk grandpa style than ever before.

Doing so has affected the choice of tea I drink. One of the things I reach for most frequently now is actually the cheap tuo that I bought a lot of – one reason, of course, is that I have kilos of this tea, but it’s also because it does very well in a grandpa setting. Tea, as we know, is sensitive to preparation methods. When the tuo is drunk with a gongfu setup, it is mediocre – not very interesting, a bit boring, a bit bland. It doesn’t quite have the punch of better teas, and while it has 10 years of age, it’s not particularly exciting. In a grandpa setup, however, it actually brings out some nuances that are easy to miss in a gongfu setting. I would in fact say that the tea has improved doing so – I am rather happy drinking it day in, day out. It’s a joy.

Another tea I’ve been reaching for a lot is a 2002 Mengku cake that I bought years ago in Beijing, back when this blog was first starting. I have two tongs of this tea, and can get more at reasonable prices simply because there isn’t a huge demand for this tea. It’s not the best either – but certainly quite decent.

One type of tea that I do not grandpa, almost as a rule now, is newly made puerh. They are, by and large, terrible in that context. That is partly because most of the teas that I would subject to grandpa drinking tend to be on the cheaper side, and cheaper newly made tea is usually just horrible things. It’s also because without any aging, the rough edges are still, well, rough. You end up with really astringent, bitter, and unpalatable teas. If you add just a bit, then it’s nice and soft, but not as nice and soft as a fine green tea, which I would infinitely prefer to a new puerh as a grandpa option. In other words, they are never picked first.

This may also go some ways to explain why puerh has always been considered an inferior tea – when new they are simply not very good. When aged they are fine, but with prices now astronomical, they are no longer practical drinks for most people. Already, aged and new puerh tea of decent quality are being priced out of the market for regular tea drinkers. That is really a tragedy.

2006 Jasmine sheng minituo

No, the title is not a joke.


I got this bag of minituo from a friend back in 2006 while I was doing research in Beijing. The friend is not a tea drinking friend, but I appreciated the gift nonetheless. Having said that, I never actually worked up the courage to try it. I remember when I first got it, I could smell the jasmine pretty clearly from the bag, even though it was pretty well sealed. The minituos then sat in the bag for six years, and was recently retrieved from my storage because Lew of Babelcarp wanted to try it. Well, why not? You gotta try everything once. I figured I’ll give it a go too.

I grandpa’ed the tea, since I was expecting the worst – a cross, perhaps, between a nasty stale green tea and an awful artificial jasmine. I didn’t really want to risk it by going heavy with a gaiwan, and this thing certainly isn’t going to see the inside of any of my teapots. The thing took a little while to loosen up, and once loose, it mostly stayed at the bottom of the cup, with a few stems that look like they came from a Japanese sencha floating upward. The brew was darkish, and surprisingly drinkable, probably because I only used one minituo for a large mug. More, and I think the tea might have been nasty. There is a jasmine scent, but it’s not too strong and entirely bearable.

Not surprisingly, contrary to its claims of using top quality tea, the leaves were chopped beyond belief.


I think I also spy some grain husks and other random objects in there that isn’t quite properly tea. Oh well, who knows what it is. It was drinkable enough that I didn’t immediately want to throw the rest of the bag away. Maybe I’ll try it again in six years.

The best tea-at-work companion

I think it is safe to say that, us being all tea addicts of some sort or another, that we have to drink tea every day. The result of no tea can be quite painful, literally, and going anything longer than maybe 36 hours without tea is not something I’d advice you do. Since I get home quite late on most days, drinking tea at home after I get back is not normally a practical solution. Since I don’t get up early enough either, the only solution to proper caffeine update during the day is to drink at work.

I know lots of you drink tea at work. Some bring in what looks like a full gongfu set, with gaiwan, water source, a tray, and some cups. Others bring in modified sets with a few elements missing, but good enough for drinking. Or, you can just grandpa it.


This is what passes for work setup for me. It actually works surprisingly well, and as long as you pick the right teas, it can yield decent results. In my cup right now is a lightly roasted Taiwanese oolong. Yesterday it was some aged tieguanyin that performs remarkably well in grandpa style. One thing I’ve been doing lately is that I drink the entirety of the cup when I am drinking the aged tieguanyin, and then right before I leave for work, I fill it up with boiling hot water and close the lid. The next day when I come in, the tea’s brewed again, with a nice brown colour, and a pleasant, sweet taste that is very typical of nice, aged oolongs. You should all try it sometime, even after a long gongfu session. It’s a great way to finish a tea.

Tea purgatory

Quite a few of you have the same problem – how to deal with teas that are really inferior, so that you don’t want to drink them every day.  However, you have too much of it, so you have to get rid of it, somehow, especially if you paid for the privilege.

These teas are often acquired with the best of intentions – you bought it thinking it might be good, and end up being a disappointment.  You bought it as an impulse (say, while you were traveling) and when you got home, it is no longer so good. Sometimes you got the tea because you used to like it, but your tastes changed. Or, you got it from some other means – a gift, an accidental find, etc. Either way, now you’re stuck with this tea that isn’t really quite that good.

I have a lot of these teas, as I’m sure a lot of you do too.  Giving them away, or selling them, seems wrong, because they’re not particularly attractive.  After all, you don’t really want to give bad tea to people, especially if they’re newcomers.  The only tea I happily give away is cooked puerh, since I almost never drink teas of that genre, and I know there are others out there who will appreciate it way more than I do.  The rest of the time, however, whether it is bad black tea, bad young puerh, or bad oolong, I’m stuck with it.

One way for me to get rid of such teas these days is to drink it at work, where I’m condemned to drink such things grandpa style, for lack of proper implements (or time) to do it right. I could probably bring a tea set to work, but since I just started less than a month ago, bringing such things, even in Asia, might be a little off.  So these days, I’m drinking some terrible, terrible work tea – a box of very run of the mill Assam, an old can of cooked puerh from Mengku that I had stashed away for no reason, and some 4 years old baozhong that I’ve been aging myself.  The baozhong is probably the most interesting of these teas, seeing as it was purchased fresh in 2007 and now approaching five years old in the same bag.  When I opened it it smelled distinctly like a slightly aged oolong – a little of that slightly plummy, sour fragrance, but when I brewed it, grandpa style anyway, it was still mostly like a duller green baozhong.  It clearly needs some more time.

I suppose this is a good thing, in the sense that I’m drinking some of these leftover teas that I’ll never otherwise touch and which will forever linger in tea purgatory until I fish them out for some reason. Now, they’re being consumed in a willy-nilly manner at work, purely for the caffeine effect and not much else.  I do need to find a more permanent solution to the work-tea problem though, because otherwise I’m going to be stuck with bad tea for a long time, and then my good teas will be in tea purgatory.

Finding winners

I think one part of any hobby that requires collecting is the fun in finding winners.  Some hobbies, like stamp collecting, have what I think of as high transparency.  Everyone already know what’s out there, and generally speaking, people have a fairly good idea of the rarities that may exist and how much they would go for.  Once in a while there’s a surprise, but those are few and far between, and generally require some luck to land on.  Then there are things like puerh drinking, which also has a collecting component to it.  Here, I think the transparency is both high and low — high for a small constellation of “famous” cakes which everyone knows about and is sought after, not always for the right reasons.  Then there’s the rest of the teas out there, largely unnoticed, flying under the radar.  Some can be very good, and in some cases even better than some of the more famous productions, but very often, they are duds and deserve to remain in the background.  The joy of finding a hidden gem, however, is great.

Hobbes at Half Dipper has just talked about two cakes that I recently got samples for from Yunnan Sourcing — the purple and red Yisheng from 2005.  These are sister cakes to the red Yisheng that I bought in Beijing back in 2007, and which Hobbes has diligently reviewed after he purchased some himself.  I remember trying the one I bought with the one that YSLLC currently offers, and decided on the one that I eventually bought because I thought it slightly better.  I don’t remember seeing the purple there, or if I did, it was more expensive and thus ruled out of consideration.

I’ve seen the cakes surface on Taobao since then, but never really found reason to try them again, especially since it involves buying a whole cake.  With YSLLC offering samples though, I decided to take the plunge.

Yesterday I had the red, since I know it better.  As soon as I opened the sample bag, I could smell the tea.


Using my trusty young puerh pot, it brews dark


The tea was, according to Scott, aged in Xishuangbanna, and it shows.  Kunming teas don’t age like this, and one of the reasons I decided to try the tea at all was because of this storage claim.  In my experience, teas stored in Xishuangbanna in general are quite good.  They mellow much faster without the dryness that Kunming has, which I find to be draining on a tea.  Drinking this red Yisheng, I am reminded of my own cakes — and wonder how they’re aging in Hong Kong.  Unfortunately, I have no basis for comparison, but this tea is very nice, showing signs of age as well as a solid Yiwu taste and mouthfeel, with good qi and longevity.  I like this.

The red is, according to Scott, a fall tea, while the purple was picked in the spring.  So it’s only natural that I try that today as a comparison.  Right away, you can tell that the leaves are smaller and more buds are present.


The colour of the liquor is largely similar, with perhaps a hint darker than the red.


The true test, of course, is in the way it goes down, and here the extra rainy season it endured is obvious — the tea tastes more aged.  It also has more punch, being a spring tea, and it lasts forever.  Three kettles of water later, it still yields a strong cup.  For the purposes of record keeping, I took the leaves out for some pictures




With the purple on the left and red on the right.  Then, having taken said pictures, the purple leaves are now back in a mug for some grandpa style drinking.  Interestingly enough, drinking it this way yields a slightly smokey note that was not present in the normal brewing.

Both of these teas are what I would consider great young puerh that are starting to show some age, while having enough “stuff” to go on aging without worries about deterioration, which is more than I can say about many other cakes of this vintage.  The purple is punchier, while the red is mellower, which some might like.  I remember the great feeling of having found a “winner” in the spring of 07 when I bought the Yisheng in Beijing, back when Douji was a relatively obscure brand and nobody has heard of Yisheng before.  Drinking these now, I have the same feeling, and wonder why I didn’t try the purple one first.  I wish I have my own cake here to compare, but it’s probably better that they are in Hong Kong, safely tucked away from my evil clutches.  Taobao’s offering are similarly priced, and if you factor in proxy costs and other sundry charges, YSLLC is as good as any.  Of course, your mileage may vary, but I think this tea deserves at least a hearing.