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.

Sticks or tea?

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If you think this is just a pile of sticks, you’re not wrong. It is, mostly, just a pile of sticks, with a few really broken leaves. It is, however, a bancha.

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Specifically, it’s called the three year bancha. I’ve seen bancha before, but most of them just look like lower grade green tea. This is quite something else. This is one of the many teas I got from the tea fair I attended in Kyoto. I’ve been slowly going through them one by one, and some are definitely more interesting than others. It seems as though Yuuki-cha used to sell this tea.

This particular one is from a farm not in the normal tea producing regions of Shizuoka or Kagoshima, where most Japanese green teas are grown these days, but in Miyazaki, next to Kagoshima on the southern side of Kyushu. The farm does a bunch of interesting things – growing black tea, a pan fried (as opposed to steamed) green tea, and this. The farm is located in a mountainous area, and as they tell you, looking up to Mount Aso, an occasionally active volcano in the middle of Kyushu.

The instructions on the back of the package says you should add the desired amount of the tea into a kettle, and boil and then turn to low heat for 20 minutes. Then you can drink as you please. What you get then is not so much tea in the normal sense of the word, where we brew leaves, but rather a bit of a soup using the sticks from the tea plant that’s been cut down and then roasted.

The package opens with obvious charcoal smell, and the tea itself is not very strong and quite mild. It’s the sort of thing you might just sip all day, and in this way not too different from cheap roasted oolongs in purpose, except in this case it’s even milder and softer, without much of the bitterness or sourness that can sometimes accompany roasted oolongs.

If you ignore the instructions and just brew this, what you’d get is just a cup full of roast and not much else – did I say it’s mild? What is funny to me is that this tea is still classified as “green tea,” even though it’s about as far from green tea as you can get while still calling it that. When we say Japanese green tea, I’m pretty sure nobody’s thinking of this.

Tea fair in Kyoto

While I was doing research and waiting for my books at the Urasenke School‘s library, I discovered that there was, that day, a tea fair across town at the Yoshida shrine near Kyoto University. Since the library closed at 3 anyway, I decided to hop over and take a look.

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The tea fair was a decent size – about 20-30 booths from various sellers. What was perhaps the most surprising was that about half of them were selling Chinese teas of various sorts. Like these guys:

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Or something like this:

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The Chinese tea they sold and were pushing were mostly oolongs of various sort, with some greens and puerh thrown in. Many are Taiwan based or Taiwan inspired. But I wasn’t here for Chinese tea.

The Japanese tea sellers were mostly from the area – selling Uji produced tea. I tried some and bought a few bags, although given my glacial rate of drinking Japanese greens, I don’t know when I’ll ever get to them. More interestingly though, I ran into a stall with sellers from, of all places, Miyazaki prefecture. Miyazaki is next to Kagoshima, which is now a major producer of Japanese teas, but Miyazaki, relatively speaking, doesn’t do much tea. These guys claim to be organic and all that, and more importantly, they make black tea. The few I tried were quite good – one almost reminiscent of Darjeelings. Needless to say, I came home with quite a few bags of tea.

Having a tea fair at a shinto shrine has other advantages too. It’s nicely shaded but still feels like a park, it’s got a hill behind it and I actually hiked over the hill to get to the fair, and it’s reasonably accessible. There was also a sho performance while I was there.

There are also some things that I’m reminded of as someone who doesn’t drink a lot of Japanese tea – first, that Japanese greens are brewed strong, and the idea is to coat your mouth with the taste, at least when they make it for you. It’s a sharp contrast with Chinese greens, which emphasize that refreshing lightness. Second, these people shake their teapots violently to get every last drop out. No such thing as a gentle tip – they literally hold the kyusu with two hands and shake the thing like it’s going to drop you money to get every last bit of water out, usually stopping when the last shake produces a lot of tea leaves. Finally, Japanese greens, in the grand scheme of things, are pretty cheap, even decent grade shincha. This partly has to do with the yen dropping like a rock in the past few months, but also reflects how prices have really risen in China, which is the other main source of green teas. They are also so different that direct comparisons are basically pointless.

Instant tea

So last time I tried K-cups for you, and the results are pretty bad. Well, I’m just wrapping up a work trip in Japan, and while here, I had the pleasure of staying at a place that offered this in the room

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For a country with a lot of tea, and where teabag is really commonplace, I’m not sure what compelled this particular hotel in Kyoto to give you these things instead. They are, basically, instant tea.

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There were two flavours – hojicha (brown) and sencha (green). I tried the hojicha first, because why not? I filled the cup with hot water

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Hojicha, as many of you know, is roasted green tea. It’s a restaurant favourite and many places give you that when you sit down for food. It’s not very sophisticated – it’s roasty, and often taste a bit burnt. That also means it’s hard to screw up. Well, this one… if I were just handed this without being told what it is, I wouldn’t know what it is, because it only has the faintest hint of hojicha taste. Coloured water is more like what it was, and a pretty tasteless one at all. If the k-cups were just bad tasting, this one was just bland, really bland.

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The sencha, unfortunately, is no better – equally bland. The only thing resembling tea is its green colour. There’s very little taste, no texture, and low aroma. It’s really quite baffling why anyone would try these and think “oh, let’s use these instead of teabags.” The only reason – and not a very good one – is novelty. However, when novelty comes at the price of the end result, it’s hard to justify the novelty value. This thing is probably a lot more energy intensive to make, cost more, and deliver less.

Lesson? Teabags, for what it’s worth, are pretty great and hard to improve upon. Don’t fix it if it ain’t broken.

Tea in the park

At most parks of a decent size in China you’ll find teahouses. These are places where you can sit down and have a cup of tea, and they are, more likely than not, going to have a menu that looks like this

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The choices are basically six different grades of green tea, one oolong, one tieguanyin, five floral teas, and one (probably cooked) puerh. You’ll see that prices are quoted in either per cup or per pot, and they are in RMB – not very cheap, by any means. The cheapest and the most expensive are both green teas, and the ones that are 48 are all the non-greens.

The best choice at places like this is actually bring your own tea – you can, for the unlisted price of 10 RMB, just buy hot water and a seat, basically, and use your own leaves. Or, if like me, you didn’t have the tea with you, well, there’s always this

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Green is by far the safest choice. This was a mid-priced one. If you go low the tea is going to be a bit nasty. Paying $10 USD for a glass of tea with like 3g of leaves is a bit rich, and is a bit of a waste. Then again, their profit margins on these things are sky high regardless. I’m pretty sure the entire cake of cooked puerh probably costs as much as one order here. I wouldn’t touch those with a ten foot pole.

Old people usually frequent these, and people can sit for hours, getting free water refills that come in these giant thermos

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Once you settle in though, it’s beautiful, especially if you’ve got a nice view. At the end of the day, the tea is not the point, the time spent in a park is. Sipping tea, talking with friends, watching the scenery – it’s an afternoon well spent.

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Why do we drink tea?

Aside from the fact that tea is addictive through caffeine, why do we drink tea?

Since I drink tea daily, it is not something that I spend a lot of time thinking about. For most of us, it’s already become such a routine that it’s just a simple part of day, but there is always a dimension of “why”, especially when it comes to trying to look for the finer teas, or to find teas that are particularly interesting.

I think on a very fundamental level, a tea should be pleasant. This means that when drinking tea, it should deliver pleasurable things to you. What those are may differ on an individual level, but generally, they should probably consist of fragrance, good taste, and good feeling. Teas that don’t fulfill these requirements can be, and often are, seen as failures.

Take green teas, for example, which is something I rarely talk about. Green tea for me was where it all started – I began drinking longjing, just like my grandfather did. I recently drank some green teas from my hometown, not too far from Suzhou where biluochun is produced, and I’m reminded of why people drink green tea and why it is in many ways the most desired tea. Green teas are very nice things to drink. They are fragrant. They are smooth, at least when you brew it correctly and the quality is not too bad. They are sweet. They aid your digestion and are refreshing. There is really no drink more perfect than a good cup of green tea.

Or consider an oolong I bought recently. It’s expensive, to be sure, but it is also fragrant, smooth, has long lasting aftertaste, complex, interesting, and has qi (most teas don’t, but that’s another topic for another day). It’s great, and it feels great to drink it. Everyone there enjoyed the tea.

Then you look at things like newly made puerh – and it all falls apart. Compared to green teas, new make puerh are very rough. They are rarely sweet, instead leaning much more to the bitter side. They can be fragrant, but not always. In fact, the ones that taste good right from the get go tend to be ones that will age poorly, especially if they exhibit, say, green-tea like beany fragrance. Contrast that with an aged puerh, where the rough edges have been worn down and the tea becomes sweet, smooth, and feels great to drink. It’s a big difference.

I used to subject myself to a never ending series of questionable teas, all in the name of learning. Even when a tea seems nasty, or worse, tasteless, I’ll persist to see what’s going on and see how it fares. With time and experience, however, it is now far easier to arrive at a conclusion about a tea’s inherent quality. It is rarely the case that teas will show you anything new or exciting that is different after your 3rd or 4th infusion. It is possible, but very rare, and the tea is usually some kind of oddball. Most teas, in most cases, you can figure out what’s going on very quickly. Being now much more willing to discard poor quality teas, it is nice to drink teas that are actually enjoyable. I reserve samples or other teas of unknown quality for when I drink with a group. In those cases, it is easier to compare different teas, to examine them, and to arrive at a conclusion about them quickly and much more accurately. The really nasty ones? You drink a few sips and you throw it away.

When I’m at home and drinking by myself, I increasingly find myself reaching for the tried and true – puerh that I have aged myself that are now very drinkable after 10+ years, things I have bought that I know are good, and other kinds of teas that are not going to give me a nasty surprise. After a while, there isn’t a whole lot left to learn in bad teas – they are bad, and that’s that. For puerh, it is somewhat useful to know why they are bad – whether it’s bad storage, or bad processing, or just bad leaves. For other teas, it’s not really material – if it’s bad, you shouldn’t drink it. Life is short, drink something nice. For that purpose, a well made green tea is almost unbeatable.

Breakfast tea

On my recent trip to Shanghai I made a stop in my hometown. I stayed the night, and the next morning my hosts brought me to a teahouse to have something very local – breakfast tea, with noodles

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The noodles are in the bowl in an aged mushroom broth. The other stuff you see, from left to right, are pork chop, ginger strips, bamboo shoots, veggies, and smoked fish. All of these are supposed to be thrown on top of the noodles before consumption. As for the tea? Local Yushan green tea, which is not exactly the most elegant thing on Earth, is rather sweet, and goes down really well with local noodle breakfast.

When I first drank the tea, it’s the typical Yushan green tea taste. After the noodles, though, it actually got sweeter – partly because it’s a bit more diluted now, having been refilled with water, but partly also because I just had a bowl of noodles. Food, of course, changes how you perceive your tea, which is why I normally don’t eat snacks when I drink tea.

When you drink a lot of tea gongfu style, it is easy to forget that there is a world of people, in fact, the majority of drinkers in China, who drink green tea day in, day out. Tea is also mostly drunk with meals, and a really strong, bitter tea doesn’t often go well with a lot of food. On the other hand, green tea, with its refreshing and sweet taste (if it’s good, anyway) goes down great with a lot of foods. This is especially true if the local cuisine is a little heavier in taste. In Guangdong, where the local cuisine is more delicate, a stronger tea (like cooked puerh) might actually contrast well with the food. Food and tea pairing is definitely something people should start working on, although I think it is not easy to do – mostly because of the problems of preparation (what do you do when you’re halfway into a meal – rebrew new tea? You can have some serious caffeine problems that way). Maybe someone should think about how to resolve these issues.

Don’t drink shincha

Well, I didn’t say that. Longtime readers may know that I am generally not a drinker of green teas, and especially Japanese greens, which tend to make me dizzy or feeling uncomfortable. The idea that shincha shouldn’t be drunk, though, isn’t coming from me. It’s from a man called Kaibara Ekken, an authority on Japanese herbs who lived during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. In his work Yojokun (Instructions on Nourishing Life) he said a few things about tea drinking (translation mine).

There are many people now who drink a lot of tea from dawn to dusk…drinking a little tea after a meal helps digestion and quenches thirst. Salt must not be added as it’s bad for the kidney. One must not drink tea with an empty stomach as it damages the spleen and the stomach. One must not drink too much of koicha, as it damages the qi generation of a person… People with weak constitution must not drink that year’s shincha at all. It will cause eye problems, anemia, and diarrhea. You should only drink shincha after the first month. For people with good constitution, drinking it after the ninth or tenth month should not be harmful.

In case the time here is confusing, the months referred to here are the lunar calendar dates. So for normal shincha harvesting would happen in the second month, which is around April. When he says one shouldn’t drink it until the first month, that means the lunar new year of the following year – that’s about a 10-11 months wait before drinking the tea. Ninth or tenth month would translate to about November or December.

The idea that green teas in general are cooling and isn’t a great thing to drink is not new, and many traditional Chinese medicine practitioners can tell you that excessive drinking of green tea is damaging to health. Kaibara is not alone in claiming this, but it’s interesting to see how emphatic he is with the idea that drinking shincha is pretty much a bad idea all around. Contrast that with the current obsession with drinking shincha as soon as possible, and the difference cannot be more obvious.

So by today’s standard, someone like him was probably drinking slightly stale green teas all the time. Interestingly enough, sencha, at least the ones I’ve had, actually do fine when aged a bit in an air tight container. I just had a little the other day – a can of a couple years old sencha that I opened but never finished. The tea brews a bright yellow, rather than the normal green, but it tasted very smooth and was actually quite decent. It also didn’t make me dizzy. I think these guys have a point.

Loot from Kyoto

Kyoto is really a lovely town, and is one of my favourite places on the planet. They are filled with tourists, yes, and they live, more or less, off the tourists, but it is because of their charm that cities like Kyoto or Venice really are able to preserve at least some of their flavour that most other places have thoroughly lost – even the old districts of Beijing are slowly dying, because of the lack of preservation and the encroachment of new economic developments, which have spawned massive, unlivable blocks of monumental buildings instead of the very human-scaled neighbourhoods that used to characterize the city. Kyoto, thankfully, has mostly maintained that.

As you can probably guess, I just made a trip to Japan for the past few days, and tried, at least a little bit, to work some tea related activities in there among all the sightseeing. It started, in a certain sense, right after I got off the plane and onto the train from the Chubu airport – Tokoname (yes, that Tokoname) is, unbeknownst to me, right across the water from the airport and was the first stop of the train.


I must admit to having neither interest nor time in getting off the train to see the kilns, but next time, I guess I’ll know where to go.

It was cherry blossom season, although after an unusually cold winter and a freak windstorm the day before I arrived, most of the trees weren’t blooming yet, although some were. There are actually more cherry blossom trees in places like Vancouver, where they pretty much line every street and the city turns into a sea of pink during spring, but it doesn’t have temples like these.


I did stop by a few tea places, one of which is Ippodo, which I understand lots of folks like to buy tea from online.


They have a shop, and a cafe on the side of the shop (enter through main door). Here’s the menu:

I was traveling with companions, and so I got to try more than one thing. There was a spring special (not seen here) menu as well. I had the Nodoka matcha from that menu, and someone else had the organic sencha. They seem to have an A and B version, but since A is sold out, I presume I tried the B. The organic sencha is very good, with a deep, robust taste and solid mouthfeel. Anyone who’s read this blog with any regularity knows I’m not exactly a sencha fan, so for me to like a sencha is indeed a pretty rare thing. I didn’t buy any though, since I know if I bought any I wouldn’t finish most of it in time for them to be fresh – stale sencha is really not my cup of tea.

Kyoto also has a lot of antique shops scattered around, and Teramachi, where Ippodo is located, has a number of them. I ended up taking home a Republican era pot for a reasonable sum of money. Later in the day, I also found the perfect coaster for pots, made of rattan, in a random teaware shop that has been around since 1870 that I ran into near Daitokuji, which itself is, in my opinion anyway, a must-see site of Kyoto, although one could say that about many of the sites in the city.




The rattan coaster, in particular, is something I’ve been seeking for a while now. Those things are hard to find. It’s probably only in places like Kyoto where you can run into a 140 years old shop selling high quality teaware while randomly strolling along an otherwise nondescript street. There was, alas, no time for more extensive tea or teaware shopping this trip, as I was on a pretty tight schedule. It would’ve been nice, for example, to see Uji again, but that will have to wait till another day.

I also stopped by Osaka, which offers no such luck in finding items. Metropolis though it is, the antique shops located in the Oimatsu area are extremely disappointing – only two offers any kind of collection of teaware. One was mostly junk, the other being extremely overpriced. Kyoto, it seems, is hard to beat, and I’ll have to go back there for some more sooner rather than later.