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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

What others drink

The office I’m in right now has an interesting policy – spent tea leaves, along with other things solid but wet, are discarded in a little sieve that sits in the communal sink. So, whenever I clean out my cup full of leaves, I throw the leaves in there and rinse the cup out. Among the side benefits of this system is that I get to see what other people drink.

Not too surprisingly, the only thing that comes out of people’s cups, at least when it’s tea related, tend to be greens or very light oolongs. There are a few supposed tea junkies in the office (your truly excepted, of course), but I generally don’t see any real tea activity here. Maybe they drink it at home, but if they do, they probably stay up late, given that office hours in Hong Kong tend to end at 6pm. When people throw away tea leaves, they are usually green tea of some kind or another, and usually not the high priced stuff that are easily identifiable – longjing or biluochun. More likely, they’re some unidentifiable maofeng or some such. I also seem a fair amount of green oolongs of various types. Not surprisingly, no puerh at all. While someone has an “old tree” puerh cake sitting on her desk, no doubt a cooked tea from the yellow coloured label, it has, as far as I can tell, never been moved since I arrived a few months ago, never mind drunk. This confirms what I always know – puerh, even in Hong Kong, is strictly for the aficionados or those going to yumcha.

Aged matcha

One of the great advantages of drinking matcha, as opposed to leaf tea of all sorts, is that it is faster, much faster.  From start to finish, you’re done in at most half an hour, and quicker if you want to.  I knew today was going to be a busy day of meetings and what not, and that I won’t get a chance to drink a real cup of tea until maybe 8 or even 9 pm, so I pre-caffeinated myself with some matcha.  It also served as an opportunity to use my rarely used chawans, which, in today’s case, is an akaraku I bought maybe a year or so ago.

It is always an experience opening the tomobako (wooden box), with the brocade that comes with a piece and in this case, the artist’s signature as well as the name of the bowl, which is called “Tokiwa” or eternity.  But, before I can get to the bowl, the Safety & Security brigade have to examine the box first

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Now that we know it’s safe, I can take it out for pictures.

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I love raku ware. They have a soft, supple tactile feel and a lightness to them that are the direct opposite of what you’d expect when you just look at them — big, sturdy looking things that are often quite heavy-set. They sound like wood, rather than ceramic, when you tap on them, and I can’t quite find the same feeling with any other kind of ceramics, Hagi included. Kuroraku bowls are serious, whereas akaraku, at least in my own untrained opinion, seems more cheerful.

So it is really rather sad that I don’t have good matcha to go with it today. The only thing I have at the moment is more than a year old, which, as you can imagine, is not an optimal age for matcha. The tea, while it still retained much of the flavour, lost the high, fragrant notes and the sweetness that makes matcha so good. It also gained a bit of an unpleasant side-taste to it that I don’t particularly enjoy. This is a problem with me and all types of green tea — I can never, ever drink them fast enough so that they don’t go bad. I drink green tea so sparingly that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to finish anything in a season. While a can of matcha only costs maybe $20 or $30, a bag of top notch longjing will set me back $100 or more, easily, for a 3oz bag. That’s mostly why I have stopped buying green tea entirely — it’s simply not worth that much to me, especially since half of it inevitably goes wasted.

It’s always fun to play with matcha ware though. I should really do this more often.

Korean and New Zealand teas

I just went to the Hong Kong International Tea Fair yesterday.  It’s been a few years since I’ve been to a tea expo, and this one was a bit different from when I went to the one in Shanghai during the height of the puerh boom.  Partly perhaps also because it’s Hong Kong, the kind of tea merchants who were here were much more international, and also quite diverse in their offerings.  Most of the sellers were, of course, from China, but very often from provinces that are lesser known, such as Guizhou or Hunan.  The selection of green tea was very diverse, whereas the more popular things, such as various types of oolong from Fujian, were fewer.  As for puerh, there were a smattering of makers there from the big factories, such as Menghai or Haiwan, but even Xiaguan was not there.  There were some producers from Taiwan, India, Sri Lanka, and other places as well.

I think much of this was a product of the fact that many of the better known companies or types of tea simply don’t need the exposure at a tea fair, so they’re better off not coming and paying the expo fees instead of actually showing up.  For the lesser known, this is a great way to get some exposure that they otherwise won’t have.

I saw a few things that I know relatively little about.  The first is a company called Zealong, which makes oolong in New Zealand in the Taiwanese style.  The taste of the tea is very clean and crisp, and reminds me of decent Taiwanese high mountain oolong.  The company, according to their reps, was started by someone from Taiwan, and now has a few different teas.  It was interesting, although not terribly cheap.  I can imagine some place like New Zealand growing some interesting teas though.

I also met two Korean tea makers, and bought some of their products.  Korean tea tends to be green tea of various types, but one of them also made a white tea that had higher levels of oxidation, much akin to something like a baimudan with some age.  I bought some for personal consumption.  More on those later.

Another stop in Beijing before heading home on this trip.  Seeing some old tea friends from up north should be pretty interesting.  Stay tuned.

Mandarin’s Tearoom 2010 Mingqian Shifeng longjing

Longjing is my first love.  I’ve talked about longjing a long time ago.  It was the tea that got me into tea drinking.  It’s the tea that my grandpa likes to drink a lot (yes, in grandpa style), and it’s also the drink of choice for folks from my area of the country.  All this oolong stuff is just silly, and puerh is obviously crap.  Longjing (and maybe biluochun) are the gold standards of what constitutes a proper tea.

I used to be pretty serious when brewing longjing — gaiwan with a fairness cup to cool the water, a soft pour, quick(ish) steeps.  The resulting brew comes out very, very light in colour.  The best longjing, as my old post already mentions, are usually very faint in colour — almost white, rather than green, is the norm.  If your leaves are dark green and the tea comes out yellow, it’s probably harvested later or low grade stuff.  If someone sells you a mingqian (pre-Ming) longjing for $400 a pound and it’s the colour of pine needles, it’s no good.

Another physical trait of decent longjing is that they tend to be hairy, and the buds should ideally be very thick and round.  They should look “fat”.  If the leaves look “skinny” to you, it’s probably not a very good grade, although of course individuals differ, and the ultimate test is still in the taste.  Using appearances to judge tea is a very flawed way to do so, but for something like longjing it is actually possible to get some idea of what the tea is like before even trying it.

I don’t drink much longjing these days, mostly because they tend to be expensive, and I don’t drink much of them to warrant a purchase.  Every year I might drink it a handful of times, and the rest, unfortunately, turn to yellow tea, old, somewhat weird tasting, but still drinkable.  They are hardly worth the cost, however.  Not being near the source also doesn’t help — longjing is something you need to purchase in person, rather than from some online vendor.  Being in the US hasn’t helped my longjing habit.

I did receive a sample recently from Toki, however, so I broke it out and gave it a spin.  It was a generous sample, so I didn’t use all of it.  First off, the leaves

The colours here are a little off — my house has poor lightning for pictures, which is why these days I don’t take as many pictures.  You can see the white tuffs of hair on the right hand side on one of the leaves, and scattered around.  Different longjing from different vendors always look different.

These days when I make longjing, I generally use a gaiwan and make it the old fashioned way — in the gaiwan as a sipping cup.  If that’s how people used to make it for hundreds of years, then I see no reason why we should go all fancy on it.  It is, in other words, grandpa style with gaiwan.

How much leaves to put into these things is key — too much and you risk stuffing the cup and making it incredibly nasty.  Too little, and it’s going to be bland.  For this sort of brewing, if it covers the bottom of the cup it’s probably about right.

Now, how’s the tea?  Fragrant, with a nice minty feel down the throat.  I find it to be beany, which is normal for this kind of longjing.  It’s not too astringent even when brewed for a while — which is a good thing.  I’ll probably make it once the gongfu way, but drunk this way the tea is quite nice.