Drink your tea now

Many of you reading this are probably sitting on more tea than you can consume in your lifetime, or at least some multiples of years, if not decades. For those of you who fit that description, I have a story for you.

A relative of a family friend recently passed away due to a heart attack. It seems like he was interested in a number of things, tea being one of them, and teapot being another. I was called in to take a look at what’s there, to see what can be done about it. I brought along a couple of friends who are tea vendors, since I wasn’t going to buy what could be a couple hundred cakes of stuff.

Turns out there weren’t a couple hundred cakes – there were maybe 60 or 80, plus some random liu’an, so on and so forth.

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You can see some of the cakes here. You might notice a few things, one being that almost all of the tea is still shrink wrapped. The second is that they all look old. These teas seem to be purchased from multiple vendors over a number of years, but probably bought no earlier than maybe the early 2000s or so. Some of the teas are supposed to be 70s or 80s tea, more are 90s or maybe early 2000s. Some are cooked, others raw. It’s not a big collection, but it’s a collection.

And the guy never got to drink any of these.

Among these cakes is one, placed in a box on its own. We opened it, and before us was the classic Red Label wrapper. When I picked it up, however, it felt funny – too light, and the cake’s shape is not right. Upon further examination, it is pretty clear that this must’ve been a fake, and not a very good one either. The price he paid, however, was real – the price tag was still on it from a department store in Hong Kong, for the grand price of $120000 HKD, which is about how much a cake of the 50s Red Label would’ve cost about 8-10 years ago. These days it’s more like $100000 USD a cake.

It’s still shrink wrapped too.

It’s hard to tell what kind of condition most of the cakes are in, since they’re wrapped so carefully from the vendors. It’s pretty obvious that most of them are pretty wet – some terribly so. The cakes that were not shrink wrapped were on the heavy side of traditional storage, to the point where they would be rather heavy going for those who are not used to the taste, and would depress the relative resale value. But it seems like the guy liked it that way – he has a lot of cooked tea, and heavy-going seems to be his preferred profile.

Of course, I don’t know what he’s drunk, so maybe he consumed most of his teas already. He passed before getting to 70, so while he wasn’t exactly young, he wasn’t very old either by today’s standard. The Red Label, I suspect, was a pride and joy, and he kept it separately because he paid dearly for it. Even though it’s a fake, or maybe precisely because it’s a fake, he was the only one who was going to be able to really enjoy the tea – he would think he’s drinking the real thing, and since we know that paying more for wine gives you more enjoyment for it, I think the same pattern probably applies to tea. He would’ve really loved the taste of the cake, thinking that one session is costing him upwards of $2000 USD.

Many of us sit on tea that we say to ourselves “I’ll drink it for that special occasion” or “I’ll wait till later before I enjoy it” or “I can’t bear the thought of drinking all of it.” Well, don’t let that hold you back, because chances are you are the only one who’s going to enjoy it. We can always delude ourselves to think that maybe our kids, or relatives, or whoever, will like tea, but more often than not, it’s just not the case. At least here in Hong Kong, there’s the option of selling it back to people who are in the tea trade (my vendor friend seems to do it a couple times a year – called by various friends of friends, etc). Good luck doing that in the States or Europe. So, drink up!

Priced out of the market

As everyone knows, the prices of puerh has been rising, rising, and rising. The reasons are many – more people are drinking it than ever before, and moreover, there are even more people who think it might be a good investment. I still remember when many cakes, new, could be had for a dollar or two. Well, those days are long, long gone. Back then, buying puerh to drink was a real value proposition – you can get decent tea for a small fraction of the price of a good oolong. These days, a good puerh probably costs more.

The problem is, like many other such goods, these days they are priced in such a way as to make it simply not worth it anymore. For example, recently I tried the Wisteria and Baohongyinji that was offered at both White2tea and Origintea. It’s not a bad tea – it has qi, for one, which is rare enough. It’s full, etc. It’s also ridiculously expensive, right in line with a real Bingdao gushu tea, and is absolutely not worth the money if you are thinking of buying cakes of it. These days real gushu teas routinely cost 2-3000 RMB a cake, and plenty of fake ones claiming to be real at least have real gushu prices, even if the leaves are not the real thing. This puts the tea simply out of reach of most people – ordinary or even not so ordinary folks. If you want, say, a tong of tea that costs 3000 RMB a cake, that’s 21000 RMB, or $3300 USD a tong for tea that is new. Frankly, that’s a lot of money, and given all the risks of storage that you run yourself if you store it – water, fire, mold, sun, etc etc, it’s almost insurance worthy.

Some tea producing areas are also slightly more worthy than others – Lincang, where Bingdao is located, happen not to be one of them. I find Lincang teas generally to be rather boring and subpar when compared with teas from the Yiwu or Menghai regions that are of similar level of quality. The prices of teas from Lincang used to be dirt cheap. Well, that isn’t true anymore.

I also get nostalgic when drinking some of my older teas that I myself bought and stored over the years, thinking that sadly, unless I pay through the roof, I won’t have teas of this type of quality to drink in the distant future. I had a Spring 2006 Bangwei the other day that I bought back when I was living in Beijing. It’s a wonderful tea, full of flavour and body and aging nicely. It cost me something like 150RMB a cake back then, which was a king’s ransom for a cake of new tea at that time. Now, the same thing, if made in 2014, would probably cost 1000 RMB or more a cake. It’s insane.

I wonder if this is sustainable – at some point, we’ll run out of buyers for these crazy prices and things might at least not get more expensive exponentially every year. It doesn’t mean prices will come down – we’ll never see 150RMB a cake for that Bangwei again. We might, however, see some of the more newfangled tea regions that command extraordinary prices come down a bit, especially if the aging isn’t going so well. For example, the Yuanyexiang which some of you know has been stagnant in price in the last few years, despite a heavy ramp up in prices of a lot of other teas. It can be found for about 1300 RMB a cake on Taobao, and they look to be the real deal. That’s a much cheaper price than a lot of new teas for a cake that’s over 10 years old now with some age. Why? Because it hasn’t really changed much in the last few years, and hasn’t really gotten much better. It’s a fine tea, and given the relative prices of new teas versus old, it might actually be a reasonable purchase again. As more and more older teas like this appear on the market, I wonder if it will keep a lid on new tea prices as people simply stop buying them. Of course, the same thing has been said years ago, and it hasn’t happened yet.

This is why I almost never buy new teas these days, and have also not bothered to sample many new teas – what’s the point if I am not in the market to buy them? I try a few every year, just to get my tastebuds going, but by and large, I no longer bother. I also find myself increasingly disliking the taste of new make puerh – when there’s so much older stuff I can have at my fingertips. Hopefully, perhaps, pricing adjustment will come, and not a moment too soon.

Good teas are all alike…

.. and bad teas are bad in their own special ways.

Paraphrasing Tolstoy only gets you so far, but in this case, I think it works. Good teas are indeed mostly similar – they are strong, have good body, last a lot of infusions, hit all parts of your mouth when you drink it, and most importantly, taste good. Some might throw in good qi as a bonus, but not every tea has qi, not even good ones (good luck finding qi in a longjing). Nevertheless, like A student papers, there’s not a lot to say other than “it’s good”. You can wax philosophical about how good it is, but that’s not strictly necessary.

Likewise, true failures of the worst kind, the Fs of teas, are also easy to deal with. They’re so bad that they do not merit any kind of time to examine – everything is wrong. They are easy to dismiss.

It’s really the middle ground – the Bs and Cs and Ds of teas, that take the most time to analyze, to grade, and to judge. They have flaws, sometimes minor, sometimes major, but they are flawed in different, diverse ways. Most importantly, for those of us buying teas, they might be bad in ways that are not easy to spot right away. Using the metaphor for paper grading, it’s like a ten pager that starts out strong and then, by page 4, falls apart, contain plagiarized passages, has no proof, can’t spell, etc. You wouldn’t know it if you only read the first couple pages, but if you look more carefully, the problems can be there and be really obvious.

I just tried a few cakes I bought off Taobao recently, and they are all bad in different ways, which is what prompted this post. One, a supposed Yiwu that’s got some name recognition, is bland – seems to be a product of bad, dry, and aired-out storage, even though it has good throatiness. The other, a bulang, packs strong flavours but is intensely, intensely bitter. Yes, it might go away eventually, but probably not, not fast enough anyway. A third has a weird flavour that I associate with strange mainland storage – it’s a sample the vendor threw in, and it’s just, well, strange. Unfortunately, none of them were worth my time, and all of them were bad/strange in their own ways.

Then there was a dahongpao I received a while ago as a gift. These days, all mainland yancha arrive in pre-packed packets, and they are virtually indistinguishable from one another. Gifts can run the gamut from really great tea to really poor. This one, unfortunately, leans on the latter. It’s bland – just not rich and full enough to be called a dahongpao, and is probably just some cheap yancha from the outlying areas.

Learning to spot these things take time, effort, and usually some tuition. It’s very easy to be led down the wrong path by the wrong vendors. This is especially true if you happen to visit mostly one vendor for your teas – if all the teas are bad in the same way, it’s not easy to figure out that it’s actually a sign of poor quality, as opposed to just the way it is. Take bad storage for example – you won’t notice a storage problem if all the teas you have share the same type of storage problem. In that case, you’d just think that’s how things are. Unless and until you’ve tried something else, and it’s totally different, do you realize that something is wrong with the original teas you’ve had. Figuring out what that is takes even more time. The same can be said of teas that claim a certain place of origin, but isn’t actually from that place, or teas that are supposedly processed a certain way, but isn’t. Then there are just the teas that are bland or low quality. All of these require comparison to highlight. So comparison is the key to learning how to spot bad tea.

The job of any vendor is to sell you the tea they’ve got, so in tasting notes you’ll always see things highlighted – aromas, mouthfeel, or worst of all, qi, that ephemeral quality that most people have never experienced, or only think they’ve experienced. For that bitter bulang I just talked about, for example, the vendor might say it’s long lasting and powerful, never mind that it’s like swallowing a bitter pill every time you take a sip. For that Yiwu that I thought was weak, you’ll get notes like “floral and penetrating” because it’s got a bit of throat action going on. The dahongpao I just referred to as bland would be “fruity” and maybe “delicate.” As for qi, out of 100 teas 99 have no qi to speak of – drinking chicken soup can equally give you that rush of warmth and sweat that some point to as evidence of qi. Qi does, I believe, exist in some teas, but they are rare. That’s another post.

Artisanal ≠ Good

It’s pretty common to see listings of tea with the word “artisnal” thrown in there. What does the word really mean in these context? Obviously it’s derived from the word “artisan” and generally mean that the tea you’re about to buy was made by an artisan. Ok, so far so good. So what?

More specifically, when is a tea not made by an artisan?

I suppose you can use this term to apply to teas that are purely hand made, farmed without machinery, and so on. I can assure you, however, that any tea you buy online does not fall into that category – teas like that are exceedingly expensive and very rarely done. Lots of farmers in China and Taiwan are independent farmers, but almost all of them use machinery as aids in the process of producing the tea. This can be large scale farming equipment, to something as simple as a roller and a shaqing machine for their teas. For oolongs, for example, rolling is a particularly backbreaking task – takes forever, lots of work, and hand (or foot) rolled teas are not as pretty as machine rolled ones. So these days they’re all machine rolled. Those balled up oolongs you love so much from Taiwan? It’s thanks to the machines that you have that shape.

Nor should we romanticize the past as some golden age when people made everything by hand. Sure, they did that, maybe, but that’s mostly because they couldn’t afford the machines that would make their life easier. Nobody prefers to spend hours rolling a ball of tea or sweating in front of a giant wok frying the tea when they can just do it more evenly, more predictably, and with less effort by the possession of a machine. These contraptions exist for at least a century now. I’ve read colonial period Taiwanese books on tea horticulture that detail the use of these things – rollers, shaqing, shakers, whatever you need. The problem was not so much invention – that’s the easy part. The problem was access. It was too expensive to afford a lot of these things. So at first, a whole village would invest in one and people would take turns using it. Then, as the cost of the machinery got lower over time, everyone had one.

We saw this type of change happen in Yunnan as well in the past decade. Before 2004, and before the crazy boom of puerh prices, Yunnan farmers were dirt poor. People cut down tea trees, sometimes really old ones, to plant rubber trees instead, because rubber was worth a lot more. Those who kept their tea trees got lucky, and now many of them have machines to aid them in the processing of teas – shaqing being most common, but also other measures. Tea picking has also been farmed out, often times, to people from poorer areas or villages. It’s hard work, and those farmers lucky enough to live in rich tea villages don’t really want to do that stuff anymore.

There’s also the relative skillsets involved – just because you made it by hand doesn’t automatically make it better. An old tea hand I know in Taiwan told me that a certain tea farmer in Pinglin used to be good – in the days of their grandfather, but the skills have either been lost or just not there, and so this generation’s teas are so-so. Some people are just better at some things than other, and variation is to be expected. Within a whole group of people, some will be better at a task than others. They can all do things basically the same way and the outcomes will be different. An artisanal tea grown in, say, Lantau Island in Hong Kong is still going to be terrible, because the climate just isn’t right and the tea is grown in a pretty bad environment. The skills of the artisan also just isn’t there (yes, I’ve tried the tea). Artisanal doesn’t mean anything.

Even long history is no protection – yes, they might have family secrets passed down if the family’s been in the business for a long time, or they might not. In fact, think of it another way, a family might be in a tea business for so long not because they were successful, but because they weren’t successful enough (and thus didn’t make enough money) to move into other more lucrative ventures. Very few people choose to remain smallholding tea farmers if they had a choice – tough work and low reward even with machinery as aids, especially in a rapidly industrializing society with lots of new opportunities. Better off going to school and becoming an engineer. Before you say I’m just being cynical, I have family relatives whose families did make tea and then moved away from it. It’s a very real option and most people, when given the choice, will choose to leave the farm.

Then you have stuff like this

Yes, some of you will object that this is large scale industrialized tea made for mediocrity. That’s right, but there’s lots of skill here, and the fact that a tea blender can easily re-create a recipe given the raw ingredients just by tasting is nothing short of amazing.

So next time you see that description of the tea you want to buy as “artisanal”, please remember that it means basically nothing.

Playing with fire

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

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

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

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

Now, does it actually make any real difference?

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

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

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

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Practical tea brewing advice

On this eve of the Lunar New Year, I thought I can offer some advice gleaned from over 15 years of tea drinking.

1) Use a vessel of suitable size — This means that if you’re drinking by yourself, don’t use a 300ml teapot unless you’re trying to make weak tea. Likewise, if you have a lot of people over (for holidays, for example) using that 100ml favourite of yours is really not a great idea. If you are short on wares, err on the side of small. You can always double up infusions and serve them together to fill volume, but it’s harder to deal with a large quantity of tea for a small number of people.

2) When rinsing, do not steep too long — I read in forums and other places sometimes of when people say things like “1 minute rinse”. I don’t know about you, but a 1 minute steep is no longer a rinse. Rinses are fast – 10-15 seconds at most. 1 minute, plus time to pour in and pour out water, really means more like 1 minute 30 seconds. That’s an eternity and you lose a lot of the “stuff” you should get from your tea. Don’t do it. Teas are never that dirty.

3) When brewing compressed puerh, break up the pieces — in the Western tea drinking culture I sometimes see a certain obsession with having whole pieces. I think this is partly because a lot of people drink mostly samples, so they like to see whole chunks, somehow, and oftentimes said chunks are thrown into the pot/gaiwan as a whole thing. This is not going to be good for your tea drinking experience – large chunks have a relatively small surface area for water-contact, and this is especially problematic when it’s compressed tightly. If you rinse it the water only touches the surface, and oftentimes the cores of those chunks might still be dry after one or two infusions. The proper way to do it is to break it up – yes, even if it means breaking some of the leaves. Chunks in the pot/gaiwan should be smallish, no more than about 1cm in diameter or so. If the tea is loosely compressed you can have bigger pieces. Ideally, it should actually be a mixture of chunks and loose leaves (from the same tea, of course). Remember, they all came from the same cake. As long as you’re not only brewing with fannings, it’s fine.

4) Adjust brewing time according to what your tongue tells you — a pretty common problem for novices is to ponder how long the infusions should be. Once you have thrown in the leaves, you’re stuck with your leaf/water ratio, so the only thing you can really adjust are 1) water temp and 2) time in steeping. The easier to adjust among those two is time, so you should adjust that accordingly. Is the tea way bitter/strong? Then be quick about pouring in and out. Is the tea getting weak? Lengthen the time of steeping. That’s not what the vendor recommended? Ignore the vendor. Do not ever automatically add time every infusion, as is often dispensed as advice for newer drinkers. It’s not a great idea.

5) Keep the water hot — aside from green teas, most teas should be brewed with water that’s kept very hot. That’s how you get the most “stuff” out of your tea, and gives you the most depth in flavour. If the brew is coming out too strong, you either added too much leaves or left the water in too long (or, possibly, the tea is just bad). Yes, you can get a really sweet, pleasant, and non-offensive brew by keeping the water to 60C. But you can just as well argue for cold-brewing aged oolongs overnight in the fridge. You can do it, but it’s really not the best use of the leaves. Leave the cold brewing for the cheap teas (where hot water can bring out some nasty bitterness if the tea is truly bad) and keep your water hot. Otherwise, you’re wasting perfectly good leaves.

6) Grandpa the tea when you’re finished — if you really liked the tea, one way to keep drinking it is to grandpa it.

On that note, may the year of the horse be one filled with good teas!

Things that matter, things that don’t

Over the years I’ve seen/heard/read many purported “rules” when it comes to buying yixing teapots. They all claim to help you buy a good pot. I’ve believed some of them at some points, although, increasingly, I no longer rely on any of them. I thought I will list a few of the common “rules” that people have developed – ones that I think are actually leading you down the wrong path, and offer up an alternative instead.

Keep in mind that everything written here is from the point of view of someone buying to use their pots, especially smaller pots that are for, at most, 3-4 people. If you are looking to buy things for your collection – then it’s mostly a question of personal taste and preferences. I’m also fully expecting to see people who think what I write here is wrong. If you disagree, let me know why.

1) The pouring test – basically, putting water in the pot and then pouring it out. This test is supposed to check, mostly, for whether or not the pot drips or not. It is true that pots that drip are annoying, especially if you pour slowly, but actually, I’d argue that dripping is not the worst thing that can happen. The thing is, when it’s a small pot and you’re using it mostly for personal drinking (as I think many of my blog’s readers do) it’s actually quite rare that you will use it for pouring into multiple cups – that’s when dripping becomes a serious problem. During my normal day to day drinking, for example, I’d pour the contents of my pot straight into a cup that’s large enough for the pot’s size. Also, when pouring, the pot is tilted basically 90 degrees so the spout points down. In that case, whether a pot drips or not makes very little difference – it will pour into the cup, regardless. The same is true if you use a fairness cup and you empty your pot into that.

Instead, something to pay more attention to is actually the speed at which it pours. Crucially, it’s the speed at which it pours when it’s tea that is hot, not water. I’ve used pots that pour well when it’s cold water (what you’d use to test in a shop) but do poorly when it’s tea – tea has slightly higher viscosity, and in some cases, it does seem to matter. If you have a slow pouring pot, it can kill your tea drinking experience using it.

2) The lid test – there are various versions of this out there. The simple one is just whether or not the lid fits well or not – if it wiggles, the theory goes, it’s a badly made pot. The extreme ones claim that you should put water in the pot, fill it to the brim, put the lid on, hold the pot by the handle and spout while covering the spout, and then turning the pot over. A supposed truly well made pot will have a lid that doesn’t fall out.

Aside from the very obvious problem of running the risk of having the lid fall out and break (and thus making it very unlikely that vendors will let you try this before you pay) it also serves no purpose in tea making. A tight fitting lid doesn’t actually make your tea better. It doesn’t really help pouring (in fact, it might exacerbate slow-pouring problems) and it doesn’t even necessarily denote good craftsmanship. Most pots these days are made with molds – which seriously lower the bar set for tight fitting lids. Just because it fits tight doesn’t actually mean much for the drinker. A lid that is a bit loose, as long as it’s not excessive, is perfectly acceptable. We are not talking about lids that are almost falling into the pot here – those are annoying (I have one). A bit of wriggle won’t really matter much though.

3) Factory 1 is everything – there is a certain fascination with factory 1 teapots. In case you missed the memo, Yixing factory 1 was the main factory for making teapots back in the state-controlled days. Many famous potters got their start there, and so many early period pots might have (emphasis on might) been made by said famous potters. There are various theories out there as to what the signs are for a master-made pot – seeing, for example, 宜興南孟臣製 as opposed to 荊溪南孟臣製 as the seal, for example. The idea is that factory 1 controlled the best clay, the best talent, and so the pots they made were the best.

Sure, that may be the case, and in terms of collectible value, a verifiable factory 1 pot is certainly worth more than one that isn’t. However, there’s a problem – it takes a serious amount of work to learn to distinguish what’s a factory 1 and what isn’t, and most people who sell these things haven’t a clue. They are just told by their friends (who sold them the pots) that they are, indeed, factory 1, and pass them on as such. There are probably way more factory 1 pots out there than factory 1 ever produced, just like there are far, far more Lao Banzhang on the market than all the tea Lao Banzhang has ever made in its entire history.

This is even more of a problem when you buy pots online, as many of my readers are likely to do. The signs of a well made pot – clay, craft, etc, are hard to discern through pictures alone. Unless and until you can handle the pot, or, if you feel adventurous, buying online is a real gamble. And also, given the cost of a real factory 1 pot these days, it’s a non-trivial amount of money (hundreds of dollars) to be gambling with.

Finally, the supposed value of a factory 1 pot is not really in tea making – and even if it does somehow improve your tea slightly, as I’ve stated a long time ago, the incremental difference (if any) is going to be pretty minor, all things considered. If you are hoping to buy one of these pots because you think it will dramatically improve the tea in your cup, you should invest the money in buying better tea leaves instead.

4) XXX clay is good for XXX tea – there has been an explosion of the names of clay types in recent years. An old teapot dealer here in Hong Kong who’s seen more teapots than I have drunk cups of tea tells me that until maybe 15 years or so ago, nobody cared what clay a pot is made with – the names are simply “red clay” “purple clay” or “duanni”. None of this “dicaoqing” “qingshuini” and a million different types of zhuni, etc etc. That, he thinks, is all just a ploy for sellers to get people to buy more pots – and I can sort of see why, as the completists in us want to collect something of everything. To him, the only thing that matters with the clay is whether it’s good or not – which is told not by the type (or more specifically, the name) of the clay, but rather by its texture and look and feel. He can’t name you what it is, but he can most certainly tell you if it’s good clay or not. Likewise, the idea that a certain type of clay, itself a dubious idea, is only good for certain type of tea, is a double dose of such myth perpetuation. Don’t buy into it. You don’t even need to use a pot with one single type of tea – using it with one family of teas is usually good enough.

At the end of the day, if you’re buying a yixing pot, just know that you’re not buying a power-booster to your tea – that’s not what it’s going to do. It may change your tea that you normally brew in, say, your gaiwan, but it won’t necessarily improve it – in some cases (depending on the pot) it may even make the tea worse. If you buy a pot, it’s because you want to use a pot and like to use a pot. If you want flexibility, stick with gaiwan. They’re cheaper and more versatile. Just don’t buy an expensive one – it will break.

Explaining the impossible bargain

Sometimes when shopping for tea, one comes across the impossible bargains – prices that are simply too good to be true. Over the years, I’ve found those to fall into three main categories.

1) It really is too good to be true. This is probably something that isn’t what it claims to be, or possibly, not the whole truth. There’s often some fudging going on with these – an aged tea that isn’t quite aged, old tree tea that is, well, not that old, high mountain tea from areas that really don’t qualify, etc. “Revivals” or “the area of XXX” or “1990s” are all labels that may pertain to these sort of teas. So, in other words, these are trying to upsell as much as possible. There’s a reason they are so cheap.

2) The seller has no idea what s/he is selling. This happens most often in smaller shops, out of the way shops, shops with really old stock, or personal sales – people who don’t know what they’re doing. They are also invariable teas that are older – if it’s new tea, and s/he had to buy it and resell it on the open market, they’re not going to get good prices that you can pass on to the customer unless they operate at a loss. You have people who inherit old puerh cakes by the boatload and throw them away thinking they’re stale tea. You have people selling their own collection on the cheap because they’re in a hurry to get cash. You have sellers who just want to get rid of something and don’t care what prices it goes at. These are real bargains, if you can find them, but they are pretty rare. It also takes a lot of energy to seek these out.

3) The seller knows exactly what s/he is doing and doesn’t care. I’ve met some of these before, and these are the most interesting cases.

Modern economics has as one of its basis the assumption that actors are, by and large, rational. They generally do things that are in their own best interests, and sellers of a commodity like tea would, normally, behave that way. If the market price is $100/jin for a given tea, then a seller who sells it for considerably less must have some reason to do so – the reasons should include some return on the lower price they accept. That could be liquidity (like the guy who needs cash now) or relationship building (selling you something cheap so you’d come back for more). Or maybe it’s part of the business strategy (hypermarkets). There’s a good reason they do such things.

But over the years I’ve met a few sellers who don’t care, and whose motivations for selling at below market defies economic logic. I’ve bought cakes before from people who know it sells for, say, $250 a piece on the market, but sold to me for half the price. I’ve bought aged oolongs that are quoted at the same price they were sold 30 years ago (granted, prices for Dongding in the mid-80s was high), when the same tea can only be had at other joints for 3x the price. Why?

Oftentimes the answer I’ve gotten goes something like this: I sell this tea for cheap because I need to sell to my own customers. However, these are customers who generally don’t do a lot of business. For example – I only go to Taiwan a few times a year, and I buy, at most, a few jins (one jin = 600g) at any given shop. My total purchase within a year at any one shop will probably not exceed 10jin. That’s peanuts. While I was there this time, one of the shops was readying a shipment of 20jin of Dayuling for a store in Tokyo. I’ve sure that order alone outpriced whatever I bought by a factor of 5 or more. What’s the point of keeping customers like me happy?

The answer to this rather silly question is that to some, wringing maximum amounts of money is not quite the point. It’s somewhat interesting, as the rationale told to me is usually something like “well, I have to make sure I have stuff for you guys” or “I don’t know how to just mark it up like them.” There are also others who do it to stick it in people who change prices monthly for their tea – although in these cases selling tea tend to be a sideline of sorts to something else. Also, if they know that the buyer is a vendor, the price is not as friendly – therefore in these cases, buying small quantities through retail is actually better than buying dozens of jins of tea wholesale.

I’m not complaining about this, of course, if I’m the beneficiary. It’s just an interesting case where the textbook assumptions in economics fails. I think for these sellers, they derive pleasure in actually selling to retail customers who are loyal and come back year after year. Earning an extra 200 HKD or not on that sale is not that important to them. This is also why I have, over the years, stopped going to places that keep their prices very current – there’s something cold and unfriendly about places like that. I might not get the latest fashionable tea from them, but what I do get is a very nice reliable supply of teas that I like. That’s good enough.

I was tagged

So Michael J. Coffey tagged me to answer these “confessions of a tea blogger.” Here goes

1) First, let’s start with how you were introduced & fell in love with the wonderful beverage of tea.

Growing up in Hong Kong, I don’t think anyone is actually “introduced” to tea. You just drink it as a matter of course, because it’s everywhere, whether it’s the diluted tea water you get at local crap restaurants or the stuff you get when you go out for dim sum, you encounter tea every single day, in all shapes and sizes. So tea, as it were, was always a part of my life. My grandfather was never far from his tea – in fact, he almost never drinks plain water. So some of my earliest memories are people just sipping their cups when they come to visit, etc.

As for falling in love with it, I suppose it took place during college, when I bought a little bit of mingqian Longjing, wondering why this particular Longjing cost 5x the regular stuff. Well, turns out it was indeed a lot better than the regular stuff, and it’s been a one way street since.

2) What was the very first tea blend that you ever tried?

This is when you know the questions were written by someone who drinks mostly Western style tea, if we can call it that. Blends? I don’t know, probably some Lipton tea they use in restaurants here in Hong Kong. What else? I’ll be surprised if this isn’t the answer for pretty much everyone out there.

3) When did you start your tea blog & what was your hope for creating it?

January 28, 2006. That makes this blog almost 8 years old. It started out as, really, just a journal for myself to record what I drank and what I thought about the tea, on that most horrible (and now dead) of platforms, Xanga. Back then I think there were only three blogs on tea that I know of – Teamasters, which is still in the same business; Chadao, which has been dormant for a long time, and The Mandarin’s Tea, which has morphed a bit. There was also the Livejournal Puerh community, which has died a long time ago (and LJ is not far behind). Things were a lot simpler back then.

4) List one thing most rewarding about your blog & one thing most discouraging.

Rewarding: meeting people, sometimes in real life, who I otherwise wouldn’t have met, because I write this blog and they read it and we get in touch somehow. Discouraging: when obvious misinformation is spread and sometimes, despite my feeble attempts, it persists. The tea world is a much better place without all the myths and sales pitches.

5) What type of tea are you most likely to be caught sipping on?

Darker oolongs or puerhs, depending on the day.

6) Favourite tea latte to indulge in?

Huh? No thanks.

7) Favourite treat to pair with your tea?

Usually nothing.

8) If there was one place in the world that you could explore the tea culture at, where would it be & why?

I haven’t been to India yet, and would love to go see some tea plantations there. It’s a totally different mode of operation.

9) Any tea time rituals you have that you’d like to share?

Don’t complicate things when they are not necessary.

10) Time of day you enjoy drinking tea the most: Morning, Noon, Night or Anytime?

Afternoon, usually. People act surprised when I tell them I only have one tea a day normally. I try not to overdose.

11) What’s one thing you wish for tea in the future?

More people caring about it and less marketing-speak, but there’s no chance of the latter, I’m afraid.

– Whom do you tag?

I think Dr. Hobbes is untagged until now.

Buying yixing pots

As somebody with a, er, teapot problem, which has only gotten worse since then, I thought maybe I should summarize what I’ve learned and unlearned through the years.

The first thing you learn when you set out buying yixing pots probably go something like this

1) You should only use one tea for one pot

Then there’s a whole slew of supposed “practical” advice, things like how the lid should fit well, how the spout and handle and top of the pot should be level, how things should all line up perfectly, filter vs no filter…. etc. This is before you start bothering with things like clay, which is a whole another hornets’ nest.

I think after having bought a whole bunch of pots, and using pots basically exclusively to brew tea for years, I can say that almost all of those beginner advice are bogus.

Take, for example, the bit about using only one tea for a pot. I suppose that’s sort of true, to a small extent, in that the tea does impart some flavour on your pot over long term use. The pot I usually use for my older, traditionally stored puerh, for example, smells like the tea it brews. When I pour water into the pot, it comes out brown. If I try to brew younger stuff in it, it’s going to get contaminated with the flavours of the storage heavy tea. So, in those cases, yes, you probably want to separate them to avoid too much interference.

At the same time though, it’s entirely pointless and silly to divide the teas into ever finer divisions and brew only that tea in one pot. For example, you can cut oolongs up into a million classifications – tieguanyin, shuixian, yancha, dancong, Taiwanese gaoshan, and within each of those big categories, you can further subdivide them into mountains, seasons, etc etc. The possibility is endless, and very early on I also thought maybe I needed to do that. Then it occurred to me – no, you don’t need to do that. First, the teas themselves, while distinct in taste, are not going to impart such a significant flavour effect on the pot that makes it easily distinguishable. Second, by doing so, you need a million pots, each of which see relatively little use. Third, observing others who have gone before me, such as folks who’ve been doing this for 50 years, they generally don’t care that much – oolongs go into the oolong pots, puerh likewise, and that’s that. So far, I’ve found that it works. You might, for reasons I already stated, want to divide them into two or three categories (heavy roast vs light roast, for example) but otherwise, just let it be.

As for the more structural things with teapots, I think in general those rule of thumbs are useless. Take, for example, lid fit. The easy version of the lid fit test says that you should be able to stop the flow of water if you hold onto the air hole. The more robust, and in my opinion silly, version of the test claims that the lid ought to stay in place and not fall if you fill the pot with water, hold the spout close, and flip the pot over. The idea of this is that this is a sign of good craftsmanship – that the lid fits well because the craftsmen make good pots. That’s true if your pot is made entirely by hand, like this video of master Zhou Guizhen. However, in these days of mold-assisted making (this is a nice series of pics that show how it’s done – and it’s an old technique), or much more likely (if you’re buying low priced pots) full on liquid-clay-in-mold pots (i.e. pouring a liquid clay into the mold, then remove mold after it dries a bit to reveal a pot) there is very little value in a well-fitting lid if it’s just the result of an industrial process that churns out massive amounts of pots. You can see the images here of a CCTV report on the mass manufacture of dubious yixing pots here (sorry, in Chinese, but you can see the images). Labour isn’t so cheap in China anymore. That $30 yixing pot you just bought is not going to be fully, or even partially, hand made. So stop imagining that the lid fit has anything to do with worksmanship.

Nor do things like this really help with brewing tea. A tight fitting lid doesn’t aid tea brewing in any real way. The same can be said of the level line between the spout, handle, and pot – you don’t want the spout a lot lower than the top of the pot, but it’s not going to kill you, or your tea, if it’s not perfectly level (and again, getting it perfectly level is a lot easier if it’s mass manufactured in molds). The value of these tests are dubious, at best.

What I think one should watch out for, insofar as structural things are concerned, generally have to do with pouring and the mechanics of water/tea going in, and water/tea coming out. I think a very important thing to watch for, when buying pots, is how long it takes for the tea to pour out. If it’s slow, then you’re going to be frustrated and have trouble using the pot. This has to do with the size of the airhole and the shape and size of the spout. Also, just testing it with water is not always good – tea has somewhat higher viscosity than water, and I’ve used pots before that seem to work well with water, but when you throw tea in it the pot slows to a trickle. It’s annoying, but it happens, and if you’re buying online, unfortunately you’re on your own.

Another thing is size – it seems like a lot of folks in North America and Europe love the smaller pots, especially things sized around 60ml. I, for one, cannot understand why. I find pots that sized far too small, and are not very good for general usage, even if just brewing for one person. Yes, using a small pot does reduce the amount of tea you use, which is a little more economical, but I also find that it makes controlling brewing a lot harder. I also believe that most of the stuff available on the market at that size tend to be mass produced stuff of low quality – it’s not economical for the producers to hand make these kinds of pots. My personal preference is for something around 100ml, which, after accounting for the tea, is usually one big cup per brew, or a few small cups.

Who made the pot also seems to be something folks worry about, a lot. I think part of it is just wanting to know about the product you bought – there’s a seal on the pot, so naturally you want to know what it says, which is usually some person’s name. Then, you want to know who that person is. In 99.9% of the cases, however, that person is basically a nameless craftsman who toils in the yixing teapot industry. Having someone’s name on a pot does not actually mean they made it – oftentimes (as the CCTV videos I linked to discuss) they are subcontracted out to lesser workers who use the seal of the slightly-more-famous person so that they can sell the pot, possibly using molds to aid in the uniformity of the product. So, while it’s nice to know “who made it”, the real answer is, sadly, a lot more complicated and a lot less alluring. When a pot is in the tiny fraction of pots where the maker is famous, there’s a high likelihood that it’s a fake. In cases where it’s not fake, you already know what it was because you paid thousands, if not tens of thousands or even millions, for the privilege of owning that pot.

All this and I haven’t bothered with talking about clay, which is another beast entirely and not something I want to touch on here. What I will say though is this – worrying about and obsessing over what type of clay a certain pot is is definitely a waste of time. Demanding vendors to tell you that sort of info will usually provoke some answer, but the answer, more likely than not, is probably just made up or at best an educated guess. It also is basically entirely meaningless in terms of what it actually does to your tea. I personally believe the density of the clay and the size of the particles have more to do with your tea’s outcome than the type of clay. Whether a pot is dicaoqing or benshanluni really makes very little difference to a tea drinker, unless the tea drinker also happens to be a big pot collector with the intention to collect different types of clay (in which case, buying over the internet is the wrong thing to do).

So, I suppose if I need to summarize my thoughts on buying yixing pots, it’s this: focus on the function and cut out the noise. The noise includes anything that forms a “background story” that helps sell a pot – name, clay, story of acquisition, etc. Instead, function – clay density, size and shape, water flow – are the things to watch out for. If it’s too good to be true – claims of fully hand made and the price is anywhere under, say, $100, or “Republican” or “Qing” and it’s only $300 …. you should think twice about the reliability of that seller and their value proposition. On the other hand, high prices don’t mean quality either. All this does mean that buying pots over the internet is generally not a great idea. Unfortunately, for most of my readers, that makes buying teapots a tough call. Try to find vendors who have good access, usually on the ground or have deep connections with suppliers, and don’t get too carried away like me.