How many ten years?

A few days from now, this blog will be ten years old. I still remember sitting in the Quincy House dining room typing out my first post during a lull between my afternoon meetings and dinner. I certainly didn’t expect to still be writing this blog ten years later, nor did I know where I was going to be in five years’ time, never mind ten. The pace of the blog has certainly slowed – that’s what having MiniN and MicroN will do to your free time (Hobbes can tell you all about it). Even time dedicated to tea drinking has dwindled as demands piled up and my free time mostly consist of late night hours after the kids have gone to bed – when tea drinking isn’t such an advisable activity.

I have also evolved – back then I can remember everything was pretty exciting, I was very much in the exploration phase, and wanted to try everything new. I had already been drinking tea for some years by then, but writing the blog made me look at tea in a more analytic way than before, and reflecting on tea was an interesting pursuit. It still is, but over the years I have also learned what isn’t useful or interesting. Tea reviews, I’ve found, to be mostly a waste of time, for myself and for the readers. This is especially true since I moved back to Asia, so my source of tea is now very different from the vast majority of my readership. When everyone was buying tea samples from Hou De way back when, writing tea reviews together was exciting and interesting – I called it a constant tea meeting back in the day.

The fact that both those links are to places that are more or less dead shows you how things have changed. The online conversation has moved on to places like Reddit and Facebook, and new types of sites, such as TeaDB, appeared. Older conversation partners have mostly dropped off – only the indomitable Hobbes and Stephane remain, and Stephane’s is, at the end of the day, a storefront (although I’m glad to see he finally created a real store). It’s not surprising – people move on, blogging as a medium has changed considerably, and tea itself has also changed.

One of these changes is that now there’s a wider-than-ever availability of teas to the Western consumer. However, there are still conspicuous absences in this marketplace, especially when it comes to Chinese tea. I don’t see many teas that are proper, traditional style tieguanyin, for example. I also don’t see much high-end tea – much of what is sold as high end online is really the mid-range in China or Taiwan – the truly high end stuff never make it abroad, because the prices are prohibitive. The diversity of tea availability is, therefore, a bit of a red-herring – a lot of it is really just more of the same with a different name, but sometimes offered at greatly varied prices due to marketing, hype, etc. That’s why it was especially sad to see Origintea.net die as Tony had to move on in life – he was one of the few people offering genuinely interesting teas and who was always working to find new stuff.

The passage of time also has me thinking – how many 10 years do we all have? Not to go all philosophical on you, but as tea drinkers who buy and store puerh, we are all betting on the future condition of what we own now. Ten years ago when I really got started buying teas to store, I had, as many of you, hoped that after ten years I will have some wonderful semi-aged teas to drink. Do I? Yes I have some stuff, but not as much as I’d like. Early purchases are by definition almost always going to be problematic – they’re tuition. Then you slowly learn what’s actually good, what’s not, and what will become better when stored. This is the key, really. A tea that tastes wonderful now may not be any good in the future. I’ve got some in my own collection, and I’ve tasted many more. Before you know it, ten years are gone and you’ve barely got a collection going. As a very experienced tea friend said to me recently:

But my motto is now , if I don’t like the tea better than when it was new 5 years down the road , I’m not gonna bother storing it anymore. Waste of space. The problem with the new teas these days is that they taste wonderful new, but 5 years on, 10 years on, they do not become better. They become acceptable. IMO, a puerh should taste better as you store it if it is to age well. So you buy a cake, it’s robust, smoky, bitter and strong and even harsh but 5 years down the road, it has improved a little, 10 years down the road smokiness is gone, 15 years a marked improvement but still harsh 20 years it becomes drinkable. That’s from my personal experience. If you buy a cake and it’s not all that and gives you a honey taste after 10 yrs or ceylon tea or tobacco, it’s not the traditional puerh. Really, if you want to drink something that tastes like tobacco, go buy a cigarette and steep that!!!

That’s very true – I’ve tasted so many teas that are made more recently that have aged into something like hongcha or tobacco or even nothingness – that’s not what aged puerh is, whatever the storage condition. That strength that you get from a cleanly stored 7542 from the 80s or 90s, or a Xiaguan 8653, well… it’s not tobacco and not honey nor hongcha, but it’s good. I miss that taste. I get it occasionally, but not often enough. It’s what drew me to this tea and it’s what keeps me in it, when I drink something like that anyway. I’m drinking my cheap Menghai tuo now, but it has that taste. There’s a reason I keep coming back to this tea. Of course, it’s also because I happen to have lots of it. My own lessons have taught me that I should look out for teas like this one – if I drink a lot of it, that means it’s good, and it means I should find more of it and buy in bulk when I see them. Too bad it’s harder and harder to find good tea on the market for a good price. How many ten years do we all have? Not enough.

Storing Pu’er tea – You are the final master

As long time readers of my blog know, I’m pretty allergic to marketing-speak, especially when the vendor is spewing disinformation. Well, I got an email a couple days ago from an outfit called Misty Peak, which I’ve never heard of but who had somehow harvested my blog email to put on their mailing list. The title of the email is the title of this post – Storing Pu’er tea – You are the final master. Yes. You can read the email here.

Basically, the email tells you how to store your tea, which seems informative enough, until you actually read it. To summarize the five points:

  1. You need circulating air – apparently the tea needs to breath or it’ll suffocate.
  2. There are two kinds of storage – dry and wet. Wet storage is when humidity is 50% or higher. Dry storage is “much drier condition.” No, 50% is not a typo.
  3. Temperature – between 55 and 80F (that’s 13 to 27 real degrees for the rest of the world)
  4. Store tea with other similar teas, turn over your tea every six months so “the leaves are getting exposure to the elements” and store it in porous containers, like wood or clay. If your got your tea in bags, throw away the bags or drink them quickly. The perfect place to store tea in a house is the top shelf of your closet – put it near a bowl of water and introduce a humidifier if it’s too dry. “There should be plenty of fresh air coming in as you open that door often and perhaps leave it ajar from time-to-time with a window open.”
  5. “Caravans of horses and mules travelled thousands of miles by foot over snow-capped mountains and through sun-heated desserts [sic].” So have fun. “Place some in your cabinet, some in your closet, and maybe even some on your porch. Just remember, this tea was cared for and crafted with absolute mastery and now it is up to you to learn to store it with care and prepare it with patience. You, my dearest tea friend, are the final master in this tea’s journey.”

Now, if you haven’t figure it out already – do not follow any of this “advice” if you care about your tea at all.

Let’s start with point 1. Airflow is pretty much a bad idea, and the theory that puerh needs fresh air to age is simply bogus. Fresh air can do a lot of things, but most of it will destroy your tea. If you want your tea to retain its aroma and age well, stick it in a place with low airflow that isn’t too damp. The fastest I’ve ever seen mold grow on my cake was on a coffee table with good airflow. A few days of continuous rain and it started growing stuff. Don’t do it.

The definition of dry and wet here is so off it’s laughable. Wet (I think they mean traditional in my usage) is a lot wetter than “50%” humidity – in fact, 50% is positively dry. Anything drier is going to kill your tea, and even a constant 50% will pretty much ensure your tea never really age at all. The idea that 50% or higher is wet is… simply amazing in its ignorance coming from a vendor. Certainly no vendor in Asia will call that wet.

Temperature – well, this is a sort of reasonable, if somewhat low, range. Temperature is not going to kill you here, but if it’s too cold for too long your tea won’t change much either. The reason Malaysian teas age a bit faster is because they’re generally hotter there. If your temperature is a constant 15 degrees your tea once again won’t age much at all.

Point 4 pretty much repeats what comes before, except that as people who have tried storing teas in clay can tell you – clay is very, very dangerous, and can easily kill your tea by helping mold grow. It’s not a porous material at all – certainly not porous enough. Wood, even, is pretty risky, and wood has the additional risk of smell coming from the wood itself. Sometimes simple is best – paper box with a tiny opening, a closet that is almost always closed in an area that isn’t too damp, avoid direct sunlight, etc. You can experiment with additional moisture via bowls of water if your area is dry, but humidifier is a pretty risky thing to use and I’d caution against it. You only need to screw up once to mess up your whole stash.

Point 5 is so comical as to invite laughter, or if I’m less charitable, I’d think they’re actively trying to get you to screw up your tea so that you’d have to buy more from them. Put your tea on your porch? Really? Caravans traveled through snow-capped mountains and sun-heated deserts? Not really – not usually anyway. They mostly traveled through passes (instead of over the mountains) and on plains through oases. You’d avoid deserts if you can help it at all. And don’t get me started on the bit that I haven’t quoted about dead horses and coming back to the tea years later.

So with this email, I was curious who these guys were, so I went to their website. I see they only do puerh, which is disappointing – for an outfit that only does puerh, the advice they’re giving you is astonishingly bad. I went to their “About” and “FAQ” pages, and noticed a few interesting things

“Our tea is the only tea on the market grown and processed by one family from trees planted in Yunnan China before the advent of electricity, 200-500 years ago.”

Pretty sure this statement is not true. There are lots of people selling single family teas from old tea trees in China (real or fake), but I guess if it’s in China it’s not happening?

“In 2014, the online tea community on the world’s largest tea review website, Steepster, rated us the #1 Pu’er Tea in the world out of over 5,000 different Pu’er teas with over 10,000 voting people!

Oh, Steepster…..

“Now the tea is available in over 370 select shops in the North America, Europe, Asia, and South America.”

Let’s see… 370 shops, but only one farm, and only 200-500 years old trees. That’s A LOT OF TREES FOR ONE FARM. Does this pass the smell test? You be the judge.

“First company in the world to change the shape of Pu’er Tea.”

You clearly haven’t bought any gongyicha before. You made a triangle in 2015. These guys made an elephant in 2013. There are also countless examples of other people who did this sort of thing way earlier. First in the world? Really? Have you ever been to a tea market in China? Obviously not.

Anyway, I think I’ve made my point. Avoid these clowns, and stop putting me on your junk mail list.

Verdant Tea strikes again

Some of you may remember a little controversy over a cake that Verdant Tea used to sell , which wasn’t quite the amazingly special tea it claimed to be. Well, a new controversy has arrived through a Reddit thread. Calling these controversy is really giving too much credit to Verdant though, because in both cases the questions far overwhelm the response they gave – things, basically, don’t check out. The Reddit thread includes comments by TwoDog of White2Tea and Scott of YunnanSourcing – yes they are vendors but they are low-BS vendors, whereas Verdant’s BS meter is sky high. You should look through that thread.

The story is this – there’s this puerh that Verdant sells that they claim to be from a single 1800 years old tree. In general, people think that older trees are better, and are willing to pay through the nose to get it. I’m not going to link to the tea, which is sold out anyway, but will instead show you a screengrab.

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First of all, you may note that for 100g, $60 isn’t a lot of money for a tea that claims to be as rare and special as a 1800 years old tree should. In fact, it is very cheap, cheaper than all old tree or ancient tree teas on the market today, by a pretty wide margin too. There’s a reason we say “if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.” Well, this price is way, way too good to be true, especially coming from an American vendor who will naturally have a much higher overhead.

But that’s not the only problem. There are a lot of things that don’t really check out in this story. For example, this is one productive tree! 100 cakes were pressed, with 100g each, that’s 10kg of processed tea leaves. This means the tree would’ve had to have produced 40kg of raw leaves for this much processed leaves be available for pressing. 40kg for a single tree that is so old – it’s seriously risky and damaging to the tree if this were really done, because older trees that aren’t pruned regularly don’t really grow very fast, and to harvest this much tea from it would literally kill the tree.

Not to mention that it’s impossible. This issue was reposted on Steepster, where the wife of Verdant Tea’s proprietor, Lily Duckler, responded to the criticism. Scott of Yunnan Sourcing followed up with a response of his own (in the second last thread on the page). Basically, trees of this nature are now all under state protection, and harvesting from them is usually a serious crime. I have no illusion that some illegal harvesting is going on, but this isn’t 2005 anymore when anyone and everyone can harvest whatever tea they want from whatever tree they want. It’s a lot more difficult now to get access to the fields of ancient trees, many of which have been designated as protected and thus off limits (or limited severely in quantity). That a tree this old can be harvested with impunity and obvious disregard for its long term health is not going to happen.

Scott’s response also highlighted another issue that was obviously problematic for me when I saw the page – for a vendor so keen on producing photos and videos of their trips, conspicuously absent are good photos and/or videos of the tree in question. There’s one poorly shot one in the product page, but that’s it. Lily Duckler’s response beats around the bush about other trees (some of the photos there, as Scott points out, are of trees from different tea regions entirely and has nothing to do with this village, contra Duckler’s claim) and doesn’t actually talk about the tree in question. Why not? There are pictures of other trees, but no more of the ones for which they’re selling the tea? That’s very odd, to say the least. What there are pictures of, however, are plantation tea trees in the background – the picture with the hut at the bottom? See those rows in the back on the slope? Wonder what they are? Plantation teas.

I don’t really care about pictures all that much – it’s about the tea, after all, and not the tree. Even if there are trees of that age in the area, there is no indication at all from Lily Duckler’s response that they have any proof that the tea they got is from those old trees. She mentioned, specifically, that these cakes took up a whole year’s harvest, which would imply that when they got there to buy the tea and have them pressed into cakes, the teas were already harvested and in bags. As anyone with any familiarity with Yunnan tea buying knows, buying processed leaves from bags from vendors, especially if you’re new to the area and a foreigner, is a very, very risky business. Most likely, you’ll get low grade stuff taken in from lesser regions being sold as premium goods in the more expensive regions. This has been and continues to be a problem. The really conscientious tea makers go out there themselves and harvest with the guys, oversee the entire process in person (because otherwise their good tea will get swapped out) and take the tea away with them, leaving no chance for any kind of fishy business. A few friends of mine who are serious about pressing cakes all follow this to a letter, which means spending a month or more in Yunnan every harvest season to see this done. If you don’t, you run a pretty high risk of seeing your tea get changed into something else, or at least adulterated, which is bad enough given the prices of these tea. Yet, we have no indication that these teas are in fact from those trees. The only response is “trust us” which, unfortunately, is really not good enough for the Yunnan puerh scene.

Am I being overly harsh and assume the worst of human beings? Yes and no. Yes, because I do assume the worst in the case of tea growers in Yunnan. No, because I think they are perfectly justified in doing so. You have to remember – this is the first time in history that farmers in this region have a chance to live above subsistence. These are not Bordeaux wine makers living out of old chateaus with centuries of winemaking wealth behind them. This is the first time in history for farmers here to finally buy a nicer appliance, buy a car, send kids to school in a dependable manner, have a bit of money leftover for retirement – stuff that others in the cities have enjoyed for much longer. These guys have to be hard at work trying to get as much money as they can out of their tea. The boom in puerh tea has been going on for ten years now, so conditions are nicer than when it first started, but these guys are by no means economically secure, and it is crazy to think that a farmer would give up literally tens of thousands of US dollars (and that’s how much 10kg of tea from a 1800 years old tree would be worth on the open market) to instead sell to an American guy with an online shop for something like $1000-2000 USD (Verdant couldn’t have paid more than maybe $15-20 a cake given overhead and associated costs). Giving up that much money – money that can substantially improve lives, if not for the farmer himself then for his community – would be crazy. If they’re indeed in a collective, even if the farmer himself is super-altruistic and doesn’t care for money, he would probably sell the tea to pay for school renovation, public works projects, road repairs, etc. He wouldn’t virtually give it away to some American guy to sell online, unless of course the tea is not what Verdant thinks it is. As Scott said in the thread on Steepster, if the tea really is what it is then Verdant just ripped off this Mr. Zhou and should feel ashamed.

Finally, there’s the issue of vendor responsibility. If the tea is not what it is, and I most certainly think it’s not, then it’s the same old question – is Verdant the con man or is Verdant being conned? Given their track record, I’m leaning towards the former. After all, this is a shop that sells low priced Shandong (Laoshan) green tea as if they’re premium products, and which marketed that Star of Bulang as if it’s a special cake. I find no reason to believe any of these claims made by them. Whether or not they sincerely believe them themselves is actually irrelevant. If they do, then they are too naive to do business in the tea world in China and shouldn’t be in the market, because they are just passing on cons from Chinese vendors to Western consumers without weeding out the bullshit, which is what they’re being paid to do. If they do not believe their own marketing, then they’re the con man themselves. Either way, the conclusion is the same – stay away from them as there are better vendors out there.

Lacking practice

One of the most direct consequences of MiniN becoming bipedal mobile is that I have basically stopped drinking tea gongfu style at home. What with an open heat source hot plate, a tetsubin that is hot all over, easily broken teaware all over the table, and a curious, grabby kid, it’s simply too risky to drink tea this way in Hong Kong’s rather confined living environment. So for the past year or so, I’ve been basically reduced to drinking tea grandpa style. This includes everything – puerh, greens, oolongs, whatever it is that suits my fancy that day. It’s a big change.

Drinking tea grandpa style every day is not abnormal – in fact, drinking tea gongfu style every day is the abnormal thing to do. Millions of Chinese (and others) drink tea in a mug or a large cup with leaves in them – in fact, that’s the only way they take tea. I was just at a conference where the only tea is some really horrible green served in a paper cup with a plastic holder using lukewarm water that tastes terrible to begin with. Nobody seemed to have a problem with it – lacking options, I couldn’t do anything else either other than providing my own tea leaves.

What the prolonged grandpaing means for my tea consumption is quite revealing – I have jettisoned most younger puerh from my drinking. While some perform ok, most simply are not very tasty. If I want something like that, a green tea is far preferable. I do drink some of my older stuff this way – I’ve already consumed two cakes from around 2002 and 2003, and plan to do more of the same. I also have been drinking a ton of aged oolong, which are really good when grandpa’ed. In fact, I’d argue that they are often better that way than when drunk gongfu style, when the tea can become quite sour. Grandpa actually mitigates those problems.

Moreover, drinking tea this way reminds me of why people’s tea preferences are the way they are – because it works. Drinking young raw puerh simply isn’t very practical, because many taste terrible. When aged a bit, it can be really nice, but when not, they can be really hit or miss. The few that do well now drunk in big mugs are not teas that I consider good candidates for aging either.

When I need my gongfu fix I usually visit some teashop or another. I do miss my own teaware though – not really having the ability to drink tea at home means most of my teaware is laying fallow, which is sad. Whenever I see my lonely little teapots not having drunk a sip for months, I want to give them something. Then MiniN walks by and asks to do something, and the thought remains merely a thought.

The death of a tea fair

I’ve been going to the Hong Kong International Tea Fair for maybe six years in running now, and every single year, it is getting smaller and sadder. The fair is part of the larger Hong Kong Food Expo, where mostly food vendors show up in force to sell people stuff – a lot of food producers, mostly processed food of one type or another, but also foreign firms, come here to set up stalls and sell anything from prosciutto to instant noodles. Locals, many private individuals (as opposed to businesses) flock to the expo to buy food – literally boxes of noodles, sauces, etc. It’s crowded and it’s one of the biggest fairs of the year (the other probably being the book fair and the wine fair).

The tea fair used to take up an entire floor of the food expo. This year it takes up less than half a floor. Scenes like this are quite common:

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What’s going on?

Well, first of all, from friends who do exhibits there every year, they say that the price of a stall is simply too high. Depending on the size, it could cost you a couple thousand dollars (USD) or more to buy a place, and the place you get may not necessarily be in a very good area. Obviously, to reap the benefits, you’d have to make some business contacts and maybe also sell some tea on the side. This is where it seems the problem is. For a local vendor, this is mostly a chance to showcase their stuff and to get their name out. Except, for many local stores, they already have a storefront – people who would go to the tea fair tend to be the same people who would roam the stores anyway, and since Hong Kong is not huge, most people know most of the stores. So, the tea fair ends up being a chance to simply meet your regulars. You can do that in your own shop, and save a few thousand dollars.

For people coming from overseas, there’s obviously more at stake – not only are you paying for the stall, you’re also paying hotel, airfare, etc. Some, it seems, obviously think it’s worth it to come every year. Jukro, from Korea, for example, have always been here. I always buy something from them, partly because it’s the only time I get to do so. But tellingly, I didn’t see them this year.

Others are government sponsored, so someone else is footing the bill. There are various provincial governments in China that send delegations. The Japanese government is generous in sending tea suppliers here to promote their tea, especially some organization from Kyushu tend to have a big presence here. This year was no different, and at least 4-5 manufacturers came, featuring teas from Kagoshima and Miyazaki. They also setup a nice tearoom to showcase their culture, not just the leaves

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The problem is that it’s really not clear what this tea fair is for. After all, it only runs for three days, and for two of those days, it’s open only to people in the industry – regular visitors for the food expo (which is already drawing big crowds) aren’t allowed into the tea fair. I never quite understood why – I suppose the idea is to make it conducive to people discussing business, but as far as I can see, there isn’t a lot of that going on – most of the people visiting are people like me, who get in through some vague claims of professional status – I am, after all, researching tea culture – and who are then going around essentially as someone who is a regular consumer. Only on the last day are the regular shoppers allowed in. This is the day when a lot of random business gets done by the vendors – selling the samples they brought, getting their name out to regular consumers who are not going to have heard of them before, so on, so forth (it also is the only day of the tea fair that falls on a weekend).

When you think about it though – who are these tea professionals, exactly? Who in Hong Kong is going to be prowling the tea fair looking for new suppliers? There are plenty of tea fairs in China – just in nearby Guangzhou and Shenzhen there are multiple tea fairs every year, so people in those areas really don’t need to come here. Locals – who exactly are these professionals? There are no tea shops to speak of that will look for special suppliers. Everything from China can be bought through Taobao, and is regularly done so. The ones that aren’t bought through Taobao are purchased either in person during trips, or at shops in Hong Kong. In other words, locals really don’t have a lot of demand. Then there are the misguided firms that come here for no good reason – like the first picture, if you are selling farm equipment in Hong Kong, you’re really in the wrong city.

If you run a big restaurant or hotels, chances are you already have suppliers. The suppliers, who are the importers, could of course go to the tea fair to discover new teas, but are there really enough of these in Hong Kong to make it worthwhile for these people to come here? Judging by what I saw, not really.

Nor is it really that useful as a branding/outreach sort of venue. Because it is only open to the public on one day, that day tends to be crowded. It’s also not very fun when it’s crowded, because tasting becomes difficult. This is not for want of trying – a few years ago I remember there were big stalls from Dayi, Xiaguan, a few tieguanyin producers, etc. Those are pretty much all gone – I didn’t see anything like that this year. Even the stall for the Hong Kong milk tea  company that holds a competition every year has shrunk considerably. It also doesn’t help that the location is really tucked away into a corner of the exhibition center – it’s not going to attract crowds. So, in that sense, it’s not doing a good job attracting regular customers either who might move the needle for firms to decide to exhibit here.

So what we see is the slow but obvious death of the Hong Kong tea fair – which is sad, because it’s nice to see some interesting vendors selling weird stuff. I remember fondly when a couple of years ago an Okinawa producer came here with some really nice black tea. I bought a little bit for fun, but they have never been seen since. Maybe if the trade council, which runs the fair, moves it to a dedicated day, with lower rates for exhibitors, we can revive this – after all, Hong Kong is quite convenient for people from other places to visit, but it’s also an expensive city, so it has to be worthwhile for them to do so. The current format for the tea fair simply isn’t good enough, and with competition from mainland, if they don’t do something soon, I predict that in a couple years we’re going to see this fair fold altogether. That will be too bad.

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.

When to give up

At what point do you give up on a cake that you have kept for aging?

I ask this because it is an important question for those of us sitting on tea. If you are a buyer of puerh and have stored some for aging, at some point you need to take them out and start drinking – after all, that’s the point. When you first start, it is likely that you bought more or less indiscriminately. You may have purchased teas based on recommendations by others who are supposed to, perhaps, know more than you. You may have bought because of the reputation of the vendor. You may have also bought because you liked how the tea tasted then. Afterwards, a few years later, perhaps, you take out that same cake again and discover that it’s changed, but not necessarily for the better. What do you do? You tell yourself “well, it’s just going through that awkward phase; it’ll get better” and put it back in storage.

What if the same thing happens two years later? Four? Ten? When do you just tell yourself “this was a terrible purchase and it’s never going to get better”?

I have a bunch of stuff like this. Some I bought because they were cheap at the time and I figured I could afford to gamble. Some because, well, I didn’t know better. Some because they seemed decent at the time, but subsequently has turned out to be quite terrible. I know my aging environment is fine, because I have a number of teas that I stored myself for ten years now that are quite drinkable. So the aging environment isn’t the problem; the tea is.

It’s true that sometimes teas do go through an awkward phase. They have lost that initial sweetness/floral fragrance that are characteristic of new teas, but have not yet developed old tea taste. It’s that weird in between state where it’s really a pretty bad thing to drink. However, I also think that there are many teas out there that simply cannot and will not age. This is mostly because of bad processing to start off with. If your tea was processed like a green tea, bad news, it’s not going to get better. Aged green tea will never develop that complex and rich flavour of puerh that you should be striving for (and if you are one of those people storing tea to preserve its flavours and fragrance, you’re in the wrong business). A telltale sign of a tea that is processed like a green tea is a beany taste – think a fresh biluochun, a classic beany tea. If your tea smells like a longjing or a biluochun, it’s time to drink it fast because it’s not going to get better.

There are, I think, storage environments where the tea will also die, and I suspect (although without firm proof, because I haven’t tried) that once killed by bad storage, the tea will never recover. There are of course two types of death by storage. The first is the obvious – heavy mold, bad mold (golden flowers), extensive sun exposure, etc. The second is more subtle – environment that has strong odd smells (medicine cabinet, for example), too close to the sea (it will get salty), too dry (the tea will taste thin), etc. Some of these in the second category need not be fatal, if recovered sufficiently quickly – a week in a medicine cabinet won’t do anything bad to your tea. Three years, however, and you have a different problem.

So if your tea is aging poorly either because it was bad to start off with, or because it has had bad storage, at some point you should just give up on it. Even though it may taste great initially, it’s no guarantee that it will age well – many well known teas were terrible when they were young, being very bitter, astringent, smoky, etc. When you want to give up is of course up to you, but I think by year five, if the tea is getting thin, more and more bitter, or otherwise exhibiting signs that it is not aging well at all, it may be time to reconsider the value of keeping it long term. As a comparison, it is useful to keep a cake of Menghai 7542 around as a control. It is, after all, the standard puerh cake. If your 7542 is aging badly, then it’s your environment. If your 7542 is aging well and your other cake isn’t, well, it’s the cake. Hope is, of course, what keeps us alive and living, so hoping that your tea will recover is a natural thing. Sometimes though, it is useful to admit defeat, drink up the tea (or get rid of it) and save some space. You’ll thank yourself next time you move.

Time

Time passes of course, and every time you make tea you have to consider that passage of time. Unless you’re making some abomination like instant tea powder, the amount of time you allow the leaves to interact with the water changes what your cup will taste like. Unlike coffee, which has many ways of brewing that more or less take time out of the equation (hello drip coffee), tea usually asks you to pay attention or you can suffer a nasty cup of astringency, especially if you’re dealing with run of the mill teabags. So controlling time has always been an important part of tea making.

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One way to do it of course is to use timers. These guys at Revolver in Vancouver, typical of many coffee joints, do it with timers (and cups that leave no space for tea leaves to move – you see them behind the chemex, but that’s another matter). I didn’t watch them for hours, so I don’t know if they make adjustments for different kinds of tea. A tightly rolled Taiwanese oolong would need probably 10 seconds to just open up, whereas a black tea will be well on its way to bitterness by then. In a cafe setting, you only get to drink once, so if it was screwed up, it’s over. Getting it to be palatable without under or overbrewing is very important. I can see why a cafe that brews the tea for you will need a timer.

Gongfu method is a little more forgiving – if you mess up one infusion, you can always adjust the next. I find timers distracting and more or less a waste of time in this sort of setting. You only need to know if the last cup was infused too long or too short, and adjust accordingly. Differences of one or two seconds on the timer isn’t going to change much of anything, because there are so many other things that can change as well – the speed you pour, the temperature of your teaware, how long you waited between infusions, etc, that will affect the outcome. I’ve even seen people claiming they need highly precise timers down to the hundredths of a second; that’s just being silly. Timers only get to be useful for tea brewing if you’re measuring something over 30 seconds. Splitting hair won’t help you make better tea.

More than just the immediate question of infusing tea though, tea drinking itself takes time, especially when done gongfu style. The time it takes to drink tea in a session is probably at a minimum 30 minutes. You need time to boil the water, and then drink a good 4-5 infusions; that’s half an hour right there, and that’s if you’re fast and are totally focused on the tea drinking itself. If you want to be doing something else while drinking tea, it can go on forever. When you have a cup of coffee, there’s a natural halflife of how long it can last – if you wait too long, it gets cold, and unless you dunk ice in it, the quality of the brew is gone. So you pretty much are limited by that amount of time, dependent on room temperature and such things. With gongfu style tea brewing and a ready supply of hot water, you can literally go on forever if you’re willing to drink tea flavoured water.

That explains why it’s so hard to find places that provide space for tea brewing in gongfu style. During the tea renaissance in Taiwan in the 70s and 80s there were a lot of these chayiguan, “tea art houses”, but the vast majority of them have died and very few survive with serious tea still being their main focus. In Hong Kong it never became a thing, because a customer will easily sit there for a few hours while paying only one price; here that price needs to be very high or you can’t cover rent. China, funny enough, is the only place that has a bunch of chayiguan, but most of them serve very mediocre teas at an unreasonable price. At the end of the day, none are very good options, and that’s all because tea takes time, easily a lot of it. In that amount of time you can sell a lot more cups of coffee.

I think this is probably why a lot of us, even in Asia, end up drinking at home, often alone. Some would have regular gatherings of friends who share the interest and drink together, at which point time passes pretty quickly as you go from tea to tea and chat about it in the meantime. Otherwise, committing to a couple hours of tea drinking together is not too easy to coordinate. Shops where you can hang out and meet others naturally are rarer still, and require a patient owner who is willing to put up with customers who lull around and not buying much and who can still pay the rent (while often doing the brewing themselves). It’s a difficult environment to survive in. If you have a local shop like that which also doesn’t gouge you for the privilege, cherish it.

While it probably isn’t too likely, here’s hoping that more interesting tea places open, or stay open, during 2015, and that all of you will have new and meaningful experiences with tea in this new year.

Childproofing

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

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

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

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

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

Relativism in tea

A long time ago, I talked about tea blogging as a community of people who are virtually talking about drinking tea together in a never-ending session. Things have really quieted down since then. Blogs, as a form of writing, seems to be at least dying, overtaken by social media in various guises. Sometimes you still have new entrants in this field, however, and recently there were a couple posts, one by the vendor TwoDog, and the other by Cwyn, a sometime visitor of this site, about relativism in tea. The claim here is simple, if I’m allowed to reduce them a little bit. Basically, the idea is that we should approach teas with a clean slate, and that opinions shouldn’t be formed based on other people’s views of the tea. So far, so good. Then the claim, made in slightly different ways, come out of both posts – that all opinions are equally valid because there’s no real absolute in tea, and that experts, real or imagined (and there are plenty of imagined ones out there), don’t know any better. That I’m not so sure about.

This type of claim I see often, and basically boils down to the idea that opinions are all equally valid. On some level this may be true, if it’s a matter of preference. What I mean is, when given a choice of, say, a menu of food items, each person have their own matrix of preferences that will guide them to choose one out of the many things on that menu. Some will choose none at all, others may have to be limited by the size of their stomach. That choice is an opinion, and the chooser has the liberty to do whatever s/he wants. They may be picking based on taste, allergies, religion, politics, or any number of factors. It’s hard for anyone to say “you shouldn’t have picked the chicken.”

At the same time though, that doesn’t mean that one cannot make claims about absolute quality of the food on this given menu. For example, if the choices on the menu include the following items: a McDonald’s hamburger, a simple grilled flank steak, and a slow cooked beef stew from a top restaurant, I think it is pretty easy for most people to say that the slow cooked beef is the best food item among the choices, even though not everyone will choose to, or even want to, eat that. There will be outliers who prefer the hamburger, even. Others, Hindus for example, will reject the entire menu because it’s all Not Food for them. But even then, objectively, they can probably say that the slow cooked beef is the highest quality item here.

Teas are no different. There are, objectively, teas that are better and teas that are worse. The high elevation, hand crafted Darjeeling is probably a better tea than the Liptop tea bag, but there might be times when I’d rather drink the Lipton (admittedly not too many). One is a judgement of quality, the other is an expression of preference. It’s quite easy to mix the two.

More importantly, the experience of the person expressing that opinion also matters. I asked my cousin, who’s a professional sommelier, about ideas of absolute quality in wine – does it exist? Do people talk about these? It’s pretty easy to say that a First Growth Bordeaux is a better wine than the $5 a litre box wine you find at your local supermarket. At the same time, the guy who’s only drunk First Growth wines and who’s never had a bad wine, so to speak, is actually probably less able to judge a wine than someone who’s drunk the whole range, good and bad, because he lacks the reference points for making an informed judgement. What you get in the end is just first impressions, with references that may or may not be relevant, and is indeed utterly useless precisely because it’s ungrounded in experience.

Similarly, when TwoDog talks about approaching a tea as a beginner, well, a true beginner won’t know what’s what, and in my experience, most beginner to puerh all have one instant response to this stuff – it’s really bitter. That’s it. That’s the first thing that hits them, and quite a few can’t let go of that beyond the “but it’s so bitter”. Some may move beyond it and find other things about the tea, but it actually does take experience with a certain type of item in order to be able to pass a decent judgement on it. If you really approach something as a real beginner, you will end up with reviews like this four year old at the French Laundry. It’s honest, it’s unpretentious, she’s not probably all that impressed by the pomp and circumstance, but it’s also something we look at and say “well, the kid doesn’t know what she’s dealing with,” and end up with “let me eat that.” Never mind that she rejected half of the good stuff. So, my point is – there’s a good and bad, and experiences do matter. They’re certainly not foolproof, and there will be differences of opinion, but if you stick a few tea in front of a bunch of people who all live and die by drinking tea, chances are their preferences will be similar. The preferences will be more disparate when the teas sampled are more diverse, but in general there will be a consensus on which one’s better and which one’s worse.

Having dispensed with absolute relativism, I do agree with Cwyn in the uselessness of tea reviews online, but not for reasons of relative opinions. Rather, they’re useless because nobody controls for the most important input into the tea – water. Unless we all start using the same thing as our standard tasting water, what you put into the cup is going to drastically affect how it comes out. Someone who uses a reverse osmosis filtration at home is going to have a lot of tea come out absolutely horribly. In some places, whether you’re drinking water from the snow melt in the spring or the summer rains probably will also change how your teas taste. Without controlling for that, all reviews are at best suggestive. There’s a reason I pretty much stopped writing tea reviews on this blog – they’re not useful and they don’t serve any real purpose, not even really for myself anymore at this point. So, I don’t do them.

So what’s the point of me writing all this? Well, I think it does matter for us to critically reflect on what tea we’re drinking, to examine them, to analyze them, and to learn from them. Addition of experience will enhance tea drinking, because it adds one more frame of reference and will enrich all future tea drinking activity, even if it’s a bad tea. If this is a hobby (and if you’re reading this, it probably is) then you should most definitely go out and enjoy and at the same time critique what you’re drinking. There are lots of good tea out there, there are also lots of bad tea out there, but exploration is half the fun. Besides, there’s a tea for every occasion, even if that tea sometimes happens to be a Lipton teabag.