Buy less, buy better

These days I’m not doing much buying – there’s just no good reason to. Part of it, of course, is the slow realization that I no longer need anything. There’s only so much tea one can consume – assuming 10g a day, you’re talking 3.6kg a year, which isn’t that much more than 1.5 tongs of tea, roughly. That’s 15 tongs for ten years, or 60 tongs for basically 40 years. You really don’t need that much.

Of course, this is coming from someone who already has a lifetime supply of tea, so I suppose it can come across as one of those posts where someone rich is telling others to live simply. However, looking back, I think there’s something to be said about buying less but buying better, for the simple reason that the crap, the stuff that isn’t very good, will never be revisited. If you’re buying and storing puerh, and are holding onto that cheap tong of whatever that you picked up hoping that it’ll turn into something better, chances are it’s not going to happen – it will stay terrible, and you’ll never drink it, and ten years from now you wonder why it’s still there because it’s still bad and you have other better teas to drink.

I know I’ve talked about hitting hard with a hammer, but there’s a big caveat with that – you only do that when you know something is good and something you’d want to drink. Having a whole bunch of stuff that you hope will turn into something you may want to drink years from now is a terrible proposition – and will usually end up with just wasted space. There are warehouses full of crap in places like Guangzhou. Those will eventually have to come to the market. The price for old but mediocre tea will never go up much, even if it’s old.

Getting rid of the tea also presents a problem – I have no idea what to do with the tea that I don’t really want. If it’s something I wouldn’t want to drink, chances are I wouldn’t want to sell it – because it feels wrong to sell off tea that I know is no good. Tea also costs money to ship, which is not great. What exactly does one do with unwanted tea? Compost? It’s a problem and there isn’t even really a good solution.

The same logic can apply to teaware, which, of course, I also happen to be sitting on a lot of. My normal rotation of yixing pots, for example, consists of only about half a dozen pots. The rest of them just sit there to look pretty. It’s fun collecting, and I enjoy every piece. However… there comes a point when you have too many. I probably long crossed that line, so these days, only stuff that is really special are worth collecting. Otherwise….. forget it.

So, when choosing something to buy, buy less, but buy better. Better, of course, is the hard part. But eventually that will pay off in the long term.

Tea service is hard


Restaurant tea service is often bad, I think mostly because it’s difficult to get right. Of all the things that a server needs to do, making tea to serve a customer is probably one of the most time consuming. You have to gather at least 3 pieces of wares, put leaves into the pot, add hot water, then bring it over and pour it out for the customer plus all that cream and sugar business. Compared to coffee, where you really only need one cup for the coffee and usually only a button press for the actual liquid, it’s a lot of work.

Moreover, there are other hidden problems in tea service. Like yesterday morning when I drank this cup – the tea was supposed to be English breakfast, but the problem is the little metal pot they used had been brewing quite a bit of peppermint tea, it seems – my English breakfast tasted like peppermint English breakfast, which was, well, kinda gross.

I’ve always bemoaned the poor state of affairs in most tea service at restaurants, but as I have family in the F&B business, I have also come to appreciate exactly how much trouble it is to offer good tea in a restaurant setting. You can’t charge too much (certainly not more than a cup of specialized coffee) and you have to try to make it quick – all the while trying to offer something serviceable, and most of your clientele don’t really care. There’s a good reason why so much tea service is so mediocre. Nobody is really willing to pay for the good stuff.

Drinking up teas

There are a few reasons I haven’t been updating much on my blog recently. The most basic one is I moved recently, so a lot of stuff got moved and many of my teas got moved offsite, because it’s easier to manage that way. The more important one is because of the big Photobucket blackmail issue. I have been slowly converting all my old Photobucket links to instead hosting the photos on my own blog, which is a slow process unfortunately.

However, the biggest reason is because I just don’t have a lot of very interesting things to say these days about tea. I mean, what haven’t I already covered in the 10+ years that this blog has been alive? Sure, I can update on some topics, and there are new things that happen all the time, but really, most of them are quite similar to what have come before. There are very few genuinely new things that I encounter these days with regards to tea (there’s one new black tea that I got a hold of recently that I will talk about at some point).

I also haven’t been drinking much new tea. After all, there’s only so much tea one can drink, and there’s plenty of older teas now that I have bought years back that are now at least drinkable. I’ve reached the point where I’m not really in the market for much new tea anymore – there’s really just no need. Why should I sample a whole bunch of new tea when I’m not interesting in buying almost any of them? It’s always interesting, of course, to do so, but that interest is tempered by the fact that many of them are usually terrible, or at least not great. When I can drink something that is great now, versus the high chance of having something that really isn’t very good (and often overpriced) …. the choice is obvious.

So I suppose that’s a pretty unsatisfactory explanation. I know if I were living in a city with a more interesting tea scene, I may be out drinking tea more, but then, having two kids will always crimp your style that way. The way the current market is though with tea, I just don’t see myself being that interested in buying anything much – and the few things I do buy, you can’t get easily online, making it a bit of a difficult thing to talk about where I’m basically talking about a pie in the sky.

In case you’re worried though, I do intend to keep this blog around, even if it costs me in hosting fees and what not. A lot of discussion of tea related things have moved from things like personal blogs to social media of various sorts, with some facebook groups being particularly active, and at least a few slack groups that I know of. There’s a problem with all those conversations though – they’re fleeting. Once done, trying to find it again is next to impossible, even if you yourself participated in it. Quite often people would tell me that they recently discovered my blog and have gone through a lot of my older posts, and have found them useful. You can’t do that with social media posts, not really anyway, and there’s almost no way to actually save any of those conversations unless you do some serious work to keep an archive of them, which is very unsatisfactory. This blog is by no means an authority on anything, but I do think some 10 years of tea writing is worth something. That’s the reason why I will bother to go through all my old posts to migrate the photos over, even though many of them are of tea reviews years ago for teas that nobody can find anymore, and for which my opinion is probably largely outdated if not completely invalid at this point. I guess that’s me being a historian, but I will at least try to keep the record straight.

I do, however, need to continue documenting my teapots, and have been lazy about it after the move even though it did give me a pretty good idea of exactly how many I have. So, in the absence of more interesting posts about tea, you can probably expect to see more teaware in the near future.

Gongfu is not always better

Gongfu brewing is quite versatile – you can control all the variables, including the amount of tea, the amount of water, the timing of the infusions, etc. You can adjust infusions as you go to try to get the best cup of tea from the leaves. However, it is not the only way to brew, nor is it always the best suited for whatever tea you drink.

These days I use a small pot to brew tea at work, with an electric kettle that has served me quite well. I mix waters so the tea is not suffering from the ultra-filtered water we use at work. It works reasonable well. At home, with kids, it’s difficult to do any kind of gongfu brewing. Instead, I grandpa everything. This may come as a surprise to some, but for some teas, grandpa-ing the tea actually produces better results.

I’ve talked about this briefly before. The thing you have to remember is when you brew teas in vastly different ways, the tea itself changes character in really obvious metrics. A tea you think you’re familiar with can appear wholly unrecognizable. The most obvious for these is aged oolongs. You might think that oolongs are best brewed in gongfu style. This may seem especially odd for aged oolong, which can be a bit sour. Wouldn’t grandpa-ing the tea make it even more sour?

Funny enough, the answer to that question is usually no. In fact, I’ve found over many years of drinking this stuff in various ways that grandpa-ing is often the best way to drink aged oolongs – even better than drinking in a small pot. If you gongfu an aged oolong, what often happens is the tea can be a bit thin, and a bit sour. There’s not a lot to recommend the tea. The same tea, however, throw into a big mug and just stewed for minutes before you even attempt your first sip, can be fragrant, full bodied, and quite pleasant. The acidity is now enhancing the drink, instead of making it worse – in the same way that acidity in a wine can make it a better experience. There are aged oolongs I’ve had that taste sharp and kinda nasty when gongfu brewing, but are an absolute delight when drunk grandpa style. I haven’t given up drinking aged oolongs gongfu style completely yet, because some teas do work better for that, but in general, I’d say it’s at best a tossup.

Even for semi-aged puerh, I think one should at least try drinking them grandpa style, or at the very least using a much lower tea to water ratio but with longer steep times. The result is usually a richer taste – I have some teas that appear thicker, and more fragrant, when I grandpa them. In gongfu style, they’re instead a bit weak and not terribly interesting.

I think what’s going on is that for some teas, the amount of time you need for whatever it is in the leaves to be pulled out of the water varies for different types of whatever proteins it is that is giving you that particular flavour. If you do short and fast steeps, as is pretty normal in a gongfu style brew, then they all come in succession – with none of the cups being particularly satisfying. Instead, when you steep them long and slow in a big mug and then drunk together, the result is far more interesting, and the individual elements – such as the sourness – blend into the tea in a way that is not obtrusive. As James said recently, drink with an open mind and don’t get stuck in the same routine. The results can be surprising.

Caffeine detox

Once in a while, I’ll go through what is essentially a caffeine detox, or really, just a period of drinking less tea. What I notice is that consumption of tea over time trends up. This also means that I generally consume more and more tea over time. It’s sort of natural – you fill up the pot, and before you close it and start the process of brewing, you add a little more. This “little more” gets normalized and next time you add a little more again… and it goes up.

I’m fairly disciplined when it comes to personal tea consumption. Unless I’m drinking with people, which is rare these days, I usually just drink one tea a day – which means that I only drink one session of tea a day. Now, I will re-brew this tea many times over, so in effect I’m extracting all the caffeine there is out of them, usually, but it’s still just one tea a day. I think among my readers many are multi-session-per-day type. That’s not me.

Still, drinking a lot of tea has its effects on the body. There’s a balance to everything and it’s probably not a good idea to consume too much of anything, so after a while of drinking a lot of tea, I often will consciously go through a period of lower consumption to re-adjust myself to a lower caffeine intake. I find this is good – good for my palate, and good for my body. Caffeine overdose  is a very uncomfortable thing. While I haven’t gotten there in many years, it’s still something I want to avoid. There are also times where I’m not exactly in OD territory, but I can feel my heart pumping faster and my body reacting to a bit too much caffeine. That’s usually a sign I need to tone it down if it happens too often.

Some people I know quit cold turkey trying to re-adjust to lower caffeine. I find that painful – literally, because you get massive headaches, but also not having any tea makes me really cranky because, let’s face it, it’s an addictive drug. So, instead, I usually opt for aged oolongs – the tea that is clearly the lowest in caffeine among my regular rotation of stuff. I also very consciously measure out the amount of leaves I use and make sure I’m not putting in too much tea leaves.

The end result is usually pretty immediate and obvious – I get a bit sleepy earlier in the day, I don’t get jittery, and also I have a little bit of craving sometimes for more tea, which I have to resist. There’s always that temptation to drink more tea – which must be resisted. Which is another reason why aged oolong is great – a good aged oolong will keep giving if you keep rebrewing grandpa style, without really much in the way of additional caffeine. It’s the perfect tea for this sort of thing.

I usually do this for a couple weeks – at which point tea consumption will stay low for much longer but it’s no longer such an obvious thing to fight. Then, well, the cycle begins anew….

What’s a good tea?

First, an important but unrelated point – as we move our discussions and conversations onto various social media platforms, those discussions are lost to those who are not privy to these conversations. Even if you are a member of those groups, or friends with those people, if the algorithm decides not to show you the conversation, and if nobody told you about it, you’ll never find it, basically. So, although these platforms can be great for connecting people, the memories are all fleeting, with no permanence to speak of. The author of the original post can decide to delete the post, and everything is gone. If you don’t have a direct link, even if you scroll through the timeline of whoever or whichever group it belongs to, you might not be able to find it. Search is useless. So, any sort of wisdom, knowledge, or ideas that were shared are not open to all. That’s a problem.

The reason I’m saying this is because there’s a recent discussion in the facebook group Puerh Tea Club about “how you know what is good“. The question is one that plagues not just tea drinkers, but aficionados of all kinds – how do you know what you have/see/drink/smoke/eat is good or not?

The answers to this question run in a few different directions. One is the simplest, but perhaps least useful – whatever you prefer is the best. To this, our dear friend Su countered that she knows someone who’s been drinking the same type of teabag for 50 years – he likes it, but does it make the teabag good? Objectively, I think most of us will say no. So clearly, the answer has to be more than that.

Then you can get all scientific – some kind of complicated checklist of aroma, mouthfeel, etc etc. – you see this sort of thing for wine tastings a lot. I’ve been to some of these things before, and frankly, it gets very silly. Someone drinks a bit of whatever it is, then rattles off “24/25 for taste, 23/25 for aroma….” it’s meaningless. For one, there’s an unspoken rule, it seems, that no score for anything drinkable should ever be lower than maybe 85. So you’re really working with a 15 point scale, not a 100 point scale. When almost everything is in the upper 80s or lower 90s, what does giving something a 65 actually mean? It just means it’s not drinkable. Why not have a scale that makes more sense? Also, are taste and aroma really equal? These sort of scoring metric often make them out to be so, but in reality, I think a lot of us put more emphasis on how a tea tastes and feels, rather than on how it smells. In the case of tea, it’s further complicated by the person preparing the brew – the same tea, in two different hands, can taste very different. Someone who doesn’t know how to handle a tea can completely botch it. If it scored a 65/100, who’s to say it’s not the brewer’s fault?

Which doesn’t leave us with a lot of options – at the end of the day, there isn’t much you can do if you’re a drinker on your own, without any real life tea friends to turn to. The answer to the question, I think, rests in 1) getting enough experience and 2) understanding what you’re trying to evaluate.

Getting enough experience is probably the more difficult of these two. I’ve said before that one should drink widely – different kinds of teas, from different vendors, at all price points and of different geographical sources. Getting stuck with one or two vendors is a terrible trap to be in, because vendors, especially for something like tea, are usually limited to a small number of suppliers. It’s not like wine where you can just order a few cases here, a few cases there, with provenance clearly traced and knowing you won’t get fake or adulterated goods. For tea, it’s more complicated than that. When you are talking about aged puerh, it gets even more complicated, as you have to factor in the risks of fakes, the quality of the storage, the price that their customers are willing to pay for the tea (not high enough, usually, outside of Asia). After those limiting factors, the vendors then select what they could offer, and will try to sell those. So even if you want to sample widely, due to these reasons and other logistical problems, vendors will have their own preferences and make choices based on those. Therefore, any vendor is really only offering a small slice of what’s possible out there. That’s why patronizing different vendors is important.

Even when you do buy lots of teas from different people, or get them through sample swaps, or whatever…. then what? I think the first thing you could do is to brew them in a way that is easily controllable. Buy a few sets of these cupping sets, for example, and start cupping your own tea. Start by doing some simple tests – use black tea, one from say a cheap teabag, one from a mainstream supermarket loose leaf brand, one from a supposedly higher grade source, and compare directly against each other. How are they different? What are the things that distinguish them? How is their durability and rebrewability? We are talking five minute brews here of 3.5 or 4g each, or some similar parameters. Make it precise. Practice it, and get used to cupping. Smell them, taste them, re-do it a few days later. Drink it hot, then wait for them all to cool and try it again. Then try it with different kinds of teas – oolongs, greens, etc. They’re all going to taste virtually undrinkable the first time you try cupping, but you’ll get used to it and soon you’ll start to figure out ways to understand what you’re dealing with – and why some teas cost more.

This way, you at least eliminate the biggest variable in changing how a tea taste – your brewing. By controlling for everything through the same process, it’s tea against tea (using the same water) and not influenced by anything else. Better yet, have someone else set it up for you so you don’t know what you’re dealing with, to avoid any preconceived notion. This is probably more work than most people are willing to put in, but I think it’s the way to go if one were to really try to gain experience. Then apply whatever it is you’ve learned from cupping to your daily drinking. How are these things reflected in the tea when brewed normally?

What to look for then? Well, the answer is pretty simple – stronger is better than weaker, more aromatic is better than less, smoother is better than rougher, longer lasting is better than not. However, there’s a balance issue here. Some teas are really aromatic, but rather thin and don’t rebrew well – a lot of green teas are like that. Among green teas, that’s fine. However, for a puerh, that’s no good, because a thin but aromatic tea will age poorly – aromatics go away over time.

So, depending on the tea, what you might want out of the tea maybe a bit different. This is really the answer to the second question – what are you looking for? For most teas, immediately consumption is the answer, so the tea that really has the best mouthfeel, taste, and aroma is going to be the winner. What’s best? Judge by cupping. Two teas that have similar levels of strength but different types of aroma – that’s a matter of taste. However, usually one is going to be better than another. There’s just no way around it.

For teas that you intend to keep for aging, however, the situation becomes a little more complicated. In this case, I’d prioritize strength and rebrewability over other factors. Aroma, as I mentioned many times before, changes and fades. If you like a newly made puerh because it’s really fragrant – drink it up fast, because if you store it it’s not going to keep that aroma for that long. Also, if a tea is really one note, aging might not be the best for its future – it can get very boring after aging. I know it’s not fashionable these days, but try some proper Dayi 7542 when they’re young. It gives you a good idea of what an ageable tea tastes like. Even those are changing a bit, but more or less they have stayed the same over the years. It’s at least a good benchmark to compare against in terms of strength. A tea that is weaker than a 7542…. I’d be careful buying those for aging.

Notice I haven’t said anything about cost here. Let’s just say this here: good tea is rarely cheap, but expensive tea doesn’t mean it’s good. Also, western-facing vendors are not offering the full range of what’s out there, because there’s not enough of a market for the real top flight stuff, despite what is sometimes marketed as such. At the same time, coming to Asia to buy directly is a recipe for disaster if you don’t really know what you’re dealing with.

Is Dayi or Xiaguan worth it?

So reader Serg asked in my fake Dayi post if it’s worth it to navigate through the sea of offerings on something like Taobao looking for real Dayi or Xiaguan teas. There are actually two parts to this question – the first is if it’s worth it to navigate it through the sea of fakes, and the second is if something like Dayi or Xiaguan is inherently worth it.

First of all, buying teas off Taobao, especially if you have to go through an agent who then re-ships it to you, carries an inherent risk. What is sold is not necessarily what you see on the page, and if you go through an agent there’s no real recourse. I can at least talk to the sellers myself and get refunds, maybe (usually not) but with an agent it’s definitely impossible. Basically, if a tea normally sells for 1000, and you find it for 900, you really have no way to tell if the tea is being sold a little lower because the seller wants to get rid of it, or if it’s a fake that wants your attention. As I mentioned in my fake Dayi post, on the product page you have no real way of telling if the cake is real or not. I knew it’s fake because the price was obviously too low to be true, but it’s not going to be obvious if the price is about right.

The only way around it is this: buy from the official stores. For Dayi, you can visit the Dayi tmall store (tmall is the more respective division of Taobao). For Xiaguan I believe it’s here. They’re not going to be a deal, or have older teas, but at least you’ll know you’re not getting fakes. In short, no, don’t bother buying from random sellers on Taobao unless you’ve gambled and bought stuff from them that’s real (assuming you have a decent idea what real tastes like) and you are willing to spend that money that may end up with fakes.

The more important question is: are these teas worth it in general?

Well, I think this question is harder to answer. I generally think less of Xiaguan teas, so let’s focus on Dayi. The thing with Dayi is there are different kinds of Dayi products. There are the cooked puerh – which I will absolutely endorse so long as they’re not the special, limited production stuff that cost an arm and a leg. The regular stuff that they put out, like 7452, are quite decent and taste better than most cooked puerh out there. If you are into that sort of thing, buy them.

Now, for raw puerh, there are also the regular productions and the special ones. The ones that generate buzz these days are the special productions. Usually they give a reason to come out with them – a special event, an anniversary, or whatever. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that they are producing teas that are usually one-off, and are usually limited in quantity. This has a few effects. People who buy up a lot of these early on can quite easily scoop up enough and control some portion of the market. They are easily identifiable, and so easy for consumers to notice. I think much of the reason for pumping out these special editions is to drive up market demand. If it’s just the same 7542 every year, there’s no reason for people to plump down money to buy them. Getting out these special blends that are a bit different every year will ensure that people who already have too much tea are going to keep buying – many are just stamp collectors who buy because they want some of everything, not necessarily because they want to drink them.

In the aged market, things are a bit trickier. Before about year 2000 things were simpler, there weren’t as many special pressings and what not, and teas are generally identifiable by recipe number and maybe a vague year range. That market is probably not what Serg was asking about, because the prices for those cakes are high. For the later stuff, starting especially around 2002 or 2003, you see a lot of these newer pressings that are one off. There are the hyped up stuff – Green Big Tree, Gold and Silver Dayi from 2003, etc, that are quite expensive now. There are also the less celebrated ones – teas that nobody bothered to hype. Those can still be pretty reasonable.

Why do people buy Dayi though? Well, I think there are a few reasons. First of all – if you buy something that you’d like to, maybe, resell one day, Dayi is probably better than anyone else, because there’s always a secondary market for it. A lot of people buy a lot of tea that they will never finish drinking. If you buy a private label whatever, chances are you can’t sell it off at a price that means much of an appreciation, if at all. On the other hand, if you have a whole jian of some Dayi tea from 2009, chances are you are sitting on some paper profits there. It’s just a matter of market forces.

The other thing is among all the brands, Dayi has one of the longest track records for producing tea. This is of course mostly due to history – there were only three factories making puerh back in the day, and Dayi is the one that has made the most out of it, with Kunming having died and Xiaguan generally producing teas that don’t age as well. So, in that sense, buying Dayi is the safe choice – it will age fine, into whatever Dayis tend to age into. You will probably be sitting on tea that will be decent in ten, fifteen, twenty years. It’s not going to be that ancient tree, single mountain stuff that commands top dollar these days, but that’s not why you buy Dayi. Also, there’s definitely something to be said about blends – they are more interesting and more complex. I have had many aged (now ten years or more) single estate teas that can be pretty boring and flat because it’s so one-note. Dayi will help you avoid that problem.

Ultimately, the question of whether something is worth it or not is really quite subjective – some people think it’s totally worth it to shell out thousands of dollars on a bottle of wine. Others will cringe at the idea of spending more than $20 on a bottle. It’s the same with tea. Without knowing how much money is worth it to you, and how much you value certain attributes for a tea, it’s impossible to say if something is worth it. With Dayi, you pay for a brand premium (which, of course, translates into that reselling premium). You pay for some certainty with aging characteristics. You pay for some certainty in reliability. Whether any of those are worth it… is really up to you.

Generalist vs specialist

Those of you who know Japan well will notice that many of the best restaurants only do one thing, but they do it really well. Whether it’s the world-famous Sukiyabashi Jiro, or Owari-ya, a 550 years old shop that specializes in soba, or your run of the mill noodle, snack, or confection shop around the streets, many of the best food places in Japan sell only one type of thing. If they have other items on the menu, they tend to be complimentary to the main dish – and not usually the reason people go. In comparison, you have these generalist restaurants like Ootoya. They do everything – nothing particularly well, but they will have whatever you fancy that day, usually for a reasonable price. They are obviously catering to a different market, but I think you can probably guess that they also represent differences in quality. The soba you will get at Owari-ya is going to be far, far better than whatever soba you can get at one of these generalist stores. That’s just how it is. Owari-ya isn’t going to be expensive either – the price for a bowl is about the same as everywhere else. Places like Jiro’s are expensive, but they also give you the best fish they could find you that day. You are, in other words, paying for world-beating sushi. Paying a premium for that is quite ok.

I think similarly, teashops tend to run in these two lanes too. There are lots of generalist stores – they sell a bit of everything, specializing in none. These have a purpose. If you’re the only shop in the area, then having something of everything is going to be useful to the local customers who may want whatever they fancy. You also want to be able to cater to the customer who is still new to tea drinking – especially for Western facing vendors who have a physical shop whose clientele might be quite inexperienced.

Then you have specialists – people who only do one or two things well. A case in point – at the recent Hong Kong tea fair I once again visited the booth of a local tea outfit that presses their own cakes every  year. They do a lot of single village teas. In fact, every year they press village teas from about two dozen different places, ranging from Yiwu to Daxueshan and everything in between. It’s actually quite impossible – they obviously need different teams of people to do the pressing, because a single person (or single group of people) can’t travel that fast and still be able to collect good teas along the way during a single harvest season. Their teas are expensive, and as usual, really not that great.

Then there’s another outfit here that spends about 6 weeks every spring and presses one cake from teas blended from around the Yiwu area. That’s all they do every year. The price of the tea is actually lower, but the quality far better and will age well into the future. I buy some from them every year, and am happy to do so year after year.

In general, I think if you specialize in one thing and you really spend time on it, you’re going to be good at it – Malcolm Gladwell already covered that, even if not everyone agrees with his thesis. With tea, you can easily why that is the case. Someone who spends weeks, or months, or years in the same region drinking the same teas every single year is going to know the teas really well, and is going to be able to identify the strengths and flaws of the year’s harvest in ways that most of us cannot discern. Producers like this, if they put their mind to it anyway, are going to be able to locate and produce better teas. Compared to generalists who may have to rely on other sources, these specialists are going to have far better products.

This is not to say the specialists are best at everything. One of the families I visited in Dong Ding is quite famous for having generations of prize winners. They know Dong Ding inside out. They know stuff about the tea we probably won’t really understand even if they tried to explain to us. They can sniff it during the roast and know whether it’s too hot, whether the tea needs to be distributed better, whether it’s time to finish up. Yet, during our conversation we talked about other teas, and I took out the bag of aged puerh I was carrying with me for drinking on my trip – some 12 years old puerh. They were very curious – they rarely drink puerh, and know next to nothing about it. We tried it then and there. They could, of course, tell me if the tea is good/ok/bad, but aside from that, it’s all very new and they can’t tell you much more than that. In fact, the people who press cakes in Yiwu every year are the same way even with teas from places like Lincang – they don’t drink a whole lot of, say, Bingdao teas, and can give accurate, general assessments, but nothing more than that.

Consumers also fall into these two categories. Some of us are generalists – we drink everything and try everything. At the same time, however, most of us end up specializing in something, just like producers and vendors. A vendor might stock some of everything, but has a particularly wide selection of one type of tea because, well, that’s where their strength is. Tea Habitat, for example, is one of these, focusing on dancong even though they do have some of the other types. Drinkers also tend to gravitate towards certain tea types – whether through experience or preference. It’s human nature to do focus more on what you like or find interesting, and ignore what you dislike or find uninteresting. Matching the right vendor with your particular interests is a pretty important component of finding one’s tea happiness.

Knowing one’s own limitation is quite important here – in other words, knowing what you know and what you don’t know. We all only have so much time and ability. As I’ve said before – there are only so many ten years in one’s drinking life. Best not waste it.

Different shades of fakes

When we say a tea is fake, what do we really mean? This is really an interesting epistemological problem because not only are we asking what “fake tea” means, but also how we can determine when something is fake. As is the case with a lot of things, there are varying shades of fakeness. I’ll try to go through them from most severe to least severe.

1. Bad tea as good. This is the worst of the worst – tea that is spoiled or been brewed or otherwise ruined being sold as good, new tea, so on so forth. The possibilities for this category are really endless, since there are a million ways to make something out of nothing. Among them is the cake I blogged about recently where it was a mix of raw and cooked puerh, and the raw leaves were completely tasteless and flavourless – probably leaves already brewed and then dried again to be pressed.

2. The selling of non-teas as tea. In the West these would be called tisane, but are then sold as teas. This happens more in China than anywhere else. I still remember way back when I was still in high school, I was in an organized group tour of Fujian province. We visited some places, including Wuyi mountains. We were taken to a tea shop, and of course we were served some teas. One of the last things they showed us was this thing the guy called “one leaf gan“. Gan, of course, is Chinese for the sweet sensation you get from drinking tea. The tea was sold as something special, etc etc, and how only a couple leaves in a cup will leave a nice gan taste in your mouth. Since this was a tour organized by the local government authorities, I thought it would be ok to buy some of this as a souvenir (i.e. not too likely to be cheated). Needless to say, I way overpaid for what I now know as kuding cha. Rookie mistake there.

There’s a lot of other types of things that get sold as teas even though they’re really not, with Yunnan being a particularly rich source of these alternative plants that people then harvest to make into tea in order to capitalize on the puerh craze. One that you might see more often is yabao. These are buds that look a little like tiny bamboo shoots, and is most often sold by puerh vendors as wild, ancient tea buds. In fact, quite often these aren’t even from camellia sinensis trees. These buds are quite cheap but are often upsold as rare, wild, etc, and with a price tag to match. They don’t age, so buying them for aging is really a bad idea. They are also very cold in nature in Chinese medicine terms, and can cause stomach problems for some people. You can even find them in cake forms, like this and this for example on Taobao. Similarly, you might see “teas” like camellia taliensis being sold as puerh. My suggestion is avoid all these pseudo-teas unless you explicitly want them.

3. Obscuring origins. This is where things get tricky. When you think about it, nothing is stopping a vendor from heading down to the nearest Chinatown supermarket, buy up a bunch of tins of tea that cost $5 each, empty them, and repack them as premium teas and reselling them to you at 4x the markup. If you’re buying tea at $20 an ounce, you’re probably not buying $5 cans of tea from Chinatown, so you would be none-the-wiser. There’s also the rather common practice of intentionally selling something as something else. For example, in Nantou county the only place you can probably name as a tea producing area is probably Dongding, which is famous for its oolong. You have probably never heard of Mingjian, which actually produces a lot more tea but is on lower elevation with flat land and mostly machine-harvested. However, better teas from the Mingjian area is often, if not always, sold as Dongding. Try go out and find a Mingjian tea – you won’t find many vendors selling that.

The reason is of course money. Dongding gets a better price. Unless you know the areas well and the teas well, you probably can’t tell the difference if you just drink them. Because tea has no inherent labels, anything can be sold as anything else. For things that are obviously far apart, it’s hard to do, but for things that are closer together – location, style, etc, it’s not hard to do at all. Witness all the uproar in Taiwan about imported oolongs from Vietnam, for example, or all the maocha being imported to places like Lao Banzhang which are then sold to outsiders buying them to press into their LBZ cakes when in fact the teas are not LBZ at all. Because there is so much variation in tea from cup to cup, it’s very easy to obscure this sort of thing and sell one tea as A when it’s in fact from B. Unless the person doing the buying knows the area intimately well, and in the case of puerh, follows the tea their entire way from tree to cake, it’s very easy to get sold something completely different.

4. Inflating statistics. This is sort of similar to the previous one, but in things like the age of the tea, the age of the tree that produced the tea, that sort of thing. For example – how do you determine age on an aged oolong? There are ways – the shape of the leaves, the taste, the colour, but those things are subtle, and unless you’ve seen and drunk a lot of aged oolongs, it’s not going to be easy to judge. If a vendor says their aged oolong is 30 years old, what do you do with that information? I can tell you right now that it’s not hard finding aged oolongs that are 20+ years old, but it’s a lot harder to find nice aged oolongs 30+ years old. The price difference is pretty significant, but so is the taste. Someone selling a tea to you claiming it’s over 30 years old is going to be charging you a lot more money than it would be at 20+ but unless you can objectively judge it yourself, the room for, well, inflated claims are high. I’ve had some aged oolong from Taiwan that are almost certainly faked – but done quite well so that it’s very hard to spot. If I hadn’t had hundreds of aged oolongs, I would’ve fallen for them too.

It’s even worse with age of trees, and we’ve seen plenty of controversies in the past few years with vendors making somewhat outrageous claims with the age of tea trees. The much harder to verify claims is when someone moves up one age bracket – going from, say, 100 years old trees to 2-300 years old. Or having teas that are actually mixed being sold as pure old tree material. Again, the room for error is quite large here.

In a funny way, pressed puerh tea is probably the most transparent in the market for this sort of thing. Especially for older teas, there’s a pretty good record of documentation for a lot of productions, and this is information freely available on the web. There’s good agreement on what different era teas look like and the type of packaging they come with. Loose leaf tea is a lot harder to judge as a result, but aged puerh is relatively easy to spot fakes for in the eyes of the experienced. So even though aged puerh is one of the most heavily faked areas, because of the promise of money, it is also where one could, if one does enough studying, relatively safely navigate the waters. Staring at a bag of loose oolong and trying to figure out how much it’s worth is actually quite a bit more difficult.

5. Finally we’ve got stories. I think it’s safe to say that there are now two kinds of online vendors in the West. The first are the no-story vendors. You have people like White2Tea who is now eschewing any kind of story-telling. He might as well just give his teas Greek letters as names and just put “tea” in product description, since tasting notes are generally worthless anyway given the infinite variation of water, brewing parameters, and teaware producing different kinds of tastes. You have people like Yunnan Sourcing who just describe the item without much fanfare. I tend to prefer this style of tea selling – you’re, hopefully, buying just the tea.

Then you have story-tellers. Vendors in this category tend to focus on personalities – either the vendor him/herself, or the people who supposedly are making the tea they are selling. The former type tend to be marketed as some kind of tea-master, tea-monk, or whatever pseudo-religious type of personality you prefer. You see this in Asia and you see this in the West as well. All I can say about them is this – it’s always a healthy idea to shop around, because the truths that one person has discovered about tea cannot be the only truth. All too often, I see people who have gone down the rabbit hole and follow their master into some pretty dubious territory of paying top dollar for inferior tea and teaware. When you have identified one “master” to follow and believe every word they say about tea, this sort of thing tends to happen. There are always ones who then “wake up” from this slumber and discover that they’ve been conned, but usually that’s only after some time and a lot of money spent. I certainly think I spent more money than I should have at the Best Tea House, although thankfully I never bought that much tea from them either owing to my discovery of cheaper, better sources relatively quickly, and not spending that much time in Hong Kong in my formative years of tea drinking.

The type of vendor that focus on the tea farmers I only really see in the West. I think there’s a certain exoticism that comes attached to this marketing ploy, and the consumer is paying for what they perceive as authenticity. If I buy from this vendor, then I’m pretty much buying direct from the farmer who made this tea I’m drinking with their bare hands! Or so the thinking goes. There’s definitely a certain attractiveness to this idea. I personally like visiting tea farms as well, if for nothing else than to talk to the farmers and see what they’re up to. They are, generally speaking, nice people (but of course, I’m also always a potential customer). The problem is, most of these farmers are also making teas that are, well, mediocre. I can’t tell you how many forgettable visits I’ve had of farmers whose teas are just “meh,” or worse. Just because a tea is direct from some farmer doesn’t mean it’s good. Traditionally, nobody bought direct from farmers. In the old days teashops in major cities would buy from middlemen who went to the mountains to purchase maocha from the farmers. These shops would then blend, process, and package the tea. and then resold to the end consumer. The processing often includes additional roasting and that sort of thing. There’s nothing inherently “authentic” about buying direct from the farm – if anything it’s a pretty recent phenomenon from the past few decades as transportation to a lot of tea farming areas improved so that any random person can drive up and visit.

There are also those pictures – oh those lovely pictures of tea plants in neat rows with mountains in the back. What they might not show you is how the person taking the photo might be standing on the ditch next to the highway that’s 10ft behind them, or the undergrowth that are all yellow because they just sprayed herbicide on them last week, or other similar things. Farmers are also vendors, and quite often some farmers will also carry teas made by others for one reason or another. Farmers, I hate to say, also tell lies to sell their teas, and these lies are then retold to the Western consumer in “authentic” form through instragram-filtered photos and neat little videos. Are these fakes? Strictly speaking, no. But it’s important to remember that what you’re buying and drinking is the tea. There are genuine farmers doing interesting things with their teas, but those are pretty rare. Most of the time, the teas are replaceable and paying extra for the story you’re told is really nothing but smoke-and-mirrors.

Someone pointed out to me that much of this marketing of farmers is quite similar to what’s been going on for far longer in the wine industry. There’s certainly a bit of parallel there, but also important differences. The first is that wineries tend not to sell other people’s wines, for obvious reasons. It’s also not that easy (nor profitable) to fake newly produced wines from other places – unless it’s a Romanee Conti or something equally exalted. Appellation control is nonexistent for tea. So…. yes, there are similarities, but also important differences. What works for the wine industry may not be such a great idea for the tea industry, because the nature of the products are inherently different. Maybe we will see things evolve from here that works better for tea, but a farmer-focused approach is, I think, quite misguided as currently done.

The advice I have for newcomers is the same as always – drink around. Talk to people – different kinds of people. Don’t get too attached to one vendor. Compare and be critical. The internet makes all this possible. Use it.

Organic standards

Everyone likes the idea of organic foods. No pesticides, natural fertilizers, etc. What’s not to like?

Well, cost is the first issue. An organic farmer who doesn’t use pesticides is going to have productivity issues. For tea, it can be a pretty devastating drop in overall production. Mr. Gao from Shiding, who grows tea more or less wild on his farm, once told me that his yield is about 10% of what other farmers around him get. A more “conventional” organic farmer in central Taiwan told me that he’s probably getting 30-40% of what he would if he were to farm things conventionally. If you go to the farms you can see the bugs and the weeds – things that hinder productivity in terms of raw tea production. Leaves that are bitten may have that interesting taste, but when whole trees are decimated by bugs that are eating almost all your buds, then you’ve got no tea left to make that beautiful Dongfangmeiren with.

Which means this is all going to cost more. So on the one hand, we love the idea of organic teas, but on the other, are we willing to pay more for it? The taste difference may or may not be apparent – there are so many factors involved in tea production that it’s hard to judge exactly what’s due to the farming methods and what’s due to craft post-harvest. Also, if a farmer’s productivity is only 10% normal, are you really going to be willing to pay 10x the price to get the same amount of tea? That can get quite expensive very quickly.

Conventional farmers, who are still most of them, don’t really seem to think there’s much of a problem. The price pressures of cheaper alternatives – in Taiwan’s case, Vietnam teas and lowland, machine harvested teas – make it so that they feel they just need to maximize the production to get what they can out of the farms. These are not farmers making a lot of money selling a few kilos from supposed ancient tree teas in Yunnan. Regular teas in Taiwan is not very expensive and they harvest 5-6 times a year just to make costs and make a living. The transition to organic methods is very tricky and involves a few years of really low production as the farm recalibrates to a new normal. From what I understand, that’s not an investment most people are willing to make.

More interestingly, during one of my conversations with a farmer who does some organic farming, he said it would actually be better if the organic standards were loosened a bit. At first this sounded counter-intuitive – wouldn’t that be worse? But he has a point as he tried to explain to me. Basically, right now the standards are fairly stringent. That’s great for those of us who are worried about things like pesticides, etc, but in many cases these small-plot farms are right next to other farmers that are practicing conventional farming methods, often farming things that aren’t even tea. If your next door neighbour sprays pesticides, you need them to tell you the day before so you can prepare. You want to make sure that they don’t end up on your tea that then end up in the sample bag that gets sent to the testing centers for organic certification. His argument was this – stringent standards makes it too hard and too risky for people to transition. If you tried, and then failed, then you just invested a lot of time and lost income for basically nothing. That’s not good – and especially no good if you weren’t the one cheating, but you just got caught up because something happened around you. So, his logic goes, if the standards were a little looser, more farmers would actually try to participate and in the end, more organically farmed teas will be available, which is better for everyone. It wasn’t what I expected, but it was a refreshing look at this issue.