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.

Price dislocation

I remember when I first started drinking puerh seriously almost ten years ago, a common argument that you see around the internet (Chinese, mainly) and among drinkers is that it’s cheap, so it’s worth bothering with. Oftentimes the comparison was with longjing – one jin of longjing was probably somewhere in the ballpark of 1200-2000 RMB back in the day, whereas the equivalent of good quality puerh was only a few hundred RMB. It was simply a lot cheaper to drink puerh, and so even if you have no intention of aging the tea, of dabbling in the aged tea market, of wanting to drink that taste, you can still enjoy good quality tea for a lot less money.

Fast forward ten years, the price for longjing has probably doubled in this period. At the same time, however, the price for newly made, good quality raw puerh has probably risen by about tenfold. Old tree teas from famous areas harvested during the spring now routinely command 2000+ RMB (and often much higher) per 357g cake. The value argument for buying new puerh to drink compared to other types of teas in the market has simply vanished in the past ten years. Yes, there are much cheaper cakes out there. You can still find, albeit with some difficulty now, cakes that sell for under 100 RMB a piece, but those appear far less frequently than before, and you can rest assured that the chances of finding quality tea among that pile of nameless and faceless cakes is quite low, much worse than before.

The interesting thing here is that prices for teas you can buy off websites that sell teas in English have risen by much, much less than what you can find in the markets here. Prices for some vendors have edged up a bit compared to previous years, and they have, just as mainland vendors have done, used tricks like making smaller cakes to make the sticker-shock less shocking. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there is a sort of glass ceiling for prices for new make puerh that is somewhere in the ballpark of $150 USD a cake. You almost never see that price point breached. Even for older teas, I very rarely see things that cost much more than about $200 a cake, which severely limits the options of what can be sold. In casual conversations with a few vendors about this, it’s pretty apparent that the market simply isn’t really ready to pay this kind of prices for tea, and when they do, it’s overwhelmingly in samples sales only, which doesn’t amount to much.

When you think about it, this necessarily means that something is going on with the quality of the leaves going into the cakes. One would be to lower the cost basis by using leaves from cheaper regions, but by and large, cheaper regions are cheaper for a reason. Laoman’e is cheaper not just because it’s less famous, but it’s seen as less age-worthy because it’s bitter. Vendors can also mitigate the rise in cost by using leaves from lesser trees from the same region. Whereas gushu teas are very expensive, you can often find leaves from younger trees (50-100 years old ones, or even younger) that cost a lot less.

It’s not just the price of raw materials that went up. Labour costs for everything in China has gone up. When I stayed in Beijing in 2006 for a year, the going rate for a teashop girl (and they’re almost all girls) was about 600-700 RMB a month, plus room and board. These days you’d be lucky to find someone for much below 2000. So while it is most certainly the case that the raw materials of the tea going into the cakes have gone up in prices, everything else has adjusted up too. You also have to remember that whereas in 2006 one USD was worth about 8 RMB, these days it’s only 6.24 RMB, which means everything, automatically, has gone up by about 25% before you even lift a finger.

The situation is definitely worse in the cases of vendors who have high cost structures – the need to maintain a brick and mortar shop, the need to buy long haul international plane tickets (and shipping the tea back to their home base), so on so forth. If the price for the tea they can sell hasn’t gone up much, and if the cost of any of these other things haven’t gone down much (they haven’t) then the only place they can squeeze out a profit is to lower their cost by using cheaper raw materials.

This kind of inflation is of course a direct consequence of China’s rapid economic development. There are very few things in our normal day to day life that has price rises of this sort – the only thing that we normally buy that goes through severe price fluctuations is oil. Even then, it’s only in the US where the gas prices reflect real changes in oil prices – in most developed countries tax is such a big part of the price of gasoline that the net effect of oil price changes resulting in an increase in pump prices is smaller. In other words, none of us, on a day to day basis, buy anything in our daily life that has shifted in cost and price as much as the puerh we’re buying.

So whereas in 2006 if someone posts on an internet forum, saying they want to buy a decent cake of tea for under $50, there were a lot of decent options, these days if you want a cake for under $50 that will age well, chances are you really have to scrape the bottom of the barrel, and even then the likelihood of finding something good is slim. As I’ve mentioned previously, the best bet is for teas that are 1) from before 2010 and 2) from vendors who don’t know current prices, and even then, one has to be very selective. Trying to find a new 2014 tea that’s under that price? Well, as a point of comparison, my new 2014 Dayi 7542 that I just bought cost me a bit over 30 USD. Dayi, of course, commands a premium over other brands, and I didn’t bother bargaining for one cake, but the fact is this cake, 10 years ago, would’ve cost about maybe 4-5 USD a cake. High prices are here to stay, so while it pains me to say this, as consumers we have to be aware that a dollar now is not like a dollar a few years ago, and we need to adjust our expectations accordingly. Otherwise, all you’ll get offered to buy are from the trash heap that nobody would want to buy in China itself.

Review: two films about Rikyu

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Rikyu is, for lack of a better comparison, the Mohammad of Japanese tea. All three of the formal schools claim descent from him, and among the many branches of tea ceremony most of them are intimately connected with the three schools. He has been almost sanctified in his treatment, and the image we now have of him, that of him in that square hat and black robe, is so deeply entrenched in the public imagination that one almost expects that to be him.

His greatest skill, I think, was not so much in the artistic arena, necessarily, but rather the political acumen that he possessed and the diplomatic skills he had to have in order to secure the continued patronage of two of the three unifiers of Japan, until, of course, his death at the order of the second of these three men, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Like Rikyu, we also have a fairly set idea of of what these men were like – the brash and dominant visionary that was Oda, the rags to riches Toyotomi, and the reserved and cunning Tokugawa. Toyotomi’s (well deserved) reputation as a trickster and his lowborn background certainly added to that intrigue. Working for these two men was probably no easy task, and in being able to hold the position of tea master for these two, and being the most prominent of what was a constellation of tea masters, Rikyu must have had something extra special.

The 1989 film “Rikyu” is a slow, methodical piece. There the director was very much trying to portray Rikyu as a man of few words, driven, by the circumstances, into impossible positions, but always found an exit through tea and, in doing so, was able to create and pursue his aesthetic goals. However, because of the way it was shot and the story was told, it makes the movie difficult to watch even for people like us who love tea. I once showed it to my class, and I could tell that for freshmen students, it was a bit too much. Of course, when watching a movie about the tea ceremony, one can’t expect to see fireworks and swordfights, but when a movie spends fifteen minutes (or what feels like fifteen minutes) on a slow, mumbling conversation in a dark tea room, and when characters’ emotions are expressed only through a sideways glance or a twitch of the lips, it makes many demands on the viewer to be attentive and focused, much as a tea services does to the host.

The new 2013 film “Ask this of Rikyu”, which I just watched here in Taipei at the Spot Threatre (a great arthouse threatre for those coming to visit), is pretty much the polar opposite of the 1989 film. While both movies are anchored around the eventual death of Rikyu through seppuku, the contrast in the way the story is told and the way the characters are depicted cannot be more different. For one (and rather jarring for me) this Rikyu is young – too young by a long shot. When he became tea master to Oda, he was 58, an old man by the standards of his day, whereas the Rikyu in this movie is depicted as someone who was only beginning life – no later than perhaps 30 years old or so. The rest of the movie saves up some surprises along the way, but the Rikyu we see here is a heroic one – one who wears his emotions on his sleeves, who says things that are, sometimes, quite blunt and not politically safe, and who, in many ways, died for his ideals in what sounded a lot like a clash between church and state, except the church here is one where its adherents were in pursuit of beauty, and Rikyu was their prophet. Toyotomi, in this narrative, was jealous of the invisible power that Rikyu wielded (along with other slights along the way) and decided to get rid of him. I find this part of Rikyu to be less believable – he would have had a hard time securing long term patronage with this sort of high and mighty attitude in that world.

The Rikyu in this new movie is also a showman, and that, I do believe. His father was involved in the warehouse business, and selling things, including his way of tea, was always going to be an important part of his life. Selling his way of tea, which was becoming popular especially with the teaching of Rikyu’s own teacher, Takeno Jōō, was an important job that he did very well. Convincing people that less is more and broken is beautiful is not an easy job; teaching this to samurai, especially ones like Toyotomi who came from literally nothing, is probably even harder. That Rikyu was able to do it and to popularize wabi tea to the point where it became the orthodox is remarkable. In this sense, he was sort of like a charismatic religious figure. He must have been a great diplomat and communicator to get through to people with his tea.

I also suspect that it was Rikyu the diplomat that ultimately did him in. Both movies focus on Rikyu’s clash with Toyotomi as having something to do with aesthetics; in the 1989 movie Toyotomi simply does not understand beauty, whereas in this new version he is jealous of and desires the power of beauty. I wonder, though, if the reality was more mundane than that. One of the jobs Rikyu performed was to make connections. The small, cramped tea rooms he served tea in was the cigar-smoke filled lounges of his day; deals were made and alliances were struck this way. Both movies hint at this, but do not really expand on it, choosing instead to focus on the aesthetics side of the narrative. But maybe Rikyu the diplomat and negotiator simply knew too much, and by 1591, when both the Hojo and the Tokugawa clan were pacified (one eliminated, other neutralized), he had Japan in his firm grip. Rikyu was no longer useful, and keeping him around was dangerous. All the talk about the statue on the gate and what not was simply a pretense – he just needed to get rid of someone who knew too much.

Of course this narrative is not movie material – it’s a pretty mundane story if it’s just about Rikyu possessing too many secrets, and nobody would want to watch that. When people see a movie about Rikyu, they want to see tea, and they want to see how great he was at putting together a comprehensive philosophy with how tea can and should be appreciated. This need drives how movie scripts are written, which then further reinforce our views of what Rikyu was like. Commercial interests of course also determine storytelling decisions, and I have no doubt the more cartoonish portrayal of characters in this newer version (as well as other things I’ll leave you to discover yourself) led to how the story is told here. I have not read the novel this new film is based on, so I have no basis for comparison that way. It was entertaining, certainly more so than the 1989 film, and at its best moments it did make me think about how I drink and appreciate tea. That, perhaps, is good enough.

Drink your tea now

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

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

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

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

And the guy never got to drink any of these.

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

It’s still shrink wrapped too.

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

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

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

Priced out of the market

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good teas are all alike…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artisanal ≠ Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then you have stuff like this

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

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

Playing with fire

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

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

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

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

Now, does it actually make any real difference?

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

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

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

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Practical tea brewing advice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things that matter, things that don’t

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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