Mechanization, specialization, homogenization

Forty years ago, almost everything related to tea production in a place like Taiwan was done by hand. Leaves were hand picked, they were withered by hand, kill green was done manually, and then rolled by hand and then dried also manually. There were tools, of course, that helped one along in the process, but by and large they were not mechanized and required physical labour. As you can see below from this video of traditional rolling techniques, it’s hard, hard work.

Soon after a plethora of machines were introduced and the toughest processes, such as kill green, rolling, and drying were handled mostly by these machines. This isn’t to say the process isn’t still physically demanding, but it probably beats trying to roll tea leaves with hands and feet for hours at a time. Those who grew up on tea farms and who are 40-50 years old now are probably the last generation who remember (and have tried their hands at) making tea the old fashioned way.

These days there’s a mechanized farm tool for every step of the process, although not all of them are used all the time. Take picking for example. There are lots of harvesters out there. They range from smallish hand held machines that look like big horizontal hair clippers to vehicles that are small combines. A farm can choose to use a harvester some of the time, but not all the time. One farmer told me, for example, that for the summer picking they use the harvester because it’s just faster and easier, and since summer tea is crap (and only sells for cheap) there’s no reason to do anything more for it. On the other hand, for spring and winter harvest when the prices can be better, you want to have the leaves picked by hand so that the quality comes out higher. Machine harvested teas just aren’t as good.

There are, however, some steps that are always done with the aid of machines these days. Generally speaking, kill green, rolling, and drying are all done by machines. More importantly, they are done by people who often aren’t involved in the other processes.

Here’s the thing. In the old days when everything was done by hand, you gather the family and your hired help to do whatever you need to do to harvest the tea and process them efficiently. There’s only so much time for this sort of thing after you picked the leaves, and because of constraints like weather, you only have certain days when this was possible. You get all the manpower you need, pick the tea, wither them, let them bask in the sun for a little bit, wait for the oxidation to kick in to the right amount, kill green, roll them, dry them. All this was done in house, because if it’s all requiring physical labour then that’s where you’re going to find that labour. Even kids helped out if they could, and young men and women were hired to help do the parts that need extra hands – picking and rolling, for example. Roasting can wait, everything else had to be done immediately once the leaves are off the trees.

Nowadays though, most farmers no longer do the middle parts. Some only harvest and then hand the rest of the processing to people who specialize in them. Others might also take care of the withering but not what comes after. Part of the reason is mechanization – there’s no real reason for every farmer to buy a rolling machine or a kill green machine that’ll be left unused most of the time, whereas people who invested in them have a reason to basically rent it out to others who don’t own them. It makes sense – why would a village with 100 tea farmers have 100 rolling machines? That would make no sense.

This kind of specialization though has a cost, albeit not necessarily one that is very apparent. What we are seeing is a kind of homogenization of tea production. Back in the day, when a farmer was involved in all steps of the production process, the tea really was his – the taste you get at the end is his and his alone. These days, farmer A’s tea may taste very similar to farmer B’s tea because they both sent their tea to be processed by processor C and dryer D. What you’re tasting is therefore the combined work of all these people, and not just a farmer A or farmer B’s product.

I asked a farmer what would happen if he owned a rolling machine or a kill green one and invited a technician to come in to help. He said they’d simply refuse – there’s no reason for them to make their way to an unfamiliar setup to do work when they can easily do what they do at their own place, or at a place where they can work while having the farmers bring in the tea. This farmer I talked to still insists on withering his own leaves by hand, but even that’s less common these days. Between the difficulty of doing this and the downward price pressure of import Vietnamese tea, there just isn’t a lot of good reasons for someone to keep insisting on making things on their own.

There are, of course, skills that remain in the hands of those who produce tea and will change the way it tastes. For example, roasting is a big part of the final taste of the product for Taiwanese oolong. Roasting, for the most part, is usually still done in house. In fact, a few of the farmers I met on this recent trip didn’t want me to see their roasting process. I don’t think they have much to fear. Aside from the obvious fact that I wouldn’t be able to reproduce whatever they were doing even if I got to see all of it in detail, this is very much a process that requires lots of hands on experience to learn, and especially the ability to adjust on the fly based on weather, the tea’s condition, etc. These are things that an outsider cannot easily figure out quickly. Maybe someone who’s well steeped in the arts of charcoal roasting can glean something from this, but I doubt it.

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So when you see a vendor tell you “this tea was produced by Mr. X of Y”, in almost all cases it means the tea was grown on Mr. X’s farm and perhaps Mr. X was involved in the processing of the tea at some point, but for the most part the actual processing of the leaves are usually left to someone else to do. There are a few exception to this rule. Mr. Gao, an organic farmer based in Shiding near Taipei, is one, but his tea is exorbitantly expensive as a result of his wild farming techniques and hand made processes. One could have a debate about whether or not it is worth it, but a tea that is easily 4-5x normal prices (or more) isn’t going to find a very wide audience. Outside of that kind of very specialized production, most teas you drink are, to some degree, a commercialized production that is run mostly on volume, rather than specific “craft,” whatever that is. There’s nothing wrong with it – being able to work with a kill green or rolling machine skillfully is also something you need to master through experience and time. It’s just that there’s a certain homogeneity to this process that is obscured by the smallholding farmer arrangement you find in a place like Taiwan. Some farmers were lamenting to me the loss of individual taste. In our industrialized world though, maybe it’s the price we have to pay.

A Foreign Infusion

As some of you know, doing research in history is my day job. I am happy to announce that a research article of mine, on the history of gongfucha (as a ceremony of sorts) is out in the current issue of the journal Gastronomica. The table of contents for this issue is here. I’m not sure if the print issue is available anywhere yet – the electronic version is on a 6 month delay at ProQuest and I think a 3 year embargo at JSTOR (to sell more physical copies). If you are interested, please check it out.

I am able to provide a low-resolution version of the article here. The full citation for the article is:

Zhang, Lawrence. “A Foreign Infusion: The Forgotten Legacy of Japanese Chadō on Modern Chinese Tea Arts.” Gastronomica 16:1 (Spring 2016), 53-62.

The YYX tastings are ongoing – will report on those soon.

Adventures with a thermos

So I’m currently in Shanghai doing some research, which means being in a library all day. This being China, you can bring a thermos into the library, and each reading room has a table for you to put your thermos along with everyone else’s. I figured that since I can’t drink tea otherwise, and I don’t want to wait till I get home before brewing some, I would try bringing tea in a thermos.

I had in mind not just the regular giant plastic water bottles that people use here (mostly seen in cabs) where they stick an obscene amount of tea in there and brew all day. I thought I would try something a little different, using a thermos with very good heat retention and see how the tea brews in there. It seems like an interesting thing to do – high heat, continuous brewing. Turns out it’s not such a great idea. The tea is very strong, obviously, because it is brewed for hours in very hot water. It brews super strong, but because of it, it’s hard to discern flavours. I think the effect was similar to what you might see in a samovar – long brewed strong tea that probably could use some dilution.

What’s most interesting is that when I poured out the contents and then diluted it with some water, the taste is, well, inferior. It just doesn’t taste quite right, since it’s a tea I know well. It’s also interesting that the wet leaves are very, very mushy – when I poured water in the cup it stirred up a lot of bits of tea leaves. Again, the effect is similar to boiling the tea for a long period of time. You extract everything out of it, and it loses all ability to be re-brewed.

So, long story short, if you are going to grandpa your tea on the go, use a vessel that loses heat normally over time, instead of something that retains heat exceptionally well. It doesn’t really work.

Guide to buying tea in China: Part IV – Negotiations

So this is probably the most and also, in some ways, the least important. A lot of you probably know of something called euphemistically the “laowai special”. Laowai being the term applied to (mostly white) foreigners, laowai special means that people who are foreign to China often get a special price, although in this case, a specially inflated price. Tea shops are not immune to it, especially smaller operations that tend to quote prices based on the whim of the shopkeeper or owner, rather than to pre-set prices from corporate headquarters. So, buying from the mainland has its special problems (Hong Kong, for example, doesn’t suffer from this problem)

The laowai special is one reason why, in the first post about buying tea in China, I suggested that one should just head to the local chain teashops and buy the tea there – it’s a lot simpler, and the tea you’re likely to get is probably going to be no worse than whatever you end up locating in the tea market. If you are in a tea market, and you’ve tasted some stuff, and you like what you saw, you want to take some home with you. How much should you bargain, and what should you do?

I would suggest that as a general rule, you can pretty easily expect a 10-15% discount off the price quoted. If you are persistent and have loads of time, you might even be able to negotiate a much deeper discount – I’ve gotten prices slashed to up to about 70% off the original quoted price, and I don’t even get the laowai special in the first place. The problem is, you have to be able to tell from the beginning whether the price you’re getting quoted is severely inflated or not, which means you need to have a fairly good sense of what you’re tasting and what prices are normal for the type of tea you just tasted. This is not knowledge that is easily acquired if your primary source of tea is from Western vendors. If your counter-offer is far too low, some people might even think it an insult (or at least feign one). So tread carefully.

Related to the above, you might also need to consider your opportunity cost – if your whole order consists of kilos of tea, and you’re quoted thousands, then negotiating is probably worth it. If you are only buying a little bit – a few ounces, one cake, etc, and you have limited time, saving that extra 30RMB by wasting half an hour (or more) of your time might not be the best idea. I hear of stories of people wasting their time trying to get the 30 RMB they’re paying for a gaiwan down to 20 or 25… really? Please, do yourself a favour and spend that extra dollar so you can get on with your tea shopping. Time is limited (if you’re visiting and don’t live there). It probably cost more than that just to get to the tea market.

There are a few things to remember when trying to get a good price. First of all, ignore all signs for prices of the tea, and always ask how much it is even when it’s labeled. Sometimes you get a different quote right off the bat – the number on the tea/pot may or may not be the actual price. This is pretty common – they just need something to have a price, but it is usually just a number to be ignored most of the time.

Being nice does count – some people I’ve met go in with the mentality that the shop owner is out to scam them, and think everything is either overpriced, bad, or fake. Aside from the philosophical question of why they stuck around if they think that way, it is really not a good atmosphere if you want to then try to negotiate down prices. If the seller hates your guts and you were acting like a jerk the whole time, you’re increasing the likelihood that they’ll try to screw you. So, the more paranoid and skeptical you are, the more likely you’ll get scammed – it’s a self-reinforcing mechanism. Be always alert for scams, but don’t tell them in their face that you think you’re being scammed.

If you are buying in bulk for one particular tea, you should be able to expect bigger discounts. This is true almost everywhere, but especially in China. There’s a small exception – for some teas like puerh, keeping a whole jian intact can sometimes actually be valuable in itself. So, in the past there have been instances where a jian of Dayi cakes was worth more than 42 single Dayi cakes – it’s crazy, of course, but true. I don’t think we’re currently in those market conditions (Dayi prices having recently corrected) but it does happen sometimes. Larger amounts mean a few jin of tea if loose, and at least a tong if compressed. Anything less is really just a small order.

Prices are also not cheap in China these days. Top grade teas are actually far more expensive than teas you can find online – they just happen to be better. So if you’re used to paying, say, $200 USD for a jin of tieguanyin as whatever the best your vendor is selling you, don’t go to China and think $50 USD a jin will get you the best grade – you can easily find stuff that costs way, way more than your usual prices. The difference is really in the quality. No amount of words will be able to teach you how to tell the difference – it’s all in the tasting, and as I mentioned before, there are all kinds of tasting tricks that vendors can use you to confuse you.

Aside from these notes, you’re down to the usual tricks of getting prices down – paying in cash, showing them the cash (as in, putting the X amount of dollars you’re willing to pay down on the table – sometimes it works), being patient, sounding like you know the market, etc. All of these take skill, time, and knowledge. If your order is under 1000 RMB, and you’re only visiting, chances are it’s really not worth your time and you should get on with trying other teas.

Guide to buying tea in China: Part III – tasting tricks

Note: A friend noted that what I’ve been saying here can be mostly applied even for web-shopping online from Chinese or Western vendors alike. I suppose that’s sort of true.

Let’s say you’ve gone through the hassle of finding a shop, sitting down, finding a tea you want to try, and didn’t get jasmine pushed on you in the process. Now what?

Well, presumably, they will now brew you the tea. So far, so good. There are a number of things to be aware of, at least. I’ll list them

1) The brewing vessel – while I only use pots for my own consumption, when trying a tea I will usually ask them to use a gaiwan, because a gaiwan is more neutral, it makes it easier to compare different teas, and is basically a “fairer” way to taste tea than using a pot. With pots, there are simply too many variables involved. This is especially true if you’re going to a shop you’ve never been to before and know nothing about. Get them to use a gaiwan.

2) Water – what kind of water are they using, and how hot is the water they’re brewing with? All vendors in China use some kind of bottled/delivered water. What they use can make a big difference. This isn’t usually something you can do anything about, but it’s a good thing to be aware of. Check out the bottle they’re using if you can see it. If not and if you can speak, ask. Some places use cheap Nestle purified water, which is pretty bad for tea. Others use things like Nongfu shanquan, which may or may not be ok, depending on which source it’s from. Water in China is a big issue – and will change how you perceive the tea.

Another thing about water is the temperature at which they’re brewing with. These days, especially with a lot of puerh vendors, they will often brew teas for you at less than boiling temperature. This produces a much thinner, but sometimes more fragrant and certainly less offensive tea (bitterness etc). I personally find that to be rather bad for tasting when trying to evaluate whether or not to buy a tea – I want to know what’s in it, not what the person making it for me produced. So in some ways, the standard 5 minute competition steep is the best way, but most vendors are not equipped for that and you’ll have a hard time getting them to set it up right. Normal gaiwan brewing using boiling water is usually the best you can hope for.

3) The ABA trick – if you’re in a non-puerh shop, and you’re trying the teas, be careful of what they’re serving you. A trick I’ve heard some stores have used is the ABA trick – they only really have two (or three) versions of the same tea. They will show you A, then B, then you’re back to A, but you aren’t aware of it because they changed the parameters slightly, and besides, the last time you tried A was over half an hour ago and it was the 10th infusion. You forgot what it’s like already, especially since they’re now telling you it’s 300 RMB more than the A you tried earlier (taken out of a different canister, of course). For some teas, like yancha, this can be hard to spot, especially if you’ve been involved in a tasting marathon.

4) Similarly, an easy way to upsell you on a tea is to serve you something bad first. All of a sudden, what you’re having now is so much better – it’s a great tea! Except, it isn’t. It’s just something mediocre, but in comparison, it’s really much better than that first thing you had. So, you buy it, thinking it’s a top grade whatever. Buyer beware – you can only avoid falling into this trap if you’re really familiar with the entire style and also the different possibilities that exist. If you’re a tourist who doesn’t frequent the markets too often, it’s very easy to overpay for mediocre tea this way. I’ve had stuff from Western vendors that were clearly bought on premises like this – they think they got something top notch, when in fact it’s not.

So what do you actually look for? Well, for one, it really helps if you’re intimately familiar with the type of tea you’re trying to buy. This is sort of like people’s advice for buying stereo speakers – you want to bring music of your own that you know really well to give the speakers a test run, so you can see how the speakers are performing. Likewise, if you have a few teas in your current collection that you can refer to, mentally, while tasting, then you will be in a much better position to judge what’s being offered in front of you. If you’re trying to buy a type of tea that you’re not familiar with – don’t. Your chances of buying a dud is infinitely higher, unless you don’t mind overpaying.

In general, any marketing-speak from the vendor can be ignored. Almost all pieces of information they provide you are designed to get you to buy the tea, so listen but don’t pay too much attention. If someone tells you this tea is something rare, it’s gushu, it’s 2003 vintage, it’s from this special area in this remote mountain – ok, sure, brew me and we’ll see. In a country with fake table salt (and every other food item you can name), too much caution is not a bad thing.

There are a few etiquette things worth mentioning – in general, if other guests are present at the store (whom you don’t know) refrain from commenting on the tea, especially negative comments. You can hate it and think it’s trash, but there’s no need to do it in front of other people who are not running the shop, especially when you don’t know their relationship. It’s safer to do that when the person brewing the tea for you is alone – one reason I suggested not to bother going into stores with people already in them. Smoking might be ok, depending on the shop, but it’s best to ask. Taking phone calls are rarely a problem. Walking away is ok too if you decide you don’t like the shop or the teas, but be nice about it – there’s sometimes some pressure to buy, but if you’re at a tea market, they also know that you’re surrounded by hundreds of shops. Even if you think they’re trying to scam you – thank them, and go away.

Guide to buying tea in China: Part II – what to do

So let’s say you settled on a tea store and you’re about to go in. What then?

First of all – if a shop already has some patrons in there, and I don’t know the shop owner already, I don’t go in. There is no rule that says you can’t walk into a store with customers, but generally, unless it’s a big store with more than one tea table and more than one free storekeep, I’d avoid those and wait for them to clear. If you can invest multiple visits to the same market, then by all means go in and get to know them, but if this is your only visit, it’s usually not a great idea.

For the purpose of “what to do” there are really two kinds of shops that we’re talking about. There are puerh shops, and there are everything else.

Puerh shops – These are relatively simple. The reason is because the teas they sell are all on display – they are usually part of the wall decoration, so you know exactly what the shop sells. There are shops that only sell a single maker’s cakes, and there are shops that sell from a variety of makers. Either way – you know what you see in front of you, assuming you can read Chinese, and you can just point and say I want to try this, or at least look at it.

For stores that refuse to give you an opportunity to try a tea, unless said tea is in the extremely expensive (i.e. 3000 RMB or above per cake) territory, you should probably just walk out now. Of course, walking in and demanding to try an expensive cake right away may rub people the wrong way as they might think you’re just mooching tea off them, so some diplomacy is usually useful here.

I’ve said before that it is sometimes useful to demonstrate that you’re not a complete neophyte when it comes to buying puerh. Being able to wrap a cake properly helps that, as is sounding somewhat knowledgeable. However, that’s not necessarily that useful. Unfortunately, it comes down to tasting.

There is always going to be a bit of song and dance when it comes to trying new cakes with a new store – the owner is trying to figure out what you like, you’re trying to figure out what the tea is like (and the owner too). Sometimes it doesn’t work and you just have to bail and go somewhere else. Sometimes you get to engage a bit more. It kinda depends. Remember though – you have a lot of tea stores around you and you’re not at a loss for options. If the first place you picked end up pushing terrible teas on you, or keep insisting you should drink cooked when you want raw, go somewhere else.

Picking the right tea in the store to try is always hard, and is made a bit easier if you read Chinese. Picking something that will radio your interests to the owner is useful. If you are interested in big factory teas, choose one of those. If you want something from a smaller outfit, do that. If you want Yiwu, ask them what Yiwu you have. These are also ways in which you can show you know more than nothing.

Non-puerh shops – These are infinitely harder. The first problem is you can no longer see what’s on offer. Assuming you took my advice and walked into a store that only sells one type of tea, say, yancha, you know that the vast majority of the teas they have are yancha (they might dabble in a few things on the side, but that’s usually not advertised). The problem is, they have all these cans, or boxes, or whatever they choose to contain their teas in. There are labels on them, but by and large, labels on boxes or cans in Chinese tea shops have nothing to do with their actual contents. In a giant cardboard box with the words “Dahongpao” on it, for example, you might find smaller bags of tea of various sizes. Only the owner knows what they are. So your only way to get to try whatever it is is to ask.

A very common question that an owner would ask you, once you tell them you want to try some yancha, is some variation of “what price range are you looking at?” This is the single most annoying question in the entire tea tasting process at a tea shop in China. It’s difficult to answer. Telling them a high number basically tells them you’re there to be skinned alive. Telling them a low number might mean time wasted drinking crap. It’s also a place where they can easily manipulate the teas they show you to get you to pay what they want you to pay.

One way perhaps to circumvent that is to first ask to look at multiple teas. Learning how to judge teas by look, at least a little, is useful here. Unfortunately there’s no hard and fast way to learn how to do that – and some teas can look ok and taste like garbage. After you looked at a few, try the one that looks the most promising.

There are a number of things they can do to sell you the tea they want to sell. By starting you off with a bad tea, for example, the next thing you taste will be amazing, even when it’s actually just an ok tea. They can also do it the other way – show you something that’s ok, then a bunch of stuff that’s no good. After the third one you’d give up and buy the first, even though it’s entirely possible you’d find much better tea next door, or they have even better stuff that they haven’t shown you. Prices is also a problem – three teas that they are willing to sell you at, say, 300, 400, and 500 a jin can also be sold at 1300, 1400, 1500 a jin, and you wouldn’t know the difference unless you know what a tea that sells for 1500 should generally taste like. Shopping for good loose tea is not easy and is a lot tougher than shopping for puerh. It takes real practice.

More on teashops and tastings next time.

Guide to buying tea in China: Part I – where to go

Traveling to China soon? Want to buy some tea for yourself or someone else? I thought I should do a guide on what to do when you’re in China and looking for tea. Note: things I say here do NOT apply to Hong Kong or Taiwan. China’s commercial landscape for tea is pretty different from these two places and so they operate under separate rules.

First of all, we should start with the question of where to go to buy said tea. Now, if you can answer a few quick questions

1) Do you speak any Mandarin?

2) Are you buying for yourself?

3) Do you have a lot of time this trip?

If the answer to any of these three questions is a “no,” especially if you answer “no” more than once, then the answer is easy – you should go shop at one of the big chain stores for tea, such as Wuyutai (state run) or Tianfu (Taiwanese owned tea conglomerate). Buy whatever suits your fancy there, and move on to do your tourist thingy.

Before you say this is mercenary or too ismple – let me explain. If you don’t speak any Chinese, your likelihood of landing good tea at a local shop is pretty low. There might be some local specialty tea store that can deal with you in English, but your run of the mill tea shop on the street corner probably can’t. You may be able to get away with some sign language, but you need some luck and goodwill from the store owner to not get screwed in the process. Granted, even if you don’t speak Mandarin you can still go to see a tea market, just don’t expect any great bargains or a guaranteed positive experience doing it.

If you’re not buying for yourself – it’s hard buying tea for friends. If your friend is so unkind as to stick you with a tea buying mission while you’re on your trip to China, especially if you yourself are not too keen on buying tea on the trip, well, they pretty much deserve whatever you find convenient. Also, places like Wuyutai or Tianfu won’t screw you with fake tea – they’ll just screw you with higher prices. Lastly, the tea they sell will come in decent packaging, relatively speaking. This may be important if you’re buying a gift or for the unwashed who judge teas by their packaging materials.

If you’re on a short trip and barely have time to fit in a visit to the Forbidden City, then wasting half a day just to get to a tea market is probably not the best idea. You can buy tea online from your own home, but you can’t visit sites online (not really anyway). Go do your touristy thing and ignore the tea.

Now, if your answers to all three questions are “yes”, or if you feel adventurous enough and seeing a tea market is your idea of fun, then you should try to investigate what your city’s local tea mall is (there’s one in a lot of major cities). Some are pretty far from city center, while others are right inside the city. Big cities often have multiple markets. In Shanghai, for example, there’s the Tianshan tea market, which is not huge or great by Chinese standard, but it’s certainly more teashops than any visitor would’ve seen in person, and it’s very close to a subway station.

There are also a lot of small, local teashops. These fall into two categories. One is the run-of-the-mill kind, which are basically your neighbourhood tea shop. They will sell regular stuff – often lower end. Prices are probably not bad here, although if you look like a foreigner it’s quite possible that they will give you a “foreigner special” and screw you in the process. If you just need some basic, no name tea, and if you don’t care about packaging or what not, these might not be bad options. These stores look grubby, basic, usually sparsely decorated, maybe just with some tea canisters on the sides, and not much else. The owner likely lives in the store as well with his family.

There are now another kind of teashops – these are the high end stuff, and you’ll know it if you see it. They have nice decor, pretty sales girls, good looking teaware, and generally are trying to sell you “art” instead of “tea”. I’d personally stay away from all of these. They do sometimes offer nice tea, but they will never be a bargain. There is also a high likelihood that they’re merely dressing up very average tea as good and exclusive, and so you’re really no better off than just buying online.

The decision to go to a tea market is a little more complicated than that. If you hate green tea, only drink puerh, and you’re in Shanghai, you are probably better off trying to see if Eugene of Tea Urchin wants to meet up with you instead.  The thing is, puerh isn’t that popular in Shanghai, and while they will certainly have some at the tea markets, the selection will not be great, and prices may not be good either. If you are looking for green tea, you’ll have an endless supply there. If you want something not popular at the area you’re at, then it’s more of a crapshoot.

If you go to a tea market though, there’s a secondary level of “where to go” that now enters the equation. You will be confronted by rows and rows of teashops. You only have a day, or half a day, or whatever. Where should you go? Which shop should you enter to spend your precious tea shopping time at?

Obviously if you have something specific in mind, like a specialty store you read about, or a contact you made, then by all means go there. But if you are just visiting for the first time with no reference, then you should first consider what kind of tea you are interested in. You should almost always head into a store that only sells one kind of tea – if you want tieguanyin, look for a tieguanyin store. If you want white tea, try to find a white tea specialist. While this is by no means a guarantee that you’ll find great tea, it’s better than heading into one of the many generic stores that sell everything under the sun. To this end, learning what the characters for your favourite tea looks like could be useful, especially when you’re not looking for puerh. If you’re looking for puerh, stores that sell only one brand tend to have better stuff than stores that sell a hodgepodge of brands. However, stores that sell a hodgepodge are more likely to have bargains, provided you have time to find them and know what you’re doing. This usually require repeated visits. There is the same divide between high end store and grubby store at many tea markets. It is directly related to what your shopping experience will be like – whether it will be pleasant or not. This is hardly a good guage for quality though – grubby stores often can have very good tea, while a high end looking one can actually be selling inflated crap. So for these cases it’s really a matter of you being able to taste the difference.

These are basically your options for buying tea in China. There’s never really any reason to buy from a department store or anything like that. I will cover what you do once you enter a store in another post.

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!

Raising a yixing pot

How to season teapots? That was one of the comments on my last post. It’s actually not that difficult, although advice on the internet being what they are, and just from the first page of google results looking for “how to raise a yixing teapot“, I see some instructions that are of dubious utility (the first link, funny enough, has pictures of a ceramic cup, not yixing pot, and the second step of the second set of instructions is a death wish for a pot, as I will explain shortly). The basic premise is – keep it simple, and don’t do anything that will endanger your pot.

Before you use the pot, the instructions will tell you to do the following:

1) Clean the pot. 2) Boil it. 3) Brew some tea in it and then discard the tea. 4) Use

Now, the general outline of this I can agree with. Cleaning the pot is simple enough – wash it with water and clean out any debris that might be in the pot, which in brand new pots is often present. If you’re buying antiques or older pots, you may need to do more deep cleaning – ranging from acid baths to bleach baths. For pots that are new, that’s unnecessary.

I think I have, at some point in the life of this blog, also mentioned the need to boil a teapot. I have to say I no longer think boiling is a good idea, and since it is a very risky activity, I do not encourage people to do it unless they have a death wish for their pot. I have personally damaged two of my pots in the process of boiling them, and I am not sure if there’s any good reason to do so that cannot be achieved just by soaking the pot in very hot water for an hour in a pan/bowl that has been pre-warmed (along with the pot) and covered and perhaps insulated. The theory behind boiling the pot is that it opens up the (some say mythical) pores on the surface of the pot and “prime” them for seasoning. I’m not sure of the truth of this need – but if you believe in it, I think a hot soak will do the trick.

The problem with boiling is that even if you simmer, at the lowest heat, the water will still bubble up, unless your heat is so low that the water is kept only warm, and not hot, in which case you are doing what you can do with just a covered bowl with no heat source. When the water bubbles, however, the parts of the teapot in the pan will rattle, either a little or a lot, depending on your luck, and once in a while, it will rattle in such a way as to damage it – usually the victim is the tip of the spout or the edge of the lid. If you insist on boiling, start with cold water with the pot already in the pan and heat everything up, very slowly, together. Putting the pot in boiling water, like Verdant suggests, is extremely risky. Putting anything extra, like a spoon in the pot (as they also suggest) is even riskier – the less things the pot can knock against, the better. I know people here who boil with some elaborate contraption they’ve devised with wet towel lining the inside of a rice cooker or something along those lines. I, frankly, don’t see the point.

Whatever your belief regarding yixing clay’s porosity, I can personally attest that they do soak up smell very well. For example, the pair of pots in my last post – I just tried, for the sake of experimentation, to brew some tea in the relatively unseasoned pot the other day without doing any cleaning. What I got was a slightly salty and old-sock like smell from the pot and the tea – and the tea did not recover even when I transferred it to another brewing vessel. This tells me I needed to clean it, and it also tells me what many yixing users already know – the pots do, over time, take on smells. In this case, it’s the musty smell of whatever storage facility it was in.

So having picked a tea to use the pot with (I’d generally suggest wide genres – oolongs, pu, black, greens, and not be too fussy with specificity – as in a previous post) I normally will actually soak the pot in said tea – spent leaves are fine – for some time, usually a few hours at a time, and refresh if deemed necessary. This should drive away the fresh clay smell (a mixture of sandy and clay-y). Then, your pot is more or less ready to use.

When using it, I almost never pour water over the pot, nor tea. There’s a reason for this, especially if your water source is high in minerals – over time, there will be a nasty ring of mineral deposits on your pot, usually right around the edge of the rim of the lid. This rim will be difficult to clean. The point of using the brush, as some of you might have seen people do, is to distribute the water evenly throughout the pot, so that this line of mineral doesn’t form (or at least, form a lot slower). Also, as a good chemist friend pointed out a long time ago, pouring water over a pot actually helps it to lose heat faster – that water evaporating off the surface of the pot is taking heat away from your pot. I do not believe that there is any tangible and discernable benefit to pouring water over the pot. Some believe the extra heat (if any) will help get more flavour out of the tea, but since your infusions are quick (a few seconds) and the difference in temperature between water in the pot and water-on-pot is minimal (a few degrees, at most?) I have a hard time imagining a physical process that will help you extract meaningful amounts of flavour out of the leaves in that short period of time.

Now, you will often read about the need to polish your pot, usually with the suggestion of using a wet towel, maybe with tea, after every single use. I normally don’t do this either, for another reason – very frequent use of a wet towel to polish your pot will result in what people often call, derisively, “the monk shine.” 和尚光 This is in reference to a Buddhist monk’s shiny, hairless head (although in reality, any bald head will do). Pots that have been over-buffed will be really shiny. Some people prefer it that way, others think it crass. The right hand pot in my last post, in person at least, is borderline “monk shine.” Personally, I prefer my pots seasoned but not shiny – like the lion pot here. If cleaning is a must (and sometimes it is – because of stains, etc) wet a cloth with warm water, and wipe, gently, the pot while it is warm.

When done drinking, clear the pot of leaves and rinse it out if you wish. Whatever you do, please do keep the lid off until the pot is absolutely dry. I know people who close the lid while it’s still wet because they want to season the inside. Sometimes it’s tea in there, other times it’s wet with clear water, but even then, when I open the lid of those pots, sometimes I can smell a bit of an off smell – mold. It’s far too easy to grow something in a pot if it’s wet and closed. Dry it out. If you use your pot often enough, it’ll season through use. There’s no need to rush, and if you forgot to clear the pot just once, you’ll have to start over by cleaning it inside out. There’s nothing worse than realizing that you forgot some tea in a pot you left around because you wanted to season it, and to discover that what was tea has now turned into a gooey, sickly smelling gel-like substance. I’ve done it before, and it’s nasty. Clean, and keep the lid off.

Finally, a word of etiquette – I was chided a long time ago for doing this by friends with far more experience. If you are drinking tea with friends and you want to admire someone else’s pot, ask before you pick it up, and when you pick it up, keep either the lid or the body on the table when you look at the other part of the pot. Never, ever hold the pot in one hand while you hold the lid in the other (or worse, the same hand) when you’re peering into the pot. Even if you think you have steady hands, all it takes is one accident. Two hands on one pot or one lid is far better than thumb and index on the lid’s knob while your hand holds the pot itself. It’s someone else’s pot, and someone else’s effort – the pot might not be worth a lot, but the time and effort and the memory it comes with are not replaceable. Minimize the risk to others by respecting their wares. You can always break your own teapots.

Addendum: A friend also suggested I add two things to the etiquette section. The first is don’t knock someone else’s pot against itself – in other words, don’t use the lid and hit the body of the pot with it. Yes, some people do that to test to see if the pot rings, but yes, it sometimes can damage the lid or the body of the pot. It happens, and you don’t want to be the one doing it. The other thing not to do is to start doing water tests or whatever else tests you do with pots as if you’re buying them – it’s someone else’s pot. They already bought it. Unless they asked you to evaluate it, don’t. You don’t size up someone’s kid (or cat, or car) and start testing their IQ or kicking the tires, so why would you do that with a teapot?