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?

Flights of tea

I was recently in Vancouver and then Portland, Oregon to visit friends and family. One of the things I did was to arrange a tea meeting with ABX, whom I’ve met before when we visited Serenity Art together (the store has since closed and reopening is uncertain). I also contacted David Galli of the rather grandly named Portland Tea Enthusiasts’ Alliance, which is actually a tea space that’s shared with a wine tasting/education outfit and offers classes and tea meetings of various sorts. We ended up settling on drinking tea there.

I promised the two of them that I would bring some aged oolongs of various sorts for them to try, and I ended up taking with me about six different teas, all aged oolongs of one kind or another that I have gathered from one place or another. The result of the tasting, unbeknownst even to me at the time, was a comparison of different aged oolongs and their characteristics.

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We ended up drinking seven teas, six of them aged oolongs and one a cooked/raw mixed brick from the 80s. Most of the aged oolongs, other than one, was tasted in a pot I brought along for the ride. I also ended up doing most of the brewing, so it turned out to be a pretty reasonable proxy for a controlled tasting of the teas.

I think there’s actually quite a bit of value in drinking teas this way. Comparing teas that are, ostensibly, in the same genre, it is quite possible to discern the more subtle differences in the teas by having them back to back. Whereas when drunk separately, they might each have their own strong or weak points, drinking them together, one by one, it is easier to say “this tea is better than that tea because…”. The same, of course, can be done through cupping, but cupping a tea is a lot less fun.

There are some general rules that I try to follow when constructing such tastings though. The first is that one should always start light and end heavy. Going the other way will seriously disrupt the tastebuds, and will often result in sub-optimal experiences. Drinking a green tea right after a heavy, pungent puerh is probably not a very good idea, especially in attempting to detect the high notes of the green tea. It’s generally a much better idea to go from the light and airy to the full bodied and deep teas. I suspect the same is true for wines.

Also, I think it is useful to taste things that share some similarity. Drinking, say, a sencha, then a white tea, then a young puerh, then an aged oolong, for example, can be fun, but I think there is less to be gained in the experience. Drinking the same kinds of tea over a short session, on the other hand, allows for more direct comparison. Differences in aroma, mouthfeel, longevity, and depth become very obvious.

There are also unexpected surprises. The puerh we had at the end, for example, seemed very sour. I think if we had tried that early on, it wouldn’t appear as sour, but because it came after a long line of aged oolongs that are mostly sweet, the sourness was magnified somehow. To me, the tea also tasted somewhat unpleasant overall – it’s hard to pinpoint what was wrong with it, but I know that if it weren’t preceded by the teas that it did, I probably would have liked the tea more.

It would’ve been nice though if I had more time to drink with the two of them. Alas, we only had a few hours, and so some of the teas were still drinkable when we abandoned them for other things. I do wish David good luck though in setting up this new space, and it’s Portland’s good fortune to have a number of locations to drink teas of different kinds.

Tea learning

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One of the things I often advocate for newcomers to tea drinking is to sample widely. Learning about tea is, on some level, not very difficult at all. It requires experience and an active mind to reflect upon and learn from the experiences gained. To gather this experience though, the only way to really do it is to drink a lot of tea. Reading about it or hearing about it really doesn’t do much good, for it is only theory that lacks backing from practical experiences.

The practical problem with active sampling are twofold. The first is simple – samples are not very cheap, usually, and so it can actually be quite expensive when you buy a lot of them from different vendors. At a site like Yunnan Sourcing, you can easily drop a hundred dollars or more on a dozen samples, and that’s before you have to factor in shipping cost. If you’re not getting your samples for free, this can be quite a major expense on its own.

Then there is the more nuanced problem of what to do with the samples. It’s quite easy to say that sampling widely will give you experience in tea drinking. In practice, however, that’s not so simple. Of course, trying all kinds of teas will most certainly give you experience. However, it is experience on a relatively shallow level. Certain kinds of teas, such as really bad or really good teas, will probably manifest themselves quite readily. Others, however, are not so obvious. It is actually easier to try teas if you, say, cup them, but then it becomes work and the process is not very enjoyable. This is, ultimately, a hobby, and not a job (for me anyway) so taking the fun away like that is basically missing the point.

What instead happens is that some teas require multiple tastings to reveal themselves one way or another. Sometimes the first time you brew a tea it doesn’t come out quite right not because it’s bad, but because you are still adjusting to it. It helps when you’re using the same teawares all the time, so that the only variable is the tea. In some ways, by doing so you’re basically cupping the tea without cupping it – you’re testing whether or not the tea is good for your style of brewing. Even then, however, a good tea drinker should be adjusting to the tea and trying to brew it as best s/he can, which means that the first try can come out horribly wrong. Cupping also has its own limitations, as it can tell you whether or not a tea is good, but the skill in bringing out the goodness still requires your active intervention – unless you’re planning on drinking the tea grandpa style, the input of the brewer is an integral part of what makes a cup of tea. This is why I almost never write reviews anymore based on one impression (when I do write them anyway, which is getting rare too), as there are too many variables and is just not very reliable. Forming an opinion based on a few cups of tea is only reliable if it’s really obviously bad or good.

Now, having had a lot of experience in tea does speed up the process of identifying issues and problems in an unknown tea. Right away, for example, it is possible to tell what kind of condition a puerh has been stored in, or whether an aged oolong has been reroasted, so on and so forth. It also helps compartmentalizing teas faster – you can basically draw on an ever expanding library of tastes and sensations and know what tea this is most similar to, and therefore what you can expect from it. Teas are never the same, however, and different people brewing the tea also yield different results. So, there’s only so far you can go with the “scientific” approach. Trying to analyze teas based solely on aroma, appearance, etc, is only possible if you’re dealing with industrial level generalities. Samples, therefore, are first impressions.

There is also knowledge that you can gain from drinking the same tea over and over again that you cannot from sampling. This may involve the tea changing on you – a traditionally stored puerh gradually losing its storage taste, for example. Or, it can just be that you start noticing nuances that were there, but were not necessarily obvious the first few times you try it. Or perhaps you experiment with different parameters, water, ware, etc. and notice that it performs differently under different circumstances. This type of knowledge is not possible if you only have 25g of a tea. It can really only come with drinking 200, 300, or even 1000g of the same tea. After a while, you get a sense of what to expect, and when the results don’t meet expectations, then it becomes a learning moment. You just can’t do that without a lot of the same tea. When I say “same tea” I also don’t just mean the same kind of tea, such as a tieguanyin, but rather the exact same tea – from the same place, harvested around the same date, etc. Each batch of tea from a farmer is going to be slightly different, no matter the circumstances, once again complicating the issue.

The important thing of all this tea drinking and learning is not so much the drinking itself, but the critical reflection and evaluation that takes place simultaneously. Forget about what others tell you – what do you feel and think when you’re drinking this tea? How does it compare with what you have tried? How does it challenge what you already think you know? No teacher can tell you any of this – they can point you in the right direction, but they can also lead you astray. My experience with tea teachers that I have encountered is that by and large they’re interested in selling you tea, and as such they will tell you what will suit their current inventory of tea the best. Tea learning is, at the end of the day, a solitary experience. No one knows what you’re tasting, so no one but you can teach yourself.

It is hard sorting through all this knowledge gained from tea drinking, and even harder to retain all of it. I found my early blogging efforts, basically writing down my impressions of the tea I drank every day, to be a worthwhile exercise – it helps me process what I’ve had and what I thought, and once in a while I go back to my own ideas back then and realize how I have developed as a drinker, as well as how a tea may have changed over time. Many of my earlier perceptions are flawed, if not outright wrong, or at least have been modified over time by my experiences since then. Writing about it constantly here helps me work through those thoughts. Of course, this can also turn into work, and when blogging, just like drinking, turns into work, it’s no longer fun and you should stop. However, as Confucius said, learning without thinking is useless, and thinking without learning is dangerous. If you want to improve as a tea drinker, there’s always work involved.

Taiwan in Yunnan

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Someone recently gave me this box, containing 5 packs of 10g each of a tea that I’ve never heard of before. The tea is called Jibian Wulongcha, which literally means “Extreme border oolong tea”. Jibian, in this case, is a brand name, and if you look at the back of the box, you’ll find that they say the tea is made from qingxin wulong, also sometimes known as ruanzhi wulong (and misspelled as luanze, from what I can tell), but the location of production is Yunnan province of China. These are, in other words, Taiwanese tea trees transplanted in Yunnan. In fact, the little red thing next to the logo tells you it’s from Tengchong gaoshan, not too far from Gaoligongshan and other high mountains of the Southwest. Someone, probably a Taiwanese investor, has obviously got the idea of making Taiwanese oolongs in Yunnan province.

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The pictures’ colours are a little off – it’s difficult to get the white balance just right. However, I can tell you that it is almost impossible to distinguish this tea from any run of the mill regular Taiwanese gaoshan oolong. Certainly the leaves are slightly less rolled than the typical Taiwanese oolong these days, but right from the get go, when you open the little pack, you can smell that distinct Taiwanese oolong scent. The tea itself also tastes slightly off – something is a little different, with a bit of a spicy finish, something you don’t normally find in a Taiwanese tea. However, if I wasn’t warned that this tea is not from Taiwan, there’s basically no way I would have guessed that this is tea from Yunnan. It’s not bad, it’s just different.

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There has been a lot of talk in recent years about how there are farms in Vietnam, for example, that were started by Taiwanese merchants selling these teas back to Taiwan as gaoshancha. They can be quite authentic tasting, at least initially, and only reveal their true colours upon closer inspection. There’s also Zealong, which is the same thing, basically, but in New Zealand, with a really clean finish and a fairly bright taste, although at a hefty price. What this tea here does is the same, except they’re making it to probably sell to the Mainland China market.

One of the things this tea shows though is that much of what you drink and taste, in terms of scent, mouthfeel, etc, are very easily manipulated and that people who know what they’re doing, with the right technology and skills, can easily replicate a tea that you think is unique to one region. While there are subtle differences that can be distinguished if you pay close attention, if this tea were sold without packaging, in loose form, in a store in Taiwan, I’d be hard pressed to say I can tell that it is not from Taiwan.

This is why it is almost futile to try to identify teas based mostly on scent and taste. So much of it can be fudged that there is actually very little that one can rely on with any type of precision. It is true that it is possible, for example, to try to use those factors to help identify whether or not a tea is from a certain area or not, but when something comes out of left field, such as Yunnan tea trying to imitate Taiwan tea, it is actually quite difficult to tell what it is, and all kinds of clues can lead you astray. When people use teas from other areas to imitate Yiwu, for example, they are also imitating the processing techniques prevalent in the Yiwu region that give the tea there its taste and scent. The same can be said of other locales, and in this day and age, there isn’t a lot that is secret in terms of tea processing techniques, unless it’s a new invention that hasn’t been widely disseminated yet.

Just because a tea is from the right area doesn’t mean it’s going to be better either. There are plenty of terrible Taiwanese oolongs out there, and many good ones too. This Tengchong area tea might still need some work, but Zealong, for example, can beat many Taiwanese oolongs out there, although not necessarily at that price. The point is, it is much more important to chase after good teas than it is to chase after good regions – the former is tangible, real, and get to the point. The latter is just a label. As we all know, never judge a book by its cover.

Drinking with your body

My friend L from Beijing has come and gone for a quick visit to Hong Kong. I took him around town to take a look at various older shops here, and drank some interesting things along the way, such as an aged baimudan that’s quite good and some 40+ years old tea seeds that have an interesting fragrance to them. If you look hard enough, you can find interesting things in all kinds of places.

L also brought some things himself, including a cake that he sells, made by the same people who were behind 12 Gentlemen cakes that I tried in 2006. They have now moved to a different philosophy of tea making, and L recently went on a trip in Yunnan with them, visiting their own maocha production facility (they only buy fresh leaves, not maocha) and talking to the producers. The idea behind the cakes is that the cakes are produced with the intent to minimize the aroma and fragrance. As L quotes the maker of the tea, “beginners drink tea with their nose, experienced drinkers drink with their mouth, and the connoisseurs drink with their body”. They’re taking it to the next level, so to speak, by trying to make teas that don’t possess fragrance or aroma, and in so doing taking out the distractions. More on their tea another day.

This is by no means a unique insight –  I have both heard similar things from others, and have also witnessed this myself. It is indeed true that beginners tend to drink with their noses – fragrance, above all, is what they focus on. This explains why jasmine is a perennial favourite of so many casual tea drinkers, and why a light oolong or green teas tend to be “gateway” teas that get people in the door – they’re fragrant and they’re nice to drink. Then, as you progress through the collection of more experience and the like, you start learning about the nuances, and the mouth comes into play – the body of the tea, whether it stimulates the various part of the mouth, the tongue, whether it is smooth, etc. Then finally, you get to the point where you are drinking the tea with your body, where the taste, the fragrance, etc are all less important than how it makes you feel. You can call it qi, even though I dislike the opacity of the word because it means little to those who hasn’t experienced it, or you can call it energy, or whatever you fancy. Yes, every tea has qi of some sort, although I don’t think many will actually be strong enough for you to experience it. In fact, any time a vendor talks too much about qi it is probably a sign that s/he is up to no good, and the tea is really not very good at all, which is why I prefer not to use the word at all – it needlessly adds to the learning curve and there’s a high potential for the Emperor’s New Clothes here.

Yet it is true that beyond a certain point, what distinguishes between a good tea and a great tea is the energy the tea has. Fragrances can be manufactured – they’re mostly the product of the post-plucking processes and can be easily manipulated by the tea processor who’s skillful enough to do the deed. It is much harder to fake energy. The best teas will give you a sensation of a current running through your body, but not in a way that makes you nervous, jittery, or uncomfortable. The 1997 brick I tried recently that made everyone at the table feel jittery was not a good tea in that sense – it was not something I’d consider drinking any time soon, if ever. On the other hand, genuine, good old tree teas tend to provide that energetic sensation in a way that is pleasing and comfortable. It’s hard to describe it, but once you’ve tried it you won’t forget it.

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So with that in mind L brew me some tea. We tried a number of things over the course of two days – one of the produced cakes, some maocha they collected (with him seeing in person the entire process from plucking onward) and also a number of other things. The cake that they produced was, indeed, very bland in the “no fragrance, no taste” sort of way, but it does interestingly enough have some decent energy. He insists on drinking the tea quietly, without comments, which of course helps you focus on the tea in question, but once again, might cause an Emperor’s New Clothes problem.

I think in general this is a good idea – experimentation, even failed ones, are probably good for tea in general. Someone who has a new idea and who wants to produce a tea based on it, and actually having the ability and the skills to do so, should be encouraged to do his best. I still remain a bit skeptical of the end product, but I certainly applaud the general direction in which they’re going. I would also much prefer to drink their bland tea than a newly produced tea using boring old plantation leaves. Now, if someone can figure out how to satisfy all three parts, then you’ve got the perfect tea.

Rules of engagement: Surviving in the tea world

*The following is my translation of a humourous post on the Chinese blog of the magazine Lifeweek. They claim this is taken from issue 660 of the magazine, although I can’t seem to find it in the table of contents of the issue.

1) First – tea leaves. Of course, you must understand the current trends really well, but you cannot simply be following whatever is fashionable. Everyone all know about yancha and zhengshan xiaozhong, so what you need to do is drink things like Oriental Beauty, or puerh that came back (to the Mainland) from Taiwan. If you must drink yancha, then it has to be tea that is from a famous maker. You cannot ever say anything about buying tea, as all the tea you drink must be gifted from friends or famous personages. If you don’t want to explain, you can simply put up pictures of you with said famous makers. If you must spend money to get tea, at least it has to be specially made tea, and not commercial grade stuff. Whether or not you can finish your tea collection in your current lifetime, you must have a lot of tea in your collection. When it comes to puerh, whatever “7542”, “88 Qing”, or “old square brick”, you must have all of them. Have ten different, large yixing jars each labeled with different years and storing puerh of different vintages, and then specially order some rosewood shelves specifically for the storage of puerh cakes. Prepare 30 different Jingdezhen porcelain jars from famous makers and store various kinds of famous dancong, yancha, and the like in them. These must be placed strategically so that when you take pictures they will form the background.

2) You must appear on various occasions where tea is evaluated. When you evaluate teas, you have to immediately and incisively point out the flaws in the tea you’re drinking, especially on the points of roasting techniques and aftertaste. If you accidentally said something as bland as “great fragrance and smooth mouthfeel” then you would have lost all effects from your appearance. If you can figure out which mountain, which hole, or which ditch this tea is from, all the better and you’ll score full points for that. At this juncture, you must go for the kill and not only do you need to point out whether this tea is from a certain ditch or not, but you have to tell us if it is from the edge of the ditch or the bottom of the ditch. This is a little more difficult, and newbies should avoid trying this at home.

3) You must redecorate a room in your house to make it your tea room. Rosewood furniture, supersized tea table are of course a plus. On the tea table you must have at least three different yixing pots, all made by famous artisans. The cups cannot be run of the mill either. Even though Taiwanese makers are now a bit old-fashioned, a few of those might be good, and you can always throw them onto the rack behind you and only explain their origins if someone asks. Small cups from Jingdezhen are always good to intersperse in your tea drinking, but if you can find qinghua or famille rose cups from Kangxi or Qianlong periods, then this is probably best. What you use to boil water cannot be mundane either. You must possess a few antique tetsubins from Japan. If you’re still using induction plates or alcohol burners to boil water for your tetsubin, then this is way too lame. You have to use a stove made with top grade red clay, and paired with olive-pit charcoal. At the same time, you must point out clearly that using olive-pit charcoal to boil water is not the same as using electricity. If you want extra credit, find some friend who’s from another province to provide you with mountain spring water from their region. Of course, such solutions can’t always work for you, but still you can’t just use regular purified water. If you can insist on driving 50km every week to a nearby mountain for water, that’ll add a lot of points.  Also, if you’re drinking tea at this level and you don’t burn incense, then you’re just not doing it right. The incense burner and storage cannot be any run of the mill objects, and the incense itself has to be agarwood. Over the course of a night you have to burn off an entire iPhone4S worth of agarwood incense. Moreover, you gotta learn how to play a guqin song. There needs to be a space in your tea room for a guqin, and when you host top flight tea people in your tea room, you play this song, and that will just be your killer move.

4) You have to have a full-frame SLR with a top flight zoom lens. Since you always have to upload your photos, such a camera setup is essential. All your pictures should be taken at night, the blurrier the better. The chaxi has to be changed constantly, and dead, dried out bamboo can add points to your setup. Unless you’re Chen Daoming or Zhang Jiayi, try not to show your face in the photos. A good way to do this is to only shoot a female hand with a cup, only showing hands and no faces. This way you are simultaneously mysterious while letting everyone know that you’re not some loser drinking tea by yourself at home.

5) Find a friend who’s good with writing, and ask him or her to help you compose 100 short poems and store on your computer. Whenever you need you can pair it with a photo and put it up on your twitter stream.

6) Finally, you have gotta have a title. At least you have to be a high level tea evaluator, or you can team up with a few friends and become some general secretary or trustee of some Chinese tea aficionado association or world tea alliance. Whenever you’re talking you have to mention Zen Buddhism, and have to invite all kinds of religious types to your home to drink tea, not to mention taking pictures with them. If you can get them to write you some calligraphy, all the better. If there are newbies who ask you how to brew tea, just say “I use the ancients as guide and simplicity as my way” and end it there.