Not your average bottled tea

So, bottled teas are, of course, everywhere these days. Most of the time, they’re some cheap, crappy tea in a PET bottle. In a pinch, it’s good for a caffeine fix. That’s about it.

Not this one

I saw this at a local fancy supermarket. It’s in a wine bottle. It’s tea. You can read the description yourself. What I didn’t shoot was the price – one bottle of this “Queen of Blue Deluxe” is $800 HKD, roughly $100 USD, and you thought your $2.49 bottled green tea was expensive.

This company exists on the web. It’s Japanese, unsurprisingly. The tea “Queen of Blue Deluxe” also exists on their site, for about 4500 yen, which is like $40 USD. Quite a markup to sell at $100 instead, of course, but they do have to pay Hong Kong rent, shipping, etc.

Supposedly, the tea was extracted over the course of seven days in a kind of cold brew. Pro tip: you can probably do this at home in a fridge, for a lot less than $100 a bottle. If anyone wants to buy me one to try it, I’d be happy to give it a whirl. But at these prices, I’d rather buy this.

Changing modes of production

Back in the day, farmers in Taiwan all produced their own tea – up to the point where the tea is dried and technically drinkable. The teas would then be sold to tea buyers whose job was to go to the villages and gather these teas. They would then sell the teas to wholesalers in places like Taipei, who would then blend, further process (mostly roasting), package, then sold either locally or, more likely, overseas.

Then, Taiwan’s economy changed, and with it the target market for their teas. While it was exporting to places like Japan, Taiwan was also consuming increasing amounts of their own tea. In fact, by the 1980s a majority of Taiwan’s teas were locally consumed, and now they’re actually quite significant importers of tea from other Asian countries, because the overall demand for tea is no longer satisfied by locally produced teas.

At the same time, things changed internally as well. For one, transportation is easier. Nowadays, for example, driving up to the tea mountains is just a weekend trip, whereas back then, going up takes real effort. If you have a car and you just want a weekend trip, well, the tea mountains are right there. Farmers started selling direct to consumers, instead of just to wholesalers. The old middleman stratum of traders no longer exist – wholesalers in big cities tend to buy direct from farmers, and farmers often sell to consumers directly as well, acting as retail as well as producer. Blending is no longer nearly as important as it used to be, replaced by individualized productions done by farmers or substitute processors – people who are paid by the kilo to do processing for other farmers. That tea you buy from farmer X directly is quite likely produced by processor Y (while farmer X works on his own competition tea, but that’s another topic).

Some consumers like this, because they feel like they’re buying direct from the farmer and so the tea is somehow more “authentic”. Even though often times these more entrepreneurial farmers who also retail tend to not only sell their own teas, but also teas of their friends – to provide enough variety for the consumer to buy from. Still, it’s an attractive model.

One of these guys that you might have encountered before is TeaHome, which has been active online for years now. You may have seen their oolongs on eBay, for example. I buy from them from time to time for very dependable teas – prices are reasonable and quality is decent. I’ve visited them before on a previous trip – the owner is an interesting guy with no background in tea prior to entering the business some 10+ years ago. He said he was a civil servant but due to one reason or another decided to become an organic tea farmer. He’s doing fairly well, as far as I can tell.

Another tea farmer I visited this trip that is also doing direct sales now has their own little brand called “Xin Cha Nong”, with an interesting url of teaez.com. Their family story is quite typical – two generations of tea farmers now. The dad (you can see his picture on the site) entered the tea business from farming other stuff because tea was far more profitable in the early 80s for farmers in the Dong Ding area – so like a lot of people he learned how to make tea and has been doing it ever since. The younger generation in the family is going to inherit the tea business, but are also branching out and are responsible for the sales/website part of the business. Learning how to do all that, while mastering these new skills, is part and parcel of how these tea farming families can stay alive.

Despite this though, there are a lot of upcoming problems that everyone is aware of. There is the typical East Asian problem of aging rural communities – young people generally don’t want to stay in the villages, and would prefer working in some higher prestige jobs in the cities instead. There are plenty of farmers with no one interested in taking over. Because of the downward pressure in prices for tea, lower elevation teas are becoming less lucrative, and many farmers have instead switched to farming other things – fruits, for example, which pay more and involve less work. There’s also labour issues – finding enough people to pick teas by hand is getting more and more difficult. These days almost all tea pickers during harvest season are foreigners from places like Vietnam and Burma. Give it another ten years, and many farmers have told me that they think they would have to figure out some way to make decent tea with machine harvest, because there will not be enough people to pick teas anymore. It’s a real crisis.

There’s no real telling how things will develop from here on out. Tea farms will surely still exist in Taiwan, as there are some young people willing to take up the mantle and others join in. The question is – what will that tea industry look like, and what kind of products are going to come out of it? That’s a much harder question to answer, and all we can do at this point is speculate.

Tea Geek Paradise

I spent the past three days in central Taiwan doing fieldwork visiting tea farms and such. Once you’ve seen a few tea farms, they all start to blend in – farms on their own are not particularly interesting unless the farmer is doing something really interesting, or there is something weird about the farm. Likewise for tea production facilities – the machines are mostly the same, the processes similar, and the only real difference lies in things you can’t see – the producer’s skill, timing, weather, leaf conditions, that sort of thing.

And then there are places like this:

This is one of the five tea research stations of Taiwan, official units of research into all things tea – from developing new tea varietals, to cultivation techniques, to production improvements. This place isn’t open for public – you need to have a valid reason to request a visit in advance.

The tea station is quite large – they only use about 10% of the land they have because they don’t really have enough manpower to use any more. This is the place that developed Taiwan tea #8, #18, and #21 – the station was originally set up in the Japanese colonial period for developing technologies related to cultivation of assamica varietal imported to Taiwan. #8, #18, and #21 are all black tea varietals, with the #18 being the most popular these days for a variety of reasons.

The station is quite interesting – they don’t use any pesticides and herbicides, and only organic fertilizers from what I understand. The point, after all, is to test the plants’ abilities to withstand various growing conditions and select the strongest trees for selective breeding. Using pesticides and such will mask their weakness. In the above picture you see how there are lots of random plants growing under the trees – that’s what a farm that uses no herbicides look like. In most pictures of tea farms you’ll see the soil around the tea trees are barren and brown. Likewise, the leaves are full of marks of insect damage. This is of course because they don’t spray pesticides. They do use something called “tobacco water” – a natural concoction with an infusion of tobacco (leftover bits from the cigarette industry). The nicotine helps repel insects a little, but only lasts a couple weeks and spraying is a lot of work. Most farms wouldn’t use it, but they do because it helps control the insects somewhat without any chemical pesticides.

They also do all kinds of tests with production methods. This is necessary because for each varietal of tea the processing may be different – a certain tea may come out better with longer oxidation cycles, or needs slightly less time during withering, or so on. The Tea Research Station might not know what is the best method of making a certain tea – after all, that is dependent on a lot of factors – but they certainly do try to figure out new ways of production that will help farmers along. Different varietals also have different growing characteristics that changes production methods. #21, for example, has buds that will grow too old quite quickly, so the harvest window is relatively short. If it happens to be raining on those days, then a farmer may be forced to harvest in sub-optimal weather (normally, nothing is done during harvest on a rainy day). Those teas will be inferior. For someone who has a smaller field who wants a tea that is easier to work with, #18 is preferable.

They also offer classes – introductory, intermediate, and advanced ones on tea making skills. Unfortunately, sons and daughters of families of tea farmers have priority, and leftover spots (if there are any at all) are filled by people in the tea industry. Younger people in the tea making business I talk to generally have done some of these courses at some point – they learn the basics and use those skills at home when they help out. In many ways, this is probably their most important active service to the tea production community, even though it may be underappreciated.

As one of my colleagues said, this is the “Tea Geek Paradise.” It was very interesting visiting and talking to the staff there, surrounded by tea trees while geeking out about tea history. Doesn’t hurt that they have an amazing view of the Sun Moon Lake as well.

Objectively good tea

A friend of mine had a grandma who loved drinking wine. However, she didn’t drink wine the normal way. She had nice red wines with ice. Yes, literal ice cubes inside the glass. That’s how she liked her wine, even if it’s some nice vintage first growth Bordeaux. You can imagine the horror, of course, of those serving the wine, but when an old lady wanted her wine that way and doesn’t give a damn about what you think (and she’s paying)… well, you give it to her that way.

I think in general we can agree that this is probably a sub-optimal way of serving wine. Nobody worth their salt in the wine industry would tell you to serve wines with ice cubes, unless it’s the crappiest box wines that are basically glorified fruit juice with alcohol. You also aren’t likely to go around asking for wines like that – because you know this would sound silly. Most of us, whether you think it or not, care at least somewhat about what other people around you think – and if you ask for wines with ice cubes when it comes to fine wines, it can make you look rather silly.

I am writing about this because a somewhat recent discussion in a facebook tea group talked about brewing oolongs with cooler water. My general stance on this is quite simple – brewing oolongs with water that isn’t very close to boiling is a waste of tea – sort of like having wine with ice cubes that end up diluting the wine. It doesn’t bring out the best in the tea, especially among higher end teas. If you’re paying good money for the leaves, then brewing the leaves with, say, 85C water, you’re basically throwing money away.

The argument I hear sometimes is that brewing at lower temperatures would help alleviate problems – bitterness, sourness, astringency, etc. Yes, that’s true, brewing at lower temperatures does reduce those things, but it also reduces the amount of flavour you’re getting out of the tea. Especially in the case of the more tightly rolled oolongs these days, if you use water that isn’t boiling it takes 2-3 infusions to even get the leaves to open up. Everything is on a reduced extraction schedule. You end up prolonging infusions or you end up with a weaker, flatter, less interesting brew. It’s like putting ice cubes in wine.

This is not to say you can’t have it that way – sure, if you really prefer it that way, go for it. It’s your money and your tea, after all, so drink however you’d like. That isn’t to say there is no absolute best way to brew it, and no objective way to judge a tea. The thing is, if you are skillful in brewing, none of those problems – bitterness, sourness, astringency – are actually problems. You can manage them away with the right ratio of leaves to water, with the right time for infusions, and having an instinct to switch it up as you go along depending on how the last cup went. You, as the person brewing the tea, are in full control. Using cooler water would help avoid you running into problems, but it also handicaps you in the maximum amount you can get out of the leaves – so it cuts both ways.  The real way to avoid them is to “git gud” – improve your skills and do it so you don’t run into problems with bitterness or unpleasant tastes, instead of handicapping the tea with warm water.

This also brings me to another factor that is rarely mentioned in online English language discussion on tea drinking – what you’re looking for is different. To many Chinese anyway, drinking a tea is not just about the flavour in your mouth the moment you swallow. How you judge a tea is as much about the tea’s lasting fragrance, instead of the ephemeral and momentary floral effervescence  that you get in your mouth. When I drink tea at the office, I particularly enjoy the fact that, half an hour after my last cup as I’m driving home from work, I can still taste the cup of tea I just had – its aftertaste glows in my mouth. With poor quality tea or weakly brewed tea, you can’t get that. Yes, the moment you get with a nice floral taste might be somewhat enjoyable, but the real difference marker between a good and a great tea is how long it stays with you. That sort of effect and experience you can only get if you brew your tea somewhat strong. It is only then that  you can relish it.

This is also why competition or commercial grading of tea happen in standard brews with boiling water – because once you’ve had enough teas, you quickly know what’s better, and what’s not. One of the key markers is how much stuff there is for the tea to give up – the more it has and the deeper the taste, the better the tea is. If you try a sip of the competition-brewed tea, they’re all really bitter, kinda nasty, and not very pleasant, but the good ones will show you a kinder, gentler side that will stay with you for a long time, whereas a bad tea is just bitter and thin. Taste matters on an individual level – some people will always prefer X over Y, even if by objective measures Y is better than X (the analogy I gave in the facebook thread was that some people will always like Big Mac over a nicely made gourmet burger with great ingredients). Just because some people are contrary doesn’t exclude the possibility that there’s an objective way to measure something we consume.

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.

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.

Competition trouble

Many of you know that in Taiwan, they have tea competitions. The basic idea is that farmers would submit sample teas (ranging from 5 jin to 20 jin – one jin is 600g, depending on where, what, etc) for the competition. These got started by 1930 or so under Japanese rule. These days, some allow multiple entries while others only allow single entry per member of whatever association is holding that competition. The teas are judged anonymously, and then after multiple rounds of tastings a winner is declared with multiple winners of lower ranks underneath. Some teas are thrown out as not being good enough (and returned to the farmer). The teas that win a certain grade will then be packaged in sealed containers inside sealed boxes with dated labels, and then they would be returned to the farmers to sell.

The whole thing was supposed to encourage farmers to up their game and create better teas, and top winner for the big competitions, like the Lugu Tea Farmers Association one, could fetch prices of over 30,000 NTD (about 1000 USD) per jin in that special packaging. Compared to a normal price or about 3-4,000 NTD a jin for a top grade Dong Ding tea, that’s a big upgrade. For those 20 jin of tea the farmer is making 10x the normal amount. It also helps his sales for other stuff. Farmers who win the top prize can get a big wooden plaque to commemorate the win, and they frequently hang these in their shop to showcase their abilities. Some have so many they just stack them on the side of room because they don’t have enough space to hang all of them.

So this is all great right? Well, not so fast. There are troubles beneath the surface, some of which were topics of conversation between myself and some tea farmers/sellers that I have talked to in the last week I spent here in the middle part of Taiwan. The first is this: what you see is not really what you get. For example, when you see teas coming out of the competition for the Lugu Farmers Association, does it mean that all the tea came from Lugu? No, not at all. Many entries, if not most, use teas from higher elevation as the base for their entry. In fact, if you use local Lugu tea, you’re probably going to lose because the low elevation tea from Lugu simply don’t stand up to the much higher quality teas from higher areas. The thickness of the tea, the aroma, etc, are not up to normal judging standards. In other words, you can’t compete. So, when you end up with, say, Lugu Tea Farmers Association competition tea, know full well that the tea might be Dong Ding style (higher oxidation and roast) the base tea is probably not from the area.

Then you have the silly part – many (though not all) competitions allow multiple entries. So what happens is that a farmer can enter the same tea multiple times. This has a cost – when you submit 21 jin of tea, they only give you back 20 jin + 200 grams. They take a bit of the extra as a bit of profit, plus whatever entry fee they charged. Today someone told me that he entered a competition with ten entries, all with the exact same tea. Why? Because you never know. With just one entry, if you got unlucky and the 3g sample they picked out from your bag isn’t so great for whatever random reason, then you will get kicked out in a flash. If you were unlucky and got lined up (randomly) between two really good entries, then your tea is going to look bad in comparison. For his ten entries, he said three got rejected and the rest, some scored higher and some scored lower. It’s all a crapshoot to a certain extent. The top prize is going to be excellent, the top few levels are going to be pretty good, but there’s still a fair amount of randomness in there.

As a buyer, there’s definitely some value in these competitions – like I said, the quality of the tea that won a high level prize is going to be pretty good. You also need to pay through the roof for that – it’s going to be expensive, more than the normal stuff anyway. At the lower grades (three or two plum blossoms, for the Lugu competition) they are going to be comparably priced to the normal price for these teas. It’s a bit of an assurance, in some ways.

At the same time though, there are problems. First of all, you don’t really know exactly what you’re getting – unless you happen to be with the guy who made the tea, you’re not going to get to sample it. So you’re buying blind, really. There’s also that price premium, which for a normal drinker is really not worth paying – you can usually get good quality tea for less money if you know what you’re doing. Of course, since all oolongs look similar, it’s quite hard to do in practice, especially when it’s through multiple layers of middlemen and repackaging. People buy competition tea partly for this assurance. Partly though, it’s also for gifting – when you gift someone a box of unopened competition tea you’re basically telling them exactly how much you paid for the tea, since the prices are set.

There’s also the even more confusing competition for things like aged oolong. Here it’s really a crapshoot – you don’t even know what style of tea you’re getting. There are so many possible permutations – original roast level, age, area of origin, etc – none of which will be apparent to you (or anyone else, for that matter). It’s one thing to have aged competition tea from the past that are now old, it’s another to have a competition for aged tea. Unless you can sample from the source (that’s what the extra 200g is for) buying aged oolong competition tea is a fool’s errand.

The original Oriental Beauty

As some of you know, I’m a historian in my day job, and my new project is working on the history of how ideas (drinking practice, health concerns, etc) and technologies (plantation methods, processing techniques, etc) pertaining to tea moved across borders. Taiwan turns out to be the most interesting place to look at, because of its close connection with China, but at the same time because of its distinctive history and geopolitical location, thanks to it being under Japanese jurisdiction for the first half of the twentieth century. It ends up being a nice, big melting pot of stuff, perfect for my purposes.

As a result, a side story I’ve been pursuing on and off is the history of the tea Oriental Beauty (dongfangmeiren), more commonly known locally as Pengfeng tea (bragger’s tea). There are two kinds of legends surrounding the origins of this tea. One has something to do with nomenclature – the name Oriental Beauty. You have probably read this online somewhere, most likely from some vendor trying to sell you tea, but the story usually involves some queen of the United Kingdom (some say Victoria, others Elizabeth II) drinking it, finding it absolutely marvelous, and therefore giving it this nice name. This story is almost certainly false, and is made up to sell tea.

The most common name for the tea in the local community, Pengfeng tea, means bragger or bluffing tea. The idea is that the farmer who originally made the tea was able to sell it for such a high price, he bragged to his friends and neighbours, none of whom believed him. So, the name of the tea was born.

This story has always sounded sort of true, but like many such stories, there are lots of slightly different versions, making you wonder whether it’s true or not. What we do know is that the tea was from Beipu. The farmer was probably surnamed Jiang 姜 and there were large sums of money involved. Exactly how large, nobody knows. Everything I saw was a “it is said that” sort of version.

Everything, until today.

On my last trip to Taiwan I was able to get a copy of many issues of a journal called Taiwan no chagyo, or Taiwan’s Tea Industry. It was a trade journal from the colonial period. I have been going through the issues to look for information on all sorts of things, and today, reading one issue from 1933, I came across this

Bingo. The headline is “A high class tea worth a thousand yen”. Not a thousand yen for one jin, mind you, but a hundred jin, which doesn’t sound like a lot of money, until you figure out that the average jin of tea back then sold for a yen or less – so one jin of tea that sells for 10 yen was, indeed, an astronomical sum. The tea was one of the participants in a local tea competition, and it broke the 300 point mark in whatever scale they were using to grade the teas. The buyers included the governor’s office. It was obviously a cheap and easy way to promote better tea production – encouraging farmers to make better tea and they would be rewarded too with great prices if their tea were good. As the Taiwanese government was trying hard at that time to increase the production quantity and quality of tea for export, it made sense to pull a PR stunt like this.

The tea probably already existed by this time, but this was what made it famous. It probably is also where the name Pengfeng originally came from – maybe not so much a bragger in the liar sense of the word, but the farmer getting rather pleased with himself and annoying all the neighbours. Either way, it’s very gratifying to have found the smoking gun, so to speak, for the story, and it’s good to know that sometimes some of these legends do have some basis in fact.

Diversity

When I spend any amount of time in Taiwan, a lot of tea is almost inevitable. This is not only because I actively seek it out, which I definitely do, but also because even at places where you aren’t looking for tea, it comes to you.

So, in the past five days, I’ve had

Early 90s Alishan
A couple aged Oriental beauties
An old baozhong
Fall 2013 Gaoshan
1950s “Paperless” Red Label
Two 2013 Fall productions Yiwu from Wisteria
2013 Dayuling
Three or four aged baozhongs, various ages
Two new baozhongs, 2013 Fall
One aged dongding, or something similar
Another 90s Alishan
A 2013 gaoshan
An aged cooked puerh
A 1980s teabag of aged oolong
A very nice aged shuixian
Two award winning, slightly aged Oriental Beauties
A 2012 Winter Gaoshan
A beautiful 2012 Beipu black tea
A perfectly stored early 90s Gaoshan
A 30 years old dongding, reroasted
A 25 years old dongding
A wet 30 years old baozhong

And this is with only one tea shopping trip (to Wenshan and a couple old haunts) – the rest were just drinking with people.

There’s also a wide variety of places that I ended up at, from teashops that have bags of tea littering the floor

To various types of more refined establishments, one of which happened to be a Nanguan studio where we basically enjoyed a private show, with tea

It’s hard not to be picky about your tea when you live in a place like this. It’s also a place where you can enjoy tea high or low – whether it’s a casual cup of tea from one of those chains that serve it cold with ice and shaken, or fancy with the full setup and some exotic tea with a story to match in someone’s home. There’s something for everyone here who drinks tea – if you haven’t been here (and are reading this blog), you should.

Back to the Island of Tea

How do you know you’re in the Island of Tea?

Well, not immediately, but when you check in to your hotel, and you walk around a bit, and notice that less than a block away at the street corner, there’s this

and this

and best of all

Did I mention this is all on the same street corner? And of course, within the same block and half radius, there’s at least two or three more shops that only sell tea.

But still, this could be just the one district where there are a bunch of tea shops. Well…. until you get back to your room, flip on the tv, do some channel surfing, and while doing so, finding that two of the tv shopping networks sell tea (among more normal things, like women’s underwear). Yes, they sell tea via tv.

In retrospect, I really should’ve recorded it via video, but I’ll spare you the hard sell, since it involves a lot of yelling about how great a deal is. The first channel was selling puerh.

As you can see, only 3 and half minutes remaining, so I didn’t catch the initial pitch. In any case, they were too excited about this amazing deal to actually tell me how much tea they were selling for the price they were quoting, and they had to keep reminding me how there’s only a few minutes left. From this chart, I figured the following:

It seems like they were claiming that they had this great cake from year 2000, somehow broke it up and made them into mini-tuos – don’t ask me how, why, or whether that’s even possible. Anyway, that’s the claim, and for the low, low price of 1980 NT (about $60 USD) you can get a can of these minituos. If you buy five! You can even get a free ceramic cup! In case you want to see what cake it is:

As the last line said, the preciousness of this tea does not need to be said.

The other channel was selling something a little more conventional

Yes, Cuifeng, in Hehuan Mountain, winter harvest. What sounds like half a jin (300g) for 2760 NT, about 90 USD, which is really not very cheap at all. To prove that it’s really high, they of course had to bring out the maps

Oh, and if you buy 4 jins total, they’d give you a free 4oz sampler of the same tea!

Yes, welcome to Taiwan.

Ways to cheat in tea

It’s been a busy few weeks, what with grading, trying to finish a few papers, so on so forth. One of the papers I was trying to write and still in pretty shambolic state is one on the Taiwanese industry. Among the more interesting documents I’ve come across are a set of articles of association for the Taipei Tea Merchants Association. They were always concerned with inferior, fake, or just bad tea, among other things. Taiwan teas, even back in the early 20th century, had a premium over mainland Chinese tea, and they were very keen to keep it that way. So, in an effort to prevent problems, they listed what was not allowed in terms of teas that they sell. These are:

1) Powdered tea – this is not matcha wannabes, but rather teas with significant amounts of powdered tea leaves mixed in to make the tea heavier, so you can sell for more. When the buyer gets it, he’ll notice that it’s mostly powder – and therefore overpaid. This is like you getting that last bag/bit of tea from the bottom of the barrel, and feeling cheated, but on a massive scale.

2) Tea stalks – this one is pretty self explanatory, I think. Can’t sell tea stalks as tea leaves.

3) Sun-exposed tea – probably also obvious – tea that has been exposed to the sun for long periods of time, at least that’s what the name implies

4) Fake tea – it’s not clear how this fakeness is achieved – is it not tea leaves at all? Something else?

5) Soaked tea – this is the best – dried used tea leaves being sold again. It actually does sort of work. Try drying out the leaves you’ve drunk, for some leaves it can look remarkable like new tea leaves and presumably someone can try to sell it in dried form. You will still even get some taste out of it, it’ll just be really watery.

6) Fire-burnt tea – tea that is too roasted/charred

7) Tea that has been adulterated with other materials, including spoiled, rotten teas, dirt, dust, etc

There’s also another category of tea – Tangshan cha, which is the term they used for mainland Chinese teas. In this case, it’s mainland tea being sold as Taiwan teas.

So it’s good to know that the tricks that vendors can be up to haven’t really changed all that much over the last hundred years. Buyers of puerh are quite familiar with this stuff, and buyers of other teas have also run into this sort of problem before. The way they solved it? Made it mandatory to sell/buy through a central exchange, to have regular inspectors (full time) who go and check the farmers/vendors, to make everyone a member of the tea production association, so they are more accountable, and to also educate the farmers. It worked.