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.

Gambling in Macau

As many of you know, Macau is now the gambling capital of the world, having taken over Las Vegas for the number one spot a few years ago and now with a very sizable lead. I recently went, but not to gamble. One benefit to a city built on gaming revenue is that there often are things that are built around it because the city wants to attract tourists who (like me) don’t gamble – make them attractive enough so that their friends who might won’t get vetoed. Among these things in Macau, aside from the great food and the historical buildings, is a beautiful art museum. There’s a current show on teawares, with half of the items from the imperial palace, and the other half from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Some of the items there are stunning. There’s a supposed 150 years old ball of tribute puerh, a 400 years old yixing pot, and my favourite, a number of tea canisters for imperial use. I took a snap.

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This isn’t even for the highest grade of tribute tea, but rather the second highest. It’s not clear what’s actually inside though.

Or, take this charming box

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Being emperor seems like a good idea.

I did end up gambling a little – not by sitting at the blackjack table, but rather, buying some tea. There are a few older teashops in Macau in the more residential neighbourhoods. I ended up at one and bought a cake of what I think is 2003 Xiaguan.

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Not too expensive at all, and not too bad. Better than risking some scary looking thing on Taobao, although admittedly some of them are cheaper and maybe even better gambles. Then again, the store was so old looking and so run down, it was half the fun of shopping there. The female proprietor (I dealt with her husband) was sleeping on the bench in the shop, but covered herself in such a way that I didn’t even notice her until she woke up halfway through our exchange, giving me a bit of a startle. Who can beat that for excitement in a tea store?

Anyway, if you ever come by Macau, I heartily recommend a visit to the museum. It’s certainly worth the trouble.

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

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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

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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

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and this

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and best of all

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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

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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

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

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Yes, welcome to Taiwan.

Hong Kong milk tea

While we’re on the subject of what regular people drink, it’s hard not to talk about the traditional Hong Kong milk tea.

Normally, milk tea of any sort usually consist of some milk or cream and a regularly brewed black tea of some type, maybe lipton or something along those lines. Hong Kong milk tea doesn’t follow that. It’s a very heavy blend of evaporated milk and tea. Witness the colour

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These things are usually served without any sugar. You can add your own, if you want, as sugar is usually on the table in large quantities. The way this stuff is brewed is what some people call the “stocking milk tea” – it actually is a cotton bag that looks like a long sock, with tea inside. They use two pitchers with no lids. The brewer repeatedly pour boiling water (after the first infusion, tea) back and forth between the two, while having it on the heat source so it’s kept at a very high temperature. They do this until it reaches the desired strength, which is somewhere between super strong and incredibly strong. Then, to serve, they add a few big spoonfuls of evaporated milk and then pour the tea into it with force – the “clash” between the two elements is important, and the resulting drink is a very smooth tea/milk concoction. Without the milk, the tea itself is a very bitter, sour, and strong drink that isn’t very good.

The tea they use is pretty low grade stuff, and is usually a blend of various kinds of teas. The base is this

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The right hand bag is the tea (left side is coffee). If you really want, you can buy a bag of this stuff over Taobao at the paltry price of 168 RMB for 5lbs (incidentally the Taobao page also has a couple pictures of people making this tea). They claim this is Ceylon black tea, with different grades mixed in. Oftentimes various restaurants will use these as a base and may or may not add things to the mix to create their own flavour – cooked puerh for example is sometimes used to give the tea more body.

Evaporated milk (right) is the preferred fat source in Hong Kong.

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I think in Singapore you see condensed milk instead (left), which is already sweet. The results are very different. There are also different kinds of evaporated milk. Something you run into sometimes is a particularly nasty one – basically imitation evaporated milk made using mostly vegetable fat and milk powder. It looks like the real deal, but the taste is off, and the body is thin and gross.

There are other variations on a theme, most notably the yuenyeung (pinyin: yuanyang) which is a perculiar mixture of half coffee, half tea, plus milk. I’m not a fan, but it has its devotees.

You’d think something like this should be pretty simple, but I’ve been to restaurants where the result is so horrible I’ve never gone back again. It’s really one of those drinks that can define your shop, and if your ability to make this singularly Hong Kong drink is not there, your business will suffer.

Tea and sugar

These two things do go together, sort of. Like this HK style french toast (two slices of deep fried white bread with peanut butter in the middle) and lemon tea.

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I normally don’t drink my tea with any sort of sugar, as you can probably imagine. But sometimes I’m reminded why so many people do – it really softens the tannins in the tea, and tannins in tea, when it’s strong, can be pretty nasty.

The point was driven home while I was in Turkey, which, to my surprise, is mostly a tea drinking country, despite the fame of its coffee tradition. Tea was cheaper, and drunk far more often, than coffee. The preferred tea is samovar style – super concentrated concoction watered down. This process makes sense especially in settings where you need to make a lot of tea quickly – you make as strong a brew as possible, without regard for how it tastes, and then you water it down so that it’s more palatable. That’s how tea is made in Hong Kong too in most places – the tea is made super strong, with repeated boilings of leaves with water, and then you finally water it down to the desired strength.

The watering down, however, is also where things go wrong – usually when it’s still too strong when watered down. While in Turkey I sometimes would add a cube of sugar (two always comes with your cup) because they made the tea too strong. While that can be nice, sometimes, when it’s overly strong, it can be pretty unpalatable, since the tea itself isn’t much to write home about. Adding that sugar, however, magically transforms it into a much softer, gentler drink – the tannins are gone. What was a pretty strong and pretty harsh drink is now quite nice, and with one cube, you still only barely taste the sweetness. This is especially true if you then wash it down with some baklavas – or maybe it’s the other way around.

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Cream, of course, has a similar effect, but cream influences the way tea tastes far more than sugar does. A small amount of sugar has a fairly neutral effect on the taste, but a small amount of cream is just nasty, making your tea look like sewage, while a large amount will of course change everything. I’m not about to dunk two cubes of sugar in all my tea every day, but sometimes it’s good to be reminded of why most of the rest of the tea drinking public love their sugar with tea.