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.

Talent and skill

Every tea farmer’s association in Taiwan holds competition. Some of these are huge – the Lugu one, for example, attracts over 6,000 samples per competition (twice a year). Smaller ones get hundreds or a thousand entry. Every member of the association could enter a certain number of samples (often 10) per competition. Then, they are judged in groups with a panel of judges tasting them quickly and eliminating ones that are not good enough. Finally, there’s one “Special Prize”, which is the top prize, a tier of “First Prize” (number of which depends on the size of the competition), “Second Prize” and “Third Prize”, and also “Three Plum Blossom” and “Two Plum Blossom” for the competitions that have these grades. For Lugu, for example, you send in 22 jin of tea. 1 jin is used during the competition – tasting, etc. 1 jin is basically payment to the farmers association. The rest, the 20 jin, is tea that you’ll get back whether you win or lose. If you win, they get packed in the competition packaging of the right class. A “Special Prize” will sell for something like $3,000 USD a jin. The others are a lot lower in comparison, but still represent a markup compared to normal tea prices. So, entering and winning is good money.

The competitions are also there to reward skills. They began during the colonial period as a way for the government to encourage better quality production – to publicize people who made good tea, and to get farmers to strive for higher quality product. This purpose continued after Taiwan was returned to China in 1945. These days, it’s less of a quality issue and more of a marketing scheme, but there’s still an element of rewarding skill that’s involved – if you win the higher grade prizes, for example, you’ll get a plaque that goes with it saying what year, what competition, and what prize you got. A farmer who can hang a bunch of them in their shop (or, as is sometimes the case, has so many that they start stacking them up against the wall) can claim to be a better tea maker than others and sell their teas for more.

These days some vendors love to tell stories, almost more than selling tea they’re selling the farmer, especially when it comes to vendors who face a Western audience. So here’s a guy who you should probably at least try tea from:(Source)

Two young punks? Yes. Well, the guy on the right is called Zhuang Rongpu and is barely 30 years old, and he’s been in the tea production business for five years. His dad was a mushroom farmer, but he wanted to be a tea producer. So his dad helped him set up a brand new factory, which I visited on my trip this time. He’s won a number of “Special Prizes” in the last five years – at least one a year, from what I gathered. Considering that there are producers who never win one in their entire career, this is pretty remarkable.

Granted, he’s not in a hyper-competitive area like Lugu – he’s in Yuchi, a black tea production area. In terms of production procedures, black tea is really quite simple – withering, rolling, oxidation, drying. That’s it. As the local farmer association secretary said to us, “you can make it too”. He’s not wrong. We could. It won’t taste good, but we could.

If you ask a tea farmer/producer how to do something, they can tell you in great detail. They’re also often willing to tell you too – there really aren’t any secrets, so to speak. The devil is really in the details, and with something as simple as black tea, it is no exception. When we visited, for example, they just harvested some new leaves and were withering it.

The tea is just sitting there on a bed with air blowing underneath, and it’ll sit there for almost a full day. Unlike oolong, there’s no need to disturb it – in fact, you shouldn’t disturb it. The real trick, of course, is how to manage this – how much leaves to put on? How long do you wilt it for? When is the right time to move them to the roller? How long do you roll them for? At what speed? When do you stop the rolling and re-wrap the tea to roll again? How much longer? When do you stop rolling all together and move to oxidation? How long do you oxidize it for?

All of these have a simple answer – “depends”. They can give you ballpark figures, but precisely when is dependent on so many variables, it’s impossible to say with any kind of certainty. For example, in the trough above, they didn’t fill it to capacity – it is designed for a maximum 150 jin of raw leaves, but they only filled it about half full, because it’s easier to control the withering process. Since they had room anyway, they spread the leaves out on multiple troughs. It’s the tea producer’s job to assess when the tea is done withering and move on – and there’s no real objective measure that you can use to tell when that is. There’s no machine, at least not yet, that can replicate a human touch for these determination. So, our man here decides when it goes downstairs to the rollers. And his judgement at multiple steps along the way determine the quality of the final product.

Of course, this isn’t just about the producer – with bad leaves no matter how good a producer you are, the tea is still going to come out inferior. Farm management is also crucial. These guys don’t own any farms – they contract with farmers whose job is to grow the tea trees. They work together  on a plan for managing the plants, and to make sure they get what they need as raw materials. It’s a collaborative process. They’ve obviously got something good going.

Still, this is a producer with five years experience and no family history of tea making. It doesn’t sound like he should be making great tea, but he obviously is. While skill is something that accumulates over time as you get more practiced at doing something, there is also another factor – talent. Mr. Zhuang clearly has it in spades.

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.

Bottled teas

In the years I’ve been drinking tea, every so often, usually on the road, I would resort to some kind of bottled tea for a quick caffeine fix when it’s not practical to do anything else. One of these occasions is when going to some library or another – like during my recent trip to the National Diet Library in Tokyo. There’s basically nothing around there, so your food and drink needs are all served by the canteen on the top floor of the library. There’s also a little grocery store that sells drinks. Since drinking hot tea is rather impractical there, bottled it has to be.

When I go to these places, I normally buy some kind of oolong tea – it’s more palatable than bottled green tea, which are invariably some kind of nasty. In Japan, bottled teas are by and large not sugared, whereas even here in Hong Kong sugared variety is more common, leading to a really gross mix. So, non-sugared oolong tea is what I normally end up with, and they are generally really heavily roasted tasting things. Serviceable, nothing more.

Except this time, I saw something new – all the bottled oolong teas are now “made in the country” as in made in Japan. Whereas previously they were usually from China, this is I think the first time I’ve seen a Japan made bottled oolong tea. And it shows – the taste is different. I’m sure they try their hardest to make it pretty much exactly the same, but it’s not. You can taste a bit of that Japanese tea in the taste.

The marketing is also interesting – they’re saying they brought over the technique for making oolong in China, but also keeps it fresher and better because it’s made in the country. Some of the tea is grown in Yakushima – an island south of Kyushu. It’ll be interesting to see what else is made on Yakushima. Does that mean that we will start seeing oolongs more from Japan – not just in bottled form, but for real? Currently I only know of one farm that seems to consistently push out oolong teas in Japan, located in Miyazaki. They’re decent, although nothing compared with Taiwan. I’m curious to see what will appear.

The fun thing, of course, is that these producers – the major beverage manufacturers like Kirin, Sapporo, Coca-Cola, etc – always try to come up with new products every so often. Every spring there’s going to be a bunch of expensive shincha, taking advantage of the craze with new tea every season. And with these oolong teas there’s always new varieties that they try to push, like this one.

Life and death of a tree

This is a picture from my friend L, who is visiting Yiwu again this year. He’s been going for some years now, the first visit of his from 2007. He said when he first went to Yiwu, this tree was supposed to be 600 years old. It was just growing in the wild, one of the older trees, but certainly nothing too special. A few years later, in 2012 when he visited this spot again, the tree was now 1400 years old, not 600. By then, it had been “protected” with this metal cage you see surrounding it, and also some concrete poured around it to help protect it from, presumably, falling off the slope or something. Fast forward a few more years to today – as you can see in the picture, the tree is either dead or about to die, with no leaves and no real sign of life. It’s not the first tree like this and won’t be the last. Nannuo mountain had a similar, much bigger (physically) tree that was also “protected” and died in the process.

But fear not – there’s already a newly crowned “1000 years old” tree at the front of the village with a sign hanging from the tree proclaiming so. Tourists who are entering the region need not worry – they will still be able to see 1000 years old tree and buy magical leaves from them!

Now, aside from the utter absurdity of the story and the sadness of it all, I think it’s safe to say that those of us who have watched the puerh market for a decade or more know this sort of thing has been going on for some time now. The ever-increasing age of certain trees is not surprising – it’s been that way since at least 2005, when people first started getting crazy about older trees. Prices for the leaves have never really fallen since then, and now ever-fancier things are happening, with single tree cakes being pressed, etc. Just look at this tree though – how much tea do you think it can realistically produce? It’s no taller than a person and half. Even if you chop down the entire tree and took down all the leaves when it was in full bloom, chances are it’s no more than a couple kilos when fried and dried.

That brings us to a more salient point – this area of China has never, ever been rich. For pretty much its entire history, human beings living in these mountains have lived a subsistence lifestyle – they produce enough to sustain their life, but not much more. When tea traders first visited these areas in the early 2000s, conditions were primitive. Huts were shabby, sanitation basic, food, while they exist, were not exactly free flowing. In earlier decades many farmers actually chopped down their tea trees to plant rubber, because rubber trees offered a more steady income. Old tree tea was cheaper – they were considered less good back then, and more troublesome to harvest. Prices only really reversed starting somewhere in 2003, and hasn’t looked back since.

So in the face of this sudden rush of fortune, it is not a surprise that farmers in this area would want to exploit it to the full. This is, after all, their one chance of getting comfortable, even rich if you were one of those lucky ones to live in a famous village like Banzhang. You can finally make some decent money, send your kids to school comfortably, buy some creature comfort, build a new, better house, get a motorcycle or even a pickup truck. You can have some money in the bank, and enjoy life a little more. If the cost of all that is, say, the over-harvesting of some trees in the slopes above your house…. that’s ok, no? These trees finally will pull them out of poverty, and with an endless supply of newcomers who don’t know that much about tea, business is good.

In the last few years as tea-tourism has increased exponentially (I read one account that said this year 500,000 people are visiting the tea mountains during harvest season) there is an increasing number of people who really have no business going to the mountains in there, buying tea. If you are a rich, city professional interested in tea, and are spending a couple weeks in Yiwu looking at things, well, you would want some of your own tea, no? Here, here’s some tea from my 800 years old tea tree. That bag there? It’s the 600 years old one. If you are visiting only that one time – you’ll want to get your hands on some of these things. What’s a few thousand RMB for half a kilo of tea? It’s the memory that counts, and you can press it into a cake or a couple cakes and store it forever, knowing that you personally went up to the mountain to press these unique, old, single-tree cakes.

At that point, does it actually matter what trees these leaves are from? These guys are just buying tour souvenirs. It can be trash tea and it won’t matter. And a lot of it is indeed trash tea sold to people who really don’t know what they’re doing when buying maocha. When you compare a few bags of tea, one of them will always be better than the others. That doesn’t mean the bag is good, unless you really know what you’re doing. Most people have never really tried really fresh maocha enough to know the difference.

Eager customers from faraway places who don’t get to go to Yunnan easily are also lured in by the same promise. Like this tree that magically went from 600 years to 1400 years old – outlandish claims exist, even among vendors whose primary customer are in Western countries – and people buy them hoping that they, too, can experience these amazing teas. Let it sink in for a moment how old those trees are really, and think about how likely it is that these claims have any semblance of truth. Meanwhile, spare a thought for this tree that perished in the process.

My tea got wet

Well… that’s sort of the idea, isn’t it, getting your tea leaves wet? In case you can’t tell what’s going on – on a recent trip, I took some tea with me to drink, since I don’t like drinking whatever the place I’m staying at might provide – it’s too much of a lottery unless I’m visiting Taiwan. So, one day we went outside, and when I came back, I met the cleaning lady still working. A short while later, right after she had left, I discovered that my bag of tea was gone. So…. long story short, we fished it out of the garbage, and she claimed that the bag – what you see above – was already that way when she came so she threw it into the trash. Now, I don’t think anyone in my family is insane enough to throw some wet, spent leaves into a bag of dry tea leaves, and I’m pretty damn sure my kids aren’t old enough to learn how to clean up yet, not this way anyway, with a stray tissue to boot. Needless to say, this cake looked nasty, wet all over, and looked like a bit of a lost cause.

Except, it’s not, because of the magic of puerh. Your tea got wet? What to do? Well, you can dry it.

I scraped off the leaves that got wet, and the rest of the cake, since it’s the center of it anyway, the leaves are pretty dry. Some are still a bit damp, but nothing that indoor heating on a cold day can’t fix. A few hours later, everything is dry to the bone again. I brewed some tea up the next day – no problem. All good as new.

You can’t do this with loose leaf tea. If this were a bag of oolong, for example, the whole bag would’ve been toast. However, because this is a solidly compressed cake, and because the bag wasn’t doused in liquid, other than the surface layer of leaves not much else got wet. In fact, once I scraped off the wet leaves the rest already felt pretty dry to my touch. Leaving it out overnight merely made certain that everything got dry – it probably wasn’t strictly necessary. This illustrates two things: 1) puerh is pretty resistant to moisture and dampness, and it takes a lot to get a cake thoroughly wet, and 2) don’t panic when accidents happen. It’s just tea.

Maliandao, ten years later

My first ever visit to Maliandao tea market in Beijing was in 2006, when I first arrived there as a young PhD student doing research for my dissertation. This was the heyday of the puerh boom, when prices of teas could literally double every week or two. As a budding tea addict, I spent quite a few weekends visiting the tea markets since the archives and libraries were closed on Saturdays and Sundays (well, they still do, mostly). I wrote my first physical description of the street here, with an update four years later here – and photos here. You can see how the street changed in the four years between those two posts. Some older malls died, others sprung up. Things, as they do in China, changed very quickly.

A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to go visit again after a day of meetings. This was getting late by tea market standards – most malls/shops closed by 6pm, so me arriving right around then meant that most of the malls were shut. There are two important things to note though. The first is that now you can take the subway to Maliandao – a huge improvement over the previous arrangement, where only a bus or a cab would do. If you get off at the Wanzi station on line 7, you’ll be right at the entrance to Maliandao. Back in the old days there was a gate with a horse on top marking this entrance (as you can see in my first post on the street). Alas, that gate has been demolished.

The stores lining the two sides of the street are still there, many of them the same stores as before. I am actually rather amazed that given the high turnover of the tea stores in general, that these ones have such staying power. Maybe that street-front location is actually more valuable than I think.

I don’t really see many new developments this time – I think there’s one on the right hand side that’s new, but otherwise things have stayed more or less the same as before. When I first came here, you felt like you were on the outskirts of the city – there were some highrises, but most of the buildings were low and old. The tea malls were mostly either glorified sheds or, in many cases, open air rows of stores. Nowadays, those have mostly been replaced by highrises and especially residential developments. There’s also a fancy mall now right across the street from Chayuan at the end of the street. Back then when I visited eating was always a bit of a problem – the restaurants were pretty dodgy. Now the options are quite varied.

I did visit Xiaomei’s store. As I mentioned last time I saw her, she’s now the mother of three and has actually returned to her hometown to help take care of her kids, with her brother now manning the store (and soon to be father himself). Business, he said, is slow, especially after the anti-corruption crackdown so that people are buying less gifts than before. So he’s taken to selling stuff, including tea and teaware, on WeChat through an auction service. I notice that many of the stores around him look dead – maybe not quite literally, but tired, old, and not doing a lot of business, it seems. Their store is basically no longer selling any newer puerh – they still have some old stock from years ago, but nothing new since about 2011. Instead, they mostly sell white teas, focusing on the lower end stuff that sell for less than 100 RMB per 500g. He also mentioned how a lot of stores that borrowed money a few years ago are now having trouble repaying the banks – they take a pretty high interest rate and if you have most of your capital tied up in overpriced tea, you’re in trouble.

I walked around a bit more, peering into some fancy looking stores that were still open but not going into any. I know that most of these places would have exorbitant price tags, with new cakes selling for 1000 or more a cake. I honestly don’t have any interest in stuff like this – I can find teas like that anywhere, and I’m not that confident in finding stuff that is actually worth buying. Whereas in my younger days I probably would’ve happily sat down at any and all stores, asking to try some of their teas, I no longer really feel the need to bother tasting. The prices of new teas are so out of whack that I often find cheaper stuff that are a few years older. Since that’s the case, why do I need to chase new teas?

I did sit down at one store that looked interesting in Chayuan, at least among the stores that are still open (used to be that all the stores would be open pretty late – not anymore). I tried a couple things there – unimpressive 2007 teas that don’t have anything special over any other tea I can find easily, for the same kind of price.

As the market sorted itself out, I think the tea market is increasingly similar to other consumable goods – there’s the high end, the mid end, and the low end, and the lines are quite clear. A store like Xiaomei’s is very much in the low end – cheap tea, sold at a small profit, and going for volume. There are lots of high end stores in China too – teas that are supposed to be rare, exquisite, etc, selling for ridiculous sums. There’s also the vast middle – most of which is mediocre, but offered at mediocre prices. Thing is, back in 2006, when the market was probably best described as frenetic, there was a lot of mixing going on – and in a way, there were a lot more opportunities to find hidden gems. Now there are not going to be many hidden gems anymore – if you want good quality, expect to pay for it. Except, of course, you’re in China, so even if you pay you’re never sure if you’re getting what you were promised. That’s true of the food in front of you, and certainly true of the tea you’re buying. If someone sells you a tea and tells you it’s from ancient trees in Guafengzhai, for example, and wants 5000 RMB for that cake, could you really tell if the story checks out just by drinking the tea?

So in some ways I left Maliandao this trip a little sad – I felt a strong sense of nostalgia for the old, crazy tea market that was always abuzz with price changes and people hunting for good tea. That energy has gone, and is probably never coming back. I miss it.

Tea fair in Kyoto

While I was doing research and waiting for my books at the Urasenke School‘s library, I discovered that there was, that day, a tea fair across town at the Yoshida shrine near Kyoto University. Since the library closed at 3 anyway, I decided to hop over and take a look.

The tea fair was a decent size – about 20-30 booths from various sellers. What was perhaps the most surprising was that about half of them were selling Chinese teas of various sorts. Like these guys:

Or something like this:

The Chinese tea they sold and were pushing were mostly oolongs of various sort, with some greens and puerh thrown in. Many are Taiwan based or Taiwan inspired. But I wasn’t here for Chinese tea.

The Japanese tea sellers were mostly from the area – selling Uji produced tea. I tried some and bought a few bags, although given my glacial rate of drinking Japanese greens, I don’t know when I’ll ever get to them. More interestingly though, I ran into a stall with sellers from, of all places, Miyazaki prefecture. Miyazaki is next to Kagoshima, which is now a major producer of Japanese teas, but Miyazaki, relatively speaking, doesn’t do much tea. These guys claim to be organic and all that, and more importantly, they make black tea. The few I tried were quite good – one almost reminiscent of Darjeelings. Needless to say, I came home with quite a few bags of tea.

Having a tea fair at a shinto shrine has other advantages too. It’s nicely shaded but still feels like a park, it’s got a hill behind it and I actually hiked over the hill to get to the fair, and it’s reasonably accessible. There was also a sho performance while I was there.

There are also some things that I’m reminded of as someone who doesn’t drink a lot of Japanese tea – first, that Japanese greens are brewed strong, and the idea is to coat your mouth with the taste, at least when they make it for you. It’s a sharp contrast with Chinese greens, which emphasize that refreshing lightness. Second, these people shake their teapots violently to get every last drop out. No such thing as a gentle tip – they literally hold the kyusu with two hands and shake the thing like it’s going to drop you money to get every last bit of water out, usually stopping when the last shake produces a lot of tea leaves. Finally, Japanese greens, in the grand scheme of things, are pretty cheap, even decent grade shincha. This partly has to do with the yen dropping like a rock in the past few months, but also reflects how prices have really risen in China, which is the other main source of green teas. They are also so different that direct comparisons are basically pointless.

Tea in the park

At most parks of a decent size in China you’ll find teahouses. These are places where you can sit down and have a cup of tea, and they are, more likely than not, going to have a menu that looks like this

The choices are basically six different grades of green tea, one oolong, one tieguanyin, five floral teas, and one (probably cooked) puerh. You’ll see that prices are quoted in either per cup or per pot, and they are in RMB – not very cheap, by any means. The cheapest and the most expensive are both green teas, and the ones that are 48 are all the non-greens.

The best choice at places like this is actually bring your own tea – you can, for the unlisted price of 10 RMB, just buy hot water and a seat, basically, and use your own leaves. Or, if like me, you didn’t have the tea with you, well, there’s always this

Green is by far the safest choice. This was a mid-priced one. If you go low the tea is going to be a bit nasty. Paying $10 USD for a glass of tea with like 3g of leaves is a bit rich, and is a bit of a waste. Then again, their profit margins on these things are sky high regardless. I’m pretty sure the entire cake of cooked puerh probably costs as much as one order here. I wouldn’t touch those with a ten foot pole.

Old people usually frequent these, and people can sit for hours, getting free water refills that come in these giant thermos

Once you settle in though, it’s beautiful, especially if you’ve got a nice view. At the end of the day, the tea is not the point, the time spent in a park is. Sipping tea, talking with friends, watching the scenery – it’s an afternoon well spent.

Breakfast tea

On my recent trip to Shanghai I made a stop in my hometown. I stayed the night, and the next morning my hosts brought me to a teahouse to have something very local – breakfast tea, with noodles

The noodles are in the bowl in an aged mushroom broth. The other stuff you see, from left to right, are pork chop, ginger strips, bamboo shoots, veggies, and smoked fish. All of these are supposed to be thrown on top of the noodles before consumption. As for the tea? Local Yushan green tea, which is not exactly the most elegant thing on Earth, is rather sweet, and goes down really well with local noodle breakfast.

When I first drank the tea, it’s the typical Yushan green tea taste. After the noodles, though, it actually got sweeter – partly because it’s a bit more diluted now, having been refilled with water, but partly also because I just had a bowl of noodles. Food, of course, changes how you perceive your tea, which is why I normally don’t eat snacks when I drink tea.

When you drink a lot of tea gongfu style, it is easy to forget that there is a world of people, in fact, the majority of drinkers in China, who drink green tea day in, day out. Tea is also mostly drunk with meals, and a really strong, bitter tea doesn’t often go well with a lot of food. On the other hand, green tea, with its refreshing and sweet taste (if it’s good, anyway) goes down great with a lot of foods. This is especially true if the local cuisine is a little heavier in taste. In Guangdong, where the local cuisine is more delicate, a stronger tea (like cooked puerh) might actually contrast well with the food. Food and tea pairing is definitely something people should start working on, although I think it is not easy to do – mostly because of the problems of preparation (what do you do when you’re halfway into a meal – rebrew new tea? You can have some serious caffeine problems that way). Maybe someone should think about how to resolve these issues.