A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from March 2006

Friday March 31, 2006

March 31, 2006 · Leave a Comment

My girlfriend and I went to this teahouse called “Chamate” yesterday in the Sun Dong An Plaza on Wangfujing. In Chinese they’re called 一茶一坐. The place is clean and modern looking, and thankfully, has a smoking and non-smoking section. We were first placed in a non-smoking table, but it was right in front of some guy who was smoking in the smoking section, so we moved to an area that’s outside of the store (in the mall area) and no more smoke. Smoking should be banned from all tea drinking establishments.

Anyway, the tea. There are two ways of ordering tea there. One is the gongfu set, which includes all the necessary parts. The other is a much more simple set, consisting of a tea making vessel and a tea drinking vessel. I, of course, opted for the gongfu set. We decided on a Dongding Oolong Chawang (凍頂烏龍茶王). They claim it’s aged 10 years, and I think they’re not lying. From the selection of teas at the place, it was obvious that it had either a Taiwanese owner or is originally from Taiwan, although I haven’t seen it when I was in Taipei. Most of their teas are Taiwan teas of one kind or another, and the taste/selection is distinctively Taiwanese.

The tea came in a sealed bag, all 30g of it. They gave us a big pot, enough for 4 people, and all the other trappings of a gongfu teaset. At first I thought I could use only half of the leaves, and keep some for the future, but then I realized that it requires the whole 30g for the pot to be properly filled and brew a good cup of nongxiang tea. So, I poured the whole thing in. It felt like a lot, especially for two people, which is why I always buy a small pot for these things because otherwise you waste a lot of leaves.

The tea itself is nice. Very strong, and obviously well aged. Aged oolong leaves are always of a very dark green colour, and this is no exception. The taste is bitter, with a nice fragrance that is usual of nongxiang teas, but a little thing, as is often the case of Taiwan teas. I think it is not the best aged oolong I’ve had, but it is quite fine. We sat there for two hours, then headed to Made in China for roasted duck.

This is certainly some place I can go again for a cup. They sell nice teaware too… but I have really bought way too much already in the way of tea on this trip.

Categories: Uncategorized

Wednesday March 29, 2006

March 29, 2006 · Leave a Comment

Aside from having Tea Heaven, Beijing is also home to lots of teahouses of various kinds. The one I went to near the Confucian Temple is one of them, but there are many others. On the street outside the archives, for example, there are three. I’ve never been to any of them, and from the looks of it, neither has anybody else. They always look perpetually closed or empty. That also seems to be the case at the majority of teahouses around the city.

While they do share the common trait of being almost perpetually empty, they do differ a lot in substance, I think. I say I think, because aside from the Confucian Temple teahouse, I’ve never actually taken tea anywhere else. I have went into a few, only to come right back out for one reason or another.

The most common reason is that they are simply WAY TOO EXPENSIVE. There’s a teahouse in Jianwai SOHO (yes, the location should tip me off that they charge extortionate prices). It’s nice decorated, with a cute menu made in the style of those Han Dynasty scrolls. The prices, though, isn’t so attractive. The cheapest thing you can get there is over 100 RMB, and the most expensive, which is some sort of aged puerh (no specification) is 1688 RMB a serving. Now, say they give me 7 grams for that serving (rather generous). Then, say the cake is 360 grams total. That prices the whole cake at a cost of about 86000 RMB. While good, aged puerh does cost a lot, at 86000 RMB you gotta give me a real Tongqinghao 同慶號 or Songpinghao 宋娉號 teas for it to be worthwhile (these are really old teahouses that are no longer in existence but made fantastic teas — or at least became fantastic as they aged for over 60 years). That is probably not what they’ve got in store for me though, so no go.

Another problem is smoking. I went into this teahouse near where I’m staying, and it looks nice and all. The prices are high, but not as high as the place in Jianwai SOHO. The biggest problem is that the people who were there were all smoking, and they all look like your typical suits in China who have more company money to spend than they know what to do with, so they go tea drinking. Needless to say, smokes really detract from the experience, so I left pretty quickly. It didn’t help that the menu was even more ambiguous than the place at Jianwai SOHO. They want 800 RMB for a “puerh tea king 普洱茶王”. What’s that? No idea…

So, I guess I should go to more teahouses and look at them and find the ones that are actually nice, serious about tea, and don’t charge you an arm and a leg. That might be hard to find though.

Categories: Uncategorized

Wednesday March 29, 2006

March 29, 2006 · Leave a Comment

Tea. Heaven.

Yes, it exists, and I don’t have to die to see it (although my sore throat today worsened while shopping, must be a punishment for all the goodness I was seeing).

It’s located in Beijing, no less. I used to think Beijing sucks. Now I think Beijing isn’t so bad after all. If I have to spend a year here, at least I can spend 52 weekends happily shopping for tea, looking at tea, drinking tea, and buying tea. Oh…

It’s actually very far, since the Beijing I know is mostly Dongcheng. This place, however, is in Xuanwu Qu, all the way at its western edge. It’s on a street called Maliandao. There’s no good way to get there. My girlfriend and I ended up cabbing from the Military Museum. It was a trip.

When we got off the cab, it was already impressive. I could see that the whole street, as far as my eyes could see, were lined with teashops on both sides. There were at least two dozen shops within my sight right away, and I resisted the urge to walk into every single one of them. Not all of them were particularly interesting looking. Most of them, in fact, look rather like the one next to it. They are all decorated in some sort of green, and interestingly, they all sell all kinds of tea, not any particular one. That I found rather interesting, since I had actually expected the stores to have a little more specialty. The other thing I noticed is that they were all rather empty. Granted, it’s a Wednesday and stuff, but they were mostly empty, and for the most part, looked rather eager as a potential customer looking type, like me, walked by.

We only went into one store, one that specializes in Puerh. The guy at the store, probably my age, was friendly enough. I asked him if they sell any raw loose tea. “No” was the answer. The only thing they have is cooked loose tea. If I want raw tea, I need to buy cakes, and they’re all rather new/green, and not well fermented. Hong Kong, after all, is puerh capital, and in the mainland they simply don’t have that stuff. In Hong Kong I buy raw, but aged, loose puerh all the time. No such luck here.

Then, halfway down the street while I was happily browsing, I saw a sign — it says something like “Beijing Puerh Capital”. Wow. What’s that? Puerh? Capital? Gotta check that out. Before we got there though, at the crossroad (turning into another street full of teashops) there was a little display where a tea company got a few tea makers to fry dragonwell in front of everyone. There was quite a crowd, and nobody was doing the frying at the particular moment, so we peeked, then walked towards this rather big tea shop. It probably isn’t a guoying company, but it felt like one with blank stares from the staff. I was walking around like an invisible ghost, and nobody paid me any attention. These people weren’t very nice. I think me being young doesn’t help at all. There’s always a discrimination against young buyers of tea everywhere, and this place was no exception. They think I either know nothing about tea or I’m not going to spend any money on it. Or both. Either way, it means I’m not worth the effort.

We quickly retreated out of that store and went to the “puerh capital” across the street, which is actually a tea mall. Inside, there are a lot of stores that are only divided by partitions. The stores, again, all look the same, and for all I can tell, we were basically the only two customers in the entire place today. We walked around the first floor, and went into a store that specializes in yixing teapots. I got myself a rather nice pot for 100 RMB. I tried, feebly, to bargain, but the guy wouldn’t budge and he could probably tell I liked the pot. 100 RMB, at the end of the day, was not bad for a pot of that quality, so I decided to forget it, suck it up, and pay. They were rather nice, and treated me to some tea. I also had a nice chat with him, and found that he used to sell tea as well, but business was hard because everyone else was also selling tea, so it’s difficult to differentiate yourself. I can see that.

The second floor of the place is why they call themselves the puerh capital. They were all puerh stores. Cakes galore. All of them were basically devoid of customers, so we got some solicitation. We stopped in one store, tried one of their raw cakes that’s from 2003, and from what I could tell, it was mellow and a little weak in taste. If it’s already so mellow now, I can’t imagine what it’ll be like in 20 years (probably won’t taste like anything). I didn’t buy it, and left.

I have to say though, I am really not very knowledgable about raw cakes. I can drink and taste the differences and can easily tell apart raw and cooked cakes, but I suck when it comes to evaluating raw cakes. The thing with raw cakes is that you need to have had the expereince of seeing through the process of fermentation of a batch of cakes to really be able to appreciate all the steps and the changes in taste that a cake goes through, and I simply don’t have that sort of experience. I am starting to gain some now, but am in very, very, very early stages. It’ll be years before I can be a good judge. In the meantime, I will have to pay tuition.

So… we left this place, went out again, and now the tea frying display actually has a guy working the wok. We stopped by and watched him for a few minutes. That was rather interesting, and you can really smell the fragrance of Dragonwell coming from the wok. It was interesting to see his technique.

There is a Carrefour at the end of the street, and before that, another tea mall (much bigger than the last one). We went into a puerh only store across the street from the tea mall, and I ended up buying a dirt cheap (80 RMB) cake of raw, 2003 tea. It’s not the highest quality, but I want to buy something cheap that I won’t feel bad about peeling off and drinking every two months to learn how things change. It tasted ok enough, and actually a bit more robust than the one at the other store (which cost 2x more).

Then we entered the big mall… wow….. 3 floors, all tea shops, and it was HUGE. The first floor probably consisted of more than 50 vendors, all in spaces that were about 100-200 sq. ft. It was dizzying.

We took a walk around, and I ended up turning into a joint that sells mainly tieguanyin. It was interesting, because although there were a 20 something year old girl and a 60 year old lady manning the store, it was obvious that the 20 something was the one who called the shots about the teas. I asked for a nongxiang tieguanyin, and they produced two. I find this an important strategy to adopt to combat the “young customer” syndrome — ask for something specific right away, so that they know you know at least something about what you’re buying. Use jargon if necessary. That way, you’ve established your credentials so that they know they can’t get away with selling you crap or lying to you.

Anyway, back to the nongxiang tieguanyin. The first one she brewed was interesting — nongxiang, but mellow. Not sour though, and it dies off a bit fast for a good tieguanyin. The leaves are dark, which, I guessed correctly, means that it was aged. She told me that it was actually vintage 1999, and roasted once a year to keep the taste. This is what they often do, usually only to teas that are slightly cheaper. It did produce a decent flavour though, and I liked it. The second nongxiang was clearly inferior, and I didn’t buy it. The tea cost 60 RMB for 100g, which is pretty cheap for what it is. I’m happy.

Then I asked for a qingxiang tieguanyin, and she told me that they have too many varieties and asked me to name a price and be more specific. We ended up settling on 800RMB a jin, going for body, not fragrance, and on the lighter side of qingxiang. She produced one that was pretty close, with emphasis on lightness. It’s an autumn tea, and the brew was nicely yellow. The trademark fragrance and af
tertaste of tieguanyin is there, and it was a sharp taste. Very nice. So I got some of that too. There’s a pot I liked, but they want 320 RMB for it, and by that time, I was rather tired and in no mood to bargain (not to mention no cash) so, that was the end of our tea trip.

I will definitely come back again.

Categories: Uncategorized

Monday March 27, 2006

March 27, 2006 · 2 Comments

Well, Beijing I am in. It’s only been two days, but I’ve already made two visits to different teashops and bought different things. The most important purchase is a new teapot, for drinking qingxiang Taiwanese oolong. I’ve always used just a gaiwan for that, but I now think it’s a waste since I drink a fair amount of it, so I might as well get a pot for it. I’m rather happy with my purchase (only 100 RMB), now I only need to find the tea to go with it (and to cook the teapot once I get home).

Besides that, I bought some new tieguanyin from the same Xuefeng people. They really do have nice tieguanyin that has a fantastic aftertaste that is hard to find, and even in the mangled cup that the storekeeper served me, it lingered for a few minutes before going away. That was rather impressive.

The place where I got the teapot is also a teahouse that I’ve visited before. It is right across the street from the Confucian temple and the Guozijian, and they have a dysfunctional website (www.eatea.com.cn) that I can’t access in the mainland. Their teas are not insanely good, but they are reasonably priced and the atmosphere is rather comfortable. I like the decor there and the staff are generally friendly, which is fairly important (as opposed to snobbish staff at some teahouses).

We (me, my girlfriend, and her sister) had two teas. One was an alleged 30 year old puerh, what they call the “iron cake”, and the other was a Dahongpao. Since there were three of us, the rules were that you have to order 3 servings of tea. I decided we’ll get two servings of the Puerh, and then one of the Dahongpao.

The puerh brewed somewhat green, actually, even though they claimed it was 30 years. I was slightly suspicious, but iron cake, which is known for being compressed very very tightly, generally ferment very slowly and thus it is not completely out of the question that it was still a little green. The first few infusions were a little sour and didn’t taste that good, but after about the 4th infusion the taste improved and it got better. The way the puerh tasted was not what I had expected at all, but it was rather interesting and is part of the reason why puerh is so much fun to drink. I think I ended up making about 10-12 infusions before moving on to the Dahongpao.

The Dahongpao is of fairly high quality, although it’s not really top notch, I think. I haven’t had a Dahongpao for a while, and it is nice to drink it again and taste the “rock” taste that it is so famous for. The “rock” taste of Dahongpao (or any rock tea) is so distinctive, and if it is a good tea, lingers on forever. It does die fairly quickly, lasting only about 3-4 infusions, but man, those were good ones.

Then I got sick, and came down with a fever the same night. Oh well. More tea adventures after I recover.

Categories: Uncategorized

Wednesday March 22, 2006

March 22, 2006 · 1 Comment

I’m drinking the last remaining leaves of my aged oolong from Taiwan. It really had a high fragrance and subtle character/depth that most oolongs don’t have. At the same time, you can tell it’s not as “fresh” as your usual Taiwan oolong. The leaves are very big and slightly dark, but compared with my new tieguanyin, they’re literally thinner — the tieguanyin leaves are thicker and feels more sturdy, while these are a little thinner and feel more like paper. I should play with tea leaves more and pay more attention to them. After you brew the tea the differences really come out.

Categories: Uncategorized

Tuesday March 21, 2006

March 21, 2006 · Leave a Comment

I went to Teavana today for take out tea, since I was in Boston to get my hair cut and walked by it while running errands. It’s in the Prudential Center, and quite popular on the weekends with loads of people running around, looking at different kinds of tea. So, it must be good right?


Well, where to start. First of all, it’s expensive. I ordered their “best” oolong, the “Monkey Picked Oolong” (whatever that is). When you buy it loose leaf it is $25 for 2oz, which is actually quite expensive. 2oz is roughly 56 grams, so at $25 for 2 oz, we’re talking almost 50 cents a gram. That in itself is not a sin — I’ve paid far more for teas, but is it worth the price?

Well, I ended up not knowing for sure. They use this thing called the “Perfect Tea Maker” (I’m not going to link since I don’t think anyone should buy it) which essentially does all the work for you. You put in the tea leaves, pour the water into this thing, and it sits there, brews, all the while allowing you to see the leaves because it is made of clear plastic. Then, when you’re ready to drink it, you can press this button which opens the valve at the bottom of the tea maker, and the tea will come pouring out while the filter will keep all the tea leaves in the container. So far, so good.

In theory, this is all pretty nice. It separates the tea from the water, and I suppose if you wish, you can put water in again and repeat. In practice, however, there are problems, especially when your take-out tea department uses these things. Both clear plastic as well as the strainer, and especially the strainer, will begin to absorb the flavours of whatever tea you’re brewing in it. I think no matter how hard you wash the thing (and I asked — they wash it in a dishwasher) it will still keep some of the flavour over time. You can tell because both the strainer and the plastic are a little brown-hued — tea colouring.

Ideally then, all teas should have one and they should use the same one for the same tea. That, of course, doesn’t happen. Since these guys sell you a motherload of flavoured teas like “Vanilla Bean”, “Peach Apricot”, and “Black Currant”, the brew you end up drinking will have these flavours mixed in. These are usually especially strong, and much more pronounced than your regular tea flavour. When I drank the cup today, I definitely could taste some of the vanilla and a little fruit (not sure what). Lovely, in a tieguanyin.

What’s worse, the water they used for this tea was not hot enough, and for all the “knowledge” that the staff seems to display, nobody seems to think they need to wash the leaves. So, they poured green-tea temperature water into this container with fresh tea leaves, which will lower the temperature, and after a minute or two poured it out to my cup (they use a timer, even, how precise…). I noticed that given the amount of tea leaves — and it was a lot of leaves they used — the flavour was weak. After a few sips I noticed that it was not hot at all, which was probably why I didn’t taste all that much — the water simply wasn’t able to extract the flavour of the tea in time. If they had washed the leaves, it would’ve unfurled the stuff a little and would’ve made a better cup. Or, just use hotter water, which is fine for oolongs anyway.

So, I paid $3.50 for an insipid, funny flavoured tea of unknown provenance. I think it is tieguanyin from China, but since I don’t get to play with the leaves, and since the flavour was not clear, I was not entirely sure. Either way, it sucked. I got back to Harvard Square and went to Toscanini’s and got a cup of loose cooked Puerh instead. At least it was flavourful.

Categories: Uncategorized

Monday March 20, 2006

March 20, 2006 · 3 Comments

Well well, new tea. My girlfriend, aka tea buyer, sent me some goods from Beijing. The company that makes this tea is called Xuefeng, which literally means snowy-peaks. I’ve had their tea before, some time, somewhere, although I can’t remember where. I remembered it to be pretty decent.

The tea in question is a tieguanyin, from none other than the Fujian province. The label in the bottom says 2005, November 8th, so it’s probably an autumn picked tea — a late one too. Here’s a pic of the box and the dried stuff.

These days, everything is packed into these little packs.

Before water

Those of you who know Chinese will notice that the box says “Taiwanese style” in the bottom right, which is rather odd. The back of the box just says “tieguanyin”, which isn’t very interesting to see. I have no idea what “Taiwanese style” is supposed to mean, since there’s nothing discernably Taiwanese about this tea. Maybe it sells better that way, but why would anyone want to imitate the god-awful Taiwanese tieguanyin?

Anyway. The tea itself, as you can see in the picture, is quite green. However, it’s not rolled very tightly and not terribly round, which is a mark of how Fujianese make their oolongs (Taiwan teas tend to be more ball-like). There are also some stalks that are attached to the leaves — this is usually more common in autumn picked teas, whereas spring pick, in my own expereince anyway, tend to be more leaves and less stalk. That probably varies though and isn’t a good indicator.

This is the final product — first brew after the wash. The tea is fairly nice, with a full body and a very strong aftertaste that is a mark of decent tieguanyin. The fragrance is not high, as is typical, but I detect a hint of sourness. I’m not sure if it’s my brewing or if it’s the tea, but I’ve tried it twice now, and it’s there both times. Maybe I’m messing it up somehow, but it is also possible that somehow they’ve made it a little sour. It could be because of the time they picked the tea. Still, it’s very nice and got a good aftertaste, which is more than I can say about most tieguanyin you can buy.

The leaves are very thick and strong, and have a nice red border when unfurled. I’m looking forward to visiting this teashop (I think I found them in Shanghai once) when I get to Beijing for spring break.

Categories: Uncategorized

Friday March 17, 2006

March 17, 2006 · Leave a Comment

Well, after my long bus ride in the early morning, I had no energy in the afternoon to go tea-exploring, even though I really wanted to…

So I ended up back at Cha-an with a friend I haven’t met in 6 years after dinner. It was crowded on a Thursday night. I had a tieguanyin served kung-fu style, with an obviously Taiwanese set but very authentic, down to the faux yixing pot that’s made of Taiwanese clay(I think it’s faux yixing pot, I’m not a great expert on pots). The original amount of tea they wanted to give me only filled about 1/8 of the teapot, which was not nearly enough. I asked for a double, and the people there had trouble comprehending my request.

They couldn’t figure out what it was that I wanted — did I want more tea leaves ,and a bigger pot? “No, I would simply like more tea leaves, I’ll pay for it”. Would you like a new pot? “No, just more leaves”. But wouldn’t that make the tea too strong? “That’s the idea”

Anyway, the tieguanyin is actually a real Chinese one, with a very nice afterglow that sticks. Fragrance is not high, but real tieguanyin’s smell is never terribly impressive — it excels in taste. The water was ever so slighly not hot enough. They give it to you in a thermost. It’s ok when they first give it to you, but seems to cool a little too quickly because when they give it to you it’s already not boiling hot. The first brew was weak, but it does yield more brews that way. With two servings of leaves it only brewed about one cup every round. Good enough for one.

My friend had a baihao yinzheng, which looked decent enough, although since I’m sick, I didn’t ask to try.

One thing — they only take cash. Remember that. Next time, I’m going to do the kung-fu teas again.

Categories: Uncategorized

Thursday March 16, 2006

March 16, 2006 · Leave a Comment

I hate it when some company usurps some cause to try to make money out of it.

This is barely tea related, but it is water related, so I suppose it fits.

In my never-ending quest to drink waters that I have never tried, I saw this water selling in Starbucks called Ethos. Now, before you accuse me, I went to Starbucks because 1) it was the only thing open at 6am. 2) It has internet connection. 3) I was really tired after a bus ride that started at 12:30am. 4) I needed caffeine to keep me going. 5) It was the only place I could find that allowed me to avoid McDonald’s tea.

Anyway, Ethos water. So, they donate 5 cents per bottle to helping provide clean water for kids in the world. Great. The goal is to donate $10 million. Great. That means you have to sell, let’s see, 200 million bottles of water? So if, say, all Taiwanese bought a bottle of this water for 10 days, we’ll get that $10 million, which also means that they’d have made money way beyond those $10 on those 200 million bottles they sold (at $2 a bottle at Starbucks!!).

I went to their website — no actual information about their water. Seems like nobody cares. They just tell you how serious the water crisis is, and how you have to buy their water to help save the frigging kids in Africa who are dying thanks to dirty water. Well, if I really want to help those kids, I’ll just donate my $2 per bottle to the kids directly, instead of buying your overpriced, insipid water (it’s very unremarkable, like Poland Springs) where you donate 5 cents a bottle. If you’re really that generous, tell me you’re a non-profit and you earn $30,000 a year for your CEO salary, you ex-McKinsey consultant, MBA co-founders.

Categories: Uncategorized

Wednesday March 15, 2006

March 15, 2006 · Leave a Comment

Many days without an update — the fever took a lot out of me, and I’m still trying desperately to catch up with work and all that. Finally, my work week is over, and I am going to go to NYC tomorrow to get my visa for my upcoming China trip. Since I am planning on meeting an old friend from college in NYC tomorrow for tea, I am trying to figure out where to go that might be interesting. In the past, I have been to T-Salon and Cha-An (they don’t seem to have their own website). T-Salon is a bit of a ripoff, and last time I went I encountered the “you are young so you must know nothing about tea” treatment from their proprietor, which is unfortunate but fairly common. Cha-An, on the other hand, is a nice spot and I would recommend anyone to go, although they are mostly Japanese green tea and is not very cheap. It is a very nice place to hit though after a nice Japanese meal in the area. Across the street is a soba joint.

So, I am looking for a new place to visit. There’s the Wild Lily Tearoom that looks like a Taiwan operated place, or at least most of their teas seem to be Taiwanese in origin. There’s this place called Franchia, which seems rather expensive and Korean tea oriented, which might be interesting. There are a number of tea places in New York, and it is hard to decide where to go. Cha-an probably still has one of the better selections/quality though, since Franchia seems overpriced. Oh well, we’ll see.

Categories: Uncategorized