A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from April 2007

Teaware dilemma

April 30, 2007 · 3 Comments

It’s been more than a week and half since I got to Shanghai, and yet I still haven’t properly brewed tea at home.  I have a tea tray, a water heating unit, and a gaiwan now, but I lack a cup and perhaps a fairness cup.

I finally opted for the cheapest gaiwans there are.  Most of the gaiwans available here are very nice Jingdezhen ones.  They are those hand painted ones (or allegedly hand-painted ones anyway) and they look quite nice.  For a while I was rather tempted to buy one here, but if I do, it would have to be brought back as I don’t want to leave it here.  With this 5 RMB gaiwan… I feel no qualms about just leaving it here so whenever I come, I’ll have a set to use.

The same problem is there for cups, and to an even greater extent, the fairness cup.  The issue is that with a cheap fairness cup (the cheapest I’ve seen is around 10 RMB)is that the pouring is poor.  The spout is shaped like a semi-circle, and those generally pour very poorly, with the thing dripping all over while you try to pour.  Ideally, the spout should be long and tapered.  The fairness cups that have that nice spout, however, are expensive and generally well decorated.  It seems rather stupid to buy an expensive fairness cup to go with the dirt cheap gaiwan (and the dirt cheap tea tray).  It just doesn’t match.

The same is true for teacups.  I can buy the cheapest thing, but they don’t look so nice.  Anything slightly nicer is expensive.  I also want one where all the contents of the gaiwan will fit in one cup, eliminating the fairness cup all together (unless I’m serving guests), so that limits my choices.  There just isn’t much middle ground here, as opposed to Beijing.  Mind you, even the expensive stuff clock in at under 100 RMB, but when a gaiwan can be had for 5…. it seems like a lot.

What to do, what to do??

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Yet another tea gathering

April 29, 2007 · 7 Comments

I went to L’s place today for tea again.  Quite a few people showed up throughout the afternoon, and we drank quite a few teas in the process.

They were already drinking when I got there.  But the first two teas we had after I arrived were the two samples sent to me by Davelcorp.  They were labeled sample A and B.  We started with sample A, as I assumed that was the order I was supposed to go in.  Sample A, when dry, smelled a little cooked for some reason.  It doesn’t smell quite like a regular puerh would after a few years of aging.  It’s a little dark, somewhat brown in colour.

The tea brewed up a reddish brown liquor.  After a few infusions, it looked like this

The tea tastes a little funny for some reason.  While the tea looks like a great puerh, and smells like an ok one, it has a funny taste… it’s got some slightly plumish taste, but not in the way that the 1997 Xizihao Yiwu taste.  It’s also got a little sourness to it on the side of the mouth, and has a strange finish.  I can’t quite pinpoint what’s wrong with it, but multiple people thought it a little odd without quite able to put their finger on it.  In fact, I think I’ve tasted this before in my Keyixing bricks… they are somewhat, but not entirely, similar in taste.  They are both a little thin in body.  I wonder if this is a tea that didn’t have enough “kill-green” and turned a bit into a red tea.

The second tea we had was Sample B.  Sample B smells a lot better than Sample A when dry.  It’s got a nice aroma, smelling like maybe a Yiwu would after a few years of aging.

The tea has a lighter colour liquor than Sample A, but the taste was obviously fuller, with a nice aftertaste that hits the back of the mouth and the top of the throat.  Everybody liked this tea.  I am quite certain this is a Yiwu, perhaps Davelcorp’s beloved Menghai Yiwu cake that has been a subject of discussion on the LJ community recently.  Whatever it is, it’s quite nice.

Here’s a comparative shot of A and B’s wet leaves

A on the left, B on the right.  The colour might be a little too light, but B is definitely greener than A.  B also has a more pungent “puerh-like” smell than A, which smells a bit vegetal.  A is really quite similar to my Keyixing bricks, down to the smell of the wet leaves.

We then drank the Bulang that I bought recently.  I like it, but L doesn’t, thinking it’s too bitter.  I find it to have good energy, but maybe I’m just deluded?

Compared to the Zhongcha Banzhang cake we drank next, the Bulang is stronger, oddly enough, but the Banzhang has an obviously different flavour profile.  I think for the cost differential, which is very substantial, the Bulang obviously wins.  Without factoring in the cost, it will have to come to individual preferences.

We then sat around for a bit, and in the meantime, L got a call from Beijing about the newest prices from Zhongcha (with whom he has a dealership relationship).  Prices have been reduced a little, which is definitely a good thing.  I think there’s now some downward pressure on new cakes’ prices, and also on new maocha prices, because the level reached a month ago was simply too high — many stores could find no buyers, especially retail buyers, for their tea.  At least L doesn’t gouge me, that I know.  Not that I have bought much of anything from him, mind you.  I think I’ve drank more tea from him than actual tea bought, which is a scary thought in and of itself.

Another guest arrived, and we switched to a dahongpao that Action Jackson got as a gift from Xiaomei, L’s business partner in Beijing (and which I hauled over).  It’s actually quite nice, aromatic, and a very, very welcomed change from all the youngish puerhs we were drinking.  We finished the day with a wet-stored cooked brick, which I didn’t find particularly interesting, but then, I rarely find any cooked stuff interesting, and certainly cannot justify high prices paid for such things.

One of the things that came up during discussion between me and Action Jackson today about younger puerhs is the matter of taste… and I realized that I no longer really drink any flavours of a youngish puerh, but rather the feeling of the tea.  She said she liked the taste of one of the teas we had today over another, and asked me about flavours.  It was then that I realized I was no longer looking at flavours… I didn’t even really pay much attention to it.  Of course, I noted whether or not something was like what I think is the taste of a certain region, but… that almost no longer enter into the equation when I make that decision of whether or not this is a good tea, and whether or not this is something I would want to buy.  It’s something worth thinking about… I should perhaps pay more attention to describing flavours, something which I’ve never been very good at.

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Where do the wrappers go?

April 28, 2007 · 4 Comments

A constant on CCTV these days during prime time are these programs that essentially try to educate the viewers on the virtue and the intricacies of copyright.  As everybody knows, copyright in China is almost an oxymoron.  However, there is some real attempt, at least through government controlled television, to educate people to the problems with piracy and the importance of respecting copyright.  All the participants in these programs seem well versed in such matters, and when they get it wrong, the program hosts will quickly correct them and everybody will nod and smile.

Contrast this with the following image:  a tea store that is packing teas for shipment to somewhere else, and they do it by stripping the neifei, neipiao, and wrapper of each cake and rewrapping it with something else, or nothing at all.  However, all those wrappers (all the ones I’ve seen are Zhongcha) are saved carefully and meticulously.  They unfold the wrappers, put them in neat stacks, and obviously stock them away somewhere.  I don’t know where exactly, but somewhere.  This is stuff that you would normally throw away, but not here.  Instead, they are probably going to somehow reuse it.

I’ve seen this done at least twice now at two different places.  I can’t help but wonder where these wrappers go.  I’m sure they go somewhere, and I’m sure that of the many many new or semi-new cakes out there wrapped in Zhongcha wrappers…. at least some of them are faked this way.  Some will be used to fake older teas.  What can you do about it?

Then you have the practice of repackaging a tea with some other wrapper and calling it by a different name.  Lots of people do that.  Lots of factories do that — essentially the same tea but using a different neifei/wrapper, and all of a sudden, you have a different tea!  While some people might be able to tell you the minor differences between one and the other, many regular drinkers probably cannot (if there is any difference to begin with).  Since puerh changes over time, even in the span of a few months, it is not too hard to think that they taste different if it’s an idea already lodged in your head.  That’s one way that some factories could use to bolster their own lineup and also encourage more buying by tapping into the “I must collect all” mentality.  I’ve tried some factories’ cakes that are really very similar… and makes me wonder if they are really basically the same thing with a different name.

A variation of this is where one company buys a bunch of cakes from somebody, and strips the packaging from that company and puts on their own or none at all, and sell it as something else.  I’ve had a teashop owner complaining to me about this practice as he has been a victim of it.  He and a few others made a lot of one cake.  His had his own neifei in them.  Somehow most of his were sold, through a third party, to somebody else (let’s call him Person A) in that group who had sold out his own version of the same cakes, and that somebody else stripped the neifei out of the cake to prevent people from knowing they have a different provenance.  The tea is now a known item in puerh circles, and the name that it is known for is the one that Person A uses, not the original tea store owner’s.  He still has some of it left, and I saw it with neifei and all — it does look the same as the cake with the more famous name. I wasn’t entirely sure of the story, and since he now charges the same price as person A’s store… why would you buy the no-name one (even though the no-name one is actually the original)?  His loss all around.

Last but not least, there are just the out and out fake stuff.  There are lots of them, with big factory teas being the most commonly faked.  Some are poorly faked.  Some are well faked.  Some, at least according to those who’ve tried, are even better than the real stuff.  I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s possible.

This is all really depressing.  At least it’s reassuring that they’re trying to do something about all this through education.

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Tea Expo Shanghai 2007

April 27, 2007 · 5 Comments

I went to the Tea Expo today.

First of all… the thing is a little surprising given the amount of puerh tea vendors in there.  Granted, puerh is all the rage these days and is the new darling of the tea industry in China, but I didn’t expect quite so many of them.  A fully 80% of the stalls, by my estimation, were puerh ones, and the best attended/decorated ones were definitely the puerh ones.

All the usual suspects were there… Menghai, Xiaguan, Mengku, etc etc.  Mind you, the Xiaguan stall was deserted (while the Menghai one was pretty well attended).  There were some green tea ones, and a few tieguanyin stalls, but not many.

The other thing odd about this thing is timing.  It’s obviously designed with green tea in mind, because this is a perfect time for manufacturers to showcase their newly picked green tea in late April.  However, for puerh it is too early.  Most factories present didn’t have their spring tea ready… many showed up with only the packaging of the teas, but not the teas themselves…. because they haven’t finished making them yet.  It’s a rather odd situation.  The “official puerh vendor” of the expo only had one spring cake ready — the rest were still in various stages of production.  It was a strange thing.

Here are a few sights from the place… it wasn’t too big, and we went through a backdoor (we don’t even know where the front door was) and just walked right in.  You don’t need to pay anyway to get in, so it doesn’t really matter.

The prices at the expo were actually fairly high by Maliandao standards.  One store quoted me something that was 4x what I could fetch at Maliandao… so why should I buy from the expo?  I don’t know.  Prices in general were quite high, and no bargains were to be had, as far as I am aware, especially considering this was the “trade” day.  Non-trade visitors were only supposed to visit tomorrow and Sunday.

Then again, as at all expos, there were freebies to be had.  Action Jackson, especially, got a free cake from some gentleman from a relatively unknown factory

Sometimes, it pays to be a foreigner in China.

I also had my first experience drinking tea from a huge teapot today

The tea inside is similar to what I had at the Xinjiang restaurant, except with a bit more spiciness in the tea.  Maybe it’s the same thing brewed a little stronger.  If it’s what I think it is… it’s Fu Bricks from Hunan.

Thanks to L’s connection, all of us got some freebies as well from the puerh sponsor.  He knows the manager of their factory in Yunnan, who was there today, and he gave us this:

Which, if opened, reveals the goodies:

This is maocha from all six of the Six Mountains.  In order from top to bottom they are Yiwu, Yibang, Wangzhi, Manzhuan, Youle, and Gedeng.  Yes, I’m going to try them all, and of course, you’ll all hear about them when I do.

After the tea expo, where we only spent about two hours and change, we went to Tianshan Tea City to buy some stuff.  We stopped at a Wuyi store, drank a few things, including a fairly interesting, but very high fired, Wuyi tea.  This stuff was black and tasted quite strong of charcoal taste.  I liked it, Action Jackson didn’t, and neither did L’s business partner from Hangzhou.  L himself wasn’t around, but I don’t think he would’ve liked it either.

We made it out of there with a bit of tea, then looked around for the cheapest gaiwan we could find.  I finally have a gaiwan for the house now for a whooping 5 RMB.  I don’t have a cup, but that is easily fixable.  I also saw some curious cakes on our way out, but I already had enough.

We drank even more tea as we went to L’s office, including a 2003 Purple Dayi and a cooked cake of some kind from Zhongcha.  All this while a few Menghai factory dealers were there drinking stuff and basically saying only Dayi teas are good.  It was too much for me… and my stomach complained when we didn’t get to eat dinner until after 8.  Sigh.

All in all, a long day for tea.  Gotta get some work done tomorrow to compensate, and at some point in the near future, I need to head back to Tianshan to try some tea I don’t get to try in Beijing.

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Mystery tea

April 26, 2007 · 3 Comments

I went to a Xinjiang restaurant last night with some colleagues.  They already ordered when I arrived, but there was a brass teapot on the table, and in there was some tea.  There were no cups, so I poured it into a bowl to drink it.  While everybody else imbibed the Xinjiang beer they had there, I kept drinking the tea.

It was an interesting tea, if a bit of a mystery.  I didn’t know what it was.  I didn’t fish out the leaves, but the bits and pieces that made their way into my bowl indicates that they were rather dark.  The liquor, on the other hand, was a bit light.  It’s a greenish/orange/yellow colour.  The taste is bland, but slightly sweet.  No bitterness at all.  I think it’s tea, but I don’t know what kind.

I didn’t ask them what it was, and I couldn’t really figure it out.  It sort of tastes like a few years old dry stored puerh, actually, but of low quality… so there wasn’t a lot to the tea.  The sweetness seems right.  Maybe they get these teas from Xinjiang?  Maybe this is Xinjiang stored tea?  It wasn’t bad at all, the way they made it.  I should’ve really asked them what kind of tea it was.  Maybe I’ll go again and find out.

Categories: Old Xanga posts · Teas

Breaking news

April 25, 2007 · 8 Comments

It seems like the disorderly exit that I semi-predicted has begun.

L just called me.  He said that there have been news that he heard that the markets in Kunming and in Guangzhou have started the big decline… and nobody is asking for Dayi (Menghai) goods at this point.  Makes a lot of market sense, really, since as soon as the prices start dropping, everybody who wanted to buy will wait till the prices stabilize a bit before jumping into the fray again.  All the tea investors who’ve been buying will want to let go of their goods very quickly.  One of L’s customers in Tianshan Tea City told him that the biggest Dayi distributors in Shanghai has already called him a few times, asking him to help sell stuff for prices that you could only dream of a month or two ago.

This is welcomed news, really.  The prices for a lot of these younger cakes has reached astronomical levels, with new, fresh off the mountain cakes selling for things like 250 RMB each, and a lot of these are cheap plantation teas that aren’t really worth that much.  Many people I know who are the end customers for such things — tea drinkers like you and me, think that prices are simply far too high to buy any more new cakes.

I had thought that given the fact that much of the country still has to tap into the puerh craze, that there might be enough future customers to sustain the run for a little longer.  However, once a fall happens it is hard to stop if everybody wants to exit the market, or at least withdraw from active buying.  I think it started with Xiaguan teas — it briefly reached 220 RMB for a stick of 5 tuochas.  That price was about 7x what I could’ve bought the same tea when I first arrived in Beijing.  Somebody made a lot of money from investing in Xiaguan tea in the short term, but more people have now lost a lot of money.  Xiaguan prices already fell a bit when I left Beijing for Shanghai.  I wondered, at the time, whether it will cause a drop in Dayi teas too.  Seems like people have woken up to the fact that investing in puerh is a risky business, and are no longer willing to take that risk.

We’ll have to see what happens in the next few weeks, but I think it will be hard for prices to pick up anytime soon.  Hopefully this will usher in an era of more rational purchasing, as well as more sustainable development of products and farming techniques.

I am going to go to the Tea Expo in Shanghai this Friday.  If what I’m hearing is actually true — this will definitely make it a very, very interesting experience.

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A local find

April 24, 2007 · 1 Comment

Today on my way to the library, I noticed this little shop that is literally right next door.  It’s a 30 seconds walk from my house to this place, but since I haven’t been in Shanghai that long, and since I just usually walk right past it… I never paid attention.

This is the kind of store through which most of the t eas in China are sold.  He posts the prices of the main attractions on the board to the left of his store.  On it it reads:

Yuqian (Before rain) Fried Green — 14 yuan/jin (500g)
Jasmine — 15 yuan/jin
New Longjing — 30 yuan/jin
Oolong tea — 42 yuan/jin
Huangshan Fried Green — 7 yuan/jin
Huangshan Maofeng — 38 yuan/jin
Huangshan Silver Hooks — 18 yuan/jin
Yunnan Maofeng — 25 yuan/jin
New Maofeng — 18 yuan/jin

As should be obvious… the prices are very pedestrian.  This is apparently last year’s prices, with this year’s being slightly higher.  Nevertheless, it’s… cheap.

I went up to the counter (you can’t really walk in — too small) and looked at the teas on display.  It’s typical of stores that sell green tea to have them on little white dishes with a price tag next to the tea.  You can see for yourself what they all look like, and the different looks that go with the different prices can be quite instructive.  Somehow in Beijing they don’t do this.

I picked out a Yunnan green to try.  I bought 50g of it for 5 kuai.  I think I overpaid, and if I had gotten the same thing at a tea market, it’ll probably be 2 kuai or some such.  But heck…

The Yunnan green actually smells and looks a lot like some of the maocha I’ve had recently, but the leaves here are a bit smaller.  I will really need to try it out to see exactly what this Yunnan green is made of… and to try to age it and see what turns out from this green.  It will be interesting.

Categories: Misc · Old Xanga posts · Teas
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Grandpa style of tea making

April 23, 2007 · 4 Comments

I drank tea the grandpa way today.  That’s because my grandfather drinks his tea this way.  Essentially, it is the simplest way a Chinese person makes tea — throw leaves in mug, add water, drink.  Add tea leaves when the tea gets watery.  Repeat.

This is also how most people in China drink their tea throughout the day.  Whether a cab driver, an office worker, or a house guest — tea is served simply, in a cup and with no other teaware.  Most of the time even a pot is not used.  Drinking the tea using your teeth as a leaf-filter is a skill that everybody learns quite early on.

Since I have no gaiwan with me yet, not having bought one here, I brewed tea this way today.  Even though it sounds simple, there are some things one must watch out, or risk getting a nasty tea.

One must first watch what kind of tea is being brewed… and add the leaves accordingly.  It is always a temptation to add too much leaves, especially when it’s a rolled oolong, such as a tieguanyin or a Taiwan tea.  They expand greatly, and while they look like not a lot of tea when dried… it gets big, very fast.  Since the tea sits in the cup while drinking and is therefore brewed all the time it sits there, too much leaves yields a very bitter cup very quickly.  Therefore, low amount of leaves is essential.

Water temperature… it depends.  If green, not too hot is fine, but if you’re adding water to existing tea, then it must be hotter to compensate.  For all other types of tea, I think the hotter the better.  It won’t keep warm very long in this sort of arrangement.

Also… I like to keep some tea remaining in the cup and refill before I drink it all.  This keeps the flavour stronger brew after brew.  Otherwise… after one or two cups the leaves will lose all their flavour.

Then it’s just a matter of taste… how strong you want your tea, how long before you add new leaves, etc… a cup will last a day.  After a while, it just becomes flavoured water, but if the tea is good, the flavour goes pretty far.  I’ve seen people using very big (1L) water bottles with about 2g of green tea leaves in them.  I’ve also seen people using maybe a 350ml bottle with 1/3 full of leaves… it’s all about personal tastes.

I drank a Dahongpao today doing this, and even after many infusions, the tea remains sweet.  I added leaves once, but not a whole lot.  It was just easy drinking… and much less work than gongfu.

Definitely a different style, but nonetheless, enjoyable.

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Very very dry storage

April 22, 2007 · Leave a Comment

After doing dim sum with a friend and his colleague today, and hanging out with them a little afterwards, I went to L’s place to see him and drink some tea together.

As usual, we went through quite a few teas today, only we also went through the pictures he took of his trip to Yunnan.  Looked like a lot of fun, and I wish I had the time to go.

Among the teas we had were:

97 Fengqing Tuocha
07 spring Nannuo maocha (two of them)
90s “orange label”

The two Nannuo maocha, which they got this time to Yunnan, were quite interesting.  One was supposedly from hundred year old trees, while the other one was from ancient trees of even older origins.  By the way things looked, the ancient trees one did look better.  The taste of the teas, when compared with each other, had the 100 years old tree ones being slightly floral and vegetal, while the ancient trees one tasted a little less potent and present up front, but I think had a bit more character in the end.  Both had a Nannuo taste to it, which I personally am not too fond of.  Yet, to distinguish the two between one of good and the other of excellent quality was really quite difficult.  I don’t think I could tell you, independently of one another, which one was better.  Maybe if I had drank them even more carefully, it would’ve been a little more obvious, but the bottom line is it’s very difficult to tell.

It’s not difficult if it’s between plantation and old tree tea.  I think the different grades they have between old tree teas, however…. is quite difficult.

The 97 Fengqing Tuo is best described as mediocre.  It’s presenting some of those Fengqing flavours at this point, and you can tell it’s a bit aged, but neither was it aged long enough to deliver a really sweet brew (and lose the astringency), and it was not really interesting enough as it is.  All in all, a very mediocre tea.

The 90s Orange Label is a little more interesting, because the owner of the tea, who is a friend of L’s, think it quite good.  It’s obviously a dry stored tea, although as soon as one drinks it, it calls into question the authenticity of the age of the tea.  If it were stored in Shanghai most of the time, then I would say this is definitely not something from the mid-90s (as they seem to think it is).  In fact, I think it could be the case that this is one of those teas produced after 2000 using older wrappers.  It just doesn’t taste quite right, with no sweetness and lacking in all forms of aftertaste.  It’s not great now, and I don’t imagine it will turn better given that it already has had a supposed 10 years of aging.  If it doesn’t, then of course the merchant is lying….

The problem with this tea, and to a slightly lesser extent, the Fengqing, is that both are very rough and quite bitter.  I think, especially in the Orange Label case, that if it really were real, the bitterness should at least be starting to give way to sweetness, and the astringency should be subsiding as well.  Instead, I got so thirsty at the end I could physicall feel uncomfortable with the tea.  I think that’s where I stopped… The point though, is that teas bought in such markets and also sold (to merchants) in such markets is just quite crazy and can be quite bad.. sigh, we might have to enture a permanent rise in tea prices…..

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Shopping in Shanghai

April 21, 2007 · 6 Comments

I walked to Tianshan Tea City from my place today, looking for some cheap teaware to use in Shanghai.  It’s a 20 minute walk if I don’t walk too fast, and I can make it there in 15 if I walk really briskly.  It’s a bad combination, I know.  Luckily, the place is not big enough to hold a lot of interest for repeated visits.  It’s two floors plus some ground floor open stores.  In total I think there are about 80 stores of various kinds.  Interestingly enough, there are more puerh stores here than last time, and that was only two months ago.

I had set out to look for some cheap teaware to use in Shanghai, since I didn’t want to bring more stuff than I was already carrying.  However, I got sidetracked into a Keemun store.  They sell basically only Keemun, with some other teas as well (some unknown green, plus some Taiwan oolong — a mixed bag).  I was attracted by the Keemun, because she had all the grades, and they were clearly marked.

I ended up tasting two, a Haoya (she said it was B when I asked), and a tea she called the “Li Cha”, which is a new style Keemun which is not broken up — it’s instead using whole buds.  Keemun, as most of you know, is the sort of classic Hongcha (red tea).  It’s got a distinctive flavour, and the leaves are usually quite fine and cut up… is it broken orange pekoe?  Anyway, the Li Cha is not like that.  Instead, it’s buddy, looking a little like a red version of biluochun.  I think I’ve seen stuff like this before called by different names, but didn’t know it’s from the same region as your classic Keemun.

The Haoya is quite nice, although slightly rough on the tongue.  The Li Cha is better, but it lacks that Keemun flavour I was looking for.  I want something that I can use as a sort of benchmark to judge other Keemuns by, and I figured this is a good place to stay (I must confess I know little about Keemuns in general).  I sat there for a while longer, tried their green tea, and had a cooked tuo that she bought for 200 RMB (way overpriced — she wasn’t selling the tea, just drinking).  I then bought some of the Haoya and left.  She offered me a 30% discount without me prompting it, which was nice.

I wandered around the market for a little longer, looking for a gaiwan and a few cups.  The gaiwans are quite nice — I think BBB is right in saying that the teaware here is nicer.  The nice gaiwans, of course, weren’t the cheapest, but they were tempting.  I had to leave to go to another place, so I never finished shopping for teaware… having just bought one tea tray and no cups/gaiwans to use it for.  I’ll either come back here or go to Jiuxing, the other tea market which is a bit farther away.  Maybe I’ll go next weekend or, if I have time, sometime during the week.

On my way out, I noticed another store that specializes in Keemuns.  I should go check that place out.

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