A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from May 2007

Back in Beijing

May 23, 2007 · Leave a Comment

10 hours train ride and 5 nuclear power plants later, I’m home in Beijing.

One of the first things I did was, of course, to check out my teas. They’re fine… and smells good, unlike last time when I came back when the tea was obviously starved of moisture. This time, the humidity in the cupboard is higher, and I can smell the sweet scent of young puerh. Good… the bowl of water is still there… very low levels, but not entirely dry yet. It means that the tea is done soaking up the moisture and the cupboard’s moisture level is more maintenance than anything else. I don’t know the exact humidity, but I’d guess it’s not too low.

On another note — I am thinking of asking for the reactions to the samples I sent out after the weekend. Most of you have gotten it now, except a few of you with exceptionally lethargic postal service. If you could make time this weekend to try the teas, I’d appreciate it.

Categories: Misc · Old Xanga posts

Tea samples

May 22, 2007 · 10 Comments

Is there anybody who hasn’t gotten their sample yet?  I think most of you have.

Let me know if you’ve had a chance to taste them.

Categories: Misc · Old Xanga posts

Things that happen when you walk into a non-puerh store

May 22, 2007 · 1 Comment

So we covered the puerh stores yesterday.  What happens when you walk into a non-puerh store?  This covers, basically, green tea shops and oolong shops.

First of all, unlike puerh shops, non-puerh shops do not really display their teas in any meaningful way.  What you might expect to find in a non-puerh store is basically rows and rows of bags or tins, all of which may or may not be marked.  It is typical, for example, to find a tieguanyin store that has a dozen of those big (3kg?) vacuum bags sitting on the shelf.  Are they all the same grade?  All different?  God only knows.  A Wuyi tea store will more likely have boxes that all say Dahongpao, or perhaps tins that name the teas (but not necessarily correspond to the stuff in the tin).  A green tea store will have similar setups.

So… you, as the consumer, has basically no idea what a store actually offers.  You can, of course, know the general genre of teas they sell by looking, but that’s about it.

Which also means… you are at the mercy of the store keeper.

When you walk in to one of these stores, there’s not a lot of looking around you can do, since there’s not much to look.  You basically sit down, and start drinking.  What to drink though?  Obviously, you have no idea as the customer.  You only know they sell tieguanyin, for example…. which begs the dreaded question

“What price range of tea do you want to try?”

This, ladies and gentlemen, is a killer question.  You can see the obvious problems in this one, I think.  You are basically telling them how much you’re willing to pay.  It doesn’t actually mean anything when it comes to what tea they give you.  I think these are stores that are more likely to test you to see if you know what you’re doing, and whether or not you’re easy to scam.

So, say, you say “I want to try teas that are 600RMB/jin” where jin is 500g, then… you’re going to get what they show you as the 600 RMB tea.  Most likely, it’s going to come out of a bag/box that looks just like any other.  For all you know, it’s the 50RMB/jin tea.

This is where taste comes in.  While I don’t think of myself as well versed in any of these teas in necessarily the same way as a younger puerh, I do think I know enough to tell between a good and bad one.  Building one’s tongue to try these things out is important.  Drinking the teas in direct competition with each other, with the same setup (two gaiwans, two cups) and the same amount of leaves/water is also important.  Very quickly, one learns to distinguish between a good and a bad tea.

Of course, it’s one thing to know between a good and a bad tea, and it’s another thing to know whether the bad tea is a 500RMB tea or a 50RMB tea.  That, unfortunately, takes time.

One usually not buy the first thing they try, not only because of the abovementioned problem, but also because it is a good idea to try out the teas of that shop before committing to buying.  Usually it’s good form to at least give two or three a try, more if you’re in the mood.

Since prices are stated early on, it takes one thing out of the equation, although, now comes the bargaining.  Almost all of these teas are bargainable.  The marked/quoted price is never the real price.  You can get it down to at least half, usually, although some stores abide by a no bargaining policy.  You gotta figure that out… I find tieguanyin stores to have higher markups, whereas Wuyi stores seem to be closer to their real prices.  I suspect that has to do with market demand, and since this is mostly observed in Beijing, and since Beijingers tend to drink more light fired tieguanyins… that might explain the “extra” they put in their prices.

I usually buy small amounts first, and come back for more next time.  That’s one thing about these shops though… since none of the teas are labeled, you need to go back to the same store to find the exact same tea.

There are pitfalls to these shops too.  I’ve heard stories of how one store actually only has two or three kinds of teas.  They put them in different bags, and whichever price you ask for, there’s a corresponding bag… but only with the same two or three teas.  If you’re imaginative about it, you can see how that can work….

Categories: Information · Old Xanga posts
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Things that happen when you walk into a puerh store

May 21, 2007 · 4 Comments

This is going to be a two part installment, because the modus operandi between a puerh and a non-puerh store work somewhat differently.  The standard procedure when I walk into a puerh store goes something like this.

I enter (usually after I spotted something interesting on the shelves — usually a cake).  I walk in, beeline for the cake that seems interesting… then the struggle begins.  They start asking questions or saying things such as…

“This is puerh tea.  Do you like sheng or shu?”

“Are you looking for teas for yourself?  Or to sell?”

“Why don’t you come sit down and try something?”

The first priority for me, usually, is not to sit down — once you’re sitting at that tasting seat, it becomes a lot more involved.  It’s harder to walk out.  It’s also harder to pick the exact tea you want to try, if you haven’t looked at all of them yet.  In any given store there are likely to be at least a dozen cakes on offer, and I usually like to look through all of them (or most of them) to get a good idea of what I’m working with.

Most of these teas are likely to be things I’ve never heard of.  Some stores make the job easier by having the cakes being easily accessible.  Others make it impossible.  Some even shrink-wrap them, so you have to ask to see them.  Or, they only display the fresh-out-of-factory packaging — so you have to ask them to look at the sample.  It’s very annoying when that happens.

Somewhere along the way, the (usually) girl will want to rewrap the cake for you.  I usually insist on wrapping it myself, or at least do it quickly.  While mine’s not perfect, it’s not too bad, and like I said, it’s one of those things you can do to gain instant respect.  Doesn’t work in every place, but it’s worked often enough.

When I first got to Beijing, I think I was much more indecisive and often let the store keep give me cakes to try.  Nowadays I have a much better idea of what might make a good tea and what I might like, and am thus much less likely to be driven by them.  I also walk out more often before I get to the tasting stage.  Since time is limited and the sort of puerh one can try is unlimited (essentially), one must choose.

So… you’ve chosen a cake, you sit down, they brew it… then what?

I usually drink as they brew, but sometimes I direct them a little in how to brew

“Brew it a little longer please”

Because sometimes they don’t really know what they’re doing, or they don’t do it in a way that you might do it yourself…

This is pretty easy going.  You make small talk.  Sometimes they ask for impressions on the tea, and start the hard-selling.  I usually equivocate and say “mmmm” or “it’s ok”.  In fact, I probably say “it’s all right” more often than anything else.

If a tea is no good… one can quickly get them to change to something else.  Sometimes they will push a tea, and depending on the case, I might agree to taste it, or reject the offer.  If nothing else is interesting… after the first tea is exhausted, it’s best to walk out quickly without asking for the price.

If, however, the tea is decent… then comes the second tension point.  Price.  How much is the tea?  There’s a little tension and suspense involved here.  Since almost no store label their tea’s prices (and the ones that do label it… it’s best to ignore the label) asking for the price represents another sort of commitment, however slight.  Sometimes, one’s pleasantly surprised, as in the case of the Yiwu I bought recently.  Sometimes, one’s nastily surprised, as is the case of many, many cakes I have never bought.  Sometimes, the price is in an acceptable, but slightly high range.

For prices that are astronomical… I will usually walk out after saying something like “let me walk around a little” or “I’ll think about it”, but always after drinking a few more infusions of the overpriced tea.  Walking out right away is rather rude (and they do remember you).  It is also a good idea to ask for the name card of the place, as if you’re going to come back.  If the price is right, then it’s just a matter of whether or not you want it badly enough, and how much of it to buy.  If it’s in the bargaining range… then it’s a battle of wits.

I’m not a great bargainer, although now knowing prices of puerh teas in general helps my bargaining.  It’s also a matter of what is acceptable for myself.  Getting 15 or 20% off isn’t too difficult, usually, although that can really depend on the initial quote and the tea in question.  As I’ve noticed more recently, prices quoted to me have gotten lower over time, which also means less room for bargaining.

Even paying can be a bit of a struggle.  Even after you’ve agreed to the price and the amount of tea to buy, it sometimes takes a bit more sitting around, chatting, and maybe even tasting before you go and pay for the tea.  I have a feeling that me being Chinese makes things a little more difficult, actually, because I need to observe common courtesy rules.  Often, I will make up some excuse, such as “I need to go meet somebody” or “dinner time” to bring up the paying thing.  It’s sometimes more awkward when another customer is around, because the shopkeepers might not want them to know how much you paid for the tea.  Since pricing is arbitrary, if I have gotten a low price for a cake, they don’t want others to know.  It’s best to suggest such things when nobody’s around, or when the other customer is busy with other things.

Maybe I can afford to be ruder now, just because I’m leaving China soon, but these people have amazing memories.  For example, one girl from a shop that moved recognized me even though I have not been there for about half a year (and even that time, only briefly).  I didn’t know it was the same store and definitely don’t remember her.  It’s a small place, and so… keeping one’s reputation is important.  Apparently, among some people anyway, I’m known as a picky customer.  I guess I don’t mind that so much.

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Two cooked samples

May 20, 2007 · 2 Comments

I went to the tea market today, but didn’t accomplish what I wanted, and basically didn’t drink any tea.  So I got home, and decided to drink some cooked samples I got from Teacuppa thanks to their generous offer of tea that Hobbes at the Half-Dipper organized.

Since I only got two of the three samples… I am tasting only two and don’t know which particular tea I’m missing, but the three possible candidates are:

1) 2005 Menghai Factory “Tiandiren” (Shupu)
2) 2005 Luxi Tea Co. Organic 8821 (Shupu)
3) 2005 CNNP (Shupu)

Anyway, so my two samples are from these.

I tried the first one:

Smells mildly of cooked puerh.  Nothing too exciting.  When I rinsed it and smelled the lid… it smells, oddly enough, like a young raw puerh aged 3-4 years.  I think it’s because it’s been stored with a lot of that kind of tea?  When I tasted the first infusion… the overall impression was that it was fairly weak and bland.  Ok, maybe I didn’t brew it strong enough.  I let the second infusion go longer… still thin, a little stronger in taste, but doesn’t taste quite like a cooked puerh.  A bit sour…. not too exciting, and a little off-putting.  Third infusion… really, really sour now.  This is no good.  I gave up on the tea.  If a tea doesn’t show anything good to me in three infusions (and in fact, got worse because it was really quite sour) then it’s not a tea I really want to drink, and given how weak it is, I don’t think it was going to improve.

Overall impression: weak, thin, not really like a cooked, more like a screwed up raw puerh or just something very odd.  Didn’t like it at all…

The leaves don’t even look quite right

Something wasn’t quite right about this.  I was telling vl that I can make a better cooked puerh than this.

Utterly unsatisfied, I went on to the next sample.

Looks more like a normal cooked to me, actually.  The last one was a little black.

The tea tastes a little more like a normal cooked puerh.  It’s lost that nasty pondy smell, but just has the regular cooked pu taste.  A little too bitter for a cooked puerh, in my opinion, but it’s thick, at least.  An average cooked tea…

Since the colour of the actual tea is basically some variation of soy sauce… not a lot of reason to post the colour of the tea itself.

All in all… one tea that is really not good, and one that is so so.  I have a suspicion that the bad one is the CNNP, and the so so one… the Tiandiren, perhaps?

Categories: Old Xanga posts · Teas

Chenyuan Hao Yiwu

May 19, 2007 · 1 Comment

I drank a sample today sent to me from a guy in Tainan.  It’s a Chenyuan Hao Yiwu, which is one of those Taiwanese teahouses that does their own cakes.  I think this one is from 2002 or something, although I can’t quite remember exactly when.  Regardless…

You can see it’s the “aged a bit” look.  It also smells “aged a bit”, definitely dry stored.

The first picture is of the second infusion, and the second is of about… 6th?  Something like that.  The tea is surprisingly bitter for what it’s worth.  I remember I reviewed it a long time ago, pretty much when I first arrived in Beijing, and thought it to be very drying.  I thought it had to do with Beijing storage… but apparently not.  In this sample, even though stored in Tainan, definitely a wet place, the tea is STILL drying… by about the third infusion my throat was drying up, and feeling rather uncomfortable.  Even though the flavours of the tea was fine — a bit sweet, with dried plums taste, and in the third infusion, I thought for a second I was drinking a fizz-free coca-cola — the feeling of the tea was definitely unpleasant.

It did improve after about 6-7 infusions to a better taste, but given the unpleasant feeling early on, it made me think that the tea was simply not worth it, even if it’s cheap.  Especially considering that yesterday’s tea was so smooth and without any of these problems, I can’t say I enjoyed today’s sample, generous though it was from the guy who sent it out, as I think this tea is not cheap now.

Looking at the leaves… I wonder if it’s even big tree tea.  There was definitely some “throat feel” (anybody got a better name for this feeling?  I can’t think of one) it was…. too bitter and astringent.

Categories: Old Xanga posts · Teas

Tasting the new cake

May 18, 2007 · 5 Comments

As promised, I actually tried the new cake I bought today.  Since I was talking about lighting and picture taking though, I decided to take another set of pictures in daylight to compare with the ones I took last time under artificial light.  Looks different again…

I broke off a piece

And I made the tea.  Jackson joined me today for the tasting.

The tea is smooth.  It brews up an orangy-yellow colour, and the initial taste resembles a Yiwu, but I think as it went on for a bit, I discovered that it is a little darker than a Yiwu.  Maybe it’s more like a Manzhuan tea or something, I’m not sure.  That might also explain the cheaper price.  Whatever it is… it’s not pure Yiwu old tree tea.

That, however, doesn’t detract from the tea itself.  There was some smoke, which Jackson thought was a cigarette sort of taste, although I just think it’s smoke (maybe because I’ve never smoked a cigarette?).  It went away after about two to three infusions.  The tea… tastes like…. tea.  It doesn’t leave much aftertaste at the tip of the tongue, but it leaves a strong huigan at the back with a consistent feeling around the throat area.

What’s most interesting though is that even though this is more or less a fall tea, the tea is VERY smooth… which was a little surprising.  I have known fall teas as more astringent than spring teas, but this one somehow defies expectations.  It didn’t do the “astringent after five infusions” thing either.  It really only showed up around infusion 10, and even then… only a very mild sort of astringency.  Is that a good or a bad thing?

I worried a little about its processing, and wondered if they got rid of the astringency with oolong fermentation or something.  No, I don’t think so… there was very little aroma in the cup.  It’s not fragrant enough to be an oolong tea, I think, and still retains a good bit of bitterness.

A little odd, I think, but ultimately, I think I will go back and buy a few more given the price and the quality.  I don’t think I can really pick out any problems with the tea, which is sort of a rare thing.  Other than the smoke, which I’m sure will go away (the sample I tried at the store, which has been stored in the open, wasn’t really smokey at all), I don’t think there was anything else wrong with the tea.

I guess only time will tell…

Some wet leaves for you to look at

Categories: Old Xanga posts · Teas


May 17, 2007 · 4 Comments

Today I present you with three teas:

Oh wait, it’s the same one.

I didn’t even take them under different lighting conditions — I merely photoshopped them.

Which one’s the “unedited” one?

You can see how different they look… and I’ve noticed that even in natural sunlight, the colour can be off.  It’s a very annoying thing with digital cameras, I suppose.  The lighting is never quite right.  If the white balance of the camera is off when the picture is taken, then you might have really distorted colours.  When buying on the internet… colour changes can really change your perception of a cake.  It’s not like anybody even has to try to fix the pictures — without actively trying to doctor them, it can still come out being different from the real deal.

Unfortunately, that’s one of the risks of buying online.  When I try to show my cakes, I try to make it so that the colour isn’t too far off from what I see with my naked (well, glasses enhanced) eyes, but it’s never quite 100%…

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Tea tasting update

May 16, 2007 · Leave a Comment

A few of you have started receiving the teas I sent out.

Please DO NOT post any notes anywhere, yet.

I wish everybody to have a chance to drink it before seeing other people’s comments (which can cloud their judgement).  Therefore, if you could hold off from talking about it in public, that’ll be appreciated.  Of course, I can’t stop you from talking in private.

I’ll post up an entry in about a week’s time and ask for comments on the tea then.  You can post the comments in that entry.  I think that should give everybody a chance to drink it.

Enjoy :).  No bleach was involved in the process of preparation, by the way.  Some of you have actually asked.

Categories: Old Xanga posts · Teas

Yiwu, Yiwu, Yiwu

May 16, 2007 · 5 Comments

I had dinner with a friend and his wife today.  Between library’s closing and dinner, however, there was a two hour gap.  What to do?

Ah, there is a tea store near the place where we were meeting that I’ve gone to once to look at (but not taste) some cakes.  That was a few months ago.  Maybe I can go again and get some free tea out of them to cure my budding tea headache.  The cakes also looked nice too.

So I went there.  I think it’s a pretty upscale tea store, with a second floor that serves as a teahouse for people to drink tea there.  The cakes I looked at last time were some Yiwu pressed by themselves, supposedly, although some cakes obviously had the neifei ripped out of the cakes.  That, to me, indicates that somebody is being dishonest and selling something at an inflated price without wanting you to know where they got it from.  That’s usually the only reason why you’d do such a thing.  I didn’t feel like pointing it out, but I’m sure they have an elaborate reason, anywhere from “oh, the neifeis were mistakenly put in because they mixed up the two batches” to “we had agreed to sell these cakes to another tea house, using their neifei, but they reneged on the order”.  Whatever it is… it’s just a story.

The ripped out neifei is in special contrast with the neifeis for their 07 cakes, which are definitely their own and deeply embedded in the cake.  Why the contrast?  Even more suspect.

But anyway, when I saw the 07 cakes, I decided I want to give them a taste.  I haven’t really tried many new cakes yet, this year’s production being very slow and new teas are still not arriving on the markets in bulk (many are only getting to Kunming now, I heard).  Prices being astronomical, it also gives me less incentive to try new stuff.  But I figured… what the hell.

I asked to try the Yiwu Zhengshan.  There were four new 07 cakes on the shelf.  One is called Yiwu Zhengshan.  The other three are Mahei, Luoshuidong, and Daqishu, three smaller sub-areas of Yiwu.  The Yiwu Zhengshan is 600 RMB, Mahei is 1800, and the other two are similarly high priced (1000+).  1800 is something like… 250 USD.  Extremely high for one 357g cake, considering that maocha this year in this region costs something around 500 RMB/kg, max.  Divide it up to 357g, it means a raw cost of…. 180 RMB.  Add in overhead, rent, labour, transportation… 400 RMB would already net them a reasonable profit.  600 a good one, and 1800….. an exorbitant one.  Their 05 and 06 teas are even more expensive, with 05 Yiwus being something like 3000 a cake.  Considering that is almost two months’ salary for a storekeep… it’s quite crazy.

Anyway, so I tried the “cheapest” tea there.  It looks quite good, actually, small buds, hairy, robust.  The tea is good, tastes nice, with depth and qi, and a nice huigan.  Can’t complain too much other than tasting a little green and a little rougher on the tongue than I’d expect from a buddy spring tea.  Definitely an old tree as advertised.  Is it worth 600?  No way.

Meanwhile, I think I have impressed the owner with enough of my knowledge of Yiwu area that she thinks I’m some sort of expert.  When I’m in a tea store, I don’t mind masquerading as an expert as you get better treatment, instant discount, and nicer teas.  One of the things you can do to pretend to be an expert is actually very simple — just being able to rewrap a cake nicely gains instant credit.  When they see you can rewrap a cake beautifully, with no extra paper sticking out and no wrinkles on the front (oftentimes better than they can rewrap it themselves) then they will automatically respect you.  Try it next time you’re in a teastore — make sure you insist on rewrapping it yourself and proceed to do it right away.

Anyway… what I was getting at was that the owner wanted me to try the Mahei.  I said it’s ok, but she insisted.  Sure… I’m not going to pass up the change to drink this rather exorbitantly priced tea.  I know I won’t buy it even if it’s really good.  It’s simply too expensive for what it is.

The Mahei definitely has energy, and is also definitely old tree.  It is, however, also definitely overpriced.  In my opinion, it’s not even as good as the 600 kuai one, since it gave out quite quickly into a rather bland tea.  I’m not exactly sure why… but I’ve always found Mahei to be a bit weak, and this one’s no exception.  I have a feeling that Mahei teas, on their own, don’t do so well in aging.  I could be wrong, but I’ve had 2-3 years old Mahei tea stored in Guangzhou that didn’t impress me.  This one definitely didn’t impress me.

They tried to hardsell me, asking me which one I want and how amazing they are.  I equivocated, and eventually fled the scene.  I think I need to walk around the corner next time instead of right in front of their store.

Categories: Old Xanga posts · Teas
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