A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from June 2007

A productive tea gathering

June 30, 2007 · Leave a Comment

I had tea with L today.  Also present was a Taiwanese gentleman who apparently is quite an important man in the Taiwan tea business.  We had a long discussion on various topics around tea, from puerh to green.  The guy definitely has experience, and you can tell he knows what he’s talking about.  Much of it is just him lecturing, since we all know so little about tea production.

One thing that definitely comes across is that knowing about how tea is made is essential for a higher level understanding of why a tea tastes the way it does.  Being able to say “this tea is astringent because so and so did this during production” is very important.  For all types of tea, there’s a different set of rules, but there are also common things that are true for all teas.  It is obvious that knowledge from one kind of tea will transfer, at least somewhat, into others.  This man, for example, gathered a lot of data and knowledge from individual farmers and tried his best to improve Taiwanese oolong.  Everything from the wind direction, to the specific hour of the picking, to the location of the slope, soil type, etc etc are all important things to consider, and the way one processes a tea will change depending on any one of those factors.  Whether a tea is good or bad depends greatly on whether or not one is able to grasp all of these variables and make the tea come alive, a term that he stressed throughout the day.

What’s also important is that I’ve actually never heard of this man before, and I doubt few outside the trade has.  There must be many such low profile tea makers out there who are just really knowledgeable.  The people who know tea best are the makers, and all pursuit in tea, ultimately, goes back to the production process.  I wonder if it’s ever possible to learn so much, without being a producer myself.  But it’s a nice thought and certainly one goal to aspire to.

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Maocha in a cup

June 29, 2007 · Leave a Comment

I spent most of the day on a train from Beijing to Shanghai.  On the way, I drank a maocha I bought way back when I first got to Beijing.  I think I must’ve bought it on my second or third trip to Maliandao.  I remember getting 100g of it, wondering whether it will age well, or if it’s good at all.  I knew very little about maocha at that point, having not tried any before.  It was all an experiment.

Almost a year later, I am brewing it, grandpa style, in a paper cup with train water. Unfortunately, I packed the cable for camera-to-computer in my luggage that I left in Beijing, so no pictures… but the tea is surprisingly sweet that way.  Of course, I didn’t use much leaves.  Using too much leaves will mean it will get nasty, bitter, and astringent.  The key to making young puerh palatable, at least in these long, uncontrolled infusions, is to use little leaves and not quite boiling water.  Then, almost everything tastes good.

The leaves are very thick, and the taste reasonable.  It’s not too strong, although there’s some throatiness to the tea.  I think it’s fall tea, or possibly summer tea.  It’s definitely not spring picked.  I need to evaluate it more properly in a gaiwan under normal conditions to be able to say anything definitive about it, but as a drink to pass the time on a train ride, it does its job admirably well.  At the very least, I don’t think this is green tea puerh and should age.

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June 28, 2007 · 5 Comments

Moving a good amount of tea is hard work. Last night I packed up my tea cakes as best I could, by first tying them into tongs of varying sizes, then double wrapping them in food bags that are more or less like saran-wraps, I then hauled the tea over to the post office here with my girlfriend helping me. The thing about China Post is that all packages must be inspected before they are sealed — they want to know what’s going into them boxes here in China. At the post office closest to me, the guy who does the packaging said he can’t ship tea like this — too much tea is considered commercial goods, and have to go through the central international post office. Thankfully, that’s not too far away, and we went there — only to discover that there’s no restriction on tea export (as I have guessed). It’ll be insane to tax goods going out of your country, after all.

Most of the time packaging is also sold through the post office. There are almost no stores that will sell you paper boxes here — people reuse old ones, mostly, and if you’re shipping stuff, you buy it from the post office (since you have to bring stuff over for them to inspect anyway, it’s almost pointless to pre-pack anything). Unfortunately, most of the boxes there are not the right sized, so I couldn’t put all my tongs in one or two box, as I have hoped. Instead, I put about two tongs of tea in each box, buffered by other things including my loose teas, canisters, teaware, etc etc…. all in all, it took about 5 boxes to send all my tea related stuff over to Hong Kong. Most of the stuff will then stay in Hong Kong, at least for the near foreseeable future — I think my puerh will age better there than anywhere else, and since I’ll be moving around a lot… it’s better to stick them in one place.

Meanwhile, I am traveling to Shanghai tomorrow, with only one tea that I didn’t pack up — a maocha I bought on one of my very first trip to Maliandao this year. The rest… I’ll have to find my good friends who own more tea than I do to supply me for a few days while I’m there 🙂

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Last Maliandao trip of the year

June 27, 2007 · Leave a Comment

I arrived in Beijing on September 1st 2006. I came here to do research, but I also happened to have come here to study tea on the side. Now, almost 10 months later, I’m about to leave here. This certainly marks an end to one stage of my graduate student career, but also definitely marks the end of one stage of my tea education.

I went to Maliandao today, although the trip was cut short by heavy rain — I didn’t go as early as I had hoped. I went to Xiaomei’s store, to pick up some Benshan that I wanted her to get for me. 500g of benshan costs 40 RMB… so that’s about 5 USD. Selling benshan as tieguanyin can obviously make you big bucks.

While there, I tried a tea that was very odd. It’s a maocha of some sort, a year old, supposedly. Yet, there’s something in that maocha that tastes old. If it weren’t for the obvious and harsh bitterness of the tea, I might even believe that it is an older tea, dry stored. The guy who brought it there said it’s a maocha deliberately made to taste old, and if pressed into cake, it is indeed not too easy to tell and can masquerade as something aged in a dry environment. The leaves are, actually, mostly yellow leaves, of the large and rough kind, and the taste is that of a rougher, harsher, more bitter variety. But it was very odd… probably one of the oddest young puerh I’ve ever tried.

We also had a 3 year old Yiwu that was smooth and mellow, although lacking in any sort of real punch. I think this will develop into a high fragrance kind of Yiwu. Decent potential, and not too expensive. Alas, I’m not in the market for more tea at this point.

I then walked around the market a bit, noting how there are still so many stores I’ve never really been to, or looked at. Yet, I don’t have time anymore, not on this trip anyway. Maybe next time, when I return to Beijing (whenever that is) I will get to go to them, but they may very well not be around by then. As I’m writing this, I just packed up all my puerh cakes, readying them for shipping to Hong Kong tomorrow. I should probably take a picture of how I packaged them, but that’s for tomorrow.

I must say I feel a little sad leaving Maliandao. I’ll be back, of course, and I have learned a lot just wandering the different markets there. I think I have progressed from somebody who only knew a few things about younger puerh to somebody who can at least make some sense of a young tea I’ve never tried before. I am still woefully unknowledgable when it comes to some other kinds of tea. I am hoping that when I go to Taiwan in August, it will remedy my deficiency in Taiwan oolong just as Maliandao has helped me understand young puerh.

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Back in Beijing

June 26, 2007 · Leave a Comment

After a longish ride on the train from Shenyang, I’m back in Beijing.

There isn’t much to report, other than it’s really frustrating when you need a cup of tea, and the only place that sells teas to go in China is either a Starbucks or a McDonald’s. It’s sad. It’s sadder when the server made the mistake of pouring you coffee and you only realized when you walked out and into the train station, waiting in line, and sniffed….

Tomorrow afternoon I might make my last trip to Maliandao in quite some time. It will be kinda sad 🙁

PS: I was notified that the picture for the jade gaiwan for my entry two days ago didn’t show up. That has been fixed. Thanks DH for pointing it out!

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June 25, 2007 · 5 Comments

One of the things that I never really said much about in the 10 months I’ve been here is Tenfu, also known as TenRen, or in the States, Ten Tea. For those of you who don’t know them, they are a very big organization, and at least in China and Taiwan, they’re everywhere.

When you walk into TenFu here, you’ll be greeted by a salesgirl (they’re all salesgirls) who will ask you what you might need, and especially if you look foreign (as I, mystifyingly, apparently do sometimes) they will be presenting you with a cup of jasmine tea. On one wall you will see an array of those golden colour tea canisters, with name of tea on them and their price. On the other wall will be a slew of teaware.

The array of teas that TenFu sells basically goes something like… a few kinds of green, some with a few levels, a few kinds of other oolongs, and maybe a million different varieties of tieguanyin, all of the relatively green kind. Prices range from the 100 RMB/500g to the 20000RMB/500g (or even higher, I think). Their puerh are extremely overpriced, and so are everything else, for that matter.

They are ubiquitous in China. Everywhere you go, as long as you’re in a reasonable sized city, you will see at least one. I’ve seen them a few times in Shenyang already, usually in the most central shopping areas, or next to certain sites, or… next to the provincial government, in this case (for the gift-buying crowd). They are one of the few tea stores in China that will sell tea in packaging that is one level up from the ugly foil bags, and they are also a place where they will actually let you taste whatever you want, pretty much (a lot of smaller tea stores that are not in tea markets are a little reluctant about that, sometimes).

The good thing about them is that they do introduce a lot of people who otherwise don’t care much about tea a first entry to decent tea. My friend L, who now runs a tea business, got started with TenFu. He said his family, two generations ago, were tea merchants in Tianjin. Then came the revolution and communism, through which they lost their company, but he picked up interest in tea again when he got involved in tea lessons at TenFu. He’s just one example of many people who are like that. TenFu is actively involved in giving lessons to people in tea, and they have a nice community going. The amount of work they do in promoting tea is certainly worth commending.

The downside is, of course, their price. They are expensive. Everything they sell is overpriced. When I first got to Beijing, I bought a small set of teaware from them that cost me 100 RMB. I probably could’ve bought everything in that package from Maliandao for about 20. That was a lesson learned. A lot of ex-TenFu customers I know now no longer buy stuff from them, because over time they have learned that TenFu sells them stuff that are way overpriced. Far more people, however, just keep buying from them because they just trust them, somewhat blindly, I think. I think it is mostly because it is just too much trouble sometimes for what isn’t really that much money, or uncertain quality, or something like that. Many are happy with what they provide, and that’s that. At the end of the day, I suppose it’s just a matter of “to each his own”, regardless of what it is, where it’s from, or how much it is. So long as TenFu doesn’t lie about their teas (which I don’t think they do), it’s not really a problem. I think when lying starts happening, it’s a different matter entirely.

I do blame them for popularizing the ever lighter oxidation/roast of tieguanyin though, making it hard to find the higher roast stuff. Oh well.

Back to Beijing tomorrow. I think while Shenyang is nice… it’s enough to spend a week here especially with the lack of tea. The archives are not too useful here, for me anyway, although it’s a good thing I finally got to see the old palace here and some unexpected cultural treasures.

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June 24, 2007 · 2 Comments

Sorry for not posting updates the past day and half. I’ve been out touring the city, but also because the internet here is really spotty — up and down whenever it feels like. I’ve never had a stable enough connection to do much of anything — even my emails are only getting checked slowly.

Mind you, there isn’t a whole lot to report on the whole tea drinking thing here in Shenyang. One big reason is because they don’t seem to drink much of it here. Unlike most of the places in China that I’ve visited, which are either big cities or in tea producing regions, Shenyang is not a big city (I guess it’s better called a second or maybe third tiered city in China) nor in a tea producing region. It seems like people here aren’t really into tea drinking. There are very few stores that are dedicated to tea, even in the touristy areas, and the few that do have your very generic selection of regular offerings — jasmine, greens, a few tieguanyins, some oolongs, and maybe a puerh or two. I’ve encountered two puerh only shops, but the prices are not exactly low, and the selection lacklustre. All in all, a boring place for tea.

The “tea” we had today for lunch was a good example of people’s attitude here towards the drink. This is what was in the 500ml metal pot

See those black specks? Those are the only leaves in the pot. I should add that they were reused from the previous sitting — i.e. they brew out the same leaves, from what I can tell anyway, for the whole day. Yeah. In fact, I haven’t had a single cup of tea here that isn’t ultra bland, except what I had this morning

Which is from…..

Shoot me now.

So as you can probably imagine, I haven’t been spending much time with tea, and drinking the Assam and the Lapsang Souchong I’ve brought along as my supply of decent tea.

I have, however, been doing some touring of this rather pleasant city (apart from the lack of tea). As I’ve stated before, this was the capital of the Manchus before they conquered China, and so there are some historical sites here. Yesterday, we went to the Zhaoling, or the Luminous Mausoleum, for the second Manchu emperor Hong Taiji. The place is big…

If you look very carefully… you might be able to see a hint of the yellow roof of the main building in the distance. Or not. It’s big. The best part of the park was our ride around the park on a rented tandem bike (all 3 of us). Otherwise… it’s a lot of walking to get to places.

The actual mausoleum complex is not that impressive… but it’s the most elaborate this side of the Great Wall.

See that mound in the back? That’s where the ashes went.

The park has a conspicuous absence of any sight of a tea room — nowhere to drink tea. This further cemented my impression of the place as having not much tea.

We went to the Liaoning provincial museum today, which is a must-go. I was very very pleasantly surprised by both the quality of the museum itself, which was brand new despite the slightly ugly architecture

But they had a lot of Qing imperial collections, along with artifacts from earlier periods. Among which is one of my favourite calligraphers, Song Huizong, who is also the author of “Daguan Chalun” or the Treatise on Tea in the Daguan reign”. I took one picture of one of the stuff they had on display.

Among other collections, there was a nice jade gaiwan… note the more rounded lid (as opposed to the modern gaiwan with usually flatter lids). Gaiwans back then were used more for sipping tea out of (with leaves in there, I think) than just for brewing…. which I think might be part of the reason why.

We then went to the imperial palace, and the mansion of the last warlord who lived here, but that’s far too many pictures and probably not terribly interesting. Maybe another day, if it seems interesting enough. But if you ever come to Shenyang (4 hours train ride from Beijing, for those of you who might go to the Olympics or after) just remember to 1) bring your own tea and 2) go to the provincial museum!

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Traveling in China

June 21, 2007 · 10 Comments

These days, wherever you go in China, as long as the hotel is semi-decent it is bound to come with a water boiler, of the cheap plastic kind. This one I’m staying at is no exception. Except, the hotel is fairly new and the water boiler still smells a bit like plastic. Also, they don’t have real glasses here. Instead, I get this:

The white cup is detachable from the base — in fact, it’s just a regular plastic cup slipped into a handle of some sort. It’s not very elegant, nor ideal for tea sipping, but since I wanted to travel light and not carry around a big load of teaware, this will have to do. The stains are from the previous tea that’s still in the cup.

I only took two teas with me on this trip – the Assam that Mr. Lochan gave me, and a Lapsang Souchong. I tried both in the plastic cup by now, and I must say I like the Lapsang Souchong better. It’s got a nice sweet aftertaste and mellows out evenly as infusions go on, whereas drinking the Assam, I really feel the lack of milk was making the tea less enjoyable than it could be. The tea is more bitter, and doesn’t quite turn sweet in later infusions the way the LS does. I think this has much to do with the intended market for such teas, and the preferences of the target audience. A tea like LS will not sell well in China if it doesn’t turn sweet, whereas the way this LS is is probably a touch too light to go with milk.

I think this might also account for the way the Indian Oolongs behave. They brew a bright, strong introduction, but then fades fairly quickly as infusions go on. I think they’re probably just not meant to be drunk that way at all, and drinking it Chinese style is probably not “getting” the tea. Perhaps if stuck in a big porcelain teapot, with some scones on the side, they will beat any Chinese oolong brewed the same way.

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June 20, 2007 · 3 Comments

One of the questions I get asked most often is — what do you actually do in Beijing besides drinking tea? What I do is really quite boring (historical research on some obscure topic that nobody cares about), but where I do it is perhaps slightly more interesting.

Since my work involves a lot of flipping through dirty, dusty, poorly catalogued and a few hundred years old documents, guarded by staff that are only rarely friendly, the work is not always pleasant. The trip to the archives, however, can be somewhat pleasant, if the weather’s nice.

I get off the subway at Tiananmen West, which is, as the name implies, on the West side of the Tiananmen Square. On the one side, it’s the Tiananmen.

But in the opposite corner, there’s the very out of place Eggshell

Which is going to be the new National Opera House.

It might be an interesting caveat here to say that the Tiananmen is NOT the entrance to the Forbidden Palace… to get in, you have to walk through the Duanmen (seen from Tiananmen)

And then you’ll see the entrance — the Wumen (Meridian Gate), as viewed from the Duanmen.

It all looks rather small, but if you look here, you can see the buliding actually cuts an imposing figure.

But I don’t get to walk through these places to go in to the archives. Instead, I go through the side — walking down a rather pleasant street

After a few minutes, I get to see the gate that I do get to walk through, the Xihuamen

Which is across the moat for the Forbidden City — it’s not that obvious when you go through the front

In the first picture — those tall buildings right behind the wall are the archives, where I go look at my dusty documents.

Inside… you can still see the old buildings, but parts that one doesn’t get to see when you pay the entrance fee.

The building on the left is the archives, and the wall on the right circles some of the quarters that are for palace workers…. not even people who are related to the Emperor in any way. To give you an idea of the scale of the thing… the grey part of the wall is about 2 meters high. The distance is, of course, quite far.

They are doing some serious renovations for the palace these days, partly to get ready for the flood of inevitable visitors during the 2008 Olympics. There are lots of building materials stacked up, and in the back — the draped over roof of the Hall of Great Harmony, which is the biggest building in the complex.

So that’s what I do everyday, until recently anyway. Now I’m sitting in a hotel room in Shenyang, the old Manchu capital, with very unreliable internet, having just dealt with even less friendly archivists here. Oh well.

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A bad day for tea

June 18, 2007 · 4 Comments

Weather was horrible today. Or more specifically, the air was horrible today. I walked outside this morning, and what greeted me was a nasty industrial smell. The air was yellow. It smelled like sulphur or something. Pollution at its worst. My eyes could feel the sting of the bad air. It’s that bad.

So I basically holed myself up at home. I should’ve gone for something safe, something nice, to cheer myself up despite the bad air. Instead, I went for adventure…

Going through the samples again, I found a bag that was given to me many moons ago by YP, a very experienced tea friend from Hong Kong. She gave me a corner of a cake she thought was interesting and worth experimenting with. It was a silver needle cake. I’ve now come to the conclusion that silver needles generally don’t age so well, but maybe YP has a better eye for these things than I do (I’m sure she does, actually). She said she bought it because she didn’t know what to make of it, so it was an experiment. Now it’s at least two years old. Let’s see how it went.

As you can see, it’s a big piece. In case you have any doubt about the fact that this is a silver needle cake

It’s 100% pure. The tea has a reddish tint now. If it’s a little redder, it could pass as a Yunnan Gold pressed into cake.

The first infusion was great. Light, sweet, fragrant, with a slightly odd but somewhat familiar smell/taste. I couldn’t quite pinpoint it. It was interesting. The second infusion was similar, but a little roughness crept in at the end. The third:

Was a little more rough…. a little more bitter. The fourth was worse… I think I can see where this is headed now, and I stopped before the tea turned nasty on me. Four infusions in, and the first was the best.

The wet leaves really make me wonder what I was drinking. Is this puerh? I’m not sure it is. Is this green tea? Maybe… stale green tea? I don’t know. What do you think? I know YP got it at a pretty cheap price. Good thing too. I don’t think it will compare to her Traditional Character Zhongcha in 25 years.

Dissatisfied by the rather lacklustre drinking session, I opted to drink another tea. I picked up the samples from iwii. The last two had some plastic bag smell in them, so I let them air on a dish. I sniffed… seems ok. So I picked up what he labeled as sample A, and which, he told me, is a Wisteria House (of Taipei) Yiwu via M3T in Paris, sent back to me in Beijing….

I forgot to take a picture of the dry leaves, but they are not really remarkable in any way — broken loose pu, a bit black/dark, and not too distinguishable from any other puerh that’s a few years old.

I brewed it up… and realized that even though the smell of the plastic bag was gone from the dry leaves…. the tea is already deeply infused with the plastic bag smell. Uh oh. I am drinking floral tea, except that this is not jasmine.

The tea brews a deep colour

Iwii said it’s 2003. It looks a bit dark for 2003, but it was probably stored in Taiwan.

Unfortunately, because of the plastic bag smell/taste, it made it rather difficult to pass any sort of real judgement on the tea. All I can say is that the tea is a little rough for my taste, after about 3 infusions, it started getting astringent. There’s some qi, and definitely something that resembles huigan (hidden in the sea of plastic). There’s also some throatiness, or is that my throat acting up because of some chemical component doing something to me? I’m probably making it up here, but whatever it is… I don’t know what to say about it. I feel this is sort of an ok tea, but not a great tea, but I really shouldn’t say that because I’m shrouded in a sea of plastic bag smell…. I’m sorry Iwii, I should’ve waited. In fact, I should let the rest of the samples sit around for much longer than just a few weeks before trying them ever again.

I was still dissatisfied, but my body has had enough caffeine. Oh well.

The wet leaves of the sample doesn’t look all that impressive.

Some of the leaves are more yellow-leaf like, or seem a little stiff. I wonder why.

Now I’ll wake up in a few hours to catch an early morning train to Shenyang, in Liaoning province in the northeast in China, for about a week. Among other things, Shenyang was the capital for the Manchus before they conquered China (it was retained as a nominal capital after they moved to Beijing). I wonder if I can find cheap puerh there like Hobbes did recently. Somehow I don’t think that’s likely.

Categories: Old Xanga posts · Teas