A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from August 2007

Searching for good tea

August 21, 2007 · 2 Comments

Action Jackson has been in town for a few days, but it was only yesterday that we finally met, mostly thanks to the wonderful typhoon. We agreed that today we’ll go tea shopping, as she will be leaving tomorrow.

Since I don’t know where we might find decent tea shops, I decided to take my chances with the Yongkang area, since Corax said on Chadao that it has quite a few teashops. I figured it won’t hurt to try.

After having a vegetarian lunch, we eventually made our way to a shop that looked interesting enough. We ended up spending the rest of the afternoon there, not having found time to go anywhere else.

After browsing around a little, we settled down for some tea tasting. The first we tried was a 2000 Xiaguan tuo. I didn’t quite know what to expect, but it looks dry stored. It turned out quite decent — much mellower than a new Xiaguan tea, sweet, fragrant, still youngish and not much like an older puerh. 6-7 years isn’t that much for a small tuo, and it shows. Not too expensive either, so perhaps it’s worth an investment.

After going through 10+ infusions, which still hasn’t exhausted the tea, we went on to a Mengku “Pristine Forest” cake from 2005. Special order, so the storekeep says. It was one of those “wild wild” teas, darker in colour and …. weird in taste. I don’t find those teas very attractive, preferring more orthodox tastes. We had a few infusions of this when some Japanese tourists came in and interrupted proceedings.

After the tourists came and went (they bought a bunch of Taiwan oolong) we had a 1998 Menghai tuo. This one’s obviously weaker than the Xiaguan, but the flavours are of deeper tones — two years of storage, as well as differences in material and worksmanship, has done something to the tea. It brews a darker liquor, a little rougher on the tongue, but it didn’t last as long as the Xiaguan. I think the Xiaguan is a superior tea, quality wise, but which one you prefer depends greatly on what you’re looking for.

We then had a 80s 7542, which was quite delightful. I should figure out how much it costs, because if it’s not too pricey, I might look to buy a few for future consumption. It was beautifully stored — certainly some “wet” storage at some point, but it has the nice, sweet taste of the Traditional Character Zhongcha cake sample that YP gave me, and which I dearly love. Slight differences, as they’re from different factories, but overall the general characteristics are quite similar. The liquor is a gorgeous amber, clear, robust, and flavourful. If I can afford it, I will definitely get it.

She gave us a few cups of a 70s tea that she brewed yesterday, and which is still a bit sweet and mellow to drink. By this time, however, we were really quite full with tea, and with her next appointment due, Action Jackson had to go, so off we went, with two tuos in hand for her to bring back to Shanghai. It was a pretty good day.

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Further thoughts on conditioning

August 20, 2007 · 2 Comments

As Wisdom_sun pointed out in his comments to my post a few days ago, talking about “storage” of puerh is not just merely storage… it’s conditioning. He’s absolutely right in that regard, so I will try to remember to use this term from now on 🙂

I think I have talked about this in passing before, but what I have noticed more clearly this time around visiting Hong Kong and also talking to the owner of the teashop here in Taipei is that there are clearly two trends, or two schools of thought, in puerh conditioning.

The first is the old school. Wet storage is good. Wet, however, doesn’t mean soaking in water, mould growing all over wet (that’s cooked puerh). Wet means a high level of humidity in a more or less controlled environment. It does involve a fair bit of skill and know how, as well as experience in doing these and to know what teas will need how much in the conditioning of such teas. Talking to old tea drinkers in Hong Kong, they will almost all tell you that a cake with a touch of wet storage age much better and faster. It was interesting to see the teashop owner here echo the same view.

The other school is the pure dry storage school. Dry, of course, doesn’t really mean bone dry either. I think what dry storage means really depends on the person you talk to. Many consider dry storage to be simply a tea that has not entered a traditional “wet” storage facility. Others take it quite literally — recall my experience with Xinjiang conditioned tea (Xinjiang has desert weather) that tasted thin, sharp, and unpleasant overall. I have met many a drinker and shop owner in Beijing who will refuse to drink anything that tastes remotely wet stored. Anything stored in the Guangdong area they deem to be wet, even after a year or two, when to me they taste quite normal and pleasant.

The overwhelming reason I’ve heard with this particular trend is that it is unhealthy to drink wet stored puerh. The mould really turns people off, and they think it is a health hazard. The same view is echoed by many on Sanzui, a Chinese forum for tea. It’s an interesting thing, really. After all, many people grew up in Hong Kong drinking wet stored puerh, and the city’s population isn’t exactly suffering from some serious puerh-related sickness, so why people worry about it is beyond me. It’s like mouldy cheese… it looks gross, it smells gross, but can be quite tasty, albeit an acquired one. I think puerh is even less of an acquired taste than, say, Roquefort.

I can see why there’s an argument. People in Beijing, for example, used to drink jasmine, mostly. They then switched to green, and then green tieguanyin, and now, young puerh. Their tastes are light in general, and therefore a heavy, wet stored puerh might not suit their style (though oddly enough, people who refuse wet-stored puerh have no problem drinking cooked puerh). This sort of preference is reflected in tastes for other kinds of tea too. It’s difficult to find a good roasted oolong in the north. It’s much easier to find one in Hong Kong or Taiwan. Perhaps we can chalk this down to regional preference.

As for who’s right in their theory on conditioning… I suppose it depends on who you’re talking to. I have, however, noticed a slight trend — more often than not whoever owns the new cakes will tell you dry storage is good. Whoever owns some old stuff to sell will tell you wet storage is good. Given that, I tend to trust my senpai who only buy for their personal consumption. I think some wetness is not a bad thing, and in a home storage condition, care must be taken to make sure the tea is not too dry. That’s partly why I decided to stick my tea in Hong Kong in the family home (although mid-Ohio, curiously enough, is awfully wet). Is it wise to buy slightly wet stored tea to store at home? I suppose it might be. I also wonder if whatever’s gathered in a cake of wet stored tea will pass on to the dry stored one in a house. It should, I’d think. That’s why I want to see if there’s a way to figure out what an optimal condition is… I’m curious, for example, to see what happens to the cakes that Phyll put in his wine storage. I’m also curious to know what will eventually happen to the cakes that happen to be stored in the perpetually wet but cool climate of England. We’ll probably only find out in at least a few years’ time, and I certainly am not as brave (although I have a few cakes that travel with me in the US as I move from place to place).

But at the end of the day… maybe it’s the fact that we keep these cakes and watch them age that makes it fun. Of course, nobody wants a cake to turn out horrible, but if it tastes quite ok 10 years from now, it’s probably worth much more to the owner than if he were to buy it off the market 10 years from now.

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Back to tea shopping!

August 19, 2007 · 1 Comment

Well, it’s a Sunday. It’s before my work starts in earnest here in Taiwan…. so I figured, why not, let’s go tea hunting.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a Maliandao here in Taipei, as far as I’m aware. There’s an area with more older teashops, but for the most part, they’re scattered around the city. Searching around, I found a few places near me, so I tried those first.

I first went to a place that sells only Wenshan baozhongs. I was pretty quick there — bought a few things and moved on. Basically, one ounce of a good grade, one of a bad one, and two of a high roasted variety. I look forward to the high roasted stuff the most, as it looks positively cooked. It might be a bit on the charcoal tasting side of things, but we’ll find out. It was in such small quantities (and thus relatively low prices) I didn’t even bother to taste — it’ll be weird to taste them and only buy one ounce.

Then I walked along the street — which was eerily quiet, because most stores are closed on Sunday — to the next destination. This place sells mostly puerh, but as I discovered, they also deal in Taiwanese teaware. There are some pretty interesting looking cups there, fired by their own kiln. Some of the ones look very metallic-ish, and not very cheap, but might be quite nice to drink large cups of tea from. Interesting, regardless.

I only tried one raw puerh there, since we then proceeded to drink some cooked stuff as a friend of the owner arrived. I was informed that they normally close on Sundays, and it is only because yesterday was a typhoon day that the owner was there today — he was there to check on the store.

I ended up taking that one cake with me home. It was an interesting specimen, claiming to be Menghai but I think it’s not. The owner said it’s a “special order”, which I think is a euphemism for “fake” in this particular instance. Menghai cakes just don’t look like this. Whatever it is though, the tea itself is fine — a bit bitter, but the bitterness goes away pretty quickly, and there’s definitely strength in the tea. Aged a few years already — 5-7, I’d guess.

What’s most interesting about the whole thing was the way the owner made this tea for me. It started out quite normal — leaves in gaiwan, water in gaiwan, dump water, water in gaiwan again…. and then…. he poured about 1/10 of the liquid into my cup, and maybe another 1/10 into his. The rest were left stewing in the gaiwan as I drank my first cup. He then repeated… so the liquid got progressively stronger. It was quite strong in the end, bitter, a hint of sour (keep in mind this is very concentrated tea!), but still quite drinkable. Good consistency. It was certainly not an enjoyable drink anymore, but it was not too bad. Interesting way to test it — slightly like a 5-minute standard brew, but not really. This was even more concentrated because usually for those 5-minute tests you don’t use a lot of leaves. This one, though, he used a “normal” amount of leaves but brewed it long.

Needless to say… the caffeine buzz was obvious.

It was an interesting first trip to teashop on this visit to Taipei. I’ve been here before, but not that long, and the teashops I went to were mostly Taiwan oolong shops. I probably won’t go back to these for a while, and search out for other places to buy tea… it should be an interesting few months.

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Wuyi shuixian

August 18, 2007 · 2 Comments

I had some Wuyi shuixian today that I got from Beijing. This is from a guy who claims to have opened the first civilian (as opposed to state-owned) tea factory in Wuyi mountains. He recently opened a store in Beijing, and I got this from him since…. well, since I walked by his store when he was standing out front, and I already knew him and pretty much were obligated to go in and drink something.

Shuixians are good for two things. The first is that it’s quite easy to handle – as long as it’s a properly made and stored shuixian, it can hardly go wrong. You can overbrew it and still get something quite decent out of it. The same is true for most Wuyi teas that are of the roasted variety — really light Wuyi can be quite nasty if overbrewed, at least in my experience anyway. The second good thing about shuixians is that it’s usually really cheap.

The price differential comes from somewhere, obviously. Oftentimes the qi of shuixian is lacking, and the robustness and depth of flavour also don’t necessarily compare with a top notch dahongpao or some such, but as an everyday drink, it beats almost anything. I’ll be happy to drink shuixian till the day I die without too much complaining…

The tea today is somewhat aged. Precisely how long, I don’t know, and I don’t know if the guy who sold it to me knows. I think he muttered something around 10 years. I’m not sure if it’s that old, but it’s probably been a few years. Wuyi teas in general develop a rather distinctive taste after a few years of aging — a taste that I don’t really know how to describe, but is unmistakable once you’ve tried it. This tea actually isn’t too heavily fired

But there’s still a bit of a charcoal roasted taste to it. It is generally sweet, mellow, quite warm, and quite relaxing. This is why I say it’s a good everyday tea – it’s unoffensive and very pleasant. Can’t say the same of things like younger puerhs, light Taiwan oolongs, or greens…

The leaves didn’t really unfurl despite repeated and long brewings.

Somebody told me at one point that leaves that don’t unfurl were rolled by hand, while machine rolled teas tend to unfurl easily. I would think that repeated roastings might also have done something to it. I’m not sure, actually, if any of these are true. Even when I tried to pry the leaves open though

You can see the wrinkles.

I’m wondering why I didn’t buy more of this. Then again, I remembered why as the third typhoon in two weeks raged outside — these things don’t behave when it’s moist outside. They can get sour, and I don’t like sour tea.

Categories: Old Xanga posts · Teas


August 17, 2007 · Leave a Comment

Today I went out for tea with Y, who’s my friend L’s business partner. Y’s from Taiwan, so he has some friends here. I went to where one such friend opens a (non-tea related) store and had some tea with them.

We didn’t stay for long, as the threat of the third typhoon since I arrived kept our session short. We only had two teas. The first was rather interesting — it was a new cake made by Zhongcha, for which L/Y is a primary distributor. The cake is called “Yiwu Impressions”. Now…. it’s a fancy name, but really, what it means is that it is sort of Yiwu-ish, but with no claims by the maker to be selling a tea that is old tree or anything like that. The overwhelming impression I got was mediocrity — the tea is thin, bland, and not very interesting. It’s unoffensive, but also unpromising as something for aging. Is it Yiwu-ish? I suppose, but only barely. It also turns rough on you rather quickly.

The tea used is supposedly just plantation tea, yet a cake at wholesale prices is around 100 RMB, and more if you buy retail. Prices are ridiculously high, and quality is just not there. I don’t think I’ll ever pay that much for this tea.

Y did give me a free cake though. I can’t complain about that. It’ll be interesting to compare notes a few years down the line to see how this tea aged relative to others.

Sorry for the inconsistent colours and the poor quality of the photos — I’m still trying things out with the lighting here, and it’s proving more difficult than I thought.

We only got a few cups of a second tea before we split. It was a yinhao tuo, cooked, and somewhat aged. Quite nice and mellow, and very enjoyable. The provenance of this tuo is a little suspect, but whatever it is… it’s fine as a drink. As something that’s worth a lot of money? That, I’m not so sure.

I have a feeling tomorrow I won’t be going anywhere while this typhoon hits. It’s supposed to be quite strong and I’m already hearing the wind howling outside my window.

Categories: Old Xanga posts · Teas


August 16, 2007 · 8 Comments

Puerh storage has generally been classified as dry and wet. Of course, dry and wet are absolutes, and nothing in reality really operates like that. It’s more like a sliding scale of wetness — from bone dry (say, sticking it in the desert) to extreme wetness (say, immersed in water). It’s obvious that neither of those are desirable, but how much wetness is good?

I’ve been thinking about this problem recently because I’m been fretting over how to store my tea in Hong Kong. Hong Kong has a reputation for being humid. It is also the place where all these fabled wet stored teas are from. I myself have drank many such teas. They’re fine. They can be quite tasty. They’re, by some accounts, how puerh should taste. I’ve met quite a few extremely experienced tea drinkers in Hong Kong who hold this view.

Then you have the dry storage proponents, who say that wet storage fundamentally changes the tea in a negative way. You can’t get rid of the “storage” smell. The tea is less “lively”. You trade in the “liveliness” and the “freshness” for sweetness and smoothness. Many people who sell new cakes are people who will talk about this as if it’s the gospel. That, also, has a large following and many believe this to be the best way to proceed.

As with most things that have to do with taste, however, there’s probably no one real truth behind this. What I think there are though are misconceptions.

What happens to the cake I think is two fold. Since we know that mould grows on the tea when in wet storage, it’s obvious that those are part of the process of turning a tea into a sweet, mellow brew. There’s also, of course, oxidation that must be going on all the time. Pure oxidation, however, probably doesn’t work so well, since teas stored in very dry areas tend to perform poorly. I’ve had some that were truly hideous. So, the trick must be to get enough moisture to get the little mould spores going, but not too much so that it overwhelmes the tea…

What a lot of people in China, especially in the north, believe is that any sort of wetness is bad, and that the tea must be really dry. This is why I’ve tried the really dry teas — people who literally rented storage spaces in places with desert like conditions. The teas suck in those cases. Truly wet teas end up being a little boring and a little flat, and sometimes can taste too much of the storage and lose its charm. “Dry storage” as proposed then must really mean “wet, but only a bit”. After all, places like Hong Kong and Taiwan are quite wet to begin with. You don’t get a really dry environment unless you do serious climate control, and as far as I know, most of the dry storage facilities for tea merchants in these places are not climated controlled, only mediated by things like closed windows and sealed entrances.

What are the conditions that would produce the optimal amount of bioactivity, without overwhelming the tea and at the same time without it being too slow so as to make the whole exercise pointless? Somebody really ought to do experiments to figure this out. How about fluctuations in the humidity? I would think that fluctuations allow the tea to go in and out of the bio-enhanced aging phase. So sometimes it’s just oxidation, and sometimes it’s both. That, I suppose, must change the way it ages compared to a constant humidity environment. What, again, does it actually do? I’d imagine it can’t be that difficult to figure out.

Meanwhile… I am just praying disaster won’t befall my stash of tea.

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Shipping tea

August 15, 2007 · 1 Comment

I was really worried when I sent my tea out from Beijing. I haven’t shipped tea before, not in a large quantity like this anyway, and I think I learned a few things

1) Do use lots, and lots, and lots of bubble wrap. I didn’t use enough and some cakes took a bit of a beating.

2) China Post has really bad boxes. They look fine, but they get battered very fast. Which means more hazards for the tea itself.

3) Seemingly strong metal cans can be crushed easily by tea cakes in the same box.

4) Teaware actually do ok if wrapped enough, but some, like the delicate, thinner cups, aren’t meant to survive.

5) Some cakes survive better than others, interestingly enough. Having a tong wrapper REALLY helps and there was virtually no damage to any of the cakes wrapped in those things. You couldn’t even tell they went through the mail.

6) I don’t think I’ll do it again if I can help it.

I ended up following Hster’s advice — I thought given what I had it was the most sensible thing, to put some tea in the cupboard — about a tong of cheap cakes. The tea smell quickly overwhelmed the wood smell, so I think I am probably going to be ok with multiple tongs of tea in there. I also used the spilled tieguanyin from the crushed can to help soak up some smell. They’re still in the cupboard, along with all my puerh. Hopefully, when I come back in a few months… they’ll all be good and happy, mould free, and tastes a little better than when I left — which is tomorrow.

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Storing tea…

August 14, 2007 · 14 Comments

I’m trying to find a permanent home for my teas here.

One problem — the only suitable cupboard in the entire house smells.. like wood. Whatever wood it’s made of…. it’s got this smell that doesn’t seem to go away and reappears when I close the door. It’s the best place because it’s quite closed, is away from a window, and is the perfect size.

I don’t really like the idea of having my teas soak up the smell of the wood. In fact, in this case a cheap MDF board cupboard might be preferable, since those are usually pretty quick to dissipate their smell after a little while. The fact that it uses real wood is making it more problematic…

Any ideas on how to handle the smell problem? I fear this might not go away permanently 🙁

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Old teapots

August 13, 2007 · 1 Comment

Today I had a lesson in older teapots. I went to the Best Tea House today, as my usual haunt in Hong Kong after doing some errands. Tiffany was there, along with some other tea drinkers who frequent there and whom I’ve met before.

What’s different today is that somebody brought with him two teapots he recently acquired, both with claims to old age. He brought it for another tea drinker to evaluate, since he’s known as an experienced collector of particularly zhuni pots. It was really an eye opener for me, as there were things that I didn’t previously know that he told me about how to check for older teapots. For example, he thinks (from all the pots he’s seen) that the clay and the way the clay behaves under fire is really important. It’s interesting that he brought with him a 30x magnifying glass — the kind jewellers use to evaluate precious stones. He uses it to examine the surface of the pot and to see how, semi-microscopically, how the teapot reacted to the heat. By looking at that, he thinks that both pots are of an older age — one being a late Qing pot, while the other one being an early Republican period one. It’s difficult to explain everything he said without having a real life example, but it goes to show that much of it has to do with simple experience and having seen a large number of such things.

The other thing interesting is that we talked about the art of making tea — or the lack of an art of making tea. After all, what we’re doing is to make the best out of every tea we’re presented with. So, for example, with inferior quality tea, you want to use lower temperatures with longer steeping time, because if you use high temps with short infusion time, the tea won’t behave well — it will become bitter, astringent, rough, etc. Whereas with a good tea, you want to maximize the good qualities by pushing it as hard as possible. Using lower temperatures and longer steeping times is simply wasting the leaves — you’re not getting the most out of them.

So to illustrate, one of the tea drinkers talked about how one time he tried a tea made with a 12 minute infusion in a small yixing pot. 12 minutes… is a long time. It was, as he said, a brew of a really low grade tieguanyin, but that doesn’t matter, because the resulting cup was excellent. The long time, the relatively low temperature, and the expert manipulation by the brewer made sure it was a good cup.

That’s something we can all aspire to — again, it’s all about experience and knowing what to do with what you’ve got in your hands.

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August 12, 2007 · 2 Comments

Flying is such a chore.  Flying is also where you’re guaranteed bad tea, most likely.  Whereas these days branded coffee is making its way into the planes, and at major airports it seems like getting a good cup of java is never a real problem, finding good tea in an airport or a plane is considerably harder.

United, for example, offers Chinese restaurant tea as their “Chinese tea” on their service to Greater China.  What that means is that it’s tea powder…. with that strange taste one only finds in those kind of tea.  I honestly have no idea what type of tea is used to make that powder stuff… and how to explain those bubbles that never pop.  Anybody who’s been to a Chinese restaurant in the US will know what I’m talking about.  If you don’t…. good, because it’s nasty.

I’ve generally resorted to making tea on my own on the plane.  Using their sub-boiling water though, one shouldn’t use a leaf that requires too much heat or too much finness.  I find that young puerh, especially of the maocha variety, works particularly well on a plane.  A few leaves, and you’ve got yourself a cup of very pleasant, sweet, and gentle tea.  Since the water is not really hot enough, it’s almost impossible to overbrew the tea and so it will never really get bitter.  Indian teas also work, for obvious reasons.  I’ve tried brewing tieguanyin on a plane, with not-so-good results.  The leaves didn’t really unfurl, and throughout the cup tasted weak and watery.  Not a good idea.  I haven’t tried brewing Wuyi using plane water yet.  I should probably experiment.

Today I flew Cathay Pacific back to Hong Kong, where I’ll be for a few days to pick up my stuff and to settle my tea from Beijing into a more permanent home.  On the plane they served up a slightly weak, but still pretty reasonable (all things considered) cup of slightly roasted Southern Fujian oolong or something like that.  It’s a little too weak to tell for sure what it is, but it’s pleasant enough.  Flying into Hong Kong is, of course, quite nice.  Aside from being home, it’s also the most efficient airport I’ve been to.  Gate-to-door time was one hour and five minutes, including immigration control, baggage claim, custom, ground transportation … there’s no place like home 🙂

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