A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from October 2007

A tea shopping trip…. and a contest

October 20, 2007 · 6 Comments

Today’s entry is going to be a little long… but it’ll include a little contest, so read on 🙂

It was a nice day in Taipei today. The weather’s gotten a bit cooler, with drier air blowing in from the north. I figured I haven’t gone tea shopping for quite a while, and it’s time to explore some more.

Instead of going to the posh and nice Yongkang area, I went a section of old Taipei where it’s said there are a number of older tea stores. I only have the address of one, the Youji. I should note here that “X-ji” is a typical way of naming a store back in the day. It’s function is sort of like the English usage of the “‘s” in “xxxx’s”. So…. lots of these older stores have names like this. The Hong Kong tea store, “Ying Kee”, is actually “Yingji” in pinyin. There are other famous establishments in Hong Kong that also have such names.

Anyway, that was a digression. I got off the subway at Shuanglian station and started walking towards Chongqing N. Rd, where, I’m told, some of these older stores are. I passed by a store that sells both incense and puerh — an odd combo, seeing the incense will probably infect every cake they sell. It consisted of mostly cooked cakes, fake Dayi, and wet stored stuff of questionable provenance. I passed, and kept walking. I eventually ended up near the Youji store, and in front of it, there’s a park

But this isn’t an ordinary park, because it tells you about how Taiwanese tea is made!

It has educational routes you can walk along this park that measures something like 40m by 15m

With relief carvings set in the ground of the processes in question

It’s kinda cute.

On one side of the park is the store for Youji

It actually says “Wang Youji Chahang”, but it seems like they just refer to themselves as Youji. The building is actually quite big. The front end of the ground floor is a store — you can sort of see from the picture above that it is somewhat renovated and newish looking (more pictures on their rather weird website). The back half though is their factory — where they process the teas. They do their own roasting, packaging, and what not. Business is obviously not as good as way back in the heyday of Taiwanese tea export, in their case perhaps dating back to the pre-1945 colonial period, but nonetheless… business goes on.

I tried two teas there — an aged baozhong that is a bit sour, and a roasted tieguanyin that is quite reasonable. I liked them both, although the aged baozhong needs to be finished relatively quickly or it can get too sour. I think it’s time they re-roast that one again.

After trying the teas though, I asked for a tour of the premises, which they apparently do. So…. through the door in the middle of the building and into the back we went.

The first thing you see when you walk through the door is this

These are the templates they used for the boxes that they packed the tea in — you paint over them so the words are painted onto the boxes. These are various brand names, from the “Tea Pot Brand” to the “Mitomo Kabushikigaisha” (Three Friends Corporation, bottom right, probably dating from the colonial period). Then, there are a bunch of machines — used for sorting, drying, etc, but nothing too exciting, and none were in action today. The more interesting stuff is the roasting room.

I’ve seen these individually before, but not in a room like this and certainly not this many at once. Since I think many tea makers these days are using electric roasters (I’m guessing they’re more consistent, less room for error, and probably more economical), this is going to be an increasingly rare sight. These pits are like this

They fill them with big pieces of charcoal

Then they ground them down

Using these tools (specifically the right-most long stick)

Then you cover the pit with what he said are something like burned grain husk

When these burn down, they become the powder you see on the left of the picture. This covers the fire so that you are not directly burning the tea. I always knew you cover the charcoal with a dust like thing. I always thought that’s used charcoal that’s disintegrated into powder. This grain husk thing is new to me.

Then…. you roast the tea for hours….

You can also see other things going on, like in the picture of the tools — look on the left, and you see a guy picking leaves. He’s sorting the tea, presumably readying it for sale, or roasting, I’m not sure. I had a good conversation with the guy, who is running the family business. He said it’s really hard these days to find young people who want to do this, especially the roasting part. It’s just not pleasant work (high temperature, having to deal with charcoal, leaves, etc) and nobody is interested. Why do it when you can sell non-roasted tea for the same price, or even more? They insist on it, and even lightly roast their baozhongs, but that doesn’t always happen anymore. I can’t agree more — this is something that, I think, needs to be preserved because I personally feel a lot of these teas can’t be drunk without ill effects for one’s health without some roasting. (Sidenote: this is also why I don’t drink a lot of the really green Taiwan oolong these days, in answer to Julian’s question a week ago)

I picked up a little tea, and plan to be back here for more. I walked out, and wandered around a little more. I couldn’t find more tea shops… they are hidden somehow. Some of the stores are closed. This part of Taipei is no longer important, economically — the center of action has moved eastward, leaving this area behind. There are some older stores here, definitely, but they are only dealing with locals, and not the big exporters they once were. So it is somewhat fitting that there were some antique shops around here that look rather run down. One, though, sells some teapots…. so I went in for a look. He had about 20 of them on display, which was all he had. They were of various levels of authenticity and craftsmanship. One, though, caught my eye, and I eventually came home with it.

It pours well, the lid is well fitted, the patina is very nice and it felt good enough for me to buy it despite its funny smell inside. I tried brewing some of the cheap aged oolongs in it to get rid of the smell, and it seemed to have worked. I’m going to let it sit around some more and see if the odd smell comes back (probably because of where it was stored for a while). We’ll see what happens.

Which gets us to the contest part:

In trying to make this blog a little more interactive (I have a, relatively speaking, very quiet set of readers), let’s play The Price is Right. Submit your guesses to me via email regarding how much this teapot cost me. The person who comes closest (either high or low is fine, in deviation of the rules of the gameshow) will get samples of all the aged oolongs I tasted the last week, good and bad. If there’s a tie (say, one person guessed 1.1 and the other 0.9) the lower one wins.

Please submit guesses to (my username) at gmail. Please quote the prices in Taiwan Dollars (currently about 32 NTD for 1 USD). I am going to announce the answer on the 23rd when I blog. You have lots of time to ponder 🙂

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Awakening a tea

October 19, 2007 · 5 Comments

Some of you may have heard of a practice called “xingcha” 醒茶, or “awakening a tea”. Generally this refers to letting an older cake of puerh come to life before drinking it. Everybody has a different routine, but it generally involves taking the cake out, perhaps breaking it up into pieces, air it out a little, put it in a jar, let it sit for a while, before actually drinking it. This process is supposed to improve the tea’s taste — it will be better than if you dive into it right away.

One can do this with loose puerh too, because I’ve talked to an owner of an old teashop in Hong Kong who said I should spread the stuff out on a plate or something, let it air out for a little, before drinking his tea. It will be smoother and better. Since last time I tried the loose tea I bought from Off-Chaism did not produce a good result, I decided I’ll do this to the bag of tea. I had a feeling that between the air-tight seal and the little pouch of anti-oxidation stuff they put in the bag (keeps oxygen out of the bag, I guess — I don’t know why they did this for a puerh) did the tea in, causing it to taste worse than it did at the store. I shook the tea around in the bag from time to time, and just generally let it air, hoping it will make the tea get better.

So I decided to give it another spin today.

Still the big leaves

Still the same colour

But I am happy to report that after a few infusions, it became obvious that the tea is, indeed, better. It is noticeably less rough than the last time I tried the tea, which was one of my complaints. It also wasn’t as sharp on the tongue or as obviously bitter (though it was definitely still there). Instead, the tea acquired a little more aromatics. Much more pleasant to drink this time around. Obviously a dry stored tea still, but it is a Taiwan dry stored one — not the driest of dry, with just enough aging to give it that aged taste.

Which makes me wonder even more — why did they pack this tea they way they did? I guess they mostly sell oolongs, so there’s a need to pack it well. But…. this isn’t an oolong. Given all the packaging materials that went into the box, you’d think they can take enough care to package it the way it should be — maybe with a little less care so the tea doesn’t taste nasty out of the box.

The tea held up quite well for many infusions. This is a later one… probably 12?

The leaves are still the same, of course — a mixed bag.

I’m happier with this purchase now, although I’m still not sure if it’s worth the price. I suppose though, for a dry stored tea with obvious aging… it’s not so bad.

Categories: Old Xanga posts


October 18, 2007 · Leave a Comment

I’m taking another break from the aged oolongs (yes, there are actually a few more) because I ran out of containers for the bags I’m opening. Since I want to keep them away from moisture (and it’s very moist here in Taiwan, at all times of the year, basically) I need to get new containers before I will continue. That shouldn’t take too long.

So I went back to vanquishing leftover samples.

I have some leftover from the Sanzui guy who sold cakes through the forum, a Jingmai and a Bangwei. Neither sample was quite big enough for one sitting, so I figured… why not, I’ll mix them.

Blending is an art, and I’m not claiming to know anything about it. The purpose of blending is to cover up faults of a tea and enhance each other’s strengths. It is supposed to give a tea more complexity and make it better. This isn’t just true for puerh. I know oolongs are blended, especially if they’re roasted teas. Sometimes it’s also a matter of cost, but “mouthfeel” is something they often shoot for when blending. Whereas a single-region tea can be “simple” or perhaps even “boring” in mouthfeel, having a few regions mixed together can create a more balanced or perhaps fuller experience.

I have no idea what works and what doesn’t. I know a few people who will do things like putting some old, wet stored puerh in the pot and add a little bit of very young tea in with it, which gives the tea more liveliness while mostly retaining the aged character of the tea. It enlivens an otherwise rather flat, if aged, tea. Young tea is blended for “layering” effect, so that when the tea enters the mouth it will not only stimulate just one region of the mouth, but rather envelopes it in one way or another. One might be particularly good in the aftertaste department but is flat on the aroma, while another is sweet and tasty but lacking in a good finish; those would work well together (hypothetically, anyway).

I figured the Jingmai and Bangwei teas sort of worked like this. The Jingmai is better up front, with an aromatic opening but lacking in longevity in terms of its ability to linger in the mouth. The Bangwei is better in that department, but can be boring with a low level of aromatics.

The mixture is about 1 Jingmai to 2 Bangwei. You can hardly tell what’s what when it’s dry

Or for that matter… when it’s wet

The tea did seem to come out a little fuller — and the first few cups filled the mouth with its aroma, a mixture of Jingmai’s distinctive taste and a more bitter edge that the Bangwei has. However, I can’t say for sure that this is not just placebo. The tea did, however, have a clearer progression during the subsequent infusions. I realized afterwards that what I should’ve done (and will do next time I try something like this) is to have three gaiwans — one of tea A, one of tea B, and one of tea AB, and see what differences I can detect. I feel like a self-experimenting guinea pig sometimes.

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Aged 1990 Winter Dongding oolong

October 17, 2007 · Leave a Comment

This is one of those that actually has a claim to be something specific, instead of just “something aged”. I got this tea from Yetang on one of my visits to the Yongkang area, and I was rather impressed when I tried it there. It’s been a month already, and it’s a good time to break it out now.

It comes in a simple box

With these filled inside (within a bag, of course). The dry leaves smell a little different — it has a slight affinity to an aged puerh in smell. No wet storage, of course. Rather, it has a sort of “old” taste, if I can call it that. Something different, not the slightly plummy aged oolong smell you usually get.

You can’t really say much about an aged oolong just judging by its colour

It is slightly numbing on the tongue, with a full yet interesting flavour — again, not the sweet plummy taste you often expect from an aged oolong, but rather, a slightly puerh-ish taste comes out rather strongly. More interestingly, there’s a hint of some high floral notes that I didn’t notice when I tried this tea at the store. The floral notes I think give it away — this tea wasn’t highly roasted at all at any point, I think, but was aged in probably a reasonably sealed container for some years without further roasting. The floral note persists throughout the session. There’s also a green Taiwan oolong finish to the tea that you don’t get with the more roasted varieties. Only near the end, maybe 15 or 20 cups later, did the tea turn to a more generic aged oolong plummy taste — not that it was never there, but rather, I think it was always overshadowed by something else in the foreground.

There’s a misconception that aged oolongs must be re-roasted every year or every few years. I know for a fact that this doens’t always happen, since I know private collectors who definitely don’t roast their teas. They just keep it in a well sealed jar and take some out every once in a while, and some of these teas are 20 years or older. As long as one is careful about storage (mostly by avoiding moisture) roasting is not really necessary. I’ve tried some of that stuff before, and they can be quite delightful.

You can see how the wet leaves are more like a dark green.

I think this tea is quite good. Not too cheap, but perhaps I should get another bag and let it age some more while I drink off this one…

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Cheaper aged oolong

October 16, 2007 · 4 Comments

One problem with these teas is that they have no names — and most of the time, there isn’t even a region name to go by, so unfortunately, price is the only real distinction 🙂

This is a tea that I got along with the more expensive, but sour, tea. I got this one because it’s cheap… it’s under $50 for 600g (600g is a jin, or Chinese pound with 16 taels, and prices are often quoted in these, but do not confuse this with a mainland jin, which is 500g and has 10 taels).

The leaves are a bit mixed looking when you inspect them closely, and has a few shades — darker and lighter brown. Sniffing it, it smells a little aged, and roasty.

The tea looks very roasty

And tastes so too. There’s definitely some aged-ness to it, but the aged character is not particularly obvious. The roasted flavour is more prominent, and probably needs a bit of time for that to go away. The first few infusions are actually quite good — with a solid coating of aroma in the back of the mouth. There’s a slight sourness in there, but it’s not obvious enough to be unpleasant. When they sold it to me they said this is 10 years. Is it? I don’t know, I’m not sure. It’s probably a few years old, but there’s really no telling exactly how old. One of the problems is that the aged-ness of an oolong can vary very greatly. If aged in a sealed package, the aging can progress very slowly, whereas sometimes they’re aged in more open air, and the aged character show up much faster, but I think at higher risk of sourness and that sort of thing. Almost every time I go to a tea shop around here I ask if they have aged oolongs, and they really run the gamut, both in quality and price.

Would I drink this again? Sure, it’s not offensive, and the first few cups are nice. Again, if brewed a little lighter, there should be no sourness and perhaps even a bit more aromatic.

I really need to use a pot for this sort of tea. Brewing them in a gaiwan is almost a waste.

The wet leaves show this tea to be more broken in nature — not too obvious when dry, but really obvious when wet

Categories: Old Xanga posts · Teas

My tongue needs a holiday

October 15, 2007 · 2 Comments

My tongue got bored of the aged oolongs — it needs something totally different. I still have a few more to go, so I’m taking a break and drank a bit of the Fuxing Youle cake instead 🙂

This time I used my pot, and the tea seems to come out similar, but perhaps slightly rounder, than from the gaiwan. I think the leaves to pot ratio is a little lower when I use the pot, which might be the reason why I achieved the results I did. The tea tastes like a good old tree puerh, at least I think it is anyway… flavourful, strong in the throat department, and clearly has energy. Compared with an aged oolong, the energy is a slightly nervous one. Instead of making you calm, it works you up. It’s a stimulant. Young puerh tend to be like that; it’s as if I were spending time with an energetic kid, rather than an old man who is sipping tea peacefully. The tea, even when it’s almost brewed out after 10+ infusions, still exhibits strong activity in the mouth. I have high hopes for this one. I even wonder if I should go get some more, haha.

I think I broke the cake up better this time, and got more complete leaves in. It’s difficult to convey this through words, but the leaves seem well rolled — they’re slightly on the mushy side, not always unfurlable, and are mostly bud-leaf systems. I have heard complaints that some cakes these days are not completely processed — wholeness and sturdiness of leaves are sought after qualities for reasons that have little to do with aging, and so sometimes the makers deliberately roll them very lightly to preserve the leaves in order to make them unfurl easily on their own when brewed. I don’t know if this has any grounding in the actual process behind aging, but perhaps that makes sense — little rolling would mean less breaking of the cell structure, and thus, perhaps, slower or incomplete aging. Again, I don’t know the answer to this, and I suppose I will find out in 20 years.

Meanwhile, I marvel at the beauty of these leaves. There’s something about young puerh leaves that are particularly attractive, especially when they feel meaty when handled…

Categories: Old Xanga posts · Teas

A few tidbits

October 14, 2007 · 5 Comments

I went back to the Fuxing store today. It’s hard to resist a store that’s only 10 minutes walk away.

I was looking more at pots today, and nothing too interesting happened. I did, however, ask them how they season their pots — since they do it. The answer was “nothing special”. In fact, they don’t do anything other than just clean it of the debris that’s left in the pot, and after that, they just brew tea in them. The pots clean themselves out, basically. Obviously they rub the pots dry afterwards, but that’s really about it. As I was there, she was filling out the pot with some leaves, pouring water into it, and just letting the tea sit in the pot (with the leaves) to stew…. and the leaves were still in it as I left. I guess that works. I also suppose it’s because they have so many pots, it’s impossible to do anything else with them.

While there, I drank an aged oolong from 1983. Pretty interesting stuff, although much weaker than the one I had yesterday. The tea is, as she said, slightly sour if brewed too strongly (due to poor storage), so she deliberately made it slightly weaker. It does, however, have pretty decent qi, and I felt very relaxed after drinking it. Compared to younger teas, such as young oolongs or puerh….

Anyway, that’s all for today.

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60s baozhong

October 14, 2007 · Leave a Comment

I went back to the Fuxing store today. It’s hard to resist a store that’s only 10 minutes walk away.

I was looking more at pots today, and nothing too interesting happened. I did, however, ask them how they season their pots — since they do it. The answer was “nothing special”. In fact, they don’t do anything other than just clean it of the debris that’s left in the pot, and after that, they just brew tea in them. The pots clean themselves out, basically. Obviously they rub the pots dry afterwards, but that’s really about it. As I was there, she was filling out the pot with some leaves, pouring water into it, and just letting the tea sit in the pot (with the leaves) to stew…. and the leaves were still in it as I left. I guess that works. I also suppose it’s because they have so many pots, it’s impossible to do anything else with them.

While there, I drank an aged oolong from 1983. Pretty interesting stuff, although much weaker than the one I had yesterday. The tea is, as she said, slightly sour if brewed too strongly (due to poor storage), so she deliberately made it slightly weaker. It does, however, have pretty decent qi, and I felt very relaxed after drinking it. Compared to younger teas, such as young oolongs or puerh….

Anyway, that’s all for today.

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A failure

October 13, 2007 · 9 Comments

This is a purported 60s baozhong

The dry leaves smell faintly of agedness, but as I sniffed it hard, comparing it with the tea yesterday, I noticed that there’s a sour note in the smell in yesterday’s that is absent in today’s. Hmmm. Food for thought.

It brews a dark tea

And tastes wonderfully aged, full bodied, good qi, huigan, etc. There’s a hint of sourness in the first three infusions or so, but it doesn’t cross the line into the “unpleasant” category. This is what somebody might call a “fruity tartness”. The tea’s plummy, and very enjoyable. No bitterness at all, but it numbs the tongue a little — I actually enjoy that in these teas. Interestingly, there are some aftertastes in this tea that reminds me of some aged puerhs I’ve had. It obviously doesn’t share the earthy or woody taste of an aged puerh, nor the spicy notes that someitmes you get from them, but the aftertaste — it definitely reminds me of some puerh I’ve tried, mostly drier stored stuff. What’s better yet — these teas are impossible to exhaust. About 25 cups later

It still goes. Aged teas (oolongs, puerh, you name it) has one common characteristic — the longer they’re aged (presumably no serious wet storage in the case of the puerh) the longer they last in a drinking session. Even when the colour of the tea fades while brewing, the taste continues. Now I’m drinking probably the 35th or even 40th cup of this tea, and the colour of the tea is very faintly yellow, but when I drink it — it still tastes like tea, not water, and it still stimulates the senses in a positive way. That is not something you can fake, no matter what you do.

It’s still brewing as I type

Yum. I like this tea.

Categories: Old Xanga posts · Teas

A failure

October 12, 2007 · 11 Comments

This tea looked pretty

I bought it today at a shop near where I was running an errand. It’s one of those grandpa shops — looks awful inside, and has lots (I mean lots) of random stuff accumulated over time. I figured they might have some old stock of oolongs — and they do. There are two, and I bought a bit of both. The shop owner said this tea is 30 years, and it sells at a moderately high price. I didn’t buy the 30 years claim, but the tea is oh so beautiful. It’s a rich, dark red, shiny, oily… looks great. The tight rolling perhaps indicates a later date than the “30 years” claim. That’s not a real concern.

It yielded a dark liquor as well

It’s thick, it’s aromatic, it’s got a good finish. The problem is… the tea is sour 🙁

It’s not deadly, because the sourness comes on later, and isn’t the all-powering, all-covering sort of sour. Instead, it’s just somewhat sour, and the sourness happens when the tea (liquid) has had a little time to cool down. When piping hot, just out of the gaiwan, the tea is not sour at all. After a sip or two, it starts showing up. When cooled down further, the sourness is more apparent. I am not sure the reason why that would be the case, but …. it’s what I found.

It’s a shame, because otherwise the tea exhibits good aged qualities, but I don’t think it is nearly as aged as 30 years. The tea itself was pretty high grade, and tastes that way with enough complexity. Sourness could be due to a few things, but it generally has to do with moisture, or so I was told. This is perhaps fixable with some proper treatment in the roaster, because the sourness does go away after a while. If I brew the tea lightly, it might not even show up at all. In fact, that’s I think how I’m going to drink the rest of this — brewed light, maybe even in a cup with water added, and see how it turns out. In a gaiwan with a heavy hand, it’s not pleasant enough, certainly not for the price.

This is what the tea looks like when wet…. still beautiful

Compare it to yesterday’s cheap baozhong

You can see there’s a difference in the hue of the leaves, and obviously, baozhongs are not tightly rolled like this tea today. Still… in terms of aged oolong, this one has failed.

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