A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from October 2007

Benchmark teas

October 11, 2007 · 2 Comments

Quality, in my opinion anyway, is all relative. Nobody is insane if everybody is insane. Likewise, no tea is bad if all tea is bad (or good). Good and bad, I think, are entirely relative terms — and so in order to assign “good” and “bad”, one needs a scale.

There are some teas that I have that I drink for the purpose of setting standards. They are usually not great tea, merely ok, most likely cheap, predictable, and easily obtainable. Tea is especially difficult this way, because other than big Western tea makers (say, Twinings) it is hard to get a consistent product. A longjing from shop X this year that sells for $5 for 50g might be good, but the one two months down the road, when they sold out of the first batch and restocked, can be quite different. I’m sure we’ve all had that experience before. Sometimes certain teas also have some oddities – a funny aftertaste, a strange mouthfeel, etc. If drunk often enough, one might not notice, but if one tries many different varieties of the same tea, then it will become obvious that it is the “usual” that is odd, and not all the other ones.

So what I usually try to look for in a “benchmark” kind of tea that helps me set basic standards is basically an average tea… something that isn’t offensive, isn’t too great, and will allow me to judge other teas by.

The tea I drank today I got for this purpose, or at least when I got it I hoped I could use it for this purpose. It’s the roasted baozhong that I got. It is probably aged a year or two, but basically without aging. I can still taste the firing, and the tea is, generally speaking, not great, but fair and does the job. It doesn’t have off flavours, most importantly it isn’t sour, it is relatively smooth, has that Taiwanese oolong aftertaste, but still has a nice yun and can be enjoyed on its own terms. Good for benchmarking purposes.

The reason I drank this today is because I intend to try out the few aged Taiwanese oolongs I’ve collected since I got here, and I want something cheap and basic and relatively unaged to compare it against. If, say, a purported 15 years old Dongding outperforms this roasted baozhong only slightly (if at all), but costs a few times more… then that Dongding, unless it has some truly interesting quality, is not worth the trouble. I know some of the stuff I’ve gotten are not terribly good, but you have to have multiple points in order to construct a scale, and I am starting with the first one today.

I’m still deciding on what to drink tomorrow. There are at least four options… hmmm

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Long live the Republic

October 10, 2007 · 4 Comments

Today is Double Ten — 10th day of the 10th month, which is the National Day for the Republic of China. Do not confuse this with October 1st, which is the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Confusing, perhaps, especially if you haven’t figured out the rather convoluted history of China’s past century, but an important distinction this is.

On 10th October, 1911, a bunch of young officers in Wuchang (a part of contemporary Wuhan in central China) started an uprising that eventually caused a domino effect that brought about the fall of the Qing dynasty, and with it, 2000 years of imperial rule in China. Although the name Republic of China is now under considerable debate in Taiwan, there’s no realistic way of dropping it any time soon, since it is essentially the most important defense against an invasion from the PRC, oddly enough. Should the government here ever decide to, for example, change the name to the Republic of Taiwan, missiles will fly over the Taiwan strait and all hell will break loose. Yet, this year at the celebrations, the president, who hails from the party that favours eventual independence, didn’t even mention Republic of China a single time. It’s a political mess that nobody knows how to solve.

The division of the country which happened when the Kuomingtang forces fled the mainland and retreated to Taiwan after losing the civil war to the communists in 1949 meant that there were two governments that claimed China as its own. This issue has persisted to this day, and is the reason why, say, wrappers with “Yunnan” printed on them couldn’t be shipped to Taiwan with the tea cakes they came with, or why yixing pots with “Yixing, China” stamped on the bottom had to be smuggled in using fishing boats during the 60s and 70s. While things are a bit more open now, flying from Taiwan to Shanghai, which should only be an hour direct, still takes you through a detour to Hong Kong, Macau, or Okinawa, and shipping stuff across the little Taiwan strait is still never a guaranteed thing.

Still, the division probably kept tea culture alive in a way that it wouldn’t have otherwise. While China went through the turbulent 60s and 70s, Taiwan was making quite a name in the tea trade with its high mountain oolong and developments of new techniques and processes to make tea. After China opened up in the late 70s, many Taiwanese tea makers eventually made their way across and provided expertise in tea making, capital, and marketing. Tenfu, probably the biggest privately owned retailer of tea in China, is run by a Taiwanese businessman, and they’re hardly alone. I was told that many farms in Fujian are Taiwanese owned, or at least have some Taiwanese involvement. Many well known Yixing pot dealers are Taiwanese. In the mid-90s, it was largely because of Taiwanese interest in puerh that drove it to what it is today. Whether that’s good or bad is up for individual assessment, but one cannot deny that it has been an important and close relationship between the two sides in terms of tea production and changes in the market. The fact that both sides share the same language and heritage (while some might argue this part) has made this all possible.

How this will eventually be resolved, nobody knows, but until then, let’s drink a cup in celebration, and hope for the eventual and most importantly peaceful resolution of a 60 years old problem.

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Beer substitute

October 9, 2007 · 3 Comments

It’s baseball season here, and the fans are all eagerly watching every game by the hometown team, the New York Yankees. As you can imagine, their (yet again) early postseason exit has been met with some grief.

I’m not joking when I say hometown team being the Yankees. See, Wang Chien-ming, one of the Yankees’ starting pitcher, is a Taiwanese, so they have adopted the Yankees as a sort of hometeam. The Yankees are covered here with zeal, and the game commentators have the obvious Yankees bias that one cannot miss. Every game they play is newsworthy. In fact, I suspect the coverage of the Yankees here is probably even better than in New York itself. Games are played live in the morning (night in New York) and replayed at prime time the same night. When I come home, sometimes I turn on the TV while getting ready to brew tea, and more often than not, I stumble upon the baseball game on the tube and stay there. That, and the news shows are the only things really worth watching in Taiwan.

As I watched the Yankees get kicked out of this year’s postseason with glee, I was brewing the 2006 fall Bangwei tea that I got last year in Beijing. I’ve mentioned this tea a few times before, so I won’t bother again. It’s a solid tea and I wonder why I didn’t get more of it, since it was only something like $12 a cake for what is obviously a good old tree tea. Now you can’t even get maocha at these prices. Sigh. I should’ve bought a tong, or three.

Drinking tea while watching baseball though made me think that I probably wasn’t the only person in Taipei doing the same thing today. In fact, I’m quite sure there are others out there who were probably drinking some tea, perhaps some Taiwanese oolong, with a few friends while watching the game together in agony as the Yankees simply couldn’t hit and Wang pitched a disastrous inning before getting chased off the mound. In the US, it would’ve probably been some nasty macrobrew. Here, it’s a brew, but not that kind. This isn’t to say beer isn’t consumed — I’m sure it’s consumed in large amounts, but I think alternatives are entirely acceptable too.

I remember YP telling me she used to drink Red Label with her husband while watching the World Cup on TV. This was in 1990, I think, when that wasn’t such a ridiculous proposition. Then, the tea got more expensive and it seemed unwise to drink something like that while just watching a game, so she switched to a Yellow Label. Obviously, that’s a little too rich now as well. I’m sure she’s moved on to some 80s tea. While what I was drinking tonight was much, much more humble… I couldn’t help but feel the same. If only….

Oh well, at least I have two cakes of this.

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Some sort of wuyi yancha

October 8, 2007 · 3 Comments

Yeah, I don’t really know what I drank today. More precisely, I can’t remember, as is so often the case, what it is that I drank today.

This is a sample from Aaron Fisher when I visited. He gave this to me, along with a few other things. I know this tea is a Wuyi tea of some sort, fired quite high by an old (since 1890) Taiwan shop. But I can’t for the life of me remember what it is exactly. Since I am not good enough to tell all the varietals apart, I will rather not guess. I don’t think it’s a shuixian though, nor is it a rougui. A dahongpao? Maybe a beidou? Not entirely sure.

He did give me a lot of it though, so I used up a good bit

On second thoughts, I should’ve used less, because the tea is rather broken up. Wuyi teas get broken up when they roast it and re-roast it — naturally, obviously, as they have to move the tea around while roasting. This is probably also remains of a much larger bag, and as usual, the stuff nearer the bottom will be more broken.

The resulting tea was therefore strong

It was by no means nasty, although a bit of sourness came through, probably because I haven’t stored it very carefully since I got it (and weather was very humid with typhoon and rain). It tastes like a dahongpao. Solid, roasted flavour, some age, not a lot though, and some sweetness. The tea turns more mellow after a few infusions, and becomes nicer and sweeter. Sourness also toned down. The broken nature of the leaves probably contributed to the very strong first few cups.

I’ve been meaning to go visit some older shops, but on the weekends when I have lots of time to go, the weather inevitably turns nasty, and many such places don’t open on Sunday (in fact, many places in general don’t open on Sunday). That complicates things. I’ll have to find a weekend to head out and look.

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Menghai 1998 tuo

October 7, 2007 · Leave a Comment

This is a tuo I got at a local tea shop when buying stuff with Action Jackson while she was visiting town. We went to this place and tasted a few things, and she bought one of these. I helped her get a few more, as she is obviously no longer in town, and got one for myself, which I broke up…

The shop owner says this is from 1998, and compared to the 2000 Xiaguan tuo that she also sells, this tuo obviously tasted more aged. It also has a darker hue. There’s this little piece of paper that comes along with the wrapper that has 1998 stamped on it, but as any puerh collector knows…. these things aren’t very trustworthy and are very, very easily faked.

The tea looks like what it was in the store

Somehow though, it tastes a little different. I seem to remember in the store it tasted a bit more aged — there’s a little more of the “aged” taste of a puerh that showed through. It does still taste like that, but somehow not quite as obvious as I remember. It was, after all, almost two months ago. It was also right after we drank some pretty young stuff, so perhaps my tongue was picking up more on the aged notes of the tea. There’s also water and other things to consider. Who knows, but it’s always a little frustrating when a tea tastes a bit different at home. It’s also a bit on the rough side — considering that it supposedly has 10 years of aging in it, the tea was still rough. Roughness, after all, doesn’t go away very fast, and perhaps in a tuo it’s even worse.

If this is what a tuo tastes like in dry storage after 10 years in Taiwan…. one really wonders if there’s a point in dry storing a tuo at all. I’ve never been sure, so I have never been a big buyer of tuo, opting only for a few pieces here and there as a sort of curiosity more than anything else. Action Jackson, though, said she went for the tuo during her recent bout of sickness, which is how she decided she wanted more. Maybe it’s just this particular one that I’m drinking? Maybe I’m brewing it all wrong?

It’s probably worth revisiting this one.

The leaves are… like leaves in a tuo

I played with the white balance a little…. but I’m not sure whether this is a little too red. Digital cameras can really lie sometimes.

Categories: Old Xanga posts · Teas

Chenguanghe Tang 2006 Spring Yiwu Chawang

October 6, 2007 · Leave a Comment

There was a very strong typhoon that hit Taiwan today, so the whole day was spent indoors since going out was a real hazard. There were at one point debris that were flying and hitting the wall/window of my apartment…. and I live on the 8th floor. My friend’s house got part of its roof ripped open. So yeah, it was strong.

Perfect day to sit home and drink tea though.

So I pulled out one of the samples I got from Fuxing recently — the spring 2006 production of Chen Guang He Tang’s Yiwu Chawang.

Yeah, it’s a big piece I got. No, I’m not crazy enough to use it all in one session.

This tea, in the words of the store owner, is “two times better than the fall 2006”, and it’s the same price. There’s also a cheaper version of Yiwu tea from spring 06 as well. There are also a number of other CGHT cakes on sale there too — some looking quite fine. I wonder why Hou De didn’t get a hold of them to sell. They seem to sell out within hours these days.

The tea brews a medium coloured, medium bodied liquor

It is actually not THAT similar to the fall. The taste is actually lighter, although I do remember the fall Chawang having a slightly unusually heavy/dark taste to it. There’s a good huigan to the tea and it does give you a “throat feel”, but somehow I feel the qi of the tea is a little lacking. The body is good, and the tea, generally speaking, is really quite pleasant.

There’s one problem though. The tea came out quite rough after a few infusions, and the roughness was quite up front and obvious, which I found was rather distracting to the whole tasting process.

Tea Nerd has a post about astringency that includes roughness, and a brief explanation of what it’s about. I find roughness to be the most annoying of all these things, and generally speaking, a tea that is really rough can take a long time in dry storage aging before the roughness goes down to an acceptable level. I’m not sure if this tea is too rough or not — that probably depends on individual taste and all that, but I did find it to be a prominent feature of this tea.

It’s not bad, it’s just rough. It left the mouth dry. It had all the right makings of a good puerh, I think, especially if the roughness is a bit more subdued. I’m not sure what’s causing it — if it’s the tea itself, if it’s the mix of leaves, the storage condition, or what, but it didn’t produce the most favourable impression that way. I don’t seem to remember the fall version of this tea to be as rough, although I do remember it having some roughness. I know some Hong Kong tea friends will just frown upon this immediately and say this is making their tongue hurt — and will wait years before drinking this. Maybe it’s like bitterness — it’s good to have some to show strength in a tea that will age. But how long will this take? I’ve had 10 years old teas that can still be quite rough. So that’s obviously not enough. In fact, it’s probably the single most distracting thing, I think, in a tea. I still remember trying that tea in Beijing that made me gulp down a whole bottle of water right after tasting it… it was rough and drying to the extreme. It’s funny when teas do that to you. This isn’t nearly that bad, but it did leave a rough taste in the mouth.

The leaves are quite pretty though — and very long stems

Categories: Old Xanga posts · Teas

Random sample

October 5, 2007 · Leave a Comment

I drank a sample that was in some brown paper bag today. I don’t know for sure where it’s from. The brown paper bag suggests my friend YP, but then… I don’t remember getting something like this from her.

The colour didn’t come out right

But the leaves are actually relatively green, with some redness. The tea’s obviously been dry stored. There’s no hint of wetness in there, but there’s a beginning hint of age. It’s very broken up, made up of mostly small leaves.

It brews a decently dark brew

My guess is it’s about 7 years or so. It actually reminded me a little of the 2000 Xiaguan tuo I had recently, but this one lacks a bit of that greenness that one gets from Xiaguan products. There’s something Menghai-ish about this tea, although with zero labeling and zero memory…. I honestly have no idea what it is. It’s a little rough on the tongue, and the way it behaves suggests it’s probably mostly plantation leaves. Not much qi or anything too exciting going on… an entirely average tea, I think.

The leaves, as you can see, are quite chopped up

I can’t remember for the life of me what this is. It could actually be a sample of something else that I just stuck in the bag. Oh well… I should really be better about labeling things.

Categories: Old Xanga posts · Teas

So…brewing parameters

October 4, 2007 · 6 Comments

This was meant for yesterday, but it’s good for any day.

Many blogs out there post their brewing parameters. I did once upon a time, and once in a long while, I still do. Generally though, I don’t. But I feel like I should explain how I actually brew my tea… in case it’s not always obvious.

I generally use a high amount of dry leaves, relatively speaking. I think for a young puerh, these days my gaiwan is about 1/3 full of dry leaves. For Wuyi, it’s 3/4, and for high roasted or aged oolongs, about 1/2. It of course depends on the day, and what I feel like, but those are generally the parameters. Infusions are kept extremely short… maybe a few seconds, and it barely lengthens — until I notice it can use a bit more time, which varies for the tea. Water temperature is generally very hot. I never use a timer, and generally don’t use a scale (although sometimes I do use one to prevent me from misjudging compressed tea and how much I’m actually drinking).

I find this works for me. Bitterness disappears in this way. I tried an experiment yesterday with the Baisui Chawang from Yangqing Hao. I used a smaller amount of leaf and longer infusion times, more typical, I think, of how many others brew their young puerh. I find it to be rougher, more bitter, and I didn’t get that incredibly interesting note early in the first few infusions. Instead, the tea is very non-interesting, at least compared to the last time I tried it. Perhaps I should’ve used cooler water, which would’ve helped with the bitterness and the roughness, but lower temperature would further dampen the complexity factor.

I’m not saying mine’s the best way. There are certainly merits to the other, but I do think that for me, this works well. I’ve recommended this to a few people, and I think, for example, that Hobbes found brewing one of the samples I sent him this way brought out much better results than otherwise. I think it brings out the nuances of different teas more clearly, and also their complexity better than otherwise. Using very few leaves and low temperatures can make almost anything taste decently good, but it is impossible to tell which one’s the better tea and which one’s worse when made that way.

There are, of course, teas that I don’t brew this way. I brew my greens (the few times I drink them, anyway) very light. I also tend to brew my light oolongs with a light hand. But since I don’t drink much of those anyway…. it almost doesn’t matter these days.

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October 2, 2007 · 6 Comments

It’s an interesting thing going to a store that focuses on its pots, rather than its tea. Yesterday there was a crowd of potheads gathered around the table with the owner sitting there, casually brewing some aged oolongs in a big well made pot that I’m sure is a few thousand dollars, at least. The discussion (to the extent that I could understand when they spoke in mandarin — most of the conversation was in Taiwanese, which is hopelessly difficult) was all about pots. Who made what, which one’s nice, if it’s a real one, how much, look at that nice clay, the good calligraphy, etc etc

Connoisseur pots are, of course, not quite the same as our everyday stuff. For one, they’re big, usually around 500cc, which is only really usable when you have a bunch of people. A 300cc one is already too small, and the stuff we usually use — around 100cc, is not for them at all (although some do like to play with a few of these as an aside). These people are often not too knowledgable about tea. One man thought the aged oolong we were drinking was a puerh at first (it should be immediately obvious). They tell me they just drink tea, but they really, really love their pots. They get custom made brocade boxes for them that are shaped just for the pot, so that it is safe. They take them out, carefully wipe them, put them back, take pictures…. you name it.

And they are expensive. The few nice ones that were being passed around yesterday were ten or twenty thousand USD, per pot. Even the “cheap” ones are a few thousand dollars. There are ones that are even nicer, but those, I gather, are rarely taken out for show. They hide them in the house.

One of the guys who were there, a man in his late 50s, I think, said he’s been collecting pots for a few decades now. I’m sure he’s got a nice collection, as you can tell everybody in the group respects him. He then tells me something which I find a bit startling — he can’t tell a fake from a real, at least for the “masters” pots which he generally collects. “Masters” (mingjia) pots are the ones that are made by living or recently dead pot masters, and are not usually antique. This stuff has a high rate of fakes, and when a guy who’s got a lot of experience playing with this stuff doesn’t know for sure if something is real or fake, there’s something wrong.

The owner of the store said that for them (the dealers) it is possible to get a sense of whether something is real or fake, but even they cannot be 100% sure and sometimes have to hunt down connections to find proof. They know, generally, because they’re the ones who sees the most out of anybody in the pot-food-chain. The makers don’t really know each other’s works. The buyer/collector only knows what they are told by the dealers. The dealers see both sides, and see each other too (as they trade stuff). So, a pot from Master X might have certain characteristics…. this they know.

But then, you have fakes. Fakes are really good these days. Fakes are also a parallel industry, apparently. Pot makers in Yixing have specialities — this guy specializes in fake antiques, that one fakes Master X’s pot really well, and this woman fakes Master Y’s to perfection. These people have good skills, obviously, and sometimes even better than the so called masters. But… they’re not famous. They can’t sell pots for thousands of dollars, not until they’re famous anyway, which is never a sure thing even if you have talent. If they fake somebody else’s though, they can.

So unless you have a dealer who you can absolutely trust and whose knowledge is impeccable… finding a real pot (antique OR masters) can be a real challenge, especially when starting out. The owner of the store says her customers don’t have to pay tuition, because all her stuff are real. While there’s always a bit of advertisment in these proclaimations, I do think the stuff I’ve seen there are better than most. Maybe I can learn a few things from these people…. from simple issues like how they season pots to clay quality to everything else. Here’s hoping, anyway. Meanwhile… I’ll just drink my tea using my inferior teapots.

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Tea purchase

October 1, 2007 · 4 Comments

I bought some tea today, specifically, I bought a few tongs of the Fuxing cakes….

I decided I didn’t want to wait around for three reasons

1) I didn’t want a repeat of the Quanji Bulang experience, where they didn’t have the cake anymore. Fuxing only has less than a jian, total, of the two teas left, so I didn’t want to run the risk of one or two people cleaning it up and buying everything remaining. Good thing they’re still there.

2) I didn’t want a repeat of the Quanji Bulang experience before they discovered they didn’t have it anymore — where I had to haggle down the price to what I paid for originally only a few weeks before. I don’t think this is the kind of shop that will pull such a nasty trick on me, but you never know for sure.

3) Most of the younger puerh I’ve seen around Taipei are either high priced, fancy maker stuff (doesn’t actually mean higher quality, mind you), or run of the mill, big factories stuff where they’re often cheaper in China. Older stuff, I decided, are too expensive for what they’re worth. I think I need more 90s tea together in order to store them well — one or two cakes just won’t cut it, storage wise. Given that, I’m not sure if it’s better to buy those now than to wait, say, 10 more years till they’re well aged, and just buy them for drink it now (or, perhaps, at that point some of my current teas will be drinkable)

So, I went there and got some stuff. While there, we had a few aged oolongs, variously of 15 years to something like maybe 25-30 years. I like this stuff, and I got a bag of the 15 years old tea for free as part of my purchase. I didn’t get a discount, but I guess this was sort of a discount.

I also got two free samples. One’s a Chen Guang He Tang 06 Spring Yiwu Chawang…. which the owner said in her opinion is way better than the fall production. Then there’s a 2007 cake made by another Taiwanese tea guy, which is outrageously expensive but which she said is quite good. Well, so those are the freebies I got to take home to play with.

Meanwhile… I am looking at my tea, thinking what I should do with them here until I take them back to Hong Kong with me. I wonder how the cakes in Hong Kong are doing…

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