A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from November 2007

Treasure troves

November 30, 2007 · 6 Comments

I had some extra time today, so I went back to the same tea shop that I visited last weekend today. Specifically, that was the one with the big tea canisters (picture in the bottom of the post) and where I picked up a few aged oolongs.

I wanted to get some of the tieguanyin which was so good, and hopefully, to find more stuff there that’s hidden in those big canisters.

The laobanniang (literally owner’s wife, or female owner, of a shop) was pretty happy to see me coming back, and when I asked for the tieguanyin, she promptly went to it. I also asked if she has other stuff — stuff that is more like this and less like the qizhong, which I told her is a bit too sour. She said there are lots of different stuff in her store, but she might need to spend some time looking for them. I think she could sense that if she finds anything good, I’ll be willing to buy them. I also venture to guess that she doesn’t sell much of this stuff normally.

Now, to give you an idea of what we’re talking about…. this is a closeup of one of those tea cans. This is the smaller sized ones (the ones you see lining up on the left in the last entry about this shop)

On one can it says “Pu’er Cha”, the other “Ridong Hongcha”, a type of Japanese red (black) tea (here’s a link to Nittoh Black Tea, their proper name). What’s in the can has nothing to do with the words on them, and this is true for pretty much all of them in the store — about 4-5 dozens of them.

Inside each of them are bags

Like this (this is a picture of one of the bigger cans on the right hand side). In each of these bags are kilos of tea — some more, some less. The little slip of paper indicates what it is, and how much it should be. Some of these bags probably haven’t been opened for years, and I suspect many of them are simply leftovers from stock they had years ago — half a kilo here, two kilos there, etc. Tea that is valuable enough to keep, but after a certain time passes, not easy to sell. How do you tell a regular customer that you have some three year old oolong you can sell them? They’d think you’re a crook. So in the bags they sit. Year in, year out, and the older bags probably sink to the bottom. The opened bag is the one with the tieguanyin that I want. The other two unopened bags? Other kinds of aged oolongs that I haven’t even tried. She opened one bag for me and got me a sample. The piece of paper says “ROC Year 77 (1988), Spring, 2400”, 2400 being the price of the tea. It’s a lightly rolled oolong. Not sure exactly what it is, but it sure looks old and doesn’t smell sour. Let’s hope it’s good. If I could, I’d spend a whole day at the store, opening each can, and looking through them, trying teas. I’ll be like a little kid.

She said she will prepare some more samples for me when I go next time. I told her I’d like to try anything she has and decide what I want. I know that other than Taiwan, buying aged oolongs is difficult, and so I should take advantage of the fact that I’m here to snap up enough for at least a year or two’s worth of consumption.

Not only do they have old tea… they also have old neglected teaware

Too bad teapots don’t age the way teas do. Most of the teapots are pretty mediocre anyway.

So…. I made off with some of the tieguanyin, and two samples. One’s that 1988 tea, the other is also an old tea that was recently re-roasted. I want to compare them and see. I think, though, that given what I’ve tried so far, I prefer stuff that haven’t been re-roasted.

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What I learned about aged oolongs

November 29, 2007 · 5 Comments

Ok, I was going to talk about the Wuyi Qizhong that I got along with the aged Tieguanyin and the aged shuixian that I got…. but that got derailed, because the tea turned out sour, enough so that it’s no longer pleasant to drink. If made lightly, I can probably get something out of it as an occasional beverage, but that’s about it.

So…. instead, let’s talk about aged oolongs in general.

As those of you who’ve been reading the blog have probably noticed, I’ve been on a binge for the past few months drinking various sorts of aged oolongs. Much like what I was doing with youngish puerh, I’ve been trying to get my hands on a wide variety of aged oolongs and drink them, becuase I think that’s the only way I can learn about them properly. What other people tell you is all fine and good, but nothing replaces actual drinking experience.

So with that in mind I went around Taipei looking for them. I asked about them no matter what tea store I walked into. The first thing I’ve learned is that everybody has some “laocha”, or “old tea”. When you say old tea here, you are usually talking about aged Taiwanese oolongs. Some people have assumed I was talking about puerh, but that’s often because I’m young and young people usually don’t drink old oolongs. Puerh is more fashionable to drink.

Just because everybody has them doesn’t mean they’re all real, or good. First of all there are very very roughly two kinds of Taiwanese teas that are often aged, at least among the stores I’ve been to. Baozhongs come in abundance, but there are also a number of places that sell aged oolongs — the rolled kind, often from Dongding, but sometimes from other places.

There are roughly three types of aged oolongs, I think. One is your “often reroasted” kind. Liquor from these will be dark and sweet, mellow, not too floral. One is the “dry stored from strong roast”, I think anyway, with a more puerh-like flavour and a residual note of floral quality. Then you have the younger, “still kinda green” aged oolongs. Those are actually nicer than current year stuff, I think, but I’m not sure how viable they are for long term storage. More honey like, some floral notes…. still quite nice.

This is, of course, discounting the fourth and most common kind – oolongs turned sour. These are teas that are usually stored improperly — picked up moisture, or itself had too much moisture when stored. Reroasting will take care of it, sometimes, but not always. There will also be people who tell you that some sourness is natural in an aged oolong, and some might even say it’s the mark of a good aged oolong. Take that with many grains of salt. A hint of it can be a nice thing, but…..

And… there are also the fakes. Since there is simply no way for you to tell with certainty (at least I haven’t discovered a surefire way) just by observing the dry leaves if the tea really has been aged or not, fakes happen. Most often, they are just heavily roasted teas that have been, one way or another, doctored to make them seem aged. I’ve been to stores that gave me a few aged oolongs that are obviously just roasted oolongs with no age behind them. I’ve managed to avoid most of those, but still, a few slipped through because I couldn’t taste the tea or because I wanted to make sure. For people who haven’t had a lot of exposure to this type of tea, it’s an easy trap to fall into.

Because of aging, firing, etc, no two aged oolongs are exactly the same. Especially since there are no identifying marks of an aged oolong — there are no wrappers, neifeis, etc (unless your tea came from a competition with the accompanying documentation) so stuff from store A will always be different from store B.

This gets us to the question of price. Prices for these things vary wildly. Among the types of teas I’ve tried, they range from something like $50/600g to $300/600g. Yet, stuff that are on opposite ends of this range can taste remarkably similar. I’ve also had stuff that taste better but are cheaper than the more expensive counterparts. Obviously, taste is taste, and some others might disagree with me with my preferences, but generally speaking, when the price difference is, say, 3 or 4 times, and when the tastes are very similar…. one starts questioning whether the more expensive tea is worth the extra cost. It is also worth noting that the places with the high priced aged oolongs are generally speaking of the more “arthouse” variety — nice decor, good location, etc, that means you’re paying for a lot more than just the tea itself. In fact, some of these teas are probably sourced from the places where I’m buying the cheaper varieties — many of these arthouses haven’t been around long enough to store the teas all the way since their birth.

I haven’t really tried any of the aged oolong offerings that one can buy off the internet, so I don’t know how they compare, or what categories they fall into, or if they’re even aged at all. But aged oolongs can be wonderful, and I think the good ones offer many nuances that can rival (or even beat) an aged puerh. This is especially true when you factor in the price of many older puerhs these days, and the high proportion of fakes out there. Anybody who makes a trip to Taiwan should at least give this stuff a try — I think it’s well worth the effort.

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The hermit store

November 28, 2007 · 3 Comments

I was running an errand today that took me somewhere very near a store that was recommended to me. I had some extra time, and it was tea time anyway…. so why not?

I found the place after walking a little bit. The store can be best described as… shabby. On a scale of 1-10 for decor, it rates a 0. It is dark, with an old table, some old teaware, old tea (lots of it), a broken display case with some old cakes in it, and after some time drinking tea there, an old cockroach running around that the owner killed with bugspray.

If nobody recommended this place, I don’t think I would’ve spent much time in it.

But, the guy said this store has a lot of old tea, so, heck, why not.

When I walked in a woman was chanting Buddhish sutra loudly. She didn’t even notice me, and it was only after I (deliberately) made some noise fumbling the (some broken) teaware that she realized somebody’s in the store. After some talking, she called the owner back. He’s her husband, and probably in his 60s. An interesting looking guy, who, after sizing me up, asked me what I want to try. 80s? 90s? 00s? Sheng? Shu? I tentatively suggested 90s sheng, and then he asked “do you want the strong ones or the smooth ones?”. Strong. So… he reached back into a little canister, pulled out some tea, and started making it.

It’s some early 90s 7542. Not bad at all. Sweet, a bit mellow now, not too rough…. quite right, actually, and definitely dry stored. Then we had an early 90s 8653 (Traditional Character) that was stronger, lasts more infusion, but also a little rougher. Very good tea, both. I wonder if either of them might be worth the asking price.

Here’s the dilemma… it’s a cake that isn’t quite yet good for drinking, but is obviously much closer than anything newish. I suppose the price is affordable, but is it worth that much?

Food for thought. For now though, he’s said if I want to I can come back and drink tea with him. I’ll probably go back at some point.

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Aged tieguanyin

November 27, 2007 · Leave a Comment

This is an aged tieguanyin that I picked up along with the aged shuixian I had yesterday

No indication of when this was, other than that the loosely rolled style signifies something from at least probably 10 years ago — nowadays tieguanyin are mostly tightly rolled, Taiwan style. I haven’t seen many tieguanyins that are new that are loose like this.

The tea smells musty when water first hits it. I thought puerh. In fact, the wash and first infusion smelled so much like puerh, for a little bit I wondered if she gave me a puerh instead.

Doesn’t it look right?

When I sipped it, it tastes almost just like the Yetang aged Dongding that I have. There are subtle differences — this one is a little less floral (it’s orchid like), and a bit thicker — perhaps because it is a tieguanyin and not a Taiwan oolong. The finish is also different, with this one being obviously stronger. Yet, the similarities are stirking.

The tea lasted many infusions — mostly keeping to the orchid like quality, but at times something else shows, a different kind of aroma than what I got from the Dongding… I don’t really know how to describe it, but it’s unique to this tea. It also cools the throat a bit, like a puerh sometimes will. Doesn’t happen too much with tieguanyins though.

And to think this is only about 1/3 of the price of the Dongding, ugh.

The leaves are quite robust

Much better than the shuixian yesterday. Costs more, but not that much more. Between the two, there’s no competition. I’m surprised this tea isn’t sour at all, but it isn’t. It’s really quite a nice find, I think. Now I have one more tea left from this store — I have high hopes now, given how the last two have turned out. I wonder why it’s kept so well?

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Shuixian from …. 1988, supposedly

November 26, 2007 · 2 Comments

At the store that I took a picture of, I picked up some of this tea as a sample.

It is supposedly from 1988 — there’s a little piece of paper in that big bag of tea that says ROC year 77 — which translates into 1988. I don’t know if it’s real, but the chances of somebody asking for that particular tea is so slim, and the price is too low, for the ticker to really work. It also smells aged.

I didn’t use enough leaves today

The tea turned out weaker than I imagined. It’s a bit on the thin side, but that might very well have to do with the fact that I didn’t use enough leaves. I should’ve made it in a gaiwan, but didn’t. It’s got that aged taste, but instead of the Taiwan finish, it has a very strong “yanyun”, or rock afterglow, that is typical of Wuyi teas. It’s actually much stronger than some of the more recent shuixians I’ve had. I wonder if it’s because teas in the 80s were just… well, better. I should give this another try before deciding. No sourness, which is always a good thing.

The leaves don’t look that bad, but nothing too interesting either.

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A tea meeting

November 25, 2007 · 3 Comments

I went to meet some guy from the Taiwanese tea forum t4u today. He just posted an open invitation for anybody in the Taipei area to come. It was supposed to be a 3 people affair, but I was the only one who showed up at his place, so it ended up just being me and him.

The original focus of the meeting was to drink “Big Tree Tea”, referring to puerh. When I got there, we weren’t sure if the other person was going to show, so he offered to make some Taiwanese shuixian first. This is Wuyi varietal planted in Taiwan (these are mostly gone nowadays). It’s been aged about 20 years… and it’s a very good tea. I quite liked the complexity in the taste, and since I’ve been dabbling in aged oolong these days, it was an interesting contrast. I’ve met a tea or two that tastes like it.

The other guy was still a no show, so we went on to an aged dongding. This is a very different kind of aged dongding than the one I bought. It’s not as heavily fermented, and the agedness is lighter — it has a mild fruity sourness that is interesting instead of revolting. I think I prefer the style of the first instead of the second — not that the second is bad at all.

Still no show, so we proceeded with the puerh. I brought three samples, which we tasted in quick sucession. Nothing too interesting there, with one he thinks more like an old tree tea than the other two, which were more plantation-esque. It’s always nice to exchange views with somebody else on tea, especially youngish puerh. So much tea out there are called “old tree”, but yet very few actually are. I haven’t really devoted much thought to this problem recently, but now that I think about it… one of these cakes is indeed aging faster than the other two, obviously so, in fact. Aging faster in the first few years seems to be something that big tree tea is supposed to do. Maybe that gives me the explanation I needed… not that it really matters either way.

The other thing that we ended up agreeing is that the big tree teas are often less interesting initially — they can be very subdued things that only gradually show their true worth. They’re not teas that will wow your mouth — that’s the work of plantation tea. Instead, they are subtle but strong. The subtlety though can be mistaken for weakness. I know people who routinely think that these are crap because they seem weak.

Will it be better in the long run? This friend (let’s call him N) thinks it will. N thinks, from his experience of drinking teas from the 70s or before, that this is more like the sort of thing that was put into the old cakes. He thinks early spring puerh are a bad deal (the really buddy ones), which I concur as well.

We moved on to two more teas (that’s 7 for those of you who are counting). The first is a 2002 Yiwu which he has and likes… and tastes quite similar in some ways to the Yisheng tea that I bought a few of in Beijing, but only more aged, since the Yisheng is 05. It’s a nice tea, very mellow. The second is a 1996 Purple Dayi… a little more “big factory” ish. N thinks it’s mixed in with some (not a lot) big tree material. Perhaps, although the big factory taste still dominates. At today’s prices for this sort of thing, I’m not sure if it’s all that worthwhile. Interesting stuff though.

I was a bit high on caffeine at the end, but not too terribly so. Still, it was nice to meet somebody new who’s obviously interested and engaged in tea, and has that sort of intellectual curiosity in exploring different things. I wish someday I can throw a tea party for all the people whom I’ve met (and whom I haven’t met, like you lurkers out there), but alas, I’m not Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

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A tea walk

November 24, 2007 · 3 Comments

I decided to go for a walk today, since the weather is finally nice (albeit briefly) after many many days of rain and almost-rain (which is I think partly why the cake started growing mould). So, where to go? I went to the Chongqing N. Rd area, where the old shops are. I’ve only explored a small area of that street, so I decided to walk the other way and come down from the north.

There are indeed lots of teashops on the way, many of which look like old wholesale stores. Some scenes from the street

I visited three stores. The first is a more touristy/retail oriented one. I drank an aged oolong that’s more fired than aged, but it was pretty interesting, especially the strong tangerine peel notes in the aftertaste. There isn’t much else of interest there though, and I wanted to keep walking…

I passed by a few stores that pretty much ignored me — the man might be watching TV, or busy doing something else. I just poked around. Then I passed by this store that looked newish, with puerh and stuff and not at all like all the other places I walked by today…. so I went in. My, the guy was rude. He didn’t look too happy to start out with, and then asked “so what do you drink? sheng or shu?”. This is a pretty typical question to ask a new customer in a puerh shop. I said I drink pretty much only sheng. Then came the response, “oh, these days it’s pretty hard to afford to drink sheng”. It was said in a way that actually meant “it’s pretty hard for people like you to afford sheng”. Needless to say, I walked out of the place right away. I don’t mind stores that ignore me or whatever — it’s almost charming, but I’m not about to walk into a store that actually insults its customers. And this wasn’t even one of those charming old stores. This place is for “rich” people who can afford their teas (which were for the most part standard issue 80s or 90s teas… nothing spectacular)

Anyway, I left with a sour taste, but quickly forgot when I was further ignored at another store that was obviously some Grand Old Shop that does wholesale. One kilo of jasmine for $2 USD, anyone?

I ended up walking into a random store. I don’t know why I ended up there instead of the other ones, but I walked in, and first poked around, looking at the (bad) pots they had along the wall. Then I asked the lady if she had some aged oolongs, my standard opening line these days. She did (they all do, no matter what). I saw it, asked around…. and then saw there were cans that said “Wuyi Shuixian”. So I asked if they had shuixian…. of course she does, and then she proceeded to open some of these cans. Interestingly enough, the ones she opened said “puerh” on them. In fact, the cans are basically unlabeled — the names on the cans have no relation to what’s actually in them, but she remembers exactly what’s in which. I ended up buying a bit of aged qizhong, and some aged tieguanyin. I also got some shuixian from the 80s.

Now I only need to try my new acquisitions….

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Hmmm, mould

November 23, 2007 · 5 Comments

I was examining the few cakes I have here that I keep as “taster” cakes, and noticed something funny — one of them, namely the Fuxing Zhangjiawan, has a little bit of mould on it.

It’s been pretty rainy here the past few weeks and I have paid very little attention to these cakes. In fact, I haven’t really bothered with them for a while now, and have just left them alone. I looked at all the cakes I have in the same area, in my living room (the non-taster stuff are kept up in a little loft). It seems like the Zhangjiawan is the only one with any noticeable mould. I think this makes sense. The Zhangjiawan was covered by the other cakes, and sat at the bottom of the pile. I suppose what happened is that any moisture accumulated in it was not easily dissipated, and so whereas the other cakes dried out a little when the weather turned drier, the Zhangjiawan never did. None of the other cakes had a problem, and the ones up in the loft do seem a little drier — I suppose moisture is heavy.

The other thing is that the mould is growing in one paritcular type of place on the cake — at the end of the stems. They’re not all over, nor are they on the leaves. They are at the end of the stems where the leaf was plucked. Could it be that the stems retain moisture the best, and therefore makes the best place for mould to grow?

YP told me that she noticed that aged oolongs are often very sour when it was never de-stemmed. She thinks the stems do retain moisture better and thus turn the tea sour faster. Perhaps the same effect is seen here?

Either way, this is pretty interesting. I am almost tempted to let the mould grow uncontrolled and see how the cake fares in a month’s time. But then…. maybe I should let it dry out a bit. I only have one cake of this with me now, and I’d rather try it as it ages slowly.

I think I made the right decision to store my tea in Hong Kong on shelves that are near the ceiling rather than near the ground.

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Blend vs single mountain

November 22, 2007 · 8 Comments

The blend vs single mountain debate is an ongoing one in the puerh market. There are a number of different arguments over this, but basically it boils down to “which one is better?”. The single mountain teas are generally produced by smaller factories. Sometimes it’s even by individuals. They often cannot afford the time nor have the resources to haul large amounts of tea with them from mountain to mountain, so instead they buy maocha at each place and then press them into cakes, making single mountain cakes as they go to each different place and collect tea. Blended ones, on the other hand, are more likely to be made by larger factories that have the ability to collect teas from far and wide and then carry them back to their factory to be mixed and then pressed. It requires more resources to do and thus are difficult for small producers to pull off, unless you are somebody like Chen Zhi Tong who spends a lot of time in Yunnan and who ultimately has the help of some big factory.

We have precious little experience of single mountain cakes aging — everything produced pre-1990s was blended. Expert opinion on the antique cakes (pre- Red Label) are divided, but generally speaking many agree that those are also blended — with different mountain teas, and not from a single region. So… there is a theory that single mountain cakes are no more than a gimmick for smaller producers to sell their tea. Just because a tea is from a single region has nothing to do with its quality being high or low, but somehow it is sometimes taken as such in marketing information or in consumer response.

Think about this: I think most whisky drinker will agree that a Johnny Walker Blue Label (blended) is going to be better than a poor single malt. It is not the most distinctive, but I think it does what it does very well — a smooth, enjoyable, and generally well regarded drink. There will be the malt-snobs who think any blended whisky is crap and refuse to drink such things, but that is more likely to be a status thing than anything else.

At the end of the day, very few of us (myself included) can say with any certainty whether or not something is blended. There are many who sell cakes that claim single-region status, and then consequently justify its existence by saying that single-region is better and pure and all that. There are also those who espouse the greatness of blends, how they are rounder, have less flaws, etc. If whisky is a guide, then what it really will be is simply that single-region teas are more likely to give you all the characteristics of that region, flaws and all. Blends will be smoother, easier to drink, and (at least to novices) tastier, but perhaps less interesting or less engaging for the devoted. Still, a blend made with top notch tea will always be better than a poor single region, and vice versa. There simply isn’t a quality correlation there.

And since whiskies are blended after they’re aged… what’s stopping us from blending teas after they’ve aged as well? Somebody told me he puts in a bit of very young puerh when he brews his wet stored stuff. It gives the tea more liveliness and makes the drink more interesting. I can certainly see how that’s the case, and there’s really nothing stopping us from doing so. Drink what you like, not what gives go status.

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Aaron sample 4

November 21, 2007 · Leave a Comment

I tried Aaron’s sample 4 today

Small leaves from the dry bits I got. Nothing too interesting looking. Looks a little like a big factory recipe cake…

It’s reasonably dark in liquor, but that might be because I brewed it long. There’s a really weird note in the tea that I don’t know how to describe — other than just some massively “off” flavour in my sample. Plastic bag? Something else? Something wasn’t quite right, and it was definitely not a pleasant thing. It went away after a few infusions, but it was sufficiently strong to cloud my judgment. The tea is a bit harsh and somehow quite green. It feels like plantation tea and it doesn’t seem to be from 2001, or at least doesn’t taste like one — tastes a lot younger.

Strength of the tea is actually not too bad and it has a decent lingering aftertaste, but I just couldn’t say it’s a good tea based on the seriously off flavour and the greenness…. it’s also fairly bitter at this point.

The wet leaves are also quite green

Strange tea…

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