A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from November 2007

The reality of tea…

November 20, 2007 · 6 Comments

Even though at times it does sound a bit like Taiwan has lots of good tea, good tea culture, etc etc…. the reality is that most people still don’t give much of a damn about tea here.

Today I went to a place called Cafe Lumiere, a little shop in a lovely old building that houses a theatre and is named after a famous Taiwanese movie. It’s your typical Western style coffeeshop kind of thing… cakes, etc. They served tea, mostly of the Earl Grey variety. What passed for tea was basically big teapots with round teabags — Republic of Tea, perhaps? The thing I had was a “Yorkshire tea”, which tasted like a weak version of English Breakfast. However, it had the typical problem of “drinking the last guy’s tea”. What I mean is… the teapots they used weren’t cleaned sufficiently thoroughly so that all the herbal teas that have been made in it has left a mark. So I ended up drinking Butterscotch Hibiscus Vanilla Cherry Black Chamomile…. a potpurri of flavours and smells that have been left behind by many a drinkers before me. At one point the lid of the pot smelled like detergent. Yum….

For dinner we went to Ding Tai Fung, a famous restaurant in Taiwan (best know for their xiaolongbaos). The generic tea they served was a really watered down stale green jasmine. Mind you, that’s just for the purpose of washing down your food as quickly as possible so that you will move out of the place for the next person (the waitresses had femmebot like efficiency) but you’d think watered down, low grade oolong is at least achievable instead of nasty stale green jasmine….

Tea is still very much just a beverage to be consumed in the course of the day while doing other things. Even here, where tea culture is perhaps more alive than any other place in Greater China, most people are quite happy with just a cup made simply, or even badly. Sometimes I think it is easy to forget that when reading about the latest thing, the strangest preparation methods, or arguments over the tiniest details.

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Maokong trip

November 18, 2007 · 4 Comments

I went to Maokong today. Maokong is a hill near Taipei. I went there two years ago when I last visited, and I remember you had to switch from subway to a minibus to go up the hill. Between then and now though, they built the new Maokong Gondola. So now, instead of having to ride the very bumpy bus ride up to Maokong from Muzha station, you can just ride the cable car up to the mountain in 20 minutes. Very nice.

There are definitely more people there now, although today was rainy so the crowds probably aren’t nearly as bad as, say, a sunny day. There are lots of farms up there that a visitor can go see and brew tea at. It’s almost impossible to choose which one.

My girlfriend and I went to this Wutie place that I first heard about through RFTD a while ago. The place….. does microwaved tea. Sounds crazy? Yeah…

We ended up just having “Wutie” oolong. This is an Alishan oolong that they somehow concoted with a high fermentation and high roasting. The result is…. interesting. There is a sort of strange fruitiness to the tea beyond the usual roasted Taiwan oolong taste. I don’t know how to describe it other than the aroma of the roasted tea hits the nose very strongly. My grilfriend said bark dust/woody, I said old tangerine peels…. I’m not sure what it is, but whatever it is, it’s a very interesting aroma.

This is the setup they provided. It’s quite decent.

I didn’t get to try the microwaved teas, but I did see them

They’re big balls (1kg or more) of oolongs that were somehow rolled together and then somehow microwaved and then somehow kept in this shape. Very, very hard. I don’t know how they put it together, or how they peel it apart, or how it doesn’t rot. The “master” wasn’t there today, so I couldn’t ask. I wonder if it’s worth going back to figure it out.

But it’s a good place to drink some tea and just relax. We certainly had a great time.

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Using teapots

November 17, 2007 · 5 Comments

I drank the Yetang aged dongding oolong today again, but using my new teapot I acquired a few weeks ago rather than a gaiwan. Even though I used less leaves, I think the result has been very good. What, though, is it that makes teapots work better? Temperature? The clay? I’m not totally convinced the clay is what does it entirely. I suppose the fact that a pot keeps higher temperature than a gaiwan might be part of the reason, but is that it? Or is it placebo?

I have friends who swear by pots and will never use gaiwan unless they have to for one reason or another. Then there are some (albeit a minority) who generally only use a gaiwan.

Over time I’ve migrated more and more tea over to pots… but it’s not always possible to do so, and when I evaluate a tea I’d prefer using a gaiwan sometimes, although even that’s changing these days. I can just see myself end up with a few dozen pots… oh, the horrors

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A busy tea day

November 16, 2007 · 5 Comments

Today was a busy day (yesterday internet died again). I first went out to get some tea for Action Jackson, who has a tea mule waiting for me to bring back stuff from Taiwan. I was on my way to get her some aged baozhongs, when, along the street, I saw a sign saying “Antique and Famous Masters Teapots, 6th Floor!” with some truly dubious looking pots in poorly taken photos next to the sign. Hmmm

What the heck, I had time, I thought, so I went upstairs to the 6th floor. It looked a little creepy. I thought about leaving. Then I saw the teapot sign…. the door was open, so I figured it’s not a bad idea to peek. Taiwan has a lot of scams going on, so I was a little worried about getting sucked into one. Inside that little office were a few shelves full of pots, and an older guy just walking around. I entered, and he greeted me and started talking pots.

This place was pretty interesting. There were, by my estimate, about 200 pots of various shapes and sizes on the shelves in that place. Every one of them had a little sign in front of it, listing the approximate age, the seal (or signature) and whatever else info there is. Most looked like credible zhuni pots. Many looked old, some very much so. They’re clean, well kept, and obviously in good hands. The only question is…. are they real?

The man claims he’s been collecting pots for about 20+ years. Makes sense. The 80s was when Taiwanese went nuts collecting yixing pots. What happened to puerh in the past few years happened to yixing pots in the 80s. Then, of course, the market went bust and prices of many of the older pots dropped dramatically. Tea probably won’t suffer as bad a fate, since it’s perishable and will continue to be consumed, whereas pots aren’t. Nevertheless… it is entirely possible that somebody’s sitting on a big stash of older pots.

The craft of many of these pots obviously look good. Some are very good, and have intricate details and fantastic calligraphy. Some have very rough finishes, especially on the inside, which I learned from another source is quite typical of older pots — it was not usual for them to make picture perfect finishes inside back in the day; it just wasn’t done. So you had a lot of what one might consider a rough finish now on the inside (outside all look good). I didn’t bother inquiring about prices, but some had prices on those labels and they ranged from what seems like a hundred or two all the way up to a few thousand. Age of pots range from the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) to 1970s.

I didn’t have much time there, only spent about an hour chatting with the owner, and looking through an incredible array of pots. The guy obviously wants to talk, and isn’t particularly pushy or anything. He clearly loves his stuff… and kept showing me pot after pot. Unfortunately I ran out of time and had to go (I still had to buy the tea and then rendevous with the tea mule). I will most likely go back to this place though.

The buying of the tea was itself fairly uneventful. I did drink some 20 years old cooked puerh mixed with osmanthus. That was interesting.

After dropping off the goods with the tea mule, I had to meet with two people — and we chose Wisteria as our meeting place. I haven’t gone there since I arrived in Taiwan, and figured it’s time to go. Their original location is under renovation. This is a branch of sorts.

Wisteria is mostly a place for you to drink tea (unless you want to buy stuff there). The way it works is this: you go in, you sit down, and you look at the tea menu (there are a few snacks, but no real food). Everybody has to order something… or at least, everybody has to order one serving of tea or its equivilent. So, for the three of us, we had to get three servings of something. I leafed through the menu. For a Taiwan oolong, say, one serving would cost 350NT. So for three of us getting something of that calibre… that’s 1050 NT or thereabouts.

Then I flipped to the back where the good stuff (Tongqing, Red Label, etc) are… for three-four people, a serving of a 30s Sun Yi Shun is…. 1980 NT.

Is this a no-brainer or what?

I suggested we go with the SYS. The other rationale is that it was near dinner time… and drinking something as green as a gaoshan oolong right before dinner is potentially suicidal.

The tea is as I remember a SYS to be…. nice, medicinal, mellow, had a soft kind of qi, easy on the body…. very durable. Nice tea, even if not mind blowing. People in Hong Kong told me to try to find them in Taiwan, as they think it might still be reasonably priced there for what they are. Either way though…. good tea needs good company. It always makes a tea more enjoyable 🙂

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Aaron sample 3

November 14, 2007 · Leave a Comment

Third in the series

I have more of this sample than the other two, but I thought I should use approximately the same amount anyway for consistency sake. The dry leaves smell a little familiar. It’s not too tightly compressed. Looks dry stored, more or less

The tea is a bit more intereating than the last two, I think. When I first drank it I thought it tasted somewhat familiar — I’ve had something like this before. I couldn’t, however, come up with what it was that it tasted like. I just know that I’ve had something similar.

It’s decent enough, somewhat aromatic, hits the throat a little, although a bit rough on the tongue. The leaves smelled ok, if a little “green”. No real faults, but neither is it a real standout. The durability of the tea is good though — it withstood quite a few infusions.

Then I sniffed the pot where I put the wash… smells a little like some Lincang tea I’ve had. I wonder if that’s what this is.

The wet leaves are sort of whole — mostly smaller leaves and buds.

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How do you learn about tea?

November 13, 2007 · 3 Comments

I was in a cab today and the cabbie started chatting. It got on the topic of tea, because I was picking some up for somebody. He then asked, “how do you learn what’s a good tea and what’s not?”

It was a tough question. How did I learn about tea?

I did take one introductory course (5 lessons) way back when. That was when I didn’t know white tea from green. It was useful, and I think something like that is good for everybody who wants to learn more about tea and get the basics down. Just make sure the place offering such lessons isn’t providing misleading information that basically means only their tea is good — this is actually quite common among “lessons” that are taught from teahouses.

But beyond that… it was just drinking, drinking, drinking, and talking about tea with other people. I find books to be generally useful, but specifically useless — none of those words translate into anything physical. They’re good for general information, but not at all when it comes to tasting and judging tea. With tea, somebody (myself included) talking about it doesn’t even come close to the experience of drinking and feeling the tea. What is huigan, anyway, if you have no idea what it is and have only read about it? What’s the difference between a “rough” and a “smooth” tea? What’s a “wetstore taste”? Mustiness? But dry stored tea can still be a bit musty. What’s that Taiwanese finish that I sometimes talk about? And let’s not even get started with flavours. I have no idea how a “plum” taste is different than an “apricot” one, and I definitely don’t know the difference between male and female urine, but since somebody has used “male urine” as a description for a tea before on a certain blog, I suppose they must have their unique flavour profiles. Not that I want to find out.

I ended up answering “just drink a lot” to the cabbie’s question. He was obviously dissatisfied with the answer, and kept asking. I don’t know what he was trying to fish for, and it was actually getting slightly creepy. Thankfully, the ride was short and I arrived at my destination. Whew.

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Water’s too good for the tea

November 12, 2007 · 2 Comments

Water can sometimes be too good for a tea.  Today was such a case — went to the Best Tea House to see Tiffany and drop off stuff, and had one of the baozhongs I brought there… wow, the tea tasted awful.  Flat, thin, not aromatic, slightly rough — what happened?

It’s that super water filter they use!

I think the water’s so free of minerals, it tastes bad.  I’ve found this to be the case with a few other teas I’ve brought over too — flat, boring, thin.  You compensate by putting in more leaves, but I always forget that when I go there and make tea.  So…. the tea ends up tasting like crap.

So yes… sometimes water can be too good for a tea.  I’m not even sure if there’s ever such a need for such a good water filter in a place where the water system is quite well developed.  Beijing, maybe… but Hong Kong’s water isn’t that bad.  Its only fault is that it smells a bit like chlorine sometimes….

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Tea in a ceremony

November 11, 2007 · 7 Comments

There are tea ceremonies, and there are ceremonies involving tea.  A Chinese wedding is one of them, at least as practiced in Guangdong (I’m not sure about other areas)

What happens in a traditional wedding ceremony goes something like this — the couple walk into the main all where everybody is already there.  The parents of the groom are present in the house, sitting facing out.  The couple walk up to them, and then they bow three times.  Once to the heaven, once to the parents, and then the third to each other.  Then they serve a cup of tea to the parents (kneeling, of course), and in return they get some good luck money in a red bag and some sagely advice, and this is basically what it takes to get a bride to be accepted into the family.  I heard in Korea it’s not tea, but wine, that is served, but the idea is pretty much the same.

I don’t know if there’s a rationale behind the choice of tea other than the fact that it’s the most common drink and that many Chinese just can’t handle wine.  But perhaps there’s a sense of domesticity in drinking tea that wine doesn’t do — you drink wine to celebrate or some such.  Tea, however, is something you drink all the time.  Marrying into a family is going to be a full time affair — you become part of family, and so perhaps in this sense, tea is very appropriate.

These days (such as the wedding I went to today) the bowing no longer takes place, but at least in HK the tea serving gesture is still generally done, however haphazardly.  Except that nowadays, they are often wearing a tux and a qipao, usually (kneeling in a wedding dress can be a difficult move, methinks).  The parent of the bride also get served these days.  Even though circumstances changed though, there’s still some sort of symbolic power that this ceremony holds, so that even this thoroughly westernized society in Hong Kong still performs this.  It’s this kind of thing that makes Hong Kong quite unique — this is probably the only place on Earth where both Christmas and the Buddha’s birthday are both public holidays.  East meets West at its finest.

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Be your own tea master

November 10, 2007 · 7 Comments

I had some tea with Tiffany, YP, and a few others today.  We were talking about buying puerh, buying other teas… and such.  A few topics came up

1) How puerh used to be so cheap nobody wanted it.  Even just a few years ago, a really good grade cake would only cost about $5 USD (all prices here will be USD) or so when it first comes out.  It was pretty much unthinkable for a new, raw puerh cake to cost more than about $10.  Back in the day when YP bought her first 88 Qing (now quoting about $1200 or thereabouts, depends on when, where, and what) it cost her about $10, which was considered a high price already.  A Red Label maybe 15 years ago was something like $500 (now entering the $10000 territory).  Most green cakes back then were only about $1-3.  She said the first time she looked for the 88 Qing, she went to some wholesaler to try to get some.  Asking them, they were like “what? why do you want this stuff?  This stuff is so green!”.  She wanted a cake?  “No, you need to at least buy a jian!”.  Those were the days.  But even now, she agrees with me on this one point — no good reason to pay big money for aged cakes, because for the most part it’s not worth that much given the alternatives.  Of course, she’s in a position of somebody who has a bunch of old cakes to drink, but even then… food for thought.

2)  How the conflation of “tea masters” and “tea sellers” is a dangerous thing and buyers need to be cautious.  This is something I’ve although thought about recently — how many boutique shops are opened by supposed “tea maters” out there who really don’t necessarily know anything more than anybody.  There’s no certification for such status, and there’s definitely no requirement for somebody to open a tea shop.  Many so called “masters” come from other trades; their former employment having nothing to do with tea.  Most of them did not learn their trade from some other “master” either — they acquired the knowledge (whatever there is) through drinking, reading, thinking — just like all of us.  Starting a shop doesn’t make you a master.  Sourcing good tea does not make you a master.  It does, however, make you a tea salesman.

YP and another tea friend present related to me how over time, they have heard 100% contradictory things from the same “tea master” who shall remain nameless.  At first, they’ll tell you one thing, and you, as student, will go buy tea (expensive tea from the same master, of course) according to that.  Then…. a few years down the road, suddenly the tune changed, and now they tell you another thing.  If you were around the first time, you’ll notice that it’s totally different and contradictory from the first.  They simply cannot both be true.  Yet… this sort of thing happens all the time (I’ve seen the same thing happen myself).  Why?  Because at these times, they’re not acting with the “tea master” hat on — they’re wearing the “tea salesman” hat.  When the two roles collide, the tea salesman almost always wins.  Another thing you will notice over time is that many “tea master” disagree with each other on some very fundamental points, especially when it comes to puerh.  This isn’t terribly obvious to those who don’t know Chinese and don’t have access to these people either in person or through print, but the fact that such fundamental disagreements exist means only one thing — nobody really knows the true answer and are all fishing in the dark.  Beware of “tea master”.

3) Which leads me to the third point — puerh production has changed significantly over time.  The few experienced people present agreed on one thing — puerh production has changed about once every decade — the leaves, the mix, the way they press the cakes…. everything’s different, and there are distinctly different tastes that come out of the cakes.  Theories of what made a good tea in the 80s might not apply to the 90s, and what made a good tea in the 90s will not apply to the 2000s.  As YP said today when I first walked in… “I can say I know something about 70s or 80s tea, but I don’t know much about 90s tea, and I definitely don’t know much of anything about teas made in the past five years”.  She’s not being too humble either — I think it’s more because nobody has had enough time to tell yet.

And at the end of the day…. tea is still a matter of taste.  Some people just won’t like a certain taste, no matter how refined it is, supposedly.  Two buck chuck has won blind competitions for wine.  I’ve tasted aged baozhongs costing $50/jin that are far better than stuff costing $250/jin, regardless of the price.  Do I have a screwed up tongue?  Perhaps.  But then… maybe it’s just because I am the only person who knows what I like and dislike, and whatever other people tell me… I will listen, I will certainly learn.  Everytime talking to somebody about tea is a learning experience, even if that person knows nothing about tea.  But I am the only one who knows what I prefer in my cup, “expertise” be damned.

I’d imagine the same to be true for everybody.  I know somebody who likes her tea be Twinings Earl Grey teabag dunked into a cup for about 15 seconds, add milk.  That’s it.  I liken it to sewer water.  But somebody thinks it’s great, so… who’s to say who’s right?  Just hope the Twinings Earl Grey teabag wasn’t sold for $250 and masqueraded as the Best Tea On Earth.

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Storage report

November 9, 2007 · 2 Comments

Just juggled my tea in my HK storage.  They smell fine, except the few cakes at the top that seem to have absorbed a bit of a woody smell.  It’s not overpowering and won’t kill me.  I put the cheaper tea near the top anyway, so that it won’t affect the good stuff as much, which are in the bottom shelf and mostly wrapped in tong wrapping.

I wonder what the cakes will taste like with long term absorption of wood smell?  I mean, I’m sure some cardboard boxes they used to store teas long term also emit an odor…. and sometimes a strong one (especially when wet?).  Those seem to have aged just fine over decades…

I guess we’ll find out in many years what will happen!

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