A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from December 2007

Holiday shopping

December 21, 2007 · 1 Comment

Much like holiday shoppers everywhere, I was busy today doing some last minute shopping, although these are not gifts for other, but just things I can’t buy back in the States.

I thought I would go take a look at stores that I haven’t frequented, so I first ended up at two other oldish stores in the same area as the candy store. The question asked, of course, is always the same one — “do you have old oolong?” The first store had a very talkative owner who went on and on about how drinking puerh is dangerous for you (too much flourine that will weaken your bones?), and how he only sells Taiwanese tea in his store (when a cake of puerh is clearly visible on a shelf — granted, there was only one kind). He showed me a few teas, all packed in those vacuum bags, which I dislike for the purpose of shopping for aged oolongs. They don’t really age much in those things, and you have to ask them to open the bags, which is more of a pain. I looked at two. One’s an unroasted baozhong that is clearly a decade or more old (the leaves are turning orange) and the other is a roasted tea that smells aged. Not too bad, but I only opted for the baozhong, as the roasted stuff I can get elsewhere.

The second store only had one kind of aged oolong — even though they look really big and probably have a huge warehouse of tea. I guess they only sell this one kind regularly? Some aged baozhong… don’t look too good.

So it’s back to the candy store… and the other place that sold me that wonderful tieguanyin. I went to the tieguanyin place first, as I wanted to get a little more of that. I also asked to try their old shuixian. It smells old enough. The tea is nice — a bit bland, as all shuixians tend to be, but there’s qi in this tea — a very obvious and pleasant qi too. It’s a tea that makes me comfortable all over. Cheap too. Then I asked for some old Taiwanese oolongs, to see what they’ve got… and what I saw was distinctly inferior. It’s odd how this store has such nice aged Fujianese teas, but such bad aged Taiwanese teas. I wonder why.

Then I went to the candy store. I just picked up a little of the aged tieguanyin that I like there. I also tried to rummage through some stuff. In that same canister, I found this bag of tea — a small bag, only about 2kg. It looked pretty good, and smelled pretty good. The label says it’s a 1983 winter competition tea… 6000 NT. She would sell it to me for half the price. I only got a bit of it, to see what it tastes like, but oh, the temptation to just buy the whole bag….

I did ask her for contact info, in case I want to do mail order. I wonder if I’ll fall prey to temptation.

Categories: Old Xanga posts

Gan’en Factory Yiwu 2005

December 20, 2007 · Leave a Comment

It’s weird to be drinking young puerh again when I haven’t really done it for so long. A totally different kind of taste and sensation. It’s a change of pace from those aged oolongs that I’ve been pouring down my throat the past month or two.

This is the cake I bought through Yahoo auctions in Taiwan

Supposedly Yiwu tea made by Gan’en Factory in 2005. It’s very cheap ($12), which is chiefly the reason I took a gamble on it. It was also a way for me to get a sample (the other cake I tried a few days ago).

In comparison with the other Yiwu, this one is weaker overall. The taste is weaker, the aroma weaker, and the throatiness weaker. While it does ok in the thickness department…. the tea overall just seems a bit on the bland side.

Even the colour is lighter

It makes me think summer tea, especially after seeing the wet leaves

Big, long stems, but thin leaves… the other cake is 25% more in cost, but 125% of $12 is still only $15, hardly a high cost…

Categories: Old Xanga posts

Trip to Pinglin

December 19, 2007 · 5 Comments

I have a distant relative who lives in Taipei who helped me a lot to find a place, settle down, etc, and she asked me a few days ago “hey, have you gone to Pinglin yet?” because I told her, when I first got here, that I thought about going. No, I haven’t. So today, we went to Pinglin.

Now, for those of you who are not into Taiwanese geography, Pinglin is actually really close to Taipei. From where I live, it’s less than 30 minutes drive to Pinglin, door to door. Yes, it’s that close. While some place like Nantou is actually kind of out of the way, driving to Pinglin is actually faster than me riding my subway to where I’ve been going to work the past few months — and that’s in Taipei.

You can already see farms on the way there

The first place we hit was the tea museum there

It doesn’t have a whole lot, and for anybody who knows something more than the very basic about tea, it’s not really worth a visit. Nor is their gift shop any good. If you’re on a time crunch, best to skip this place, unless you’re into reproductions like these

Song dynasty tea scene, apparently. Now all they need is a dance floor and some music.

Not too long ago, a new highway opened near Pinglin which passes by Pinglin to Yilan on the east coast of Taiwan. However, before that, you had to take a longer and more mountainous route to the eastern coast, and Pinglin was one of the places where you could stop for some food, bathroom, and tea

So this is like any American town where a state route cuts across it – except every single place sells tea. Some, though, are more food oriented than anything else. As you can see

Tea store on the right, food stall on the left. Since the new highway opened though, the old business died – so this area is really struggling because people no longer stop by on their way, and even though we were there around noon time, nobody was eating in those places and you could tell business was depressed.

We went to a store that focused on selling tea (rather than food), sat down, and I did my usual “do you have old tea” routine. They did, of course (everybody does, at least they claim so). The tea she brought out smelled a little sour, but not bad enough so I’d skip it right away. We tried it… roasted, but not very good. Thin, weak, sour, but not terribly so, but…. no good. And it was expensive to boot, as I found out after asking about the price. 28 years old? Sure, whatever.

We left, had lunch, and then wandered over to the old town part of Pinglin.

A much more charming little street than the ugly highway, I must say. We wandered around — most stores are closed, and the place looked almost as dead as the highway. Given that it is a weekday, but still… it’s kinda depressing.

Eventually we settled into a store. An old woman was picking tea (separating yellow leaves and stalks from the good leaves). She said the yellow leaves sell for 100 NT/jin (600g) — that’s $3 per 600g. The good leaves? $10/600g. Cheap tea. And yes, people do buy the yellowed leaves to brew, usually factory workers and that sort of thing — they just want a tea to drink during work.

Almost all self-respecting tea stores will have a few of these plaques

These are the “first prize” or “special prize” plaques you get in tea competitions. It usually says “congratulations to xxx for achieving Top Prize in the xx year Pinglin tea competition, given by xxx”. This one’s more elaborate than the usual ones (which are just plain words). However, since every store has at least a few of these (although some decidedly more than others) it makes you wonder if the competition teas really mean much of anything. Is it just a rotating championship so everybody gets their turn to charge astronomical prices for their teas?

The tea setup here is also decidedly simple

I again asked for old oolongs. We got an old baozhong which she claims is from 1968. Ok. It doesn’t smell sour. Looks good enough

We tried it… and it’s indeed pretty good. It’s one of the better aged baozhongs I’ve had. Alas, I’ve already bought something quite similar from Taipei for only slightly more money (about $10 more per 600g) so I’m not exactly crying for more. I did buy my relative some tea though, because I feel like I owe her a lot for helping me out during the past few months, and I think she liked this stuff too.

Interesting day. Pinglin, as you can see, really isn’t very mysterious. The farms I saw along the way were mostly machine-harvested. I know there are good, organic, well kept farms out there in Pinglin, but rest assured, most of them are probably not.

I did, however, discover that my relatives here (she’s my cousin-in-law’s eldest sister, complicated enough?) actually used to be tea farmers. What’s more…. the farm’s still there, but no longer harvested/managed and hasn’t been for some years. I drool at the prospect of coming back to Taiwan and going there to check out the untended trees.

Categories: Old Xanga posts
Tagged: ,

2004 Hongyuan Hao Yiwu

December 18, 2007 · 1 Comment

I bought a little puerh through Yahoo Taiwan auctions. I’ve found that there are potentially some cheap bargains to be had there, should one be patient and willing to try. I bought a cake of Yiwu to try, and I asked for a sample to go along with it for another cake the guy sells. This Hongyuan Hao (nothing to do with Longyuan Hao, which is usually crap) is the sample.

The sample arrived very broken. It’s too bad. I got some real pieces of tea, and commenced brewing. This tea is advertised as old tree puerh, but as we all know, a lot of stuff out there is advertised as such. I usually take this claim with many grains of salt, and I find that most of the stuff out there that claim to be old tree puerh are not. So, I usually don’t go in expecting anything.

This tea smells a little funny in the bag. I didn’t use too much leaves, as throwing the whole sample in would entail having lots and lots of small tiny bits. I didn’t want to do that.

It brews a normal colour for a 2004 tea stored in Taiwan

I’m very glad I had the 2003 Menghai tea the other day, because now I have something to compare this tea against. Not having had many young puerh these days, my tongue is a little out of practice. While it’s always easier to pick up the tastebuds to acclimate them to young puerh again, it’s always good to have something to compare it against.

The overall impression of this tea is actually quite favourable. The aromatics are quite full and the tea penetrates the mouth and throat. It seemed weak at first, but strengthens, which is a good sign, especially in the aftertaste department. Yiwu-ish taste. The tea’s quite ok!

Now I am not sure if it’s just because I haven’t had a bunch of young puerh lately, so my tongue feels more inclined to think this is decent tea, but comparing it, say, to the tea I had in the tea store a few days ago, this tea is clearly superior (at a lower price, to boot). I actually bought another Yiwu cake from this guy though, and I haven’t had time to try it, so perhaps comparing these two will be interesting too.

The wet leaves are robust enough, but too much chopped bits from the crushing of the sample during mailing. Oh well.

Alas, I am leaving Taiwan soon, so I might not have the ability to arrange everything before I go. It is quite possible that I’ll only end up with this one cake that I bought, as I won’t have time to get anything else from the guy. If the other cake turns out to be good stuff, that’ll be a shame. I wonder if he will ship overseas.

Categories: Old Xanga posts

Wet stored oolong?

December 17, 2007 · 3 Comments

Today’s tea is a little odd

This is one of the teas I exchanged at the old lady’s store when I went back to fix the problem order. I tasted this at the store and it seemed fine, so I brought some home. It looks ok here right?

Well, when I examined the leaves, I could see some whitish stuff on the tea… I think it’s mould. The same stuff you see on a wet stored cake. Yup…. I guess technically this is spoiled tea.

But white ones don’t faze me. If it’s yellow, black, or red, then I’ll be scared.

The tea brews a deepish coloured liquor in the first infusion, and it tastes a bit sharp. Sharp in the sense that a sharp cheddar is sharp. It’s not 100% pleasant, but it’s definitely distinctive. The sharpness decreased by infusion 3, and the tea turns to a very sweet aged oolong that is actually rather pleasant. I have a feeling that the sharpness might lose its edge a bit if I let the bags air out. Right now they’re pretty tightly packed and probably doesn’t help the flavours. If I let the air circulate a little — much like the “tuicang” process of a wet stored puerh — it might make the tea better.

Leaves are a bit blackish…. but still quite soft and flexible. I think this tea might actually surprise me if I give it a little time.

Categories: Old Xanga posts

2003 Menghai cake

December 16, 2007 · Leave a Comment

So I tried the Menghai cake today

The tea brews dark for a supposedly 03 tea

It’s quite all right…. sweetish, losing some of that really young edge already, decent flavours, pretty typical big factory stuff… nothing fancy, nothing too horrid…. a bit rough later on, but that’s to be expected. It was probably stored a bit wet early on, but storage is fine too.

Chopped leaves…. stuff like this can sell for quite a bit of money these days if you go to the wrong stores. It’s amazing what people sell things at these days. I just bought a couple to see what happens to them over time, since I have very few big factory tea. We’ll find out

Categories: Old Xanga posts

A moving tea

December 15, 2007 · 6 Comments

I went to the candy store, and other stores nearby today. The first stop was uninspiring — a few nice teapots, but nothing in the way of tea.

The second was a store right next to my usual candy store. I’ve been in there once, but didn’t get anything interesting. Going back this time, the lady owner was pretty nice and approachable, and it was a slow afternoon, so I poked around. They were selling some puerh. Feeling like trying the puerh… I sat down.

I tried two puerhs. The first is a cake that I’ve seen before — supposedly 04 or 05 Yiwu. It’s…. very bland in a way, but it has a nice throatiness. I don’t know what to make of teas like this. There’s something, but then maybe there isn’t. It’s an elusive tea.

Then… on to a factory tea, supposedly 03 and from Menghai Factory, but not in the Dayi label. I am not a wrapperologist, so I don’t know if Menghai produced any (or many) 7542 in CNNP wrappers. The shape of the cake and the taste of the tea actually seems right — they look, feel, and taste more or less like Menghai Factory stuff. It was dirt cheap, for what it’s worth…. so I picked up some.

Then I asked my usual question, “do you guys have old tea?”. Yes, of course, lots. What do I want? I asked for tieguanyin, from China (as opposed to TGY from Taiwan). “What price range?” A dreaded question, as always. I never know what to say. We went with the cheapest first…. I loooked and smelled, and it doesn’t pass the test. So… let’s try the more expensive one. Looks good…

The owner of the store brewed it, and a brownish cup of tea was served. I drank it…. and wow, I thought to myself, “I haven’t had tieguanyin like this for…. a long long time”. Memories of when I first started getting interested in tea came back. Even then, the stuff wasn’t as good. This is an aged tieguanyin, so it’s fuller and rounder, and sweeter, but that power and feeling of drinking a good tieguanyin, I really haven’t had for a long time. Tieguanyin these days are horrid, especially the greener stuff. They didn’t used to make them this way. This tea brought me back to that kind of taste … and it’s such a pleasure to drink. The throatiness is incredible. There’s a tiny bit of sourness, but entirely managable, and the throatiness…. if you don’t know what I talk about when you feel something in the throat, this is it. The guanyin yun (aftertaste) that is so hard to find in tieguanyin these days.

So of course, being the sucker I am, I bought some of this too. Got some other stuff at the candy store, but it’s just stocking up more than anything else. This tieguanyin though… I think I will always remember that first sip.

Categories: Old Xanga posts
Tagged: ,

2005 Chenguanghe Tang Menghai wild tea

December 14, 2007 · Leave a Comment

I haven’t had a young puerh for so long, I almost forgot how it tastes.

Today’s sample’s been sitting around for a month or two now. This is a cake from Chen Zhitong, owner of Chenguanghe Tang, author of the Profound World of Chi-tse (among others). The big chunk was given to me by the owner of Fuxing, when I expressed some interest in this tea. The tea’s supposedly Menghai area wild old trees, with a lot of Banzhang materials. For the price… it’s a steal, if that’s true.

I didn’t use much tea, as I haven’t had a young puerh for quite a while and I don’t know how my body will handle it. I also don’t think my body will like it much because it’s winter… and winter usually means I don’t drink as much young tea. Last year was sort of an exception. I think the heavy food in Beijing, plus the drying weather/heater made young puerhs more acceptable.

It brews a golden yellow colour, and the tea is actually somewhat aromatic. I almost wonder if there’s some leaves from sweeter-tasting regions mixed in. There’s a bit of that Banzhang taste to it, but it is a mild one. I’ve noticed that sometimes when I brew a young puerh lightly the throatiness is actually more noticeable, and today it was pretty clear that around the throat area there’s a feeling of minty coolness. I could feel the qi — it’s strong and obvious, and my body reacted strongly to it. Good thing I didn’t use too much leaves.

The tea got rough after a few infusions, and stayed that way for a while, receeding into a sort of sweet finish typical of young puerhs. It’s a pretty decent tea, especially given what it costs at the store and what it might actually cost on the street, so to speak. I’m no big fan of Banzhang teas, but perhaps I should pick one or two up just to see how it ages…. it could be a useful comparison with stuff that I like more, such as Yiwus.

Robust looking leaves…. don’t see these too often these days. They’re more likely to be paper thin now.

Categories: Old Xanga posts

Evaluating an aged oolong

December 13, 2007 · 3 Comments

How do you tell a good aged oolong from a bad one? After drinking a few months of this stuff, I at least have some tentative thoughts on this issue.

Let’s take today’s tea — a bag of tea I picked up yesterday in exchange for the bad aged oolong I got last time. I’ll get to why that one was bad later.

The dry leaves’ physical appearance will rarely tell you anything too useful. Colour of the leaves are almost always dark. Sometimes it’s darker than others, but that in and of itself is a very useless indicator of anything. The shape of the tea might tell you something about what it could be, but even then — not a very useful indicator.

The smell of the dry leaves, however, can. For teas that have turned somewhat sour, you can sometimes smell a sour note in the aroma of the dry leaves. If you want to cheat, you can always breath into a little leaves (that you of course placed in your hands and don’t really intend on throwing back into the bag). That way you can smell the aroma much more clearly. Sour? Give it up already, it’s not worth your time.

Assuming it passes the initial sourness test, then there are the teas that are musty or not musty. The ones that aren’t musty are often re-roasted, the ones that are musty, as I find over time, are usually less re-roasted or not at all. Makes sense — the roasting will kill any musty smell. Sometimes you can also smell the roasted nature of the tea from the dry leaves. Now, done with the dry leaves. Let’s move on to making the tea.

I usually fill the gaiwan with 1/2 to 2/3 full of leaves when I make this stuff, at least for a first try. Sometimes the sourness is subtle, and if you brew it with less leaves you don’t always notice the problem. Now, teas that don’t smell sour can still be a bit sour, but usually, those are sourness that go away in an infusion or two. That, personally, I find acceptable. I also find that teas that don’t taste sour at all when hot can sometimes take on more of a sour note when cooled a bit. That’s something to look out for.

For the really roasted stuff, you have to feel the body of the tea to see if it’s aged or not. Sometimes that charcoal taste masks a lot of things, including age. A highly roasted but not very aged tea will lack that nice sweet note at the end, and it will also be less thick, at least in my personal experience. Some of the really roasted stuff will need a bit of time to mellow out and let the charcoal taste go away a bit before drinking, but even for current consumption they can be good — if you are into that kind of thing. I don’t buy a lot of that stuff, but I do have some. It’s fun.

I personally like the less roasted stuff. They take on a puerh-like note the first few infusions, then mellow out into a sweet tea that will more closely resemble a young oolong. In the end you will get back the young oolong taste/finish without much aged note at all other than the extra sweetness. It’s very interesting that way. Even aged and somewhat roasted stuff can do this. The tea that I originally wanted from the store is exactly like this — the first few infusions taste almost like a liu’an, and then into a softer, sweeter aged oolong taste, and then ending up as a younger tea would taste. I like this kind of tea the best. Today’s tea is sort of like that — I felt almost like I was drinking a new oolong near the end, without the harshness of a young tea. Also, aged oolongs tend to go on forever. You should be able to get 10+ steepings from it easily.

Wet leaves says a lot about what you’re drinking. In fact, I think wet leaves tell you more about what you’re drinking than anything else other than the physical act of drinking the tea. It will confirm what kind of tea you’re actually drinking, usually, and it will also tell you the condition of the tea, whether it’s mixed or not, etc, things that aren’t always apparent in a cup but usually more apparent when you can spread out the leaves. Today’s tea hasn’t been reroasted much — that much is obvious. The leaves unfurl easily, with a greenish scent. Decent tea.

So, what was the tea that I rejected like? It was roasted — tastes like charcoal the first infusion. But the body of the tea was thin and died fast. It was not aged, or not much aged. I’d venture to guess it’s less than 5 years old, which is why I was so unhappy about it.

Categories: Old Xanga posts
Tagged: , ,

A mixed success

December 12, 2007 · 4 Comments

Well, I went back to that store today. The owner was nice enough, and I think it could’ve been a semi-honest mistake. What I think actually happened is this: this store has basically three labels for their teas. Not old, 35 years old, and 60 years old, it seems. This is more of a marker of price than actual age (or quality). Age inflation is also at work here. As the 35 years old I took home yesterday showed, some aren’t so hot, while others (like the one I actually want) is actually pretty good. The thing is, she has no idea what I got the first time, I think. Even though it looked like she knew who I was, she didn’t really, or, rather, she has no idea which particular tea I picked up last time. I actually lucked out that she gave me the right bag last time. Instead of actually trying to figure out what I got last time, or whatever, she just gave me the 35 years old that she has handy — even though it’s actually a totally different tea (and I think she knew it). Oh well

So… I told her my problem, basically having been given the wrong tea. She started saying “oh?” and when she brewed the two, she knew she couldn’t fool me — she had that “hmmm” look on her face. We searched around the store… in the back, in the front, and couldn’t find a single bag of the stuff that actually tasted the same. In the meantime, we tried probably 10 different kinds of aged oolongs of various quality. One or two was decent, some were ok, and others were crap (sour, weak, or a combination of the two). Her teas taste more aged than the candy store teas, although I think it has to do with roasting (her teas are more repeat-roasted than the candy store stuff) and also storage condition (in big plastic bags just sitting in the storage area, instead of inside big canisters that are pretty air tight). That might also explain the loads of old, somewhat sour oolongs she has.

After a lot of searching and no luck, she said she will call up to her storage (or is it home?) on the mountains and ask them to bring the tea down. That’s where they do the roasting, apparently. Ok, sure, but I have to return at 8pm to pick up those teas. Fine. I did, however, swap half my teas with her for another oolong we discovered while rummaging through the stacks of stuff. It’s different. It’s a strange puerh-esque oolong. Taste more aged than the candy store stuff, but not bad. It’s got that puerh musty smell. I haven’t gone wrong with aged oolongs like those yet, and it isn’t sour.

So I did go back at 8pm… she lined up some tea on the counter. Two bags she said she found in the back that should be the same batch as the one I got. I opened them and lo and behold, it is the same tea. The other stuff (the 8pm delivery stuff) however…. are not. Roasted, with a roasted taste. The stuff I bought completely lost the charcoal roast taste long time ago, so it’s not the same. No way, Jose.

So, I did end up returning some of the tea I bought, swapped them for some of the real stuff, and some other random aged oolong. No idea what any of them really are, at this point, as I think she makes things up as she goes along. If I had the time and money, I’d sit there in her store, drink through every bag, and buy up whole bagloads of this stuff if it’s any good. There are bargains to be had here (although the same can be said of the candy store…)

Categories: Old Xanga posts
Tagged: ,