A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from January 2008

Water again

January 31, 2008 · 8 Comments

So I’ve been using the tetsubin to make water that I then use to brew tea. How has it turned out?

Pretty well, actually.

The tetsubin does make the water seem a little softer, instead of having that sharp edge that a stainless steel water kettle will provide. It also makes the water a little heavier. I’ve found that for my aged oolongs, which are my tea of choice these days, it means the tea comes out a little more flavourful. The iron ions or whatever are drawing stuff out of the tea. Today I had my aged tieguanyin from my candy store, and it came out particularly strongly in a way that wasn’t really true when I had this tea a week or two ago.

That said, it might interfere with certain types of tea, especially green teas, if the water is used for that. It will make the colour of the tea darker, and the flavour will be also darker accordingly. That might not be ideal in the case of, say, a good longjing where all you want is that light and crisp bean taste. You won’t get that with this kind of water.

One practical problem has been the size of this little thing — it’s a bit on the small side. Three infusions, and I need a new pot of water. That is a slight problem, and since boiling water on the alcohol burner takes forever, I need to go to the stove, heat the water up, and let the alcohol burner do the last bit of boiling. It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s the most sensible one. Curiously, the lid is actually very air tight. It’s fine when it’s on the alcohol burner, but when heated on the stove, it seems like the thing was never designed for such a high level of heat and water can start spewing out because of the lack of a vent on the lid (mostly because it’s such a flat thing so the spout is only slightly higher than the body). Pretty interesting.

Categories: Objects · Old Xanga posts
Tagged: , ,

Xizihao Xishangmeishao

January 30, 2008 · 5 Comments

It’s taking me a while to get through these samples of the new Xizihao cakes on offer. After the nu’ercha I just haven’t really found the motivation and excitement necessary to get me to try the other two. Today I felt like maybe I should give the second of these a spin, so I took out the bag of Xishangmeishao, which literally means “Happiness that shows on one’s brows” (this is an awful and rough translation) and tried it.

Looks all right dry. There’s really not much one can say about a young puerh when it’s dry. However pretty it looks, it could taste awful. However ugly some teas might be, they can be fantastic. For puerh, looks don’t really mean much of anything. The only time it matters a little more is when it’s older and you can glean information about storage condition from them, or when the leaves are obviously chopped or poorly processed.

The colour of the tea looks all right too

When drinking it though, I couldn’t help but feel there’s really nothing to be happy about when consuming it. Aside from the fact that it’s got a relatively hefty price tag, the quality is not there to match the prices, never mind basic expectations of what is supposed to be an old tree tea. The flavour is…. subdued, let’s say. There’s a modicum of aftertaste in the mouth that lingers very slightly. There’s a strange sort of floral note that I felt was somewhat present in the nu’ercha, and also here, that makes me thing something strange was done during the processing of the tea. There is also a feeling that perhaps something is simply not quite right about this — is it overharvesting? Alternative processing? Or just bad tea? I’m not sure. It’s simply not very inspiring. Maybe I’m not in a particularly generous mood today, but at some point, I feel like the product description or basic expectations should at least be matched by the real McCoy, and drinking this tea… I just don’t feel it. When other, better teas can be had for less money, why buy this?

The wet leaves give us some clues of what’s going on

Looks ok enough, but in fact, some of the leaves look old — leaves that aren’t really buds of any sort, but are rather just leaves that might be older than they really should be for the purpose of drinking. The stems are many, and some are quite hard — wooden, almost. This is generally not a good thing. The other thing that worries me is the excessive amount of redness in the leaves. Often this means that the leaves were left around in the picker’s basket for too long (sometimes because of a long trip from the trees to the frying pan) but it also means that the tea has undergone a fair amount of fermentation before it was processed. It is not a very good indicator of leaf quality or processing, but I do find that cakes with a high proportion of red in the leaves often don’t stand up to scrutiny.

The tea does brew a fair amount of infusions with no problem, but the general level of activity and content is just not there. When there are so many other options that seem to offer much more for less cost… I don’t see the value of a tea like this.

Categories: Old Xanga posts

Seals and Incripstions on Yixing pots

January 28, 2008 · 17 Comments

I’ve been thinking about talking about this subject for some time, as I feel that there’s virtually no information on this issue in English. The only one I’m aware of that is of substance is Billy Mood’s Yixing Teapot article, especially the section on “The Seal Chops of Zisha Teapots”. I’d also suggest reading the next three sections, as they also contain useful information about this topic of seals and inscriptions on pots.

One of the first thing that should be noted is that I am by no means an expert on this subject, but merely sharing what I’ve learned from various channels, both on and offline. There are also some basic things that I think can be better illustrated with some pictures, so I decided to use what I’ve got with me to do that.

Now, most yixing pots you see these days have a seal imprint on the bottom like this

They are most typically four words constructions, although sometimes you might have six or even other arrangements. If it’s four words, the most likely thing it says is merely the name of the maker, which usually consist of three characters, and then the word “produced”. The reading order for the characters is top right, bottom right, top left, bottom left. There are exceptions to this, but the order above is easily the most common. They are usually in some sort of “seal script”, which is a writing style that is now only used for seal making and not much else (although you see it in other places, such as the wrappers of Yichang Hao puerh cakes in certain years). They are not easy to decipher, but with some practice they shouldn’t be too difficult either.

The bottom of the pot doesn’t always say the name of the maker. Sometimes it’s the company or the organization that made the pot that has the name on the bottom. Sometimes, it’s just “China, Yixing”. Sometimes it’s a generic seal that says “Jingxi Hui Mengchen Zhi”, which means “Made by Hui Mengchen of Jingxi”, with Jingxi being an old name for what we now know as the town of Yixing. Hui Mengchen is the name of a famous potter in the Qing dynasty, and for some reason or another, his name is often used for pots. Pots with those seals, such as this one

are not trying to masquerade as Qing pots. This is more or less just a generic seal that is used for many, many kinds of pots. Some people can go and date these seals, as different period ones or seals used by different people (but saying the same thing) have different characteristics. Some might be more valuable than others. This is sort of like tracing down different kinds of wrappers, looking for the tiny font differences, wording differences, the extra dot on the word, etc…. all pretty esoteric stuff that requires the patience of a librarian and lots of experience. I don’t have that sort of experience, nor patience.

Very often though, the name of the potter is actually under the lid, like this (same pot as the first one)

The small seal on the right is the family name of the potter, while the other is his (or her) given name. Sometimes a small imprint like this might go under the handle and not the lid, but so far, among all the pots I’ve seen on and offline, small imprints like this are most often the name of the potter. For a bunch of Republican period (1911-1949) pot workshops, their shop name is put at the bottom of the handle. Chances of most of my blog readers seeing a genuine article of these, though, is unfortunately fairly low.

There are also pots out there with nothing on the bottom

This is a reproduction Panhu (literally Pan pot). It is thus named because the person who made them famous was a Guangdong province salt merchant named Pan Shicheng. He would order them made, and used them as gifts, for family, etc. Panhu generally have no seals in the bottom, and only one on the “lips” of the lid (you can see it in the picture). This particular one is a reproduction because it’s not expensive enough to be a real one, and also because the shape is not quite exactly right. I am wondering if I should get rid of it, because while I like it, I don’t really have a use for it.

The point though, of course, is that some pots are going to have no seals of any kind, and that some have one on the lips of the lid. Just something to look out for.

Then we get into territory of inscriptions. This is something I bought while in Taiwan

You can see the words are thin, almost wispy. The thing is a 5-2 arrangement. The five words (three on the right two in the center) is a verse of a poem. The bottom left two words are the maker’s name, or in this case, our friend Mengchen. Again, this isn’t a pot that he made, but rather a later reproduction. There are reproductions of Mengchen pots as early as the Qing, all through the Republican period to today, pretty much. Many such “reproductions” are also high priced items because they are decades or even a hundred plus years old. This particular sample probably isn’t very old. The oldest ones are carved with bamboo knives, as Billy Mood’s article noted. Words carved by those look more like this

You can probably see the huge difference in the two. While the first pot’s writing is wiry thin, the second is not, with clear points of incision that lets you follow the strokes. This is actually two lines of verse — 7+7+2, with the two saying “Wenbo” a person’s name (in this case the name of the person who wrote these words on the pot, not the potter). The use of such a tool to carve words does not denote old age — it is entirely conceivable for somebody to do it now. The first pot’s wiry words are probably carved using a metal pen of some sort — just a wire, basically. There’s that evenness in the words, but at the same time, the calligraphy is also vastly inferior. Again, great calligraphy is not a sure sign of an old or great pot, but I’ve never seen a pot with poor calligraphy (sometimes with words that look like a kid’s handwriting — and not deliberately so) that’s great.

The arrangement of the words is also a useful indicator. This is quite a complicated subject which I’m not qualified to speak, really, but from what I’ve read, really old pots often have a 4+4 arrangement, later turning into 5+3 or 7+3 or 5+2/7+2. I have an oddball pot

Which is just two words, supposedly denoting the maker. This is quite unusual, and chances are, it’s not actually from a hundred years ago as this is never really done, according to some people who seem to know the subject much better than I. It’s much more likely a more recent reproduction hoping to put a famous potter’s name on the bottom in the hopes of somebody buying it. This pot serves me well, as some of you may recognize it as my hotel survival pot. I just don’t have any illusions as to its old age.

There are many things that I didn’t talk about, some of which are mentioned in Mood’s article. There is, however, one thing that I need to repeat from his article though… seals, chops, inscriptions…. these things are probably the least useful in authenticating a pot, because they are so easily faked or reproduced. Clay quality, make, craftsmanship style, etc, are all important markers in
the dating of pots, but even then, fake old pots abound. I wouldn’t even pretend I know much of anything about clay quality — even though I’ve handled quite a few pots by now, what is and isn’t great clay is still something I feel very uncertain about. But as long as one doesn’t go into these things with too much investment, it’s an enjoyable venture collecting teapots… until you’ve realized you have too many 🙂

Categories: Objects · Old Xanga posts
Tagged: ,

Tasting waters

January 27, 2008 · 5 Comments

Still kinda busy….

I conducted a taste test just now with my cleaned tetsubin and my regular stainless steel electric kettle… the electric kettle water is, relatively speaking, a little sharper, whereas the tetsubin water is a little softer.

I find tasting waters to be almost as much fun as tasting different teas. Lining up four or five cups of water, unmarked if possible, and drink them one by one — swirling around the mouth a bit, feel the body, the taste, etc, and one really gets an appreciation of the way different water tastes. Then, use the same waters to brew the same tea — preferably a tea that you know very well already. The differences are going to be quite obvious and remarkable.

Now I need to try my tetsubin on the teas I’ve been making the teas I’ve been making…. let’s see if I can tell any difference. Either way though, I am happy, finally, that I can wean myself off the electric kettle…. it’s convenient, but having a fire under my kettle making tea is just somehow more convenient. It makes me happy.

Categories: Objects · Old Xanga posts
Tagged: , ,

Baking the problems out

January 26, 2008 · Leave a Comment

After I mentioned my problems with the tetsubin, Dogma suggested to me that I should bake it to get rid of the funny smell. I did…. and it worked. I could smell the chamomile or whatever it was that was lodged in the pot, and now, when I boil it, no more nasty smell. I tried the water today…. tasted fine!

There’s some rust in there, and the shape of the tetsubin is such that scraping them all out is not easy. I’m still wondering if there’s something I can use to get rid of it without harming the metal too much — maybe some sort of acid (vinegar, say?). Then again, it will probably rust again. The piece, though, looks much nicer now than when I first got it, when it was covered in some sort of gunk. The downside to the baking is that much of the paint that was on the bottom was probably baked off — a lot flaked off, exposing the bare metal. I have a feeling it’s going to be a little more susceptible to rust from now on, so I jus thave to keep it dry as much as possible and hopefully slow the process of rusting.

Next step is to see if it works well as a tea making device. I still need to heat water first using something else, or put this tetsubin on the stove to heat up the water. The alcohol burner works well keeping the water hot, but really isn’t enough to boil – takes far, far too long.

Categories: Objects · Old Xanga posts
Tagged: ,

Nothing too interesting going on

January 24, 2008 · 3 Comments

Sorry folks, been rather busy the past few days and haven’t had a chance to drink real tea. Instead, it’s been teabags of some sort or another… such as Bigelow Darjeeling (which tastes nothing like Darjeeling) and that kind of thing. Things should go back to normal tomorrow as I return home.

In the meantime, though, I found this site about Yixing pots. It’s a very comprehensive site — probably more info and pictures than any other place online regarding antique (or at least allegedly antique) pots. It’s in Japanese, so probably not too many of you can read it, but click on any of the links in the bottom — you should find pictures that are worth your time just staring at.

Categories: Information · Objects · Old Xanga posts
Tagged: , , , ,

Coffee maker tea

January 22, 2008 · 1 Comment

I am on the road again. I brought my survival kit pot, but…. no hot water.

Hot water in this hotel, unfortunately, only comes through the coffee machine. They won’t bring up hot water for me, and even if they do, I know that they will bring it up in a carafe that doubles as a coffee carafe. What that means is that I will be drinking watered down coffee — not ideal for making tea, I think.

So…. I will have to use the coffee machine. One run of cold water through the coffee machine, though, is not enough. The water’s not very hot coming out, and not good for teas like the oldish dahongpao that I want to drink (in my mug). So…. you have to run the cold water from the tap through the coffee maker TWICE (the frontdesk person suggested using hot tap water — I think that’s lunacy). I find that the water comes out hot enough that way.

There are two problems using a drip coffee maker for just water — one is that you have to open the drip part so that water doesn’t actually go through it. If it does, you will, again, be drinking watered down coffee. The second is that the water, when going through the coffee maker the second time, will spray all over — there’s a warning about not using hot water in the coffee maker after all. It will make everything wet and burn your hand, should your hand be nearby. User beware.

It’s a lot of trouble, and the tea that comes out is far from ideal… but I’ll manage. It beats going downstairs to get Tazo teabags from the lobby Starbucks.

Categories: Old Xanga posts
Tagged: ,

Nor Sun Puerh

January 21, 2008 · 7 Comments

I saw this in a Chinese market yesterday. I actually opened the can to look, and thought it smelled traditionally stored. Couldn’t resist

The leaves look nondescript — traditionally stored, for sure (from the smell). Nannuo (that’s what Nan Nor is)? Who knows. But who can say no to something that can be used as a disinfectant for internal use?

When I brewed it, it’s obvious that there’s some cooked leaves in this mix

The taste is… interesting. It’s actually, for what it’s worth, not that bad at all. It’s cooked, sure, but it’s traditionally stored cooked, and traditionally stored cooked, IMHO, is better than non traditionally-stored cooked. The taste is richer, and it removes almost all traces of the nasty pondy smell/taste that you normally get in a cooked puerh. The tea is actually decent, which surprised me. I wonder how people who don’t know much about tea think about this?

As I examined the wet leaves, I realized that this is actually a blend of raw and cooked leaves.

The greenish leaves are such that they can’t possibly be cooked… I just don’t see it happening. My guess is these could be broken cakes, or at least some are broken cakes, that were thoroughly mixed in and blended together for export. The tea comes from a Hong Kong company with a Hong Kong address in the section where a lot of these old wholesalers are, so I am guessing this is just one of those traditional upstairs tea merchants who are packaging this. Pretty interesting, I must say, and quite a surprise to find ok puerh in Columbus OH in a tin can.

Categories: Old Xanga posts
Tagged: , ,

Bitten by the teaware bug

January 20, 2008 · 1 Comment

After Taiwan and coming back to the States, I realized I got infected by the teaware bug. The symptoms were already manifesting themselves while I was in Taiwan, but has grown more acute over time. They include an endless desire to look at, play with, and purchase teaware, a constant obsession with trying to learn more about the various aspects to understanding and dating teaware, a desire to use older, “antique” items, rather than new commercially produced goods. Severe symptoms include an obvious loss of money in the walle for no particular reason, staying up late to browse through forums or sites online to read about the newest piece of info, using a loupe to pore over every inch of yixing wares one owns, and the accumulation of teaware that cannot possibly be all used while the act of accumulating continues unabated.

The upside to all this, of course, is that there’s a real satisfaction with the ownership of every piece, and the increased enjoyment of tea, whether real or imaginary. Right now I’m in the process of trying to change the way I make tea here, but certain items need to arrive from the right places. I even start wondering how I’ve managed to make tea all this time before. I’ve already got pots that I probably can’t use and should, realistically, give away or sell so that I don’t end up having to move around with many duplicate items that no longer serve a purpose. Yet, I’m acquiring more at the same time. This is getting really serious….

I hope you don’t get bitten by the same bug.

Categories: Objects · Old Xanga posts
Tagged: ,

Gongfu coffee

January 19, 2008 · 8 Comments

No, I don’t drink coffee… but my fiance is a drinker, and I think this press is pretty cool. While drip coffee or espresso machines always seem too mechanical to me to involve much skill in brewing, something like this makes me think that one can, indeed, have better control over their coffees than is normally the case. I’ve tried using it, and it gives you a funny “kick” when almost done pressing. I think there’s actually a high level of pressure that builds up as you press down on it with hot water streaming through. It’s an interesting contraption, and if somebody can manipulate this thing to make different tastes, etc, I’d like to learn how.

I wonder what will happen if I put some tea in it and press hot water through it…. broken orange pekoe might work. Hmmmm

Categories: Objects · Old Xanga posts