A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from June 2009

The Demon Revealing Mirror

June 30, 2009 · 12 Comments

The Demon Revealing Mirror is one of those somewhat mythical and fantastical items in Chinese lore that supposedly will show who (or what) is a demon and who is really a human.  You just shine the mirror on the object, and you’ll get your answer.

A friend of mine in China who presses his own cakes has likened a good silver kettle to one of these mirrors, and I must say I agree.  I’ve been experimenting with my kettle the past few days with different teas, and comparing to what I think of the teas using the tetsubin, and I think one thing is clear, and that is how different they taste with the two kettles.

The two teas I’ve tried recently are both 2006 Yiwu, one being a fall tea that this friend pressed, and another being the 2006 spring Douji Yiwu.  When I drank them with the tetsubin, the fall Yiwu tastes a bit flat and boring — rather unremarkable, in fact.  The Douji, on the other hand, was quite nice.

All changed, however, with the silver kettle.  The fall tea was very fragrant and strong.  The Douji, on the other hand, turned out a little bitter and rough.

What to make of this?

Well, I think the silver kettle does a good job of telling you what the tea is like and highlighting the fragrant notes, while tetsubins are often softening — they round out the rough edges of the teas, and adding to the body of the tea.  In this case, I think that’s exactly what happened — the Douji was rounded out by the tetsubin so that the bitterness and the roughness were subdued, leading to a rather pleasant drink, while the fall tea gets a little more subdued.  Since it has few low notes to speak of, it doesn’t get much benefit from the tetsubin.

I’d hesitate to say that the silver kettle is more honest — highlighting the fragrant notes is not any more honest than smoothing out rough edges — but it does present a very different side of the tea.  Here are some spent leaves for you to look at.

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Hand built or wheel thrown pot?

June 24, 2009 · 6 Comments

Here you go for the experts to peruse over.

I am still somewhat mystified by this particular pot, since it seems to have traits that I normally associate with hand built Yixing pots, but there are some things, like the outer surface and the spiral circles inside, that make me wonder….

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Changing tastes

June 24, 2009 · 9 Comments

I rarely repeat the same tea two days in a row, and never with the same teaware.  I think one of the joys of drinking tea is to thoroughly explore all the varieties that it offers, be it young, old, roasted, green, black.  Add in the variety that you get with changing teaware, and the combinations are endless.

Weather was nice today after a nasty week of rain, so I decided to drink out on the balcony while my cats decide to soak up some sun.  Rather than using my usual tetsubins, I opted for one of my silver kettles instead

This is something I found on Ebay, of all places, for a rather reasonable price.  It’s Korean in origin, and on one side is inscribed the words “For Mr. and Mrs. Henderson”.  I’m pretty sure originally it was intended for use as a teapot, but it’s very large for a teapot, and I’d rather use it as a kettle, which is exactly what I did.

Water from silver kettles tend to accentuate the high notes in a tea.  With good tea, the aroma will coat your mouth and linger for a long time.  What it won’t do is to add to the body, and if the tea is sour, it may make that show up more prominently as well.  So, whether it is really a good idea to use a silver kettle for the particular type of tea you’re drinking really depends.  I don’t think silver kettles should be used universally for all teas.  Tetsubins are much more versatile, I think.

The first tea I had today was an aged shuixian that I bought in Beijing almost three years ago.

It tasted very different from the last time when I made it a few weeks ago, using my usual tetsubin.  I think I actually prefer this tea with the tetsubin — the water from a tetsubin accentuates the qualitites of this tea.  It’s not the highest grade of shuixian, just some common stuff, and perhaps it only deserves the commoner treatment.

The pot I used still baffles me though.  For those of you familiar with bankoyaki, it might look awfully like one, and I still don’t know if this is actually a Yixing pot or not.  Although the seal says “Yixing County Mengchan Made”, I have my doubts as to its geographical origin.  Maybe the potters out there can tell me if this looks like a thrown pot or a hand built one.

Not quite having enough tea, I had another, this time an aged oolong from Taiwan that I recently acquired.  It’s nice and mellow, but works much better with the silver kettle.  All in all, a pretty good day for tea.

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Bad tea, good tea

June 21, 2009 · Leave a Comment

I just came back from a short trip to Salem, MA, where a good friend got married.  When you mention Salem, most people think witches, but in reality, witches was just a small part of the city, and the place’s claim to fame for much of its history was a center for the old China trade, where they imported porcelain of all types, and of course, tea.  Salem is now home to the Peabody Essex Museum, which houses many artifacts from this once thriving trade route (if you’re nearby, you should visit), and where the wedding took place.

So it is with a little irony that it was last night, in this town, that I had perhaps the worst tea I have ever encountered.  It’s in a bag form, of course

Sorry for the poor quality — taken with the phone.  When you’re at somebody’s wedding, you can’t really say “no, please just give me a pot of hot water, as I brought my own tea”.  You take what you’re given.  I needed something to wash down the rather decent but rich wedding cake, so, heck, I’ll survive a tea bag.

Or so I thought.

The “Orange Pekoe & Pekoe Cut Black Tea” produced a “tea” that was rather acidic, more lemon juice like than tea, and utterly devoid of real tea flavour.  Of course, it’s prepared by a coffee company — probably just a ploy to get people to stop drinking tea and instead, turn to the dark side of coffee.  It was a very nice wedding, and the food was excellent.  My wife said the coffee was all right as well.  If only caterers can do better tea — it really ought not to be so hard, even when you’re trying to feed 150 people.

At least I should be pleased that it is a “Natural source of Antioxidants”.  Now if only I drink this every day, I’ll live to a hundred years.

This morning we braved the horrific New England mid-June weather of rain and wind and went to downtown Salem to look at some things, hoping in vain that I might find some old China trade antique.  The weather, however, was not cooperative, and we gave up quite quickly.  This was not before we found a place called Jaho Coffee Roasters & Tea Merchants though.  There were only a few customers, as I think the weather has deterred all but the bravest to go anywhere, but you can tell this is a place serious about its coffee.  They also have a lot of tea canisters lined up along the wall, but as anybody who’s been to Teavana knows, that’s no guarantee of quality.

Turns out their tea selection, while certainly not like, say The Tea Gallery, was not terrible either.  I ordered an Ali Shan oolong while my wife went for the more exotic coffees they have.  I like to order oolongs at teashops I’ve never been to — it’s usually a pretty good indication of what their selection is like.  If the oolong is awful, the place can’t be that good.  If the oolong is decent, it’s probably all right.  If the oolong is great, well, it’s promising.  Everybody can do good black tea, and green tea is really too much of a hit or miss.  Oolong is dependable… and less likely to be toxic waste.

The Ali Shan is what I expected it to be, light to medium fired, sweet, no hint of grass, which is good.  The only problem I have is with the teaware

The same cup set as that other place I went to a few months ago.  I’m sorry, but this kind of cup, while convenient for drinks service, really isn’t so good for tea drinkers.  The problem is you simply cannot tell how well brewed your tea is, and there is absolutely no indication of the colour of the tea.  I find that to be a very disconcerting thing, drinking a tea when I have no idea what colour the liquor is.  One of the pleasures of tea is its varying colours, from a light shade of green when brewing a cup of longjing to a deep, dark cooked puerh, the range of the visual pleasure of seeing that colour is an experience in and of itself.  Using a black cup completely obscures that aspect of tea.  Why?

I suppose the tea timer I was given with the pot is a bit of a remedy, to try to tell the drinker how long he or she might want to steep the tea, but it’s still a poor substitute.  I don’t think a coffee drinker would want to drink out of a cup that gives no indication of the colour of the brew, so why would a place that seems very serious about their coffee do that to tea?

Other than that though, no real complaints.  My wife described the coffee there as mingblowingly good.  I have no clue about coffee, so I won’t try to pass judgment.  But I think if you’re in serious need of some tea when you’re in Salem, you can probably do a lot worse than going to Jaho.

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Fussing about teaware

June 19, 2009 · 4 Comments

Pardon the ranting.  Skip reading if you wish.

I keep seeing these topics posted on various forums about “is XYZ teaware safe to use?”, “does Yixing contain lead?”, and it’s really starting to bother me.

I understand we are all worried about the safety of our food, drink, and whatever else we put in our mouth.  Everyone is rightly concerned about it.  I also understand that with a new object that one has not dealt with before, it is entirely legitimate to ask these questions.  However, inevitably there will be people who will say “yes, they do contain XYZ and you shouldn’t use it at all or you will suffer the consequences” or something along those lines.  That’s what bothers me.

Let’s say we’re talking about yixing pots. Lots of people have asked in various places if they might contain nasty chemicals, lead, other heavy metals, dyes, etc that might be unsafe for consumption.  That in itself is a very legitimate thing to ask.  After all, you are drinking the tea, and since tea is mildly acidic it does make it more possible that some stuff might be leaching out of the pot, if there is anything there to begin with.

Then people will start suggesting that maybe you should try those lead test kits to see if the yixing pot has lead in it, or to only buy from reputable dealers, or to not buy low priced pots as they are likely to be bad for you, etc….

Let’s go through these one by one.

1) I’m not particularly sure exactly how effective each of these lead test kits work, but from the directions I’ve seen for testing ceramics or pottery, what you’re supposed to do is to soak the piece in vinegar, and then test the vinegar to see if any lead has leached out.  Now, I’ve never tested the pH for tea, but I am pretty sure whatever it is, it is a lot higher (i.e. not nearly as acidic) as vinegar.  I suppose you can do the same as use tea to soak the piece and then test the tea, but even then, the only way to really simulate drinking tea is to test the tea you’re going to drink yourself.  I’d venture to guess that lead leaching is undetectable with any of these test kits in almost all cases.  I’ve always suggested people to try this with black raku ware, which is known to have lead, as a control.  So far, I still don’t know anybody who has responded to that when they say “oh my, these things will kill you with lead poisoning!”

2) As for reputable dealers – I am 100% sure that none of the people who sell pots online or offline have bothered to test the pots for lead in the method prescribed above.  I remember a certain tea vendor who sells through his blog “testing” some of his yixing pots with these test kits, but only by rubbing the kit on the surface of the pot.  That’s not how you do it, and whatever negative result is moot.  So, reputable dealer really have no idea what’s in their pot if you are talking potentially harmful chemicals.  If you don’t believe me, try asking.  The usual answer you’d get is probably “I only source my pots from trusted sources”, which basically means “trust me”.

3) Lower priced pots are indeed more likely to be made with fake yixing clay, have shoe polish on them, etc, but as I’ve always said, a high priced item is not guaranteed to be good at all.  You can have a fake yixing pot made with bad and harmful clay that is selling for $1000.  Do not judge items on the price they’re selling for.  It makes no sense to assume that price alone has anything to do with anything other than a merchant’s profit margin.

The point of all this is not that you should not buy anything.  Rather, the point I’m trying to make is that most likely there is simply no good reason to worry at all.  The harmful combination of 30g of fat on 120g of sugar in that piece of cheesecake you just ate is probably far worse than whatever trace amount of lead you got in the tea.  Or, for that matter, the old lead pipes in your apartment building in New York city that still haven’t been changed.  Or…. the list goes on.

If you think what you’re using is not safe, then stop using it.  If you think it’s fine, then don’t worry about it.  Worrying about a bowl or a pot that had tea in it for a few minutes at most is really not a good way to spend your time.  And those people who keep harping on how China seems to be the only country that produces unsafe goods (nevermind that most goods, safe or unsafe, all seem to be produced in China these days) should just keep their fear-mongering to themselves.

Thanks for listening to my ranting.

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Quick review: The True History of Tea

June 17, 2009 · 10 Comments

I don’t normally do book reviews, and I know that Corax of Chadao will be doing a much more thorough and thoughtful review of this book at some point or another, so here are just my quick thoughts on this nice, new, shiny book.

The book is by Victor Mair and Erhling Hoh.  I know nothing about Erling Hoh.  Victor Mair I do know by reputation — he’s a professor of Chinese language and literature at UPenn, and is very prolific with both scholarly work on philology, literature, and also translations of classical texts.

The pedigree of the author matters, because I feel that the authors of many of the books currently on the market that talk about tea, especially ones that purport to discuss the history of tea, are not familiar with the country they’re discussing, nor well versed enough in the language to use primary sources that are reliable.  While this may be all right for a book that only makes gestures towards explaining the history of tea in East Asia, they inevitably have to rely on second hand evidence or anecdotes from other sources.  They also tend to over-rely on Lu Yu’s Chajing because it along among older texts on tea is translated, giving it a place that is well deserved but not entirely representative.

This book does indeed try to fill that very large hole, not only in talking about the history of tea pre-Lu Yu, but also that of the period that came after but before the Europeans arrived to bring tea to their own shores.  The authors really do try to cover the entire history of tea, from inception in China, its spread to Japan, the Islamic world, and then to Europe and the New World.  They do so with a better command of the sources and materials than I’ve seen in other works on the same subject, and organized into a logical and easy to follow sequence.  Great stuff for a quick, fun read, but also well suited for the course I’ll be teaching next semester on the history of tea.  I’m ordering this for a textbook.

There are some glaring holes, however.  There’s virtually no mention of Korea anywhere in this, and I think it’s always easy to forget that much of China’s cultural influences on Japan passed through Korea at one point or another.  I’m sure tea is no exception, although that part of the story is really quite murky as far as I know.  The other is that as someone who works on later imperial China, the history of tea in the last six hundred years of imperial rule was dealt with rather quickly in the space of one chapter.  I know the story is richer than that, and I do think there’s room for more, not least becuase what happened in those years had a direct impact on what we’re drinking now.  Maybe that’s for another work.

But either way — I’d highly recommend this book.

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Logic problem

June 14, 2009 · 8 Comments

Everybody have seen this before

All dogs have four legs
My cat has four legs
Therefore, my cat is a dog

I think we can all spot the problem here — my cat could be a dog, but since not only dogs have four legs, it does not have to be.  In fact, my cat is not a dog because of traits unrelated to the four legs.

Now, let’s try this

All good tea has X
This tea has X
Therefore, this tea is good.


All old teapots has Y
This teapot has Y
Therefore, this teapot is old

Now, these statements can all be true — they are potentially true.  However, as we’ve seen in the first problem, they do not have to be true.  Quite the contrary, in fact.

A real life example that is widely used is this

All old tree puerh leaves have thick veins
This tea has thick veins
Therefore, this is an old tree puerh leaf

At one point I subscribed to this theory, or at least strongly entertained the possibility of it, but upon further reflection and observation, I have found this to be untrue.  I have seen teas that are obviously from large plantations (big factory stuff) that exhibit thick veins, therefore disproving this theory that thick veins prove a tree’s age.

It is pretty easy to fall into the trap of following along one of these flawed deductive reasoning, usually from a reputable seller or vendor or “expert” and then just taking the statement at face value and not thinking through the logical implications of the deductive process.  While it certainly may have been true that only old tree leaves have thick veins, there is no guarantee that this was the case without extensive evidence that all other kinds of tea tree leaves have no thick veins.

Another one

All old teapots are tea-stained
This teapot is tea-stained
Therefore this teapot is old.

Obviously it doesn’t have to be true again.

Now, with other supporting evidence, these statements could be true.  If we assume that zhuni is now extinct and has been for decades, for example (a point that is hotly debated everywhere), then we can probably say

All zhuni pots are made from clay that is extinct
This teapot is a zhuni pot
Therefore this teapot is made from clay that is extinct

Ok, that works, but if you change it to

All zhuni clay is decades old
This teapot is made with zhuni
Therefore this teapot is decades old

Well, somebody may point out that a potter may have harvested a lot of zhuni clay before it went into extinction, and is in fact still producing new pots using this old clay.  So, even though your clay is decades old, the pot is brand new.  In theory, this is possible.  In practice, how anybody can store (securely, I might add) tonnes of clay that seems inexhaustible is questionable.  Either way, the above statements do not convey the entire argument that will have to go into debating whether a pot is new or old.  Using one small trait as its definining characteristic is not exactly reliable if you don’t know all the other relevant facts.

This kind of reasoning works better in the other direction, actually.  Let say somebody devised a new way of pressing puerh cakes that embosses a mark on the cake itself

All embossed cakes are new
This cake is embossed
Therefore this cake is new

That would work since we know that the embossing process is new.  The first line should actually read

All embossed cakes can only be new

Then there’s no doubt as to what’s going on.

The problem with processes doesn’t work the other way though.

All old cakes were stone pressed
This cake is stone pressed
Therefore this cake is old.

Just because people used to do things a certain way doesn’t mean that somebody living now cannot recreate the same process, in this case pressing tea with stone moulds.  In fact, we know this is happening everywhere as tea makers revived the stone-pressed cake since the 1990s.

I guess the point of this post is — beware of these logic deductions based on one or two traits of whatever good that is being sold.  We all know that the job of the vendor is to sell you things.  It’s very easy to fall into the trap (as I did with the thick veins thing) of just assuming this to be true and then not realizing that it, in fact, is not.

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Tea in Woodstock, VT

June 12, 2009 · Leave a Comment

Driving through Vermont today, stopping in a nice little town called Woodstock, and finding a shop called Tea and Coffee House there.  It’s nothing that’s going to impress a real tea addict, but it’s really nice to find a shop that tries to provide nice loose leaf tea in a pretty out of the way town.  Granted, it’s in the more tree-hugging part of the country with heavy ski tourists in the winter, but still, being able to buy a cup of shuixian (and not too horrid shuixian) from a shop instead of having to bring everything yourself (which I did anyway) was a nice change.  If only all towns in the US can say the same.  I do think though that over time, the incidence of shops that can provide something more than just basic “English Teatime” Bigelow teabags is going up, and that, I must say, is a really good thing.

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Dahongpao, or Big Crimson Robe

June 7, 2009 · 8 Comments

My school’s colour is crimson, which is a kind of red.  Dahongpao, as you probably all know, is a famous tea, and a very good one at that.  So, I thought it fitting, in 2004, to buy a little dahongpao to keep for the occasion of graduation.

You can see a sea of crimson robes out there.  They’re puffy.  I thought it’s fitting.

Unfortunately, I’m not the one graduating, but fortunately, my wife is (or rather, was).  So, it gives me an excuse to break out the box I’ve been saving up.

This is a Best Tea House “1st generation transplanted” dahongpao, which is supposedly from a tree that is only one generation removed from the original three dahongpao plants.  Truthfulness in advertising aside, it’s a good tea.  So, I duly cut opened the seal of the bags (the tea was double bagged).  The bags were not vacuum packed.  Interestingly enough, upon opening the first bag, you can already smell the tea.

Looking like good dahongpao leaves.

I usually brew dahongpao with a heavy hand, but since we had a guest today, I tried it lighter so it wouldn’t be overpowering to the point of discomfort.  The tea is very sweet, and since I haven’t had this tea for years, I forgot that it is actually only medium fired, at most.  The roasting is actually quite well done, without being too heavy but just enough to kill the greenness that you sometimes find in newer yancha.  Also, there’s a hint of fruitiness in the tea that I don’t remember.  Perhaps it’s because I brewed it ligther, or perhaps because after five years of storage, the roasting has dissipated just enough.  There isn’t a whole lot of aged taste yet, confirming my theory that an oolong stored in a sealed environment won’t change much over only a few years — if you want real change, it either has to be stored in a jar with a minimal amount of air exchange, or be stored for a long time.  This is, basically, a slightly aged oolong.

The qi (I noticed I have not mentioned this word on this blog for months…. if not literally years) of this tea is quite decent.  Not a bad tea at all, and certainly didn’t disappoint after all these years.  I rolled up the bags, taped them up, and closed the box again.  Next time I open it, you can call me Dr. MarshalN.

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The drain cleaners

June 2, 2009 · 3 Comments

I’ve been drinking a lot of drain cleaners these days, or in other words, puerh that are between 3-7 years old.  These are often the nastiest tasting things.  Whereas very young puerh (1 year or younger) are often quite pleasant to drink, and older things (7+) are usually fairly mellow, things that are in between can be disgusting.  They also begin to show their true colours.  Whereas younger puerh are often quite fragrant and light, once you’ve given the tea a few years, it can develop all sorts of flavours, from citrus to mint, and every conceivable taste in between.

The good thing about drinking something of this age is that you begin to have an idea whether it is any good or not.  If it’s already losing strength, as some do, then chances are it’s not going to get any better.  There are also ones that are intensely bitter without any sort of huigan, or just taste foul, strange, or, worst, hongcha-esque.

The linkage between a good tasting tea when young and a good aging tea when older is one of the biggest problem for those trying to evaluate and buy tea to press, and of course, the customer who eventually purchases them for storage.  Too often a good young cake turns out to be horrible after a few years, with no redeeming features and simply fades away.  In the puerh boom (and the post-boom world of today) there were many tea makers who popped out of nowhere to make tea.  Many of them used to be makers of other types of tea, be it green (guys from Shanghai area), oolong (a lot of Taiwanese tea guys), and hongcha (Fengqing factory, among others).  Then you have people who really didn’t know much about tea at all, or who never really made any tea, who jumped into the fray.  I have met a car dealer who became a puerh maker/merchant, and was selling some premium maocha pressed Lao Banzhang for a pretty price.  They will all tell you that they have had many years of experience in drinking tea (very often untrue, or including the time they had tea when they were three) as if it means anything.

Drinking, as we should all remember, has nothing to do with making.  A guy who can tell you if a shirt is well made or not probably has no idea how to start making one from scratch, unless he also happens to be a tailor by trade.  What makes tea any different?  A person who’s been growing tea for twenty years will, no doubt, have a pretty good sense of how it should be made.  A person who’s been drinking tea for twenty years will have some idea of how it ought to taste, and in the case of puerh, perhaps also how it ought to be stored.  Even to this date, very, very few people have actually taken a cake of puerh from its inception, through storage, to its mature state, and can attest to knowing how all these stages ought to be.  Many of the people whom I’ve met in Beijing and elsewhere who went and pressed their own cakes had, at best, mixed results.  Some of them had cakes that were obviously flawed.  Others had cakes that seemed all right, but after a few years of aging, turned out to be quite questionable.

It’s a pretty depressing thought, but I am increasingly of the belief that only those who live and work in Yunnan full time, year round, or those who have had a long working relationship with some of the farmers or factory owners there, will have access to good tea.  When my friend L visited Yiwu and spent a few weeks there with some contacts he had from CNNP, he said that all of the old tree farmers in one village were binded to long term contracts with this one person from Guangdong.  Everything else that goes on the open market as tea from this one place were all either “imported” from somewhere else, or were simply from inferior, plantation teas masquerading as better things.  If you’re a visitor who they don’t know, the farmer will show you a few bags of different teas.  You will try them all.  You will find that one of them is better than the others, with a suitably higher price.  All is well until, of course, you realize that there’s a vastly superior tea out there that you never got to try because the farmers won’t sell it to you.  The price will be right for an old tree tea (otherwise you’d think it’s too good to be true) but the tea won’t be.

Which is why I’m subjecting myself to the drain cleaners and trying to pick a winner among these, instead of going with the lottery of brand new teas.

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