A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from November 2010

What is a scam?

November 30, 2010 · 2 Comments

This story in the Economist has me thinking — what exactly constitutes a scam?  $130 is really not that much, in terms of tea, even in China, especially if the buyer is buying a number of gifts.  So, price itself is really not a determinant.

I think in general, a scam requires two things: price gouging, and false advertising.  Just overcharging people on tea without actual deception is, I think, not quite a scam — it just makes you really expensive.  Someone selling a pencil for $20 is price gouging, but until they promise you that the pencil can do your homework for you, it’s not quite wrong — you’re just paying too much for a pencil.

It is when lies enter the picture when a simple overpriced item becomes a scam.  I think this can be quite overt — this tea is a 1950s Red Label, when it is in fact a 1990s remake of inferior quality.  The consumer is led to think that he is purchasing something he isn’t — that is a scam.  When a cooked/raw mix is being sold as aged raw tea (which happens more than you think) it is a scam.  When an overly roasted oolong is being sold as an aged oolong, that is a scam.  Price, in some ways, does not matter.

Then there are more subtle forms of deception that are a little harder to delineate.  For example, what if someone says a certain tea is particularly high grade, when in fact it is only of medium quality?  What about price discrimination, when the price changes depending on the purchaser?

My general advice for people going to China is that unless they know exactly what they’re doing with tea, don’t buy any.  More often than not, people who don’t know what they’re buying will end up overpaying for stuff that aren’t worth half the price of purchase.  It’s even worse when person A asks their friend, person B, who’s going to China, to buy tea for them.  That’s just like asking for bad tea for a bad price.

Are they being scammed, or are they just sold inferior goods for too much money?  It’s a fine line.  I think of paying $15 for popcorn and a drink at the movie theatre as grossly overpriced, which is why I never do it, but I don’t think it’s a scam, so to speak.  They’re just exercising their monopolistic power within the theatre to stop you from bringing in outside food and thus forced to pay for theirs instead.  For tea, however, there’s no such restriction.  Unless the seller is lying, it’s not technically a scam, but it does make it a bad deal.  So, unless you know what you’re doing, or are willing to take the risks, don’t bother with the source and get it from your local, reputable vendor — let them take the risk of buying bad/fake tea.

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Taobao lottery

November 23, 2010 · Leave a Comment

Buying tea from Taobao can be a little bit like buying a scratch lotto ticket — you might win, but you might not, and more often than not, you get nothing (or not much) out of your purchase.  I bought a number of cakes recently, and only two or three have really turned out decent…. the rest are quite so so, or even worse, terrible.

Herein lies the main problem — I can’t taste them before I buy, and I can’t just buy a very small amount before committing to a larger purchase (a cake).  So, oftentimes I’m stuck buying cakes that look good, or what not, but even then, you really have no idea what you’re buying, and looks are (especially on the internet) very deceiving.

Sometimes I wonder why I bother at all, but after a while of no-purchase, I’d inevitably get that itch and want to try something new again.  In that sense, it is also like a lotto ticket — the gratification of finding something nice (which does happen sometimes) is just too alluring.

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Evaluating tea for purchase (4) — the leftover

November 9, 2010 · 4 Comments

Now…… there are loose ends to this too.  These are things that, I think, are useful, but your mileage may vary.

Spent leaves — this is really quite interesting, as I think spent leaves often tell you a lot more about the tea than one would initially realize.  I think spent leaves tell you a lot about the processing and (in the case of aged teas) storage conditions of the tea in question.  For example, look at this

versus this

Two different teas, clearly.  I don’t remember much about these, as they were taken quite a few years ago, but if I’m not mistaken, the top tea is probably younger than the bottom one, and is of the “smaller factory” variety.  There’s not a whole lot that one can reliably tell from spent leaves alone, especially without the accompanying smells and tastes, but there are things that one can do to, for example, verify what was in the cup during the tasting.  It can, in other words, help confirm or deny theories about the tea.

Lengxiang — literally “cold aroma”, this is what’s left in the cup long after the tea has been consumed.  It is not so useful, again, especially since lengxiang is rarely nasty (although it is possible).  Nevertheless, another piece of the puzzle.

Cold tasting — the later cups, for example, can also be drunk cold, or at least, cooled.  I think sometimes when tasting tea that is too hot it is actually difficult to get much out of it — the aromas or the tastes can be obscured by the temperature.  Cooling the tea down by waiting or other, more artificial means, can actually help enhance the sensory sensitivity.

Now……. the last problem is of course price, but that, really, is a separate topic that I have talked about many times before.  On that, no more.

Categories: Information · Old Xanga posts · Teas

Evaluating tea for purchase (3) — the less obvious things

November 2, 2010 · Leave a Comment

I only talked about tasting last time, and Walt rightly pointed out that you can’t divorce that from smell and other sensations.  The reason I didn’t mention those was because I wanted to talk about them separately.

Let’s start with smell.  Smell, I think, is one of the most elusive and difficult to discuss traits of a tea.  One problem with smell is that they are extremely fickle, and everyone has a different idea of what something smells like.  Generally speaking, I find smell to be very unreliable in evaluating teas, especially things that are non-puerh.  They are also harder to tell apart — so a cheap tieguanyin may not smell so different from an expensive one, so on, so forth.

There are a few things that you can use smell for though.  The first, I think, is storage condition for older teas, and not just puerh.  Obviously, if a puerh has been traditionally stored, there’s often a traditional storage smell (which will manifest itself clearly in taste as well and appearance).  Also, for newer, drier stored things, the smell can often give you some clue as to how the tea was made and what it’s like.  Smelling dry leaves can be deceiving, however, whereas smelling wet leaves or brewed tea can give you a lot more info.  I’ve been drinking some randomly purchased ~5 years old puerh recently, and some share a distinct “stale green tea” smell — teas that, I think, will not age well in the long run.  Good puerh will have a solid change by 5 or so years, accompanied with a thickness and depth that is lacking in some of these “stale green tea” types.  I can’t quite describe how they are like, but I know one when I see one.

Aged oolongs can also be evaluated using smell, in this case partly thanks to how the tea has been stored — has it been roasted?  Stored well?  Does it smell sour?  Aged?  New pretending to be old?  All those things, with experience, are at least somewhat discernable using smell.  I think the same principles can be applied to every tea, to a greater or lesser extent, and smell acts as a confirmation signal — it can help you figure out things, but on its own, can be somewhat misleading.

Now, the other aspects of tasting a tea is more ephemeral.  I’m talking about what I normally call “depth,” which really means how a tea feels when drunk.  There are two parts to this.  One is a physical reaction on a sensory front — how a tea feels in the mouth, and how it feels down the throat.  Good teas often will trigger a reaction in the throat area, as well as feeling very full and thick in the mouth itself.  It coats the mouth with sensory stimulation that weaker teas do not provide, and this is often the difference between an ok tea and a great tea.

The other is something even more difficult to describe, and which some will call “qi,” meaning energy/substance/stuff in Chinese cosmology.  It is difficult to explain what it is, but I think the best way I can describe it is that it is a physical reaction to a tea that goes beyond the mouth, throat, and stomach.  For me, it manifests as a sensation that creeps up my back.  For others, it’s a different reaction.  Great tea will usually be accompanied by this — an obvious sense of qi rushing up.  It is something special, and a lot of teas do not have such a thing.  This is not to be confused with a caffeine high, however.  They are most definitely not the same.

Categories: Information · Old Xanga posts · Teas