A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from June 2011

Old tea

June 28, 2011 · 5 Comments

I’m in Beijing at the moment, visiting my friend L and drinking tea with his friends.  One of the teas I had today was a mixture of a some bits and pieces from a Mengjing mushroom tea from Republican days, and a good chunk of leaves from a 60s Blue Label iron cake.  While the tea is quite nice and has obvious qi, at the same time I can’t help but think that all the cost of this tea is not necessarily worth it.  After all, at over $100 USD for that brew if you were to pay for it, the tea is nice, but not that nice.  The qi is certainly something you don’t get with younger teas — an aged tea of enough years is going to be different from your young stuff, no matter what.  Yet, I’m really not sure if this is really worth it for a lot of people.  So many people chase this stuff so that now they are priced out of pretty much everyone’s range.  But if you drink it, and compare it to something like say 1960s Guangyungong tea, the difference is not so earth-shatteringly big that it merits the many multiples of price that it commands.

This is really a dilemma not only of aged tea, but all teas in general.  Is that dahongpao that is very good really worth 10x that dahongpao that is only so so?  Sure, perhaps.  At some point, however, every individual will hit a threshold above which they will not go in terms of cost/benefit.  While it is not always a good idea to measure a tea’s worth in how much pleasure it gives you per dollar spent, at some point that does come into play, and at this moment, for me, I think that many of the aged puerh on the market today are simply not worth the amount of money they command for me to want to actually buy them for drinking purposes.  I’m quite happy with my current selection of tea that I possess, and find little compelling reason to chase such expensive teas.  To buy them is to buy something rare and unique, something not easily found, especially if we’re talking about pre-1970s tea.  That rarity, however, commands a huge premium.  The reasons for purchasing these teas quickly leave the realm of “this is a good tea and is tasty” to “this is something that I can use to show off with” or “this is something that displays my knowledge of tea” or something similar.  In my opinion, those are not good things to pay for.  Nor, I think, should we expect that any tea produced today will command a similar level of prices come their 40th or 50th anniversary – the production level is so much higher now than it was back in the day, and so much more care has been put in to preserve these teas, that I think decades from now we will still have a relatively large supply of such things.  The only good reason to buy a tea is because you like to drink it.

Categories: Teas
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The one that got away

June 15, 2011 · 8 Comments

Today’s tea is probably my last, seriously brewed tea I’ll have in the United States for quite some time.  Tomorrow the movers will be coming to pack my things up and send them on their merry way to Hong Kong.  So, to commemorate the occasion, I thought I should drink something different, something interesting.  After some dithering and going over the many teas I have, I settled on one that has special meaning to me, because it’s the one that got away.


Back in 2007 when I was still in Taiwan, I was a frequent visitor to the various old teashops in Taipei to look for aged oolong.  At that point I don’t think many people were selling aged oolongs online, aside from a handful at Houde, and there was very little information on such things.  I hunted high and low for these things, good, bad, and everything in between.  It was a fun experience, and I learned a lot just by tasting the different teas and talking to different people who sell them.  One store in particular, as my old-time readers will remember, I affectionately called the “Candy Store” because buying things from there made me felt like a kid in a candy store – lots of goodies, and the thrill of having to hunt them down.

Late in my stay in Taipei, perhaps a week or two before I had to leave, I went to the Candy Store again and found a few things that looked interesting.  One of them was a small, perhaps 2-3kg bag of rolled oolong with a label that said it was from the 80s, a Dongding competition tea.  I only got to try the tea after I left Taiwan, because I had no time to do it before flying out.  By the second or third time I tried the tea, it became obvious that this tea is really good, and I wanted the whole bag.  However, it was too late, and when I asked a friend to visit the store again for this tea, it was all gone.

This is what spurred me to buy in bulk whenever I like a tea now – I think back in the day I felt less confident in my ability to tell good from bad apart, and tended to buy in smaller quantities because of it.  These days, I’m more sure of what I like and don’t like and also my ability in telling good from bad, so when I find something that I think checks all the boxes, I tend to buy in bulk – a few kilos at a time, so that the misfortune of not having a good tea when I want it is no longer there.

What I drank today is the very last bit of this tea, the last of the 4oz that I bought when I first visited the Candy Store.  Drinking it today, there’s still that nice, peachy taste to it, but it had also gotten a darker taste, a more aged flavour, if you will, that wasn’t there when I bought it.


The tea looks a lot darker, although I think at least part of it is because there was a lot of dust in the bag, and that the cup is much deeper than the one in the original photo from three years ago.  Nevertheless, this is still a great tea, with depth, fullness, and qi.  I wish I have more, but I don’t.  It was one of the first teas I drank after coming back to the US from my long sojourn in Asia during 2006-7, and it is the last serious tea I’m drinking before I fly back to Asia, ending almost fifteen years in North America.  The next two days I’ll have to subsist on grandpa style teas, and then, back to home base.  See you on the other side.

Categories: Teas
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Packing and shipping

June 13, 2011 · 9 Comments


One of the most painful things about moving is packing up everything.  What you see here, alas, is only a fraction of what I have.  Teaware, as we all know, are fragile, breakable things.  Pots, cups, dishes, kettles, everything is breakable, and everything needs a lot of wrapping.  I find that a lot of it is really difficult to do right, and sometimes people who pack and then ship these things don’t do it properly, resulting in breakage.

One of the biggest mistakes people make is to pack a teapot with the lid on the pot itself and just wrap the whole thing with bubble wrap.  That’s dangerous.  The lid, while it sits on the pot, can easily be rattled in shipment and comes loose or, worse, get damaged, as happened to one of my pots.  One of the pots I bought recently was shipped to me with only a little tape holding the lid onto the body.  Of course, when I opened the box, the lid was loose.  I was really lucky it wasn’t in pieces.

There’s also the issue of cushioning.  Ideally, you want space between all pieces of stuff — some sort of buffer in between each and every piece, so they never touch during shipment and will never come into contact with hard surface.  They also need to be cushioned against impacts along the walls of the box, so there needs to be space there too.  Boxes that are too small are disasters waiting to happen.

Shipping metal is no less difficult.  While tetsubins are pretty hardy and can take a lot of abuse, things like tin, pewter, copper, or silver are much more fragile and will dent or scratch easily.  With these, you have to be extra sure that the cushioning is enough to support all kinds of blows to the box — especially since some of these are heavy and if they are allowed to shift in the box, the momentum will create a greater force to dent what’s next to it.  I’d suggest shipping them singly, if possible, or if one must ship them together with something else, do so in a way that minimizes the chances of breakage with the way you place different items, etc.

Teas are easier to deal with, especially if they’re of the oolong variety and come in bags.  That’s almost a no brainer, so long as the box itself is relatively air tight and (hopefully) won’t be exposed to high temperature or sunlight.  Puerh cakes are a bit of a pain, but generally speaking when I ship these things I almost expect damage — it’s just part of the cost of shipping them.  Broken edges, roughed up wrappers, and missing teadust are par for the course.  If they’re not flooded I’m happy.

What’s really difficult is deciding to get rid of some pieces.  I have a lot of teaware that I think I should probably cull from my collection, either because I no longer use them at all, or in many cases, never really used them in the first place.  In this picture alone I see three pieces that I never use and I should probably get rid of, but I have a hard time bringing myself to do it.  On one level, I’m a hoarder at heart, so I want to hold onto them.  I also feel, somehow, that selling these things is not quite right.  I sometimes gift items away, but you can only gift so many things, and not a lot of people take tea related gifts, in any case.  Sometimes they’re also pieces that I don’t deem gift-worthy — if I’m not going to use it, why should I inflict it on someone else?  Then there are the tuition pieces.  At some point I’m going to take pictures of all of them and then show them here, so that others can learn from my tuition mistakes, but those pieces I’m sort of stuck with forever, and all I really need to the resolve to throw them in the trash.  All in all, the problem of too much teaware is really a dilemma that has no good resolution.

Categories: Misc
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New page

June 8, 2011 · 1 Comment

I just added a new page on the issue of grandpa style, since people ask that question from time to time.  I will perhaps add to it in the future with pictures and more detailed info, but part of the spirit of that type of brewing is the nonchalance of the technique, if you can call it that, so perhaps that’s not necessary.

Categories: Information

Revisiting the dahongpao

June 8, 2011 · 1 Comment

I went back to the same graduation dahongpao yesterday to try it again, since the last session was really not all that inspiring.  I wondered what brewing it in a single person pot at home would be like, versus a much larger pot for multiple people.  So, I opened up the bag that The Mandarin carefully sealed for me (thanks!) and took some leaves out.


Normally speaking I think the optimal ratio for yancha is about 3/4 full of dry leaves.  In other words, for the empty vessel the leaves should fill about 3/4 of the space, after shaking and settling.  Less, and the result is often somewhat insipid and the true essence of yancha doesn’t show up.  For this purpose, a flatter pot is generally preferred for ease of pouring in the leaves, if nothing else.


I was tempted to say that the colour of the tea coming out is darker, but I don’t think that’s actually true.  For one, I fill my cup with a whole pot of tea, since the pot is small.  Because the cup is relatively tall, teas often appear darker here.  When I was in New York the cups we used were the tiny ones that held about two sips.  They are really not that comparable.  Colour, in fact, is one of the most useless indicators of quality of tea, because it is affected by so many different variables, from the type of water used to the shape of the cup.  There are exceptions to this rule, such as the hue of the tea, which could tell you certain things about stored, aged teas, but that doesn’t apply here.


Many infusions later


The tea seems thicker this time around, and not as thin.  My water probably has a lot to do with that.  It also seems to have more complexity, owing to the same issue of water source.  I am also a believer that smaller pots always beat larger pots in terms of the quality of the brew – it is both easier to control and also, if you believe in such things, retains the qi of the tea better.  One of the Qing period tracts I’ve read talks about how the optimal size is really a one person pot, and everyone should bring their own to a gathering.  There’s some truth to that, I believe.

The most startling thing about this tasting though is the colour of the wet leaves.


They somehow seem a shade darker than when I brewed them in New York.  This is pretty much impossible, I think, but nevertheless it seems that way.  Perhaps it’s because the leaves haven’t unfurled as much as they did in New York, owing to the smallness of the pot, and therefore lending more credence to the theory that there’s something that changes from large to small pot.  I’m not sure.  You can see though that the leaves are actually not very heavily roasted — many are still a dark olive green, rather than brown or even black.

Contrary to the colour of the liquor, the appearance of wet leaves tell you all sorts of information about the tea itself, and to this day I see very few vendors showing wet leaves consistently.  Reading tea leaves is actually possible, and can be highly valuable as a skill in buying teas online.

Categories: Information · Teas
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Variety is the spice of life

June 3, 2011 · 5 Comments

Many of us drink different teas every day, or even within each day, to keep it interesting.  Drinking the same tea, day in, day out, can get tedious, no matter how great the tea is.  I also find that tastebuds can sometimes go dull if drinking the same tea too many times.  Instead of just varying the leaves being brewed, however, there are many other things that you can do to change the way a tea tastes and how it appears to you.  Obviously, brewing method is a big one – a little leaf in a big bowl is going to taste very different from a lot of leaves in a little pot, but one that I think people tend to ignore is water.

I’ve talked about water many times before, and I think one of the key points I have tried to make over the years is that different water suit different teas, adjusted for different styles of brewing.  There are, I think, some general rules of what water is better for what kind of tea than others, but when it comes down to it, you have to find the right water for what you want from the tea.

Having said that, it is always interesting to change water sometimes just to give yourself a sense of what different water will do to a tea that you’re really familiar with, or for me yesterday, what the different water did to a tea that I was drinking earlier in the day.

My usual water here in Maine is from municipal sources, and from what I understand, water around here is pumped from underground.  The mineral content is high – the highest I’ve seen from municipal sources that I personally have experience with.  It’s the first water that leaves obvious, visible mineral deposits on everything I use from kettle to pots.  It is also heavy in taste, and when unfiltered, has a nasty sharpness to it that precludes enjoyable drinking.  There’s also a slight amount of saltiness in the water.

My tap water actually works rather well with most of the teas I drink – heavier teas, such as puerh and roasted or aged oolongs.  It’s really quite terrible for greens and light oolongs, but I rarely drink those anyway, so it’s not a real problem.  Yesterday, though, when I was shopping at our local organic food store, I saw that they had Iceland Spring on sale.  This is a water that I love – crisp, clean, refreshing, very tasty, and not too expensive.  So I got two bottles and intend to drink some tea with it.  It has low total dissolved solids, and you can taste the difference (note: I am not saying low total dissolved solids is good, but it’s different and it does what it does).

The tea I was having yesterday was a taobao purchase of a Yiwu cake from about 05 or 06.  It was one of many taobao lottery I purchased a while back.  I tried this cake once before, but wasn’t too impressed.  As I drank it yesterday first with the tap water, it seemed to have improved.  I came home with the Iceland Spring, and boiled the second kettle of water to use as a continuation of the initial brewing.  The tea changed – not just because it was weaker after a full kettle worth of tea, but also because the water changed.  You can think of a tea’s progression through infusions as being on a curve of sorts, and in this case, changing the water led to a break in that curve.  The tone of the tea lightened up, both in terms of the physical colour, and also the body, which is pretty consistent with my findings from previous experiments.  What’s gained though is a depth in fragrance that was rather muted with my tap water.  That took more of a center stage when I brewed it with the Iceland Spring, which gave it a nice, crispness that enhanced or at least brought attention to the fragrance of the tea.

This brings me back to my original point, which is that the water you should use depends on the tea you want.  A water that works for you is the best water for the tea.  It doesn’t really matter if it’s tap, spring, well, river, or rain – if it works for you, it works.  Now, on balance, I think some water types work better with some tea types, and I think there are generally broad agreements as to what water is better than others (distilled bad, spring good).  I also think that the only way of finding out, given all the variables there are in tea brewing, is to try it out yourself.  Using different sources, buying different kinds of bottled water, and comparing the results is really the only way you can find out if what you normally use is good or not for what you drink.  After all, water is the cheapest way to improve your tea.

Another thing that is very underrated but I think very important is to just try the water itself, in comparison with each other.  This is very easy and cheap to do.  Go find four or five different water sources, pour them into identical glasses, and drink.  Don’t just gulp, but drink like you’re drinking tea – taste it, feel it, and pay attention to it.  Water is actually quite interesting to drink on its own, and can taste great.  You don’t need abominations like this to make drinking water fun.

Categories: Information · Teas
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