A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from July 2011

Moderation

July 28, 2011 · 22 Comments

One of the biggest pet peeves I have when I see people advertising tea is some sort of mystical, magical health benefit that pretty much promises it will do anything other than raise the dead.  Accompanying this is the pretty frequent sighting of posts on various tea forums from newcomers who say things like “I want to get the health benefit of drinking tea — which tea is best for X?”  Stores like Teavana then capitalize on this sort of thinking, and invents, without any sort of rationale, a whole series of “health benefits” of various kinds of tea for different parts of the body, with the clear implication that if you want a full body benefit, well, you better buy all of their teas.

There’s only one problem – all this talk of health benefits, etc, ignores the fact that just like pretty much anything else, there comes a point when there’s too much of a good thing.  You can, indeed, overconsume tea.  An analogy can be drawn with wine — while a glass of red wine a day may be good for your health, two bottles a day is pretty much certainly going to cause you health problems.  While it is not clear where tea’s “health threshold” may be, it has to have one.

In my experience I have had two unpleasant encounters with drinking too much tea.  The first was an instance in which I drank too much tea while pulling a near all-nighter in college trying to finish a paper.  I remember my legs were shaking uncontrollably and I’m pretty sure it was due to caffeine overdose of some sort.  The second was actually much more scary — I was drinking lots of tea in the run up to my general examinations for me to proceed on my dissertation research, and one night as I was getting ready for bed, my heart started beating at a rate and strength that was very unnatural — I thought I was getting a heart attack or something.  It calmed down, eventually, but not before it really scared me.  Doctors, of course, found nothing wrong, and suggested I consume less caffeine and sleep more.  Recently, a tea friend here in Hong Kong told me that he had something very similar — heart rate that was abnormally fast (140-150 bpm).  Doctors couldn’t find anything either.  We both agreed that tea, specifically strong, young puerh, and lots of it, may be the culprit.

I have been mostly on a “one tea a day” regimen for the past 6 years, and I haven’t had another such episode since then.  I think lots of people get the impression that I drink lots of tea every day.  The fact is, I don’t unless I’m visiting a shop and hanging out with tea friends.  Yesterday I stopped by Best Tea House to see some old friends, and I know I drank a little too much as I started feeling uncomfortable.  Like a person who is getting tipsy but who doesn’t want to get drunk, I stopped.

I know I’m going to get people here who will poo-poo the idea that too much tea can be bad for you, or that drinking only greens or young puerhs exclusively will yield anything other than pure bliss.  I’m not saying that everyone will get the same reaction — some people may have much higher tolerance for such things, but at some point, you can, in fact, overconsume tea, and at that point it will no longer be a health benefit, but a health hazard.  Tea and health is mostly a marketing hype, as I’m pretty sure that drinking pesticide laced CTC brewed bottled iced black tea flavoured with artificial flavouring agents and lots of sugar is not going to give you any health benefit whatsoever.  Drink in moderation.

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The retaste project 3: 2002 Mengku Rongshi Qizibing

July 24, 2011 · 8 Comments

This cake is something I first obtained with BBB in Beijing back when he visited me.  I eventually ended up with about a tong of this, and he took a few cakes, I believe.  I don’t remember how much exactly we paid for this tea — I am sure it was below 100 RMB a cake, probably more like 80-90.  Taobao now quotes about 220 for a cake of this, and considering the appreciation of the RMB in the past few years, the price increase in the tea has been probably about threefold.

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The wrapper, as you can see, has taken quite a bit of beating in the years since I got this cake.  You can see though that this is the same cake that I took a picture of five years ago by the arrangement of the leaves (on the neifei, for the most obvious point)

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I’d say the leaves have gotten a bit darker, but by and large the change isn’t particularly obvious.

As I drink it, I think the tea is nice – nicer than when I first got it in the sense that it is now mellower and also a little cooler in the back in ways that I didn’t really notice before when I tasted it soon after my purchase.  The colour of the liquor looks a bit darker, but that could easily be a product of lighting, depth of cup, and other uncontrolled factors.

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I do like it though, and I think at the price when I got it, it was a great deal.  Would I pay 220 for it now?  A few cakes, perhaps, if I happen to like it.  If I have to drink this tea everyday, I won’t mind it one bit.  I guess that’s a good endorsement.

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Frenzied development

July 19, 2011 · 1 Comment

Pretty much every day now you can open the newspapers (or more likely, a news website) and some story about China’s economic development will pop up.  The rise of China as an economic power that people actually pay attention to is something quite remarkable, and every time I go back and visit I can see it on the ground.  Maliandao, which I discussed five years ago when I first got there and updated last year, is no longer the backwater shopping street it used to be.  Two new roads have opened onto Maliandao, and traffic is worse than ever.  There are many, many more buildings in the vicinity now.  If we go back to the updated map:

Now I can give you some pictures to match up with the colours.  This is the building in purple on top

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The one on the left anyway.  That was a pile of dirt, basically, when I was there in 06/07, and was just beginning to get some building going on.  Now it’s a full blown tea mall with an apartment building on top.  The building on the right in the picture is what used to be the Pu’er Chadu, which is now defunct.  This picture was taken from the vantage point of the big Maliandao Tea City mall

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Which is the same as always.  Don’t go if you’re a tourist — it has the worst prices.  Although, because a number of stores there are older, if you’re looking for Beijing stored tea, you might get lucky there.  Just don’t expect a good deal.

The big pink thing on the map on the right hand side is this:

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Another big apartment building with teashops underneath.  There are two levels of this, all open to the street, and some have nice teas.  I bought my big bag of white tea there.  Next to this building is another building that has always been at Maliandao, but only recently started selling tea:

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The building underneath the blue sign was, and still is, mostly a audiophile/camera mall, but the ground and second floor are now teashops.  Nothing too impressive there except a few things of interest, but that’s only after a quick walkaround.  Behind it is Tianfuyuan, the big brown box on the map on the right, and where Xiaomei’s shop is located.

Underneath all this ritzy development though is still the same old infrastructure that supplies the stores.  Witness, for example, this:

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Among all the new cars and shiny objects are still the labourers who work hard to make the place function — here are two cart drivers who are carrying empty (left) and full (right) jugs of water for the shops in the area.  Note how the carts have an electric motor. Many of the shopkeepers still live in, or above, the stores, and many of them are still earning a paltry sum, although a paltry sum now is closer to 1600 RMB a month, rather than the 600 RMB a month of four or five years ago.  In fact, my friend L has been trying to hire someone but has found no takers for 1500 RMB.

Construction is still continuing, with a new tea mall slated to open probably later this year, and targeted at a more upmarket crowd.  The place has nicer decor and looks to be quite posh.  I’m sure you can find high prices there, along with prettier sales girls and more comfortable surroundings.  On the other hand, I also heard that a subway line will open in the next few years that will take you to Maliandao, which will make life a lot easier.  Either way, it’s fascinating to see all the changes in the past few years — and it looks like it’s going to keep going.

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The King of Pots

July 18, 2011 · 9 Comments

One of the great things about being in a place like Hong Kong, rather than being stuck in Maine, is that there are a lot more tea people out here.  Drinking tea alone is quite common in the US, but here you can always find a drinking mate if you need one.  Since I have returned I have yet to visit a teashop of any kind, and haven’t really taken advantage of my situation here.  Today, while I was out and about, I stopped by a shop when there was an hour between engagements, and ran into someone I’ve met before — someone who is nicknamed the King of Pots.

This guy taught me a few things before when I met him at the Best Tea House some years ago while I was hanging out there.  One of the most important things I learned was that when looking at someone else’s pot, put down the lid or the body and only look at the other.  Don’t hold the lid while you’re examining someone’s pot, or the pot while you’re actually just looking at the lid — that’s rude, and may damage the ware by accident.  I’ve met many people who do this sort of thing since then, and have passed on this rule, which I think is very sensible.  I’m sure the King of Pots himself was scolded for doing it, just like he scolded me when I did it to his pot.

Seeing him again this time is quite lucky, really, because otherwise I have no way to contact him, and I would love to learn more from him as he has hundreds, if not thousands, of pots, and has certainly seen more pots than I have had teas.  Not all of his pots are good — I saw one today that was only so so, but as he explained, you don’t need a vintage or famous pot.  If you use your pot often and it’s made of decent clay, that’s better than a Ming dynasty pot that’s been sitting next to a dead body for the last 300 years.  Of course, it’s much easier to say that when you’ve got as many pots as you do.

Now, not all of what he knows or believes in is going to be correct.  He told me today that he also started by drinking tea and learning from Vesper Chan of Best Tea House, but like many others, he has since grown out of it and rarely goes back there.  I count myself in the same category, although a few generations behind him.  What we have both learned in that regard is that people who you revere as teachers early on often turn out to be, at the very least, not all right, and sometimes downright wrong.  Yet, Mr. Chan continues to attract students and adherents who go and buy his stuff, while many older students fall out of the circle.  He’s doing a service to the tea community in that he’s attracting people to come, but very often, people don’t stay as they start wandering around for other sources of things and find out more for themselves.

People like the King of Pots are the tea people I like the most — they drink with an open mind and who are welcoming of newer ideas, who want to try new things, and who’s not afraid to challenge perceived “authority” figures, who, sadly, are often just big sellers with a strong vested interest in teaching you about certain things.  I respect the King of Pots, but I also know that he’s not likely to be correct on all things, and our exchanges often turn into just that – exchanges of information, when both of us can contribute to each other’s knowledge.  Too often, I see people who are attached to one teacher and who just believe in everything the person says about tea.  It’s more understandable if it happens in places like Maine or Minnesota, but seeing people like that in Hong Kong or Taiwan or China really makes me cringe.  Learning from others with more experiences makes your progress in tea go faster, but equally important is the use of a critical mind.  That’s what I teach my students in the classroom, and that’s what I try to practice, and sometimes, like this post, spills over into the blog.

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The retaste project 2: Mabang bing

July 15, 2011 · Leave a Comment

Before I go on, I should explain my parameters for this retasting project.

1) I’m going to be using gaiwan for all these, because I used mainly a gaiwan back in the day to try these teas.

2) I’m going to be using the same Kamjove kettle that I always used back then as well.

3) The water is Hong Kong tap water.  I can’t really control for this and have no way of using the exact same water I did in Beijing or Taiwan, so this will have to do.

4) I drink till the tea is exhausted, or, in case of horrendous teas, when I can no longer take it.

Now taht that’s out of the way, let’s move on to #2 – a Yiwu cake that I bought in 2006 and whose store I revisited on this trip.  If I remembered correctly, this tea was in the vicinity of about 80-100 RMB back in the day, give or take.  I could be wrong.

My impressions back then was that it was decent, but not awesome — that the leaves were ok, but the cake was made with care.  I think I must’ve given a cake away, because I only see one now, and it’s never been opened.

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You can see that the leaves are a bit stemmy.  The owners at the time I think told me that the cakes were arbor trees, but the trees were not particularly old.  I thought they should’ve used nicer material to make cakes — which they certainly have done this year (and in the past few years, it seems) but back then they were starting out on making puerh and so had less access to good materials, I believe.  2006 was also a pretty crazy year.

The initial infusion or two had a hint of the same taste as retaste project #1 — the same nasty young pu turning older taste, but it isn’t nearly as strong and obvious.  There’s something else going on here, a hint of the same fragrance that this tea had back when it was young.  I remember it was a bit astringent and rough when I tried it at the store five years ago, leading to my decision to only buy two cakes and not more.  As I kept brewing, the initial nasty taste went away, and turned into a slightly nicer, sweeter, lightly aged puerh taste.  It’s not fresh anymore, but neither is it really aged yet.  It’s in that 5 years old, awkward phase.

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The tea is not very strong.  It doesn’t have qi that knocks you out, and it isn’t really going to be a long term winner, I think.  Compare this to, say, the Yisheng purple, and this is clearly an inferior tea.  Having said that, it’s not bad, and offers a pleasant tea to drink.  I think give it some more time, and it can age into something reasonably good.  At the moment though, I’m in no hurry to drink this, so back into the storage it goes.

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The retaste project 1: a 15 RMB puerh

July 14, 2011 · Leave a Comment

As a way to get started — I thought I’ll try a cake that I have actually never tried before.

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I bought this cake more or less randomly in Beijing early during my travels — within the first few months of me having arrived there.  It was insanely cheap – if memory serves, it was somewhere in the vicinity of 15RMB, which, at the time, was about $2.  The cake, like so many others, claims to be thousand year old wild trees from Jiangcheng area, but a lot of cakes claim that and such names are essentially meaningless.

The leaves actually don’t look terrible.

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I remember when I bought this cake, the woman who sold it to me looked like a single mother trying to raise her son and running this corner shop in Maliandao eking out a living.  She had at least a dozen cakes, and I just randomly plucked one and bought it on the premise and the theory that very cheap things may age well if given time — and it’s worth the experiment given the exceptionally cheap price of the tea.  Now, as you can imagine, my expectation for this cake is low.  I don’t really expect much of anything out of it, and if it turns into anything drinkable, that’s already a good outcome.

When I brewed this tea the taste that I got is a familiar one — it tastes like some of the other cheap cakes I’ve bought off taobao before.  Not having tried it may be a bit of a mistake, in that I don’t know where it started, but I can more or less guess, having tried teas that are similar.  What it essentially comes down to is that the tea has now acquired a slightly medicinal, but not entirely pleasant taste, while having lost much of that “young puerh” flavour.  I think teas like this will not age well in the long run, and turn out to be quite thin and boring.

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Just looking at the pictures though, they look quite ok.  In fact, if you smelled the cake in person right now, you’ll think it’s quite ok.  It’s only when you drink it does it become obvious that the tea is not particularly good.  Maybe I’ll try this again in ten five years and see what happens to it then.

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The retaste project

July 8, 2011 · 6 Comments

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This is the sum of the teas I have here in Hong Kong, minus a few things already in the cupboard that I didn’t bother taking out for this picture.  Almost everything here was purchased a few years ago while I was working in China and then Taiwan.  Many of those things were bought when I was still very much in the experimentation phase, and during much of the time coincided with a lot of what was going on with the puerh bubble of 06/07.  Many of these teas were chronicled on this very blog back then, with a blow by blow account of how I bought them and what I thought at the time.  I think it will be an interesting thing to do to go back to every single one of these teas and see where they are now, five years later after some regular, Hong Kong dry storage at home.

I’m pretty sure that when I drink some of these now I’ll think they are terrible.  In fact, some of them I knew were terrible even back then.  I guess this can at least put the theory of “bad teas will age into something better” to a test for a 4-5 year time frame.  Let’s see where this goes.