A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from October 2011

Leaf Tea Boutique

October 28, 2011 · 11 Comments

Last night I visited Leaf Tea Boutique with MadameN.  We were there for a small art exhibit, and the proprietor of the place, who was also the host of the event, also decided to make it a tea tasting. I’ve walked by this store a number of times before, never bothering to go in as it looks, from the street level anyway, to be just another tea shop, situated in Central in an area frequented by foreign tourists and expats, which means, at least for me, that it probably sells uninteresting teas. When I arrived at the place I was a little confused – where was this art going to be had? This being Hong Kong, space is a real premium, and I couldn’t see any space for any art, until, of course, the staff directed us to go downstairs – turns out they have a little space in the basement that is normally used for seats and has been converted into a little gallery.

In Hong Kong, despite its tea guzzling culture, there are very, very few places where you can actually sit down and drink tea. While plenty of places sell tea, and some will brew for you if you want to try something out, if you want to just buy a cup or a pot of tea to drink, or if you (god forbid) want to bring your own leaves to brew, you’re fresh out of luck. There was one place in Causeway Bay that did that in a Chinese setting, but that store is long dead.  For those who need tea in Central or any other place, for that matter, your only solution is to go to Starbucks, Pacific Coffee, or any number of hotel cafes and the like for a cup of bland and overpriced teabag tea. Leaf Tea Boutique, therefore, is a nice, welcomed addition, and as you can buy a cup to go or for on-premises consumption, that’s a much better alternative for those of us teaheads who need a caffeine fix but don’t want yet another Harney teabag.

Of course, drinking tea in a basement doesn’t sound too exciting, but it also offers something that a lot of places in Hong Kong lacks – peace and quiet. You can’t hear the hustle and bustle at all from their basement, which is quite nice.

There are a number of teas on the menu there, and the proprietor lined up ten teas for us to try in succession. It was slightly wasteful, as we only got to drink one cup out of every brew, but it did allow us to sample more of their teas. As is typical in a tasting, we went from green to black (I skipped the mint tea at the end). Some, such as the sencha and the tieguanyin are merely ok, while others, like the baimudan (white peony) is quite nice. They only offer one of every type of tea, and give very little information on the tea itself, which I understand may turn off some people, but given their business model, location, and potential customer base, that’s not such a bad thing.  The young puerh that we had is probably in the 5 year range, seemingly a blend with a bit of smoke leftover.  I think it’s a big factory production, although it’s not quite clear, and I didn’t ask to look. I don’t like to be too inquisitive the first time I visit a store.

I just noticed that they have a flat pricing structure – which may explain the quality levels I found in the teas. Finding a decent baimudan that sells for $25 USD per 100g is pretty easy. Finding a good tieguanyin for the same price is considerably harder. You’ll never find anything near a top flight longjing at that price.

All in all, it’s a nice place, and a welcomed addition to the general availability of teas here in Hong Kong in a different format. For the general public and even those of us who just want a decent cup of tea while in the city doing other things, it’s not a bad place to go.

Categories: Teas
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The retaste project 8: Mandarin’s Tea 2006 Yiwu

October 26, 2011 · 7 Comments


This is a cake that I received from Toki, proprietor of Mandarin’s Tearoom, way back when.  It wasn’t too long after we met, if I remembered correctly, and he gave it to me when we met up one of those times in New York City.  Strictly speaking, this doesn’t belong to the retaste project, because I have been lugging this tea around with me in various parts of the US, rather than storing it in Hong Kong.  It has spent time in Boston, Ohio, New York state, and Maine.  I drank it once before after receiving this cake, and am now trying it for the second time.




The cake is full of little buds, and very few larger leaves.  I remember when I first tried it, the tea was somewhat smokey, and was not the most pleasant to drink. It’s rather loose, compression wise, and after a few years of moving around, the wrapper has accumulated a fair amount of broken leaves and bits.  I brewed those instead of breaking more leaves off.


The resulting cup is rather interesting – a nice minty taste that touches the throat, a good, solid, Yiwu profile, and reasonable viscosity. There is still just a hint of that smoke left in there somewhere. It tastes like old tree tea to me, and these days, those things cost a pretty penny. It’s a pretty good tea, and I can see it getting better over time. I guess my roaming US storage didn’t kill it, now I wonder if my Hong Kong storage can improve the tea.

Categories: Teas
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Revived from the dead

October 21, 2011 · 7 Comments

This little puppy is now fixed



All of a sudden it doesn’t look like the $30 pot that it was, but rather more like the silver vintage kyusu that it is. The handle is ivory, which made me apprehensive about sending it overseas to get it fixed by the very good Jeffrey Herman. I didn’t want the item get impounded or anything, since I have no proof that this was manufactured before the ivory ban, and nosy customs type can get into stuff when you don’t want to. Instead, I asked some antique dealers in the city for recommendations, and one, Helis & Tang, graciously answered my email with a name. The guy who fixed it is some old man who sells various kinds of metal awards and what not, but clearly loves dabbling in smithing. He was quite excited to see my piece and fix it up – had it done within 24 hours. The work is not quite as fine as Herman’s repair of my kettle, as you can see obvious repair marks and rougher edges, but I’ll take it.

Too bad though that now I have very little time to drink tea seriously on a daily basis, and am reduced to drinking bad tea in the office, grandpa-style. At the moment, this little kyusu will have to sit there on the shelf and look pretty.  Oh well.

Categories: Objects
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Hong Kong tea culture

October 12, 2011 · 6 Comments

Hong Kong’s tea culture is quite complicated, and one can write a whole book about it. I think at the very core, there are three levels of tea drinking going on here. There is the everyday drinking that happens just because you need something to drink. There’s the grandpa style brewed teas that people consume on a daily basis, either at work, at home, or on the road. Then there’s the aficionados who drink tea as a hobby, who spend time thinking about it, and who probably spend an inordinate amount of money doing it.

The everyday drinking happens literally everywhere. No matter where you go, you encounter tea in the city. When you sit down at a restaurant, unless it’s a place that specialized in some sort of non-Chinese food, you are generally served a cup of tea. That can be a cup of tea brewed in a pot, as in dim sum places, or it can be a cup of tea that’s really super-diluted cooked pu that’s nothing more than slightly flavoured water. The quality of these teas, generally speaking, are quite low. At dim sum places, for example, it is a good rule to not order puerh, as they are generally cooked and nasty, with lurid stories of rats running over teacakes told by scaremongers. I usually opt for shuixian, which, these days, can be anything really from a tieguanyin (more likely benshan) to a Wuyi shuixian, and with roasting that is anything from nuclear green to dark brown. Although older, wiser tea friends tell me to go for shoumei, as it’s usually the safest choice, I just can’t stand that stuff.

PhotobucketTypical scene after a meal, this one in Cambridge MA

In addition to the everyday tea that automatically gets served to you, there are teas out there that you order, but which you encounter effortlessly and which are served to you more or less automatically. For example, if you visit a fast food restaurant specializing in local fare, your dish is almost inevitably accompanied by a drink. The options, usually, are: lemon tea, lemon water, milk tea, or coffee. I often opt for milk tea, for lack of a real choice, and in a strange local custom, cold drinks always cost more than hot ones (ostensibly for the ice) so by going with milk tea over, say, iced lemon tea, you’re saving a few bucks as well. What you get, of course, is your standard fare Hong Kong milk tea, made super strong and then added with a generous dose of evaporated milk. You can’t get that anywhere else. There are also things like bubble teas, but those have really faded from the scene in recent years, and are far less common than they used to be.

One issue with this type of tea drinking is that it is everywhere, and that you are almost stuck with it. I don’t like it, actually, because it raises my caffeine intake for no good reason. I tend to view my caffeine intake daily as a set thing, and as I spend it on things like milk tea, I have less to spend on better teas that I prefer to drink. Alas, that’s part of the cost of living here.

The other kind of tea drinking that goes on here is of course the grandpa style drinking that happens everywhere. My colleagues at work, for example, drink loads everyday, mostly greens and sometimes including some mysterious looking things that are probably herbal teas of some sort. In fact, as anyone who’s ever traveled in China will tell you, most of the time, people who drink grandpa style are doing it to green tea, which of course flies in the face of whatever your tea vendor tells you about proper temperature at which to brew tea – when they first brew the green, it is almost always with boiling hot water violently knocking the leaves around as one pours from our office water boiler (yes, it’s an industrial looking thing you might imagine in a staff canteen rather than individualized kettles). The tea that comes out, if you know how to manage it, can be quite ok, or quite nasty, if your tea is bad, but this, I think, is tea drinking for the vast majority of people in Hong Kong.

Then there’s that small group of folks who are quite serious and sometimes obsessive about tea drinking. You can find those, at least for Hong Kong, at a relatively new tea forum that some established a little while ago. They hold frequent tea drinking sessions, although I haven’t really gone for reasons of work. Many of these individuals know far more and have tried far more aged puerh than any Western vendor ever has, or ever will. If you mention, say, the Snow Mark, they’ll tell you they’ve had dozens of different ones and some are better (and be able to tell you which ones) and some are worse, and right away, for example, when I brought them the Yuanyexiang that I’ve been storing for the past five years, they tell me there’s something different about it, because, quite possibly, it’s been stored overseas. In other words, they’re a living repository of tea knowledge, and for the most part, they’re consumers like you and me, not producers or retailers who have a vested interest in what they’re talking about. They congregate around shops of various types that will entertain them, but Hong Kong being what it is, oftentimes it has to be done in other venues, whether it be sympathetic restaurants or sometimes, when space permits, people’s homes.

So all this, in some ways, forms the rather complex tea drinking culture here. For a tea lover, I think it’s not a bad place to be. It’s close to Taiwan and the Mainland, and if you’re so inclined, even Japan or India is not too far away. I guess I should count myself lucky in that regard to be able to live here.

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Confessions of a white paper cake hunter

October 10, 2011 · 4 Comments

I’m a white paper cake hunter. I like finding teas that are, basically, what they call “white paper” cakes or “three have-not” cakes. Generally speaking, that means cakes that have a no name brand, with no neifei, no wrapper, and no neipiao. In other words, there are no identifiers anywhere that tells you what it is. If I broaden the definition a little, it also means cakes from tiny factories and other workshops that might as well be no name.

Now, hunting for these things is easy, but finding good ones is much harder. If you browse on Taobao you can find hundreds of these no-name cakes, but very few of them will be good. Most of them fall into the “crap that will never get better” or “is this even pu?” category. Sometimes, once in a while, you’ll find winners.

I think the allure of such teas for me is that I derive pleasure in locating good teas that are unnoticed, the same reason why I sometimes take a gamble on teaware that nobody wants to buy. Sometimes you get lucky, and will get away with a great tea.

The same can be done, to a lesser and less interesting extent, on established websites that sells to the Western market. I routinely try a lot of the little known cakes that people like Scott from YSLLC sells. Recently, a cake I tried, which simply calls itself the Tongchanghuangji Yiwu, turns out to be quite decent.  I bought myself a few cakes, and will look forward to enjoying it in the future. I find teas like this to be much, much more satisfying than crowding into another well-known, and well-hyped teas that everyone has heard of. The latest Dayi fads simply don’t interest me. Perhaps this reflects the contrarian in me, and also a bit of an adventurer streak at least in terms of tea drinking. It also is probably because this is what makes the hobby interesting to me – that I’m finding new things that I will then have to analyze and come to a conclusion based on what I find. Following is so boring.

Categories: Teas
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