A Tea Addict's Journal

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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6 responses so far ↓

  • Ben (from Maine, where puerh aged well this summer) // October 13, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Reply

    Neat topic. Would you say that mainland China has the same three levels of tea culture, or is it more complex?


    P.S. thanks for the tip of the YSLLC no-name yiwu in your last post. I bought a cake.

    • MarshalN // October 16, 2011 at 11:44 pm | Reply

      I think Mainland China you have a lot less of the middle – you don’t see tea nearly as often on a day to day basis going out, simply because you have to pay for it. In Hong Kong it comes with every meal, basically, whereas in China you have to ask, which means you usually won’t see it, especially given the inflated prices.

  • ira // October 18, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Reply

    yes, Hong Kong is the paradise for tea addicts…. and here…purgatory for tea drinkers? 🙁

  • jk // October 19, 2011 at 3:52 am | Reply

    Ooo old friend, so are u in HK? care for tea/dim sum sometime? =)

  • Leaf Tea Boutique | A Tea Addict's Journal // October 28, 2011 at 12:30 am | Reply

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  • Chris W. // October 28, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Reply

    I recently came across your site and I really like it. I am learning a lot just from your posting. I, of course, love tea as well and reading your posts makes me understand that there is a whole lot more to the topic than I thought. I look forward to reading more posts!

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