A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from December 2011

A good tea trip

December 29, 2011 · 1 Comment

Being close to Taiwan is probably one of the biggest perks of being in Hong Kong, at least from the perspective of a tea lover. I count aged oolongs as the tea that I can drink day in, day out, and Taiwan is probably the best place to find such things. Even though MadameN and I only went there for three days this time, it did not disappoint.

The Candy Store is of course my first stop, and I returned to find that the laobanniang still remembers me and that I was a seeker of aged oolongs. I spent a few hours sitting there, drinking tea and digging through big metal cans with her, and among the teas I tasted there were two or three that seemed quite decent. One, the last one I tried that day, was very similar to The One That Got Away, and I dare not make the same mistake twice. So I ended up taking home the whole bag of tea that she had, all 2kg of it.

There were smaller successes too, as I went from shop to shop in Taipei looking for things. I replenished my supply of aged oolong, which, while not exactly running low, is low enough for me to have withheld consumption of aged oolongs for a while, opting instead to drink teas that are more readily available. Now, I am sitting in my office sipping an inexpensive aged tieguanyin that I bought on this trip that has the right mix of aged taste, sweetness, and throatiness. Yum.

Having then punctuated the trip with a visit to the magnificent Taroko park, we returned to Taipei and picked up the tea I wanted. On the last day, before our departure, I met up with a dear tea friend from Japan who is both knowledgeable and incredibly generous, and together we visited a tea lover/maker/seller who brewed a series of quite interesting, younger puerhs, some of which are the best young puerh I have had in a while. That’s the other thing about Taiwan – in addition to lots of shops, it has a high number of people who are very keen on tea and who spend a lot of time thinking about it, drinking it, and in some cases, making it. Others are then attracted to Taiwan and visit, therefore further exchanging ideas and teas. It’s a very fertile environment in which to advance one’s own tea appreciation, and I can’t think of a better place for tea than that.

With our bellies full of good tea, our tea companion took us to the airport and sent us off. Four days is far too short for a trip, but it was an invigorating one. I’ll be back for more, and soon.

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The tea shop island

December 24, 2011 · 5 Comments

Taiwan was called the Ilha Formosa, or the beautiful island, because the Portuguese sailors who first saw Taiwan thought it beautiful. That it still is, but for those of us who are avid tea drinkers, this is more like the Teashop island.

I just got here yesterday for a very quick trip, and stayinag in the heart of Taipei last night, we went out for dinner around our hotel. Just on the pre and post dinner walk alone, in the space of about a few blocks, I think I saw a dozen teashops. Not all of them are necessarily worth visiting, especially when there are many fine shops to go to, but I think it is safe to say that nobody will die of caffeine deprivation here. In fact, I wonder if Taiwan might not have the highest concentration of teashop per capita in the world.

Now I am sitting here in the middle of Taroko national park. It is stunning, and more than validates Taiwan’s former name. More on that later.

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Grandpa style in action

December 22, 2011 · 1 Comment


Taken at the local canteen. Note that it is green tea, and the high level of leaves to water ratio. From what I could see, this was some type of green tea.

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The Longjing rule

December 8, 2011 · 8 Comments

The Longjing rule simply stated: Do not go to Hangzhou to buy Longjing – the best has already left town.

I think this is a basic rule not only for Longjing, but applies generally to all teas and teawares. The best of the bunch leave very quickly, and go to where the market is. When I have friends who go to Hangzhou and buy Longjing, they inevitably end up with some mediocre stuff priced like premium tea. The same can be said for Wuyi yancha, where shuixians are sold for dahongpao prices (with nice boxes, of course). Friends who visited Yunnan tea mountains in hopes of finding that awesome treasure usually come back with plantation teas that are very mediocre, without needing the plane ticket and all the hassle. In sum, don’t go to the producing region to buy what you’re looking for. Go to big city markets instead.

This is really simple economics – richer cities can afford luxury goods like top flight Longjing or spring old tree Laobanzhang (regardless of what you think of them). These teas are expensive, and not many people can afford them. The farmer has two choices – sell it to the middleman whom they deal with regularly and trust, and get a good price, or produce it and keep it and hope they can sell it to some tourist walking by for a better price. What would you do if you were the farmer?

Instead, what’s kept for the tourist trade (and this includes many occasional tea merchants who think they’re sourcing it from the real deal) is usually the B grade stuff. Tourists, and occasional tea merchants, go to these places looking for good tea. Among the ones they sample, what they’re buying may indeed be the best of the bunch, but what’s missing, of course, is the stuff that never made it to their mouth – stuff that was locked up months in advance by those with the necessary local connections.

So, in sum, follow the Longjing rule, and don’t go to the producing regions and buy tea. If you want greens, go to Shanghai. Kunming is probably not a bad place to start for puerh, although a lot of the best stuff get dispersed to other major cities too. For oolongs of various types, Fuzhou, Xiamen, Hong Kong, and Taipei are good places to shop, depending on the style and type you like. One of the best places I’ve found for Wuyi yancha was in Taipei, a guy who sold me some incredibly expensive but awesome tasting rougui. It’s not a coincidence.

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On Tea and Friendship (III)

December 7, 2011 · 6 Comments

*MarshalN: Last installment, see prior posts for what came before. This is the part where he talks about making tea. At the end he includes a few paragraphs from Ch’asu, but I will post those at some other opportune time. A reminder of the source of this:

Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living, 1937, New York: The John Day Company, pp. 221-31.


Usually a stove is set before a window, with good hard charcoal burning. A certain sense of importance invests the host, who fans the stove and watches the vapor coming out from the kettle. Methodically he arranges a small pot and four tiny cups, usually smaller than small coffee cups, in a tray. He sees that they are in order, moves the pewter-foil pot of tea leaves near the tray and keeps it in readiness, chatting along with his guests, but not so much that he forgets his duties. He turns round to look at the stove, and from the time the kettle begins to sing, he never leaves it, but continues to fan the fire harder than before. Perhaps he stops to take the lid off and look at the tiny bubbles, technically called “fish eyes” or “crab froth,” appearing on the bottom of the kettle, and puts the lid on again. This is the “first boil.” He listens carefully as the gentle singing increases in volume to that of a gurgle,” with small bubbles coming up the sides of the kettle, technically called the “second boil.” It is then that he watches most carefully the vapor emitted from the kettle spout, and just shortly before the “third boil” is reached, when the water is brought up to a full boil, “like billowing waves,” he takes the kettle from the fire and scalds the pot inside and out with the boiling water, immediately adds the proper quantity of leaves and makes the infusion. Tea of this kind, like the famous “Iron Goddess of Mercy,” drunk in Fukien, is made very thick. The small pot is barely enough to hold four demi-tasses and is filled one-third with leaves. As the quantity of leaves is large, the tea is immediately poured into the cups and immediately drunk. This finishes the pot, and the kettle, filled with fresh water, is put on the fire again, getting ready for the second pot. Strictly speaking, the second pot is regarded as the best; the first pot being compared to a girl of thirteen, the second compared to a girl of sweet sixteen, and the third regarded as a woman. Theoretically, the third infusion from the same leaves is disallowed by connoisseurs, but actually one does try to live on with the “woman.”

The above is a strict description of preparing a special kind of tea as I have seen it in my native province, an art generally unknown in North China. In China generally, tea pots used are much larger, and the ideal color of tea is a clear, pale, golden yellow, never dark red like English tea.

Of course, we are speaking of tea as drunk by connoisseurs and not as generally served among shopkeepers. No such nicety can be expected of general mankind or when tea is consumed by the gallon by all comers. That is why the author of Ch’asu, Hsü Ts’eshu, says, “When there is a big party, with visitors coming and coming, one can only exchange with them cups of wine, and among strangers who have just met or among common friends, one should serve only tea of the ordinary quality. Only when our intimate friends of the same temperament have arrived, and we are all happy, all brilliant in conversation and all able to lay aside the formalities, then may we ask the boy servant to build a fire and draw water, and decide the number of stoves and cups to be used in accordance with the company present.” It is of this state of things that the author of Ch’achich says, “We are sitting at night in a mountain lodge, and are boiling tea with water from a mountain spring. When the fire attacks the water, we begin to hear a sound similar to the singing of the wind among pine trees. We pour the tea into a cup, and the gentle glow of its light plays around the place. The pleasure of such a moment cannot be shared with vulgar people.”

In a true tea lover, the pleasure of handling all the paraphernalia is such that it is enjoyed for its own sake, as in the case of Ts’ai Hsiang, who in his old age was not able to drink, but kept on enjoying the preparation of tea as a daily habit. There was also another scholar, by the name of Chou Wenfu, who prepared and drank tea six times daily at definite hours from dawn to evening, and who loved his pot so much that he had it buried with him when he died.

The art and technique of tea enjoyment, then, consists of the following: first, tea, being most susceptible to contamination of flavors, must be handled throughout with the utmost cleanliness and kept apart from wine, incense, and other smelly substances and people handling such substances. Second, it must be kept in a cool, dry place, and during moist seasons, a reasonable quantity for use must be kept in special small pots, best made of pewter-foil, while the reserve in the big pots is not opened except when necessary, and if a collection gets moldy, it should be submitted to a gentle roasting over a slow fire, uncovered and constantly fanning, so as to prevent the leaves from turning yellow or becoming discolored. Third, half of the art of making tea lies in getting good water with a keen edge; mountain spring water comes first, river water second, and well water third; water from the tap, if coming from dams, being essentially mountain and satisfactory. Fourth, for the appreciation of rare cups, one must have quiet friends and not too many of them at one time. Fifth, the proper color of tea in general is a pale golden yellow, and all dark red tea must be taken with milk or lemon or peppermint, or anything to cover up its awful sharp taste. Sixth, the best tea has a “return flavor” (hueiwei), which is felt about half a minute after drinking and after its chemical elements have had time to act on the salivary glands. Seven, tea must be freshly made and drunk immediately, and if good tea is expected, it should not be allowed to stand in the pot for too long, when the infusion has gone too far. Eight, it must be made with water just brought up to a boil. Nine, all adulterants are taboo, although individual differences may be allowed for people who prefer a slight mixture of some foreign flavor (e.g., jasmine, or cassia). Eleven, the flavor expected of the best tea is the delicate flavor of “baby’s flesh.”

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On Tea and Friendship (II)

December 5, 2011 · 2 Comments


Continued from the last post

In such a congenial atmosphere, we are then ready to gratify our senses, the senses of color and smell and sound. It is then that one should smoke and one should drink. We then transform our bodies into a sensory apparatus for perceiving the wonderful symphony of colors and sounds and smells and tastes provided by Nature and by culture. We feel like good violins about to be played on by master violinists. And thus “we burn incense on a moonlight night and play three stanzas of music from an ancient instrument, and immediately the myriad worries of our breast are banished and all our foolish ambitions or desires are forgotten. We will then inquire, what is the fragrance of this incense, what is the color of the smoke, what is that shadow that comes through the white papered windows, what is this sound that arises from below my fingertips, what is this enjoyment which makes us so quietly happy and so forgetful of everything else, and what is the condition of the infinite universe?”

Thus chastened in spirit, quiet in mind and surrounded by proper company, one if fit to enjoy tea. For tea is invented for quiet company as wine is invented for a noisy party. There is something in the nature of tea that leads us into a world of quiet contemplation of life. It would be as disastrous to drink tea with babies crying around, or with loud-voiced women or politics-talking men, as to pick tea on a rainy or a cloudy day. Picked at early dawn on a clear day, when the morning air on mountain top was clear and thin, and the fragrance of dews was still upon the leaves, tea is still associated with the fragrance and refinement of the magic dew in its enjoyment. With the Taoist insistence upon return to nature, and with its conception that the universe is kept alive by the interplay of the male and female forces, the dew actually stands for the “juice of heaven and earth” when the two principles are united at night, and the idea is current that the dew is a magic food, fine and clear and ethereal, and any man or beast who drinks enough of it stands a good chance of being immortal. De Quincey says quite correctly that tea “will always be the favorite beverage of the intellectual,” but the Chinese seem to go further and associated it with the highminded recluse.

Tea is then symbolic of earthly purity, requiring the most fastidious cleanliness in its preparation, from picking, frying and preserving to its final infusion and drinking, easily upset or spoiled by the slightest contamination of oily hands or oily cups. Consequently, its enjoyment is appropriate in an atmosphere where all ostentation or suggestion of luxury is banished from one’s eyes and one’s thoughts. After all, one enjoys sing-song girls with wine and not with tea, and when sing-song girls are fit to drink tea with, they are already in the class that Chinese poets and scholars favor. Su Tungp’o once compared tea to a sweet maiden, but a later critic, T’ien Yiheng, author of Chuch’üan Hsiaop’in (Essay On Boiling Spring Water) immediately qualified it by adding that tea could be compared, if it must be compared to women at all, only to the Fairy Maku, and that, “as for beauties with peach-colored faces and willow waists, they should be shut up in curtained beds, and not be allowed to contaminate the rocks and springs.” For the same author says, “One drinks tea to forget the world’s noise; it is not for those who eat rich food and dress in silk pyjamas.”

It must be remembered that, according to Ch’alu, “the essence of the enjoyment of tea lies in appreciation of its color, fragrance and flavor, and the principles of preparation are refinement, dryness and cleanliness.” An element of quiet is therefore necessary for the appreciation of these qualities, an appreciation that comes from a man who can “look at a hot world with a cool head.” Since the Sung Dynasty, connoisseurs have generally regarded a cup of pale tea as the best, and the delicate flavor of pale tea can easily pass unperceived by one occupied with busy thoughts, or when the neighborhood is noisy, or servants are quarreling, or when served by ugly maids. The company, too, must be small. For, “it is important in drinking tea that the guests be few. Many guests would make it noisy, and noisiness takes away from its cultured charm. To drink alone is called secluded; to drink between two is called comfortable; to drink with three or four is called charming; to drink with five or six is called common; and to drink with seven or eight is called [contemptuously] philanthropic.” As the author of Ch’asu said, “to pour tea around again and again from a big pot, and drink it up at a gulp, or to warm it up again after a while, or to ask for extremely strong taste would be like farmers or artisans who drink tea to fill their belly after hard work; it would then be impossible to speak of the distinction and appreciation of flavors.”

For this reason, and out of consideration for the utmost rightness and cleanliness in preparation, Chinese writers on tea have always insisted on personal attention in boiling tea, or since that is necessarily inconvenient, that two servants be specially trained to do the job. Tea is usually boiled on a separate small stove in the room or directly outside, away from the kitchen. The servant boys must be trained to make tea in the presence of their master and to observe a routine of cleanliness, washing the cups every morning (never wiping them with a towel), washing their hands often and keeping their fingernails clean. “When there are three guests, one stove will be enough, but when there are fix or six persons, two separate stoves and kettles will be required, one boy attending to each stove, for if one is required to attend to both, there may be delays or mix-ups.” True connoisseurs, however, regard the personal preparation of tea as a special pleasure. Without developing into a rigid system as in Japan, the preparation and drinking of tea is always a performance of loving pleasure, importance and distinction. In fact, the preparation is half the fun of the drinking, as cracking melon-seeks between one’s teeth is half the pleasure of eating them.

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