A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from January 2012

New year in Portland

January 31, 2012 · 7 Comments

A belated Chinese new year to everyone, and sincere wishes that the year of the dragon be a year of good tea for all of you!

I spent my new year in Portland, OR, which is more or less a caricature of what one might think of as a hippie northwest city. It’s a wonderful place, if you don’t mind the six months of rain in the winter, and the scenery is truly beautiful, as is true of pretty much the entire northwest coast.

It also is the home to some famous, mainstream tea companies, most notably Tazo, Stash, and the Tao of Tea.  The city’s offering in better, higher end teas, however, is a bit disappointing, at least from what I have found previously and given the context. I’ve visited a few teahouses in the city, all pretty mediocre, and nothing too interesting beyond what you might find in any run of the mill teahouse in the US. Given the concentration of tea companies in Portland, you’d think there will be more, better tea in this city, of all places.

Running a tea blog, however, has its perks, and one of them is that you get in touch with all sorts of people who lurk and who will let you know they’re in a certain place once you’ve gotten to know them. So while I was in Portland I met up with Abx, whose blog is defunct but who is still drinking tea, at a place called Serenity Arts. The shop is not much – it is located in the same building as an Asian market, and the decor is what you’d expect in a place like that. However, it has that all-important ingredient to the making of a good teahouse – an owner who cares about what she’s drinking.

I met up with Abx at the store, where he clearly knows the owner fairly well.  They were already drinking, but since I hadn’t eaten yet, we had a quick meal at the pretty decent Korean restaurant next door (Portland is full of good Korean places) before going back for some tea. The store can’t really be said to specialize in any particular type of tea, and given its location and clientele, it’s probably difficult to do so, but the owner does seem to take some care in sourcing her stuff, and some of the teas that they sell are things that are harder to find in the US normally – loose, aged puerh (raw and cooked), some pretty decent dancong, etc. Despite its location, or perhaps because of it, it offers up goods that you might not be able to find in one of the more famous places in the city, at prices more reasonable than others.

We must’ve had at least half a dozen tea, while chatting with the owner who was brewing the whole time and some of the other clients who dropped in and out. It is clear, having sat there for a few hours, that the store has good tea from time to time. However, they are not offered generally, but rather sold to familiar clients who are willing (and able) to pay the higher prices that such teas demand. What I liked about it though is that she generally refrained from any overt sales pitch, or overly flowery language in describing a tea. I appreciate the no-nonsense approach to drinking tea, and if I were living in Portland, I can see myself going to this store often.

As I was starting to think about leaving, the owner picked up a ziploc bag with some dark leaves in it, and said she’d brew this one – a 1960s liu’an, she claims, that was given to her by some relative or other. I was initially skeptical, since these claims of old tea are often questionable, but once she brewed it, it was pretty clear that this is a spectacular tea – fragrant, lively, still retaining the freshness of the liu’an base of green tea, while having added on a heavy dose of the aged tea taste that is typical of this genre. Oftentimes liu’an can be quite plain and boring, but this one is anything but. We probably drank 15 rounds of it, and the tea was not at all giving up yet. I had to go, but didn’t really want to.


PhotobucketLiu’an in action

So if you ever go to Portland and want to fish for some tea, stop by here. Abx also told me that there’s a new place that opened recently, but I thought Serenity Arts might have more interesting things. I think I was probably right.

Categories: Teas
Tagged: , ,

The retaste project 9: Dayi 2005 7542

January 17, 2012 · 11 Comments

Haven’t done one of these in a while – not that I haven’t been drinking any tea, but just haven’t gotten around to some of my older holdings.  So, here’s an unusual one:


It’s not exactly an everyday occurrence for me to drink Dayi tea. In fact, I almost never do, mostly because I’m not particularly fond of a lot of their newer productions, and the older ones are very expensive, with prices that are often times completely insane for the quality they provide. Most of this is due to the secondary market being very robust and the name brand effect – Dayi is really one of two brands that is truly widely recognized and has some brand value, regardless of what you think of their products, and for what it’s worth, they’re quite consistent in what they produce – the teas are rarely spectacular, but they are reliable.

I got this particular cake at a local shop here in Hong Kong probably one or two years ago, so it hasn’t gone through my storage very much. I have, however, had a good chunk of it already



I actually have slight reservations as to whether this is the real McCoy, or if this is a fake. If it were real, this would probably be a production 502 7542, as the production date is early May, whereas the 501 I’ve seen is from mid April. Curiously enough, in the whole wide world of Taobao, there isn’t a single 502 production 7542 for sale.

The tea, as you can see from its colour, has been through a bit of traditional storage, although not heavily so. It has a nice brownish green colour, with a nice whiff of storage, but no mold on the surface or anything like that. In fact, I’d say it is rather well aged. I just bought a cake blind, since I didn’t know what to expect at the time.


The tea actually brews very well, and has a nice, deep character that is normally not present in a lot of 7542s I’ve had that are of recent vintage. It is no longer bitter in that new tea kind of way, and is instead quite pleasant to drink, with a nice roundness and softness that seems to indicate it can do more in the future. In all, I found it very satisfying, and am wondering if I should go back and get more of it – provided they are still selling it.


If I go get more, say, a tong, this will actually be my first purchase in any real quantity of a Dayi product. It’s coming rather late in my tea career, but I suppose it’s never too late.

Categories: Teas
Tagged: ,

The vendor premium

January 6, 2012 · 20 Comments

This discussion happens once in a while with tea friends on and offline: what exactly is fair for a vendor to charge, and what, exactly, are they providing?

I guess first of all, we can account for the costs that a vendor has to pay to keep his or her business a going concern. This may involve a lot of costs, especially if there’s a physical store attached to the business. It might include labour, rent, electricity, water, local taxes and fees, certifications, etc etc. A store that exists only online is going to cost a lot less to run than a store that exists as a standalone teahouse in a small town, which will in turn be cheaper to run than say a shop with a nice locale and decor in an expensive city like Paris, London, or New York. The majority, I suspect, use the proceeds from online sales to subsidize their brick-and-mortar operation. Few, if any, go the other way around. Maintaining the internet store also costs money too, of course, as does the need to keep a merchant account with credit-card processing ability, website hosting (the cost of which, as I’ve discovered, is non-trivial), and other sundry outlays that are necessary to keeping up a store and running it as a business.

Then there are the costs that are necessarily associated with running a tea business. Storage, obviously, is a concern, and with that, the holding of physical inventory, which represents a time-value-of-money type of cost (holding, say, $10,000 worth of tea instead of treasury bonds costs real money, although you can argue about that point with regards to puerh). There are risks of spoilage, floods, fire, and whatever other natural disaster that may happen that can ruin the tea in question, so a certain, small amount of risk is involved, further increasing costs. Shipping the tea from wherever they’re sourced to the vendor’s own location obviously costs money too, and for tea there really aren’t many cheap, good ways to ship tea in bulk.

On top of that, some vendors may be spending a good amount of money traveling to get the tea to begin with. Some vendors seem to make multiple trips a year to faraway places in Asia, ranging from India, Malaysia, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and China. These trips, if undertaken from North America or Europe, are not exactly cheap, and presumably, all these costs are rolled into the cost of running the business. Some vendors probably buy most of their teas from wholesalers in their respective continents, but then, if you’re an avid reader of this blog, chances are you don’t patronize these vendors too often.

What I’ve described so far, I think, are most of the normal day-to-day costs of running a tea business for vendors based in the Western hemisphere. The question here, I think, is what exactly is the value-added from these vendors?

The first thing that comes to mind is, of course, that they are making teas available that are otherwise out of reach of the average Western consumer. Flying to Taiwan or China to buy oolongs or puerh is not exactly what most people do on a regular basis, so absent that, buying it from a vendor who’s doing it for you is probably not a bad idea. That service, of course, is worth something, but then, there are a number of vendors these days that are based in Asia and who are increasingly branching out to sell to the West, since everyone recognizes that there’s a market there for premium quality teas. Also, more and more consumers in the West are taking advantage of services such as various Taobao agents and buying more or less direct from Asia. So, “making teas available” alone is, I think, no longer a compelling reason for a high premium when vendors who are based on location can provide the same services without the extra cost of travel and airfare.

The second value-added service that vendors can claim to be doing is, of course, that they are selecting out the chaff from the wheat. There’s definitely some truth in this, as there’s plenty of chaff to go around, and as anyone who’s tried to buy tea blind from Taobao would know. Sampling crap costs real money, so yes, that’s work that deserves credit. At the same time though, it is still work that can be done by someone on location. Also, I’m sure many vendors, including those traveling to Asia, are only buying from shops there, instead of going all the way to the farms in all cases. In some cases, such as aged teas, this is a necessity, since they are all held by vendors of some sort or another. In other cases it could easily be the result of convenience and cost, or of the Longjing rule at work. Either way, there are oftentimes multiple layers of vendors between a tea and the end consumer. All of these costs – both the regular running costs, as well as whatever transaction and other value-added mentioned so far, are probably reflected in the prices that the consumer ends up getting charged. None, I think, is particularly valuable above and beyond what some vendor based in Asia can do.

This is why I think what Western vendors must be able to do is to provide exclusive access to teas that are rare or otherwise unobtainable, even if you were on location. In many cases, however, I think that exclusivity is only an illusion, present because of the lack of comparison and alternatives, not because the teas provided are truly unique, great, or both. Not too many people sell real first flush longjing, for example, or a well roasted tieguanyin of top flight quality, or a well aged, 10 or 20 years old puerh cake. If they have it, and you don’t have market access in Asia directly, chances are you can’t find it elsewhere.

In almost all these cases, there is always a tea that is similar enough that can be had elsewhere. Exclusivity is therefore a product of a dearth of selection, rather than a real shortage of teas. Among the selection that is available, very often I find the teas to be very mediocre, especially if they are aged teas of one type or another. Among the aged oolongs people have sent me samples of which were acquired from Western vendors, not a single one has been better than mediocre, with some being downright problematic or fake. The same can be said of pre-2000 puerh, with cakes that are available tending to be the 3rd tier goods that are sold in the Asian market – the top flight stuff are never offered online to Western drinkers, so they never have anything good to compare it against. Instead, what are basically rejects from the Asian market are sold as well aged teas, which is really a bit of a shame. The only exception to this that I’m aware of is my friend Tim of the Mandarin’s Tearoom, who really has some interesting teas, but then, as it will be obvious to anyone who visits his site (so hopefully he doesn’t stop talking to me forever for saying this), there are prices to match.

This feeling of inadequacy in terms of selection and dearth of information on such rarer teas has been reinforced since I got back to Asia this summer. Aged cakes of puerh from the 90s are everywhere, as long as you want them. Some are not very outrageously priced at all, and even late 80s cakes can be had for a relatively reasonable sum, providing that they are not hyped and famous, thus extremely expensive. Aged oolongs are never terribly expensive, if you know where to look and what to look for, but good ones take work to find. As for new teas, the range is endless, and as long as you’re willing to pay the price (which is not cheap these days with prices rising by the day in China), topflight tea is easily to be had.

I’m not sure where that leaves the average consumer without language or physical access. I guess the first thing to remember is that tea is not nearly as rare as vendors generally make them out to be. While some are indeed quite unique, if you spend time in the tea markets often you can end up with something similar within half a day of shopping. Vendors, I think, can do better in providing good quality tea at reasonable prices, given their constraints anyway, but consumers also need to work a little harder. By that, I mean that consumers need to think about what they’re drinking, and seek out alternatives to their usual vendor. Of course, how far anyone is willing to go in that direction is really an individual choice, but I think one’s experiences drinking tea will be that much richer if such issues are contemplated actively and assumptions, statements, and claims questioned. Obviously tea is a drink to be enjoyed, but at the level of connoisseurship, I think part of the enjoyment comes from critical evaluation of the teas in question.

Pursuing my last few lines from the previous post, I think chasing particular teas based on outside factors is quite dangerous, and lead you down a path of high prices and oftentimes disappointments. I just heard a story in a teahouse recently of a certain someone who “only drinks Red Label” (the 1950s puerh that now sells for $30,000 a cake). Well, sure enough, that person bought a bunch of fake or, at best, very inferior quality ones. Just like all those people who went out and bought particular cakes of puerh because so-and-so said it’s the greatest thing ever, many are now sitting on teas that are not necessarily very good and have barely appreciated above and beyond what has generally happened to the market in the past few years. Others follow this or that fad, and end up paying the most for whatever tea is “hot” at the moment, such as how jinjunmei, a rather mediocre black tea, was all the rage in the last two years and one jin of the tea was selling for over ten thousand RMB. All of these are rather senseless, and are mistakes that I think should be avoided if one were serious about drinking tea.

Categories: Teas
Tagged: ,

Loose 2010 Jingmai

January 3, 2012 · 1 Comment

One of the teas acquired on this trip, albeit in a very small quantity, is a little bag of this Jingmai 2010 loose puerh.


Jingmai is a nice area, with teas that are very fragrant and generally having a good body. It’s one of the more pricey teas out there, as regions go, although I very rarely buy it because I prefer teas from other places. Nevertheless, a good Jingmai is a pleasure, and this one is a good one. This is from a friend’s friend whom I met in Taipei this time, who has had a career in tea making/selling and is now semi-retired, as far as I can tell. Nevertheless, he still gets cakes made and sells them, and this Jingmai was one such production.


The tea is really quite nice in that it is full, complex, and long lasting. By now, whether a tea is good or not is usually quite immediately obvious – within a sip or two it is possible to tell between bad, ok, good, and great tea, and this is mostly in the last category. Teas like this are hard to find, whether among vendors online or off, and drinking it at the time and also this time at home, it ignites a sense of excitement in me that I haven’t had for a while, mostly because of the lack of time to drink good tea. Teas like this is why I keep drinking and searching for good tea.


Alas, there isn’t much of this tea left – only a small bag or so, as the man himself has sold the rest and only kept maybe half a kilo for his own consumption. Drinking tea that day with him and his friends, my tea friend, and MadameN, I could sense a calmness and satisfaction that is hard to find in a more commercial setting. That is the other thing about drinking good teas – one can’t be too greedy, for good teas, wherever they’re from, will eventually run out. The point is really to savour the moment and enjoy it, not chasing shadows that shape-shift and prove ever so elusive. Determined attempts in such elusive quests will only end in disappointments.

Categories: Teas
Tagged: ,