A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from February 2012

Dongguan tea shopping

February 29, 2012 · 6 Comments


Upon the recommendation of Nicolas, I decided to venture up north to the heart of world manufacturing and to see the Dongguan tea markets for myself. Alas, I underestimated the difficulties of traveling in this part of the world, and by the time I arrived it was too late to go shopping. One meal and some food poisoning later, by the time I arrived there the next morning, I was really pretty sick, and I’m surprised I didn’t collapse while there.

From my research, Dongguan has two major tea markets, and a whole host of smaller collections of tea shops here and there. I decided to hit up the older, and larger market in Wanjiang district. It’s about 15-20 minutes from town center, depending on where you are and the traffic, which, at times, can be quite bad. The day was rainy, and cold, and generally rather unpleasant. I only took one overexposed picture while there, since I was basically in no mood to do so, and the scenery was depressing.

As is rather common today in China, many of these places have extremely wide roads, with shops on both sides. Here, the teashops are generally one story, and are basically uninterrupted for a few blocks in each direction. The first rule of shopping in places like this, especially if you’re low on time, is not to walk into stores that look uninteresting, which basically means don’t walk into almost all of them. They all have the same features – puerh cakes lined up on one side, big bags (5kg bags, or some variation of it) of tieguanyin or other Fujian oolong on the other side, vacuum sealed. In the middle area between the two walls, there are usually shelves full of either teaware, pots, tables, or more tea. Or there might be boxes or jians of puerh, or other types of loose tea (although you can imagine what it does to the tea’s quality in this super-damp environment). The back wall usually has a tea table set up, with a very, very bored looking young person, often a female, but sometimes male, staring blankly out onto the street, backed by a wall of puerh cakes encased in either glass or, more likely, yellowed plexiglass and set in these yellow artificial silk lined boxes. Even though these cakes are supposedly the more “exotic” or higher valued cakes, often times they’re just more run of the mill puerh cakes of no discernable value.

It is not impossible to find value in these shops. But if you’re pressed for time, that’s not the best way to spend time in a tea market. Instead, look for shops that seems specialized in one particular type of tea, whatever it is that you’re looking for. For tieguanyin, stores that only sell tieguanyin is likely to have more interesting stuff.  Likewise, for puerh, if you want old tea, go to a store that seems to only sell that. For younger tea, you can always spot the top end young tea stores pretty easily, especially if they press their own cakes.

So after having spent about 20 minutes just wandering around, I finally did end up in one store that seems to do their own pressing of young puerh, focusing on Yiwu and Jingmai, two of the most interesting tea mountains. The boss wasn’t there, and only a young male shopkeeper who said he’s from Yunnan was there. They had a number of cakes, although most of them they only had a handful left – the rest were all sold out. What remains are the lower end stuff, which, although not cheap (180-200 RMB a cake) are really not very interesting. Because of my health limitations that day, I only tried one tea, which I eventually bought a cake of – a Jingmai old tree tea, which is very potent, good, and interesting. I need to try it again, but I think this year once their spring tea arrives, I may head back up to Dongguan and buy some more of this. Although it’s not cheap at over 400 RMB a cake, it is, I think, worth the price of admission.

By the time I had a few cups of this tea, I was starting to really feel the effects this had on me, and the general situation was so that I had to go back to the hotel to lie down. It’s too bad I couldn’t spend more time at the tea market there, as I’m sure there are other stores that will present items of interest. Oh well, it’s only about two hours away, and there’s always next time.

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Rules of engagement: Surviving in the tea world

February 21, 2012 · 29 Comments

*The following is my translation of a humourous post on the Chinese blog of the magazine Lifeweek. They claim this is taken from issue 660 of the magazine, although I can’t seem to find it in the table of contents of the issue.

1) First – tea leaves. Of course, you must understand the current trends really well, but you cannot simply be following whatever is fashionable. Everyone all know about yancha and zhengshan xiaozhong, so what you need to do is drink things like Oriental Beauty, or puerh that came back (to the Mainland) from Taiwan. If you must drink yancha, then it has to be tea that is from a famous maker. You cannot ever say anything about buying tea, as all the tea you drink must be gifted from friends or famous personages. If you don’t want to explain, you can simply put up pictures of you with said famous makers. If you must spend money to get tea, at least it has to be specially made tea, and not commercial grade stuff. Whether or not you can finish your tea collection in your current lifetime, you must have a lot of tea in your collection. When it comes to puerh, whatever “7542”, “88 Qing”, or “old square brick”, you must have all of them. Have ten different, large yixing jars each labeled with different years and storing puerh of different vintages, and then specially order some rosewood shelves specifically for the storage of puerh cakes. Prepare 30 different Jingdezhen porcelain jars from famous makers and store various kinds of famous dancong, yancha, and the like in them. These must be placed strategically so that when you take pictures they will form the background.

2) You must appear on various occasions where tea is evaluated. When you evaluate teas, you have to immediately and incisively point out the flaws in the tea you’re drinking, especially on the points of roasting techniques and aftertaste. If you accidentally said something as bland as “great fragrance and smooth mouthfeel” then you would have lost all effects from your appearance. If you can figure out which mountain, which hole, or which ditch this tea is from, all the better and you’ll score full points for that. At this juncture, you must go for the kill and not only do you need to point out whether this tea is from a certain ditch or not, but you have to tell us if it is from the edge of the ditch or the bottom of the ditch. This is a little more difficult, and newbies should avoid trying this at home.

3) You must redecorate a room in your house to make it your tea room. Rosewood furniture, supersized tea table are of course a plus. On the tea table you must have at least three different yixing pots, all made by famous artisans. The cups cannot be run of the mill either. Even though Taiwanese makers are now a bit old-fashioned, a few of those might be good, and you can always throw them onto the rack behind you and only explain their origins if someone asks. Small cups from Jingdezhen are always good to intersperse in your tea drinking, but if you can find qinghua or famille rose cups from Kangxi or Qianlong periods, then this is probably best. What you use to boil water cannot be mundane either. You must possess a few antique tetsubins from Japan. If you’re still using induction plates or alcohol burners to boil water for your tetsubin, then this is way too lame. You have to use a stove made with top grade red clay, and paired with olive-pit charcoal. At the same time, you must point out clearly that using olive-pit charcoal to boil water is not the same as using electricity. If you want extra credit, find some friend who’s from another province to provide you with mountain spring water from their region. Of course, such solutions can’t always work for you, but still you can’t just use regular purified water. If you can insist on driving 50km every week to a nearby mountain for water, that’ll add a lot of points.  Also, if you’re drinking tea at this level and you don’t burn incense, then you’re just not doing it right. The incense burner and storage cannot be any run of the mill objects, and the incense itself has to be agarwood. Over the course of a night you have to burn off an entire iPhone4S worth of agarwood incense. Moreover, you gotta learn how to play a guqin song. There needs to be a space in your tea room for a guqin, and when you host top flight tea people in your tea room, you play this song, and that will just be your killer move.

4) You have to have a full-frame SLR with a top flight zoom lens. Since you always have to upload your photos, such a camera setup is essential. All your pictures should be taken at night, the blurrier the better. The chaxi has to be changed constantly, and dead, dried out bamboo can add points to your setup. Unless you’re Chen Daoming or Zhang Jiayi, try not to show your face in the photos. A good way to do this is to only shoot a female hand with a cup, only showing hands and no faces. This way you are simultaneously mysterious while letting everyone know that you’re not some loser drinking tea by yourself at home.

5) Find a friend who’s good with writing, and ask him or her to help you compose 100 short poems and store on your computer. Whenever you need you can pair it with a photo and put it up on your twitter stream.

6) Finally, you have gotta have a title. At least you have to be a high level tea evaluator, or you can team up with a few friends and become some general secretary or trustee of some Chinese tea aficionado association or world tea alliance. Whenever you’re talking you have to mention Zen Buddhism, and have to invite all kinds of religious types to your home to drink tea, not to mention taking pictures with them. If you can get them to write you some calligraphy, all the better. If there are newbies who ask you how to brew tea, just say “I use the ancients as guide and simplicity as my way” and end it there.

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Caring for your pots

February 17, 2012 · 16 Comments

I remember taking early lessons, the only structured class I ever took on tea, when I first got seriously interested in tea.  One of the sessions was about how to care for your teapots, which, of course, is just a vendor’s way to sell you some pots.  The sessions were led by a more experienced drinker, a disciple, so to speak, of Vesper Chan, owner of Best Tea House. I still remember it was held in the Causeway Bay store of the chain, which is now long shuttered because the rent was supposedly too high. There were maybe four or five of us in that class, with the teacher showing us different kinds of pots, among which was one that she owned, something she called “Beauty’s shoulder”, which is really just a modified shuiping, similar to my dancong pot. It’s funny how important some of these early lessons in tea are, because for the next few years, at least, you’re pretty much stuck with them as the most important ideas you have about tea. They guide you through your early steps, and most likely, your early missteps as well. Like a toddler just learning how to talk, you first start by imitation, and then slowly, learn how to form your own sentences, and then your own train of thought. I was very much still imitating.

What I was told to imitate was the following:

1) Use only one type of tea per pot

2) Do not leave any tea leaves in a pot once you’re done with it – clear it out quickly, for fear of mold or bacteria

3) Clean the pot out with warm water

4) Never ever use detergent

5) When pouring water over the pot or pouring tea out of it, afterwards use a brush to brush off the excess tea/water so that you don’t find white mineral deposits around the lids, edges, or body of the pot

6) While the pot is still warm, use a damp cloth to rub the pot to clear it of stains, and also to make it shiny

7) Leave the lid open until the pot is completely dry, at which point close it

I think this more or less sums up what I was told. Now, of these rules, I really only follow 1, 4, 7, and only do 5 when I don’t feel too lazy. I find 2 to be only somewhat important so long as you clear the tea out soonish – say, within a day or two of finishing a session. 3 is completely unnecessary, I think – I just clear out all the tea leaves to the best of my abilities, and let it air dry. 6 I never do, because I feel that a shiny pot is an ugly pot.

On the other hand, of the rules that I do follow, 1 I mostly follow out of habit, and I no longer believe there’s any real reason to do it. Perhaps the residual taste of the last tea does affect what you’re brewing now, but I think that’s, at best, a very minimal effect, not enough to really affect anything. Rule 4, on the other hand, is cardinal, and shall never be broken, because a pot with an artificial detergent lemon aroma is really not what you’re after. Rule 7, likewise, is extremely important – I have been to teashops where the shopkeeper do NOT keep their lids open when the pot is still wet. I open the pot, and smell the empty and still damp pot, and oftentimes I can detect the smell of mold. Trust me, it’s not pretty, and yet when I tell these shopkeepers, they usually just ignore it. I cannot understand why, but I don’t think I’ll ever bring myself to use a pot like that.

I have also learned the hard way why one should never leave spent leaves or just liquid tea in a pot to season the thing – because you will, inevitably, forget about one of them, and they will fester, and grow mold, and when you open that pot, with that gooey, three weeks old oolong sitting in there, smelling like a really sickly sweet smell (which, by the way, almost tempted me to try it) and then coming out looking more like glue. It’s not pretty.

Ultimately, all of these rules are just so that you can make a better cup of tea. For things that I think are superfluous, such as rubbing the pot and such, I no longer practice because I think they achieve nothing (in the case of rubbing, they achieve the opposite of what I want). So, these lessons do offer something, but at the same time, there are no lessons like the ones you learn on your own.

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Two Wuyi yancha

February 14, 2012 · 6 Comments

I often get offers of samples, ranging from friends who want me to try something, to companies that want me to taste teas and then write about them.  I often reject the latter, because I don’t have that much time drinking random samples, and also because a lot of them fall into the “butterscotch vanilla cucumber raspberry rooibos” category, of which I’m definitely not knowledgeable and cannot give any decent, encompassing review.

Once in a while, though, I get offers that I’ll take up. Recently, I was contacted by the folks who run this company called Vicony Teas, which I have never heard of but looks interesting enough. They seem to be a wholesaler of sorts, based in China, that deals in relatively large quantities. The website is not exactly the most user friendly, but then, if you’re in the market for kilos of teas, then you’re probably not going to be daunted by the trouble.

The teas I was sent were two Wuyi teas, which, from what I was told, they do not produce themselves. Since they’re located in the Huangshan area in Anhui province, they’re really in green tea country. The Wuyi teas are, therefore, sourced from somewhere else, and sold through them. The teas I got were a rougui (WYA53) and a shuixian (WYA21). I tried both twice – once as a standalone tasting, and once together in competition cups.

I first tried the rougui, using a pretty generous amount of leaves and my usual setup.


The tea is actually quite nice – a little bitter, but otherwise potent and clean tasting. It’s not highly roasted – I’d call it a medium roast, with a decent amount of activity and fragrance. More importantly, you do get a bit of that “spice” taste that rougui is supposed to give you.


The next day I tried the shuixian. Shuixian runs the gamut from really cheap crap to really high end, nice tasting tea. However, generally shuixian tend to be thinner/weaker than proper Wuyi teas of other types.  It’s not really the fault of the tea – just the way it is.


This tea, however, came out a little worse in comparison with the rougui – I found it to contain more “off” flavours, especially sourness. It has a sour edge to it that the rougui does not have. It’s not bad in that it is too sour, but I suspect it got moist/damp at some point, and the sourness crept in. If I had to pick, I’d drink the rougui.



Since they gave me enough tea for another tasting, I used my competition cups and tried them side by side. I think my initial feelings are largely confirmed – I like the rougui more, for its roundness and its fullness. The shuixian is more edgy, and not in a particularly good way. Both teas, you can tell, are among the better Wuyi teas out there – clean, nice fragrance, full mouthfull, etc, but one’s just better than the other.

So it was with some surprise that when I asked for the prices, it turned out that the shuixian is more expensive than the rougui. The rougui is at 180 USD/kg, and the shuixian at 220. At that point, the choice becomes pretty clear – if I want either, I’d take the rougui. The price is not outrageous – after all, you’re buying kilos, so the cost does get lower. If kept well, I’d imagine they will store well. You might want someone to split the order with you though, if you were to try to buy some.

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Uneven love

February 9, 2012 · 5 Comments


I got this pair of pots recently, and haven’t had a chance to use them, clean them, or do anything with them yet. They’re an intriguing pair, because of the clay, and the work. As my regular readers would know, I normally prefer pots that are on the rough side, that show the artisan’s workmanship, and sometimes, of previous owners’ attachment to them. This pair, like many of my other pots, show another interesting thing: uneven use over time.



The one on the left has received far more attention from its previous owner than the one on the right, which, although having some stains, is really quite lightly used. As a result, you can see, much more clearly, the shrink lines on the left pot. It is even more obvious when you lift the lid, and see inside – the interior of the left one is far, far darker than the right one, which only has a light dusting of tea patina. It’s not obvious to me why the previous owner preferred one to the other, although I suppose one gets used to a certain pot and just keeps using it. I suspect that if I were to use these, I might end up doing the same.

I guess what interests me, at the end of the day, with these pots is that each one, in its own way, seems to tell a story. At least, I can imagine a story being told by them, which is why I like them over pots that are new and perfect – in those cases, the pots lose their personality and become a mere vessel in which to brew tea. These two pots are imperfectly fired – there are air bubbles on the interior of the pot, but since they’ve been subjected to frequent use, I’m going to assume that things were just fine. Care, such as warming the pots slowly, must of course still be exercised.


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The faith in old trees

February 3, 2012 · 11 Comments

Before I go on – it just occurred to me that my blog is now six years old. It isn’t a very long time, but longer than I probably thought when I first started this venture. Thank you all for your continued support.

I’m reading this book called “The Plan for Reviving the Chinese Tea Industry” 中國茶業復興計劃, written by Wu Juenong and Hu Haochuan  in 1935. Wu was a patriot and an agronomist, while Hu was a tea expert who specialized in Qimen hongcha. Back then, the Chinese tea industry was in a real slump, losing out to India, Ceylon, and Japan on the world market, and with the economy in poor shape, the domestic market was also shrinking. War, of course, would soon tear this plan (and any other) to pieces, and the Chinese tea industry would go on a decades long decline until more recently. In this plan, they set out to list the problems of the Chinese tea industry, tried to explain the decline, and proposed things that they thought could help revive the ailing state of affairs. It all makes for a pretty interesting read.

One section that struck me while I was reading though is in the first chapter titled “Irregularities in production, sales, and operations”. In the section on problems in cultivation, the authors listed one issue as “the aging of tea trees.” In our view these days, aging of tea trees is a blessing, not a curse, but of course, their perspective is a little different. I present you the section, roughly translated, below:

4) The aging of tea trees

The cultivation of tea has a long history. Many of the tea trees in existence are either decades old, or so old that we no longer know their age. Although currently we do not yet have the ability to determine at what point does a tea tree’s quality begin to decline and turn bad, but the fact that old tea trees produce poorer quality tea is indisputable. An especially known fact is that the production volume declines and is no longer fit for enterprise. This is a topic worthy of serious research. After all, although we cannot say that a perpetual plant such as tea has any type of “anti-local” effect, but it is clearly observable that there are signs of retardation among plants that have grown from seed to plant for generations on the same plot of land. Sichuan is the origin of the tea plant, but ever since the Tang dynasty whenever one names famous teas, Sichuan is not listed among them. During the Tang and the Song dynasties, among the famous producing regions such as Yonghu (modern day Hunan province), Qinmen (modern day Hubei province), Shuzhou (modern day Anhui province), Guzhu (modern day Zhejiang province), Yangxian (modern day Jiangsu province)… they have all faded from the glories of yore. As for Huoshan in Anhui, or Wuyi in Fujian that have long enjoyed their fame, these are rare and unique among tea producing regions. As for modern day Longjing in Zhejiang, or Huizhou in Anhui, are all latecomers. Qimen, which is part of Anhui, only really became famous for tea in the past few decades.

This passage makes me wonder – clearly, productivity is a concern for older trees, and I think the same thing happens for grape vines, which is why vinters replant their vines every few years. In Taiwan, at least, I know farmers often replant their oolong trees for the same reason, to preserve productivity because younger trees yield more. Yet, if we believe what we are currently told, then old trees = better teas, in which case men like Wu and Hu were, in fact, destroying good teas by chasing after yields.

I think the situation here might be a bit analogous to organic food – oftentimes, organic food can indeed taste better, not necessarily because it is organic, but also because it is farmed with more care and attention from the farmer, whereas the industrially produced stuff gets relatively less care and comes out not tasting as good. Yet, if all the farms in the world go organic, then a lot of people will starve, because the yield from such farms tend to be lower, with more losses and less production because of the very nature of the farming method. Likewise, winemakers often advertise when they use old vines for a wine, labeling it vieilles vignes for example, to let us know that it is made from old vines, with the implication that this makes better wine. Tea makers are also doing that, most notably with puerh but also increasingly with other types of tea, telling us that this or that is made with old tree teas. But old tree teas don’t produce as much, which, of course, is part of the reason why they are more expensive.

I suspect that this day and age, especially after the ravages of collectivization, there are very few old tree teas left in many of the major tea producing areas in China. What’s left are likely to be destroyed, unless held in private hands, so comparison between the two tend to be difficult, if not impossible. With puerh, I think it is safe to say that there’s a difference between old tree and non-old tree teas. Whether that difference is good or not, however, is really up for debate, as different people have different theories. Old trees, however, command much higher prices, even as raw leaves. It does, then, feed back into the self-fulling loop because if you were a tea processor, and you have a kilo each, one of which costs a lot more to procure, you’re likely to put more care into processing the bag that cost more. This, in turn, may result in better tea simply because you were paying more attention, thus fueling the speculation that old tree teas taste better, thus further driving up the prices. Of course, this is all speculation, but it is nevertheless worth thinking about. After all, Wu and Hu noted that there were quality issues that are distinct from yield issues; it’s too bad that they didn’t say what kind of quality problems there were with such teas.

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