A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from April 2012

Broken to the core

April 29, 2012 · 7 Comments



This is a nice pot. Alas, it’s not one I can use.


Wudesheng was a yixing workshop that produced pots during the Republican period, and it was shut down after WW2 began. The seal used here probably dates it to the 20s, before they switched to the more famous “Jinding shangbiao” (Golden Tripod Brand) seals.

I bought it as a reference piece – to learn about different clays, and to see its construction. The clay is “muddy”, almost. You can see how the clay used to be a paste-like substance. Somebody, at some point, broke it – maybe because it had a few air bubbles and just cracked, maybe because it was slammed on a surface and just shattered, I don’t know. What I do know is that it is now very fragile, held together by the top part of the pot which is still, miraculously, staying together, even though the skin of the pot is very thin. I suspect that if I want to get it repaired, it has to be thoroughly broken first before it can be repaired, but given its very thin-skinned nature, I fear that once destroyed, it’s not going to stay in its shape at all and instead revert to pieces of clay. The lid, on the other hand, is intact. Perhaps one of these days, if I ever run into a julunzhu without a lid, I can use this one.

Categories: Objects

The learning curve

April 26, 2012 · 30 Comments

If you are serious about tea, meaning that you are spending time thinking about the teas you’re drinking, learning about their nuances, and doing things like reading this blog, then chances are you have discovered that there’s a pretty steep learning curve to tea drinking in general, and puerh teas in particular. With any kind of tea this is hard enough – the different types of teas that exist, with different locations of origins, processing, and grades. The different ways to brew them, and what water to use with what, and the brewing parameters. There are so many moving parts that to say that you have “mastered” tea in any form is a claim that can serve as Exhibit A of human hubris. There’s always a learning process, and there’s always something you can discover about a tea you’ve already had many times before. This is what makes the hobby fun.

There are, however, ways to speed up the learning process and allow you to delve deeper into the art and science of tea appreciation on various levels. What triggered the writing of this particular post is a recent tea session I had at one of the stores in Hong Kong that sells puerh. Over the course of an afternoon, I drank, with some of my friends, about five or six teas. The youngest of the lot was from 1998, and the oldest was about 30 years old. The fact of the matter is, for tea drinking in general, and puerh in particular, it is important to sample a wide range before you really have a clear idea of what’s out there, and what’s possible given the complexity of teas. The tea aficionado is really building a mental library of teas that s/he can recall and compare against. In so doing, s/he is learning about the different teas and whether something is good, bad, or just different.

Likewise, for aging teas, it is crucial to know what you’re trying to get to before you even know what you’re aging for. I see people talking about building their young puerh collection hoping to age them into something great, except the only aged teas they have had may be some third rate 1990s teas that are, at best, poorly stored, or sometimes even none at all. This is not to poo-poo those who have not had the opportunity to try these things, but if you haven’t had a properly aged tea from a variety of storage conditions and starting points, how would you even know what you’re trying to get to? Is it a “wetter” taste that you’re after, or do you want a dry stored taste? Do you want something sweet, or something smokey? We had a brick from 1997 that was still, even as I drank it with the friends a few days ago, extremely powerful. It was strong, smokey, very active, and got us all tea drunk. It was, in other words, a very potent tea, but even now, 15 years after production, it is still too harsh to drink. Sure, it has great aging potential, but how many 15 years do you have that you can just hold on to these things forever? When new, the tea must have been extremely smokey and also super-strong – to the point where many might give up on it all together. Also, keep in mind that this brick has been aged 15 years in Hong Kong, a pretty hot and humid condition. If it’s aged in, say, Chicago, how long would it take to just get the tea to its current condition as I tried it? More than 15 years, I can guarantee you. Then what?

The same can be said of aged oolongs. Many aged oolongs I’ve seen for sale, both in Asia and online, are really terrible teas that have been roasted to death. They are not so much aged but charcoalized. They’re sweet and nice, sure, but they’re also not what I’d consider a great aged oolong, which should be fragrant, active, and isn’t one dimensional. For example, how much sourness is acceptable, and how much is too much? Sure, individual taste plays a part in this, but there’s also some basis for a universal yardstick. Alas, unless you’ve walked through Taipei and tried dozens of aged oolongs from different stores, ranging from the amazing to the terrible, it is impossible to say with any kind of certainty “this is a great aged oolong”.

What I want to say is that while it may be very tempting to just drink lots and lots of new teas and read other people’s blogs, books, and magazines to learn about tea, there’s nothing that will prepare you for a lot of these deeper questions except personal experience. One could theorize all they want with regards to aging potential, durability, etc, but a crucial question is – what will it age into? Is it going to be soft and sweet? Harsh and smokey? Fragrant and floral, or woody and deep? There are many possible endpoints (unknown) in addition to the infinite starting points (known). Unless you have tried many potential endpoints, how, if at all, can you determine which start points link up with which endpoints?

So the life of the foreign tea aficionado is made considerably harder by the lack of availability of good, aged teas, which are distinctly absent from the market. For example, how many versions of Menghai factory (not some other imitation) 7542s from 2000 or before are there on the market? In what condition? How about 8582? Or 7582, of which I bought one cake while shopping, and which one of my friends said “this will be an interesting reference piece”? Or how about Xiaguan’s 8653 from the 80s and 90s? Here you can find them ranging from dry to very wet, with different batches (which all taste somewhat different, if you pay attention) and with varying quality. I certainly haven’t figured it all out – not by a long stretch, but I feel at least I am lucky to have access to things like this, through stores that sell them and friends who have them. It greatly flattens the learning curve of figuring out aging of tea and what not. When your access to old tea is limited to second string products and, in many cases, discards from the Asian market, what does that mean for your learning of how to age teas?

Alas, I don’t think there’s much to be done in the way of solving this problem. This post is, unfortunately, a negative one – I don’t have any solutions to propose, other than to try more tea, except that the availability of old teas is such that this is not really possible as an option. I can count on one hand the outfits that offer aged teas for sale, and of these, I think only one or two are actually worth bothering with. So, until then, I’d advise travel to parts of Asia with good, aged teas, as a temporary remedy. There really aren’t many other ways, unfortunately.

Categories: Teas
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2011 Fall Tea Urchin Gaoshanzhai

April 19, 2012 · 20 Comments

I recently had a sample exchange with Eugene, writer of the Tea Urchin blog and owner of the webstore of the same name that sells young puerh, many of which with maocha he sourced himself. At the time, I wasn’t aware that the store was already open for business, so I asked if I could buy some samples. We ended up trading tea instead, with me supplying some teas from my own stash, and him giving me a pretty generous haul of tea from his various offerings. I think I made it out of this exchange in the positive.

The range of teas that are new and available is vast. They can go from the most run of the mill mass produced teas, to high end, hand made, old tree teas. There are, of course, a great chasm between the two, and unfortunately many of the old tree teas actually properly belong to things that are in between, or even wholly on the mass produced side. I have heard many stories of tea farmers selling adulterated maocha to people, mixed with different kinds of teas, and unless you really know what you’re doing, very often such mixed teas or even more inferior ones will make it into erstwhile old tree cakes. Clearly, the offerings from the Tea Urchin, at least those of his own pressing, are at the high end of the market.


Although this is the first time I’m writing about Tea Urchin’s tea, this isn’t the first sample I had. I already drank four or five of them, and for this 2011 Fall Gaoshanzhai, I tried it twice. I’m not myself a great fan of fall teas these days, and will generally try to avoid them if there’s something available from the spring. In this case, however, a sample can’t hurt.

The leaves are certainly good looking, and they look robust and thick, which is a good sign.


The tea itself also brews a nice, thick liquor, with a good aroma that is straight out of Gaoshanzhai, which is probably my favourite Yiwu village in terms of aroma, even though Guafengzhai teas are often better overall. The tea, I think, really is quite good. The first time I used lots of leaves, the second time less, and I think in some ways, using a little less leaves does bring out the higher notes more, although for the physical sensations of drinking the tea, a heavier dose is often preferred.

Prices for old tree teas have been going one way only – up. This year the prices of maocha has gone up yet again, partly due to a drought in Yunnan, supposedly, but mostly I think has to do with the insatiable demand for such teas. Another problem, of course, is that many so called old tree teas are anything but, sometimes with a small mixture of lesser leaves, sometimes it is an outright fraud. I think in this case, the tea does show what I understand to be old tree teas. Prices here, of course, also reflect that. Unfortunately, you can’t really find decent Yiwu teas at anything less than about $80 USD a cake these days.


Now that samples are easily available from his website, I think it’s worth your time to try it out. $7 for 30g is not terrible, and you can do a lot worse than this if you’re looking for a young puerh.

Categories: Teas

2006 Jasmine sheng minituo

April 18, 2012 · 1 Comment

No, the title is not a joke.


I got this bag of minituo from a friend back in 2006 while I was doing research in Beijing. The friend is not a tea drinking friend, but I appreciated the gift nonetheless. Having said that, I never actually worked up the courage to try it. I remember when I first got it, I could smell the jasmine pretty clearly from the bag, even though it was pretty well sealed. The minituos then sat in the bag for six years, and was recently retrieved from my storage because Lew of Babelcarp wanted to try it. Well, why not? You gotta try everything once. I figured I’ll give it a go too.

I grandpa’ed the tea, since I was expecting the worst – a cross, perhaps, between a nasty stale green tea and an awful artificial jasmine. I didn’t really want to risk it by going heavy with a gaiwan, and this thing certainly isn’t going to see the inside of any of my teapots. The thing took a little while to loosen up, and once loose, it mostly stayed at the bottom of the cup, with a few stems that look like they came from a Japanese sencha floating upward. The brew was darkish, and surprisingly drinkable, probably because I only used one minituo for a large mug. More, and I think the tea might have been nasty. There is a jasmine scent, but it’s not too strong and entirely bearable.

Not surprisingly, contrary to its claims of using top quality tea, the leaves were chopped beyond belief.


I think I also spy some grain husks and other random objects in there that isn’t quite properly tea. Oh well, who knows what it is. It was drinkable enough that I didn’t immediately want to throw the rest of the bag away. Maybe I’ll try it again in six years.

Categories: Teas
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The value of old tea

April 13, 2012 · 3 Comments

I had an opportunity to drink some old tea the other day with the King of pots and some others. It was an interesting experience, going through the decades and trying something that’s your grandfather’s age. During the conversation, one of the things that inevitably comes up is the price of tea – how much such a tea might be worth on the market now, for example, and how much standard bearers like the Red Label is going for these days. A well stored, well aged Red Label might cost something like $200k HKD (prices vary wildly depending on who you talk to, condition of the tea, etc), which is about $25000 USD. Per gram, we’re talking about $70/gram, so a pot of Red Label using 10g of tea is probably going to set you back about $700 these days. Antique teas that are older than 1950 are going to cost you three or four times more. So, at what point is a pot of tea worth $700, or even $2500?

Nicolas’ notes on the Blue Label captures this really well – he thinks the tea he had is probably 10 times better than a 2010 tea, but the cost is 200 times more. Is it worth it then? By that measure, probably not, although by that measure, the only tea anyone should ever drink is probably a nice, dependable Yunnan black tea that costs $5 a pound. So clearly something else is going on here.

I think one of the things that we love as tea drinkers is the variety that teas offer, and there is a premium that we pay for access to that variety. It can come in the form of different types of tea, different terroir, different season, different processing, and different ages. Of these, however, the price differential is quite wide, and age is, by far, the most expensive type of “variety” that anyone pays for. Is it then worth it to buy very old teas?

The answer to that clearly depends on whether or not you have money sitting around. As Nicolas mentioned, if you have lots of money, then buying a tea like the Blue Label is no problem. If you only earn $30000 a year, then buying a tea like that is pretty stupid. Given a choice between a family vacation and the tea, the person who has to choose may very well choose the vacation. For the person who can have both, however, that is no longer a problem.

I think as tea lovers it is very easy to fall into the trap of wanting a particular tea badly because others have told you it’s great, or it’s special, or some such. While many of the much older teas are out of reach of the ordinary drinkers, the impulse is to go for everything that is available and priced reasonably. The problem, at least for my readership here, is this: the supply of good, reliable, well stored old tea to the English speaking population is really very limited, much of it more or less discards from the Asian market, or at least the second tier stuff. The reason is quite simple – because the market that can bear such prices remains primarily in Asia, and I think many people would balk at paying, say, $1000 for a cake of 90s tea. Yet for the more famous makes, that’s what the market rate is. Even for early 2000s teas that are well known, prices are also astronomical. As I mentioned recently, a big market for expensive teas is the gift market here. For them, cost is not really a problem, and may in fact be a good thing. For the tea lover who actually wants to drink the tea (as opposed to hoard it for profit) this is very much a problem indeed.

One solution is to try to find the odd bargain that can be had here and there, through channels such as Yunnan Sourcing or Taobao – teas that are essentially still cheap because they’re not famous and yet still retains a good quality. To be able to do that and to discern quality in not-famous teas, however, is no easy task. This is further compounded by the lack of good, aged teas for comparison purposes. If you don’t even really know for sure what a well aged puerh that’s 20 years old tastes like, how can you pick out a good 5 years old tea?

While I can probably afford at least something from an earlier period, increasingly I find myself not wanting to spend such sums, preferring instead to use it for other things. There are simply too many substitution goods out there for me to find it worthwhile to chase down earlier teas that are great in some way or another. For $2000 I can buy a good cake of say early 90s tea, or I can use it for a variety of things such as kilos of good aged oolongs, and a decent teapot, and a gift for MadameN, and a trip to Taiwan, all together. Do I really want that early 90s cake that badly? I personally don’t, even if I have the money to spare. I can’t even say I’ll enjoy the puerh more than I do the aged oolong, so why should I spend that much money on such things? I also derive great pleasure in the act of hunting down teas and finding things that are out of the way. If I really want that cake, I can march down to the shop tomorrow and buy it, but I’d rather find obscure teas that are good. Maybe that’s what distinguishes those of us who treat this as a hobby and those who take it more as an investment or a business. We do it for love, not treasure.

Categories: Information
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Loot from Kyoto

April 8, 2012 · 6 Comments

Kyoto is really a lovely town, and is one of my favourite places on the planet. They are filled with tourists, yes, and they live, more or less, off the tourists, but it is because of their charm that cities like Kyoto or Venice really are able to preserve at least some of their flavour that most other places have thoroughly lost – even the old districts of Beijing are slowly dying, because of the lack of preservation and the encroachment of new economic developments, which have spawned massive, unlivable blocks of monumental buildings instead of the very human-scaled neighbourhoods that used to characterize the city. Kyoto, thankfully, has mostly maintained that.

As you can probably guess, I just made a trip to Japan for the past few days, and tried, at least a little bit, to work some tea related activities in there among all the sightseeing. It started, in a certain sense, right after I got off the plane and onto the train from the Chubu airport – Tokoname (yes, that Tokoname) is, unbeknownst to me, right across the water from the airport and was the first stop of the train.


I must admit to having neither interest nor time in getting off the train to see the kilns, but next time, I guess I’ll know where to go.

It was cherry blossom season, although after an unusually cold winter and a freak windstorm the day before I arrived, most of the trees weren’t blooming yet, although some were. There are actually more cherry blossom trees in places like Vancouver, where they pretty much line every street and the city turns into a sea of pink during spring, but it doesn’t have temples like these.


I did stop by a few tea places, one of which is Ippodo, which I understand lots of folks like to buy tea from online.


They have a shop, and a cafe on the side of the shop (enter through main door). Here’s the menu:

I was traveling with companions, and so I got to try more than one thing. There was a spring special (not seen here) menu as well. I had the Nodoka matcha from that menu, and someone else had the organic sencha. They seem to have an A and B version, but since A is sold out, I presume I tried the B. The organic sencha is very good, with a deep, robust taste and solid mouthfeel. Anyone who’s read this blog with any regularity knows I’m not exactly a sencha fan, so for me to like a sencha is indeed a pretty rare thing. I didn’t buy any though, since I know if I bought any I wouldn’t finish most of it in time for them to be fresh – stale sencha is really not my cup of tea.

Kyoto also has a lot of antique shops scattered around, and Teramachi, where Ippodo is located, has a number of them. I ended up taking home a Republican era pot for a reasonable sum of money. Later in the day, I also found the perfect coaster for pots, made of rattan, in a random teaware shop that has been around since 1870 that I ran into near Daitokuji, which itself is, in my opinion anyway, a must-see site of Kyoto, although one could say that about many of the sites in the city.




The rattan coaster, in particular, is something I’ve been seeking for a while now. Those things are hard to find. It’s probably only in places like Kyoto where you can run into a 140 years old shop selling high quality teaware while randomly strolling along an otherwise nondescript street. There was, alas, no time for more extensive tea or teaware shopping this trip, as I was on a pretty tight schedule. It would’ve been nice, for example, to see Uji again, but that will have to wait till another day.

I also stopped by Osaka, which offers no such luck in finding items. Metropolis though it is, the antique shops located in the Oimatsu area are extremely disappointing – only two offers any kind of collection of teaware. One was mostly junk, the other being extremely overpriced. Kyoto, it seems, is hard to beat, and I’ll have to go back there for some more sooner rather than later.

Categories: Objects
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The best tea-at-work companion

April 3, 2012 · 11 Comments

I think it is safe to say that, us being all tea addicts of some sort or another, that we have to drink tea every day. The result of no tea can be quite painful, literally, and going anything longer than maybe 36 hours without tea is not something I’d advice you do. Since I get home quite late on most days, drinking tea at home after I get back is not normally a practical solution. Since I don’t get up early enough either, the only solution to proper caffeine update during the day is to drink at work.

I know lots of you drink tea at work. Some bring in what looks like a full gongfu set, with gaiwan, water source, a tray, and some cups. Others bring in modified sets with a few elements missing, but good enough for drinking. Or, you can just grandpa it.


This is what passes for work setup for me. It actually works surprisingly well, and as long as you pick the right teas, it can yield decent results. In my cup right now is a lightly roasted Taiwanese oolong. Yesterday it was some aged tieguanyin that performs remarkably well in grandpa style. One thing I’ve been doing lately is that I drink the entirety of the cup when I am drinking the aged tieguanyin, and then right before I leave for work, I fill it up with boiling hot water and close the lid. The next day when I come in, the tea’s brewed again, with a nice brown colour, and a pleasant, sweet taste that is very typical of nice, aged oolongs. You should all try it sometime, even after a long gongfu session. It’s a great way to finish a tea.

Categories: Teas
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