A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from June 2012

Taiwan in Yunnan

June 27, 2012 · 10 Comments


Someone recently gave me this box, containing 5 packs of 10g each of a tea that I’ve never heard of before. The tea is called Jibian Wulongcha, which literally means “Extreme border oolong tea”. Jibian, in this case, is a brand name, and if you look at the back of the box, you’ll find that they say the tea is made from qingxin wulong, also sometimes known as ruanzhi wulong (and misspelled as luanze, from what I can tell), but the location of production is Yunnan province of China. These are, in other words, Taiwanese tea trees transplanted in Yunnan. In fact, the little red thing next to the logo tells you it’s from Tengchong gaoshan, not too far from Gaoligongshan and other high mountains of the Southwest. Someone, probably a Taiwanese investor, has obviously got the idea of making Taiwanese oolongs in Yunnan province.



The pictures’ colours are a little off – it’s difficult to get the white balance just right. However, I can tell you that it is almost impossible to distinguish this tea from any run of the mill regular Taiwanese gaoshan oolong. Certainly the leaves are slightly less rolled than the typical Taiwanese oolong these days, but right from the get go, when you open the little pack, you can smell that distinct Taiwanese oolong scent. The tea itself also tastes slightly off – something is a little different, with a bit of a spicy finish, something you don’t normally find in a Taiwanese tea. However, if I wasn’t warned that this tea is not from Taiwan, there’s basically no way I would have guessed that this is tea from Yunnan. It’s not bad, it’s just different.


There has been a lot of talk in recent years about how there are farms in Vietnam, for example, that were started by Taiwanese merchants selling these teas back to Taiwan as gaoshancha. They can be quite authentic tasting, at least initially, and only reveal their true colours upon closer inspection. There’s also Zealong, which is the same thing, basically, but in New Zealand, with a really clean finish and a fairly bright taste, although at a hefty price. What this tea here does is the same, except they’re making it to probably sell to the Mainland China market.

One of the things this tea shows though is that much of what you drink and taste, in terms of scent, mouthfeel, etc, are very easily manipulated and that people who know what they’re doing, with the right technology and skills, can easily replicate a tea that you think is unique to one region. While there are subtle differences that can be distinguished if you pay close attention, if this tea were sold without packaging, in loose form, in a store in Taiwan, I’d be hard pressed to say I can tell that it is not from Taiwan.

This is why it is almost futile to try to identify teas based mostly on scent and taste. So much of it can be fudged that there is actually very little that one can rely on with any type of precision. It is true that it is possible, for example, to try to use those factors to help identify whether or not a tea is from a certain area or not, but when something comes out of left field, such as Yunnan tea trying to imitate Taiwan tea, it is actually quite difficult to tell what it is, and all kinds of clues can lead you astray. When people use teas from other areas to imitate Yiwu, for example, they are also imitating the processing techniques prevalent in the Yiwu region that give the tea there its taste and scent. The same can be said of other locales, and in this day and age, there isn’t a lot that is secret in terms of tea processing techniques, unless it’s a new invention that hasn’t been widely disseminated yet.

Just because a tea is from the right area doesn’t mean it’s going to be better either. There are plenty of terrible Taiwanese oolongs out there, and many good ones too. This Tengchong area tea might still need some work, but Zealong, for example, can beat many Taiwanese oolongs out there, although not necessarily at that price. The point is, it is much more important to chase after good teas than it is to chase after good regions – the former is tangible, real, and get to the point. The latter is just a label. As we all know, never judge a book by its cover.

Categories: Teas
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Changing tastes

June 22, 2012 · 4 Comments

One of the most profound changes in the drinking of teas in Southern China in the past few decades has been the gradual shift from darker, heavier roasted oolongs to lighter, more floral and less roasted teas. The former can be anything from completely carbonized, black as charcoal teas to ones that are more orange than brown. The range of colours of roasted teas can be seen in this post of mine from a little while back, when I tried three different teas with varying levels of roasting and blending. These are not representative, but at least give you a sense of what can be out there.

Such roasted teas, however, are increasingly hard to find, at least ones that are done well. Farmers and vendors in mainland China tend not to carry any such teas, and when they do, they are either very expensive and sold as specialty items, or very bad, or both. Instead, most of the time you find oolongs that are completely unroasted, that are somewhere between lime green and nuclear green in colour, either dry or brewed, and which are extremely fragrant. Some are so “fresh” they need to be kept in fridges, which makes you wonder what people used to do before fridges were possible.

Now, all of this is partly because of newer technology, new ability to process teas, and the shifting of tastes that make these light, floral oolongs so popular. The advent of vacuum packing for teas means that even teas with high moisture content can be kept fresh for far longer than possible in the old days, so roasting becomes less necessary. The teas themselves also went through changes, with the leaves being rolled much more tightly than before due to the use of machines rather than hand, and stems now tend to be kept with the leaves (as you always see on gaoshan oolong) rather than clipped off the way they used to. All these changes are a result of technological innovations that took place since the 1970s, and allowed for the change in consumption pattern and preferences among the tea drinking public to take place.

Of course, the people drinking the tea also changed this as well – it is much more attractive, for example, to drink a tea that is extremely fragrant. A fresh tasting oolong, whether it is gaoshan oolong from Taiwan or a spring pick tieguanyin from Fujian, tend to be very up front and immediate these days. They assault your senses, especially the nose, and they are very approachable. The fragrance lures people in, and is very popular with those who don’t drink tea very seriously. They are also easier to create – you can basically skip all the steps of roasting and re-roasting, which also means less cost for the farmer. Less work for more money? Sounds like a great deal.

Consequently, the number of places that do proper roasted teas are slowly dwindling, and places that still use charcoal to roast are even less common. Some of that is due to cost and regulations – in Hong Kong, for example, it is pretty much impossible to charcoal roast anymore, because of both fire-code restrictions and also the cost of land and labour. In Taiwan such practices are still possible, whether in weird oven arrangements like I blogged about a few days ago, or oftentimes done in farmhouses up in the hills. However, in general, it’s hard, backbreaking work. In the summer the heat itself will kill you. The few places that still do roasting in Hong Kong tend to use electric roasting techniques, which carry a slightly different fragrance and can taste a little metallic. For the most part though, such skills are dying.

At the same time, recently there’s been a little bit of a revival in the taste of the consumers, with roasted teas seeing a little more press time and also interest than before. One of the things with the super-green type of oolong is that over the long run, they can be very harsh to drink. They are also, relatively speaking, rather boring – once you get past the first few infusions, the tea generally doesn’t hold much interest, and for those who are into tea, such single-dimensional taste can be quite boring. Roasted teas, on the other hand, can be much more soothing to drink and tend to have longer-lasting tastes. They are not quite an acquired taste like puerh, but are certainly less immediately alluring than floral oolongs. At the same time, they do tend to attract those who have spent some time with tea.

One of the shops that I frequent in Hong Kong had some interview done recently in a local food and drink magazine, and since then, he said that business has picked up considerably. In the article, they talked about how roasted teas is their traditional method of making the teas, and that before the roasting is done it is not really considered a “finished product”. I can personally see this pickup in business, as more people come by buying tea that obviously look like they are coming for the first time. Even expats, who used to only buy things like jasmine and light, floral oolongs, are now opting for the darker stuff. The issue is that aside from some places, many such roasted teas are quite inferior in quality. Some cater to a very specific taste that might turn people off to this genre entirely, such as the pitch-black, carbonized shuixians that are mainly sold to Southeast Asia. There is, however, a balance between the two ends, and I think perhaps slowly but surely, the pendulum might swing back just enough so that the roasted teas once again see some popularity among the drinkers. After all, if there’s a market demand for this stuff, then there will be those who make them. I recently tried a somewhat roasted baozhong that is out of this world, but the price of such teas are also quite astounding. I suppose if the market will bear it, there will be those who will be willing to put in the work and effort to make such teas. Let’s hope it doesn’t disappear entirely, because the technique of roasting teas properly for drinking goes very far back in tea consumption history. Its loss will be a great one for all tea aficionados.

Categories: Teas
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The retaste project 12: 2003 Fengqing zodiac minibings

June 19, 2012 · 1 Comment

Sometimes it’s fun to try things that you have written about before, and it’s even more fun when other people have tried the same thing. I was recently reminded by hster‘s post that I have two tongs of this 2003 Fengqing zodiac minibings sitting at home. The last time I tried this stuff was 2007. It’s time to give them another spin.

The storage of this tea was mostly in the United States, actually, and only came back with me to Hong Kong last year. Before that it’s been through Boston, Ohio, and Maine – all cold places, one worse than the next. Visually, the tea hasn’t changed all that much – it’s gotten maybe a little darker in tone when you inspect the dry leaves.



I threw a small chunk in the pot and brewed it up. It did get darker, and it did lose some of the fresh/young notes that I may have found back in 2006. The tea isn’t great by any stretch of the imagination – it’s ok. A boring, bland okness that isn’t broken up by any surprises, up or down.


I should note that cup depth, more than anything else, provides the greatest variable in liquor colour as you see on blogs. Unless and until we all use the same cups, liquor colour comparisons are pretty much meaningless.

I also poked around Taobao and found that this thing is sold by at least one vendor for a whooping $50 a cake (100g). I ought to go sell these, as I think I paid a total of $50 for the two tongs, totaling 2.4kg of tea. You’ll notice the age of the cake also got inflated to 1997. This just goes to show that if you try your luck on Taobao, you better know what you’re doing. In the meantime, back in the storage this thing goes, and I don’t think I’ll see it again for quite some time.

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June 14, 2012 · 6 Comments

Taiwan Beer is so good, I had to buy a whole case and had it shipped express to Hong Kong


Just kidding


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A pile of aged oolong

June 13, 2012 · 8 Comments

I just came back from another trip to Taiwan, this time having a few days between work and tea hunting. Taiwan really is the island of teashops, and the kicker is, quite a few of them are very decent places, with good tea and run by good people. As one of my commenters mentioned, they don’t try to rip you off the way they do in the mainland.

While MadameN and I were a little early to our dinner destination for a meeting with some colleagues from grad school, we decided to take a quick stroll around the restaurant and look at the amazing coffeeshops that are in the vicinity of the restaurant. While doing that, we ran into a tea store that looked as terrible as you can imagine – old, slightly broken and very dirty shelves, lined with bags of tea that have been stacked into pyramids, a common feature of many community teashops in Taipei. On the far end of the shop are bags and bags of teas, and some puerh cakes lining the wall. I decided to try my luck and walked in, asking if they have any aged tea. The woman who was in the store said she has to ask her dad, who really runs the operation, and ten minutes later, the dad walked into the store.

I expected nothing when I walked in, since most of these stores have nothing other than reroasted-to-death “aged” oolong for sale. However, in the subsequent twenty minutes, which was all the time I had, he brought out about five different aged oolongs for me to taste, each one decent, some better than others. It was clear that my twenty minutes were not enough. I decided to go back the next day.

So the next afternoon, after meeting up with Action Jackson, I went back to the store. We tried many teas.


Aside from the rather obvious advantage of trying teas this way, which is that you can drink as much or as little as you want, while comparing them honestly without any interference with the brewing skills and parameters, it also allows you to literally throw away teas that are no good. What you’re seeing here is already after a few teas have been thrown out, with three young gaoshan oolongs, two aged oolongs, and one roasted one. More were tested before we stopped after having tasted a dozen or so teas.

The shop’s proprietor also showed us his rather unique way of roasting teas. It is an interesting use of what looks like an oven, because it’s not what it seems


Whereas the exterior of the oven looks like, well, an oven for maybe baking bread, once you open it up you can see that the heat is actually being provided by charcoal at the bottom of the oven, with pans of teas being roasted above it. It’s actually not a bad idea – this way, he can do charcoal roasting while keeping the room’s temperature to a reasonable level, and also limits the amount of charcoal he needs to use as well as being able to roasted a relatively small batch at a time. To the left of the oven is where he rests his recently roasted tea, and to the right, with the big white bags, are aged oolongs of one kind or another – no vacuum pack, no jars, nothing, just plain bags with good aged teas that are surprisingly not bitter at all. Nor does he re-roast the tea, ever, because, as he himself correctly states, once you reroast an aged tea it loses the aged flavour. I heartily agree.

In the end we all walked out of the store laden with tea, all sold at a very reasonable price. Having spent many days tea hunting in Taipei both on previous trips and this one, I can safely say that oftentimes the best shops for buying tea are also the ugliest looking, messiest, and dirtiest ones, with bags of teas piled everywhere, old, sometimes broken pots lining the shelves, and the most disorganized tea tables you’ve ever encountered. The shops that are neat, clean, with nice rows of boxed teas lit with mood lighting and packaged in designer bags are, more often than not, rather mediocre and rarely surprising. They might have a few things that are rare, interesting, or, better yet, sold with a story, but you have to pay a pretty penny for them, and I’m not sure if that’s worth the money, because what you can drink is the tea, and not the story.

Categories: Teas
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Grandpa style in action

June 2, 2012 · 12 Comments


See it? The little bottle with leaves in it. Some kind of roasted oolong – probably shuixian. Taken on the street in Mongkok

Categories: Teas

Unintentional scams

June 1, 2012 · 19 Comments

One of the scams I’ve come across, as related to me by another tea seller, goes as follows.

You walk into a store with tins lining the wall. The tins are not labeled, and the store specializes in yancha. You go in, wanting to buy, say, shuixian. You ask for some. They ask you what price level of shuixian you want – since they have lots. You throw out a number, say 300 RMB/jin. They take one of the tins off the shelf, take out some tea, show it to you, and brew it for you. You sort of like it, but it’s not too great, so you ask them for something better. So they take the next tin out, and say “this is 400 RMB/jin”. You try it – it’s different from the last one, seems a bit better, but you’re not sure yet. So you try another one, this time from yet the next tin over. The tea is 500 RMB/jin now. It’s a bit similar to the first one, but not quite the same. Yancha, after all, share a lot of similar notes and are hard to differentiate just on visuals or taste alone. You end up settling for the 500 RMB/jin one (or any one of them) because it seems like it’s a good fit.

The trick, of course, is that there are only two kinds of teas in the store. They are stored in alternate tins in an ABABAB pattern. The 300/500 RMB ones were, say, tea A, while the 400/600 ones would be B. So when you try two that are just one level apart, they are indeed different. When you try ones that are two levels apart, well, by that time you’re on your third tea, and it’s been an hour since you tried the first one. You don’t remember it all that well anymore, and by manipulating some of the brewing parameters, the vendor can easily make it so that you think you’re drinking a similar, but different tea. Besides, we all know that more expensive wines taste better, so the same should apply for tea.

That’s not why I wrote about this scam, of course, although in and of itself it’s a cautionary tale of buying tea. One of the things in hster’s post that I linked to two days ago is that one should avoid Western reseller. There’s a good reason for that – because you can be an unwitting victim of the above-mentioned scam.

There are generally three ways a Western hemisphere based vendor can get their tea for sale. One is to go directly and source it – either from wholesale markets or resellers based in Asia, which is probably the most common way, or buy from farmers in the area, which probably also happens but less often than you think. The vendors can also buy from consolidators/wholesalers based in the West as well, with SpecialTeas (now Teavana…) and that type of thing. In that case, you’re basically buying teas for a markup for no good reason. The last is that they have some special connections for some reason, such as Guang of Hou De, who, from what I understand, has family members who are tea farmers. There aren’t too many of those around. This above list excludes those who are based in Asia but primarily sell to a Western audience, although for the most part, they are also just falling into the first category – someone like Jing tea shop in Guangzhou is basically buying teas from the Guangzhou market and then selling it to you at a markup.

What’s going on though, is that for those who are selling in the West, unless they take frequent trips to Asia or have some special connections, are generally just buying from some wholesaler and reselling said tea to you. The markup can be slight, or it can be very heavy. The problem with tea, and it’s the problem that enables the scam that I talked about earlier, is that tea is not labeled and is remarkably difficult to judge if you’re not in the right frame of mind. Let’s say you buy two tieguanyin. One’s marked at $15/100g, and has an interesting description. The other is marked at $25/100g, and has a breathless description. The pictures, of course, don’t tell you all that much, as they’re all about the same – some rolled, green leaves. You try them…. and then, unless you happen to compare them side by side, would you really know the difference? Is it going to be that obvious? What is the $15/100g’s seller’s markup is 100%, while the $25/100g’s is 400%, both of whom sourced from the same dealer? In other words – the more “expensive” tea is actually cheaper originally, because the person you bought it from is selling it for more?

There are endless possibilities for things such as this when you buy from Western based vendors. This is not to say that it is always a better deal to buy from Asian based ones, but at least there you’re more likely to run into unique things that other sellers aren’t selling – each local market is indeed a little different, and will offer you things that others can’t find. I even wonder if one might have better luck buying oolongs off Taobao – I haven’t experimented widely there, but even that could be a better deal than buying a “monkey picked” tieguanyin from online store X.

I’m not trying to say that every single Western based vendor is going to be terrible. By all means, if you find a tea you like from a certain vendor, then it’s perfectly fine to frequent that shop, but knowing full well that there’s always the possibility of a cheaper, better alternative out there. That’s why I have always advocated not getting sucked into buying from one vendor exclusively, regardless of what they have done for you in the past, and also to experiment widely in both providers and also the range of possible teas out there. This is true not just for us consumers, but also even for the tea vendors, who sometimes seem to form exclusive relationships with their Asian providers. That is also a dangerous path – one which can lead one’s customers to drink lots of overpriced, bad teas. Life’s too short for that.

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