A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from August 2012

Steepster is useless

August 30, 2012 · 72 Comments

According to the folks at Steepster, you should love the website for six reasons.

1) It’s an online tea journal – this is the only point I agree with. It’s probably a pretty good and stress free way to keep a journal of the teas you’ve tried, which I personally think is a good way to help you learn and develop your tea palette. Trying new teas and writing down what you think about it is an important process that helps you think about what you just drank. So far, so good.

2) It’s a different way to discover new teas – ok, hard to argue with that, it’s new anyway, but at the end of the day, you have to buy and drink it. The problem is not so much that it helps people find new teas – yes, it does that to a degree, by showing you things that may be similar, at least according to their algorithm. But their reviews don’t seem to allow pictures, and usually there’s only one relatively useless picture of the tea, so to get anywhere, you still need to head to the vendor’s page to find out more about the tea. Unhelpfully, Steepster doesn’t link you to the vendor’s page for the tea, but only to the vendor, so you have to go through the trouble to find the tea anyway. While for some vendors this is easy to do, for others it’s a non-trivial task, especially if the vendor has weird categories, such as puerhshop.

3) It’s the largest – well, that’s both good and bad. The size of Steepster would make it seem like a good thing, and on some level, I suppose it is – it has more reviews of more teas than anywhere else on the web, and it benefits from its critical mass so that, right now at least, it seems like the only player in town. Other rating sites, of which I only know of one, are basically dead, which means nobody will bother to go visit.

The size, however, is also a problem. First of all, the rather endless stream of reviews on the site is more than overwhelming, and if you happen to be following a few dozen people, chances are you have no way of sorting out one review from the next. Also, for the most part, the network is pretty much anonymous – you have no idea who’s posting. The person posting a poor review of a black tea could be a lifetime green tea drinker who hates anything black. The person reviewing a wonderful Yiwu might be drinking raw puerh for the first time without telling you so, and thus describes it as tasting like a drain cleaner. You have the option to “like” a certain review, but like is more ambiguous than Amazon’s “did you find this review helpful?”. Like might mean you agree, or you liked what the person said for other reasons, or because you’re their friend… there’s no way to tell. The volume of information on teas, in written form, is completely overwhelming on this site.

It also is very unfriendly for people who reinfuse their teas multiple times, which most readers of this blog probably do. So, there’s no way to indicate what you do with your tea, other than in written form. Unless you’re the only reviewer, nobody will ever read it.

Moreover, because of the sheer volume of written information on the teas, the only thing that people actually will pay attention to is the ratings, in numerical form. That’s easy, simple to look at, and quick to comprehend. So far, so good, but there’s a problem – almost everything on the site rates somewhere between 70 and 85, which means that, as a mechanism for picking out teas to try, the score is almost entirely useless – how different is something that rates 78 really from something that rates 82, especially when each of them only have, say, 5 ratings each, three of which have no number attached?

Let’s take puerh for example, one of the genre of teas that I think are least reviewed there. Sorted by rating, it takes 36 pages for you to reach the first tea rated in the 60s. That’s 36 x 28 on each page, totaling slightly over 1000 teas, many of which, I’m sure, are no long available. If you look under Menghai Tea Factory, almost everything is within the narrow band of 71-81. As a selection guide, this is more or less utterly useless.

As someone pointed out on Teachat, the name of the vendor is fungible, so that someone might enter Menghai Tea Factory, while another person might attribute the same tea to Yunnan Sourcing. Likewise, referring to what I talked about earlier about teas being anonymous, it is quite possible that two or three or four tieguanyin being reviewed (with different impressions!) are actually from the same wholesaler, rendering the ratings rather moot.

Curiously, among the top ten rated puerh are a number of teas from Verdant Tea, which as Hster has uncovered, has some issues as a puerh vendor. Is that shop really that great, or is something else going on? I can’t say for sure. It might, however, have something to do with the fact that he seemed to have distributed samples to folks on Steepster. Verdant Tea in general seems extremely active on Steepster, which might explain something. Seems like that’s a good way to goose your ratings.

4) You’ll broaden your horizons and try new teas – same as 2, really, but here they’re talking about their revenue stream, aka vendor sponsored sampling, which at the moment seems dead. Also, referring to the above point about Verdant Teas, I wonder if the key to high ratings is to send non-offensive teas to a bunch of people who’ve only had teas from Teavana.

5) It’s a place to hang out and talk about all things tea – yes, but the discussion on Steepster is exceedingly shallow, mostly because it is not designed for anything more in depth. Each review can have comments, and once in a while, you might have good comments on one thread – if you can ever find such things, that is, buried deep within each thread for each tea. The discussion board is largely useless, because it is only categorized in the most general way possible, which means that it is nearly impossible to follow specific topics for very long. If you search for a term, the search engine will completely overload you with information again, in the most useless way imaginable – by highlighting every instance in every thread where the search term has been mentioned, ordered in the number of times that term has been mentioned in each thread (at least that seems to be the way they’re doing it). This means that the longest threads will tend to be read, whereas shorter threads will drop off the radar. That’s great if you’re looking for something exceedingly specific, but if you just want to find some discussion on, say, sencha… good luck.

6) It’s free. Well, it better be.

I’m not trying to rain on someone else’s parade, but Steepster, while it is a great tool for someone to keep a personal log of teas to drink, fails on the sharing and discovery part of the equation. Is there a better way? Perhaps, but I think to start it might be more useful to introduce/tweak features that will result in more depth in the comments, notes, and discussions. Right now, reading reviews on the site is like reading a stream of consciousness writing, much of which is completely useless to anyone other than the drinker. The scores, likewise, is not very useful as it is. It doesn’t even really help you weed out teas, unless perhaps the ones that are universally hated, but those seem to be few and far between. Lastly, it might help to, for example, be able to toggle whether or not a tea is still available – listing a bunch of teas that are no longer available high on a list when you click “teas” really isn’t a good way to introduce more people to good tea either.

I’m not sure if there’s the right balance of information and quality, but right now, Steepster is high on information, but low on quality – you get a lot of stuff, most of which is noise, and it’s set up in a way that makes it difficult to filter out the noise. I think something like TeaChat, flawed as it is and hampered by an ancient discussion board engine, is nevertheless in some ways a superior forum for talking about teas than the more newfangled, social-media craze inspired Steepster.

Addendum: Some, fans of Steepster, for example, may see this as an out-and-out attack on the site. I have zero financial or personal reason to hate the site – I signed up a while ago hoping that it will be a good forum for more discussion, but came away pretty disappointed. I think there is no progress if there’s no criticism. I’m not saying I’m the one qualified to do it, but on this blog, I tend to say what I think without dressing it up too much. As I’ve mentioned, I think Steepster is a great tool for one purpose – keeping the journal of teas you’ve drunk. I hope the site’s creators can improve on the other aspects of it so that the users there can engage in tea more deeply, maybe even without knowing it. That can come from all kinds of angles – changing their algorithm in what it recommends, improving the way comments/notes are displayed and scored, organizing the discussion page using tags, instead of just what looks like an unfiltered stream of threads on unrelated topics, etc. There is a lot of space to improve upon the site now that they’ve gotten people to use it – and don’t do what Digg did and screw everything up with a drastic revision that everyone ends up hating.

Categories: Information

The importance of water

August 27, 2012 · 38 Comments

Water is a subject that I talk about from time to time, but it is very easy to get caught up in all the myriad discussions about this tea and that tea that you forget just how important water is to your tea drinking experience.The past two days I went to a local shop that just opened recently and which makes new pressings of Yiwu cakes. I like their stuff, and the quality is there. They are also a bit more traditional in their processing, so that the taste is not the high and floral stuff that you often find on the market today. In our conversation, we talked about old teas, and I also drank some old teas with them, including the remnants of a Fuyuanchang Hao from early 20th century. So, in the spirit of sharing, I brought with me some of my aged oolongs on the second day for them to try, since the owner is unfamiliar with a lot of them.

Well, trouble started when we began with an aged baozhong of mine that I know very well, and which yields a pleasant, sweet, and alluring cup. The problem is, that wasn’t really evident at all. Instead, we got a thin, barely there taste with a crisp but weak mouthfeel and only some notes of high aroma. This is not the tea I know – which is why it’s useful to get well acquainted with a tea. Granted, he didn’t use much leaves, but clearly, it was the water.

As I’ve mentioned multiple times before, water is the most cost effective way to make your tea better. So, I went downstairs to the local 7-Eleven, picked up a big bottle of Volvic, and mixed it in the current kettle and used that instead. The improvements are instant and immediate. It explains, also, why the old tea I had on the first day was a bit thin and boring. Turns out they’ve been using tap water, filtered with bamboo charcoal and then just boiled in your typical Kamjove boiler. They know it’s no good – but as a newly opened store, they have to make do with the water for now until they can come up with a better solution, since hauling water from local springs is a really hard thing to do, especially if you don’t have a car. As it is, however, the water is destroying the tea.

The really interesting thing is that I also use tap water, except these days I don’t even bother to filter it and simply boil it in my tetsubin. I think the difference in what I tasted between his brewing and my brewing is mainly down to the tetsubin and the filtering – you can get all paranoid about your water source and how it might contain harmful stuff if you don’t filter it, but the fact is, in most cases the water source doesn’t contain these heavy metals that your filter is built for, but they do take out all kinds of other things that make your tea better. I remember visiting a friend’s place here that used a pretty heavy duty filtration system, and the resulting tea is also thin, weak, and boring. If you’re a frequent drinker of lighter greens, it might work. For everything else, it’s probably a bad idea.

Buying good bottled water (not all are created equal) is probably one of the possible answers, but it’s probably not a great answer. Environmental concerns aside, it’s expensive, it comes in plastic that in some cases leech smell and taste, and it’s bulky. It’s useful in a pinch, but not a long term solution.

They do serve as a useful benchmark though. I like Volvic and Vittel, and for lighter teas, Iceland Spring, which also happens to be a really tasty water just for drinking purposes. Do water taste tests – pour four or five glasses of different waters, including your normal tea water post boil, and taste them as if your life depended on it. You will find that they’re different, and in some cases, your water may contain some really unsavoury tastes and smells. The body of the water will also be different, if you get water with varying levels of total dissolved solids. Use them then to brew the same tea – a tea you know very well. Try it, and you will find the tea you usually drink will taste different in some way. Include a distilled water in the sampling, so you can see how terrible it really is. Your tea with distilled water will be thin and sour.

It makes me think that perhaps more conscientious vendors can make water suggestions, but that might also get too complicated and drive people away. The fact is, water makes a huge difference, and not enough people pay attention to it. Every so often, you’re reminded that it’s important, but then it fades from memory and the cycle repeats itself.

Categories: Information

2011 Fall Tea Urchin Guafeng zhai

August 22, 2012 · 1 Comment

I’m a slow sampler. Since I normally only drink a tea a day, and since I am no longer in the mode of drinking new teas I don’t know every day, it sometimes takes quite a while for me to get to samples that I intend to taste. A few months ago, Eugene of Tea Urchin did a sample trade with me – I sent him a bunch of teas, he sent me a bigger bunch of teas. I’ve tried some of them so far, but I still have a few that has been left unopened. One that I tried recently is the Guafeng zhai 2011 Fall tea that he made.

There’s been a general trend in the past six years of increasing specificity Guafeng zhai is one of those villages in Yiwu that popped out of nowhere and, over the course of a few years, gotten really famous. Nowadays, you even have sub-regions of Guafeng zhai that are showing up as single-estate regions – Chawangshu, Chaping, and Baishahe. Other places, like Wan’gong, Tongqinghe, etc, are all appearing these days as places of good quality. So, increasingly, we’re talking not only about regions of tea (Yiwu) but down to specific villages, often of relatively small sized areas. I guess this is the beginning of appellation claims.


Tea Urchin gives generous sized samples. It smells like Yiwu when you open the bag. It also smells like Yiwu when the leaves hit the pre-warmed pot, and it, again, smells like Yiwu when I pour out my first cup after the wash.


Guafeng zhai has a very strong umami taste to the tea produced there, and it tastes a bit more “wild” than some of the cleaner, brighter villages of Yiwu, such as Gaoshan zhai or Mahei. I find teas from Guafeng zhai to be a bit darker generally, and with lower register notes than areas that used to be considered Yiwu proper (Guafeng zhai is basically on the outskirts, right next to Laos). This tea is no different – deep, a bit dark, with notes that remind you of Yiwu, but also has that spicy/umami note that sets it apart a bit. The throatiness comes and goes in this one, but it has good qi that persists. It also suffered a good many infusions. It reminds me of the nights I spent drinking new Yiwus in my Beijing apartment back in 2006.


This is good tea. This is, I think, tea that will do well in the future, fall or spring. Just because something’s from the spring doesn’t mean it’ll be good, and likewise, just because something’s from the fall doesn’t mean it’ll be bad. Yes, side by side, from the same trees, the spring might be indeed better, but so many other factors, including weather, processing, etc, go into the production of tea that relying solely on season is probably not the best approach.

There’s been a few reviews of this tea by others already, and aside from Hobbes, the reviews have been positive. There is, however, the matter of price – and I have heard complaints, almost universal now, about prices of new tea in general and, if the comments on my last notes on Tea Urchin were an indicator, specific to this vendor. What, exactly, is a fair price for newer teas?

Many of us remember the days when new teas can be had for $20 a cake or less. In fact, I remember in 05 or so, a cake of Haiwan’s Laotongzhi was under $10 USD when new. It was almost free, considering you’re getting 357g of tea from it. Those days are long gone, especially when you are talking about higher end boutique made teas claiming old tree status. I was at the recent Hong Kong Tea Expo, and prices were uniformly high – a decent new cake would cost no less than about $40, and that’s sometimes very average quality stuff. Teas claiming to be from old trees (not all of which tasted like it, mind you) are often sold for $80-100 USD, or more. I bought a cake that was priced at $80 for a new, 2012 spring Yiwu. I also went to a shop a few weeks ago in Shenzhen that sold new 2012 teas at almost $200 a cake. Granted, these are spring prices, which are a bit higher, but high prices are here to stay and they’re not going to go away. In fact, it’s only going to get worse. The supply of old tree tea is relatively limited, and there’s no good way to scale production – you can’t just make more. So, as the market for such teas expand, the prices will keep going up until it reaches that equilibrium where prices no longer go up because it’s already so high that it knocked everyone else out of the market. That day is coming, and not too far either.

Does that mean you should throw all your money in now to buy these things before they get even more expensive? I’m not advocating that, since I can’t read the future and don’t want to give investment advice. One thing I have learned though from 10+ years of tea drinking is that when I see a tea I like, I now tend to buy a lot of it, as long as I can afford the purchase. Some things are going to be there forever, and cannot keep, so there’s no point in buying lots – fresh Longjing, for example. In other cases, however, the teas that you like will go away, and you’ll never see it again, ever, anywhere. I recently tasted a nice sample of a tea from 2006 that I’d love to get my hands on, but I haven’t even seen it on sale after searching high and low, while the 2007 version is over $250 USD. Chasing teas is a dangerous and expensive business.

So, back to the point, I like this tea, but I’m not sure I want to buy lots of it. In the meantime, I’ve just ordered a sample of every 2012 tea that Tea Urchin has made. Given the large sample sizes, I guess I have some time to make up my mind.

Categories: Teas

On romanization

August 20, 2012 · 25 Comments

Vendors, read this.

Languages in East Asia are tough, at least for foreigners. They are some of the most difficult languages to learn in the world, and for tea drinkers who don’t speak or read such languages, they can be a bit of a pain to navigate. Since names for teas are already such issues, with vendors naming their own teas and also the confusion and lack of oversight of tea nomenclature. It doesn’t help, however, when romanization is itself an issue. This is more of an issue for Chinese and less so for Japanese, since there the romanization is pretty standard. Korean romanization can be a little weird too, with different competing systems (Jeolla in Revised Romanization vs Cholla in McCune–Reischauer, for example), but since Korean teas are, let’s face it, a relatively small universe with better sourcing information generally, I’ll ignore its issues for now.

For those of you who know Chinese, you probably know that there are two main romanization systems, Wade-Giles and Pinyin. Up until the early 90s, pretty much everyone used Wade-Giles except those in Mainland China, who used Pinyin. Then things flipped, and everyone started using Pinyin, and Wade-Giles is increasingly dropped with the exception of Taiwan, which finally adopted Pinyin two years ago. These are partly for political reasons, and partly because, well, a billion people can’t be wrong, I suppose. I personally reserve a special hatred of simplified characters, because in the simplification process much of the meaning of the proper characters are lost, but I realize that many people now simply cannot read proper characters, unfortunately.

Anyway, with two romanization system and the relatively recent date of conversion, you can imagine there are issues with their usage. The problem is further complicated by two things: 1) conventions from the past, and 2) the fact that many Chinese people, especially those from Taiwan and Hong Kong, never actually learned any romanization system at all. Chinese, as you probably know, consists of characters that do not have phonetic indicators – meaning that by looking at the characters, you can’t tell how to pronounce them. It’s awful for people trying to learn the language, but it’s great for the purpose of keeping lots of people who don’t use the same dialect sharing the same written language. For all these romanizations that we’re talking about, we’re only concerning ourselves with the use of standard Mandarin.

So we’ve got two main romanization systems, but a fair number of people who don’t really know either, and a lot of vendors who probably don’t know much or any Chinese, as well as the use of older customary romanizations that persist. One of the most obvious and common old conventional spelling that still exists today, as related to tea, is the use of puerh instead of the Wade-Giles p’u-erh and Pinyin pu’er. I use puerh, instead of the Wade-Giles or the Pinyin version. Another common one is tikwanyin, which in Wade-Giles should be t’ieh-kuan-yin and in Pinyin tieguanyin. One reason people have dropped Wade-Giles in favour of Pinyin is because Wade-Giles has finicky rules regarding the use of apostrophes, which are essential for accuracy, and also hyphens. Without those, or getting those wrong, renders Wade-Giles rather useless. Pinyin only has issues with apostrophes, which is easier to deal with and errors are often not fatal (although still frequently wrong).

Pinyin also includes strict rules with regards to how to separate words. Since Chinese is character-based, it is very tempting to put everything into separate characters and just be done with it. Using the cake from the last post as an example:


The two big words are “yesheng” or “wild”. Then, above the 2005 is “xianliangban” or “limited edition”. After the 2005 are “Menghai laoshu yesheng tedingcha” or “Menghai (region) old wild tree special ordered tea”. At the bottom is “Chenguanghe tang chaye yanjiu zhongxin rongyu dingzhi” or “Proudly ordered by the Chenguanghe Tang Tea Research Centre”. Note, of course, the nonsensical “Chen kang ho tang Pu-erh Tea”.

Now, imagine if the bottom row is all separated (and capitalized, as is often done for reasons unknown) “Chen Guang He Tang Cha Ye Yan Jiu Zhong Xin Rong Yu Ding Zhi”. What’s going on is that by separating everything, it becomes very difficult to tell where one word ends and the next begins. When romanizing, one of the things the person doing the romanization is splicing the words into sensible units, following the rules I linked to above. If I see a row of romanized characters all separated into individual syllable, I often need to see the Chinese original to know what I’m looking at. Properly romanized, however, it is usually quite easy to figure out what we’re dealing with.

One of the worst offenders of romanization confusion is Hou De. For example, the puerh brand Xizihao is routinely romanized as Xi-zhi Hao (finally fixed in some 2011 new listings, but persist for the older ones). There are no hyphens in Pinyin, and no X in Wade-Giles, so this is really neither. Hou De routinely does this sort of mixing, but Guang’s certainly not the only one. In his defense, he probably never learned Pinyin, having grown up instead on zhuyin fuhao. Other vendors mix in capital letters when there should be none, separate words randomly, mix in Wade-Giles from time to time, or simply spell things wrong. Babelcarp has a truckload of such misspellings, helpfully linked to the most widely used one.

Another issue is more simple – some vendors choose to give you the name of the tea in translation, while others give you the name in transliteration. Biluochun and green snail spring are the same thing, but you wouldn’t know it unless you’ve learned that somehow. Likewise, you can see Keemun, the old conventional name for Qimen, often on websites and teas and what not. Qihong is Keemun black, but again, you wouldn’t know it unless you somehow already knew.

While most people can figure out that puerh and pu’er are the same thing, it’s harder when the difference is between tikwanyin and tieguanyin, or even oolong vs wulong. Ideally, we’ll all use the same thing, so there are no problems, but I choose, for example, to use oolong instead of the proper wulong romanization because of accessibility – the same reason why puerh is used instead of pu’er on this blog. Very often people will find oolong being the word on vendor pages, not wulong, and might wonder what wulong is when in fact it’s the same thing they’ve always had. I also thought about switching wholesale to use Pinyin exclusively, but the thought of somehow having to go back and fix past listings stops me. I suppose the only way for a consumer to wade through all this is to arm him/herself with some knowledge of Chinese, so that one’s not too reliant on vendors’ proclivities. Vendors can also help by using more Chinese in the websites – it never hurts, and in this day and age, easy to do. Unless, of course, if they decide to rename their low grade Yunnan black tea Golden Peanuts, or something.

Addendum: Sometimes I forget the original impetus for writing these things. Jakub, helpfully, reminded me with his comment. For things like proper names, one should string them together. So, Yunnan province is Yunnan Sheng. Menghai county should be Menghai Xian. Yiwu mountain should be Yiwu Shan, not Yi Wu shan or Yi Wu Shan. Gaoshan Zhai, or Guafeng Zhai, or any other village, are a little more ambiguous. Zhai, in this case, is really “village”, “hamlet”, or literally, “stockade”. So it should be treated the same way as sheng (province) and shan (mountain) and separated from the name.

Categories: Information

Perils of shopping online

August 14, 2012 · 13 Comments

One of the perils of shopping online for tea is that you don’t get to try the stuff you’re about to buy. A little while ago I recommended the 2005 Chenguanghe Tang Menghai Yesheng to Hster as something worth buying. The only place online that sells it is Hou De Asian Art. I recently procured a number of this cake from Taiwan directly, and I’ve always like this cake. Since I am fairly sure Guang from Hou De sourced his teas from the same place I bought mine, I was rather confident in recommending the cake.

Well, Guang, rather unhelpfully perhaps, doesn’t offer samples. So when I sent Hster a bunch of teas recently for her to try, I included a sample of this 2005 tea for her as well. I didn’t realize that another tea from, Ira, also sent Hster a sample of this, but his sample is from a cake he recently purchased via Hou De. The result is this rather interesting post. Seems like while the two cakes are from the same batch, they are not quite the same after all.

So now, time for some pictures to compare the two. First up are Ira’s pictures of his cake, published with permission.





Other than the first picture, I didn’t white-balance them because it’s difficult to do without any good reference point, and the picture looks like it might have two light sources, one natural and the other one not. Ignoring the colour of the leaves, there are a few things you can notice from these pictures. The first is that the surface of the leaves look dull, and not very shiny. The leaves also seem to have copious amounts of white dots on them, a sign of mold, perhaps, unless it’s an artifact of the camera. More importantly, the dots seem to be present on the leaves that are inside the cake, not just on the surface. All this is slightly difficult to draw conclusions from, but it seems as though this cake has seen a lot of moisture and perhaps some mold grew on it. Whether or not it is controlled in a traditional storage environment, or bad storage that caused mold, is harder to say.

So I took some pictures of the cake I used for Hster’s sample as a comparison







What you can see here are a few things: the leaves are shinier, without the slightly furry look of the other cake. The sheen on the leaves is indicative of a drier storage, although I think the cake should best be termed as having undergone natural storage – just left around in a relatively humid environment generally, such as that of Taiwan. More importantly, you also see no obvious indication of mold growing on the cake – there are a few stems that are slightly white, but generally speaking, they are absent.

I obviously cannot comment on what happened – who knows. There are possibilities – perhaps the cake at Hou De was poorly stored to begin with, due to excessive moisture or some such, during a part of its storage somewhere. Sometimes it is quite possible even for cakes within the same tong to develop somewhat differently, especially the cake at the top or the bottom of a tong – they can get moist easily and grow mold while the other cakes are fine. I don’t know if Hou De’s entire batch was bad, or if it’s just one cake out of many. I also have no way of knowing if this problem developed before or after Hou De acquired their cake.

It is quite possible that even Guang himself doesn’t realize there is a problem (if he considers it a problem at all, that is). After all, a customer might feel weird if they receive a cake that was opened prior to purchase, but that is in fact sometimes what must be done to ensure that you’re getting something decent. Just yesterday I bought two cakes from Sunsing, and before taking the goods the employee there actually encouraged me to look at the cakes to make sure they’re ok. For teas that have been aged some years, it is usually a good idea to do so, because you never know what’s happened under the wrapper. It doesn’t help that this 2005 Yesheng has a particularly thick and inflexible wrapper – the thickness of the wrapper may also trap any moisture and cause higher likelihood of mold than otherwise. So you can’t even see through the wrapper to see what’s going on underneath.

Obviously, sampling wouldn’t have helped either, because the samples come from one cake, and the full cake you receive is another one. They could very well be the same, and very often they would be more or less the same. There is still, as always, the risk of something wrong having happened. I suppose this is not too different from corked wine that you end up with once in a while at perfectly well meaning stores. The important thing there, I guess, is to make sure they have an ironclad return policy. Although, in the case of tea, a bit of moisture often doesn’t kill, and if aired out sufficiently and properly, the tea can actually taste quite good.


Categories: Teas
Tagged: , ,

Flights of tea

August 10, 2012 · 9 Comments

I was recently in Vancouver and then Portland, Oregon to visit friends and family. One of the things I did was to arrange a tea meeting with ABX, whom I’ve met before when we visited Serenity Art together (the store has since closed and reopening is uncertain). I also contacted David Galli of the rather grandly named Portland Tea Enthusiasts’ Alliance, which is actually a tea space that’s shared with a wine tasting/education outfit and offers classes and tea meetings of various sorts. We ended up settling on drinking tea there.

I promised the two of them that I would bring some aged oolongs of various sorts for them to try, and I ended up taking with me about six different teas, all aged oolongs of one kind or another that I have gathered from one place or another. The result of the tasting, unbeknownst even to me at the time, was a comparison of different aged oolongs and their characteristics.


We ended up drinking seven teas, six of them aged oolongs and one a cooked/raw mixed brick from the 80s. Most of the aged oolongs, other than one, was tasted in a pot I brought along for the ride. I also ended up doing most of the brewing, so it turned out to be a pretty reasonable proxy for a controlled tasting of the teas.

I think there’s actually quite a bit of value in drinking teas this way. Comparing teas that are, ostensibly, in the same genre, it is quite possible to discern the more subtle differences in the teas by having them back to back. Whereas when drunk separately, they might each have their own strong or weak points, drinking them together, one by one, it is easier to say “this tea is better than that tea because…”. The same, of course, can be done through cupping, but cupping a tea is a lot less fun.

There are some general rules that I try to follow when constructing such tastings though. The first is that one should always start light and end heavy. Going the other way will seriously disrupt the tastebuds, and will often result in sub-optimal experiences. Drinking a green tea right after a heavy, pungent puerh is probably not a very good idea, especially in attempting to detect the high notes of the green tea. It’s generally a much better idea to go from the light and airy to the full bodied and deep teas. I suspect the same is true for wines.

Also, I think it is useful to taste things that share some similarity. Drinking, say, a sencha, then a white tea, then a young puerh, then an aged oolong, for example, can be fun, but I think there is less to be gained in the experience. Drinking the same kinds of tea over a short session, on the other hand, allows for more direct comparison. Differences in aroma, mouthfeel, longevity, and depth become very obvious.

There are also unexpected surprises. The puerh we had at the end, for example, seemed very sour. I think if we had tried that early on, it wouldn’t appear as sour, but because it came after a long line of aged oolongs that are mostly sweet, the sourness was magnified somehow. To me, the tea also tasted somewhat unpleasant overall – it’s hard to pinpoint what was wrong with it, but I know that if it weren’t preceded by the teas that it did, I probably would have liked the tea more.

It would’ve been nice though if I had more time to drink with the two of them. Alas, we only had a few hours, and so some of the teas were still drinkable when we abandoned them for other things. I do wish David good luck though in setting up this new space, and it’s Portland’s good fortune to have a number of locations to drink teas of different kinds.

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Anonymous teas

August 3, 2012 · 7 Comments

In the Western hemisphere people who reads blogs like this one and drink mostly Asian teas in loose-leaf form are a distinct minority, and shops that serve our kind of needs are, by and large, niche players who get relatively little business from those who are not so serious about tea. I suspect that the largest source of loose leaf tea consumption in retail format comes from places that serve loose leaf tea as part of a cafe style operation – with cakes, scones, snacks, and the like.

There are different ways in which such teas are served. On a national scale, the large chains almost all serve teabags, and for good reason – teabags are easy, they’re cheap, the margins are high, and they’re consistent. Anybody can stick a Tazo teabag in a cup and throw hot water in it, and out comes a breakfast style tasting tea that is going to be the same everywhere you go. Smaller shops, on the other hand, especially higher end shops, tend to serve loose leaf teas these days to distinguish themselves from the big chains. If the teas are taken in store, they’ll come in big pots and cups. If you order to go, you’re going to get a paper cup with a t-sac of tea. That’s much harder to do for the average shop – you have to make sure your employees have some idea of what they’re doing, otherwise the teas can be quite nasty. When done well, the teas can be quite decent, and for a traveling tea addict like myself, it can be a welcomed caffeine fix, and it can also be a good introduction to loose leaf tea, or a great place to experiment with teas that one’s unfamiliar with, for people who are otherwise not so tea inclined. Two days ago, I found myself going to a tea and macaron place called Soirette in Vancouver while I was visiting the city for a quick trip before heading to Portland OR. I had a “Wuyi Rock Oolong” which turned out to be quite ok, even though it was made a bit too weak for my taste. But then, any tea in a paper cup is going to be too weak if it were a yancha, so I’m not complaining.

The thing though is that teas are anonymous. As I’ve mentioned before, one of the difficult things are tea purchasing is that two shops can sell the same tea under different names, and you could be none-the-wiser even if you tried them one after another. Unless you do a strict comparison tasting side by side, it’s not always obvious that they’re from the same source. Places like Soirette must source their teas from somewhere – I have a hard time imagining them purchasing teas in bulk from a number of different sources, for that would require a level of work beyond what is necessary (unless, of course, the owner is a tea addict). So, the question is, where?

I tried looking through the web to see if it is possible to find out who they source their teas from, and it turns out to be quite difficult. There are really two possibilities – some big, national stores, or local shops that supply teas for them. Alas, after searching, there’s no real way of knowing with any certainty. I think the only time when you can tell for sure is if some more or less branded teas are used wholesale, without any type of name change. On Soirette’s tea menu, for example, there’s a “Harbour Morning”, which is some type of breakfast tea and named in reference of Coal Harbour, where they’re located. Pretty obviously they named it for their store’s location, and very likely it used to be called “English breakfast” or some other generic name. Then there are things like Jade Oolong, Organic Iron Goddess of Mercy, Marsala Chai, etc etc…. at first I thought it might be Mightyleaf, which has a lot of similarly named organic teas, but then, they also didn’t offer a lot of what Soirette had either. Some look suspiciously similar, but…. the point is, barring some amazing discovery of identical names, etc, and a tea I recognize by taste, there’s just no way to tell.

Perhaps in some ways, that doesn’t matter. However, I do think it speaks volumes about the kind of difficulty faced by newcomers to the hobby – having to deal with the byzantine naming conventions of the trade, and the idiosyncracies of individual shops. If you really love that Harbour Morning blend, you could certainly ask the shop where they get their teas from. In this case, they might tell you, since I don’t believe Soirette sells tea in bulk (although I could be wrong). Try asking a retail tea store, however, and they’ll probably spin some story about sourcing the best teas from the best places, etc. You can go on a quest trying dozens of breakfast blends and not finding the same tea, and even if you end up with the same tea, you might miss it because you feel it’s somehow different. It’s tough when you try to hunt specific teas down, and it all comes down to the problem of teas not bearing names when they’re in loose form. Which is why it’s probably always a good idea to not get too hung up on “the XXX tea I tried at Y shop” too much, because chances are you won’t find it anywhere else.

Categories: Teas
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