A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from September 2012

Emails sent

September 30, 2012 · Leave a Comment

Last posting about the curated samples #1 in a while – I just sent out emails to everyone. You should’ve gotten an email either for 1) getting a sample, 2) not getting a sample, or 3) being on the wait list. If you didn’t hear from me at all and the email didn’t get spammed, then I probably mistyped your email address and you should contact me at mail@marshaln.com

I’ll probably post my own notes about the teas in a few weeks, but I don’t want my voice to colour what others might think of them, so I’ll wait until at least most people have gotten a chance to try them. In the meantime, the blog will be back to the regularly scheduled programming starting tomorrow.

Categories: Misc
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Curated Samples #1: Roasted tieguanyin

September 26, 2012 · 64 Comments

This post is about the first set of Curated Samples. For details of my rationale and thinking behind this project, please go read the original post. For clarity, I’ll divide this post under smaller headings.

The teas


As I mentioned before, the inaugural Curated Samples will be a set of five teas. They are leaves from the exact same batch of tieguanyin, with the only variable between them being the time spent in the roasting oven. The tea was roasted by a shop that has been in operation for over fifty years, and whose owners have always done their own roasting. They switched to electric roasting about 30 years ago during the 80s, when regulations and escalating costs meant that owning a large, charcoal roast warehouse was no longer an option given their location in the city.

The bottom left you see above is the original tea, with no roasting at all done by the roaster. The one at the bottom right is the final product, after spending 59 hours in the roaster. The three above, from left to right, are the intermediate ones, at 15, 30, and 45 hours each. You can see slight variations in the colour of the dry leaves in the intermediate ones, although they are not immediately obvious. The difference between roasted and unroasted, of course, is night and day.

The only tea that is sold by this shop is the final product, the bottom right one. The rest are not sold, and in fact, the owner pretty much flat out said the intermediate ones are not very good at all. I asked him to do this for me because I wanted an example where we can completely isolate the roasting time as the only factor that differs between the teas, and by taking a bit of tea out of the oven every 15 hours, we are ensuring that they have been through as little variation in their processing as possible. This is not the same as trying different teas with different roasting levels, because in those cases they may have been roasted in different ways to achieve different tastes. Here, they have gone through the exact same thing, but only with different times. This is why the intermediate teas are not considered finished products – in fact, they’re basically half baked, literally.

For some of you, this might be some of the highest roasted teas you’ve ever tried, since teas like this is not routinely sold in the West outside of a few outlets. Most tieguanyin you encounter these days tend to be closer to the raw tea you see here, and even roasted ones are quite a bit lighter than even the 15 hours version here. Such teas are quite popular in Southeast Asia and is the traditional teas used for the Chaozhou gongfucha.

What I hope this will show is the difference that time spent in roaster will do to a tea, and what, exactly, roasting does to a tea to begin with. While the dry leaves don’t seem to differ that much, you can see that the liquor is somewhat different.


Also, as a bit of an added bonus and something that Brandon reminded me of just now, the final roasted tea is actually almost exactly the same in style and taste as many fake aged oolongs that are being sold on the market. Very often, you may encounter aged oolongs that are very highly roasted and claims to be quite old – 20 or more years, with the additional claim that it has been reroasted frequently. In fact, they are often just newly roasted tea pretending to be old. This tea is not sold as aged oolong at all, but some would do that, so knowing what this tastes like will help you distinguish fake, heavily roasted oolong from aged ones.

For this set, I will include 25g each of the 0, 15, 30, and 45 hours of roasting, and 50g of the final product for the purpose of comparison. So, this will be a total of 150g of tea.

The cost

The entire set will be priced at $60 USD, inclusive of everything. This includes costs for the tea, packaging, shipping, as well as my legwork and time, as I have mentioned in the last post. It will be shipped via registered mail worldwide at the same price. If you can show me that you’re a current full time student at some institution, I’ll take 20% off. I think Paypal is the only logical form of payment here. There are a total of 30 spaces for this.


Many of you have expressed interest in the project, but not necessarily for this specific set. I also hadn’t announced the price for the packet at that time. If you have already expressed interest and I don’t hear from you again, I’d assume you’re still interested, in order to save you the trouble of having to sign up again. Some of you, however, look like you might have used an email address that isn’t real. If that’s the case, please post a response here with your real email address, so I can contact you. Those who haven’t expressed their interest, please do so within the next 72 hours. If you expressed interest but only generally, but not actually interested in this particular round (some liked my aged oolong idea better, for example) please let me know as well so I’ll take your name out. After that, I will put everyone’s name in a lottery and allocate the samples to the 30 names that popped out. Of course, if interest level is lower than that, then there’s no worry.

Then what?

I am thinking of withholding from posting about these teas until almost everyone has had a chance to try them. I will probably create a separate page on this blog and those who have the tea can post their own thoughts, if they so wish, there. I hope this may facilitate some discussion about what they get from the roasting levels, and anything else that pops out. Ultimately, I hope this will be an interesting, and somewhat nerdy, exercise in communal tea exploration.

Categories: Teas

The retaste project 13: 2005 Fuxing zihao Youle

September 23, 2012 · 2 Comments

Back in 2007, I was doing research in Taipei for half a year after having spent a year in Beijing. It was there where I discovered good aged Taiwanese oolong, and also drank a fair amount of puerh of various kinds while there. One of the stores I loved visiting was Fushen, with a very interesting laobanniang who runs the shop. It mostly sells teapots, but has some tea on the side. It was there where I picked up a few tongs of this tea.


This was a tea made by some Taiwanese guy who went to Yunnan to press his own cakes, and who used the name Fuxing and then now switched the company’s name to something else entirely. I bought two of his cakes – the only two available – one of which is this Youle, and another is a Zhangjiawan. I remember the Youle being stronger, but the Zhangjiawan seems a little more interesting. I haven’t tried either cake since late 2007/early 2008. The last time I wrote about this tea was in September 2007, right after I bought it.




This is the exact same cake that was pictured in my 2007 post. I think it got a little darker, but that’s it. Not that one would expect earth-shattering changes in five years.


The tea’s liquor is way darker than I remember – I remember it coming out a golden yellow type colour, for something about two years old at the time. It’s completely lost the youthful aggressiveness that it had – the tea was, if I remember correctly, pretty strong and a bit bitter, even though it had lots of overtones of fruitiness. The notes are also darker and deeper now – sweet, more mellow, a bit more savoury. The wet leaves (still brewing) are also darker and no longer lime green like in the old pictures. I like this tea as it is, and certainly do not regret buying it then at what I remember to be a pretty reasonable price. I’d imagine my cakes in the tongs are a bit different – perhaps aging a little slower, but might also retain more flavour. I look forward to drinking more of this tea in the future.

Categories: Teas
Tagged: ,

An international pot

September 20, 2012 · 5 Comments


The potter Petr Novak has been making teaware for a while now, and offering them to us who are interested in something a little different. A while back, I bought a shiboridashi, which is a style of Japanese kyusu that looks a bit like a gaiwan with a spout, from him, intending it to be a gift. I haven’t gifted it yet, and am not sure if I want to. The pains of a hoarder.

Yesterday I got the above pot in the mail, one of the last of the Yixing pots in Czech Republic series, I believe. I found the experiment fascinating, and right up my alley of the kind of things I’d like, so I asked if I can get my hands on one. Here it is.





The pot is shiny. It’s much shinier than your usual yixing pot, which in my unqualified, ignorant view of pottery is probably attributable to higher temperatures. The surface of the pot is not quite smooth – it feels slightly sticky, actually. The clay inside the pot looks visibly different from the outside, which I guess is because of the firing process and the difference in temperature, or something along those lines. The same can be said of the base of the pot, which doesn’t have the same colours or texture as the body, and is closer to what’s on the interior. The grains of the clay are larger than what you normally see on Yixing clay these days, but then again, these days they’re so fine I actually don’t like them.

I haven’t had a chance to try these yet with tea, but this should be pretty interesting!

Categories: Objects
Tagged: ,

Signup policy

September 17, 2012 · 22 Comments

Seems like there’s enough interest in the Curated Samples. I think in the interest of fairness, I need to institute some sort of lottery system, should demand exceed supply when I have the tea at hand.  Otherwise, it’s a “whoever saw the post first” deal and due to time zone differences, it’s deeply unfair for the parts of the world that is still sleeping, or are otherwise occupied and thus unable to write something before seats are all filled.

More on that later, when I actually have the teas ready and figured out the final pricing, etc. But my current thinking is that if demand does exceed supply, I’ll have a sort of lottery with names and the ones that come out will be the ones that get a seat, so to speak. Hope that’s all right with everyone.

Categories: Information

MarshalN’s Curated Samples

September 17, 2012 · 82 Comments

Every so often, I get people asking me if I would get into the tea business. After all, I’m well located for it, I spend a lot of time hunting for teas anyway, and I always talk about things that people can’t buy easily in the West, so if I don’t provide it, who would? I’ve always refused, because I don’t want to become a vendor, which would compromise my ability to speak freely on my blog here, and it also simply isn’t what I want to do.

At the same time, I do want to send people tea to share, especially if it’s something they can’t find easily. I send samples to friends often, but usually only in a limited capacity. My last attempt at a big tea distribution, which took place in 2007, taught me to not do it again. It’s a real drag – spending a lot of time, effort, and money. I did get feedback on both samples, but I felt the experience underwhelming and ultimately rather superficial, so I never did it again. Buying things for people can often end badly, so I don’t usually do that either.

Recently I’ve been thinking about what’s useful in terms of learning about tea. And then, at a recent tasting I hosted for two friends in Portland, it hit me that comparative drinking is really at the core of what we do when we try to learn more about teas. You can’t know what is good without knowing what is bad, just like you can’t be aware of the range of possible tastes among shuixian if all you’ve had are light roasted ones. Sampling is about broadening horizons, and it is a low risk way to stretch into areas that you might not be familiar with.

So with that in mind, I think there’s something that I can do here that’s both intellectually interesting and not devolve into just merely selling tea. Working off the idea of having flights of tea, I am going to try and organize what I call Curated Samples. These are teas that I have found that I believe, together, will hold some educational/learning value. In other words, I think the samples, together as a group, will have more value than merely sum of the parts. They are going to be limited in quantity – perhaps 20-30 sets at a time. They are also going to happen pretty infrequently – currently I am thinking perhaps 2-3 times a year, depending on whether inspiration strikes or not and whether it is practical or not. Some will take a considerable amount of time to gather – for example I want to do one with age Taiwan oolongs, showing what I think are the four or five standard “types” that exist out there, but finding the right teas in sufficient quantity will take a good amount of time, so that will be ready when it’s ready.

These samples will have to be sold, to pay for the tea, the material, and the time and effort to acquire them. What will not happen is that the samples will not be sold separately – it’s either all or nothing. Also, there will be no more of the teas, even if you love them. If they are acquirable (sometimes they are) I am happy to show you around if you come to Hong Kong, but as currently conceived, at least some of these are not going to be found anywhere. If you liked them, well, I’m glad, and I hope you took good notes so next time you run into a tea like it, you’ll know. Of course, because of the nature of the Curated Samples, I am not going to say you’ll love them all. Some will be placed in these sets precisely because they make a point, rather than because they’re enjoyable, although I’d imagine at least a few teas each time should be pleasant. Pricing of the samples will differ depending on the teas we’re dealing with. Since this is an educationally minded project, if you can prove to me you’re a current student somewhere, I will give you a discount.

Having said all that, the first set of samples I want to provide is going to be around roasting. Specifically, it will be the same tea, a tieguanyin, repeated five times, but with 0, 15, 30, 45, and 60 hours of roasting by the seller. Only the 60 hours version is what the shop sells – the rest I requested with a special order for him to do for me, and are teas that he doesn’t think taste very good but will do anyway, because I asked for a favour. I just got a call two days ago that he’s about to start roasting them, so they’re being roasted as I type this, and I should get them by the end of the week. There should be a total of about 25-30 spaces.

I’ll write more on the teas when I have them in hand. In the meantime, if you are interested in this, please let me know via the comments. This way I can gauge if people actually want this sort of thing, and, should there be greater interest than I have space for, I have to devise a way to make sure distribution is fair.

Categories: Teas

House blend, or floor sweepings

September 13, 2012 · 12 Comments


Finally, some tea.

I’ve unpacked all my teas, although my teaware is still largely confined to their respective boxes. Turns out I have a lot more puerh than I thought – about double my original estimate, now that I have taken an inventory of everything I’ve got. It does scare me a little bit, and puts things in perspective. I think one reason I underestimated the amount of tea I have is mostly because I forgot about the gifts I’ve received, and also some tongs of teas that I bought a long time ago but have been in deep storage, or more less, and therefore wiped from my memory. Well, no more, as now I have a spreadsheet of everything I’ve got, minus the half cakes and the broken pieces that I have collected in various bags.

When you move, you also end up with a lot of fannings. Using ziplock bags means that the fannings are, by and large, contained, and so as a cleanup measure, I emptied the bags of their fannings and then brewed them in my little gaiwan. It’s actually not a bad cup, despite its mixed nature. Hobbes has something like this at home, and we can all do this with leftover samples and bits and pieces, as Scott from Yunnan Sourcing also does. It’s not a bad way to consume tea.

It’s also an interesting, uncontrolled exercise in tea blending. Since we currently live in the age where a lot of more premium puerh teas tend to be single-origin, sometimes down to the farmer level, it is increasingly common to find cakes that are very one-dimensional – they display one single trait very strongly, but there’s a certain hollowness in other aspects. That has generally not been the case in the past, when tea merchants would blend cakes. The public factories obviously did massive blending, with their famous formulas, but even private shops pre-1949 did a certain amount of blending as well. We don’t know their formula, but we know that the leaves on the exterior of the cake and the interior of the cake tend to be different, and there’s a mixing going on perhaps of age as well (different seasons or even years). So, these single season, single-origin cakes are really new in many ways.

I sometimes think of my cakes as raw materials. When aged, I look forward to blending them with each other, possibly to create teas that are more interesting than they are on their own. With blended teas there is a certain fullness that comes with the mouthfeel that you can’t get with single-origin teas. Whereas one tea in the cake might be sweet all the way, another might show more bitterness, while a third may be particularly minty. Blending them in the right proportions can create a tea that does all three things at the same time. Some will claim that’s no good, that they enjoy finding the unique characteristics of one village or another. That may well be the case, but it can also get boring.

I do wonder how all these teas will age in time, and how we will view them twenty years hence. I suspect many will be viewed unfavourably – stuff like laoman’e, with its everlasting bitterness, might not be liked as much by then. I even wonder if this whole single-origin thing is just a giant fad that will fade within the span of a few years, and the blended stuff, especially high end blended stuff (and they do exist, even now – I should post about them) will be treasured among all. Only time will tell.

Categories: Teas

Confessions of a tea hoarder

September 10, 2012 · 9 Comments

I think it’s pretty obvious that I have a good bit of tea – probably more than I can reasonably consume within the span of a few years. Moving actually gives you a pretty good idea of how much tea you have, what you have, etc. I, for example, have found that I have a lot of aged oolong

It’s not entirely clear to me what I can do to consume all of it. I think I still have some in some of the other boxes of tea that I have not opened yet, so that’s why the third shelf is mostly empty – still have space for more.

Conservatively, I think there’s probably something along the lines of 10-15kg of aged oolong in here. I got to this point mostly because I was burned earlier on in my drinking career with not buying enough tea when I like something, and with aged oolong, even if you have money, you won’t find that tea again, because quantities are usually limited to a few kilos, at most. So these days, when I run into an aged oolong I like, I’ll buy loads of it, to ensure that I will not run out of said tea. That, of course, creates another problem – which is that of the “too much tea” variety.

Similar issues exist with my puerh, although not quite as acute, I think. Most things I only have a tong of, if I really liked it, and there are only a handful of cakes for which I have more than one tong. I also have a lot of “stamp collection” bings – one or two cakes each of something or another that I found interesting, but not interesting enough. Again, a similar strategy exists – I need to have enough of the tea to make sure I won’t run out of it easily, and in this case, also because I want to age it (aged oolongs are meant for current consumption and not aging). So, as you can imagine, I have too much tea there too.

I’ve done calculations before regarding how much tea I can reasonably drink within a year. If you assume about 10g of consumption a day, every day, we’re talking only about 3.6kg a year. Divided by 357g, the standard size for most puerh cakes, that’s 10 cakes a year. Granted, ten cakes is not nothing, but I’m pretty sure I’m buying at the rate of more than 10 cakes per year, and I’m sure most of you, if you’re reading this and you drink puerh, are as well.

This is why I think that for a lot of the teas that are mass-produced, there will never, ever be the skyrocketing prices that you’ve seen in the past. It will not happen. A new Menghai 7542 from, say, 2010, will never be very expensive. There’s just so much of it out there, and there’s always a limit to where a market can expand, there will be a point in the future where prices will stabilize and it’ll just stop moving. People who buy these things for investment need to get out while the going is good, or they’ll be sitting on a lot of tea. There are small productions from these big factories, such as the 黃金歲月 craze recently, but that’s because of active intervention of a few speculators who tried to generate interest in the tea, and also because of the limited quantity of the tea itself. You can try chasing those things, but if you’re outside China, you’re pretty much guaranteed to lose and be the guy who ends up holding the tea when all is said and done.

The reason prices for teas have been going up in China is twofold: 1) the market for tea drinking is still growing, as people have more disposable income and thus more money to spend on things like tea, and 2) general inflation, which is pretty serious. My friend L told me that he’s having trouble finding sales people for his teashop in Beijing, even though he’s offering to pay about 1600 RMB a month. Back in 2006, when I was there, a similar job would’ve been taken if the pay were 800 RMB. That’s double the salary within the span of six years. Of course, this is only one datapoint, but it seems generally true as I walk past “help wanted” signs at restaurants and shops. It’s hard to find good help in China, and if you want them, you have to pay up.

So it’s no wonder that this year’s new crop of tea is costing more than ever. We’re at the point where a new cake is going to cost you upwards of $200 per cake, more if it’s some famous brand making it. This is not the same as the bubble from 2006/7, when everything and anything puerh was expensive – I remember new 7542s from Menghai getting to these kinds of prices pretty quickly, only to come crashing down in the summer of 2007.

Nowadays, the only things that are expensive are the quality stuff – or at least, stuff that claim to have quality. Of course, not every expensive cake is going to be good, but good tea is not going to be cheap. There are, however, gems to be found from the 5-10 years old category of teas – some of them are woefully underpriced because they were produced under a no-name label and been sitting dormant in some small shop in, say, Fangcun. Sometimes they can be made of the same material as some of the more famous cakes, or in fact, better. The problem, of course, is finding those gems, which takes time, energy, and confidence in your own palette. Once found, however, you need to buy them up, because you won’t find them again, just like good aged oolongs.

Now if I can only solve the problem of drinking them all, I’m all set.

Categories: Teas

The sample conundrum

September 6, 2012 · 7 Comments

I’m a fan of sampling, and I think it’s a good way to learn about teas. Whether it be greens, oolongs, puerhs, or whatever, sampling gives you breadth that you otherwise won’t get, and exposure to things that are otherwise hard to get (imagine having to buy 357g of something even if you just want to try). One of the problems with sampling though is this: what do you do with the leftover?

Every time I move, it seems, I create a new box for samples that are leftover. Now I have four of these things (the above is just one of them). There are always, always, more samples to drink than time to drink them, and oftentimes the samples, if they are not very good, very memorable, or interesting, are never touched again. This leaves lots of small, open bags of tea that sit around, and eventually get collected into boxes, never heard from again. Since I moved back to Hong Kong and before this particular move, I don’t think I ever took out those three boxes of samples I had sitting on the top shelf of my tea storage cabinet.

These samples come from three sources. The first are ones that I bought myself. You can see, for example, a lot of Yunnan Sourcing samples in this particular box. There are also samples given to me by friends, sometimes very generously. I am still sitting on some samples that I haven’t had a chance to drink, sometimes because they’re valuable teas and I don’t want to waste them on an individual session. Then there are the worst kind – the ones that I get from vendors while shopping, for one reason or another. Sometimes it’s because I want to try something, sometimes it’s because they’re pushing something, but inevitably, I come home with a little plastic bag, maybe try the tea, and then…. it’s forgotten, with no labels, identifying marker, or anything. Two years later, I find it in a box, and I have no idea what it is other than the general type. Once in a while, with teas that look distinctive, I can remember where I got them, but that’s not so easy when you’re looking at a small chunk of some green leaves.

There’s a good Chinese expression, “chicken rib”, to explain this. Chicken rib (雞肋) featured in a story in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, where Cao Cao, one of the warlords, was contemplating retreat and was brought some chicken soup, and he repeated “chicken ribs” a few times. Chicken rib represented the part of the chicken that was “tasteless to eat, but regretful to throw away”. I feel that way when looking at a lot of my samples.

Categories: Teas

Packing and moving

September 3, 2012 · 6 Comments


This is the sum total of my tea life, at least in terms of stuff. The boxes in the far back are teaware of various sorts. Boxes of tea are here and there, and some have been unpacked already into the cupboard you see on the left.

Packing up your tea life is actually quite an interesting exercise. You rediscover pieces of teaware that have been relegated to the B-team, and haven’t been used for years. For example, I found my little tieguanyin pot that was sitting in the back of my cupboard, not having had a drink of tea for probably four or five years, at the very least. It was the first yixing pot I bought for myself, so in many ways it does hold some significance. It’s not something I would buy now, and I even debated whether or not I should let it go and sell it to someone where it will be used and loved, but I can’t quite get myself to do it, so into the back of the cupboard it may go again.

There are also teas that I forgot I bought, or that I haven’t tried for years because they have been difficult to access because of their storage location. The retaste project is meant to try to remedy that, but the progress on that is very slow, mostly because of the constant stream of stuff I have to drink. I will, however, get to every one of them, eventually.

I also learned a few things while packing my tea this time. For example, loose cakes are a real pain to pack, but they can be made considerably easier to deal with if you do this

A giant plastic bag or something similarly sturdy, and all of a sudden you’ve got a tong of tea. It has the added benefit of keeping all the loose tea that will inevitably fall out inside the bag, so that when you’re done, you’ve got fannings that you can grandpa easily. Similar arrangements can be done for bricks and tuos as well. They do make packing the tea much faster, and more importantly, there’s less bumping against each other, less crushing of leaves, less losses overall.

Now I’m trying to put together an inventory of teas that I have – something I’ve never actually done before, since I kid myself that I don’t have that much tea, when in fact I do. Likewise, for my burgeoning collection of yixing pots, I think I also need a list as well. Otherwise they all become undifferentiated and I can’t even tell you what I’ve got, which is probably a bad thing.

Categories: Objects
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