A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from November 2012

Rare? Boutique?

November 30, 2012 · 7 Comments

What, exactly, does it mean when someone says a tea is rare? Or boutique? Is that a word that is completely meaningless, or does it actually mean something?

I ask because these are words (along with competition, artisan, etc) that we see, all the time, when people describe the teas they sell. They all suggest a degree of care and quality that you shouldn’t find in what we can call “mass-produced” or factory made teas. But are these terms really what they seem?

Tea farms in China and Taiwan are, still, to a large extent, run by smallholding farmers who all have a small plot of land and farm their own land in their own method. Since the 1980s, there have been an increasing concentration of land in the bigger corporations that sell tea, such as Ten Ren, but generally speaking, most of the teas that people like us drink are coming from smallholding farmers. They are sometimes tea families that have been making teas for generations, but in other cases, they may have just happened to be farming tea somehow – such as some families in Yunnan, who were sitting on tea trees that were more or less worthless a few decades ago, but are now printing money with their teas.

Since that’s the case, it is quite safe to say that a lot of teas are, by definition, rare, because you’re not going to get the exact same thing anywhere else, never mind next year. On the other hand, that’s a definition of “rare” that completely defeats the purpose of the word – it’s only rare insofar as it is a tea that you can’t easily obtain anywhere else, but rare, in and of itself, doesn’t mean anything regarding quality. I can produce a rare oolong by getting some fresh leaves from a farmer and doing my own processing, but I can assure you it’s going to taste terrible. It’s rare though.

The other definition of rare can be that it’s a tea that is uncommon, and thus of higher quality. Something like Oriental Beauty may fall into this category, but I can also tell you that there are varying grades of Oriental Beauty – only the best ones are really sort of rare. The rest are a dime a dozen. Likewise, an older puerh may indeed be rare, and applying that term to, say, an 80s Traditional Character bing is probably not very accurate – things like this are still available easily, if you know where to look, and you can still buy these things by the kilos so long as you have the money to pay for it. Is that rare? Maybe.

Likewise, boutique (or using related words, such as workshop, etc) is just another way of saying “not big factory”. Words like this have been abused by some vendors. Calling a factory that makes tea by the ton a “workshop”, for example, is probably not very accurate. What, then, qualifies as a boutique? Personally, I’m really not sure. I suppose a one-man operation pressing cakes is probably a boutique. People like the couple who press their own cakes probably also qualifies as a boutique, even though I’m pretty sure they end up pressing more than a ton of tea a year (2500 bings – not that hard to do). Again, since so many tea farmers are small time, small plot farmers, boutique is a term that can be widely applied without meaning very much. I’m not sure where that line is, and I think it’s a term that is best avoided.

As for artisan (OED just informed me that artisanal is not a word) – what is that, exactly? I suppose all tea makers are artisans of some sort, even though many of them now use machines almost exclusively for processing, rather than doing it by hand. In areas where hand-made tea is more common, such as Yunnan, it is perhaps useful to use that to denote something hand made – but wouldn’t the term “fully hand made” be much more descriptive? After all, some guy who uses a machine to roll his tea but does everything else by hand is still an artisan, even though he uses tools to assist him. Or is he?

Sometimes these words are unavoidable. It’s rather hard to describe a non-factory making some puerh cakes, or when you are trying to talk about a farmer making his own oolongs. It’s a fine line between reporting what a tea is, and hyping it to goose sales. After all, just like prices, where higher is not always better, not all artisan-made and rare tea is going to be good.

Categories: Teas

Saturday tastings with friends

November 24, 2012 · 16 Comments

For the past few months I’ve been spending some Saturday afternoons with a couple who run a small tea shop and who press their own cakes every year. The wife is the 3rd generation from a tea family, and they have been in this line of work for a long time, with the tea to go with it, I should add. I enjoy drinking tea with them, partly because unlike lots of people in the tea business here, they’re quite willing to share their thoughts on particular teas frankly. I drink a lot of samples of various things with them, since it’s always good to get second and third (and sometimes more) opinions on teas.

Yesterday I went as usual, and had five teas, in chronological order of when the teas are supposed to have been produced:

1) 2010 Youle, producer unknown, private pressing – nice, strong, a bit rough, but pretty good tea, if it weren’t so damn expensive (something like 700 RMB for a cake)

2) 2008 Chenyuanhao Yiwu Gushu mushroom – awesome, juicy, thick, very Yiwu, maybe slightly too soft in approach, but very good and full. Stored in Malaysia throughout, it still tastes young, probably because it’s a mushroom, but it’s going to turn a corner soon and it’s going to be a good tea.

The Henglichang in a cup

3) 1997 Henglichang Bulang. So we meet at last. This is a sample from a friend, and I believe the whole cake is now sold out. There are lots of reviews online, so colour me prejudiced. The tea is bitter, very bitter, without the bitter transforming into anything sweet. It is not traditionally stored, as some have suspected – it has the colour, but none of the taste. Something is weird, and my friend commented that it might be a mix of different teas pressed together to make something look more aged. We stuck with it for many infusions, although the later ones we only had a small sip each. There’s no real complexity and offers none of the surprises of a well aged tea. After trying this, now I know why this tea is a complete unknown this side of the Pacific. There are lots of options for late 90s teas, and this one isn’t a representative example of a good one.

4) Early 90s Yiwu from David Lee Hoffman. David Lee Hoffman probably needs no introductions. I’ve had a few teas from him before, usually coming via friends who send me samples of what they bought, although the last time I tried his teas was before he started the Phoenix Collection. I can’t seem to find this on his tea list, and I think it’s this thing. This tea has very little taste, and what little it does have suggests something no older than 3-4 years. It has a very thin body, no aftertaste, and no real aroma to speak of. Calling this “tea” is a bit charitable. There are two possibilities – either you believe Hoffman’s claims that this tea is from the early 90s, in which case you should never buy aged teas from him because (judging from this and other examples I’ve had) his cave is where puerh goes to die, or you don’t believe his age claims, in which case you shouldn’t be buying this in the first place. Either way, the conclusions are the same. I don’t care how many years he’s been in the business, but I’ve never had a tea that tastes anything like what a puerh can be given his age claims. You’re better off buying something three years old from Yunnan Sourcing.

Top right – Henglichang, bottom right – Chenyuanhao, left – Hoffman

5) 80s 7582 cooked. This tea has been naturally stored, and frankly, not terribly interesting. It’s nice, smooth, tasty, and the leaves were originally relatively lightly cooked, but really, I’d rather pay $25 USD for a two or three years old Dayi that has lost its pondy taste than paying hundreds for an 80s cooked that tastes only slightly better. The value proposition is just not there for old cooked tea, especially if it hasn’t been through traditional storage. It’s for people who like to burn money.

6) 1960s Guangyungong. This is a tea from my friend’s family storage. Stored naturally throughout without ever having been in traditional storage, and it shows. The liquor is a golden colour, and aroma is quite nice and intense with a smooth aftertaste and good qi. Very elegant and pleasant to drink, and much more interesting in many ways than the usually heavily traditionally stored GYGs out there. Too bad it costs an arm and a leg, but it’s very nice tea.

Categories: Teas
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Traveling tea set

November 22, 2012 · 4 Comments

Having obtained this recently – I’m still trying to make sense of all the parts. So far, identified objects are: chataku (2), dishes (2), metal tea scoop, dry leaves presentation vessel (I think – the red/black thing), watercolour painting booklet, signed Baishi laoren 白石老人. Can’t tell if that’s real or not. For the bottom section: 5 yixing cups in bamboo holding them together, 5 small wooden chataku (are they supposed to be used on top of the metal ones?), 5 leaf-shaped dishes, 1 shiboridashi, 1 chaire, made with pewter and missing the original lid (with a replacement wood lid instead) and what looks like an incense burner of some sort (bottom right). Not shown here is a dried lotus that’s extremely fragrant.

I’m trying to figure out how one should be using this for tea. The parts that are easily identifiable are good enough. The rest I presume are for incense burning and also for snacks. One would also have to carry some sort of kettle and a stove. Having a tea picnic is not easy.

Categories: Objects

2003 Zipin hao

November 13, 2012 · 11 Comments

There are lots of cakes out there made by famous personages, most of whom are from Taiwan. The quality of these things vary from very good to very poor, especially when factoring in the price involved, which is almost always high, because there is usually a substantial premium charged for these things, precisely due to the fame of the person who made them. This cake, the Zipin hao from 2003, was made by Zhou Yu of Wistaria House.

I distinctly remember seeing this at Wistaria the first time I visited in 2005. Back then, my thought was “my god, this thing is expensive”, which it was. I can’t quite remember how much it was, but it was heads and shoulders above what a normal cake sold for back in the day, and being a poor graduate student, I balked and never bought it. Nor did I try it at the time, because instead I spent my money drinking some loose Tongqing hao from Wistaria instead. It was good, and the Zipin was forgotten.

I had picked up a cake of their 2007 Hongyin last time I visited, and this time I went back to Wistaria again during my most recent trip to Taipei, and remembered this cake. When I inquired how much, the price was shocking – shocking low, relatively speaking anyway for something approaching 10 years and made by a famous tea master. At 4200 NTD, it’s not cheap for a single cake, but compared to a lot of new stuff, its price is more than reasonable. I bought one.

The dry leaves really don’t look too good. The cake’s front looks like someone stomped on it. Six Famous Tea Mountains’ pressing skill was never great, and it’s evident here too. But then, we don’t judge teas by their looks.

How does it taste? One word – good. It’s got this nice, long lasting aftertaste. It has qi. It has body. I brewed it pretty light, because these days I’m trying to limit my caffeine intake, but the tea still delivered. It’s no longer youthful, and exhibits a taste that is typical of something that’s been around for its age and stored in a wettish climate. The wet leaves look good too.

At this point, one must wonder – why bother buying new cakes of teas that are the same price as this, when there’s something like this to be had? At the same price, you can have something from a reputable tea master aged 10 years, or you can buy some new cake of supposed old tree material (a sometimes questionable claim) and chance it ten years from now. To me, the choice seems pretty obvious.

Categories: Teas
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Buying tetsubins

November 4, 2012 · 19 Comments

Buying tetsubins is a treacherous business. There are all kinds of problems that can arise in the process. I’ve probably bought about a dozen of them now, over the past few years, so have a reasonable sample size to talk about. The first issue, when buying them used anyway, is that the pictures are not always clear, so you are taking a gamble, and the size of your gamble depends largely on the quality of the pictures.

The first tetsubin I ever bought was a cheap little hobnail thing that I bought off eBay for about $20. It was cheap, it was small, but it was a tester, so to speak. At that point I didn’t own a tetsubin, and wasn’t sure of its usefulness in tea brewing. When it came, it had issues – specifically, the water tasted funny. It was sweet and yellow, and I think it was tea residue. The previous owner used it as a teapot (or something similar) and the water therefore was infused with whatever leftover flavours in the tetsubin. I eventually treated it by baking it in the oven – all the volatiles got burned out. I also discovered, while baking it, that the surface was covered in some kind of gunk – a layer of substance that I’m not sure what it is, to this day. Some of it might have been the paint/coating on the surface to keep it from rusting, but something else was there too – something that melts a little at low heat and was sticky when touched. It all got baked away, which was a good thing. Still, it was too small to be practical, but as a proof-of-concept, it worked, so I resold it on eBay for the same price I bought it for, and moved on.

The second was also an eBay purchase, the one right next to the hobnail one in the above-linked post, in fact. That one had a major problem – a tiny little hole, to be exact, that was right in the center of the bottom of the tetsubin. It was tiny, so not visible in any pictures, and it wasn’t pointed out in the listing, but it was there, and it rendered the pot unuseable. That was a pain, and another way that a purchase can go wrong.

I’ve had a number of good purchases since then, and in fact, the third tetsubin I ever bought is also the one I still use most days. It works – it’s lighter, relatively rust free (although more rusty now than when I bought it) and it’s good to look at. Still, there have been issues in the ones I’ve bought since. Sometimes, they’re so rusty as to make the tetsubin hard to use – it’s a real pain to clean, and an investment of time. Sometimes, the sizes are not clearly marked, so when they show up, it’s a real surprise – not always a pleasant one. Other times, there have been repairs done that wasn’t mentioned, and while it might still be usable, it’s good to know if your tetsubin has been fixed or not.

A recent acquisition was a bit of a gamble – the interior shots were iffy, and so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Thankfully, it turned out all right.

A bit rusty inside, but that’s solvable.

Which gets to the other major problem with these things these days – price. Whereas a few years ago, tetsubins were relatively cheap affair, that’s no longer the case. These days anything half decent is at least a few hundred dollars, and anything with any amount of decoration will set you back way more. Trying to find those bargains are hard now, and trying to find bargains in good condition, more difficult still. This is mostly driven, like everything else, by Chinese demand – a tetsubin like this can easily sell for 10,000 RMB in China, advertised as an antique of some sort. It is indeed good for boiling water in, but those prices are ridiculous. Alas, that’s the reality we live in these days, just like the prices for tea.

Categories: Objects
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Taobao Lottery: “1995” “Cheshunhao”

November 2, 2012 · 2 Comments

Tea, unless it’s a gift, costs money. So when we talk about tea, like it or not, we have to mention the cost of the tea. When we say a tea is “good”, do we mean it’s good, full stop? Or is it good, for this price? Or good, at any price?

I am guessing when most of us are writing or reading reviews, we read “good” as being “good at this price”. So when someone writes about how a tea is very interesting, stimulating, multi-faceted, etc, and is really good, I suspect s/he is saying that it is really good at the current prices at which the tea is obtainable. It may also be written with no reference to prices at all, and may simply mean that “this tea is good in comparison with others of this type I’ve tried”. There are probably some teas that fall into the category of “good at any price”, but those teas, I’m afraid, are few and far between.

So when I am writing about tea, even when unspoken, I tend to be writing with the idea of “good, at this price” in mind. Some are unequivocally good, others need to be qualified, and when such qualifications are necessary, I usually state them clearly so that there is no misunderstanding or inflated expectations, especially if that’s a tea that can be had easily.

Such is the case with a cake I found recently on Taobao, and then I have briefly recommended on Teachat. This supposed Cheshunhao is basically a white-paper cake, which means that it provides almost no info on the maker. Sure, it has a name, and the seller claims a date, but as far as I am concerned, I’m buying the tea on its merits alone.

When I picked it it was almost a pure gamble. The vendor has a lot of impossibly cheap cakes. This thing’s claim of 1995 is, at best, questionable. Then again, it’s offered at a price that, at worst, represents a loss of $25 USD. I probably wouldn’t have bothered if I were still in the US, but since I now own a magic card that lets me buy direct, $25 isn’t the end of the world.

What I got was a cake that tasted old – old enough, anyway, for it to be more than worth the cost of admission. It has had some traditional storage, but that storage was a long time ago – at least 8 -10 years past. The cake takes like some similar cakes I’ve had from early 2000s, so while the claim of this being from 1995 may be a bit exaggerated, it’s not terribly far fetched – certainly not a three year old tea claiming to be 17. In Hong Kong, if I find a cake like this, it might cost me $80-100 USD. So, this price is very, very good, and the tea, while it has its flaws, is quite drinkable.

Is it the best tea out there? Heck no. I told TwoDog about this cake, and he bought a cake (or more?) for himself to try. He reports the tea also as being more than worthwhile, but he also found a lot of foreign objects in it. I haven’t yet – only a bit of human hair, which is almost de rigueur for older cakes that are cheap. The leaves are long and big – too long, in fact, and has a lot of woody stems. That aside, it’s not too bad.

What I would recommend this cake for are the following: 1) quaffing at the office, 2) drinking if you want something that tastes aged and does not break the bank, and 3) getting acquainted with something that has had a touch of traditional storage without an overpowering sense of storage mustiness. I think this cake fits the bill for those jobs, and I would strongly recommend it – based on the cake I tried and so long as it stays at this price.

Categories: Teas
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