A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from December 2012

Notes from Kyoto

December 27, 2012 · 2 Comments

I’ve been to Japan quite a few times by now, but there are always things that you notice on trips that you didn’t before.

1) Restaurants, at least here in Kyoto, almost all seem to serve hojicha or genmaicha as the tea of choice. Of the ones that I’ve gone to so far, that has always been the case. Some of these places are not exactly crap restaurants either, and the hojicha, as far as I can tell, are pretty decent. In one case, it was the most interesting hojicha I’ve ever had. I think sencha perhaps doesn’t go as well in many ways with a lot of cuisine, and I can sort of see why. Hojicha is a bit more neutral, and probably does a better job of making food go down easier than sencha could.

2) There really are a lot of teaware stores here. Last time I was here I ran into a teaware store near Daitoku-ji that sold me a few coasters that I think are really quite nice. This time, walking around the main shopping districts here in Kyoto, there are many more teaware shops that sell quality stuff. The prices range from reasonable to very expensive, and it all depends on what you’re going for. If you want a run of the mill kyusu, a few thousand yen will do. If you want a nice chawan from someone who’s probably a bit more than unknown, you’re going to have to shell out a few hundred thousand yen. Chawan styles that are most commonly sold here seem to be kyo-yaki that are very colourful and full of makie decorations with vibrant colours. There are your rakuyaki, of course, and there’s even a whole store devoted to just selling rakuyaki in Gion, and other styles are also sold here, but kyo-yaki is definitely the most common one. To just give you an idea:

This is just another teaware store. For those who like browsing, if not buying for stuff, there’s no better place than Kyoto. You don’t find the same concentration of such stores elsewhere in Japan – you have to have a better idea of where to look.

3) I don’t drink much of Japanese tea at all, especially the green stuff, so I don’t usually shop for them. Prices, however, are expensive, and I think most of the high end stuff you’ll never see in the US. Prices on the high end seem to be somewhere in the 3000yen/100g range. Granted, this is retail in a touristy city in Kyoto, but like teas in Taiwan, China, and elsewhere, I think the outcome is the same – the best stuff stays at home.

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Kitano Tenmangu and Shōkōken

December 25, 2012 · 3 Comments

We are spending a quick few days in Kyoto, and one of the nice things about Kyoto is that there’s tea pretty much literally everywhere you go. Today we spent a little time at Kitano Tenmangu, an important Shinto shrine for the god Tenjin, the deification of the person Shigawara no Michizane, but more importantly, the shrine was also the site of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s famous Grand Tea Ceremony, held in 1587 and was supposed to run for 10 days, even though it ended up only being about two days. It was, for the most part, a grand show of power and patronage by Hideyoshi, but there was some tea involved as well.

Among the collections of Kitano Tenmangu are a number of artifacts related to the tea ceremony, as well as some good looking raku ware chawans. More interestingly, there’s a painting of the scene of the Grand Tea Ceremony, which also lists the famous teaware of the time that was used during this ceremony and who was present at which particular seating. Alas, no pictures allowed in the museum.

There’s also a nice teahouse that wasn’t very obvious given the hubbub surrounding the shrine, as it was the flea market/fair day. The teahouse is called Shōkōken.

The sign suggests that this is the original building used by Hosokawa Tadaoki, a daimyo and a student of Sen no Rikyu, during the Great Tea Ceremony. But looking around, at least on the web, it seems as though the original building was moved to Kotoin in Daitoku-ji, and the one here might then be a re-creation. Either way though, the well is the original one they used.

The house is quite big for a teahouse – and has a nice garden.

As with a lot of other interesting sites, however, this teahouse is not open for viewing, so all you can do is to climb over the wall – at least climb high enough to see inside. It’s bitterly cold right now, so I don’t imagine it being a very pleasant experience to drink tea in such an environment, but in warmer days, I’m sure a tea session here would be exceedingly enjoyable.

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Ways to cheat in tea

December 20, 2012 · 13 Comments

It’s been a busy few weeks, what with grading, trying to finish a few papers, so on so forth. One of the papers I was trying to write and still in pretty shambolic state is one on the Taiwanese industry. Among the more interesting documents I’ve come across are a set of articles of association for the Taipei Tea Merchants Association. They were always concerned with inferior, fake, or just bad tea, among other things. Taiwan teas, even back in the early 20th century, had a premium over mainland Chinese tea, and they were very keen to keep it that way. So, in an effort to prevent problems, they listed what was not allowed in terms of teas that they sell. These are:

1) Powdered tea – this is not matcha wannabes, but rather teas with significant amounts of powdered tea leaves mixed in to make the tea heavier, so you can sell for more. When the buyer gets it, he’ll notice that it’s mostly powder – and therefore overpaid. This is like you getting that last bag/bit of tea from the bottom of the barrel, and feeling cheated, but on a massive scale.

2) Tea stalks – this one is pretty self explanatory, I think. Can’t sell tea stalks as tea leaves.

3) Sun-exposed tea – probably also obvious – tea that has been exposed to the sun for long periods of time, at least that’s what the name implies

4) Fake tea – it’s not clear how this fakeness is achieved – is it not tea leaves at all? Something else?

5) Soaked tea – this is the best – dried used tea leaves being sold again. It actually does sort of work. Try drying out the leaves you’ve drunk, for some leaves it can look remarkable like new tea leaves and presumably someone can try to sell it in dried form. You will still even get some taste out of it, it’ll just be really watery.

6) Fire-burnt tea – tea that is too roasted/charred

7) Tea that has been adulterated with other materials, including spoiled, rotten teas, dirt, dust, etc

There’s also another category of tea – Tangshan cha, which is the term they used for mainland Chinese teas. In this case, it’s mainland tea being sold as Taiwan teas.

So it’s good to know that the tricks that vendors can be up to haven’t really changed all that much over the last hundred years. Buyers of puerh are quite familiar with this stuff, and buyers of other teas have also run into this sort of problem before. The way they solved it? Made it mandatory to sell/buy through a central exchange, to have regular inspectors (full time) who go and check the farmers/vendors, to make everyone a member of the tea production association, so they are more accountable, and to also educate the farmers. It worked.

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2005 Chenguanghe Tang Menghai Yesheng and storage conditions

December 13, 2012 · 10 Comments

Some of you might remember this post, where I talked about the differences between what I had and what a tea friend Ira had bought. The tea is Chen Zhitong’s 2005 Chenguanghe Tang Menghai Yesheng. Chen Zhitong didn’t press this cake himself – it was supposedly something that another factory made, but he just bought the whole lot and rewrapped it in his wrapper.

The differences between the two cakes look like night and day – one looks a bit fuzzy and probably moldy, whereas mine doesn’t. Hster ended up sending me a sample of Ira’s wet version, so I finally got to try it.

I didn’t take any photos, but the results are, to say the least, interesting. First of all, the tea looks and tastes like a traditionally stored tea. The leaves, when brewed, are of a brownish red hue, as any traditionally stored tea would. The liquor is dark, very dark. The taste includes some of that sharp-ish taste that you expect from something that came out of traditional storage not too long ago. If you put it side by side with my version of the same tea, you wouldn’t recognize them as the same thing. Storage conditions, as we all know, does matter.

The tea from Ira, right now, is not the most interesting nor good. The taste from the storage is a bit sharp, and a bit pungent. However, I can tell that this tea has legs, and it has a good body. Give it a few years, after airing out for some time, I think, and it will taste quite decent. It is entirely possible that ten years from now, Ira will have a good, tasty cake to drink. In fact, I think for someone who lives in the cold Bay Area, having something like this may actually be better, long term, than trying to dry-store your own cakes. Those may taste young forever, whereas something like this may age quite gracefully over time.

Of course, the character of the tea has been changed permanently, and they are on fundamentally different courses for aging. What this tea has lost in storage is the fragrance of the naturally stored version. On the other hand, it gained a heaviness that is otherwise absent. Whether you like one or the other is really up to you.

The real mystery, though, is what happened – did Guang’s lot just go through traditional storage at some point? That seems doubtful. It’s also possible that some of his did, while others didn’t. I’m honestly not sure what happened, and I’m surprised he didn’t mention that his cakes have been in more humid storage. In fact, I wonder if he even knows it, if, for example, a new tong he opened happened to be from a different source under a different storage condition.

Either way, it was a most interesting sample.

Categories: Teas

Saturday tasting with friends

December 1, 2012 · 3 Comments

I was going to meet Tim from the Mandarin’s Tearoom today at this place, but by the time I got there Tim had to go already, so missed him. On the menu today:

1) Some random, new puerh that’s pressed into these chocolate shaped squares. Awful, awful tea. Tastes like green tea, and completely lacking in any sort of real aftertaste. It’s probably Lincang tea. Not sure of its cost, but this isn’t going to end well. Avoid newfangled pressing techniques, really.

2) Chenyuanhao 07 Laobanzhang – this tea is a disappointment. After last week’s pretty awesome Yiwu, I was expecting quite a bit, but this tea, well, isn’t that good. It’s not awful, but it doesn’t compare to the Yiwu offering. Well, I guess Mr. Chen does spend all his time in Yiwu overseeing his productions there, because clearly he wasn’t in Lao Banzhang.

3) Mid 2000s private pressing Yiwu from some shop in Macau. This is a private pressing, made with probably Yiwu materials. It’s nice, expensive, but also a bit off – it’s a bit rough and thin, and not very interesting. The person who brought the sample said this is not how it usually tastes, and we suspect the prolonged wetness in the weather recently has something to do with it. I wouldn’t buy it based on this one tasting, but maybe there’s more to it than that.

4) 2003 Henry Trading “Serious Formula”. Hou De had this tea for a little while. This is not a bad tea. It’s punchy. This is a naturally stored version. It’s still relatively cheap, I believe, for a lightly traditionally stored version, but I’m not sure how much it is now for the natural storage ones, but I’m pretty sure it’s cheaper than some newfangled gushu cakes from 2012. It’s nice, but there are lots of teas like it and so if it’s expensive at all, might not be worth the trouble.

5) 1992 Brick, unknown origin. Nice, decent aged taste. Not the best thing in the world, and considering it’s a brick… not much you can ask for. Supposedly a private pressing, although seems a little early for that sort of thing. I only got to try the tail end of the tea, so my comments on this is skewed.

6) 1950s Red Label. It’s hard to comment on something like this, since it’s THE benchmark for all subsequent teas. This is probably the driest stored Red Label I’ve had – no hint of traditional storage. It’s very refreshing, still, and quite nice. Reminds me of some of the gushu stuff that you can get now, but of the best quality – really a tea that is worth drinking, but maybe not at the price that these things now go for. It was brewed a bit weak. Nevertheless, good tea, obviously.

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