A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from April 2013

No new tea

April 30, 2013 · 4 Comments

Or, more accurately, no new puerh, for the last few years and from the last few years.

I was going through what I do have and what I have bought, and what I have found is that I have bought very little new puerh in the last few years. This is not to say that I wasn’t buying tea – quite the opposite. I have bought quite a bit of tea in the past few years (probably too much, as usual) but much of that is stuff that pre-dates 2007.

Among the full cakes I’ve bought that are younger than 5 years, most I purchased as samples – through Taobao, for example, where sometimes the smallest sample size is a full cake. Almost all are single cakes, with two exceptions, a tong of old tree tea from a local outfit that makes decent tea, and also two tongs of Yiwu teas from various villages. That’s it.

Instead, I’ve been buying things that are older – in many cases, about ten years older. I don’t know why, but I seem to be running into these 2003 teas a lot, and I have purchased a bunch of them for what are seemingly ridiculously low prices. In fact, they are cheaper than newly made, 2013 Dayi teas, such as the purple Dayi and the Year of the Snake cake. And the thing is, these are not crazy, empty prices – there are actual buyers buying these things, as indicated by the sales record of the shops. Mind you, I didn’t buy the 2003 teas because they’re cheap; I bought them because they’re cheap, and because they’re good, and they have exhibited good aging already and will do so further as they sit there longer. There’s just no good reason to jump into unknowns that may or may not age well, at what looks almost certainly like inflated prices, when there are older, big factory stuff that are a much better bargain.

From the perspective of someone who is buying tea for drinking, there is almost no good reason to chase after these special editions of this or that. They are often touted as being a unique recipe, but the fact of the matter is, big factory tea is, more or less, big factory tea, and after the initial fervour dies down, people forget about them and start chasing the next big thing. The tea, if it turns out to be good at all, is not going to be consumed for at least a decade or so. Meanwhile, you run all the risks of storing them, and there is always the not-impossible chance of it turning out to be, basically, a dud. The key is to flip them and make a profit, but that’s not easy to do.

Whereas for something that is 10 years old or so, you already have a pretty good sense of whether or not the tea is going on the right or wrong path – if it’s aged badly, or if it has no aging potential, you’d know. 10 years is not old yet, it’s just starting to become drinkable. But at the very least it removes all the risks that comes with storing a newborn tea – the possibility that it is going to turn out to be awful, or not ageable at all. Given my needs and wants, I cannot bring myself to buy teas that are new and expensive – it just doesn’t work in terms of the price/quality ratio.

Of course, there are people who buy it for “investment” purposes, which is probably what’s really driving demand. If you’re doing it from areas outside of Asia though, the ability to turn that investment back into cash is going to be a seriously difficult proposition, and one that needs to be considered carefully before you try that path. Even friends in Hong Kong who try to sell their aged tea back often encounter prices that they deem unacceptable – because the middlemen are the ones who actually have access to market, and very few buyers are willing to pay independent collectors the market rate for a tea. So, buy your tea for yourself, and spend the rest of your money on something else – or save it, invest it, and buy the good stuff ten years from now. 

Categories: Teas

Two teas

April 23, 2013 · 6 Comments

Before I talk about them, let me show you the pictures first.

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So… what about them?

I should preface this by saying that the perceived darkness of the cake on the right probably has more to do with lighting than anything else. In person, the cakes are very similar in colour. The right hand cake may be a tad bit darker, but only just.

What these two cakes are: two 2006 Douji Gushu blends. The left one is from the spring, the right one from the fall. From the packaging, you can’t tell at all – the only difference is the production date on that silly sticker that they put at the back of their cakes, which ruins all wrappers and therefore has been peeled off. Aside from the sticker, there’s no discernable physical difference between the two cakes.

Not when it comes to the packaging, anyway. You can see that the leaves look a little different – The spring leaves seem to be a little broader, and rolled perhaps slightly less. But that can just also be the inevitable variation between one cake or another – neither of them are screaming “fall” or “spring” at you by just looking at them. In fact, I’m pretty sure there’s no good way to tell the difference between the two if you only examine them physically.

Nor is the difference between these two cakes obvious when you look at the brewed liquor. I used 4.5 grams for the test, with the left being spring again and the right being the fall tea. There may be the tiniest difference in colour, but again… nothing that will really tell you anything.

Even price wise, they’re not that different. On Taobao, where I bought these two, the spring tea is going for about 600 RMB, and the fall one about 500 RMB. Slightly cheaper, but not much. I bought the fall one for 300 RMB, but I think the vendor quickly realized he mispriced the cake and revised the price almost immediately after I placed my order.

Yet, difference there is. In fact, the difference is so obvious that anybody with a tongue should be able to tell them apart. The spring tea and the fall tea behave differently in the mouth. The spring tea is round, soft, full in taste, has a nice, long lasting aftertaste. The fall tea, in comparison, is more watery, sharper, more hollow in the middle, and most obviously, more bitter, in a not-very-pleasant way. The fall tea does have a more obvious aromatic component than the spring, but it is not nearly enough to compensate for the flaws. In other words, if given the choice, I’d pay 100 RMB extra and buy the spring version of this cake any day of the week. If the price difference is 300 RMB, then one must consider how much 300 RMB is worth, but when the difference is only 100 RMB out of 600, the decision is a no-brainer.

I do not think that all spring teas are superior to all fall teas, but I do think that, given comparable trees, processing, etc, spring teas are better than fall teas, nine times out of ten. The fall version of this tea is not bad per se, but is not nearly as good as the spring one. Appearances, however, do not yield any information. So next time if you are tea shopping and you are given the choice between fall and spring for two teas that should be comparable, and if you can only buy one – go for the more expensive spring one. It is probably worth it.

Categories: Teas

Lessons from a whisky masterclass

April 16, 2013 · 3 Comments

I dabble in drinking some whisky now and then. It has, interestingly, some similarities with tea drinking. In particular, I find the experience of drinking and analyzing whiskies to be quite similar to the process that you do with tea, except, very crucially, whisky has alcohol (and also can be consumed straight out of the bottle – and a relatively consistent experience, at that). So, I don’t drink much of it, but I like it.

I also think there are things we can learn, or not learn, from those who drink whiskies. Long time readers probably know that I’m not a big fan of tasting notes, and especially, I’m very skeptical of tasting notes that are full of flavour descriptors – hay, tobacco, straw, etc etc, abound in notes for puerh from many people. I’ve never had hay, or straw, or tobacco, so none of those things really mean all that much to me, and I’m not even sure it means all that much to many people (not to mention that I have a hard time believing tobacco is all the same – it’s like some tobacco smoker describing a flavour as “tea”). So, I generally try to avoid those things. Sweet and sour I use, and sometimes fruity or coolness or smoke, but that’s because I think it is a more elemental, basic sense – I try to avoid things that are quite specific. My vanilla is not really your vanilla.

So it is a rather pleasant surprise to see someone in the whisky review community who is talking about this very issue, and he does so in a very clear, straightforward manner. For those interested:

It’s slightly long, at 15 minutes, but he’s addressing the same issues – don’t just drink with your nose and your tongue. Pay attention to the body, the way the whisky (or in our case, tea) behaves in your mouth, the way it interacts with your body, the finish – how long it lasts and how deep it penetrates down your throat. So on, so forth. Most Taiwanese oolongs, for example, share some similar flavours, but what separates the good from the great are these bodily reactions/responses to the tea that cannot be captured by flavour descriptors. As I’ve said before, drink with your body.

Categories: Information

The speed test

April 11, 2013 · 2 Comments

One very simple metric of checking whether or not a tea is good is really pretty intuitive – how fast do you drink the tea?

I have enough tea to last me a while, but among them, some are consumed quite quickly, and some take forever. Some teas, especially ones that are not very interesting, may be left undrunk for a long time, while others, such as a few aged oolongs that I have, are things I have to control myself from drinking, lest I run out of it. The same can probably be said of samples – when you buy a bunch of samples, there are ones that will be drunk immediately and gone within a week, while other samples, you may open, and they will then fester – left around, because you don’t really want to go there again, usually because it’s bad.

This is more obvious when you have a session with multiple teas and with multiple drinkers. When you have a few teas going, often times the group will then sort of settle on one or two teas, and decide to keep going and going with that one, instead of drinking the others that you have brewed. Sometimes, of course, a tea is drunk to exhaustion, but that’s rarely the case when you have a few different teas going. Usually, they’re drunk to the point where the group no longer wants it, or deems it not-so-good, and move on.

In many ways, I think this is a more honest test of whether or not a tea is good. Of course, good, as used here, means good to drink now. A harsh sample may be great in the future if aged properly for years, but right now, what you want to drink tend to be the teas that you like the most. If you want more of it, chances are, it’s good. I think this is probably a more honest and straightforward method of determining whether you like a tea or not than trying to figure out what flavours and notes and aftertaste you get from it.

Categories: Teas


April 7, 2013 · 20 Comments

There’s a lot of discussion, everywhere, of what is zhuni and what is not. It’s quite easy to tell what isn’t, especially if you’ve seen enough of them, but what is, is harder to say. I think I am reasonably confident, however, in saying that this pot I bought not too long ago is, indeed, zhuni.

The walls of this pot is quite thin, and it is a nice build. It’s slightly large for one person use, but I think its shape and size works well for oolongs. A Taiwanese oolong should do quite well in it, and I am quite excited to try it out.

There are little problems – like the little chip in the base that you see here. Can’t complain though, as perfect condition ones these days are astronomical in price. These days Chinese buyers are hoovering up everything, from pots to tea to supporting teaware. It’s getting harder and harder to buy things now, and until the China bubble bursts (if it ever does) I think high prices are here to stay.

Categories: Objects
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