A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from October 2013

Buying yixing pots

October 24, 2013 · 23 Comments

As somebody with a, er, teapot problem, which has only gotten worse since then, I thought maybe I should summarize what I’ve learned and unlearned through the years.

The first thing you learn when you set out buying yixing pots probably go something like this

1) You should only use one tea for one pot

Then there’s a whole slew of supposed “practical” advice, things like how the lid should fit well, how the spout and handle and top of the pot should be level, how things should all line up perfectly, filter vs no filter…. etc. This is before you start bothering with things like clay, which is a whole another hornets’ nest.

I think after having bought a whole bunch of pots, and using pots basically exclusively to brew tea for years, I can say that almost all of those beginner advice are bogus.

Take, for example, the bit about using only one tea for a pot. I suppose that’s sort of true, to a small extent, in that the tea does impart some flavour on your pot over long term use. The pot I usually use for my older, traditionally stored puerh, for example, smells like the tea it brews. When I pour water into the pot, it comes out brown. If I try to brew younger stuff in it, it’s going to get contaminated with the flavours of the storage heavy tea. So, in those cases, yes, you probably want to separate them to avoid too much interference.

At the same time though, it’s entirely pointless and silly to divide the teas into ever finer divisions and brew only that tea in one pot. For example, you can cut oolongs up into a million classifications – tieguanyin, shuixian, yancha, dancong, Taiwanese gaoshan, and within each of those big categories, you can further subdivide them into mountains, seasons, etc etc. The possibility is endless, and very early on I also thought maybe I needed to do that. Then it occurred to me – no, you don’t need to do that. First, the teas themselves, while distinct in taste, are not going to impart such a significant flavour effect on the pot that makes it easily distinguishable. Second, by doing so, you need a million pots, each of which see relatively little use. Third, observing others who have gone before me, such as folks who’ve been doing this for 50 years, they generally don’t care that much – oolongs go into the oolong pots, puerh likewise, and that’s that. So far, I’ve found that it works. You might, for reasons I already stated, want to divide them into two or three categories (heavy roast vs light roast, for example) but otherwise, just let it be.

As for the more structural things with teapots, I think in general those rule of thumbs are useless. Take, for example, lid fit. The easy version of the lid fit test says that you should be able to stop the flow of water if you hold onto the air hole. The more robust, and in my opinion silly, version of the test claims that the lid ought to stay in place and not fall if you fill the pot with water, hold the spout close, and flip the pot over. The idea of this is that this is a sign of good craftsmanship – that the lid fits well because the craftsmen make good pots. That’s true if your pot is made entirely by hand, like this video of master Zhou Guizhen. However, in these days of mold-assisted making (this is a nice series of pics that show how it’s done – and it’s an old technique), or much more likely (if you’re buying low priced pots) full on liquid-clay-in-mold pots (i.e. pouring a liquid clay into the mold, then remove mold after it dries a bit to reveal a pot) there is very little value in a well-fitting lid if it’s just the result of an industrial process that churns out massive amounts of pots. You can see the images here of a CCTV report on the mass manufacture of dubious yixing pots here (sorry, in Chinese, but you can see the images). Labour isn’t so cheap in China anymore. That $30 yixing pot you just bought is not going to be fully, or even partially, hand made. So stop imagining that the lid fit has anything to do with worksmanship.

Nor do things like this really help with brewing tea. A tight fitting lid doesn’t aid tea brewing in any real way. The same can be said of the level line between the spout, handle, and pot – you don’t want the spout a lot lower than the top of the pot, but it’s not going to kill you, or your tea, if it’s not perfectly level (and again, getting it perfectly level is a lot easier if it’s mass manufactured in molds). The value of these tests are dubious, at best.

What I think one should watch out for, insofar as structural things are concerned, generally have to do with pouring and the mechanics of water/tea going in, and water/tea coming out. I think a very important thing to watch for, when buying pots, is how long it takes for the tea to pour out. If it’s slow, then you’re going to be frustrated and have trouble using the pot. This has to do with the size of the airhole and the shape and size of the spout. Also, just testing it with water is not always good – tea has somewhat higher viscosity than water, and I’ve used pots before that seem to work well with water, but when you throw tea in it the pot slows to a trickle. It’s annoying, but it happens, and if you’re buying online, unfortunately you’re on your own.

Another thing is size – it seems like a lot of folks in North America and Europe love the smaller pots, especially things sized around 60ml. I, for one, cannot understand why. I find pots that sized far too small, and are not very good for general usage, even if just brewing for one person. Yes, using a small pot does reduce the amount of tea you use, which is a little more economical, but I also find that it makes controlling brewing a lot harder. I also believe that most of the stuff available on the market at that size tend to be mass produced stuff of low quality – it’s not economical for the producers to hand make these kinds of pots. My personal preference is for something around 100ml, which, after accounting for the tea, is usually one big cup per brew, or a few small cups.

Who made the pot also seems to be something folks worry about, a lot. I think part of it is just wanting to know about the product you bought – there’s a seal on the pot, so naturally you want to know what it says, which is usually some person’s name. Then, you want to know who that person is. In 99.9% of the cases, however, that person is basically a nameless craftsman who toils in the yixing teapot industry. Having someone’s name on a pot does not actually mean they made it – oftentimes (as the CCTV videos I linked to discuss) they are subcontracted out to lesser workers who use the seal of the slightly-more-famous person so that they can sell the pot, possibly using molds to aid in the uniformity of the product. So, while it’s nice to know “who made it”, the real answer is, sadly, a lot more complicated and a lot less alluring. When a pot is in the tiny fraction of pots where the maker is famous, there’s a high likelihood that it’s a fake. In cases where it’s not fake, you already know what it was because you paid thousands, if not tens of thousands or even millions, for the privilege of owning that pot.

All this and I haven’t bothered with talking about clay, which is another beast entirely and not something I want to touch on here. What I will say though is this – worrying about and obsessing over what type of clay a certain pot is is definitely a waste of time. Demanding vendors to tell you that sort of info will usually provoke some answer, but the answer, more likely than not, is probably just made up or at best an educated guess. It also is basically entirely meaningless in terms of what it actually does to your tea. I personally believe the density of the clay and the size of the particles have more to do with your tea’s outcome than the type of clay. Whether a pot is dicaoqing or benshanluni really makes very little difference to a tea drinker, unless the tea drinker also happens to be a big pot collector with the intention to collect different types of clay (in which case, buying over the internet is the wrong thing to do).

So, I suppose if I need to summarize my thoughts on buying yixing pots, it’s this: focus on the function and cut out the noise. The noise includes anything that forms a “background story” that helps sell a pot – name, clay, story of acquisition, etc. Instead, function – clay density, size and shape, water flow – are the things to watch out for. If it’s too good to be true – claims of fully hand made and the price is anywhere under, say, $100, or “Republican” or “Qing” and it’s only $300 …. you should think twice about the reliability of that seller and their value proposition. On the other hand, high prices don’t mean quality either. All this does mean that buying pots over the internet is generally not a great idea. Unfortunately, for most of my readers, that makes buying teapots a tough call. Try to find vendors who have good access, usually on the ground or have deep connections with suppliers, and don’t get too carried away like me.

Categories: Objects
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Hong Kong milk tea

October 18, 2013 · 6 Comments

While we’re on the subject of what regular people drink, it’s hard not to talk about the traditional Hong Kong milk tea.

Normally, milk tea of any sort usually consist of some milk or cream and a regularly brewed black tea of some type, maybe lipton or something along those lines. Hong Kong milk tea doesn’t follow that. It’s a very heavy blend of evaporated milk and tea. Witness the colour

These things are usually served without any sugar. You can add your own, if you want, as sugar is usually on the table in large quantities. The way this stuff is brewed is what some people call the “stocking milk tea” – it actually is a cotton bag that looks like a long sock, with tea inside. They use two pitchers with no lids. The brewer repeatedly pour boiling water (after the first infusion, tea) back and forth between the two, while having it on the heat source so it’s kept at a very high temperature. They do this until it reaches the desired strength, which is somewhere between super strong and incredibly strong. Then, to serve, they add a few big spoonfuls of evaporated milk and then pour the tea into it with force – the “clash” between the two elements is important, and the resulting drink is a very smooth tea/milk concoction. Without the milk, the tea itself is a very bitter, sour, and strong drink that isn’t very good.

The tea they use is pretty low grade stuff, and is usually a blend of various kinds of teas. The base is this

The right hand bag is the tea (left side is coffee). If you really want, you can buy a bag of this stuff over Taobao at the paltry price of 168 RMB for 5lbs (incidentally the Taobao page also has a couple pictures of people making this tea). They claim this is Ceylon black tea, with different grades mixed in. Oftentimes various restaurants will use these as a base and may or may not add things to the mix to create their own flavour – cooked puerh for example is sometimes used to give the tea more body.

Evaporated milk (right) is the preferred fat source in Hong Kong.

I think in Singapore you see condensed milk instead (left), which is already sweet. The results are very different. There are also different kinds of evaporated milk. Something you run into sometimes is a particularly nasty one – basically imitation evaporated milk made using mostly vegetable fat and milk powder. It looks like the real deal, but the taste is off, and the body is thin and gross.

There are other variations on a theme, most notably the yuenyeung (pinyin: yuanyang) which is a perculiar mixture of half coffee, half tea, plus milk. I’m not a fan, but it has its devotees.

You’d think something like this should be pretty simple, but I’ve been to restaurants where the result is so horrible I’ve never gone back again. It’s really one of those drinks that can define your shop, and if your ability to make this singularly Hong Kong drink is not there, your business will suffer.

Categories: Teas

Tea and sugar

October 12, 2013 · 5 Comments

These two things do go together, sort of. Like this HK style french toast (two slices of deep fried white bread with peanut butter in the middle) and lemon tea.

I normally don’t drink my tea with any sort of sugar, as you can probably imagine. But sometimes I’m reminded why so many people do – it really softens the tannins in the tea, and tannins in tea, when it’s strong, can be pretty nasty.

The point was driven home while I was in Turkey, which, to my surprise, is mostly a tea drinking country, despite the fame of its coffee tradition. Tea was cheaper, and drunk far more often, than coffee. The preferred tea is samovar style – super concentrated concoction watered down. This process makes sense especially in settings where you need to make a lot of tea quickly – you make as strong a brew as possible, without regard for how it tastes, and then you water it down so that it’s more palatable. That’s how tea is made in Hong Kong too in most places – the tea is made super strong, with repeated boilings of leaves with water, and then you finally water it down to the desired strength.

The watering down, however, is also where things go wrong – usually when it’s still too strong when watered down. While in Turkey I sometimes would add a cube of sugar (two always comes with your cup) because they made the tea too strong. While that can be nice, sometimes, when it’s overly strong, it can be pretty unpalatable, since the tea itself isn’t much to write home about. Adding that sugar, however, magically transforms it into a much softer, gentler drink – the tannins are gone. What was a pretty strong and pretty harsh drink is now quite nice, and with one cube, you still only barely taste the sweetness. This is especially true if you then wash it down with some baklavas – or maybe it’s the other way around.

Cream, of course, has a similar effect, but cream influences the way tea tastes far more than sugar does. A small amount of sugar has a fairly neutral effect on the taste, but a small amount of cream is just nasty, making your tea look like sewage, while a large amount will of course change everything. I’m not about to dunk two cubes of sugar in all my tea every day, but sometimes it’s good to be reminded of why most of the rest of the tea drinking public love their sugar with tea.

Categories: Teas
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Turkish delight

October 1, 2013 · 6 Comments

These cups are everywhere in Turkey, and usually accompanied either by a big bowl of sugar, or two cubes of it on the side. It’s really quite a nice way to get a little tea in the middle of the day – that caffeine hit you need for those of us who don’t imbibe that other drink.

This particular place was in the middle of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. It’s a tiny corner rented out to these tea purveyors

Interestingly enough, there is something vaguely similar between this and the way they make tea in Hong Kong. The pots you see up top are full of concentrated tea – tea brewed very, very strong. Then, when it’s time to serve, they dilute it with water from the spigots. Three old men take care of the station and do some short deliveries, and some younger men are there for the somewhat further shops. I suspect each of these stalls have their own “region” in the bazaar – since it’s quite large – and serve their local area. The tea never comes with any milk or cream, just sugar. One cup costs a lira each (about 50 cents USD) and it’s drunk fairly quickly – the cup is small.

The best part of this is, it’s on demand.

Throughout the bazaar are these men carrying the dishes – delivering tea (and other drinks, but tea mostly) to the various shopkeepers. There’s also food that gets sent too, and interestingly, I didn’t see much coffee sent around. Maybe coffee isn’t drunk in this sort of setting? None of the deliveries involve any sort of throwaway boxes or cups – they are all reusable, glasses or dishes. It’s quite environmental. I wish Hong Kong still does that. There’s an old world charm about this, and it’s on full display here in this historic city.

Categories: Teas