A Tea Addict's Journal

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Maliandao Geography – an update

September 10, 2010 · 7 Comments

A long time ago, I posted something about Maliandao Geography, mostly to help others going to Beijing to navigate themselves around the street where they sell all things tea.  After this recent trip, I noticed that the old map needs a little update.

So, what changed?

Well, first of all, the Beijing Pu’er Chadu (black on the old map) is no more.  It’s dead, gone, turned into something unrecognizable.  Those stores all left, I guess, to go somewhere else.

Instead, we have two shiny new tea malls that are now BEFORE the all important Carrefour (purple and orange).  Now, what I said about the Carrefour still stands — anything that shows up before the Carrefour is for tourist only, and the serious tea buyer should not bother with them, because they are more expensive and so you will probably not find your best prices there.  Keep walking.

There are also two newer (although not new — newer only relative to my last post) places that sell tea that are slightly more out of the way.  Brown is Tianfuyuan tea mall, which you can only get to if you walk through the Beijing Tea Corporation mall (or through a nondescript alley with shops).  That’s where Xiaomei, my friend, has her shop.  It’s now a little shabby, and honestly, I thought she should move, but then, she seems to be doing all right, so I’m sure there’s business there still.

The other place that is newer is the Beijing tea trading center, coloured pink here.  I walked by, walked around, and didn’t see much that I like.  However, I didn’t see much that I liked anywhere in Beijing this time, so that’s really not saying much.

I went on a rainy day, and it was not very crowded at all – in fact, it was positively dead.  At Chayuan, only about half the shops were actually open.  I was told that on sunny days business is much better, and that I went on a bad day.

So that’s that — an update to Maliandao.  Just remember — walk past the Carrefour.  It’ll pay off.

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Jiangcheng “1997” puerh

September 7, 2010 · Leave a Comment

I’ve been buying some random teas on Taobao, just to try them out, hopefully hitting a home run.  Sometimes, they’re base hits.  Other times, they’re strikeouts.  This one’s probably a bunt.

I haven’t been posting many pictures, because my schedule usually means I drink tea late in the afternoon.  Living in this part of the world, it means it’s already quite dark outside.  Coupled with an older house that has tiny windows facing anything but west (rather, the west is blocked by a mass of trees) my house is exceptionally dark.  Therefore, it’s been hard taking pictures, and what you see in pictures tend to be somewhat doctored.

This thing is really a bit of a gamble.  Will of teadrunk and I decided to buy one cake each and to test it out, since he’s tried a similar cake that turned out to be ok.  I’ve seen this one around enough times to want to give it a shot.  The cake itself, as you may be able to discern from the pictures, is wet stored, although not terribly so.  There’s that telltale smell, and the slight white frosting.  I don’t think it’s anywhere near the 1997 age claimed by the seller — 2003/4, maybe.

The tea, I think, is quite drinkable.  It has some off flavours, owing to its storage condition, but those get washed away in the first few infusions.  What you have left is a slightly wet stored, 7 years old puerh that is slightly acidic and has some bite.  What the problem is, and it is a problem, is that it is not supposed to be that way — it should be a decent, 13 years old tea, which it manifestly is not.  If I want something of this kind of age and taste, I have far better options, not least the male urine cake.  Why buy this, which is more expensive, when there are better teas?

So, thumbs down on the price/quality ratio.  Boo.

Categories: Old Xanga posts · Teas

Too much tea

September 5, 2010 · 4 Comments

A universal problem among my tea friends, if it’s a problem at all, is the issue of having too much tea.  Everyone I know has a lot of tea — varying from a few kilos of ready supply, to having half a ton of tea sitting at home (BBB, I’m looking in your general direction).  Now, this is not terribly surprising in and of itself, since we tend to buy teas we like, and we almost always tend to buy tea in larger quantities than we can realistically consume.  I’ve done the math before, and if I drink daily, by my normal drinking parameters, then I would only drink about 1.5 tongs of tea a year, if even.  That’s about 4-5kg of tea a year, max.  Not all that much at all.

A less obvious problem though, at least in my case, is that sometimes even though I have lots of tea (and yes, I have lots of tea) it doesn’t actually mean I want to drink them.  So sometimes, on certain days, I might have the peculiar problem of having a lot of tea, yet nothing to drink.

There are really three reasons for this, and generally speaking they are mutually exclusive

1) I don’t want to drink X yet — this usually applies to puerh or oolongs that are meant for aging.  If I only have a few bings of a tea, then I might not want to consume it all now, hoping that I can consume them later at a better stage

2) I don’t want to drink X because it’s too precious — this applies to a lot of things, varying from rare oddities that friends have given me in the past, tea with particular memories, or, in some cases, just really expensive stuff like longjing, which, in my case at least, invariably go bad before I actually get around to drinking them.  Two years old aged longjing aren’t so good.

3) I don’t want to drink X because it’s terrible — this happens more than you think, and sometimes can be masked with reason 1 or 2 (more often than not, 1).

The end result of all this is that oftentimes teas are actually consumed very slowly, and some things don’t move at all for years and years.  Today I just finished a bag of aged shuixian I bought from Beijing about four years ago.  When I bought it it was already aged four or five years, so this is really now an eight to ten years old tea.  I packed my pot with what’s left of it, and am drinking it right now — giving me a comfortable caffeine buzz and a nice, full mouthfeel, despite its humble origins.  It’s got the beginning of an aged tea feel — not quite the sweet taste you might find in some aged shuixian yet, but it’s getting there.

I also opened a “new” bag of roasted Taiwanese oolong a few days ago, which I also bought from Beijing in 2006.  That was one of my first purchases from Beijing when I arrived, and has been sitting around ever since.  It was vacuum packed when I bought it, but the vacuum lost its seal a few years ago, and has been that way ever since.

Trying the tea — very pleased, aged a little, lost all the roasty/charcoal flavour, but retaining the spiciness.  Why didn’t I open this sooner?

This gets me back to my original point though — it’s easy to forget some of the old oddities you have stored up, and once consumed, they’re gone forever.  That makes me not want to drink some of these things, because they are little pieces of memory.  However, I learned my lesson — I now buy in bulk when I meet a tea that I like.  One or two kilos is a small purchase, a few kilos is a larger one.  That is the only remedy to “I don’t want to drink this now”

Which, of course, leads to even more tea.

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Puerh poker

August 30, 2010 · 1 Comment

While I was in Beijing my friend L gave me two decks of cards.  One has these — leaves of various places — printed on them, while the other has pictures of various villages that produce puerh.  I find it interesting how the ace of spades is from Longpa, while my favourite, Yiwu Gaoshan, is only a mere ace of clubs.  The other two are Yibang (ace of hearts) and Yiwu Guafeng zhai (ace of diamonds).

There’s the rest of the deck too, all with leaves from different places.  You can see that someone spent a lot of time collecting all this, documenting them, and then putting them to good use.  There’s a scale next to most of the cards too — you can see faint lines here in the scan where they say “5” “10” etc.  I think that’s cm, to give you a sense of how small (or large) the leaves are.

It’s not necessarily of any real use per se, but it’s definitely interesting.

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Incense and tea

August 28, 2010 · 7 Comments

Some people like burning incense while drinking tea.  I must say I’m not a fan, although aesthetically it can be a nice thing to see/have.  Some would argue that incense makes the room more pleasant and calming, and that a certain amount of nice, understated aroma is great for dispelling any kind of stress that one may have from the vagaries of modern life.  The picture above is a line of just-finished agarwood.  It was, certainly, very nice to have a little aroma in the room, but at the same time, it means that it interfered with the proceedings of drinking and tasting tea.  Moreover, in a case where the incense is so prominently displayed, it actually got in the way of the tea preparation.  Our host was more concerned with not breaking the incense than in pouring a good cup.  The tea suffered.

This brings me to a larger point, which is that oftentimes we put the emphasis on the wrong things when making tea.  Teaware, preparation procedures, setting, temperature….. all these things can get in the way of making tea.  I believe human attention is finite, and what is spent on one thing must be taken away from something else.  Someone who is spending a lot of time watching the clock to make sure the infusion is exactly 20 seconds is inevitably taking something away from some other part of the tea preparation process.  Someone who is too preoccupied with the beautification of the pot with a brush is probably not paying enough attention to the tea inside the pot.

Practice will alleviate a lot of these problems, but I think more important is an acceptance that no cup is “perfect”.  There’s always a better cup somehow, somewhere.  Focusing too much on form and the peripheral things will only detract appreciation of what’s really important.

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News from Beijing

August 26, 2010 · 1 Comment

Behind the Great Firewall of China, there’s not much you can do, blogging wise, unless you happen to use Sina.net as your platform or you find a proxy.  So now, jet lagged and hovering somewhere (time wise) in the middle of the Pacific, I am writing this of my two day trip to Beijing, a week after the fact.

All my friends in Beijing seem to be better off now than they were last time I was there in 2007, which is heartening.  I don’t mean that only in terms of material wealth or some such, but also in terms of their tea philosophy, if I may use such a term.  Everyone seems to have found their own preferences and tastes, and are pursuing them actively with more involvement on the production end of things.  People who used to be mere merchants are now makers, or at least closer to a maker now than they were a few years ago.  It’s always nice to talk to folks who are passionate about what they’re doing.

Which brings me to the tea that I’ve had — too much tea in the span of a few days to really discuss in detail, but a few things jumped out as interesting.  One of my friends is now a part owner of a teahouse, and he also goes to Fujian every year to source stuff on his own farm for his shop.  Among the things he’s doing is making white tea.  It’s not just any ordinary white tea though — he roasts them ever so slightly, and then ages them.  Here’s a comparison of a 2006 yinzhen vs a 2010 one.  You can figure out which is which.

The aging gives the tea a bit more sweetness and mellows out the flavours, although it also means the tea loses some of the fragrance, as is normally the case with aged teas.  Four years is not a long time, and I’d imagine the tea can change a little more.  White teas are always ageable, but it’s nice to see that he’s producing them specifically for the purpose of aging (thus the roasting).

I also tried some puerh while there.  Beijing stored puerh really isn’t ideal, but if done carefully with a lot of water containers boosting the humidity of the storage unit, it is possible to produce nice, round tasting tea that doesn’t have that typical dryness one might associate with overly-dry storage conditions.  I think that’s actually quite important, as dry tea makes for bad tasting tea.  My friend L is now storing tea in bags, all within a big cooler (think camping) and slightly moistened.  He found a guy in Kunming who goes up to the mountains all the time and spends a lot of time thinking about how to make good tea, and the results show — soft, supple tea that tastes good.  I wonder how they’ll age in a decade, but so far it’s promising.

On the other hand, I visited Maliandao again and it seems like things have normalized a little there.  While two more tea malls have opened up since I was there, for the most part business seems to be down.  Granted, I was there on a rainy day, which most definitely put a damper on traffic, but I think a lot of stores aren’t doing as much business as they used to.  Xiaomei’s store is still there, but now the clientele is mostly of a wholesale nature, with very little retail sales going on.  As I predicted long ago, everyone who wanted to build a tea collection has one already, so there’s very little impetus to buy more.  I certainly felt that way — walking around the shops, I had very little interest in trying or buying tea.  I’m sure there are hidden gems here and there, but I don’t have the time to go through them one by one and try them all out.

The best part of the trip was simply seeing everyone again, and having tea with them.  Tea is ultimately a social drink — while it can be great alone, it’s better with friends.  Too bad that part of tea drinking is often what’s missing in the Western experience.

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Storage checkup

August 16, 2010 · 4 Comments

I first put tea in my parents’ place in Hong Kong in 2006, and have been adding to it ever since.  This is the first time I am checking on the tea since I started storing tea there.  I took everything out and cleaned the shelves on which they’re placed, checked a number of cakes, and then put them all back in.

Honestly, I was a little worried.  Hong Kong is, after all, quite humid.  I put the cakes on the top shelves on a bookcase that is partially covered, so it was the maximum protection I could find in the entire apartment from light while avoiding the problem of smelly wood.  Air condition is often on during the summer months, so it probably helps alleviate terribly soaked cakes, but I remember coming home one spring and could feel that some cakes were somewhat wet.

Thankfully, when I opened the cakes, none of them were moldy in any way, shape, or form.  In fact, they all seem to have aged somewhat, with the silvery tips now gaining a somewhat brownish tint, and the leaves turning dark instead of staying green.  Stuff in a tong are greener than stuff outside of the tong, as one would expect, but in general there’s aging going on here.

I tried some of the tea too — by taking the shavings from a number of cakes, I’m essentially doing an “average” taste test.  Results are encouraging, with the tea tasting strong and smooth(er).  So far, so good.

So, I put them back where they belong, and hope that next time I check them, a few years from now, they would have aged even more.

Categories: Old Xanga posts · Teas

Korean and New Zealand teas

August 14, 2010 · 5 Comments

I just went to the Hong Kong International Tea Fair yesterday.  It’s been a few years since I’ve been to a tea expo, and this one was a bit different from when I went to the one in Shanghai during the height of the puerh boom.  Partly perhaps also because it’s Hong Kong, the kind of tea merchants who were here were much more international, and also quite diverse in their offerings.  Most of the sellers were, of course, from China, but very often from provinces that are lesser known, such as Guizhou or Hunan.  The selection of green tea was very diverse, whereas the more popular things, such as various types of oolong from Fujian, were fewer.  As for puerh, there were a smattering of makers there from the big factories, such as Menghai or Haiwan, but even Xiaguan was not there.  There were some producers from Taiwan, India, Sri Lanka, and other places as well.

I think much of this was a product of the fact that many of the better known companies or types of tea simply don’t need the exposure at a tea fair, so they’re better off not coming and paying the expo fees instead of actually showing up.  For the lesser known, this is a great way to get some exposure that they otherwise won’t have.

I saw a few things that I know relatively little about.  The first is a company called Zealong, which makes oolong in New Zealand in the Taiwanese style.  The taste of the tea is very clean and crisp, and reminds me of decent Taiwanese high mountain oolong.  The company, according to their reps, was started by someone from Taiwan, and now has a few different teas.  It was interesting, although not terribly cheap.  I can imagine some place like New Zealand growing some interesting teas though.

I also met two Korean tea makers, and bought some of their products.  Korean tea tends to be green tea of various types, but one of them also made a white tea that had higher levels of oxidation, much akin to something like a baimudan with some age.  I bought some for personal consumption.  More on those later.

Another stop in Beijing before heading home on this trip.  Seeing some old tea friends from up north should be pretty interesting.  Stay tuned.

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Teas from different places

August 12, 2010 · 2 Comments

Haven’t really been able to post anything recently, but I took a few pictures of different places where I had some tea…

No, I didn’t add sugar.

Categories: Misc · Old Xanga posts · Teas

Grandpa style techniques

July 19, 2010 · 11 Comments

Life has been pretty busy the past few weeks, and I’m getting ready for a trip, so things have been hectic.  Tea has been mostly confined to grandpa style tea.  Having been doing it recently though, I have a few ideas.

1) Never, ever go below the halfway point in the cup when drinking, and preferably keep it at 2/3 full at all times.  You need that amount of tea to re-add water and not end up with a really diluted cup.  This is pretty obvious.

2) Use a lidded cup, if possible.  Don’t cover when making the tea initially.  However, start covering the cup once you’re refilling the cup the 2nd or 3rd time.  This way, the extra heat retained helps extra the tea a little more.

3) When pouring the water, especially a little later (or when the tea has cooled) pour with vigor, and pour along the edge of the cup.  That way, your water will stir up the tea a little and it helps mix the old tea and new water together a little.  I noticed a difference between pouring in the middle and pouring on the side.  Pouring on the side helps the flavour a little later on.

4) It’s actually a good way to drink tea this way as a method of evaluation.  In a way, grandpa style is just a big mug of competition tasting done over a long time.  There are nuances that you’ll get from the tea that you don’t necessarily get from brewing normally.  One of my puerh, for example, displays a smokiness that is not evident when brewed “normally” but the smoke comes out in a grandpa brewing.

5) Don’t add too much leaves.  It’s very easy, when used to gongfu brewing, to use too much leaves for grandpa style.  It’s very toxic.

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