A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries categorized as ‘Teas’

Crashing prices

February 26, 2024 · Leave a Comment

A couple years ago I posted about an outing with a friend to go to the local Dayi store to drink new 7542s (I think I deleted the image by accident). The tl;dr is that they’re very average and way too expensive. Now, two and half years later, we have this:

This is a screencap from Donghe which shows you prices of puerh. For the 2020 7542, which reached a peak of around 50,000 RMB/jin (42 cakes) we are down to around 29,000 RMB. It’s still really expensive at over 600 RMB a cake, but nowhere near the peak. I’d also imagine prices will continue to fall as the quality simply isn’t there.

More importantly, you can easily buy ten, even fifteen, years old 7542s on Taobao that are genuine that cost around this price. People trying to sell you the 2020 version will tell you it’s special, they used better leaves, blah blah, but in reality it probably is just another run of the mill 7542 with very little difference that you, the drinker, will notice some years down the road – certainly not at a price that is so inflated.

I have increasingly come to think that for most teas, especially ones that aren’t special in some way (i.e. most big factory productions) you’re just better off buying when you are ready to drink them – there is such a huge backlog of teas that are sitting in storage somewhere by people who bought them years ago to “invest” that are, well, looking for drinkers. Why buy new, when you can buy old?

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Good baseline tea

August 1, 2023 · 7 Comments

I just spent a month in Taiwan doing research and other things. It was spent almost entirely in Taipei, so there wasn’t much time to go to the tea farms or anything. I did do some tea shopping, revisiting old haunts and finding new ones. A shop ran by someone who’s been there since he was 16 (now 75) is, for example, a pretty fun place to go, and a witness to all the changes to the tea industry there in the past two generations.

As food in Taiwan is invariably pretty cheap and the rental apartment kitchen subpar, I ate out a lot. Food comes with drinks in sets, and more often than not, it’s tea. One thing that got me thinking, and for once a new thought that perhaps deserves a blog post, is that there is such a thing as a good baseline tea. In Hong Kong, for example, the baseline tea one might drink is some watered down Lipton that you might have at a cha chaan teng, or some rather nasty cooked puerh with some storage notes in a big pot in a dim sum restaurant. It’s…. not good. In Taiwan, the baseline tea, at least in terms of what you normally end up drinking in a lot of situations, is iced black tea. They are often listed as “honey fragrance black tea” – bug bitten black tea, lightly roasted. The stuff actually in plastic cups may or may not be that – who knows about truth in advertising here – but the teas, in general, are pretty good, and far better than whatever junk Hong Kong places serves up.

But the profile of that baseline matters a lot, I think, and shapes tea preferences. Hong Kongers are not afraid of traditionally stored puerh, because you encounter it so often. It’s what you would expect to taste when you want some puerh. In places where bottled, bitter green tea is the norm, like in Japan, then the drinker is going to be pretty immune to those kinds of bitterness. The Brits and much of Europe has teabags with blended black tea as their baseline. It is our daily encounter with tea and often is what comes to define what “tea” is for these people.

The worst, I think, is when you have places that just don’t do much tea in daily life. This ironically includes Mainland China, where tea is not usually served with food (and when it is, the tea is similar to the cheap powdered stuff you get in American Chinese restaurants). In these cases, there is no “tea” and no baseline. In a way, I suppose, that opens doors – you go in with no preconceived notion. But I think by not having a daily encounter and a daily baseline, there’s also less ability to discern quality, to know that something is “ok” or “off.” This is something a typical Taiwanese, I think, would have a feel for, even if they can’t articulate it, because they see it so much.

Alas, I’m back in Hong Kong. So, maybe I’ll post some thoughts again in a few years time. Ciao.

Categories: Teas
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Packing teapots

March 11, 2023 · 2 Comments

So…. this is how I pack my teapots for moving. You buy those butcher paper – enough to wrap them all. Then, just simply wrap the pot with the paper – usually trying to get a sheet between the lid and the body, so it’s at least cushioned if not snug. Although, take care not to be too snug – you could, theoretically, crush your lid that way if you try to force it in and the lid is tight to begin with. Thankfully, with my loose lids, that’s rarely an issue.

Then you just put them in the box – the point is to 1) stop the pots from touching anything else and 2) cushion it enough so that there’s no room for shaking. This is a box that’s filled to the brim, probably something like 60 pots total. There are a few of these boxes that I need to unpack. It’s gonna take me a little while….

Categories: Teas

Housecleaning

March 11, 2023 · 5 Comments

So, it’s been a while. I have sort of neglected this place – partly because I have nothing really new to say, partly because, well, blogs are a bit of a dead genre. Either way, this place has languished.

But I do have plans, at least, to try to change that. One impetus is that I moved recently, which means that, once again, I packed up all my teapots and am reminded of the gargantuan task of cataloging all of them. I should take photos of them all, and while doing so, I suppose I should also post them here. So, I’m making myself do that, and you can expect to see teapot porn soon. I will, however, make a small change. No more volume measure – it’s a finicky thing that doesn’t really serve any purpose anyway. I think I’ll just put physical dimension here and call it a day. Measuring volume requires me to pour water in, weigh it, pour it out, and then let it dry – a time consuming process that also adds risk of breakage. I’d rather not do that. So, physical measure it will be.

Another thing of note is that finally, this website has an https address, so Chrome won’t freak out anymore about it being not updated. Sorry for the long delay in that. I also have a lot of links to my old photobucket that probably should be fixed. I’ve been working on it, but it’s taking a long time and I’ve got other things to do, alas. That’s what happens when you run a site off old, old web services from the early 2000s and never spent the time going back fixing everything…

Anyway, hope you’re all alive and well.

Categories: Teas

A year long hiatus

August 31, 2022 · 10 Comments

Last time I wrote a post here was July 2021. That’s more than a year ago and the longest break I’ve taken from this blog. Since the pandemic started, I’ve been mostly busy dealing with various projects of mine, the most important of which is what you see above – the publication of my first book. I just got my own copies a couple days ago, which is pretty exciting. It’s also a long, long way away from when I first started this blog when I was merely a second year grad student. That year, I first started conceiving of this project that ended in this book, so in a way, it’s a nice milestone.

My next project is going to be much more about tea – I’ve been doing some research on various aspects of tea for the past few years now, as many of you have seen. The project is now slated to be mostly about tea production in Taiwan over the course of the 20th century, and its implications on what we can learn about skills, artisan production, and global trade. I originally wanted to do something more comparative, but Covid-19 travel restrictions means that it’s much harder to get that done in any reasonable timeframe. I do hope that in the next few years I’ll be able to go more to Taiwan to finish up some research and to get a book out, this time in less than than it took my first one.

Otherwise though, on the tea front, not that much is going on. I’ve been drinking lots of deathroast tieguanyin these days – just grandpa style in a mug. It’s easy and tasty. Without much travel and with all the Covid silliness, there’s been much less tea activity than normal and so not a lot to write about. I suppose a recent highlight is a session with a very well stored 1950s Red Label. That was nice.

Now that the book is out, it’s time to get cracking on the next book. Hopefully I’ll have some meaningful updates on here once I have made some more progress.

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2019-2021 7542s

July 9, 2021 · 2 Comments

Yesterday I went with a friend of mine to a local Dayi store to drink the new 7542s. We had three – from 2019 to 2021 (left to right). The reason we went is simple – the new 7542s are priced to the heavens. The new 7542 this year, for example, is well over 1000 RMB a cake. On Taobao it is selling for roughly 1500+ per cake, which is about $230 USD. The green wrapper version of the 7542 from last year is now double that at 3000+. It was a “special” year, some 80th anniversary cake, basically. The 2019 is about the same price as the 2021. None of these prices make any sense.

They especially don’t make sense when you drink them. The 2021 one feels insipid, high fragrance, but lacking in body. The 2020 one is better – obviously so. It’s got a solid mouthfeel and rounded profile. The tea is decent, but at $450 USD a cake, you have a LOT of alternatives and the 7542 does not stand out as a good purchase. Likewise for the 2019 – the tea, which is pretty standard factory fare, has no real business being this expensive. The 2018, funny enough, is only a fraction of the price.

It’s clear that Dayi has switched strategies once again. Long gone are the days when they do 10+ pressings of 7542 a year. These years it’s just once, and they limit the production amount. This is, I think, mostly to drive up prices. For the price of one of these cakes you can find a tong of some older 7542 with 10 years of storage on it. There isn’t that much immediate demand to consume this tea – nobody’s drinking this for fun. In fact, any kind of blemish on the packaging on these teas immediately result in a discount, so people are loathe to even handle them lest they lose value. God forbid there’s “tea oils” on the wrapper or a tiny dent on your box. These are, now more than ever, vehicles for alternative investment and not for drinking. If you want to drink something, find a not-sought-after Dayi recipe from like 2009 and buy away. If well stored, they offer good value for money. These 7542s are for people who have too much cash and nowhere to spend it.

Categories: Teas
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In Memoriam: Kihara-san

June 19, 2021 · 3 Comments

About ten years ago when I first got back to Hong Kong, I was wandering around in the pre-children days and went to Lau Yu Fat to see if they had anything interesting to sell. When I got there someone was already sitting there with old Mr. Lau, drinking some tea. It was a Japanese couple and they were having some tieguanyin. I joined in, wanting to try some puerh or another. The tea was not very remarkable. I don’t even remember if I bought anything that day – I may have out of politeness. But as I was just doing research that ended up in the article A Foreign Infusion, I had a fun and exciting conversation with this Japanese aficionado of Chinese tea. Afterwards, we exchanged contact info.

I didn’t expect much from it, to be quite honest. While I’ve met many people over the years over tea tables, the number of people I’ve actually kept in touch with any regularity is small. Kihara-san, though, was different. He loved traveling, tea, and good food. Hong Kong was a frequent stop for him and his wife, and they would visit at least a couple times a year, always staying for just a night in the same hotel. I also happened to go to Japan every year or so. Before I knew it, I would be meeting him a few times a year, over food, tea, or both, and inviting him to places that I know. We even once met while we were both in Taiwan, with him taking me to a place he knows near the Taoyuan airport. Good times.

Before the pandemic hit, we had plans to go out for sushi together next time I visited Tokyo. While the Sukiyabashi Jiro is world famous for the documentary and the three Michelin star, Kihara-san thought it was “too old fashioned – too conservative.” This other place, he said, would be more exciting. I had also wanted to finally see, in person, his heirloom teapot that he inherited from his grandfather, who was a trader in Nagasaki. It’s a zhuni pot, Siting shaped, and beautiful. I’ve seen many such pots on sale before, but it’s always special to handle one that’s got family history.

A year ago on June 18th, as he often did, he posted a photo of a sukiyaki place that he went to. It was the same place he recommended me to go almost exactly two years prior that served up some good beef in some basement in Ginza. 好食, he said, which is Cantonese for tasty. I implored him not to taunt people like me who were, at the time, locked down and unable to travel anywhere. The next morning, I received a reply – this time from his wife, saying that he had suddenly passed away in his sleep that night.

The news was shocking – while he had been having health issues, he seemed to be on the path to recovery. The passing was sudden. The loss, irreplaceable. A year later, I still haven’t been able to go to his tomb and pay my respects. I haven’t quite reconciled with the fact that I’ll never see this friend again, to enjoy discussions with him over good food and tea. My heart goes out to his widow, who had to navigate this awful year coupled with the passing of her husband. I know I’m not along in mourning for our friend – he had many friends all over the world, and it’s a testament to Kihara-san’s magnetic charisma.

On this memorial day of his passing, I am having some roasted tieguanyin, something I know Kihara-san would very much like. I hope that, in the great beyond, he could be enjoying as much good tea as he would like to have. Kihara-san, you’re very much missed.

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Restaurant tea service

May 4, 2021 · 10 Comments

You are at a beautiful restaurant, the dinner was very good, and you’re satisfied. Dessert is coming, and the server comes around and asks you “coffee or tea?” Being a civilized person, of course you said tea. Then, they come right back and bring you what I call the box of doom

And your heart sinks, because, well, you know.

Now, granted, if you’re at some fancy place, chances are they won’t do this kind of injustice to you. Instead, they’ll have a few menu options for you to choose from. But more often than not, as a non-flavoured, caffeinated tea drinker, the options are usually English breakfast, and maybe Earl Grey. If you’re lucky, the place has a few other options, such as an Assam, Ceylon, or even Darjeeling. If not, it’s going to be some random green tea, chamomile, and a really dodgy puerh.

It’s interesting to me that this happens often enough. Restaurants that spend a good deal of time and energy worrying about their food, their alcohol, and their decor, frequently pay too little attention to literally the last thing you’re likely to taste before leaving. Yes, it’s a First World Problem, but then, that’s what this whole blog is about isn’t it.

I’ve never worked in a restaurant or run one, but I recognize that tea service is difficult and fussy. I’d imagine it’s a costly exercise having to deal with brewing tea – you need a teapot, a cup, hot water, leaves, someone to deal with all that gear, plus sugar and cream. Compared to coffee, where you just present the drinker with a cup of coffee and cream and sugar… tea is annoying.

Yet, it doesn’t really make sense to me how neglected it is among restaurants. Take, for example, this tea menu:

The eagle eyed among you probably noticed a few weird things. Puerh listed as a black (1993 too!). A Zealong premium, which doesn’t seem to exist anymore on their own website, also black (why buy a Zealong black tea?). Yushan oolong from the national park – pretty certain anywhere with tea farms isn’t actually in the park itself – most likely it’s an area next to Yushan, more like an Alishan tea. Da Ya Qing is probably Dayeqing, a typical name for a yellow tea. Yuzu Kikucha, not kikicha. Now, what if I told you this is from the last page of the 100+ pages wine menu from Per Se, a Michelin three star restaurant in NYC owned by Thomas Keller? I’d imagine their wine list doesn’t have this many question marks on one page, so why is it ok with tea?

Now, typos aside, this tea menu is actually ok – it has nine options for those of us who want unflavoured, caffeinated tea, which is a lot more than most places offer. Of course, at a restaurant charging you hundreds of dollars per head, this is the least I’d expect. But then, even at super fancy places, the tea service can be underwhelming.

“Per Se is dated” I hear you say. Ok, how about the menu at Le Bernadin, a half dozen blocks down Broadway?

If you want caffeinated, non-flavoured tea, you’re stuck with Keemun or Dragonwell (not Dragon’s well). I guess you can drink sencha… but you know, there’s a reason nice Japanese places in Japan generally give you hojicha after a meal and not sencha. Sencha is not an after-meal drink, at all. Especially after heavy French food, you’d want something with a bit more weight. Le Bernadin’s tea menu veers too much on the light side – even Keemun might be too light. A malty Yunnan black would do much better (or, better yet, a heavily roasted TGY).

Which also gets me to the second part – the teaware. The teapots used are often impractical, looking more to impress visually than be good practically. They’re usually too big, which I understand – you want to avoid having to refill. But it also means there’s a lot of room for error for the drinker. Use too much leaves, and it comes out super strong. Use too little, and the tea is insipid, especially if it’s something that sells for $8 at a place with a tasting menu at $275. If the teapot has a mesh element, they’re impossible to clean properly, and after a few months or a year, will take on the smell and taste of whatever flavoured teas that are most commonly ordered at the restaurant. So then, when you order that sencha, it’s going to come with free vanilla and lavender flavour, whether you like it or not. And don’t get me started on baskets/infusers that are too small for the job.

Carrying tea is costly, just like any kind of inventory, and unlike wine, it goes bad. So it’s fairly understandable why you’d want to avoid having too much variety or just too much stock in general. I think for a restaurant menu, flavoured vs unflavoured should be about half and half. Easy to brew teas should be prioritized – blacks, roasted oolongs, hojicha, that sort of thing. Sencha, pan fried green teas, and other more delicate teas like light oolongs should be treated cautiously – if carried at all (and they also go stale very quickly). For example, that dancong on Per Se’s menu looks like a disaster in the making – I can imagine it being fragrant but also nasty bitter if brewed the normal western way in a big pot. How is that a good idea?

Look, I get it, tea isn’t something you can easily charge thousands of dollars for, unlike wine. While there’s a market for expensive-ish tea, these restaurants aren’t where you’d go for that. I’m not asking for home quality tea here, I just want something that isn’t nasty and leave me with a bad taste in the mouth as the last thing I ingest before standing up and walking out. For those of us who don’t drink coffee, there’s often no alternative but some bad English breakfast blend that taste like Lipton yellow label. For restaurants that supposedly care about things like taste, food source, sustainability, and all that other good stuff, you should care about the tea that you serve your customers.

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Yixing Inventory #20: Gemingchang

February 12, 2021 · Leave a Comment

I’ve been delinquent in updating this series. Here goes.

This is a pot marked “Gemingchang”, a producer of Yixing pots in the proverbial “Late Qing, early Republic” period. There are lots of these on the market, many of them fake. I’ve got maybe half a dozen of these, and I think after a while you notice a few things. This shape here is a pretty classic one for this mark. The cut on the spout is usually sharp. Really nice, practical pots. 100ml

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2005 Changtai group establishment commemoration tuo

February 1, 2021 · 3 Comments

The tea we drank for this past Sunday’s livestream was this tuo. On his site, Glen from Crimson Lotus Tea lists it as a 2003, because that’s what he’s been told the tea is from. The reason I have it here as 2005 is because of what’s on the wrapper – the wrapper claims this is for commemoration of the establishment of the Changtai Tea Group, which happened in April of 2005. Given that wording, the pressing of this tea cannot have happened before that, thus the year. It’s entirely possible that the tea is made with leaves that were a couple years old by then – nobody knows, and frankly, once you go past ten years or so, plus one or two years doesn’t matter.

What does matter, however, is the storage condition. One thing that I worry about when I buy aged teas from China these days is where it was stored – and sellers don’t always tell you that. If you can taste it in person, then it’s easy – just judge it by the tea. If you can’t though, then it’s a lottery. I bought a cake from 2007 recently that has been stored in Kunming the entire time, or at least it tastes like it – it’s like a cryogenically frozen tea, barely aged. It has some Kunming aged notes – leaves are a bit darker, tea brews a little more orange, but, it’s still tasting very young.

That’s not the case for this tea. I said on the stream it’s decent – and I might have undersold it a bit. I drank it once before the stream and once during. My initial impression, without knowing anything about the tea (I didn’t even look at the website) was that it tastes like something that’s been dry stored in Guangdong, with an ever so light hint of wetness. It seems like the story is that it was stored in Xishuangbanna – entirely possible, as I’ve had some pretty good teas that’s stored in Banna before that are similar. It has that slightly musty aged smell, but that’s not too strong. The tea, despite it being from Changtai, is pretty good.

The thing about Changtai is that since 2005 when they became Changtai group, the quality of their teas took a nosedive. They built their reputation on the early Yichang Hao stuff from 1999-2004. There was a fair amount of hype around the tea, whipped up by a few individuals online. However, the tea itself really was decent. It wasn’t worth the exorbitant, post-hype price, but it was decent tea. There’s a reason Changtai Tea Shop became Changtai Group.

Once that happened, however, something changed. I think it has to do with them ramping up production volume, but whatever happened, a lot of the teas they pressed just weren’t that great, and their top of the line stuff, the Yichang Hao pressing, was expensive. In some ways, I think that diluted the brand a lot – most people couldn’t afford their top flight stuff, so bought the lower grade ones. Those, however, was very average (or worse), and so people (like me) swore off Changtai tea as a result. They also did some private pressing for individuals – Wistaria’s 2007 Hongyin, for example, was processed by Changtai with materials that were sourced through them. But that does not reflect on their standard pressings.

These days when I do buy teas I mostly buy ones that are semi-aged – 10 years or so old is a normal thing to buy, instead of something brand new. At that point, you basically know what you’re going to get. When you buy a new tea, there’s a fair amount of risk involved – some teas never aged into anything decent. When you buy something that’s aged 10+ years, if the storage has been good, then the tea would be pretty nice to drink.

This tuo, at this moment, is pretty good. With his rather short Chinese new year 15% off sale (ends in a day or so I believe), you can buy a 100g tuo with at least 15 years of decent aging for $31.5. I don’t browse much in the Western-facing part of the tea market these days, but I believe this is a very good value for what you’re getting. If you don’t have much aged tea in your stash, this is a very good candidate for some decent aged tea.

Full Disclosure: I got one tuo for free. I probably won’t be buying more of these, but that’s largely because I am a hoarder who has more tea than I can drink in a few decades. I didn’t promise him I’ll say nice things about it.

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