A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries tagged as ‘tieguanyin’

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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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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Traditional tieguanyin

December 3, 2015 · 14 Comments

I remember when I first started drinking tea seriously about twenty years ago, tieguanyin was really wonderful. They were tasty – really good stuff. I’m sure people still older will tell me that I know nothing of even better tea from earlier times, but I still remember that in the 90s it was entirely normal to get tieguanyin with real red borders on the leaf, with a green center, and a lovely fragrance and especially aftertaste that is only there when you try tieguanyin and nothing else. The tea has a reason to be famous, after all.

Then something happened, and all of the tea on the market became these really horrible nuclear green stuff that taste like they were glorified perfume in a leaf with no depth. This is now the main trend of tieguanyin – really green, but lacking body and having little rebrew value. The teas don’t have that deep aftertaste that made tieguanyin great. You no longer see leaves that have a red border – in fact, when you look at unrolled leaves, you rarely see any kind of evidence of oxidation at all. The leaves also look like they were mutilated by some sadistic tea-abuser. The edges are jagged – broken, really, and not in the normal way. I’ve heard stories about how they do it partly to remove the redness, because if they keep any of the edge the tea will brew a little redder and that will lower the value of the tea in the market. I don’t know if there’s any truth to that, but it’s pretty clear that any sign of oxidation, well, it’s gone. They are expensive too, even though the quality, at least in my eyes have worsened, and I know I’m not alone in holding this opinion.

In the last couple years though I’m starting to see some encouraging signs that people are once again taking seriously the idea that an oolong should at least be somewhat oxidized, and maybe even roasted too. I have begun seeing producers who try to make tieguanyin in more traditional method, with a taste that is a bit closer to (but still not quite) what I have come to like in the past. This is a move in the right direction, and I hope the taste for more traditional style tieguanyin will make a comeback, which can only be a good thing. In the meantime though, Wuyi tea is increasingly green. You win some, you lose some I guess?

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Gift boxes

May 31, 2014 · 6 Comments

My parents get gifted tea from time to time. Generally, if you’re Chinese, you probably receive gift teas faster than you can drink them. Over the past decade, the packaging for these teas have gotten more, and more, and more ridiculous. Here’s an example we recently got:

Now, a big box is pretty much de rigueur these days for gift tea. The box, it seems, must not be any smaller than about one foot by about a foot and half. Otherwise, it’s not a real gift. Now, the really fancy ones, like this, comes in a sleeve, so…

Yeah, this is the actual box. What does that say? Why does it say Diamond sutra, instead of tea? Well, this is a Buddhism inspired tea, apparently, and the tea itself is some foshou (Buddha’s hand), a varietal. It’s from Fujian, and made as an oolong. The whole connection is explained once you open the box.

So there’s this sutra, literally, in the box in the form of a little booklet (note the nice touch of printing it on paper on what looks like a scroll). Then there’s that white piece of paper that explains everything

I won’t bore you with the details, but the fun part is – they claim that among teas made in Fujian, there are the “Three Saints in the Clouds”, which are, in order, Gold Foshou (jinfoshou) , Silver Shuixian (yinshuixian), and Iron Guanyin (tieguanyin). Note how tieguanyin, generally seen as the best of the bunch among southern Fujian teas, is relegated to third place – if gold foshou comes before it, it must be better, no? Oh, and that sutra – it’s there so you can read the sutra while you drink tea, because foshou (because of its supposed Buddhist connection in origin, etc) is particularly suited to Buddhists for meditation and what not. Needless to say, it’s all humdrum marketing speak.

Note how the actual amount of tea takes up less than half of the space of the box – the rest is actually just wasteful styrofoam. There are 20 bags here, each containing 7g of tea – so basically about 140g of tea.

Now for the actual tea:

Honestly – looks worse in person than on picture. It’s a mess – most of it is broken bits, and the leaves that are intact are a mixed bag, including leaves that are obviously “yellow leaves”. Compared it with another gift tea we received a while ago that I talked about – a supposed dahongpao.

While I usually hesitate to judge teas by the way the leaves look, in this case, I have to say it’s pretty obvious something is not quite right with the foshou. Yes, this bag is 10g instead of 7 – one reason I dislike these pre-packaged bags of tea is that they limit you to whatever pre-set amount of tea is in the bags.

The foshou tasted acceptable on first sipping, but can’t do three infusions without starting to taste like water. I guess if the drinker is just sipping it grandpa style, it’s all right. Otherwise, it’s crap.

It’s really an unfortunate side effect of the gift culture in China that these giant boxes are so common. Aside from the need to dream up new marketing speak for them, they are also incredibly wasteful. The teas don’t have to match, at all, what’s on the box. Without opening the tea it’s impossible to tell whether it’s any good or not. I just wish they were more sensible – a nicely designed tin can, with a bag inside, would be infinitely better than these packaging. Oh, one can hope, I suppose.

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Three oolongs in comparison

April 28, 2011 · 17 Comments

I felt inspired to do a comparative tasting today, something which I haven’t done for quite some time.  This past March when I went back to Hong Kong I renewed my interest in tieguanyin, which for the past few years have been in the doghouse, so to speak, because most of the stuff you can buy in the US or in mainland China are so unspeakably bad.  They are, generally speaking, of the “nuclear green” variety where they are almost greener than green teas.  While some people like the fragrance of those teas, I personally find them awful.  Give me any traditional style tieguanyin anyday.

Having gone to a few stores that sold such things in Hong Kong this past break, including a great experience with a relatively cheap tieguanyin at the incredible Tim’s Kitchen (yes, restaurant tea can be good!) I was quite inspired.  So, I bought a bunch of things, and started trying some that I have leftover at home in comparison.  Today’s is one such tasting.

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The identity of the teas are not terribly important.  The one on the left is a highly roasted, slightly aged (my own storage) oolong that I bought a few years ago.  It’s electric roasted.  The one in the middle is a recent purchase on this past trip, with the vendor roasting using charcoal roast and blending the end product.  The one on the right is what I think of as a typical green tieguanyin these days, still not as green as can be, but pretty green nonetheless.  I tend not to drink such things these days.

Closeups of each of the three:

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You can see the blending in the middle tea – various colours are present in the dry leaves.  I brewed them in competition cups for five minutes each, and this is the result

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Competition style really brings out all kinds of stuff you don’t necessarily notice if you were brewing them normally.  The middle tea ended up being the darkest, and the nose has a distinct charcoal smell that the other two don’t have.  The right one is obviously the most immediately fragrant, with a strong vanilla note.  The left one is in some ways the most subdued, but has a nice roasted fragrance.

In the mouth though is where they really differ.  I think with competition style, especially if you drink one right after the other, it is sometimes difficult to tell which one is giving you the strong, everlasting aftertaste, because you are drinking them in such quick succession.  However, it is possible to distinguish notes and especially body and mouthfeel very easily with this method.  Drinking it this way, it is obvious that the middle cup is in some ways the fullest — it has the most full bodied brew among the three.  It also has flaws, specifically it has a harsh and sour note, the harshness from the charcoal roast, the sourness from probably some improper storage.  The tea on the left is the most pleasant to drink for me, probably because it’s been aged slightly.  It has the beginning of an aged taste to it, and will develop it further if I were to leave it alone.  However, it is also in some ways the most boring, because the tea is more or less one-note, and is a bit hollow in the mouth.  The one on the right is clearly a different beast, and caters to an entirely different market.

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The wet leaves also yield some stories.  You can see the mixed nature of the tea for the middle one, as there are leaves of varying shades and stiffness, whereas the other two are more uniform in their appearance.  The leaves on the left are a bit thin in comparison to the other two, perhaps accounting for some of the thinness that I’m noticing in the cup.

It is difficult to find teas like the two left ones in the US, at least, and in China, even.  In a big tea market in a major city, you may find one or two outfits that have some stuff that might be somewhat roasted, but by and large, if you walk into a tieguanyin store you’re going to find various shades of nuclear green.  The reason for this is simple.  It’s both easier and cheaper to make really green tieguanyin — less work, less processing, and they sell for more in China, where the taste is predominantly for lighter tieguanyins.  The same, I think, can be said of the US, and it is usually only serious teaheads who drink the roasted ones, which make them a difficult thing to sell.  In places in Southern China like Guangdong province, the tradition of drinking roasted tea is a bit deeper, so you will find more of these types of tea there, but even then you have to look for them, because otherwise it is very easy to end up with inferior roasted teas.

I like the tea in the middle when I drink it normally — the sourness is quite manageable, as evidenced by my session with friends this past weekend.  This is the other thing about competition brewing — you want to start with a tea that is both strong and has a good body/mouthfeel.  Particular flavours that may be unpleasant are entirely manageable through brewing techniques, but it’s easier for skills to manage bad traits than to concoct a drink out of a bland and boring tea.  Likewise, it makes me wonder about the usefulness of drinking single estate teas for any genre — blending requires skills and is an art, and I’m not sure if there are really that many people now who can do it right.  I turned down the offer to buy some unblended tieguanyin from the same shop, I should go back next time to