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I embarked on my tea journey when I studied abroad in China in 2008 and traveled around Taiwan that summer. I'm here to share my experiences and offer my own opinion, advice, and comments on tea.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Paying for Tuition Tea

What constitutes a deceit? If you bought a tea that tasted good and paid a reasonable price for it, is it a deceit if the description surrounding the tea has been fudged a little bit? I stopped by a shop after I found a replacement lid for a pot, and was drawn in by the different maocha the shop had to offer. They source maocha directly from Yunnan, but haven't bought any in the last two years because the market is too hot. They also had (supposedly) aged maocha. Curious about how aged maocha tastes compared to a cake I tried some of their 1990 loose leaf tea. The first infusion was okay, but things picked up by the 2nd steeping. There was smoothness one would not find in most cakes this age, and there wasn't any funky super wet storage flavor yet there was slight sharpness. The tea also had powerful qi, and I was really feeling it by the third infusion. After a dozen or so infusions (pretty good durability) I asked to see the wet leaves. He grabbed some from the pot using some tongs, and they looked good. He gave a good discount and I bought a small amount of this tea.

I went home and brewed the tea for my grandparents. It performed just as well as it did in the tea shop, though the qi's effect was slighter this time (there is the concept of qi loading where an older tea with lots of qi may have less of an effect if drunk constantly). I pulled out the wet leaves to take a more comprehensive look.


Notice anything strange about these leaves? Because I did...


Wait, why are these leaves so leathery and wrinkly! Based on my shaky memory of pu-erh tea, this either indicates really wet storage or that part of these leaves are cooked. The leaves overall didn't disintegrate with rubbing, so readers please chime in with opinions. I watched the guy take tea from the same box he grabbed a sample to brew for me, so there isn't any funny vendor business going on here.

But assuming the worst, that there is some shu it it (about 15-20% I think), was I ripped off? I certainly enjoy the tea, and a part of me wish I didn't know this (ignorance is bliss). Also, compared to prices for aged pu-erh this was a pretty good deal, but I'm not familiar with Asian prices (it sold for 4000 NTD/135 USD for 600 grams). I honestly don't mind that there's a bit of shu it in. It probably explains why there was excessive smoothness in those initial brews. I think I'm more annoyed that the vendor didn't mention this to me. I really thought he was a nice guy.

Oh well, I've definitely had worse-tasting tuition tea.



Thursday, February 21, 2013

I Just Want to Have Fun

Maybe it's the two years I've been away, but I have a more casual relationship with tea right now. I think interest in hobbies require some amount of leisure time. I had some tea ware with me and some tea in Azerbaijan, but I was so busy that I actually didn't finish the tea I brought with me. Looking at past emails and discussion forums I don't know if I even want to be that obsessed with tea any more. So much of my time had been spent nit picking minor details and endless trolling of web sites to find the best tea/tea ware and the best prices. Discussion over topics on forums are so heated now that I'm afraid to state my opinion otherwise I get blasted by collective Internetz rage, whereas before I would've gladly stepped into the fray and stand my ground. Before I left there were some newer members who, in the span of two years, have become full fledged experts (real or self-proclaimed), spouting off obscure knowledge about the exact composition of Zi Ni clay versus Zi Sha clay. It's scary how fast we tumble down the rabbit hole. Just imagine, I was like too at some point, one of those "stop having fun" guys. Now I don't care as much. I don't care if my pu-erh is going to age as well as it would in a more humid climate, I don't care if my Yixing pot is not as good as some older pot, I don't care that I'm "doing everything wrong." I just want to enjoy tea. Is that enough? 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Aged Oolong from Taiwan

So in the course of a month I think I've tried enough different teas to make up for the two years I spent in Azerbaijan. All of them have been aged oolong, and although I'm no expert like MarshalN  I'd like to think I'm learning more and more about this genre of tea. Most of these teas have been at one store where I've developed a pretty rapport with. The shop keeper doesn't do the hard sell or push any particular tea so I feel more comfortable voicing my opinion. I recently bought some 30 year old Dong Ding, which hasn't been re-roasted since the initial roast.



When I first saw the dry leaves I was worried this would be one of those "aged" teas that had been re-roasted so many times and so frequently all I can taste in charcoal. The leaves smelled slightly musty so I decided to try some, and the resulting brew surprised me. The aroma of the tea and gaiwan lid reminded me of a slightly wet-stored aged pu-erh. There is acceptable sourness that goes away after a few infusions. 


There is are notes of caramel which I really dig, and there's a pretty sweet finish. The mouth feel and aftertaste isn't as great as some of the other teas I have bought from her, but I can't complain too much for the price I paid. I haven't been offered (or asked for) any aged oolong that have had roasting of any kind, so maybe I should ask if she has any other teas like this one. 





The wet leaves are slightly leathery, but still pliable. I apologize for the poor photo quality (especially on that last one), because I only have the camera on my phone available. Looking at prior tea notes I've made, the ones for this one are pretty sparse. I don't think it's because it's bad tea. I think it's because I haven't done this for so long. I know what I'm tasting and I know what I like, I just don't know how to express it. I need a break-in period before I get back to form.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Shopping for Tea

I both love and hate buying tea in person. I love the experience of sampling different teas that a shop has to offer. I hate it when I go through all the stuff in a store to find nothing I like (or the stuff I like is too expensive) and have to buy a little bit to save face. Maybe it's just me, but I don't have the gumption to leave after trying a bunch of different teas. Buying tea isn't like buying clothes, where you can window shop and it's pretty obvious what's what. There's only so much that physical appearances can tell you, but that's mostly helpful for pu-erh. Buying tea is like buying cheese or cured meats.You sample some, and than you buy what you like. Maybe this explains why I have a love/hate relationship with buying from the cheesemonger.

I try my best to first assess a tea with all my eyes and nose. I also ask questions to figure out the tea's history. For example, I'm on the prowl for slightly re-roasted or un-roasted aged oolongs. So much "aged" oolong is stuff that's roasted to a cinder and all you can taste in charcoal...no thanks. A heavy charcoal/high fire smell is a deal breaker. For some, a sour smell in the dry leaf can also be a deal breaker. Not so much for me. I relish funky flavors and smells, and I asked for tea that "smells like it had been stored in a cabinet in an attic and forgotten about." I didn't know how to express that "flavor/smell" in Chinese so I used a small anecdote. Ask questions! Did you store this tea yourself? Do you re-roast it? If so, how often? How do you re-roast it? Etc. MarshalN has an entry on evaluating aged oolongs...I pored over it and every one of his entries on the subject. Very good stuff.

Okay, so you've decided on something to try. Now comes the tricky part, because there might be a bunch of second-guessing and confused palettes. I'm not as advanced as many people, so I can only handle at most four or five different teas before my tongue gets confused. Usually the first tea isn't up to par, but it usually gets better when you help the shop keeper hone in on your taste. Sometimes they'll sell some "bogus" information that goes along with the tea...don't buy it. Just rely on yourself to do the deciding.

So congratulations! You found a tea that you liked. Suddenly a tea tasting turns into a poker game, and if you reveal your hand you might be screwed. "How do you like this tea," says the shop keeper. "Eh, it's okay," I say. Unlike with other stuff I don't have much experience with the art of bargaining with tea. I think discounts start when you buy a kilo or more at a time. Also, it helps if you're a return ing customer. Right now I'm "working" this shop. I started off buying a kilo of okay but super cheap "aged" Dong Ding. The second time I went I got a small discount, and hopefully the next I go it'll be a little better. But for people in the know, how much of a discount is there and at what quantity? Is there a difference in discounting for different tea types? 

PS: I don't know if this works or not, but I play the "poor student" card. Even if I had a successful job I'll keep talking about the crappy economy in the states. I was able to secure a small discount (on a pot though) with this strategy.


Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Return

So I recently returned from Azerbaijan, and what was the first thing I did? Check my cakes...and nothing, no visible signs of aging of any sort. No mold though, which is the silver lining. Must move to an environment more conducive to agin pu-erh. Having been away from the tea world for two years, I immersed myself in old emails, written notes, exchanges, etc. and I noticed that I was really into tea. I also really knew my stuff back than, or at least I was able to fake it. I don't know if I'll be as enthusiastic about tea as I was before Peace Corps, but time will tell. Also, without a job to support a tea habit at the moment means that I am lusting after tea ware/tea without any real means of acquiring them. 

I am, however, indulging myself happily in Taiwan. I have already acquired a lot of gaiwan, pots, tea, and other super important tea ware (which I tell myself so I don't feel any guilt). I've mostly been frequenting a store in Taipei that deals mostly in aged oolong. MarshalN is the expert in this field, and I scoured every mention on the subject to prepare myself. So much of the aged oolong people will first brew for you is usually super roasted to death, and when it's super roasted I find it harder to tell if it's been aged. I also suspect it has to do with the shop keeper's hesitance to brew anything too funky. I told the shop keeper I wanted something that "smells like it had been stored in a cabinet in an attic and forgotten about." She gleefully obliged and I scored some nice tea. 

I don't know how much of this is true, but I was told that aged Taiwanese tea have certain characteristics: baozhong isn't sour, oolong a little, and TGY the sourest. When I inquired about the specific kind of oolong typically aged, whether it be dong ding, high mountain, jin xuan, etc. I didn't get a straight answer. I also couldn't get a straight answer when I asked if oxidation levels had anything to do with better aging capability. She wasn't witholding information, however, it was probably because of my American tinged Mandarin. Oh well, I'll ask again when I go back after Chinese New Year.

Quick question, is anyone still reading this blog? In a two year long absence I suspect I am considered "dead" in the tea world.