|It's been almost five years to the day since I began this blog. I still remember sitting in Quincy House's dining room in the afternoon, punching out the very first blog post on that cold winter afternoon. For a while I think only I, and a handful of friends, were reading this, but slowly, over time, readership grew. The number of blogs on tea also grew tremendously over that same period, so much so that now there are easily a few dozen active blogs that are not vendor-linked and operated by people who are truly passionate about tea. I have already talked elsewhere about why we blog about tea, and I think my views are largely unchanged -- in the Western hemisphere where most bloggers are based, it is really one of very few means through which we can communicate with other like minded individuals. Blogs come and go, and sometimes I wish to hear again from some old friends who have fallen off the radar (I'm looking at you, Phyll, if you're reading this) but it is a great thing to see a thriving online community.|
I have long felt that the blog deserves a better home -- that Xanga is not serving its purposes. I have also long put off the job of actually moving it, not least because I don't know how to handle all the old posts, and always had the excuse of needing to finish my dissertation to procrastinate. Over the past few days I've finally worked up enough determination to go through the process, and I think the new home for my blog is ready for viewing. Thanks to Doug H. for the final encouragement that I needed, even though he probably doesn't know he gave me any.
So from now on, please direct your reading pleasures to
which redirects to the first address. Please also update your bookmarks, links, feeders, etc, accordingly. This blog on Xanga will no longer be updated, although what remains, remains. See you on the other side.
|A question that I have discussed on a few separate occassions with friends over the last month or so has been the question of how to determine quality in a given agricultural product -- in this case, tea, but more generally the usual suspects, such as wine, whisky, etc, came up as well over the course of discussion. |
The problem is: how do we determine whether tea A is better than tea B? What are the standards, and who determines these standards? Is there such thing as a tea A that is unequivocally better than tea B?
Let's start with the basic question. How do we determine what's better and what's worse? There are obviously different ways of approaching the question. The "scientific" one is one that bases itself on various metrics that are somehow measurable and readily testable. For example, something about dissolved materials in the water, amounts of various kinds of chemicals (name your favourite antioxidants, for example) and also the absence of unpleasant things. It's a very scientific way of measuring tea, and coupled with more physical traits, such as the size of the leaves, the amount of variation in such traits, etc, you can arrive at a way to grade certain kinds of teas in a rough "best to worse" sort of way. Any buyer of Longjing would've encountered such a grading system -- they are meticulously graded from high to low, with corresponding prices. The highest grade is the best, the lowest grade the worst. Simple, right?
Well, maybe, maybe not. I have met many people over the years who do not like the highest grade of Longjing -- mingqian longjing can often be too soft and light, and for many, it is on the wrong side of being bland. For them, it is much better to drink something slightly lower grade -- a yuqian, for example, or some other teji type Longjing. They find the flavour more robust, and the tea more interesting. The same can be said for people who prefer second flush Darjeelings over the first, etc.
That leads me to the question at hand -- is that "objective" quality scale really a measure of quality, and is it absolute? In other words, can you really just say that a mingqian Longjing is better than 4th grade Longjing, period, no qualifications? Or can we only say that "for me, this mingqian Longjing is better than the 4th grade one"? Is there such thing as an absolute measure of quality?
When talking this over with a wine sommelier over the Christmas break, her argument is strongly in favour of the existence of some sort of absolute quality. One can indeed say that this Grand Cru Burgundy is better than that Beaujoulais, period (I know, not a fair fight, but I'm trying to make a point). Likewise, applying the same logic, one could say that this dahongpao is indeed better than that Taiwanese jinxuan oolong. The key to this measure, especially when one compares things that are not directly related to one another (as opposed to our Longjing example earlier where everything is supposed to be the same type) is the tongue of the expert, or perhaps a group of experts, who have tried a multitude of things and are very knowledgeable in their field of expertise. They can use their knowledge to evaluate the goods in question, and then arrive at some sort of measure of quality that puts different wines or teas or whatever into a ranking of one over another. In other words, there is such thing as absolute quality. I had a similar conversation with a friend's friend, who, among other things, sells whisky. The logic was similar - the expert knows best, basically.
I must say I am not entirely convinced. What, exactly, does it mean when we say something is "better"? That it is of a higher quality, that it is more worthy of our money, or that it should be more pleasurable to partake in? Or, perhaps, none of the above, or some combination of all of the above?
That's where I really have a problem with the idea that there is some absolute scale of quality. I know, from my own vantage point, that I have a personal scale of things that I think are higher quality than others. I know which teas I deem to be great, which ones good, which ones bad. I also know, however, that my ideas change, that what I think half a year ago as great may, upon further inspection, feel less great. There is, of course, also the question of interference -- I am predisposed to think that a certain tea is better if I were told that it was some ultra rare tea that came from Zhou Yu, than some no-name stuff that one picked up from the Kunming tea market, and this is before I even take a sip of anything. In this case, one can make the case that the expert and his blind tasting, a la Robert Parker, is really the best way to judge a tea, but then, there is also the argument against blind tasting. The problem here really is a relativistic one -- just because some expert out there, who presumably knows far more about tea/wine/whatever than the average joe, thinks A is better than B, does that make it really better? Does that actually MEAN anything?
I spent the past weekend with a tea friend who knows far more about black tea than I do. He drinks all manner of them, and also a number of darker oolongs and some puerh, mostly of the cooked variety. I've been trying to find this friend some quality raw puerh that he might like, but generally, I fail, because of a problem that never goes away -- apparently, he is very sensitive to bitterness. I knew this all along, but it has been confirmed again, probably definitively, this time around. Because of this sensitivity, young, raw puerh in general tastes far too bitter for him to enjoy, and unless it is old or well stored in a traditional storage, the bitterness overpowers everything else a tea has to offer and is therefore unenjoyable. It doesn't matter what I or anyone else thinks of these great young puerhs -- even if it's top flight, super high end stuff, he probably will still feel it's too bitter and impossible to drink in an enjoyable way. Each of us, I think, have similar preferences and therefore will have our own personal scale. What, then, does it really mean when someone else who "knows" rates one over the other? So what?
We see this phenomenon with puerh all the time. Some critic out there, presumably someone who sits on a large stash of tea A, for example, goes on some magazine or internet forum and says that said tea A is excellent. Meanwhile, he is slowly feeding the tea to the market through various channels. Before you know it, the tea makes it big, gets famous, prices shoot up, all the while the tea itself is really.... not that great. But surely, these critics must know what they're talking about, because they are, well, knowledgeable, right? They have twenty years of drinking experience, no? If you drink, say, tea A, and think it's just ok, it must be because you don't know how to appreciate it yet (and sometimes some of these critics will actually come and tell you that, in no uncertain terms -- this happens more on Chinese forums than anywhere else) and that you just, well, need another ten years under your belt to really appreciate it.
Now, someone like Robert Parker doesn't do that, I know, but even then, these wine critics do have their skin in the game, sort of. Even if a critic has no agenda, he or she is still biased by his or her own tongue in ways that we cannot know. Wine drinkers lament the direction in which the market is headed, just like how tea drinkers in Hong Kong lament the demise of traditionally processed tieguanyin, but nonetheless, the market moves that way, often guided by a number of influential individuals who prefer their drinks a certain way. In the case of tea, the process is infinitely more complicated because the drinker is also, indirectly, the maker -- you brew your own tea. The critic/expert is not there to make it for you, so although the expert, in his expertly way, might make the tea a certain way and come to a certain conclusion, for the drinker reading said criticisms, that might not be relevant at all. If the drinker is, say, an expert in making tea grandpa style, but the critic is drinking his with 10g of tea in an 80ml zhuni pot.... do the critic's comments still apply? Really?
This is partly why I basically no longer post tea reviews of any sort, save for ones I find particularly interesting or when I really feel like having something to say. With tea I just find that the room for variation is very large -- it basically all depends on how you make the tea, and to a very large extent, the water you use. What I find to be excellent is not always going to go down well with other people, and while I am convinced that I have some basis in what I say, it does not mean that what I say applies to anyone else, really. One person's "butchering" of a tea in terms of brewing methods can be another one's "perfect". What's more important than figuring out the supposed absolute quality of a tea is to figure out how to get the most out of the tea. That, I think, is the key to tea drinking.
|I run into a lot of strange teas. I'm pretty happy trying out new things, things that I have never encountered before or tasted before. Since sampling is not always a possibility, sometimes I buy a whole cake just to try it out, especially if the price is not too high. Sometimes it ends in a jackpot where the tea is great and I can buy more, other times (and this definitely happens more often) it ends up being a rather unhappy event with a really bad tea.|
Once in a while, I get weird stuff that I can't quite figure out. The tea I drank today is one such thing.
Ignore where the tea is from and the label - they don't really matter. As you can see, I've already chewed through almost 1/3 of the cake, and I still haven't quite figured this tea out. The leaves look decent enough, and it's one reason why I bought it from Taobao in the first place -- it looked ok and wasn't too expensive, so I figured I can give it a spin. The tea, however, was a bit of a surprise when I first brewed it, and has kept on doing it since then.
This is the first infusion - and this is where the trouble lies. The tea smells, not of a normal puerh, or a Yiwu (which this purportedly is) or any other recognizable mountain. It has a strange, slightly acidic smell that's rather sharp and somewhat unpleasant. I dumped the first infusion today after taking a sip. The liquor, as you can see, is quite dark, and so are the leaves. In fact, some of the leaves are very dark - a dark green, mind you, not dark brown a la storage.
The tea, however, improves, much like how a badly stored puerh can get better after the first few infusions wash away the storage taste. After the first two or three infusions, the strange smell dies down, although never quite going away. The tea is somewhat bitter - the bitterness is always present, although it smoothes over into sweetness when you swallow. You can tell there are good puerh leaves in here, because the telltale flavours and body are there. At the same time, it is slightly unsettling - I even feel slightly weird after drinking it.
The tea lasts forever though. I went through two and half kettles of water before it started giving up on me. It has infinite rebrewability, so much so that I just had my last cup.
The tea is brighter and softer now, the odd smell almost gone, but not quite. Because of the tenacity of the smell, I don't think it's a storage problem. If it were, I should be able to smell the odd smell even when the leaves are dry, but I cannot. It really only becomes apparent when hot water hits the leaves. This makes me think that something is inherent in the leaves to make this happen. Is it mixed in with some non-tea leaves? Does it explain the bitterness as well? Is it an accident? Deliberate (to pad costs, presumably)? More importantly, will this age well? The leaves are flexible, so at the very least, it is not terrible tea. But that offputting flavour....
I know I've said on multiple occasions that flavours don't really matter if you're evaluating a tea for aging, that they change (often drastically so) and body and feel are much more important when tasting a tea. Yet, some things, like this odd smell, are hard to ignore, and probably unwise to ignore as well. I am guessing that there's some non-tea leaves mixed in here, creating the strange smell and slightly unconventional taste. Is this bad for me? I have no idea. It may very well be perfectly fine, and will age into a great cake, but it could also just have this fundamental flaw that is hard to get rid of.
Wet storage would solve a lot of these problems, I think. Sometimes a wet stored tea that has lingering bitterness - I wonder if those cakes tasted like this one when they were younger too. Either way, it is what it is, and another session later, I'm still no closer to answering my own questions about this cake.
|As I returned to the US and brewed up my first pot of tea here... I find myself deeply dissatisfied with what I'm drinking. When I left, I would be quite happy drinking this. No more. Now this tea, some aged, broken cake, seems thin and weak. It's got decent flavours, but the body is not there, nor does it have the depth that I need. The $100 cake I bought a few days ago that is traditionally stored since 2001 seems leaps and bounds better.|
Uh oh, I think my tongue just got upgraded.
|Once in a while, I get into a discussion with tea friends about how much tea you really need. Assuming I drink 10g a day, every day, for 50 years (let's say I get to live 50 years from now). That's about 182,500g of tea, or in puerh terms, about 73 tongs of tea. That is if I don't drink anything else -- no oolongs, no greens, blacks, whatever. That's also assuming I don't drink with friends, drink more than 10g a day, or give tea away. So let's say those two things balance out (oolongs/greens/blacks vs gifting) which means that I need a total of about 6 jian of tea, if we go by 12 tong jians.|
6 jians is not a lot. In fact, I know a lot of people who own more than that right now. That leaves a question -- what can they do about all that tea? I don't see an outlet for such things, other than the tea market -- and the production volume of puerh in the past 10 years far exceeded anything we've seen in the 80s and 90s, which means that in years to come, there's going to be a steady stream of aged puerh, of varying quality (storage and otherwise) that will show up. If I have reconfirmed anything this trip to HK, it is that storage is of utmost importance, and that not every place is going to be good for storing tea -- dry places like Kunming just aren't going to cut it. I had a number of "pure dry storage" teas recently, and most are, unfortunately, insipid and uninteresting. The best teas I've had are the slightly wet stored ones. You just need that moisture, and if your storage doesn't have it, fix the problem now before it gets serious.
Or, you can just buy from the secondary market five years from now. I can't see a puerh shortage coming any time soon, as long as you're not in the market for pre-1995 teas.