Wednesday, February 13, 2013


As you may know, I started this blog as a tea journal, a visual (and vivid I hope) diary of what I have learned from tea masters, farmers, judges, vendors, students, friends and fellow lovers of the leaf. The blog has documented my wide-ranging tea journey since 2006; it has helped me to understand the ever-changing world of tea.

Compared to the teas of Korea and Japan, which stay true their original traditions (e.g. Japanese tea ceremony has not changed much since China’s Tang Dynasty) Chinese tea is always refining itself. The process, new varietal, marketing and packaging of Chinese teas always evolves. I see this change as good, it brings new ideas and new products to the fore -- it improves and elevates a great tradition.

Anxi Xiping Original Mother Bush from 1736

Of course, these changes result in products that in themselves become not only popular, but stand the test of time, becoming their own “tradition”. Green Tikwanyin tea developed in Anxi has been a staple for hundreds of years in China’s Fujian province. Before the 1950s, the Southern Chinese learned and mastered the aging of puerh tea, and still do to great acclaim. 

Just like any other lucrative product, once there is demand, people want to cash-in on a popular trend. And just as the opium trade was for colonial Britain, worldwide popularity of great tea has not been spared this "gold rush".

Since 2000, green Tikwanyin has been the choice gift for officials and corporate clients in China. The price of high-grade Tikwanyin from Anxi Xiping is higher than almost any other newly harvested Chinese tea. A competition grade of Tikwanyin can easily fetch US$1000 per pound, if not more. Other Chinese teas such as LongJing from Lion’s Peak, Raw Puerh from Yiwu and JinJanMei from Wuyi were not spared by this gold rush. Unfortunately, quality suffered immensely during this "tea revolution".

Tea has always been a balance between “body”, “aroma” and “Cha-Qi”. It’s a “zero sum” game – the more you get of one, the less you get of the other. But there has been a lack of understanding in the traditional cutting, processing, and production of these teas in the tea markets. The great emphasis on an initial high-aroma beverage sacrifices a tea that actually tastes good and whose aroma lasts to the end. What’s more, processing these teas in such a lopsided way can be detrimental to health.

People who have been drinking “nuclear”green Tikwanyin and “Oolong-Puerh” since 2004 can testify these ill effects. Those who have been drinking these teas over the long term may experience low blood sugar, light headaches, a pale complexion, stomach problems, cold hands/feet and frequent visits to the bathroom. In fact, I call this type of puerh “Oolong-Pu” (Oolong can mean "careless" or "silly" in Cantonese) because "silly-puerh" production disregards the crucial technique developed, tested and proven over time.

Most western puerh collectors might have some “silly-puerh” in their possession. These caches will go stale in less then 8 years. To quote a Tea Chat member regarding to this subject, “I would be very interested to hear some experiences with oolong pu'erh that we could come across. I feel that a lot of us buying younger pu'erh are buying to age, and if it doesn't age well then I feel that's an important discussion we should be having as consumers.

This is definitely a legitimate concern since the original product is what matters most, and too often that original product has already been compromised.

I discussed this issue with my very first tea master on my recent trip (fall 2012) to Anxi Fujian. Over the past eight years, we would talk on the phone at every harvesting time to consider the vicissitudes of the Tikwanyin world. Being a national tea judge, Master Huang has the authority to determine who will be the "Tea King" each year in Anxi, a very powerful position. She explained the problem, "I am seeing traditional tea masters giving up the traditional way of processing and turning towards the modern trend. Most of them just blindly follow the profit, and simply do it the way they believe the customer likes it. It’s less work, quicker turn-around time, and a higher profit margin." “But,” she said,  “there is a problem to this trend -- people are getting sick, turning green, literally!" Most vendors in the wholesale market will not even drink this brew, “They spit it out, it just kills your stomach.”

Back at the Anxi Tea Institute, Master Huang and her own master sat us down and discussed how this tea problem might be solved. As we talked, students performed a “tea ceremony”.  Then Master Huang took us to her laboratory to make her case. We tested aged Tikwanyin from the 1980s to present (mostly maocha) keenly observing the differences in terroir and the processing methods. After this tasting we all concurred -- change is fine, but producers must go back to traditional methods of processing or else the idea of great, real, and balanced tea will be lost.

On leaving Anxi, I gave my tea master a bag of high-fired Tikwanyin. She was over overjoyed – indeed the old tradition lives on, it’s just hard to find. She laughed, “How funny that it takes a Chinese tea lover in the U.S. to give me a genuine Gong Fu Cha!”

Subsequently, I gave a lecture, in broken Mandarin, to her class of students on the importance of Chinese tea history and traditions. For these students, I am hoping that they can see that China’s tea future, especially in this province, lies in its past. Perhaps one of them will produce a Gong Fu Cha that she can bring to me in the U.S. one day.

As for Oolong-Puerh, little can be done. In three, perhaps five years, novice tea collectors will start to notice their leaves turning stale instead of aging beautifully. Time will tell them -- tradition always matters. The tea will never lie.

A Quote Courtesy of Tea Chat Member

A great read regarding this subject from a Tea Spirit that I admired:


Nick Herman said...

Interesting point about tradition vs change w/ respect to East Asia. That's certainly the case of Japan vs China, I think; for the most part, I think Koreans couldn't care less about tea, they have so little of that element of their culture left.
A few weeks ago I was in a tea shop in San Francisco Japantown talking to one of the owners about his various senchas. I happened to have a sample of a 1996 xiaguan in my bag which I showed to him, and tried to engage him in a good spirited way about why Japanese culture never developed much of a taste for anything except green tea, and was telling him that while I love the essence of a fine Japanese green, find dimensions of depth in puer that can not be matched; but he just fell back on boiler plate, "No, we like fresh tea, green tea. It is better, more delicious, because it is fresher." Too bad.

I bet you would find this interview with a master chocolate maker who does not compromise quality, Claudio Corallo, fascinating:
I am far more passionate about tea than chocolate, but at least in the west, knowledge and cultivation of the latter is still far beyond the former--I'd be very happy to see tea reach the same level of appreciation that chocolate is currently undergoing, at least in some places (San Francisco, LA, NYC..)
I recently had a chance to try some of Claudio's chocolate. Amazing. Completely different from my previous conception of chocolate. I think we can all remember such tea moments that awoke us the huge degree in contrast present in what's available, if you search!

Lew Perin said...

It would be nice to know exactly what you mean by oolong Pu'er. You haven't defined it in this post and I can't find anything specific in the discussion you refer to on Teachat. Thanks!

Linda said...

Fascinating and informative post, and I love the photos as well. Thank you so much for sharing.

Rebekah said...

Ugh, this explains a lot of what we've been seeing -- tasting, rather -- but hadn't had summed up or explained. It's good to see a new entry here, thanks! -- Rebekah

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