Nov 29, 2013

many changing views

Liu Bao by Peng Qingzhong, Wu Shing Books Publication, Taiwan, 2013

For everyone of us, views on tea change throughout time. Many of our tea views are fundamental and probably won't change much. But when looking back, we could always discover some changes in our views, which are, in some way, inspiring! It's inspiring because through the changes we see our tracks of exploring new territories.

Here are just a couple of my changing views on tea, more specifically, on liu bao, hei cha, and remotely, puerh.

I was never really interested in liu bao until lately. In the past several years, I was lucky enough to have got a lot of free tea samples from various sources in China. Along with puerh and other Hei Cha samples, I always got a lot of liu bao samples. But I gave away most of them, because I just didn't find anything interesting in liu bao. Earlier last year, I participated in a discussion on hei cha at Walker Tea Review,  where I also mentioned that "liu bao is tasteless to me!"

So I didn't find anything interesting in liu bao. But ever since I knew Mr. Peng Qingzhong (aka. 三口居士), I could never say it again. The change of view happened really fast, as I was having a blast of rich information from Mr. Peng's books and articles, as well as rich flavors of his tea gifts! Although I have yet to thoroughly digest his two brilliant books on Liu Bao and the numerous great liu bao samples he sent to me, the changes have already taken places. Ever since I know Mr. Peng, every liu bao I have now is completely different from every liu bao I had before - they are from different sources, and often made with a totally different processing method, or from the good old sources (CNNP or "3 cranes") but hand picked by Mr. Peng as the few representatives of historical liu bao.

In his book, Mr. Peng analyzed why liu bao in the market today is different from liu bao in history. This part of the book intrigued me even more than the technical part of the book. A mentor of mine used to say, you've got to know what you don't know before you manage to learn it. That's exactly what I feel about Mr. Peng's books. They led me to know a lot of things that I didn't know existing.

Here is a 2007 liu bao from Shan Ping, a historically famous liu bao producing area. This is one of the very first liu bao samples I've got from Mr. Peng. To me, it's completely novel. To Mr. Peng, it's nothing novel, it's THE traditional way of making liu bao.

I had never admired liu bao leaves before like admiring these leaves. These are not as elegant-looking tea leaves as green tea or oolong. But they are so much prettier than liu bao leaves I saw before! 

The spent leaves are even prettier! 

The taste is rather hard to describe. People often say good liu bao has "betel nut aroma". So far I haven't had any betel nut in my life yet. So I don't really know what "betel nut aroma" is. But it's anything but tasteless!

Since it's a "hei cha", I couldn't help using the left over tea liquor to make some milk tea :-D

A couple of years ago, I wrote a few blog posts about "what is puerh" (now I sadly realize more than 3 years have passed, and oops I never finished writing part 3!). Most parts of the writing were just plain narration of various sources of information, and not much of my own subjective opinions. However, in section 2, I went over several major debates on puerh and talked a little about my own opinions about these debates. One of the debates mentioned involved other types of teas:

Debate 4. ... ... can puerh be categorized as Hei Cha?

At that time, I had thought that puerh should be a category by itself, separated from "Hei Cha". And I expressed this opinion at a relevant discussion at too (probably it doesn't take a botanist to figure out "biloba" is me :-p).  Now here are some changed view too. With time being, I more and more believe that it's unnecessary to separate puerh from other types of hei cha. I even somehow feel it's necessary to bundle all of them in one category, because:

1. The more I understand and appreciate various types of hei cha, the more I believe that although puerh is unique, puerh is not unique in its uniqueness. Each of other types of hei cha is quite unique too, and there is no way we create numerous tea categories and assign one category to each tea.

2. In my puerh tasting, especially tasting of some rather "off mainstream" puerh samples, such as various types of "wild puerh" (which could be a varietal of puerh, a unique ecotype of puerh, or even a completely different subspecies or species of Camillia genus) consumed by Yunnan local people and some Myanmar puerh with novel tastes (although many Myanmar puerh products taste highly similar to Yunnan puerh), from time to time, there are some flavors that resemble tastes from other hei cha such as tian jian and unfermented liu bao. I can't figure out what's the connection in the flavors of all these teas, but somehow they seem to be all connected with each other. In these sense, puerh, liu bao, tian jian and other types of hei cha seem to belong to one category.

3. Similarly, in my tasting of other hei cha, from time to time, there are some favors that resembles tastes from puerh. The first thing that made me fall in love with some hei cha is that they tasted like shu puerh but without any hint of the stinky pile fermentation flavor. In some lightly fermented liu bao, I feel there are even flavors that resembles old sheng puerh. Puerh and other types of hei cha aren't the same, because there are no two teas that are exactly the same in the world. But at this point, I feel puerh and other types of hei cha are close enough to be put in one tea category.  

3. There is no perfect way for tea categorization, as tea categorization is rather subjective. The major factors used for tea categorization, such as tea variety, processing method and processing region, although largely relying on natural conditions, could also be subjectively assigned by people too. For example, if we think of liu bao and fu brick, they seem totally different in terms of tea varieties, processing method and processing region, most of the time! However, in Mr. Peng's "liu bao" collection, there were fu bricks made by Wuzhou Tea Factory (the major state-owned factory for liu bao) and a few other factories of Guangxi. Some of these fu bricks were made with local liu bao tea varieties, and some were made with fu brick tea varieties transported from Hunan. (This is partially why I'm often thrilled by Mr. Peng's books and stories! They never stop surprising you!) With all these mix-ups, I feel there could never be a perfect way to categorize these hei cha teas, and to tell which and which are closer to each other and more distinguishable from others. While there is no perfect way, I would rather go by the simpler way. Six tea categories are already a handful. Unless it's absolutely necessary, I would rather not create a seventh tea category, and would rather let puerh stay with other hei cha.

In this past autumn, I've found that liu bao has replaced a big part of my shu puerh drinking quota. I'm not bothered by the competition between them, and find it interesting that the "niches" of these two teas partially overlap. It's also interesting to think back that it was only in recent a couple of years that I started truly enjoying shu puerh. There was a long, long time that I didn't find them interesting at all. So indeed there are many changing views on my side! And I'm glad that most of the changing views involve enjoying more tea in more different ways!

Nov 26, 2013

for those who have wondered, here it is...

Not those who wondered about the tea. For the tea, tasting is the answer. For those who wondered about the human issues behind the tea - more accurately, problem of one single person -  here it is...

Tolerance and patience are what I always value, as probably indicated by the long list of timeline I put at the bottom of my comment. But tolerance and patience aren't the equivalent of foolishness, and shouldn't be taken to a level that nurtures fraudulence.

My apologies for bringing up such a negative message. But I spoke up because I do believe it serves a positive purpose.

Nov 2, 2013

are yixing teapots more expensive today?

Are yixing teapots more expensive today than 3 years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago?

Short answer: of course!

Long answer: depending on the way of calculation and your benchmark... 

Last week, a few Chinese tea friends and I discussed how much things were back in 1980s in China. In fact, I couldn't recall many details. Back then I hardly spend any money except on food and books :-p But I do remember things were much cheaper then, and of course people made much less money too. According to some other people, back then, 30 rmb (about US$7) would be more than enough for a month's basic life expense in a large city like Beijing - this doesn't include rent though, but back then most people didn't have to pay a rent anyway.

The discussion was triggered by a "price list of Jiangsu Yixing Purple Clay Art Factory (aka. Factory #1) in 1989 - Grade A" provided by a collector friend. A quick glance told us that back then, prices for most of the top grade yixing teapots range from about 5 rmb (US$1.2) for smaller, simpler teapots to 40rmb (US$10) for larger teapots or teapots with more sculpturing work. There were 4 grades based on quality. Prices for Grade B would be 80% of the listed prices. Prices for Grade C would be 60% of the listed prices. Grade D... barely anybody mentioned them, but there were tons of them :-p

The market prices would be about 15%-30% more than the listed factory prices. The famous artists' prices are made based on each piece of work. According to the recollection of an early-days merchant, he got a Gu Jingzhou teapot for about 160 rmb (US$35) and some other artists' teapots for 30-80rmb each (US$7-17). And more complicated designs of famous artists' teapots would be up to 400-1000 rmb (US$ 90-220). But to buy famous artists' teapots from the factory, the buyer would be required to buy a few dozen commercial grade teapots along with them.

Roughly speaking, in late 1980s, 100rmb (US$22) would be a decent monthly salary. One could easily buy 10 Grade A yixing teapots from Factory #1 (top grade among the commercial level teapots) - although most people of sanity wouldn't spend all salary on teapots, of course :-p

Today, one would need to spend about 1000 rmb (US$160) on a good commercial grade old Factory #1 teapot of around 1990 (that's in Chinese market, not overseas market). But meantime, I don't know if 10k rmb could count as decent salary anymore in today's large cities in China. Between late 1980s and now, in Chinese large cities, people's salary increased for about 10-500 folds (roughly based on people I know, but not a societal statistic). Between late 1990s (real estate privatization didn't start yet in 1980s) and now, housing prices increased for roughly 10-100 folds. As my tea friends and I talked about these changes, none of us could afford either a Beijing apartment or a famous artist's 1980s teapot. But somehow with all the context, it looks like yixing didn't get more expensive at all, after the monetary discounting.

As for tea, it seems that most (probably puerh shouldn't be included) top grade teas have got cheaper, after the monetary discounting of the past 20 years... It does sound somewhat odd!