21 June 2009

Wild Goose Chasing for Old Tea

Cool people abound in the tea world.  Sit down at a teahouse and it's not hard to meet someone that shares your passion for the brew. 

But lately, I've been recalling some of the crazies in the tea world too, the same type of crazies that exist anywhere else.  And the liars, the cheaters, and scoundrels that I have come across. 

It's story time again.

In the tea mountains close to Taichung, I was introduced to a man that billed himself as being the one of the biggest tea distributors in the area.  He made so much money that he built tea warehouses, a new guesthouse, bought more tea fields, new homes....

As the only guest of his new guesthouse, he obliged one evening to teach me "about tea."  If it weren't for the fact that the friend that introduced us was a local tea celebrity, I probably wouldn't have gotten any face time at all.  He brewed me some Lishan high mountain tea and made a comment that Dayuling is overpriced, but he had better stuff that was cheaper.  Nodding to him with feigned amazement, I wondered why his Lishan had no high mountain qi.  The voice of my Dong Ding master started echoing in my head; "You can't trust anyone in the tea business, they're all liars."

When we finished drinking a few cups at his tea table, he took me into the back room where he was working on roasting teas. The room was an outgrowth of the house. It had clean, concrete floors and unpainted white drywall - roughly 8' x 8' in size.  In it was a large bamboo basket tea roaster, big enough to roast about 12-15 pounds at a time, and a few sacks of oolong.  He went through some motions to show me how they do the re-firings in the room, then brought me into another roasting area where he had machinery to do actual roasting and oxidation.  Cool stuff, but I wondered what kind of tea he was making.  He showed me bags upon bags of oolong and some green tea as well. 

"I do big business.  Each of these bags contains about 30 jin of tea."  It seemed like he wanted me to know how important he was, and possibly what a waste of time it was for him to be entertaining me.  "There's just so much to learn," he said to me in passing as we sipped tea at his table again, "I have been doing this a long time, and generations before me, too.  That's why our tea is so good - we have experience."  "So know that when you buy tea from me, it's all the real stuff.  That's why I'm #1, because people know and trust me."

Or maybe they just don't know better.  As is true in any business or endeavor, the most famous and/or most profitable company/individual may not be "the best."  In fact, they likely are not.  They just may be the best at making money or at marketing themselves.  Many famous people and institutions in the finance industry have made tons of money over the past several years, only to be revealed lately to have engaged in some very shady, dishonest and fraudulent activity.

I still couldn't tell exactly what kind of tea I was drinking.  He told me it was Dong Ding, but it had poor tea base, too much fire, and deep vegetal notes that were unbalanced.  It tasted both raw and overcooked at the same time. 

Not wanting to leave empty-handed, I bought two bags of aged oolong from him.  I had been on a quest to find aged tea anyway, and figured that if I was going to buy anything, might as well be that.  My master later chided me for wasting money.  "I know his father," my teacher chortled, "there are no more honest people left in this business, remember that."  That was my teacher's way of saying this guy's tea sucked.  I hadn't tried it yet so I wasn't sure, and my teacher has a policy of not trying other people's teas.  The tasting would have to wait.

I brought the teas back to Taipei for the Elder to taste with me.  We opened the bag and immediately noticed that it looked like charcoal.  The tea balls glimmered in the light - glossy like the side of a painted teapot.

"This is tea?  Hmm...."  The Elder has been in the tea business for ages and he knows more about it than most.  Although I don't always agree with his tastes, his knowledge is indeed vast and he could tell just by looking and crushing the tea in his hands that it was junk.  It's no wonder he thinks I'm always being cheated, most everything I ever bring for him to try is suspect.  Good tea I know is good, no need to verify.  Everything else I enjoy discussing with him in detail.

We brewed it and found that it was not aged tea at all.  It was a few seasons old that had been roasted so that the taste would resemble something that had some characteristics of age to it.  After many infusions, the oolong balls failed to open, staying rigid and tasting burnt and smoky.

"Your teacher is right, there are a lot of liars in the tea world.  This is not good tea, it's been roasted to death to mimic aged tea." 

"I didn't think I would get good tea off of that maker," I told the Elder,"but I had to buy something from him and thought it worth a gamble.  He was cheesy looking too, and could only talk about how famous he is.  Do you know him?"

I handed the Elder the other wholesaler's card.

"No.  There are so many wannabes in the tea business, maybe he's big, but anyone who sells this kind of junk cannot be good.  Hmm...." 

The Younger walked in carrying a few bags.  He eyed me curiously, suspicious of the "delightful surprises" that I may have brought for them this day. 

"No need to try, it's the usual junkie tea.  So hard to find good, aged oolong."  I began to realize that it's a fool's errand to try to find the really, really good stuff at a reasonable price.  You'll waste a lot of time, energy and money doing it.  As my master said, better just to find someone you trust that sells good stuff, and buy it from them.  The goal is to drink good tea, not to go on a wild goose chase.

"HA!  You think good tea is so easy to find?  Aged tea - most of it is fake.  Do you really think that the best tea makers just have giant sacks of good aged tea in storage, ready to sell to you 20 or 30 years after they make it?  NO WAY!  They are mostly leftovers of teas that didn't sell out.  The best producers sell out their teas every season."

I do know some producers that keep tea around from a particularly good season to age, but the quantity is usually small.  The quest to find really good, aged teas is not easy.  For every good one I find, I have several more samples of poor quality or fake ones.  But most people just wouldn't know the difference, and that's what the merchants are counting on. 

It makes sense to me that at the retail level, there is a big markup on good, old teas.  The effort and skill it takes to find them and to bring them back for sharing are beyond the scope of non-professionals.  The problem is, even many tea vendors here and abroad do not have the old, good stuff.  But it doesn't mean they won't try to sell you something like that.

Which is a story for another time.  Drink good tea and enrich your life.



  1. "You can't trust anyone in the tea business, they're all liars."

    That is the best summation of the tea business I've ever seen.

  2. Haha, my teacher's a bit eccentric, but his statement's not far from the truth. I once brought several teas to a "tea master" that gives out tea certification. My bad one he said was acceptable, my really good one he said didn't taste like much. It's no wonder why his tastes are off, he smokes like every hour. And he thought my oolong tea was a roasted green tea didn't seem to believe me when I corrected him, even when I told him I helped make it. Wow.

  3. Like your Dong ding master said -- they're all liars.

    Now, does that make him/her a liar too? :)

  4. Probably, but haven't caught him in a big lie yet.

    I was once skeptical that some well known tea merchants bought from him in the past, in the quantities that he had described to me, so he tore his office apart looking for receipts from decades ago for me to inspect. Fun guy, pretty much retired now.

  5. Please forgive me for entering a conversation months old. But the Internet lives forever! Someday, someone will comment on your blog, long after we've left this earth and the dominant life form is sentient coconuts.

    I don't have a tea instructor, and I have no idea where to find one where I live (suburbs of Chicago, IL). As I'm learning about tea, articles like this honestly fill me with despair, because how can I educate my palate if it is fed a steady diet of mediocre or crummy, faked-up teas? And because I'm such a barbarian, I'll never know the difference?

  6. Quoted: " Someday, someone will comment on your blog, long after we've left this earth and the dominant life form is sentient coconuts."

    I knew those other coconuts were watching me when I was cutting open their friend and drinking juice from its brain. Karmically, I guess it would be fair that they do the same to me after they've taken over.

    Please don't despair over not having a formal tea instructor - such a thing is not necessary. There are lots of great and free resources online from people that actually know what they're talking about and have such a passion for the art of tea that they freely share with anyone that asks.

    One way to have people be able to share tea experiences across distances is to do a tea box pass. I saw this on TeaChat a while back. The box starts with one person who puts in enough tea for like 10 servings, and continues onwards to another person on the list, each adding in another tea to be tasted. I guess it goes around and around until everyone's tasted everything in the box. Then notes can be compare. It's an easy way to try different things and share your own favorites as well. I'd be happy to participate if this interests you. I think a few people on the teadrunk forum with some nice teas would also like to join in, and I could probably find a few local retailers to put some samples in as well.

    I've read your blog and I don't think your palate is crummy at all - I think you're quite honest with your tea experiences. Tea lovers, in my experience, embrace all other tea lovers without arrogance. However, I place the blame of poor tea education primarily on tea retailers, some of whom sell mediocre tea at premium prices. To me, this is inexcusable because they're either (a) liars/cheaters (b) ignorant, which is not an excuse because if they want to sell premium stuff, they really should know better.

    Email me if you'd like to start a box!


  7. Hi...
    Well it's true about tea world as your friend puts ahead ""You can't trust anyone in the tea business, they're all liars." I too had a lot many experiences about liars.

  8. It's a shame really. Is it too much to ask to drink good tea from good sources sold by honest people who don't charge us a fortune for it?