Tag Archives: tea market

Some random thoughts on some random teas

The other day I was walking around the tea market with eyes peeled for perspective additions to Daoli. There’s a shop located right in the middle between the two tea houses that I visit very often. Whenever I pass by that place I notice a neat layout of about a dozen different types of black tea and make a mental note that I should check it out someday. But I never did… not until last Sunday.

Heisonglu ater ten steepings

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I was with a couple of friends who came along to stock up on some tea and ware for gifts and personal use. The lady who owned the shop ushered us inside cheerfully and asked what tea we’d like to drink. The shop’s wicker chairs felt very comfortable and so did the massive carved table – the kind of furniture that makes you want to stay and drink until you burst. My friends sat down, but I lingered, taking a better look at the teas in the boxes stacked here and there.

Getting a bunch of samples

As my buddies sipped on their first cups, I called up the shop assistant and asked him to give me about 30-50 grams of each one of those black teas. The lady quickly told the boy to get me some yangpin (free samples in Chinese). I said that I needed a lot and wanted to pay, but she insisted. It turned out that many of those teas were actually very similar, so I only picked seven or eight kinds, which still amounted to at least half a kilo.

As I joined my friends, I noticed that there was a freshly brewed cup of black tea waiting for me. The tea was good, probably one of those that I’d just picked for sampling. After a brief exchange of a few polite words of introduction and general observations about Kunming weather, I asked the owner my standard question: “What special teas do you have?” She smiled and asked her assistant to fetch some tea from the two nearby boxes. One, she said, was the Yunnan variety of dahongpao, and the other was heisonglu, an upscale kind of black.

Red robes and pine trees

She made both and we started tasting. By that time I’d already had at least 10 cups of puer at a previous place, so I had to make every cup count. Fortunately, both teas had some very distinctive features that I was able to pick right away. Just as its name suggested, the Yunnan version of the Big Red Robe did taste and smell somewhat like its average counterparts from Fujian and Taiwan. Its greatest advantage was definitely the price tag: it cost 4-5 times less than the cheapest drinkable “authentic” red robes.

Heisonglu was interesting because even though its leaves were mostly pitch black, it produced a rather light infusion. I asked the owner to write down the name of the tea in Chinese, and it turned out that it’s made up of characters “black”, “pine tree”, and “dew”. Indeed, it was very good black tea with a hue of fresh resin far in the background. The price was quite high for a dianhong, but I bought a couple hundred grams anyway. It was a good call too. When I brewed it again at home, the taste seemed even better, and a standard portion of about 5 grams yielded ten 350 ml cups. I looked up the word heisonglu in my dictionary and found out that it means “truffle”, but there was no way I could connect it with what I had in my cup, so I decided to stick with the “dew from a black pine tree” idea.

The other samples I brought home that day made a good impression too. The two black teas with a base of dark green leaves and golden buds were quite nice. They even had a “smoky” touch to them – something that I usually only see in puers that get a lot of exposure to smoke when dried by fire.

What’s your favourite shape of tea?

Finally, there were four teas that I picked solely for their unconventional looks: Dong Fang Mei Ren tightly pressed into eight-gram rectangles and two black teas shaped like flowers and cones.

That Dong Fang Mei Ren is one of my long-time favourites. I know that the name of this tea can be translated as “eastern beauty”, but, to this day, I can’t say with any degree of certainty what kind of tea it is. So far, I’ve heard four different versions: wulong, yellow, black (aka red), and puer. I guess it depends on each particular tea, since production process can vary quite a bit.

The funnily shaped black teas are a good example of the ever present tendency of tea traders to think of new ways of marketing their products. I’ve seen puer tea pressed into chocolate bars,  dianhong shaped into spirals that imitate biluochun green teas, and high-quality tieguanyin stuffed into the paper filter on the bottom of disposable paper cups.

I’m not complaining; it’s actually kind of cute. If anything, I’m the last person who should voice concerns about the inconsistencies in Chinese tea industry. And yet, with all humility in the world, I have to admit that treating black tea like gongyicha (artistic tea in Chinese) is kind of silly. The whole purpose of sewing a bunch of tea leaves and flowers together is to see them open up and admire the resulting bouquet through nearly transparent white tea. Using dianhong as a base tea for blooms poses at least two problems. First of all, soaking black tea for an extended period of time can render it undrinkable. Second, it’s very hard to see anything through the ever-darkening liquid. But then again, who am I to judge…


This post was written by Roman. For more posts on tea please visit daoli.eu.

Hunting for the right jasmine tea

A few days ago I went to see an old friend of mine. We were sitting and talking politics when his wife brought us some tea, like she always does. This time, however, instead of the regular jasmine-scented green tea, she brought something else. I couldn’t figure it out at first. It was a mixture of strong jasmine and something vaguely familiar. Then it hit me – it must be that Green Trip I’d given them a while ago, mixed with molihua! I opened the pot and there it was – bright green tieguanyin leaves on top of paler jasmine green tea. The lady only added half a dozen small pellets, but it made a huge difference.

Jasmine overkill

For quite some time now, I’ve been looking for a jasmine tea that would look good in the Daoli selection. Despite the massive choice – nearly every other tea shop in Kunming has some sort of jasmine tea – the task has proved to be quite difficult. The problem is that the jasmine flavour is usually so strong that it is simply impossible to appreciate whatever overtones the base tea leaves could be contributing to the final bouquet.

When jasmine tea (茉莉花茶, molihua cha) is made, tea leaves are mixed with freshly plucked jasmine blossoms. The flowers can be replaced several times until the desired level of fragrance is reached. Sometimes, however, tea makers just overdo it. It makes sense if the base tea leaves are of so-so quality, but this often happens to high-grade buds as well. Nice as it might be, the base tea often loses a lot of its potential to the overwhelming taste of jasmine.

So, when I tried that “accidentally enhanced” jasmine tea at my friend’s place, I realized that there was still hope after all. If one pinch of pure tieguanyin made such a positive contribution to the flavour, it was logical to assume that there should be a tea out there that was made with some sense of balance in mind. I went to the market the next day.

The search begins

It was Monday, February 6th – the day when the Chinese New Year is officially over. I heard some fireworks at 8 a.m. I thought someone was acting crazy, but as I remembered what day it was I realized that it only the first of the many more to come. Indeed, last night the fireworks just as loud and numerous as they had been two weeks ago, when the Dragon was superseding the Rabbit.

I decided to first visit Huang, a good friend of mine and one of the most honest tea traders I’ve ever met. His family mainly sells pu’er and black, but I was sure they had some jasmine tea too. Huang pointed to a huge bag of small nuggets on a nearby shelf. The nugget shape is mainly used for pu’er tea, I immediately started thinking about what an interesting base the bittersweet flavour of sheng pu’er would make. However, when I steeped the nugget and took the first sip, I couldn’t taste any “sheng” in it. What I had was simply decent jasmine green tea. The flavoring process involves the temperatures that simply turn all tea into green tea. The taste was OK, but the leaves were all broken up and edgy, which is a common problem for all pressed teas and nuggets in particular. Convenience does come at a price… So, I kept looking.

The jasmine conundrum

My next destination was a small shop that had a bit of everything. Upon hearing my request, the owner went up to a row of boxes lined up in between baskets and crates filled with dozens of herbs and blossoms. I said that I needed a tea that could last at least 6-8 brews, and the owner put together a selection of four different teas. There were two kinds that I’d tried a while ago and didn’t find interesting. So, I decided to test the other two that were both shaped into neatly curled pellets (often referred to as gunpowder in the west).

The pellets differed in size a bit – the smaller costing 50% more. I brewed them both at the same time, and the strong jasmine fragrance soon filled the entire shop. Both teas opened up mere seconds after the water was added. The smaller pellets developed into very fine and wholesome buds. The bigger ones showed both, bud and small leaf content. I tried them both and realised that, had I been blindfolded, I’d never think I was drinking two different teas, let alone tell which one was better or more expensive. A strange thought occurred to me: what guns do to make people equal, jasmine does to teas. No matter how fancy or average any given tea is, put enough jasmine in it, and differences become irrelevant. With these thoughts in mind, I bade farewell to the owners and left to pursue my luck elsewhere.

He who seeks, finds

There was another shop at the northern part of the market that had an even larger selection of teas and herbs. I used to go there often until I discovered that although they usually had decent stuff, it was relatively pricy. When I got there, the assistant took me to the boxes that were all too similar to the ones I’d seen minutes earlier. The tea inside was much the same too. I told the owner that I’d already tried all that and was looking for something more “balanced”. She thought about it for a moment and pulled another box out of a small storage area. I stuck my nose in it and – voilà! It was the first jasmine tea that didn’t assault me with its intrusive flavour but rather gave me a hearty welcome. The owner saw the smile on my face and brewed some for me right away. The taste and fragrance met my expectations. I could finally make out overtones of the base green tea. I tried a couple more brews. They were just as good. I thanked the owner and bought a small bag for further testing.

I decided to give it another go the next day. It yielded seven excellent brews, which isn’t bad at all, considering that I was using my favorite 300 ml cup with lid and filter. Indeed, he who seeks, finds…

Photos from today’s trip to the market

This post was written by Roman. Slovenian version is also available (Iskanje pravega jasmina). For more posts on tea please visit daoli.eu.

2012: First cup of tea

January 23rd, the first day of the year of the dragon. At 1 pm the streets were still empty. The janitors did a great job, and most of the mess caused by fireworks was already gone.

First sight of the market

I went to the northern tea market, which is only 20 minutes away by bike. I was hoping to talk to some traders about tea and what they do for the Chinese New Year.

Out of maybe 300-400 shops only half a dozen were open. The part of the market that I like the most was simply fenced off. I could see a few people sitting outside playing cards in the sunny weather, but I decided not to bother them.

Instead, I ventured to the western part of the market. The main gate was open, and I saw a few cars parked in the courtyard. I spotted one open shop, but then I looked at the car that was parked outside, and noticed that it was a drug police vehicle. It was so huge that it was blocking most of the shop’s front. Inside there were people sitting at a huge solid-wood tea table – probably relatives or friends catching up and celebrating.

Finally – the right place

I got back on my bike and soon found another place. It was a small tea shop with only a couple of people inside. I asked how come they were open, and the lady said that they live very close and would rather spend the day at the shop, drinking tea and enjoying the awesome weather. Inside, they had a nice selection of shu and sheng pu’er teas of different shapes and ages.

I asked what kind of sheng pu’er they liked themselves, and the man showed me a decent-looking cake. It looked and smelled just fine, so I asked them to brew some of it for me. I also noticed that they had a small collection of organic teas and asked to make some of that too, just to compare the taste and fragrance.

While the lady was preparing the water and the teaware, I found out that they were one of the six shops in Kunming that exclusively sell tea from a big tea factory in south of Yunnan. The tea was soon ready and I gave it a try. The leaves of the organic tea looked greener and nicer than the leaves of the regular pu’er, but they tasted more or less the same. I thought it was odd, considering the huge difference in price.

Organic vs. non-organic

I asked about the requirements for organic teas. It turns out that their organic pu’er grows on the slopes of a series of hills washed by a small river. It is true that they don’t use any nasty chemicals, but it is also true that non-organic teas could be growing in similar conditions. So what really raises the price for organic tea is its limited availability and higher production costs associated with its special treatment and mandatory certification.

When I asked why the organic tea looked greener and had a nicer texture, I was told that it has nothing to with being organic or not. The teas simply came from different trees and locations.

Both organic and non-organic teas shared the same flaw, though – their leaves were not wholesome. I wondered why they weren’t selling any tea in loose form. The lady replied that loose tea loses its taste and fragrance within 6-18 months. Pressed pu’er, however, is able to retain its taste for decades. She showed me pictures of their factory where people were filling large cylindrical bowls with tea and placing them over holes in metal tables that had water boiling underneath. The leaves were steamed much like Chinese dumplings (jiaozi). Because the cakes become so dense, they require a special pu’er knife or a thin sharp object to be broken. It causes some inconvenience in handling and makes the leaves look broken and edgy. But for Chinese, quality of tea is valued higher than its appearance.

I really liked talking to the owner and asked her a few more questions. There were some huge cakes of pu’er lined up on the shelves. That was collectable tea pressed into 1kg flat cakes. All that tea came from very old trees (some are hundreds of years old). Depending on the weather and water availability, a tree like that can yield 100-200 kilos of dried tea per year. Because it’s limited edition, this tea is expensive from the beginning, and in ten years its price can go up 10-20 times.

Smoked tea but not lapsang souchong

I have a cake of sheng pu’er at home. It was a gift from a Chinese friend. It tastes strong and slightly bitter, and it smells of smoked salmon. I asked my friend how old it was, and he said he had no idea. Had a bunch of them at home and just drank them. I noticed some tea at their shop that had the same markings on the wrapping. I opened it and recognized the smell right away. My clothes smell like that if I spend too much time by the campfire.

Not surprisingly, the owner also had an explanation for that. It is common for sheng pu’er to smell like that if it’s harvested in autumn. It has something to do with the lack of water, which changes the internal chemistry of the plant, yielding generally stronger tea with that characteristic smell of burnt wood.

Photos from today’s trip to the market

This post was written by Roman. Slovenian version is also available (Prva skodelica čaja v kitajskem novem letu). For more posts on tea please visit daoli.eu.