Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Tea Questions

Elijah wrote:
"Hello, Stephane, thanks so much for your highly informative website!

I have always enjoyed tea, but since I have just moved to Taiwan, I am really hoping to grow this enjoyment into a true passion. I have been so happy with how there seems to be a different tea shop on every block happy to brew you six different teas to choose from!

I am running into some difficulties, however, and I was hoping that you might be able to help me clear them up. I was trying to find some Hsin Chu OB in particular, and it seemed like some shop owners told me they never heard of Hsin Chu, while others just pulled out whatever OB they had on the shelf, but couldn't none of the characters anywhere on the label matched the characters for Hsin Chu. I know I had the characters correct as a Taiwanese friend wrote it for me and I checked online. I actually had one shop owner laugh at me and ask where I got my information when I said Hsin Chu was famous for this tea!

I ended up just buying a little of the one I tasted and liked the best, but even with a good interpreter, I could only get the answer 'it comes from her plantation' when trying to pin down the area it was grown in. I bought it in Hualien, if that makes one kind more likely and you can tell me, I'd appreciate it!

Anyway, I also found an Oolong I particularly enjoyed, and had the same problem. She would tell me only that it was 'high mountain Oolong'. Again I had a good interpreter, and I asked several questions like 'what do I ask for if I want it again?' and 'what county was it grown in?', and 'what variety is it?' but I couldn't seem to hit on the right question. I thought since she has thirty different Oolongs in her store, there must be some way of referring to all of them, right? So I guess I might just not understand how tea works at all, and I was hoping you could help to clear it up for me!"
Dear Elijah,

Thank you for sharing your tea buying experience in Taiwan. Being able to taste before purchase is a plus here. However, as you could find out, not every tea shop is very knowledgeable about tea.

Also, tea is consumed by a large segment of the population and not just tea fanatics. That's also a reason why most shops supply basic and cheaper teas. Often, these are not grown in Taiwan, but Vietnam, China or Indonesia. Many of these teas are sold as 'High Mountain Oolong'. This could be an accurate description, but conveniently avoids disclosing the fact that the tea is not of Taiwanese origin. Not all tea shops are as nuanced. Still, the lack of precise information should raise question marks.

As for Oriental Beauty, in Taiwan, this tea isn't as popular as High Mountain Oolong. It's rarely the focus of tea shops, and therefore they tend to understand it less. Still, due to the high price that the original commands, copies of this tea abound. And, because the traditional Oriental Beauty is made by Hakka (Ke Jia) people (a Chinese ethnic minority in Taiwan), the non Hakka tea merchants often prefer to purchase copies from their regular suppliers. The Hakka minority in Taiwan mostly lives in Miaoli and Hsin Chu counties. That's why the traditional Oriental Beauty comes from there. (See this article for more details). The town of Hsin Chu isn't producing tea, of course. There are some villages (Beipu, Emei...) in Hsin Chu county with nice surroundings that are specializing in Oriental Beauty. Probably your tea vendor has never been there! Maybe your 'OB' comes from the East Coast: there are tea farmers south of Hua Lien and they could be producing similar teas to OB in summer.

It's difficult (if not impossible) to learn about tea if the information provided by the vendor is false or incomplete. How do you want to taste a season if leaves from different seasons are mixed? How to learn the aromas of a specific location when the label is faked?...

For Elijah and those living in Taiwan, I recommend to skip the small tea shops and travel to the various tea regions. Find real farmers and taste their teas. Before you do, I advise that you do some homework, read tea books/blogs. And purchase some top quality leaves from very reputable, passionate sources (like this blog!) to train your tasting skills and get the standards right. You can even bring your favorite tea with you to share with tea farmers. It will tell them all they need to know about what you are looking for. And you will have a way to compare their teas to yours.

Tea can taste differently when brewed by a farmer than when you brew it yourself (different water, the altitude's influence on the boiling point...) By tasting this difference on your own tea, you will be better able to judge how this will impact the farmer's teas. (Tip: ask the farmer to use porcelain and a standard ratio of leaves to water and time.)


Alex Zorach said...

It's interesting how you highlight here that it's hard to know if the vendor's information is accurate or not...this is a problem I have run into a lot. A lot of information out there is essentially un-verifiable...and in general, vendors have proved themselves (at least to me) to be more than willing to repeat or pass on myths and erroneous "facts".

I see it happen frequently with health claims on tea companies websites...but those claims can be verified through scientific research in peer-reviewed journals. If they're doing it with health claims, how is there any way to trust information about the source or means of production about the tea...which often can't realistically be verified anywhere, especially by someone in the U.S.?

Stephane said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the subject, Alex. I see that you have also taken action to improve the information about tea with you tea rating site! Maybe one day you'll have the opportunity to taste some leaves from my selection!

Yannick said...

Hello !

Of course visiting farmers is the best and most friendly way, but I had some great meetings in small shops (one in Wan-Hua, another near my home in Yong-He) which don't have fantastic teas but very acceptable ones for a very reasonable (or even cheap prices).
Then we must remember that some tea-makers have their plantations in the high mountains but live in cities. There is a fantastic tea-maker in Taipei (near TechBuiliding MRT) doing Baozhong from Alishan (I like a lot this tea) and Wu-Yi from Nantou area, he even go to Yunan for doing his own Pu-Erh. Another great tea-maker is in Taichung city, also doing Wu-Yi.
The good thing in the cities is that these kind of shops are also some kinds of shelter from urban life where you can chat about tea during hours ! :-)