Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Packaging of tea samples and Guanxi Cha

When I first started to sell tea, I used transparent plastic zip bags to send samples. At that time, I hadn't a heat sealing machine and didn't know where to purchase these opaque, heat sealable bags. I have made the switch to these bags for quite some time already. But I think it's worth telling why I made the change: one day, I ordered a Meng Ding Gan Lu green tea from an Internet vendor in China. He actually used transparent zip bags for even big quantities. He probably knew about my blog and wanted to establish a friendly connection with me, so he gave me a big sample of raw puerh mao cha (loose leaves) along with the green tea. That sample was also packed in a zip bag. Aie!! The strong smell of raw puerh permeated the whole package and completely corrupted the fragile fragrance of Meng Ding Gan Lu! And I couldn't even be angry at him, because he clearly meant well with this big sample.

This experience convinced me to seal the bags for my samples. The extra processing and cost is really worth it, since it preserves the leaves from taking unwanted odors during the trip. For the freshest, unroasted Oolongs it would be best to even vacuum the bags before sealing it. This is the case for the normal sized packages of such Oolongs on my selection. But I don't do vacuum for the samples. My machine doesn't handle it too well. And most of my teas don't need vacuum sealing anyway (sufficiently roasted Oolongs or Puerhs). The little air that comes into the sample bag shouldn't matter to these teas. This can also be a test to see how these teas fare in normal storage conditions (since very few of you vacuum-seal your teas after each tasting).

Last Friday, a foreign tea merchant and friend came to visit me during his Taiwan trip. He brought me some of the best leaves he had come across while visiting the tea plantations. I returned the favor by brewing some of the best and rarest teas from my stash. And as we appreciated these excellent teas, he used the term 'Guanxi Cha' to describe what we were drinking. But he didn't mean tea from the Guangxi province. Guanxi is the important Chinese concept for connection, relationship. It often has a negative connotation for Westerners who think that guanxi is just another word for bribery and 'red envelops' full of cash. Real Guanxi is not about large scale bribery, but it's more about the little personal attentions that create a closer connection so that we are not forgotten or replaced by somebody else. In a country of over a billion people, it makes sense to establish close links with the people around you. It's not limited to business people. Parents will give little gifts to their kids' teachers or to the doctor for successfully delivering a baby. Treating them well increases the chance that they will treat you well too in return.

In the tea world, guanxi cha are the teas that fellow drinkers exchange with another. Between tea professionals, guanxi cha are something quite special. They are usually teas of the highest grade, made in such small batches and quantity that they are not sold openly, but exchanged as a form of 'Guanxi'. This is what we did last Friday. My friend let me drink a Taiwanese tea that doesn't even exist yet (I can't say more without compromising him) and I brewed a top grade Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong (lapsang souchong) that was given to my by my tea professor in form of a single 10 gram pack. I also brewed a prize winning Oolong (picture) and a 'perfect' Oriental Beauty, which comes from a 3 jin batch.

The next day, I went to see my Baozhong supplier in Pinglin and decided to give him a few leaves of that Oriental Beauty too. After smelling those leaves, he already knew the price range I had paid for them (and this is the most expensive tea I have ever bought!) He smiled and laughed with his wife in the expectation of drinking this tea the very next day! This was the biggest smile I saw from him that day.

One of the most memorable Guanxi Cha I ever drank was the original Da Hong Pao Oolong from those 4 old trees on the rock in Wu Yi. This happened after knowing Teaparker for over 4 years and after learning enough about tea to be worthy of this experience (he got it as Guanxi Cha from Wu Yi directly). This is what makes the tea world quite different from the rest of the world. The best teas are priceless and so rare that they are often not traded at all or only sold to the most knowledgeable customers.

Guanxi tea is not necessarily the most exclusive tea, but it is one that is special to you for all kinds of reasons. For instance, Toki made this puerh bing for his wedding, went to Yiwu to select the leaves and designed the packaging himself!


Anonymous said...

I've been wondering, whenever I open vacuum sealed tea bags, there is a smell of glue or plastic (or something?)--does that affect the flavor of tea?

Anonymous said...

Guanxi cha...ça me rappelle mon voyage à guangzhou l'année passée. Lors de ma dernière visite chez le marchand de thé préféré de mon ami chinois, il m'a donné les quelques grammes qui lui restait d'un anxi tie guan yin de haute montagne. Il l'avait lui-même roulé à la main et ne le vendait pas dans son magasin (quantité minime et hors de prix).

Guanxi cha... ça me rappelle aussi les dire d'un ami propriétaire d'un magasin de thé en Suisse. Il n'obtient jamais la meilleure qualité d'un thé lors de son premier contact avec un producteur chinois. C'est seulement après plusieurs années de relation qu'il accède aux premières qualités. Comme quoi, ce n'est pas toujours l'argent qui ouvre les portes de la qualité; mais en chine c'est avant tout ces relations nommées guanxi.

Guanxi...ça me rappelle encore ce que disait ma prof d'anthropologie au sujet de l'utilisation des cartes de crédit et des automates à billets en chine. Si leur utilisation est si minime c'est principalement à cause des guanxi. Plus facile de profiter des avantages d'un guanxi avec un(e) banquier(ère) que d'entretenir une relation chaleureuse avec un automate!

Tout ceci pour soutenir ce que tu écris Stéphane: c'est dommage de réduire les guanxi à une simple pratique de corruption.

Et merci, ça m'a rappelé de chouettes souvenirs.

TeaMasters said...

plastic bags are sealed by heating the plastic so that it sticks together. Some plastic smells necessarily appear during that process. Do they affect the tea? You tell me! This may vary with the quality of the plastic, the strength of the heat and the ratio tea/plastic. And, of course, it varies with how discriminate your nose is. Should someone feel there is a big negative in using these bags, please let me know.

Merci Joanthan pour ton témoignage. Il me fait penser aussi à comment j'ai pu obtenir mon Baozhong semi-sauvage lors de ma 3ème visite chez ce fermier:

Mon ami me disait vendredi soir qu'il fallait 5 achats pour que la confiance s'établisse avec un fermier.

Anonymous said...

I am v sensitive to chemical smells. I am considering discarding a decent tea only because I suddenly noticed "something" after it was steeping for some days (cold tea in fridge). I am not skilled enough to know if this is from the tea or the packaging but my nose tells me it's not right. Now, even when I make the tea fresh (hot) I pick up that chemical smell instantly and I hate it. I recently obtained Japanese tea from Ippodo (Kyoto tea merchant with a v good reputation). This comes in a metal cylinder with a very deep lid - no chemical smell. Perhaps this cylinder is enough to isolate the tea AND to avoid plastic problems for Chinese / Taiwan teas too ? Of course, the cylinder will cost more and many sizes are required. I may contact Ippodo and ask why they use metal.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the reply. When I open a new vacuum-sealed bag of tea (yes we love the ssssss sound), the tea has less fragrance than I expect, and there is a vague smell of plastic. It may be because outside air has just gone into the leaves, and so there is no aroma coming out. (?)

It is a high mountain tea, so the tea itself is of reasonable quality. When I steep the tea, there are no foreign flavors, it is very good.