What’s so Special about your Tea?

As some of you may know by now, I own and operate an online tea shop and ever so frequently we get in front of people at expos, events and such.

One frequently asked question that I never managed to answer to the satisfaction of prospects is

“What’s so special about your tea?”

Not that my tea is run-of-the-mill stuff- it’s not, it’s great ;p- but there are some difficulties in answering this honestly.

Exceptional is not the Exception

I have had people describe some of my teas as “exceptional’, a compliment I accept gratefully.

The thing is, great tasting teas are not THAT much of an exception, at least from China.

For example some of the teas I get, the annual production is probably 50-100 kg or so, I only bought 5-10kg, so that are plenty more, albeit predominantly in China.

What I’m trying to say is, I don’t have a monopoly on great teas.

If my answer is “my teas are special because they are all exceptional” then it would be dishonest because I know of other vendors that sell exceptional teas.

Of course that kind of means”exceptional” is an inappropriate adjective but I guess you should know what I mean.

Special doesn’t really mean great

If I so desired, I could have a truly special tea.

All I need is to drive 2 hours to Senai in Malaysia where many households grow tea plants for making Hakka Thunder Rice in their backyard.

I will just sundry it and bake it, a truly one of a kind white tea that is really special.

But here’s the thing, it tastes horrible.

Unknown cultivar- not one like Dabaicha which is extraordinarily high in amino acid

Low elevation and hot climate- hello astringency!

But it’s special right?

Exceptionally horrible!

I rather have a tea that is widely produced but the widespread production means that there is plenty of competition to bring out the best.

For example, being the top Tieguanyin producer in Anxi means a lot more than being the top tea producer in Shandong, for example. Because the competition is really stiff.

To stand out, it needs to be exceptional. (There’s that word again)

All Teas are Special in their Own Way

Now this sounds like a cop out but it’s true. At least for Chinese and Taiwanese teas.

Most of the top grade ones are made by hand. Factor in changing climate, picking conditions etc etc.

So you can’t have 2 batches that are exactly the same.

Of course for commercial grade teas that are produced according to SOP instead of discretion of masters, blended to achieve consistency and so forth, this is not the case.

What is truly special though….

Is the overall package.

Now I don’t know every single shop in the world but I doubt there are many that shares the same commitment we have to provide information and resources to our customers on tea.

On our tea resource section, we organized our articles into brewing guides, selection, storage, history etc.

More than 200 articles on tea.

Every tea we sell, we have detailed brewing guides, some with videos as well.

All this to help you get the most of your tea as well as know tea better.

Now that is special.

*At least the extent of it 🙂

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On Being a Chinese Tea Drinker

Sometimes I ask folks if I am who they envisage a typical Chinese tea drinker to be.

Not that I am some insecure narcissist who craves validation but I often find some of the statements hilarious:

“Which part of China are you from?”

“Oh, you speak English?”

And so forth.

Then people are surprised that I spend more time reading Colm Toibin than I do Cao Xueqin (author of Dream of a Red Chamber) or Kazuo Ishiguro as compared to say Lu Xun.

If you watched some of the latest videos I made on brewing, at the suggestion of a viewer/reader, I added some background music on the latest videos.

He suggested Chinese instrumental music but of the 2 videos I made, I played Herbie Hancock and Yo-yo Ma. I hardly listen to ‘western classical music’ but I have a few Yo-yo Ma and Joshua Bell CDs at home because I read somewhere that it was supposed to stimulate the infant’s brain.

*Yeah, in this respect I am a typical Asian parent*

Perhaps traditional Chinese music might be more apt, but the simple truth is I have no such music in my library. Well, I have 1 CD actually, but you would be sick of hearing the ‘Butterfly Lovers’ for the next 20 videos or so.

So it’s going to be Hancock, Grant, Rollins and if I manage to brew tea with him playing, Coltrane & Thelonious Monk as well.

That is what I used to listen to. These days I listen to kids music. No, really. As a father, I either listen to her sing or play her CDs.

Anyway, does that fit your profile of a typical Chinese tea drinker, an ethnic Chinese no less?

In truth, I just go for what I like.

In literature, I gravitate more towards British, if not Irish writers.

In music, if I get a choice, I listen to jazz but mainly from dead or retired guys.

In sports, these days I only watch the NBA though I sneak in a bit of MLB from time to time.

Food, I am partial to Asian, Chinese mainly but south east Asian (Malay, Thai) & east Asian (Korean and Japanese) as well.

Tea- Chinese of course. Conveniently classifying Taiwanese teas as ‘Chinese teas’ as well, no reference to politics, more on processing styles.

Does this conform to a typical impression of a Chinese tea lover?

Wait, it gets better. I don’t have any traditional Chinese clothes- nor does my wife- and we are not Buddhist, we are Christians- Baptists to be more precise.

But I still love Chinese tea with all my heart.
Now that I’ve come out of the closet, I can go back to quoting Chinese idioms.

Posted in About us, Culture, musings, tea | 2 Comments

Dealing with the Singapore Haze

Last week, things have been hazy here in Singapore, literally. For a country that has been given the moniker of “Garden City”, haze (at those levels we should call it smog) is not something we are accustomed to.

Courtesy of forest fires in Indonesia, monitoring the PSI levels has replaced monitoring the STI as our favorite activity.

When it crossed over the 300 mark as it did on Thursday onward, it wasn’t a laughing matter. Holing up at home, we were thankful for the air-purifiers (yes, plural, lucky us) we received as a house warming gift.

Still, competing depression was as challenging as finding fresh air.

Donning a mask, my wife whipped up some home made Bak Kut Teh for me to overcome my Founders Bak Kut Teh craving.

bak kut tehThe meat was succulent and a bit fatty, the way I like it.

If I had any bones to pick (ingrate) I had to say it was not peppery enough but given my toddler daughter’s palates that much is understandable.

Customizing it for our family’s palates, there was the inclusion of cabbage (mine) and Goji berry (my daughter’s) and a huge dash of love.

Naturally what bak kut teh meal is complete without oolong tea. Fujian oolong to be more precise.

bak kut teh teaThe spiciness and greasiness of bak kut teh makes oolong tea a perfect complement and I paired it with one of my daily favorites- Huang Jin Gui.

The aroma permeated my entire mouth and the huigan soothes the throat.

It was such a delightful interlude, that I almost could have forgotten the PSI outside was at near hazardous levels.

The simple indulgences of life, even when it’s crazy outside.

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If I could only have 3 teas for the rest of my life

Now this thought isn’t all THAT terrifying to me.

Some people want to drink all the teas in the world, as for me, I want to drink all I can from each tea.

If I don’t sell tea, I think I might be happy drinking just 5 teas:

i) A type of Dancong- Xin Ren Xiang, Mi Lan Xiang, Huang Zhi Xiang, Tong Tian Xiang or Rou Gui Xiang. Or any of the many others that I might have missed. But Dancong is a staple of my tea life.

ii) A type of Yancha- again like the above, it can be Dahongpao, Bai Ji Guan, Shuixian, Rougui or even more exotic types like Yanzhongyu, Bantianyao but I need the ‘Yan Yun’

iii) Either Longjing or Dongting Biluochun or Dinggu Dafang. I love roasted greens. I drink green everyday and can’t contemplate a future without them. Narrowing it down to these 3, I think I will be happy though I must say for Longjing either Xihu or Dafo Longjing.

iv) Tieguanyin- ’nuff said

v) Puer- Sheng Puer to be exact. Minimum of 6 years old (aged naturally in south east asia or HKG I suppose), MUST BE traditional Puer, not the newfangled types for immediate consumption as opposed to aging- i.e. sundried not baked. Can be Xiaguan, Menghai or some of the smaller ones.

Now if you force me to pare it down to 3, that changes things somewhat.

Logically it would make sense to go with an oolong, a green tea and a Puer, that provides something for every occasion. Nice variety to mix it up. You have something for the heat, the cold and for everything in between.

But the notion of going through life without Tieguanyin, Dancong or Yancha is terrifying.

But a pure oolong diet means I have nothing for the sweltering heat.

And what of old age when I need some Puer for my weaker constitution, gotta be prudent and plan for that.

I could age some highly roasted oolongs, but….. but…. but….

Maybe I could drop Tieguanyin………

*shivers*

Dancong is impossible, that’s my Teochew heritage we’re talking about!

Yancha….. the thought of it….. Let me get a sip of my Shuixian to calm the jitters.

Darn, this is just a hypothetical exercise, I don’t really have to take it so seriously.

5, my best offer.

Plus on occasion I hope you would allow me to try some Silver Needles, Liubao Heicha, Liuan Guapian and even Gyukuro on Japan’s national day or something.

That’s my best offer.

 

Posted in musings, tea | 2 Comments

Holding my Tongue

Figuratively speaking of course. Though more accurately it would be restraining my fingers.

Technology means everyone with access to the internet can broadcast their thoughts to literally thousands of people.

Which is a great thing, reading diverse opinions can’t be too bad a thing.

Avoiding Conflict

Which is why generally I don’t like to disagree with people online. Everyone has a right to their own opinion, even if I disagree.

Not to mention the fact that it’s a waste of time and the internet is a black hole of time as it is.

So I don’t think I will ever participate in a debate about which tea is the best, for example.

I love Dancong, Minnan Oolong, Minbei Oolong, Green Tea, Dark Teas (Puer), Taiwanese Oolong, White Tea, Yellow Tea and Black Tea in this order of preference but I don’t force my opinions down another’s throat.

angerBrewing methods, I have my opinions but I don’t wish to debate about them, especially since the details change.

i.e. short infusion/high temperature versus longer infusions/reduced temperatures debate

I swing from one end to another though I must qualify longer infusions is circa 30-45 seconds as opposed to 80C and 3 minute infusions for “oolong teas” using Western brewing methods. That is something I am confident I will never lean towards, unless I want to get rid of some low grade tea.

However there are some instances that I find it hard to hold my tongue:

1) Perpetuates a misconception

Oh there are plenty.

White tea is caffeine free, oolong tea is simply black tea that has its oxidation process halted prematurely, green tea is brewed with boiling water, there are only 3/4 categories of teas etc etc

In fact, if it wasn’t rude to do so, I would point you to some sites with egregious misinformation, some of them are pretty well-known.

2) Insults eastern cultures

This is another one of my pet peeve. Cultures in the far east- China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea- have been producing teas for internal consumption for literally hundreds if not more than a thousand years.

There are some who come in with the “screw you primitive natives, let’s show them how it’s done” attitude.

Gongfu brewing is purely ceremonial. Chanoyu is just ritualistic.

Let’s do it the “modern” way. Use a French Press and that’s how it’s done.

Not that using “modern techniques” is wrong in itself. In the office, I sometimes use a Piao-i Pot or equivalent for convenience.

But as I explore new alternatives, I am conscious of the fact that people who have been drinking tea for thousands of years are not idiots waiting for an external savior to lift the industry out of the doldrums.

Of course, rather than commenting on their blog or forum and waste time, I end up writing this post being deliberately vague so I won’t be flamed or baited into any battle.

Ironically, I am conscious that I wasted 20 minutes of my time on this rant :p

 

 

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Selling Online in a Taobao World

In case you didn’t know, I run an online tea shop and a mighty fine one if I may say so myself :p.

It is a career that pays like a hobby but this post is not meant to be ranty. Quite the opposite, this is meant to be a pensive, self-reflection of sorts.

For many of us online sellers- not just in tea- Taobao.com is becoming sort of like the elephant in the room.

In terms of product variety- no way we can compare with Taobao. Heck, I spend a lot of time in the tea markets of China and I can easily lose myself scouring through tea ware in Taobao, marveling at the array of choices available.

In terms of prices it is ludicrous for anyone to expect their local merchant to match Taobao’s prices for the exact same product.

However, I have seen this cup  being sold for almost SGD 20 when it costs RMB 16 (SGD 2.67) from that site. Factor in shipping, agent fee, I think even SGD 12 would be a comfortable margin.

I realize I may shoot myself in the foot but the thing is, consumers can check prices on Taobao.

A small markup, I think consumers can understand that everyone needs to make a living. Too much of a markup, you invite scorn.

The world of Taobao means that we have to re-think our value add.

If as vendors, we are mere re-sellers, then one day consumers may find our role superfluous.

Here its time to blow my trumpet a little.

On our site we provide loads of tea related info- more than 200 articles at time of writing.

But more importantly, we strive for authenticity.

If it is a Tieguanyin we claim to sell, we make sure it has that ‘yin yun’.

If it is a Wuyi Shuxian, ‘yan yun’ must be there.

If we sell a ‘Taiwan High Mountain Tea’, it is where it claims to be from. Not Vietnam, Thailand or Fujian.

You will be surprised how often this is not the case, especially online.

I think that is our value add. That is what (hopefully) keeps us in business.

That is why I never buy any tea from any online wholesaler- and there have been plenty who approach me.

What is the point of me selling something that can be literally available to anyone (provided the Minimum Order is met) with a few clicks of the mouse?

We travel to China and Taiwan to meet the merchants, taste and buy the tea in person.

We study the teas so we know what we are buying.

That is not to say we are infallible, heck it is stunning the extent producers go in order to maximize their dollar value but we do our best.

And if we fail, we will be happy to make good on what we failed at.

Also we build relationships so we can get access to teas casual drinkers don’t. Not saying that we have it locked up- we are only 1 year plus in biz, not that many long standing relationships- but we will get more and more each year.

But this is not unique to us, I think eventually all vendors have to bring something to the table.

That’s the challenge of selling tea in a Taobao world.

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Not Following My Own Advice

Us know-it-all types often dispense advice liberally. I wrote more than 200 hundred articles on my company tea blog giving all sorts of information related to brewing tea, tea appreciation and the like.
CAM00429Sometimes though, I ignore my own advice and go for irrational purchases. How else can I explain why I have nearly 10 gaiwans despite my belief that tea wares are not the best value for money in terms of improving the taste of teas. (The only reason why I ‘only’ have 5 yixing pots is that I am an advocate of not having too many so I can better season what I have).

So for the longest time I put off buying a Tetsubin kettle- too expensive, I hardly ever boil water with the stove, more convenient to use a variable temperature kettle, I already have 4 tea kettles and so forth.

All it took was a simple question “I’m in Kyoto now, do you want anything?”

Gone was my arguments and fiscal responsibility and for that good ten minutes, I provided him with the specs and photos that I had toyed about in my head for a year.

It was the kind of request that only a blood relation would entertain, given how heavy a Tetsubin kettle is, even a 1.2 litre one weighed like a sledgehammer.

All the way from Kyoto to Singapore to my household where I nearly giggled like a school girl when I saw it, dizzy with excitement when I think of how more amazing my yancha, tieguanyin and puer is going to taste with this.

Sometimes it’s good to ignore my own advice and live irresponsibly.

Posted in tea, Tea Utensils | 1 Comment

Drinking Tea Outside

One of the things my friends don’t understand about me is why I usually don’t order tea when I’m outside. Even if I’m meeting to talk about tea.

If we’re meeting for dinner, even if I’m in a Chinese restaurant, I often order chrysanthemum tea or at most Eight Treasures tea- a mixture which is approximately 1/8 tea, as in Camellia sinensis.

Even more egregious is if we’re meeting in a cafe or some equivalent. Even on occasions when I meet and talk tea, almost exclusively I order coffee.

For meal times, it is partially related to iron absorption, something I wrote about in this article about Don’ts of Drinking Tea.

But more importantly is that there is only so much tea we can drink in a day, every cup (huge or small) should matter.

How can I be certain that all teas outside will suck?

Firstly hardware. Apart from tea houses, you’re not going to be served tea in a gaiwan, not a with tea tray and all.

For convenience, most cafes serve tea in a huge glass pot- good for aesthetics, horrible for oolong and green tea- the 2 types of teas that I’m most likely to order. Then your tea steeps forever in it.

Not how I would like to enjoy my tea, personally.

Secondly it’s also related to hardware. Few shops- if any- own a variable temperature kettle. An air-pot that reboils the same water repeatedly is probably all you’re going to get. In other words, more likely than not, whichever tea you order, it is likely to be doused with freshly boiled water.

Third- it is most likely to be bagged. Sometimes shops do a bit better and provide pyramid bags, which is only interesting if you don’t regularly gongfu brew your tea.

Pyramid bags in theory sounds interesting- more space for the leaves to unfurl. But it leads to brewing in a regular mug- which is not conducive for oolong tea especially- and the packaging often seems ill-suited for storing tea leaves.

Flimsy paper packaging, wrapped with a film. Once it’s open, the pyramid bags are often exposed to elements like oxygen and moisture. Even if you used good quality tea leaves in there, very soon it would degrade. I don’t see why vendors would increase their cost in that manner.

This is not to be overly negative though but because I drink so much tea anyway, I rather forgo a significantly worse cup. In the past I used to drink tea in a thermal flask but I decided that the compromise was a bit too much for my liking.

If I come across as a snob, I apologize. It’s just that I strictly adhere to a daily consumption limit of 15 gram of tea leaves. If it’s going to cut into my quota, I want to enjoy myself. Even if it’s not gongfu brewing, if the compromise is not massive, I’m happy to allocate my tea quota.

Unfortunately most places I can drink tea outside- apart from Bak Kut Teh joints- don’t quite justify my daily 15 grams.

Posted in chinese tea | Tagged | 1 Comment

Why there is so much misinformation about tea and what you can do about it

As a beverage, tea probably has no equal in terms of depth and scope of knowledge. In fact many would argue that tea is not just a beverage but a way of life.

One of my favorite Chinese quotes on tea goes “人生活到老,香茗知多少” or even when you grow old, you won’t know all there is to know about tea.

Tea SetIndeed there’s a wealth of information about this little drink- from production technique, brewing methods, types of leaves, cultivars, geography, history and so much more.

It doesn’t help matters that there’s a lot of misinformation about tea and worst still it gets regularly circulated.

For example:

Claim: White tea has the least caffeine.

Fact: If anything, if you’re talking about authentic white tea- i.e. Fujian white tea, they have among the highest caffeine content due to among other things- early pickings and lack of high heat during production which melts caffeine

You can read about more common misconceptions regarding tea here

A lot of factors contribute to this- I thought of 7- but I will only highlight 3 more relevant ones:

Technical knowledge

Unfortunately the technical knowledge that has more weightage would be that of the intricacies of search engine algorithms as opposed to the effect of sunlight on the chemical composition of tea leaves.

Most of us don’t go beyond the first page of the search engine which more often than not is the almighty Google. In other words, our learning of tea is often more influenced by Larry Page and Sergey Brin than Wu Jue Nong, Zhang Tian Fu or even James Norwood Pratt.

Webmasters with knowledge of how to appease the search spiders have a leg up on genuine content providers and useful information (if any) are buried in wasteland otherwise known as page 3 and beyond of Google’s results.

Language and Linguistics Deficiencies

This statement has to be worded carefully- much of the information about tea is not written in English nor in the possession of native English speakers.

It’s not arrogance or ethnic pride (yes I am of Chinese- more specifically Hakka and Teochew- descent) but a statement of fact. Every single category of tea- green, white, yellow, oolong, black and dark (or post-fermented) tea was first produced in China and in fact China remains the only nation that produces all 6. In terms of diversity- green tea for example- it is unmatched.

This is not a statement of superiority again but is one echoed by many who deal in quality tea- even of non-Asian descent.

The problem is that much of this information is not translated in English and when it is- besides the obvious difficulty of translation from a language with a completely different grammar structure- it is often difficult to read because most native Chinese speakers aren’t entirely fluent in English and vice-versa.

The result is that some sites with pretty good information on tea such as Vicony Tea’s blog can be a tad clumsy. Case in point- its name is Tea Seek which sounds rather obtuse in English but my guess is, in Chinese the original text was cha xun <茶寻> (Tea & Seek) which sounds exactly the same as <查寻> (Investigate- a deeper search). A word play that is lost in translation.

Coupled with the short attention span of web readers and the proclivity to skim and bounce, these sites don’t get much attention or repeat readers.

Vested Interest

Tea blogs were originally a dime a dozen. You only need to look at the Association of Tea Bloggers to see how many have ceased updating the blogs. This trend is by no means restricted to tea as far as blogging goes but of those who remain, many are vendors. You would expect apart from a handful of long time seasoned tea drinkers, only vendors have the time and motivation to pursue the wealth of knowledge in tea.

Holding a gaiwanVery often you read about overblown health benefits or other generally inaccurate information. Some birthed out of commercial interest, some of plain ignorance, some because the vendor was fed inaccurate information.

There is a lack of perceived independence when a vendor writes about tea. Indeed, I too run an online tea shop and blog regularly about tea appreciation, brewing tea, background of tea, selection and other tips to enjoy tea.

Some of it- I am not ashamed to admit- has a commercial slant which needs not be a dirty word since I provide more fodder for potential customer to make an informed decision. Many more articles do not. As a friend commented that I wrote 3 articles on the merits of a gaiwan, why do I not sell a gaiwan (at least at point of writing- I might in half a year’s time if I find the right batch but I’m not actively searching now).

Do I have a vested interest?

Absolutely!

I want to help more people appreciate and select quality tea as well as store and brew it right. These people would be more likely to purchase teas from me than people who drink out of a tea bag, in a huge mug but they might just as well buy from some of the other serious stores out there.

*More on this in a later post- we are starting to digress*

So what can you do about it?

Fortunately with the Google updates, the average reader has more power to influence it. How you may ask?

Sharing.

Sharing helps boost search ranking. So if you see an article you like, it doesn’t need to be our tea blog, other good sites that you ought to share include the Tea Guardian and MarshalN despite the former selling tea as well 😀

Source of information- an ever growing library

Source of information- an ever growing library

Unless you’re really so moved (though we hope you are, we want to be a commercially viable enterprise :D), you don’t really have to share our articles with an outright commercial slant- such as our weekly specials– but with 165 articles (at point of writing) there is a good chance that there is something that you might find useful.

You can start by visiting the content page which organizes some but not all of the topics. We may not know all the answers, but we know where to search.

When you share, you let your friends know more about tea and boost the search placement of good information. You can help combat the misinformation on the web.

So, if this has been useful to you, like it, tweet it, +1 it……. You get the idea.

Posted in chinese tea, General Knowledge, tea | Tagged | 2 Comments

Random Musings

Now that I have blogs with more specific themes, this blog is becoming an avenue for me to pen some random musings down- you know more like most blogs.

In recent months, I am quite quiet on all tea forums for various reasons that I won’t go into here except to say that considering the scarcity of time for a small business owner, it’s not the best idea for me.

I do scan the forums on occasion though, most times to search for inspiration to blog about on the corporate blog. I came across this post where an individual told a vendor outright that her stuff are extraordinarily expensive.

Now a bit of background, the vendor was not soliciting for opinions, she was advertising her blog which admittedly is a crude way of advertising her business. Which anyway she is far from the only one to use forums in that manner.

On un-policed forums, vendors would take every occasion to tout their wares- apocalypse coming? We got just the thing for you!

Coming back to that person, I don’t think its proper to go on a public forum and say that someone’s wares is expensive unless it’s a review site or something.

And I don’t think tea is ever really expensive- it is very often overpriced but inexpensive teas are often overpriced and pricey teas are often fairly priced. This is a case of the massive price difference on the market.

You can overpay for a $15 ‘Big Red Robe’ which has nil ‘yanyun’, probably not grown within the confines of Nine Bend Streams and tastes like JianOu shuixian more than anything else. At the same time, it can be a bargain to pay $50 for 50g of genuine Big Red Robe with traditional high firing done right and the distinctive ‘yan yun’ shining.

That person’s opinion in fact could be valid but his reasoning stemmed from ignorance more than anything else.

Now I am not saying this because I sell tea, personally it irks me that vendors sell overpriced low quality tea. This may not be pricey teas but low grade variants that sully the name of the tea.

For example I love Longjing but most of the Longjing on the market are not worthy of the name. They are flattened wok-roasted green teas, that’s where the similarities end. Flat tasting, highly astringent, none of the beany fragrance and virtually no lingering sweetness to speak of.

To pay even $10 (50g) for that quality of tea is expensive.

On the other hand, a good quality Longjing- forget about labels like ‘shifeng’ and ‘mingqian’, genuine ones are extremely pricey- can be a bargain at $20 + per 50g but you need to search.

Think I went on an unnecessary tangent but hey, that’s what blogs are for. ;p

 

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