Monday, June 25, 2018

Buying tea in China reminded me of being a novice wine drinker

These are the tea dealers I ultimately bought from. Look at all those tea discs behind them! It's all vintage, and all pricey.
I haven't been a novice wine buyer in a long time, but I re-experienced the self-doubt when I tried to buy tea in Beijing.

Beijing's tea market, Maliandao, is overwhelming. We went into a large building with several dozen shops, all stuffed with scores of teas, because that seemed manageable. Both sides of the street approaching the building, one of several, are lined with tea vendors. Is a free-standing shop better? Who knows?

Fortunately I was only interested in two kinds of tea: aged pu-erh, which draws more tea geeks than any other type, and a specific white tea (yue guang bai) that a friend told me is good. So I was like a wine shopper looking only for, say, Riesling and Cabernet.

I wasn't sure I would buy aged pu-erh because it's expensive: a single 400g disc of 20 year old tea costs at least $200 and often much more. I like pu-erh because I order it at dim sum, but I've never had the high-end version. It was a rare opportunity to get a great tea but I feared buying the wrong thing.

My friend Jonathan, a food writer and tea geek (and author of this book), gave me advice beforehand, including an age-range sweet spot (6 to 14 years old) but not a price estimate, which proved to be an issue.

I decided to get the white tea first, because it's cheaper and thus the price of failure is lower. But just choosing a shop was challenging. I did so by instinct: I liked the look of one man more than his neighbors.

When buying tea, you will taste a lot of tea: I was wired afterward.