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.

Good Chinese teas get better the more times you pour water on them. Tea dealers have equipment you don't have at home, notably a device to heat water to the optimal temperature. They use a scale to measure the precise amount of tea. And their tea vessels are expensive: a small clay teapot can cost several hundred bucks.

With every tea we tasted, you don't drink the first pot. They "rinse" the tea with hot water and pour it out. The first small cup you taste is from the second pot. Subsequent cups often taste markedly different: you get more flavor and often less tannin.

Tea dealers give you the cheap stuff first to figure out your palate. You might also expect the second tea to not be top notch. After that, it's not a linear progression: you might get the most expensive tea third or 13th. The better you can express your reaction to the tea, the more the dealer can hone in on what you like. This is also true of wine, but as a novice tea buyer I didn't have the vocabulary, so I felt doubt in how I stated my opinions.

I had a huge advantage over the average tourist: my wife speaks Mandarin. But it's not her native language, and she doesn't know specialized tea vocabulary; she also found discussing tea with the dealers intimidating.

By the third white tea, we were getting into clearly better stuff. The aroma was more elegant; the finish was longer. I tried to say something like "this is more like it," to see if I could get something even better.

(By the way, I'm sorry I don't have photos of this whole process. If it were a booze tasting, I would. My wife and I were completely engaged with trying to buy good tea and I couldn't spare attention for photography. Plus, I wanted to be taken seriously, and nothing says "tourist" like photos of the buying process.)

The fifth white tea was beautiful-looking: perfectly trimmed white buds; the tips of the plant. I thought I had finally earned the tea dealer's respect. We had pot after pot of it, though, and it just didn't have much aroma or flavor, nor did I love the mouthfeel. I worried that I am not subtle enough to appreciate it.

The unassuming-looking white tea that I liked
Nervously, I told the tea dealer that I didn't love it. He brought out another selection that was nowhere near as visually appealing: a pile of irregularly sized brown and white leaves. No beautiful buds. I thought I had moved down in class.

But this one tasted better: it had more length and tasted creamy and full-bodied, without gripping tannins. The more pots of it we had, the more I liked it.

I said that I liked it and then asked what else he had. He pulled out an aged white tea, which is very unusual, and therefore a step up in price. I didn't like it: the tannins were grippy. I don't drink tea for punishment.

I decided to buy the unattractive loose leaves of white tea, which turned out to be surprisingly cheap: about US $10 per 250 g. I bought three bags of it, including one for Jonathan.

Writing that sentence diminishes the self-doubt I had before, during and after the purchase. This was a $10 tea. $10! Less than I pay for a sandwich in San Francisco. Yet I wondered then, and still, if I made the right decision. Two hours after buying the $10 tea, I was still worrying if somebody who knew more than me might have bought something better for the same price.

Tea shopping in Beijing put me in the mindset of a beginning wine drinker at the supermarket. It's easy to tell people, "Drink what you like!" and "Trust your taste buds," which is exactly what Jonathan told me. I doubted myself anyway. Moreover, like a supermarket wine consumer, I'm not that interested in learning a lot more about tea. I just wanted to get a good tea at a good price.

2006 in Yunnan was considered a good vintage, and tasted like it
The next day, I did buy a disc of aged pu-erh, a 2006 vintage for about $65, after walking away from a ripoff store that wanted to charge $200 for the same stuff. That shop used Google translate to communicate with me and they sounded like used-car dealers. "This tea is good and getting better." "This tea tastes very good." "You should buy this tea while you can."

I could easily have been fooled into spending three times too much because I liked the tea; I just didn't want to spend $200.

Psychologically, I had an easier time buying the $65 pu-erh tea than the $10 white tea. Partly it's because pu-erh has vintage variation, and I felt very comfortable trying different vintages of the same brands; that's a lot like wine tasting.

But the big difference is I never intend to serve any of my 2006 pu-erh to Jonathan. I won't be judged on it. I like it, and $65 is not too much for me to have a souvenir that will last a long time (one disc is about 50 portions.) Plus, Jonathan used the phrase "tuition tea" to describe teas that aspiring aficionados buy in their first year and then grow out of. $65 was an easier spend when it's not just 50 portions of tea; it's a learning experience. Maybe this explains why wine education classes are popular.

So in addition to a lot of tea, I came home with a great new phrase for anxious wine consumers. Not sure if you should order that Friulian orange wine, or Australian Grenache, or whatever? Just consider it a "tuition wine."

Friends, I am really, really glad to be back writing about wine. Tea is complicated. Wine is easy.

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If you miss my wine writing while I'm taking a break from blogging, keep an eye on Wine-Searcher, where I am US Editor and writing at least one story every week.


guren said...

Great post, with lots of food (or tea) for thought. I didn't realize there would be vintage variation among tea leaves, though it certainly makes sense. Do the shops store the vintage tea leaves in humidors or something similar to maintain freshness?

As an anxious wine consumer, I like the "tuition wine" designation. I have probably paid more tuition for wine than I did for my seven years of college, and received a better education, too.

Lastly, your wife speaks Mandarin? Did I know this? I don't think I knew this.

W. Blake Gray said...

Storage of tea is a topic that I don't know nearly enough to get into. Tea is stored in a warmer, more humid environment than wine because people want it to age -- that I know. I also know that some people (me included) like "sheng," or fermented tea, and some like "shu," or unfermented. I'll bet those two are stored differently, but I don't know the details.

My wife likes to keep her qualities to herself.