Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Tea Market Series (In China) – Article 1

The Dream – My First Trip to China’s Tea Market

A list of some well known and colossal Chinese tea markets from left to right 1) Annual Guangzhou Tea Expo 2) Fangcun Wholesale Tea Market in Guangzhou 3) Maliandao Tea City in Beijing 

Tea enthusiasts are a different breed when we hit the tea markets, especially the "Big One". We hit them running and we don’t stop until the day is over. We are a tough, stubborn and unrelenting lot. Our never say die attitude literally translates to, “we will drink till we die”. For those who don’t know, you’ll find out what that means here.

First I probably should explain about the dynamics of the Big One. These are truly colossal markets. There are rows upon rows of shops interlocking like a complex grid that stretches as far as the eye can see. This type of market would easily contain shops in the hundreds and even over a thousand within its vicinity.

Buying tea in a Chinese tea market is an all day experience that will often extend itself to several days. The selection for both teashops and teas are vast, challenging and will usually leave your wallet feeling especially light.

It was over ten years ago but it felt like yesterday ... I remember my first foray to the Kang Le Tea Market in Kunming. It was love at first sight. I felt like an 8 year old kid at a candy store. I had this compulsion to visit each store and drink all their teas. Fueled by excitement and a sense of awe I hopped from store to store humming a merry tune and drinking to my heart’s content. It was wonderful and I felt like I was being treated like royalty. The shopkeepers were all so friendly with big smiles and beckoning for me to sit down at the tea table. I could point at any tea in the shop and within minutes it would be brewed and ready for me to drink. I was in a dream.

The Kang Le Tea Market is approximately 20 minutes from the Kunming Airport. It gives the impression of being a semi city and the area contains several hundred shops.

The dream was over when I returned to my hotel. The market was closed. The time was around 10pm and I was wide awake. By estimation I believe I would have drunk easily over 50 different teas with multiple steeping. I felt shaky and my heart was beating slightly erratically. My head was spinning and I could feel the buzz of caffeine running through my body, a result of greedily gulping down cup after cup of tea all day. As I reflected on the day, I noticed my mouth being dry and numb. I couldn’t help thinking that a lot of the teas I drank tasted the same if not awfully similar. When my senses returned to normal I would often feel perplexed at myself for ending up with teas that were terrible whilst at the time I tried them they appeared to be good.

Early on this became my routine at the Kang Le Tea Market before I ultimately wised up. It was the ignorance of youth and that stubborn streak, that’s genetic (love you Mom!). Eventually a wiser and more sensible person emerged. The truth, self preservation had kicked in. My body simply could not handle all the heavy drinking. I now gently sip instead of gulp. I avoid drinking lots of fresh green puerh teas on an empty stomach because it leaves me dizzy and feeling sick. I’ll have you believe that there is a method to the madness when it comes to screening for quality teashops and teas for tasting (the details of which will be saved for another blog) instead of humming a merry tune and wiggling my finger until the music stops (confession, which I did earlier). Surprisingly these changes have not slowed me down and I can still easily tick over 50 different teas in one day. The real differences are that I am much more effective and I don’t need to lay awake at night counting sheep. I should say I do the latter less often.

I would advise that knowing your greatest asset and then caring for it and protecting it, is an essential step towards success in any profession. Good tea tasters working to identify the best tea from multiple groups of teas prepared simultaneously will essentially need to ensure that their senses are in top condition. Protecting your senses means you want to avoid everything and anything that can numb your senses and lessen its ability and sensitivity.

A common problem during tea tasting is scorching the tongue and mouth with tea that is too hot to drink. Another is drinking tea that has been infused for far too long and is so excessively strong and bitter that it coats and numbs your tongue and mouth. This usually happens when the person brewing the tea gets distracted and forgets what he or she is doing. Both instances can dramatically impact your ability to taste tea for the remainder of the day. Due to my early enthusiasm this occurred to me on a number of occasions and my senses were often numbed and as a result unreliable. This made my perception of different teas appear very similar as I could no longer detect the little nuances of each tea.

Being alert and mindful of what goes on around you can prevent most mishaps. However if such a mishap was to occur I would advise you to excuse yourself for a short break. From experience I find eating something a little oily and fatty helps soothe over the damage done and can restore the senses. Keeping the taste mild, good food options for when you are in China are fried rice and noodles, roasted duck, BBQ pork, dumplings, etc.

And if you do get carried away as we all do, we start counting. One sheep, two sheep ... three ... :) 

This is the final post for the year 2014. Wishing you my dear readers all the very best for the holidays and a great 2015 to come. VP

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