Last week I happened to be in the Beijing neighborhood, so I thought I check out one of (probably) the world’s biggest tea market areas. I had heard several U.S. tea retailers tell tales of the place, and so I had big expectations. Maybe too big.
First of all, the place is big. Multiple buildings holding 2 or more storys with dozens, if not hundreds of vendors. At first this seems to be the tea-kid’s candy shop.
Until you look closer. A lot of vendors are selling the same stuff. I mean nearly exactly. I can’t tell you how many places were offering the same pu’er cakes, the same da hong pao sitting in bulk boxes with the same brand logo on the outside. These guys weren’t specializing, they were price competing. And when you did stop to taste I often got the most insipid, pale thimbleful of tea I’ve had in a long while. I mean, I’ve seen darker water come out of rusty pipes than what they served as Wuyi wulong.
There were gems and charming spots, so the rant can end here. There were lessons to be gleaned.
- Look for vendors who specialize. Go to a Fujian wulong dealer who only has Fujian oolongs on the shelf. What also helped was asking for more obscure teas like tie luo han. There were too many stores hawking da hong pao. I figured: “If the vendor has tie luo han and at least some mid-grade shui xian, he’s more likely to have some serious da hong pao.
- Shop around. Do your homework. Don’t just waltz into the first store you come to and start chatting up the staff. They will likely be trying to chat you up to make you stay and buy tea. Ma Lian Dao has several large markets in the area. You could spend days walking past stalls to find the right tea at the right price.
- Don’t taste tea unless you are seriously considering the tea. The longer you stay, the more likely you will feel obligated to buy, and the more pressure the vendor will feel to make a sale.
- When you do taste, take (at most) two sips of each steeping, then pour out the rest. Show the vendor you are serious about tasting the tea, not quenching thirst.
- Ask the vendor to really push the tea. Ask them to steep longer (i.e. 30 seconds to 1 minute) if they give you thin, insipid steepings. Don’t let them combine steepings (e.g. first and second steepings) and then serve. You need to now how long the tea can last. Salespeople will do most anything to cover the flaws of their product. Caveat emptor!
- Ask about different grades, and see if you can sample the top two grades. You may be able to discern a difference, or you may not.
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