Travel in China offers great opportunity for individual discovery of tea. When you consider each city/town will often have its own tea market, you might expect such a visit would offer a kid-in-the-candy-store sensation.
While there are great teas and great people to encounter, there are a few things worth knowing:
1. The selection will (likely) not be as broad as anticipated.
Many Chinese people drink “local” teas limited to their province or nearest specialty region. Beyond that, they may periodically or occasionally drink some pu’er, qing xiang tieguanyin, and a handful of other broadly popular Chinese teas.
2. Many tea vendors are not really in the business of selling tea.
In certain vendors’ stores, walls are lined with shelves full of different boxes, tins, and packaging. These vendors are selling tea, but are really selling teas that people buy to give as gifts. These vendors may or may not know much about their teas or offer a variety of grades of a certain tea. Their customers may not know that much about tea appreciation or tea quality. The shopkeeper and customer are more concerned about creating a special presentation of tea.
Additionally, several shops in the market I visited were stores for selling herbs, wines, or daily-use dry goods.
3. Vendors lose their specialization, and are selling each others’ teas.
I was speaking with a specialty retailer with his own location outside of a tea market. I was telling him about my experience of going to tea markets and seeing stall after stall of the same teas. His explanation:
Vendor A has special connections to get Tea A, but he doesn’t know how to operate a prosperous business offering only Tea A. Vendor B has the same problem selling Tea B. So Vendor A buys tea wholesale from Vendor B to offer a greater selection. This process is repeated with Vendors C, D, E, and so on until a large group of vendors are selling the same teas at the same price.
When you do find an interesting vendor and selection of tea, ask yourself these questions:
1. How well does the vendor seem to know his/her product?
Language barriers aside, there are a still few a ways to observe how well a shopkeep knows his tea. Look to see how she displays and stores her teas. Notice how well they are labeled and displayed. Many vendors will have their more common teas out for easy viewing, and then have their higher grade stuff tucked away with extra care.
2. How well does the vendor prepare and serve tea?
Note the kind of water used. Local tap water or bottled water may be used for sampling tea. Using local water is not necessarily bad or dangerous. Several locations in China still have acceptably clean water.
Consider the equipment used. Is it a gaiwan, an yixing pot, or some other steeping equipment? Some green teas may be served simply with tea leaves in a tall glass. There are several acceptable methods, but they may not reflect the way you will prepare the tea back home.
Observe how the tea is steeped. It can be challenging to mentally record all the variables in terms of tea leaf, water volume, water temperature, and steep time used, but these parameters will affect your impression of the tea during sampling, and how you may want to imitate or alter the preparation style for your own use. My personal experience is that tea vendors will serve a lighter, thinner liquor than what I prefer. It can takes a little more practice to detect the potential and shortcomings with a weaker, thinner tea brewed at cooler temperatures, with different water, or other changes from your usual method.
Some of these challenges are exactly what make a tea market interesting. When you do find something noteworthy, it can make for a great story.
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