Big thanks to those that contributed knowledge and time to helping make this a successful trip. You know who you are!
Hong Kong is a very different place than Taipei. Not having been to either, I naively expected a few more similarities. They’re both just big cities in east Asia, right? HK is dense, dense, dense, and built vertically and in general is far more commercial and fast-paced. While I’m more naturally inclined towards somewhere like Taipei, HK has a lot of very nice things that I greatly enjoy, especially the food. Dim Sum, Chinese bakeries, all cheap compared to Seattle prices. Yumm… We spent ~10 nights in Taiwan and four in Hong Kong. The first couple days were used doing relatively standard tourist things (going to tall buildings, Victoria Peak, Star Ferry) which left a bit of time for tea shopping.
- Of our 8 meals at Hong Kong, 7 were probably dim sum. Maybe that helps to explain the weight gain.
- One cool app for potential travelers is Open Rice on your phone. It’s basically like Yelp and we ate very well with it.
The teashop scene is also very different and reflects the kinetic nature of the city. The teashops we visited were far more bustling and commercial (say what you want, then buy and get out) with a lot less of the slow-paced mom and pop type shops. The cost of a storefront in Hong Kong is high and this dynamic is well-covered by Marshaln’s post on HK Teashop Ecology. Depending on the shop, there’s also usually a more intense sales push put on you. However, there’s also some very good things. The stash of old pu’erh depending on the shop is very impressive. With old vintages put prominently on display. They’re not remotely cheap, but everything is there! Shops we visited, all mentioned wealthy mainlanders as the major marketforce for most of the old tea.
Trip #1. In Sheung Wan we walked into our first stop in HK on a morning and asked to try some “HK Traditional Storage” pu’erh. Pshhh. Weird foreigners.
In both Taiwan and Hong Kong, most tea shops will initially assume we want to try ripe pu’erh. Maybe they figure it’s an easier sell to tourists cause of the lower price, but we always asked for the raw stuff. From the get go it was clear that this was going to be a different sort of tasting than Taipei. The owner picked out three teas to compare and proceeded to grab out 15 cups, 3 gaiwans, and 3 gong dao beis and brew the teas side-by-side-by-side.
Either he assumed we didn’t know the teas or didn’t bother to explain, but it ended up being a blind tasting of sorts. We didn’t see the actual teas or the wrappers until the end. Tea #1 (550HKD) was clearly the dryest of the three. It was sweet and still had a decent amount of green in it. I’m not sure how long it was stored in Hong Kong, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was stored someplace much drier for the majority of its life. Tea #2 (800HKD) was the most middle of the road and felt more traditionally stored. The leaves didn’t look as good as tea #1 and there was still some rough character but I found it to be a more potent and enjoyable tea in general. The third tea had the heaviest storage and was probably the least clean. That being said, by the fifth infusion it had dramatically improved and smoothed out to something pretty decent.
Brewing in this manner, helped to also contrast the three teas nicely and I felt confident enough to buy the second tea. The first was not really what I was looking for (turned out to be a 2006 Changtai anniversary cake) and the third (not sure what it was) may or may not’ve been too wet for my tastes. The second tea turned out to be a 2004 commissioned 7542.
- 7542 is supposedly a rather poor looking recipe and strong.
- This tea is very much shabby looking and is potent.
- The guy was nice to me and must be a great, trust-worthy human being.
- Therefore I am confident that mine is 100% legit..
jkjk. It’s not even dayi after all.
After it was clear that I was buying some amount of tea we were just about to head out. However, it was still early and the owner offered to brew up some 1980s loose pu’erh. The tea wasn’t cheap at 4000HKD for 600grams, but it was pretty clear that it was at a level above the teas we’d tasted. Very smooth and quite tasty.
Trip #2. A day before leaving and after brewing the 7542 with my own makeshift setup, I wanted to stop by to pickup some more teas. At $0.25/g, it’s pretty much impossible to find similar sorts of teas easily available in the western market. I mainly want traditionally stored tea for daily use. It’s not easy (/impossible) to pick that kind of thing up out west without spending a lot. This is a void that once again Origin Tea filled admirably.
We stopped by in the morning again and the shop owner seemed happy to see us again. We started with a two tea comparison of a 2001 Yiwu (turned out to be the Spring Buds) and a 2000 tea from Menghai. The Spring Buds had been traditionally stored and the 2000 tea was dry HK storage. Interestingly, if I didn’t look at the leaves (the Yiwu had darker leaves) I would’ve guessed that the 2000 tea was the wetter one. The Yiwu was the better tea at the start and had a more prominent throatiness to it, but as we kept steeping the Menghai-area tea began to overtake it. Alas that tea was also twice as expensive, coming in at 2000 HKD.
We then moved onto two late 1990s teas. Something from 1998 and a 1997 Hongyin. I suspect he was trying to test my upper limits in price. The 1998 was a bit meh, and was definitely inferior to the Hongyin which had a strong lasting feel on the mouth. So what’s the problem? Well he was selling it for 6000HKD, a good deal beyond my price range.
We finished up with a 1999 Fuhai Yiwu and some 1980s Vietnamese Loose Pu’erh. The Fuhai sold for 2400HKD and was very balanced but also didn’t really manage to grip me. The main issue here is that my palette was severely affected by the teas just consumed, especially the red mark. This made it very difficult to discern exactly how good it really was. Would’ve liked to try that tea on a different tea.
The Vietnamese pu’erh on the other hand was cheaper than the other stuff, coming in at 2400HKD/600g and held up pretty poorly against the teas we’d been drinking. It also compared not too well against my memory of the 1980s loose pu we’d tried before.
So what’d I end up with this trip? I picked up another 2004 7542, the 2001 Yiwu Spring Buds, and 150grams of the 1980s loose from our first trip.
Lam Kie Yuen
Went here later on that day after getting some food in our stomachs. I tasted one cup of their Bada productions from 2014 or 2015 and they immediately tried to sell me on it asking me if I wanted to buy. I guess this is the HK treatment??
MS was interested in trying their Wuyi. After looking at the prices and smelling we sat down to have a few of their cheaper ones. Again, the lady served us one infusion and then tried to get us to buy. Hrmmmm.. Anyways, after trying two different ones that could most kindly be described as decent and were worst value than their Yunnan Sourcing equivalent we moved on.
What I should’ve tried: I would’ve been curious to try their 2004 Yiwu cake but I also wasn’t eager to spend a ton more money after shop #1. Perhaps next time.
Lau Yu Fat
Going off Nicolas Tang’s HK list we ventured up north to the mall. Again, MS wanted to taste the Yancha options. These were a bit better than Lams but didn’t scream out as being much better than Yunnan Sourcings in terms of overall value. Kudos to Scott for setting the bar high for basic, daily drinking Yancha. After tasting two we moved onto some pu’erh. I was curious about some of their older teas that weren’t outrageously expensive but was also curious about their house brand and we ended up trying one of their 2011 productions. Lau brewed it heavy and it went on for a while. It was easy to tell the underlying leaf was decent. The soup was potent with a good, solid aftertaste. That being said, it really wasn’t very pleasant to drink and felt like it may’ve been in that awkward transitional period. If I’m going to spend 800HKD on a cake, I wanted something with more HK type features (trad. storage/maturation) or something I couldn’t say no to.
At that point, we’d consumed a lot of tea. MS tried to negotiate but they would only budge if he bought higher quantities or I bought the Lau Yu Fat cake. No thanks.
What I should’ve tried: Looking back, I probably should’ve tried something like this.
After trying and failing to find two apparently closed Best Tea House locations, we were more or less done with any planned tea shopping. But we ended up with some time to kill on our last day. MS and I decided to make our way to the 32nd floor to try out Sunsing.
The space is pretty cool. It’s a converted office space that sits in the air with some great views. MS (to our host’s annoyance) insisted on sitting by the window. Similar to Lau and shop #1 you can see a great number of famous cakes prominently put on display.
I mainly wanted to take a look, but we got there and MS wanted to try some tea. After establishing that we had some experience with pu’erh, our host picked out a pair of cakes. One was the 2004 7532 (500HKD) and the second was the 2004 Autumn Yiwu (1300HKD), although I didn’t catch the price at the time. We started with the 7532 and our host served up a couple cups. We sipped and he awkwardly looked at us and when we didn’t say anything he kind of smugly smirked to himself.. Well ok.. His haughty attitude continued for a while.
The view and service were the most notable thing about Sunsing. The 2004 7532 was exactly what you’d expect. Still fairly strong, bitter and reasonably full. Not really very great to drink. MS liked it, but I was pretty meh. The second tea was better. Overall lighter, smoother and had more characteristics I like (throatiness) but was also somewhat thin. After somewhat warming up to us, he offered to brew a third tea but we had to run to catch a flight. After learning the prices afterwards, I was fairly surprised by the Autumn Yiwu. I don’t think I would’ve even paid half as much.
What I should’ve tried: I was pretty unprepared for this visit and we were also short on time.. I guess that 2003 Bada is supposedly pretty good?
Whelp there you have it. One shop which got all my money and another three that didn’t. I’d say that with the exception of shop #1, the overall experience in teashops was a bit better in Taiwan. That being said, I’d definitely go back to any of them. I’ve only really scratched the surface at the shops I’ve visited and I hear some voices in the back of my head telling me where I should’ve gone and what I should’ve done differently. I’ll be back soon enough.