Biao Ge, “There are no tea experts.” Shantou, Guangdong Province, April 26, 2016 – new letter from Ms. Felix Giron. Read what did she do in Shantou and why there are no tea experts.
Biao Ge, “There are no tea experts.” Shantou, Guangdong Province, April 26, 2016
Wandering Art Tea adventures with the humans of tea continue.
Our plans for yesterday were fabulously hijacked by the chance to drink tea at the tea paradise of a Shantou gourmet and tea connoisseur who styles himself Biao Ge (Older Brother Biao). Biao Ge is a self-created businessman triumphed over lack of both educational opportunities and institutional support to create a number of successful businesses. Now just barely middle-aged Biao Ge has been able to turn over the daily running of those businesses to his employees and concentrate on his great loves: Chaoshan cuisine (the local regional style) and tea. Amongst his many other roles, Biao Ge is the Vice Chair of the Shantou chapter of the Chaoshan Cuisine Research Association. Now, after many years of drinking tea, climbing tea mountains, picking tea, processing tea, sharing tea and arguing with other tea lovers and so-called “experts” (more on that later), Biao Ge has finally decided to start producing his own tea brand.
We got to visit Biao Ge’s personal tea paradise because of our friendship with his graphic designer, one of Lam’s fellow faculty members at the art and design academy as well as a Chaoshan local like Biao Ge. The graphic designer was delivering a few images connected to Biao Ge’s emerging brand and invited us along because of our shared obsession with tea.
Located on the top floor of a building in the middle of a high-tech business district, Biao Ge’s tea lair is an oasis of human and tea oriented comfort surrounded by anonymous, industrial prefabrication. Although not obvious at first site, Biao Ge’s spot contains all of the necessary equipment for storing tea as well as shelves of antique and new tea equipment, a tea library, an outdoor courtyard complete with tables and an intriguingly large pile of empty wine bottles (apparently another love of his), a restaurant-sized kitchen for the intimate gourmet meals for friends that Biao Geo cooks and hosts, a tea roaster and a small workshop for the processing and packaging of tea. Biao Ge welcomes us from the comfort of his tea table and immediately sets out more cups for the tea he is in the midst of preparing.
This first tea, although I didn’t catch on until later, is today’s roast of Biao Ge’s own soon-to-be brand of tea, an oolong danchong variety called Wudong from nearby Phoenix Mountain. As we later learn Biao Ge has made arrangements to acquire all the tea from a particular tea garden of “white leaf” tea tree grown above 1000m. The volume produced is not large and, hence, authentic varieties (actually grown above 900m) are hard to find even if you have the money. You have to know someone to get the chance to pay for it. The good friends price for this tea is 1000 yuan per kilo (and our friend the graphic designer says that’s a bargain compared to the prices of other varieties of similar quality). It has a delicate perfume and a wonderfully smooth flavor that is lighter than most danchongs with a short but sweet tail. It’s clearly a new tea in that its flavor is still mostly on the surface. Both the graphic designer and Biao Ge insist that the tea is not where it needs to be yet. Biao Ge says, “it’s only 50% there. If you give it a few weeks or two months, it will come into its own.”
Biao Ge is a welcoming and immediately engaging host and after the first pot of tea is finished, he insists that I choose all the teas for the afternoon. “Choose anything you want. I have everything.” Amongst many other projects, Biao Ge is creating a tea archive of hard to acquire teas.
Both surprised and happy to have the chance to taste new teas, I choose Dianhong, a red tea (fully-oxidized, often called black in English) from Yunnan province. I figure Biao Ge can decide what grade of Dianhong to provide to his unexpected guests. Apparently Biao Ge always provides the good stuff because the specific leaf that Biao Ge pulls out of his shelves is a Fengqing 凤庆 (location) sample called Golden Needles (Jin Zhen 金针) because of its high proportion of buds/yellow tips and thin shape. The dry leaf is fine and long. The leaves are grey and the buds are yellow; the liquor is a golden orange color. There is not much perfume either dry or wet but the taste is incredibly soft, smooth and light.
Dian Hong Jin Zhen dry leaf
As he pours Biao Ge explains that for red teas like Dianhong, you should serve 3 grams only (he has a tiny scale for this) and that most red (fully-oxidized) teas can only stand up to 3 pours. The processing which produces red tea ensures that the flavors disperse into the water very quickly.
Having just returned from Suzhou and its green tea, I next ask to try Biluochun, a green tea from the Jiangsu and Zhejiang area known for its spiral shapes and incredibly light flavor. The Biluochun that Biao Ge pulls from his tea-only refrigerator where it is stored at negative 10 C to keep its freshness is incredibly fine. The leaves are tiny grey green swirls and, perhaps because of its storage temperature, there is very little dry perfume. The liquor is an incredibly transparent, barely there greyish yellow and the taste is delicate, grassy, almost like fresh buds. Biao Ge uses 70C water for the first cup to help with the delicate unfolding of the leaves, their taste and perfume.
Biluochun dry leaf
Everyone laughed a bit upon hearing my choice of Biluochun because this is opposite the usual order for drinking tea which generally flows from white to green to yellow to red to black.
Biluochun 6 cups liquor
“No matter, no matter,” Biao Ge says, “Don’t worry about what others say. Actually once you have tasted a few cups of the new tea, the old one will have no effect on the flavor.”
This is just one example of what we will learn is one of Biao Ge’s favorite refrains: “There are no tea experts.” As a self-created man with only a primary school formal education, Biao Ge is an advocate of first hand experience over secondary sources and has little use for tea experts who theorize about tea or create complicated systems of nomenclature: “I can always find tons of examples to poke holes in what they say,” or, “Don’t try to remember all those names (of danchong varieties). People make up stupid names all the time with no reasons behind them. Those will just confuse you.”
Nevertheless, Biao Ge freely offers advice on both tea and how to learn about tea. Biao Ge insists that tea is a subjective experience and that trusting one’s own senses is far more valuable than reading books. Biao Ge is also in the process of writing a book about tea, a book on tea that is tailored to those who share a similar educational background.
“It’s good that you are here to choose tea. I often forget what I have. I have not tried those in a long time.” For the next pot, I ask for tea from Sichuan where, as Biao Ge mentions, China’ oldest human-cultivated tea fields are located. “That means green tea again.” He gives me three different mountains to choose from.
I go for Mengding Mountain tea and Biao Ge chooses a Ganlu (蒙顶山甘露) tea made by monks at a monastery tea garden. The dry leaf looks a lot like Biluochun although the spirals are less intense; the leaves are tiny and buds are prevalent. The dry perfume is, as Lam says, a little bit like a cookie. Once again Biao Ge goes for low temperature water, about 70C for the first cup because he feels that this allows the tea’s innate, “smell and taste of the tender, very first leaves of spring to be brought out.” The liquor is a very light yellow and the taste is so soft that the drinking experience is more dominated by the wet perfume than the taste.
Meng Ding Shan Gan Lu dry leaf
Meng Ding Shan Gan Lu liquor
Riffing off of his mention of Sichuan as the home of tea cultivation, Biao Ge affirms that tea is both good to drink and good to think because everything about tea – including the Chinese character used to designate it which places a grass over a roof-like structure (cha 茶) – emphasizes that humans can have adventures within and impact upon the environment but cannot escape it.
While agreeing that there are many non-material aspects to tea, tea culture and tea cultivation, Biao Ge insists on the priority of the material, soil, climate, pollution, tea varieties, chemicals, and water over the theoretical. For Biao Ge, tea is a drink; it quenches thirst. While concerned and conversant with all the tea preparation details and equipment that bring out tea’s best characteristics, Biao Ge has some disdain for the currently fashionable, occasionally overly precious approach to tea culture. He gleefully tells the story of being asked to serve tea at one of West Lake’s most high-end restaurants to a group of 40 tea connoisseurs. He asked for small glass beer glasses, water and tea leaves. He boiled the water, threw the tea leaves in the glasses and dumped the water over them. “Here you go: tea!” The confusion this haphazard approach caused brought a smile to Biao Ge’s face as he recounted it.
“Don’t forget that tea is an everyday drink, not an antique.” It, “should be like Starbucks,” which I take to mean trendy, popular, modernizing and global rather than only being tucked away into the category of classical, ancient Chinese culture. For Biao Ge tea is a good vehicle for sharing Chinese culture. “I like sharing and talking about tea with foreigners. They are open to it in ways many of us Chinese are not. Chinese people have too many calcified ideas.”
We drink two more teas. Swinging back in the opposite direction toward “darker” tea, I choose sheng (raw) puer, a black tea that is fully oxidized & processed to continue to ferment and transform if stored properly in a cool dry place with a air flow. Biao Ge hunts up a variety that is in brick form: Bingdao Old Tree Sheng Puer (冰岛老树生普洱）from a 600 year old tree. This tea was harvested in 2012. The dry leafs from the brick are grey, white and green without too much perfume.
Bingdao Laoshu sheng pu’er dry leaf
Bingdao Laoshu Sheng Pu’er liquor
The liquor is a very light orange-yellow and the flavor is smooth, light, lively. There is a flowery, dry and airy taste with a hint of wood, nut or bamboo. Unlike many other sheng puer that I have tasted there is no astringency which Biao Ge says has to do with both the quality of the tea and the age of the tree.
We end the tasting extravaganza with the tea that both our friend the graphic designer and another art school faculty member who has dropped in for tea that afternoon have been waiting all afternoon for: Old Eight Immortals (Laobaxian 老八仙). This is an oolong danchong varietal from Phoenix Mountain which cannot be bought on the market. There is so little of it that you have to have a good relationship with the producer and order it ahead of time – and even then you may not be able to acquire it.
Laobaxian dry leaf
Biao Ge uses 5.5 grams of tea for this varietal. The dry leaf is dark, fine, slightly twisted and has a prevalence of yellow tips. The dry perfume is lovely and clear but not overpowering. As with many teas, especially danchongs, the wet perfume is often said to be better than its taste. The liquor is a much lighter yellow orange than is usual for Phoenix Mountain danchongs. The taste is soft, smooth and light with none of the brashness I usually associate with this type of tea and a long, just sweet enough tail. We continue to drink pour after pour and the taste remains consistent. Biao Ge says he will get about 20 pours out of it and plans to drink it tomorrow morning as well.
As we try to talk about the taste of the tea, direct descriptions fail us. Lam says it is the taste that is not a taste. I say it is the taste of the bright yellow that he uses in his watercolors. The designers start to compare the tea to famous beautiful movie stars but Biao Ge insists that those women are too concrete to use as appropriate comparisons. Then they start describing the tea as if it were both fine calligraphy and a famous calligrapher – both old and young at the same time.
When we finally pull ourselves away from the Eight Old Immortals and Biao Ge, he offers us his hospitality whenever we are free. I will have to ask our graphic designer friend how long we should wait before invading again.