It is possible to discern a Yixing Zisha teapot quality at the point of buying

Yixing Zisha teapot

Yixing Zisha teapotMany tea consumers are fascinated by Yixing Zisha (宜兴紫砂) teapots. The clay is believed to be the premium clay for brewing the premium teas, especially the fermented teas such as Oolong teas and Pu-erh teas. It is mainly due to the porous nature of the clay which facilitates the brewing process by being able to ‘breath’ through the teapot wall, thus bring out the best of a tea and eliminate certain not so desired elements if presented.

The original Yixing Zisha teapot is defined as the items made with the clay produced in the Huang Long Shan (黄龙山) area of the Yixing City. Due to the increasing demand of the product, limited mine deposit and human exploitation, the Chinese official has closed the area from mining since 2005. Any symbolic mining since has been on a very limited scale.

There are however similar mine deposits in the surrounding areas, which are now the main sources of the current Zisha clay supplies. This also opens up a discussion that if these can be called Yixing Zisha and if the quality is comparable.

Zisha products follow the following formula which applies to products of limited resources:

Increasing interest and demand -> increasing prices -> human efforts to increase the production -> substitute products

The Zisha clay itself is in many styles and quality grades. Discerning the quality of a Zisha item at the buying point today is difficult.

Substitute products

Following are some of the methods used to create the ‘substitute products’:

  • Using clays mined from elsewhere than Yixing
  • Re-composed Zisha using low quality clays mixed with artificial colouring and granule ‘ingredients’
  • False claims to appear to naïve Zisha consumers, including clay type, origin, quality and the maker of the Zisha item etc, who have difficulty differentiating.

Following are some of the techniques developed to make the Zisha items look ‘genuine’, which will only add to the confusion:

  • Super fine clay, which is lack of the quartz granules, is mostly considered to be of low quality (a topic for a different discussion). Some manufacturers have half fired these clays till they are hard, machine ground them into small particles and mix them with the original clays to achieve the ‘coarse’ appearance. The granules are not the quartz particles as in the genuine Zisha clay. It serves only the appearance but not the functionality of the quartz particles.
  • Certain producers mix sand particles and artificial coloring into low grade clay to produce the consistence and texture look like of the high grade Zisha.

As a tea consumer and Zisha lover myself, the one aspect that is of most interest to me above all others (design and details) is the quality of the clay, which is what makes the Yixing Zisha teapots different from others.

Going through a good number of the information available, from both Zisha producers and collectors’ perspectives, it appears there is not a defining set of criteria to guide the Zisha consumer to genuine Yixing Zisha. Experience seems to be the only reliable source. This however can take many years to develop. At the meantime, the ‘substitute products’ are getting better and better at mimicking the genuine products.

Many indicators, buy lack of defining criteria

There are many articles discussing how to differentiate handmade, semi-handmade and industrial machine made Zisha teapots. The implication is, if a Zisha artist is to spend the effort to handmake or semi-handmake a Zisha teapot, the quality of the Zisha clay he/she uses must be at least in reasonable quality to make the effort worthwhile. The quality of the Zisha clay is assumed to go down with the reduction of the level of the ‘hand work’.

This assumption leaves many unanswered questions, even confusions:

  • Let alone there are not objective criteria to measure the level of ‘hand work’, there is also not linear correlation between the level of ‘hand work’ and the quality of the Zisha clay.
  • What is the difference in the clay quality between the teapots made by different Zisha artists as they use different clays? (The Zisha artists are graded in China based on their experiences and skills. There is however not universal supply of the clays – they simply use what they believe is appropriate among what is available.)
  • How about the semi-handmade Zisha vs fully handmade ones? Some of the semi-handmade Zisha items on the current market can easily look as good, even according a pair of experienced eyes, as the fully hand-made ones if not better.
  • How about those teapots made by ungraded Zisha artists (民间艺人)? (Like craftsmen of all traditional products, the skills have been passed down by their ancestors. They use the family stock pile of the Zisha clays in their backyards to make the Zisha teapots - in other words the under marketed products.)

The list can keep expending.

The ultimate information and control

The only ones with the ultimate control appear to be the Zisha teapot producers. They decide precisely what goes into making a teapot and how to make them. Without being given the full information, it is rather difficulty for the consumers at the buying end to judgment the quality.

For example, it is relatively easy at the buying point to see the differences between a $40 teapot and $400 teapot, with a bit of the experience of course. It is however not so easy to answer the question if a $2000 teapot is worth of the price tag.

The worst happens when the naïve tourists buy from the shops at the tourist locations. The products are often overly decorated by fancy designs, most come out from machines. It is entirely up to the merchants how much they want to charge as there are not set criteria to label the quality.

Conclusion

Yixing Zisha teapot is fascinating. A good item is absolutely worth collecting. To know if one has a collection value and how to achieve a high money value ratio is however a tricky question for most of the consumers.

 

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The loose Chinese teas of the past and today - what has changed

Tea was once a local produce

Bi Luo Chun green teaTeas have been consumed in China for at least 2000 years. For a long history they were largely produced and consumed locally as local produce. I still remember the days of my grandmother going to the local farmers’ market to purchase her tea supply. As the result, most of them have been typically named with two components: the name of their birth place and the name of the tea, such as Wuyi Da-Hong-Pao, Anxi Tie-Guan-Yin, Fuding Silver Needle, Suzhou Bi-Luo-Chun, Xi-Hu Longjing, Keemun black tea and Yunnan Pu-erh etc.

It was not long ago that one would have been assumed that it had come from Anxi if Tie-Guan-Yin was mentioned, or Suzhou if it was a Bi-Luo-Chun. Or for example there are a few pocket areas in the Fujian Province of China that produce the exclusive grade Fujian Silver Needle (white tea), Fu-Ding, Zheng-He and Jian-Yang. When Silver Needle was sold, the price was, and still is, ranged in the sequence according to their production areas which are believed to be directly associated with the quality of the teas, Fu-Ding Silver Needle most expensive, Zheng-He and then Jian-Yang.

The increasing interest in premium teas world wide

The interests in premium loose teas have been increasing world wide during the recent years, mainly due to the increasing exposure and the health benefits reported.

Teas once were not known outside of their local areas are now being sold internationally, accelerated by the recent internet and fast, convenient and relatively cheap international transportations.

The art of making the finest teas

The arts of producing the finest teas have been developed over a long period.

For example, Wuyi Rock tea has had a product and consumption history in the Fujian Province of China for at least 1000 years. Da-Hong-Pao has been the most well-known and highly sought after Wuyi Rock tea. The very original Wuyi Da-Hong-Pao was produced in a clearly defined area of the Wuyi mountain of the Fujian province ‘Jiu-Long-Zhai (九龙窠)’ . It is believed there are about 6 of original tea plants (or parent tea plants) are still existing in the wild and producing very limited amount of tea each year.

While the production area is constricted and the demand is growing, the natural approach is to cultivate and expend – the new generations of the tea plants have been successfully cultivated from the original and have been used for extended production.

Top quality Chinese tea production is a work of art, including:

  • The special tea plants
  • The unique environmental conditions of the tea plantation: the geographical location, the sunshine, the rain fall and the soil conditions etc.
  • The processing skills

Ways of increasing the production to meet the demands

The tea plants can be cultivated and the skills can be leant. We are however not able the replicate a unique environmental condition known to be ideal for a particular tea variety. With time, the cultivated tea plants under different environmental conditions will change to adopt their new environment and become ‘not exact the same’.

To further increase the production output, I have recently read a report that the tea farmers in the Wuyi area blend a few local teas together to mimic the Da-Hong-Pao flavor, close enough for the naïve tea drinkers to believe that they are the ‘real stuff’.

For the purpose of discussion, let’s call the limited availability of teas produced from the original site and plants ‘original tea’, and the teas produced from the cultivated tea plants under the similar environmental conditions but elsewhere or blended versions ‘reproduced tea’.

While the prices of the ‘original teas’ have sky rocketed, the ‘reproduced teas’ are far more available and affordable. For example, 20g of Da Hong Pao tea from one of the mother tea plants was sold for ¥208,000 in 2005 – that is ¥10,400 (or $1485 USD) per gram, while one can purchase nearly 15kg of the ‘reproduced tea’ with the same price.

This phenomenon is observed across almost all tea categories and varieties: green tea, white tea, Oolong tea, black tea and Pu-erh tea.

Discussion

Consumers drink teas mainly for two purposes: to enjoy tea as a beverage and lately their health benefits. There has been no research to suggest there is difference in health benefits between the ‘original’ and ‘reproduced teas’.

The taste difference is therefore the focus of the discussion: is the astonishing price difference reflecting difference in the flavor?

Tea consumption in traditional tea consuming countries, such as China and Japan, is very similar to the wine consumption in the west. Time and experience are required to differentiate and appreciate the subtle differences of the various quality grades.

The questions the everyday tea consumers need to ask are:

  • Have I had enough experience to differentiate the fine difference between the ‘original’ and ‘reproduced teas’?
  • Is the difference worth of the extra cost?

Conclusion

The way the traditional teas have been developed and consumed is increasing becoming a thing of the past.

There have been a few relatively ‘new’ tea varieties developed during the recent years. Not so much focus on their birthplaces, but more as a variety/flavor which reflects some unique characteristics, for example:

  • Jin-Jun-Mei, a fine black tea developed on the back of the traditional Lapsang Souchong. Jin-Jun-Mei, is not longer associated with the Lapsang area, but more a unique technic developed to produce a new fine tea variety.
  • Ying Hong No 9, another top end black tea developed on the back of the traditional Yunnan black tea Dian-Hong. The tea was researched and developed in the Guang-Dong Province by a group of tea researchers over the last a couple decades, using certain carefully selected premium Dian-Hong plant species and optimized over time.

Teas today are becoming more of a flavor/processing type than a local produce. For example, the Longjing green tea is now widely produced in many areas around the Zhe-Jiang Province; countries like Vietnam and Myanmar are attempting to produce the renown Yunnan Pu-erh using the ancient tea trees found in the adjacent forests. Will this expansion inject a new life to this traditional product? Or will it kill the culture and tradition that has developed over a long history? Only time will tell.

 

 

 

 

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Right price for the right product? Only if you know the products well.

A gold question in the tea community

fresh dragon wellThere is a gold question in the tea community – does the price of a product reflect its quality?

It is generally expected there is a relatively linear correlation between a product quality and its price. 

I have however come across two separate incidences recently, one relating to Pu-erh tea and the other to Yixing Zisha teapot, that this correlation is put into serious test. Before event referring to the product quality, the consumers in both cases believed the prices were too cheap for the products to be genuine or of premium quality or authentic – in these cases a fair judgement. On the flip side however, it implies if the vendors were to simply put an additional ‘0’ at the end of the price tag, the products would attract immediate attention without any value added. 

It then comes down to the crucial element which is the consumer’s capacity to discern the quality of a product. It is not only subjective, but also influenced by multiple factors such as personal experiences, preference, cultural background and marketing strategies by the vendors etc. 

Premium loose teas (including all six categores: green tea, white tea, Yellow tea, Oolong tea, black tea and Pu-erh/Hei Cha) and certain tea accessories (eg Yixing Zisha teapots) are largely hand processed or handmade and quality graded, but not standardised. They are then traded under the ‘free market’ conditions which means the selling price is negotiated between the vendors and buyers, and highly sensitive to demand and availability.

Various efforts have been attempted to standardise the qualities of the products in order to better regulate the industry. It has however been difficult as the products are not as clear cut as for example the machine-made industrial products with a clear set of criteria to be measured against.

Summary:

Tea consumption is lifetime personal journey. It takes time and experiences for the individuals to appreciate the internal quality of certain products, and subsequently the right prices for the products.
For the beginners however, it is important to be aware that what you pay is not always what you get.

 

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