Friday, January 22, 2016

Chinatown Treasures

I was wandering around Downtown Oakland when I spied more than a jian of puerh on the top shelf of a new dried seafood super store. One does not behold such a sight very often in the States- that many tongs in retail nor that many jars of dried seafood critters in the $1000 to $2000 per pound range.

The dried fishy aromas wafting out the door of the store were so powerful, I had to compel myself to go inside to investigate. You can see beneath the tongs a row of various beengs (shu and sheng) in open gift boxes.  I would imagine the dried seafood odors have irrevocably infused into the oils of the tea. 

I'm sure a lot of these dried up sea cucumbers will end up at a new year's banquet if not a Chinese wedding banquet.  I really wish I was in the market to buy one with this kind of selection available, but like any Korean, I like my cukes raw and crunchy- preferably freshly dead.  Since I've seen sea cucumbers plentifully littering the ocean floor while snorkeling, I would not dream of spending good money on one but I spent a good 10 minutes trying to figure out which sea cucumber I would take home with me.

Here is a situation not unlike puerh buying in the old days. There are a few scant english websites guiding you(here and here) on how to buy a sea cucumber but you can't really gauge the quality and texture until after you buy and reconstitute it.  Then you have to contend with overpriced misrepresented sea cucumbers to outright fake counterfeit sea cucumbers made with konjac jelly. Vendor trust while important I think only goes so far.  Much of the shorelines of the world are unfortunately polluted and so one can't know what kind of pollutants lurk inside a bottom feeder like a sea cucumber. 

How to choose a sea cucumber when you are confronted with a vast range of grades from $20-$2000. The big leap in price is differentiated by culinary use vs. medicinal use as $1000+ cukes possess magical anti-cancer properties.  Even so,  I think it's easier and cheaper to become a sea cucumber connoisseur than pursuing puerh.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

A Cure for Tea Greed

Recently I began fasting on a weekly basis, giving my body a 20 hour rest with water and tea as my only sustenance.  In the last few years, the news has been awash with scientific studies touting the health benefits of intermittent fasting.  I had been curious but non-committal until the WHO rained on my bacon parade last October by unequivocally proclaiming processed meats were the short road to cancer.

Of course I was acutely aware of bacon's dark side but I'm gonna go to my grave with bacon breath. Cancer however is not to be taken lightly and to mitigate potentially harmful effects, I have decided on a compromise.  Fasting kicks the body into cleaning and repair mode called autophagy which breaks down potentially pre-cancerous old and abnormal cells.  I figured a day of fasting more than compensated for my two slices of weekly bacon.   But I was doubly motivated by the golden premise of enhanced brain function as an evolutionary adaptation to fasting- our hungry fore-bearers had to become mentally sharper to nab their next meal

Initially I had planned to drink teas and shop for more teas during my fasts.  But
this simple practice of weekly fasting has unexpectedly tamped down my tea hoarding instinct and I ended up not even looking at tea vendor sites.  I don't know how and why fasting would subconsciously upend a decade long condition that my husband's tireless efforts could not. Perhaps it was experiencing the positive effects of deprivation that is now effectively preventing more tea shipments out of China into our household.  Hoarding is mainly driven by a fear of scarcity.   Once I severed my system from a continuous feed and found I could easily stop eating for day,  I felt a strange sort of freedom by not having.  Cutting the mental shackles to food must have also weakened my pathological need for ever larger amounts of tea.  I now feel if I can have good tea of any kind a few times a year, I would be content.

I really thought this fasting was something onerous to be endured for the sake of my beloved bacon but it turned out to be something I look forward to. I am extremely productive and flowing with energy on my fast days.  Tea also tastes better on fast days.  When you're hungry,  your olfactory system becomes heightened so the teas taste more intense than when you are satiated.  Oolongs taste intensely floral.  Amplification works in all directions and rank basement aged sheng becomes even more unbearable.

Perhaps the most gratifying side effect to fasting is that food tastes most deliciously wonderful when you break your fast.  But so too is your last meal before starting the fast.  I am partial to the coconut pandan waffle with black sesame at this Hong Kong Snack House which was my last provision before fasting on Saturday.   How can happiness be bundled in such a chewy glutinous interior...

Thursday, December 24, 2015

A lot of fraud out there...

I work in an industry rife with false hype to the tune of billions of dollars so I am unsure as to why I still get hot under the collar about false marketing in the puerh world.  Tea fraud is a never ending evil and we are lucky we have champions to fight the cause.  The end of this year has seen all sorts of misdeeds in the tea industry and elsewhere.

  1. Verdant Tea - For reals?  Again? Their claims of 1800 year old tea are so above board outrageous, it forced the usually calm and unexcitable Scott Wilson to show his fighting muscles.  I totally ooh'ed and aah'ed over how Scott picked apart Lily Duckler's defense by exposing her photo proof as fraudulently representing their Qianjiazhai source tree when the said tree is a known famous ancient tea tree sited in Fengqing 300km away.  I'm sure Scott could not have survived and succeeded 12 years in Yunnan and in the Chinese tea industry without balls of steel aplenty.   Will this scandal have any impact on Verdant Tea's suspect marketing practices? Marshaln states more diplomatically it's more likely Verdant tea is the knowing perpetrator.  I myself would not be surprised if such shenanigans reoccurred in three more years although I don't know how you can out do selling 1800 year old tea.  
  2. BBC tea picker exploitation scandal - we collectively knew Indian tea pickers suffered low wages but we didn't know it was this terrible.  Ironically I picked this story up from the Verdant Tea blog. Inhumane lack of access to toilets is terrible for so many reasons the least of which is pooping in the tea bushes. Nothing ruins the luxury image for Harrods or Fortnum and Mason tea quicker than BBC publishing raw photos of insanitary clogged toilets on their source tea estate. The conditions are so shockingly appalling to send the tea drinker's mind instantly into denial.  I predict the British as well as the rest of the world will continue drinking black tea as usual.   
  3. Mast Brothers chocolate scandal- Even though they remelted and resold industrial chocolate in the early years- Mast brothers insist they are 100% bean to bar.  To me the real scandal is how they peddle such subpar bars for top dollar with slick marketing and beautifully designed Italian wrappers.  I've rarely run across a terrible bar above $5 price point but I was shocked at how stale and unacceptably bland tasting their Papua New Guinea bar was at $12.  I was wholly satisfied they were finally being called out.  Actually the original investigator Scott Craig of who outed the Mast brothers had done a similar expose on the now defunct NOKA Chocolate for ridiculous upcharging of remelted Bonnat couverture.  It was none other than Craig's NOKA reporting which inspired me to be more investigative in my blogging leading to my original expose on Verdant Tea.
  4. The most intriguing scandal for me this year involves the med tech startup Theranos for misrepresenting the effectiveness of their technology which allows blood testing based on a tiny prick of blood.  Lest they come after this dinky blog for libel, I'll just say no more.

I recently went back to visit my family home back east.  I had such fond memories walking the Washington Cherry Blossom Parade with Princess Pale Moon in elementary school that I looked her up to see if she was still a fixture for the parade.  It turns out she was neither an American Indian nor a Princess. 

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Fengqing Dragon Pearl

Production of certain teas can wend their way deep into a region's history and dianhong- the malty Yunnan red tea - was surprisingly born out of WWII necessity.  As the Japanese controlled the black tea producing regions of eastern China,  a tea company sent the able Mr. Feng Shaoqiu west to Yunnan to develop a new base for black tea production.  According to the Yunnan gov't site, black tea was critical for the Nationalist Chinese government/KMT to get the much needed foreign cash from the Western export market to fight against the Japanese invasion.  The first shipment of dianhong was sold to  England via Hong Kong as the middlemen for an astounding $8/lb.  Life in a Teacup also has an interesting take on dianhong's origin story but omits the "dianhong=export $$$=guns against Japanese" angle.   Regardless of where the tea revenue went, dianhong was a huge boost to the war torn economy not only to the region but the nation.  Mr. Feng and his crew indisputably introduced a delicious new tea to the world and served the nation in one go.  
I wonder if those tea vendors that label their high-end dianhong "imperial" know it doesn't apply to the Chinese end.  The only Chinese emperor who could have drunk dianhong was the last unfortunate Puyi who obviously would not have been gifted dianhong during his tenure as a Japanese puppet nor as communist persona non grata.  However dianhong was a gift for the Western royals including Queen Elizabeth II so the imperial designation as a marketing term has some validity.  For imperial grade, I expect the golden tips to shimmer with a fine thick fuzz of golden hairs.

Most of the dianhong comes from Fengqing as the original region Mr. Feng chose supposedly for producing the highest quality leaf.  I would have thought Mr. Feng more sensibly chose the region with the best roads and steady mass production over absolute best leaf but this source indicates he did choose an area for the impressive tea forest which had poor road access and facilities.  His mandate was to produce the highest quality tea to fetch the highest market price.  Still, there's no reason why you can't have dianhong made from tea grown anywhere in Yunnan as dianhong 滇紅 means red tea from Yunnan ( "Dian/" =short name for Yunnan and hong/=red tea).  I've had dianhong from nearby Simao as well as the high altitude dianhong YS gets from Wuliang as well as supposed wild tree dianhong.  Most are satisfying to pretty good but it's very rare I find magical dianhong.  To those more in love with the wild mood swings of puerh,  dianhong lacks such dynamism and behaves much more like pumpkin pie.  About 8 years ago I had a compressed dianhong from YS that had a lovely smoky flavor and it was the closest any tea could come to tasting like bacon. 

To rev up a sleepy Saturday afternoon, I brewed up one of the Teavivre samples Emmett included for me.  Less than a decade ago I used to chug dianhong by the gallons.  At first, imperial Yunnan gold used to be a special treat for me as I procured dianhong overpriced from western outfits like Adagio and Rishi. Then I found budgetlicious China prices on ebay and YS- I started glugging more dianhong than water.  But familiarity led to contempt and I ran against a hongcha wall where for a few years I simply could not swallow any more Yunnan gold.  It taught me if you really love a particular tea- don't drink your fill even if you can.

A few years ago I started drinking dianhong again- the lengthy hiatus made me appreciate dianhong's reliable malty goodness again.  This sample is hand rolled into pearls.  I brewed it in a glass teapot so I can peep in but I shouldn't have. It's not unlike seeing a lady's tight hair bun unravel in a messy way. The tea is comforting- solid and robust in the classic hongcha way. Thanks to Emmett.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Brewing Fannings

What to do about the pesky bits of tea crumb that are unfit for teapot brewing?  Like taxes in life, you simply cannot avoid fannings in puerh.  Even if your whole leaf cake arrived in pristine unmolested condition, careful excavation for a session will still generate crumbs. You think you can steam your way out of it, but still somehow fannings were hiding in the cake originally.  Tuos and bricks tend to have lots of chop so you are guaranteed fannings.  Puerh samples by their very nature produce abundant fannings.  Fannings simply indicate broken up leaf but fannings and dust have specific grades- I'm talking about leaves broken up smaller than the size rice grains that can seriously clog up your teapots.  While I will brew the larger broken leaves for initial tastings,  I rarely brew up the smaller fannings because I always have bigger leaf to brew.

I brewed up the fannings of a ho-hum 90's sheng yesterday for kicks. This stone pressed aged beeng was almost a quarter fannings- completely battered by the boat journey from China.  I was just tired of seeing the half cup of fannings in the wrapper continually degrading into yet smaller pieces every time I handled this beeng that I resolved to drink it up once and for all.  I tend to keep larger amounts of fannings with the original cake and the smaller amounts I toss in separate canisters- one for sheng one for shu.  I've brewed up shu fannings with regret- life is too short for that.

Fannings are graded inferior to whole leaf and I've often seen whole leaf tea vendors dismiss fannings as producing a bitter harsher brew. With other types of non-ageable teas, freshness could be a big issue with fannings but how about puerh.  Fannings with greater surface area leach more quickly so it's a lot easier to overbrew than whole leaf but is the taste significantly inferior?  Puerh fannings definitely should age faster and I'll empirically agree that they definitely oxidize faster.

You can gather dust and fannings up in a teabag and determine for yourself.  I brew fannings in a sieve for convenience. Flash brewing control is the key- no teapot I have drains fast enough for crumbs even if clogging were not an issue.  My sieve yields a decent enough cup that was not too different from the whole leaf session of this tea. However this aged sheng is like peanut butter- mediocre at it's best and worst.   I tend not to get the best puerh brew from a sieve I'm guessing from lack of heat retention in my setup.  I often employ a sieve when traveling and for me it beats brewing grandpa style.  Tea sieve is definitely more grandma style.

I'm sipping shu while waiting for the kiddies to come knocking any minute as tonight is the favored American holiday where adults are forced to distribute free candy to anyone knocking. For years I tried to hand out healthier nut/raisin packs/granola bars but kids were so damn unappreciative that I went back to conventional sugar bombs.  I got some "Cry Baby" sour balls for good pranking fun.  Happy Halloween!