Friday, October 31, 2014

Rainy Day 2004 Wet vs Dry

These two factory teas are about the same age- or purportedly from 2004 and potentially with some wild tree content.  Your eyes might pop out at the straw colored brew and green green leaves on the left pretending to be from 2004 but this tuo has been drying away with me in Berkeley since Feb of 2006.  Even back in 2006 and in comparison with the 2004-2006 versions of this cake, it was clear this tuo was a 2004.    Which brew do you think is more bitter? 

(I'll post an update later this weekend.)

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Paying Up for Guangzhou Storage

I've been aging sheng for nine years and on bad days I curse with both fists the lameness of natural Berkeley storage.  Just think- if Bay Area storage was anything special- that David Hoffman would be making hand over fist right now. His hoard of "last millennium" sheng aged in his Marin hideaway would be in great demand.  In drinking several 90's sheng from Kunming,  Kunming storage does not seem to me that much better either.  Some drinkers may hold onto the fantasy of extra dry storage and slow aging producing more interesting teas.  I've gotten over such wishful notions and now have to deal with the implications.

My house is on average 55-65%RH and it's perfectly comfortable for humans.  It's moist enough to cause mold problems in some of my antique rosewood and teak furniture but it's not enough for sheng to happily ferment. It's more of the double whammy of cold and dry as it rarely breaks over 75F.  For a while, I held onto that last refuge that my teas were in the "awkward phase" between youth and age where they can go a bit flat and quiet.  I've got my tweens and also the 90's samples from Phoenix Collection Emmett sent me so I know it's not going to magically get that much better in the next five years.

I've been surprised by lower quality leaf that a little humid storage has made into something more interesting.  I have high quality leaf that has just flattened out or has barely aged here.  I initially did not appreciate mildly wet stored/humid stored cakes because I was used to drinking dry stored. I've come around as the livelier mouth feel and depth of humid storage is superior to dry climate dry storage.

I am following Plan B- get more mid-range cakes that have had 5+ years in a humid zone.  I really kick myself for holding out for so long.  The most affordable humid stored cakes available to me currently are the ebay vendors out of Guangzhou and prices appear to have leapt double in the last two years.

In browsing through pre 2006 sheng for the most reputable Guangzhou ebay vendors Red Lantern Tea and RJ Teahouse,  the beeng which I really want to get- 2006 Mengku Gu Hua- is only available as a sample and the last one at that.  Both carry mostly big factory goods with no shortage of overpriced Dayi;  Red Lantern Tea which has a better selection does not do samples.

My consolation purchase over missing the Gu Hua is the 2005 Mengku Spring Tips for $67.80.  There's nothing more galling than seeing the ebay purchase history with some lucky dog buying this for $29.50 back in Nov. 2011. I remember this very beeng going around $16(probably cheaper) back in 2006.   I used to have an unjustified prejudice against Lincang sweetness in sheng back then and so did not bother even with a sample beeng.

It would make better sense to get a twin of something I already have.  However I can't quite force myself to spend 4x for a mediocre plantation factory tea I already dislike and none of my good cakes are even listed.  After much deliberation, I settle on a 2006 Changtai Lao Chen Nannuo from the Old "Man" Chen series.  Don't groan, I have my reasons:

  • vendor description says "floral and soft" - "soft" is vendor speak for weak-assed and I apparently love the gentle caresses of a mild mannered tea.  Probably this is why I am drawn to Nannuos in the first place. 
  • see how a mediocre factory tea improves with 8+ years humid storage.
  • compare against my supposed old tree Nannuos from 2004-2006
  • compare against my other Changtai cakes
Lao Chen is supposed to be named after Changtai board chairman and really for $9.50-$11 a beeng for the 2005 versions I paid, it's decent.

I just bought a few starter humid stored cakes to see if I should ramp it up. I'm also looking at a few Guangzhou aged shu wondering if it's worth sinking yet more money into shu.  

(It will take at least a week for these teas to arrive.  )

Saturday, October 25, 2014

7452 601 vs 901 Red Ribbon Party

Yes the tea closet has become a shu closet.  Instead of the over-exposed oft-blogged about Dayi classic- the 7542,  we transpose the center digits to end up with the humble shu cousin 7452.  The wodui process was invented in 1973 so you can see this early recipe from '74 was good enough survive four decades.  Lightly fermented recipes like 7452 technically leave a little more hope for improvement in aging and if you have to hoard shu- they can be a better way to go.  In the eight years I've held the 601 cake, it's become a few notches more interesting but not so compelling that I seriously regret not hoarding a tong.

Two pointers for Menghai shu noobs:
1. Batch numbers indicate year and release, i.e. 601= 1st batch release of 2006 (although could also be for 1996,1986... with the decade inferred) and 901=2009 first release. Of course the first batch has higher collectible value but whether or not it potentially indicates slightly higher quality leaves is not always clear.  I've never had a side by side tasting of different batches for the same year so I cannot say but I've had first, second and third batches which seem to have that consistent Menghai quality.  The 601 was released in May of 2006 while the 901 was released relatively late in October.
2. 7542 is not a recipe made consistently every year.  The red ribbon here just denotes that it was re-released after a hiatus(sometimes as brief as a year) and that it is the first batch of that year.  Given the puerh boom and difficulty in getting decent maocha for even sheng, I'm not surprised Dayi did not release a 2008 version.  Does the red ribbon in your cake count for more than an extra special feeling?  As with anything in puerh, a red ribbon alone cannot be trusted as a absolute mark of quality.  I've had pretty good cakes that do not boast that special red ribbon and red ribbon cakes which are not that exciting. Sadly the 901 currently belongs that latter group.

Is there a logical color coded scheme to reflect fermentation levels on the Menghai shus?  Lighter recipes like the 7452 appear to be wrapped in a burnt umber cover. However supposedly moderately cooked recipes like 7572 came in a dark chestnut brown cover in 2006 but now have a raw umber print. What to make of the yellow wrapper for the 901?  Does this indicate a lighter fermentation than previous years?  On visual inspection, the 901 pictured left is noticeably lighter that the 601 but three years is not a significant amount of time to transform.  But the post mortem does not confirm my hypothesis.

901 is an initial disappointment-somewhat flat and quiet; I may need to condition it inside a ceramic canister for a month or even let it rest a few years.  The 601 back in the day was not terribly impressive either and that is why I didn't buy more.  I brew up the 601 today and immediately the more lively mouth feel makes me feel I might do well to have a few more 7452s on hand.  I'm on the fence now whether to buy more 901s but I need not worry as someone has already bought the last 20+ cakes from YS as Scott had maintained an unusually low price of $27. You snooze you loose in the world of puerh.  The 601s go for $65+ with high risk of fakes so I'm not tempted.
Despite the pending dangers of missing out, My husband gave me a stern stern talking to about not pre-buying more tea to fill up the new cabinets he is building over the winter. My desk is always unusable but it's become an eyesore with Kunming Post boxes piled high. The photo shows about 10 days of shipments. I can't get any more until I clear this backlog some how...  

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Mediocre Sheng Conundrum

I was amused to come across this 2011 teachat poll:

"Would you rather ... under extreme circumstances, have a relatively mediocre tea, or none at all. "

By very definition, most of us are drinking mediocre tea most of the time. Of course what one considers mediocre tea particularly for puerh will vary enormously.  At one extreme end is MarshalN who calls most stuff available in the West as mediocre crap tea and at the other end is Cywn who doubts the existence of crap tea since mediocre puerh is still outstanding.

Those of us forced to rely on the internet to procure our tea supply,  I'm talking about decent even moderately good sheng that is not bad but is not exactly so good that you clamor to buy more.  There's nothing wrong with drinking average teas as long as you didn't overpay for it.  Mediocre teas are necessary when you are first starting out since everything is new to you and you need to establish reference points.  If you insist on avoiding mediocre teas,  hedonic adaptation inevitably kicks in and even above average teas can become contemptuously mediocre to you.

I love puerh. But for someone like me with a sheng intolerance and tea closet crammed to the gills with decent teas bought for a song in a climate known to flatten out tea,  it becomes ever harder to find above average newborn sheng that bypasses pain receptors and stoke the hoarding impulse.  Even if I bought something which is a notch above average, it costs easily 4-20 times as much as my old stuff and it's rarely even 1.5x as good. My current solution like so many is to not seek out newborn sheng.  Why risk the triple whammy of over-priced undrinkable mediocre (or soon to age mediocre) sheng?   But even so, given how much ho-hum stuff pervades my collection, I'd better embrace that mediocrity somehow.

Behold the 2003 Dadugang Eiabora Mansa which might even struggle to be uplifted into the mediocre category.  Plenty of people were bashing Dadugang aging potential even back in 2006. Even during the massive puerh boom- Dadugang Factory hasn't distinguished itself.   The still state owned firm appears to be  churning out mass factory tea but their new stuff isn't worthwhile enough to make it out to the Western market.  I bought this $12 cake for the ridiculous name alone and it's a milquetoast of a tea.

But this tea possesses in abundance one redeeming quality that I did not forsee back when I was greedily buying up young sheng.  The tea is just feeble enough that it is one of the few shengs my body tolerates and brings about the right amount of focus and attention without making me jittery.   Sigh. I'm the anti-Hobbes and need totally weak ass tea to make my session right.  Let me just put a blanket over my head and contemplate the sad facts.

I spent 3 hours in the ER today with my husband who needed a few stitches. The entire process could have taken fifteen minutes but because he answered that he wasn't in much pain, we were plum forgotten about.  The almost dying should have priority but I vow to have my own suture kit and lidocaine ready.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Revisiting Lao Cha Tou

Even amongst my gardening friends, I am considered a serious composter with 4 separate bins.  Every season, I hand sift the black gold for worms to put back to work and I am quite familiar with clumps that can form at the bottom of a compost pile.  I've manually busted up hundreds of such compost nuggets to spread in my vegetable patch.  So when I first read about lao cha tou- "old tea heads" from Corax on cha dao so long ago, I didn't jump on that wagon as I just didn't want to be reminded I was essentially relegated to drinking compost.

Although considered a waste product that's been up-marketed during the puerh boom, pu drinkers need not be so snobby about lao cha tou. Like every thing else in shu, there's delicious lao cha tou and atrocious disgusting lao cha tou(I'm looking at you 2009 CNNP LCT) and everything in between. The genre itself does not automatically discount quality.  But smaller cha tous are to be preferred over larger coarser tea heads.

 I tried my first lao cha tou two years ago on the recommendation of fellow shu drinker Jon Grebe who called them "silky".  I disastrously started with the 2009 CNNP Lao Cha Tou which was so disgusting, I've segregated the canister to the highest shelf in my kitchen.  Really I would never buy new CNNP except that it was convenient to include it with my order from a certain factory certified vendor (ahem..) that generally has tasteful cakes- I did not dream he could carry something so shockingly heinous. But to my consolation, it was only $6.50.

Lucky for me I kept looking and found the YS 2009 Cha Tou Sheng Yun brick - and it remains the only shu form(brick/beeng/tuo/melon) I have ever finished in my entire life.  This particular cha tou brick has a rich complex fermented fragrance that none of my other shu's have- the smell is more akin to wine than wodui and I regularly whip it out just to breath it in.  The brew is mellow sweet and lovely but not as incredible as it smells.  I've tried a few other specimens even the 2011 YS version but nothing stokes my fancy as the 2009 version pressed with nuggets fermented in 2007.     Scott claims you can brew his brick 25+ times and I've never taken him up on this challenge as I get shu-ed out after 12 brews.  To brew lao cha tou, Ira instructed me to soak them in cold water for 5+ minutes and it really helps loosen up the tight heads.

In puerh- one cannot be discouraged by traumatic experiences.  One also has to make the most of a shu demotion and I for one am happy to find something I look forward to drinking.