Thursday, November 20, 2014

90s CNNP Storage Learning Kit

After some deliberation, I contacted the ebay seller about this moldy CNNP brick which was advertised as being dry "Lucifuge" stored.  To my happy surprise, he promptly shipped me another replacement.  His reassuring words exactly "Hi, Friend, So sorry. May be stored close to the ground. The ground is so wet. Don't worry. I will resend. Before sending, I will carefully check."  And carefully check he did as the second brick showed absolutely no signs of mold.  I'm assuming he sniffed up the replacement brick as the original wrapping was unmolested.  Actually it doesn't take a hound dog and I personally needed only one continuous whiff between the two bricks to differentiate that moldy shicang "wet storage" smell.  

You can imagine inside a storage warehouse crammed full of massive amounts of tea- not everything gets evenly rotated. So even in the same lot of tea from the same vendor we have this kind of disparity.  The original brick with shipping cost me ~$48 which is too steep for what it is.  But I am inadvertently the lucky recipient of a storage learning kit.  Probably this nothing special brick was no more than a yuan when it was newborn.  At $24 each, it's a palatable price for drinkable albeit mindless undemanding sheng and I will be comparing it against that famous White Whale in a week or so.

When I brewed these two examples side by side, I surprise myself by enjoying the furry version more. The "wet stored" version conjures up a more dynamic taste compared(!) to the drier brick. But as the brews progress- the two more or less become more similar.  But drinking the teas cooled amplifies the storage taste- I cannot stomach the furry brick once cold.  Drinking teas cold is also how I gauge quality in shu- a good shu you can drink cold as the heat can mask the storage flavors.  A shu that you thought was not so bad can be gross at room temperature.

In the search for last of the cheap aged sheng, I probably am scraping bottom in 2014.  I have mixed feelings about drinking (originally) cheap bricks like this one - I would not stoop to buying a newborn CNNP brick now.  But the spectre of a continually shrinking pool of aged tea combined with ever inflating prices makes me grasp at these last chances. I've been buying at today's fool's prices because even in a few years from now I would have been a fool not to.

We're lucky that most Chinese puerh investors appear not to have much interest in this moldy tea. That shicang smell and flavor- it really can be instinctively off-putting at first- your brain can send all sorts of pre-wired warning signals not to drink it.  It took well over a year before I went over the hump.  It's more likely that there will be increasing market demand for such traditionally stored tea and not less. Whether it's worth investing $300+ on a better aged cake instead of a $50 brick, I've sent away for more samples to investigate.  I'm working through aged samples tea friends have sent me, and I'm leaning towards having a representative range from low to high.  I'm not obsessed with having only top end cakes because for me I mostly want daily enjoyment of easy sheng I can drink. Knowing what you want even for the present is really a big step alone.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Lapsang Souchong Finale

Some genres of a tea have a taste ceiling after you reach certain level of quality.  I've found that with dianhong- the world's best dianhong and pretty good imperial dianhong are not that far apart so paying more than a 1.5x premium is not really worth my while.  But with teas like puerh and oolong, even a 10x+ premium might be warranted. So what is the case with Lapsang Souchong.

There is leaf quality and then processing.  Xiaozhong is a smaller leaf Wuyi varietal which can be grown in Wuyi outside the designated region at similar altitudes of 1000-2000m. The cold winters which supposedly allow for a deeper rest also is not limited to Tongmu village.  Then to the smoking- despite the claim of ancient secrets handed down generations and such, smoldering pine wood appears not to be rocket science as I've tasted better done smoking in a Waishan than some Zhengshans.

The most pricey LS in our line up is Jin Jun Mei(golden eyebrow) and if you haven't gotten swept up in the jin jun mei craze last decade, no need to rush.   Xiaozhong jin jun mei is the thinnest rolled leaf I've encountered ever.  It brews up delicate and refined- with a fleeting lingering aftertaste. It's worth trying once at least.  For those who drink Yiwus- this kind of delicate aftertaste is rather frail and such a drinker might irately mutter to themselves "Is this it? Come on! This is $40 per 100g."  But if you've never had a lingering aftertaste with black tea- you might get a short-lived thrill.

So on the Zhengshan vs Waishan debate, I'll say it's not important for me.  Given the market, I prefer a quality AA+ Waishan($9/100g) at over a middle grade Zhengshan($20+/100g) that is twice as expensive and not even half as good.  The JKTeashop Zhengshan Imperial grade was too obviously smoky and pooped out quite early after a few brews.  You can see how thick and chopped the leaves are from yesterday's post and in the above drawing. I'm dubious this can be counted as imperial grade which requires more golden bud and no chop.  The 2012 AA Zhengshan I had from Chawang Shop is the best LS I've had(beside the JJM) as it had the dried fruit high notes and subtle smoke for which I'll gladly pay $20 (although the cost was much much less).

Since the Zhengshan LS supply is limited, you have a high chance of getting lower quality leaf for top dollar.  I didn't purchase any more Zhengshan for this tasting because I could see the from the leaf  size and chop from other vendor photos that their commanding price was too high(~$30/100g) making the jin jun mei at $40/100g a bargain.

More Reading If You Are Inclined:

Friday, November 14, 2014

Tale of Ten Lapsang Souchongs Part I

Ever since Jakub turned me onto good LS, I have ditched Yunnan dianhong for the charms of that wonderfully subtly smoked tea from Fujian. Although lapsang souchong was once an elevated drink for European royals and their court, I'm a lucky commoner to enjoy it almost daily with my pork laden breakfast.  I normally keep at least two leaf grades at home- a higher grade leaf for guests and for chocolate pairings and a more robust leaf for casual and mindless morning brewing.

I'm quite happy with Chawangshop's offerings but Honza often sells out of his AA+ and he doesn't carry Zhengshan Xiaozhong currently. I kick myself for not hoarding a few kilos of his fabulous ZX then as LS is good for at least three years. Chawangshop holds the sweet spot of quality vs price, but a girl can look around from time to time... Can't she?

Top on my mind- is it worth the extra premium to buy the original Zhengshan LS from Tongmu village or is the surrounding regions(Waishan meaning outer mountain) produce tea just as good? Are two or three year old LS better than current year LS? If your LS is vacuum sealed, can you age LS for longer?  Lastly, what are reasonable prices for a quality LS? To solve some of these riddles,  I assembled a Zhengshan vs Waishan standoff:

2012 Zhengshan Xiaozhong AA $12(? cannot remember)/100g tin (shown right)
2012 Fujian Waishan Xiaozhong AA  $8/100g
2013 Late Spring Fujian Waishan Xiaozhong AA+ 
2014 Fujian Lapsang Souchong AA 

From jkteashop - all Zhengshan/Tongmu

2014 Spring Mingqian Jin Jun Mei  15g/$6.50 or $40/100g tin
2014 Spring Organic Imperial Traditional 100g/tin $20.00 (shown center)
2014 Spring Organic Premium Traditional 15g/US$2.40 or 
$16/100g tin

The above photo lineup is incomplete- three other samples I excluded for the following reasons:
  1. Organic "authentic" LS from an American vendor was so shockingly smoky and undrinkable,  I've banished the offending tea from the house.  I would probably advise tea drinkers to skip buying LS stateside. 
  2. LS from ebay advertised as LS but the tea was clearly just another type of hongcha. It was a decent hong cha that guests have enjoyed but not the LS I crave.
  3. Vicony's LS via Hobbes- I want to buy more from them as they have a diverse selection of LS including laozong or leaves from older bushes. However they are a wholesale outfit and  I'm not quite ready to buy a kilo as a minimum order.
I normally eschew formal tea tastings because a lack of discipline on my part. Also the tea drinking becomes too much like homework.  My tastebuds get fatigued easily so I rarely do more than three teas at one sitting so today I picked a Waishan and two Zhengshans.  

Before the big reveal, I thought I would leave the reader with some guessing.  In the three types of leaf below (1. Top left, 2. bottom left, and 3. right ), can you guess
  • for each- which leaf grade is it - Jinjunmei, Imperial, AA+, AA, Premium? 
  • for each, is it Zhengshan or Waishan? 

2006 Changtai Bird Feather Nannuo From Red Lantern Tea

Today I blanched a bit when I saw a bird feather embedded on this Changtai beeng. I don't mind hair, string, straw, pebbles, insect wing, or even live bugs. But a bird feather is one level below what I'm willing to tolerate. I know, I know. You are saying at least in wasn't a rodent tooth but if you have ever kept a flock of chickens- the offending feather looks to be a chicken down feather- you have real cause to be grossed out. Chickens and maocha should not mix.

When I requested to initiate a refund and an exchange, I was curiously assured thusly by Red Lantern Tea:

Dear Buyer,

First, we would like to say sorry for the inconvenience caused you.
The tea was from the ancient tea tree and it happens sometimes.
It is the same logic with bird nest swallow saliva which is sell thousand dollar.
Kindly no need to worry and we can guarantee you that the tea wasn't contaminated and won't harm at all. :)
If you noticed that most of aged pu-erh tea have tea bugs inside but that's not a problem at all.
Everything will perish by using boiling water (212F)
You can ask about this to some tea junkies on the tea forum as well.
Kindly let us know if you still have problem.

Best wishes

Red Lantern Tea does charge an extra premium on their prices which I presumed was for customer service. Including shipping, this 2006 Lao Chen Nannuo was $50, not cheap for what it is. This Changtai is not ancient tree as it tasted blended.   

Dear Readers, was I wrong to expect a different response?   I was taken aback to receive this lackadaisical reply when I clearly requested to replace the cake.  Such a reply is one sure way to lose a customer and I'm sure I'm not the first to have received those exact excuses. Surely this is a sign for me to stop buying this year.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Puerh Video Junkout

I spent all Sunday morning in bed watching the video footage which accompanies Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic by Jinghong Zhang.

In case you are in a hurry, I'm embedding my favorite section here:

It's available on youtube(better streaming):

The footage was originally posted on(in case youtube copy gets taken down):

In lo-res low-budget glory, the author takes us from Hong Kong to Yiwu showing us the entire food chain from tea farmers/middle men/more middle men/producers/vendors/tea houses/drinkers.  You will never trust anything anybody says about the quality of your tea again.  I've had my suspicions but the video footage made me think it was even worse than I had imagined.

The most intriguing character is Mr. Zhun(?), a producer who is serious about the taste of tea. I like how he serves the tea back to all those who come to sell him tea even to the kid who's peddling a puny bag of forest tea.  If Mr. Zhun kept a tea blog, I'd be all over it. Actually I'd buy his tea.

Many puerh tea farmers and middle men know little about the taste of tea.  When Mr. Zhun brews up for a middle man the best plantation tea to contrast against the rubbish he had brought, the clueless middleman said it all tasted bitter to him and he couldn't tell the difference.  Mr Zhun really crams his gaiwan full of maocha and I wonder how strong his brew is. The middlemen were heavy  chain smokers and really- you cannot detect Yiwu delicacy with a cigarette dangling out of your mouth.

When another producer goes to gather maocha in Yiwu - he admonishes the farmer and his wife for mixing their tea with some other low quality taidicha they had bought.  It's evident most farmers just want to make money and could care less.  I also see so many hands shoveling maocha around in the tea sacks that you definitely want to rinse that tea at least twice.

I came home today to this happy scene. I was trying to snap a photo but then my husband appeared out of nowhere to pose uninvited as a hand model.  He also grilled delicious aji-Spanish mackerel for our supper so I really could not expose my new beengs to such abuse.  Thwarted!