Sunday, September 28, 2014

Rock-bottom Yancha

Premium teas are all very well and good for dedicated tea sessions, but such teas are too finicky or dear to be had on a daily basis.  Every tea drinker needs a steady supply of work horse tea and for me this is a combination of various robust black teas that can stand up to a porky breakfast or a careless over-brewing.   I've drunk all my delicious lapsang souchong from Chawangshop for which I'm waiting for a resupply.  To fill the gap and for a little variety, I'm looking for a decent low end yancha that isn't Sea Dyke.  

Out of sheer laziness and curiosity, I ordered a yancha sampler on ebay which had a titter-worthy title, "Superme AAAAA+ 7 Different tastes Wuyishan Rock Tea Oolong Tea".  In comparison, I've ordered a rather restrained AA grade lapsang souchong, so let us see what the 3 extra A's and a plus count for.

These seven samples are all from Wuyi Star  which appears to be a mass supplier distinguished with stellar government connections.  They have the sole authorization from the Chinese government to  manage the Da Hong Pao mother trees, and also the closest tea garden near said venerable trees.  If you want certifications- they've got no shortage to international quality certifications for organic tea. Wuyi Star also employs serious marketing tactics complete with enticing tea brewing maidens in red chongsams tight enough to give your Sea Dyke quaffing grandpa heart palpitations.  Wuyi Star teas comes in no shortage of fancy gift boxes and canisters suitable for mid range gifting.  In comparing prices against a similar sampler on the company website, it appears I got a relatively good deal on my 7 variety pack of tea (49oz)  for $8.50 which includes shipping.  But in the end, is this gussied up over packaged tea any better than old faithful Sea Dyke? I can just see a Wuyi Star representative bristle at even such a question.

I generally held low expectations since the ebay sampler works out roughly to 40 cents a brew (~2g for my teensy teapots).  Wuyi Star's flagship product is their da hong pao and their lowest grade offering was included in this sampler- probably the DHP comprises half the price of this kit.  It's pleasantly peachy in the mouth with some refinement but immediately my pipes are a bit bothered. For such a pretty opening, I did not expect heart burn.  Their Rougui is nice enough, but their Shui Xian smells and tastes strangely synthetic. My husband kept complaining of a latex smell.  The Shui Xian feels wishy washy and under roasted somehow- definitely not as pleasant as a heavier roasted Sea Dyke. It's a mixed bag.

I won't stock up on more Wuyi Star but it's good to build out reference points for mid to low end yancha.  The idea of even budget "da hong pao" as a casual drink sounds all wrong and I'm just looking for decent mid-roasted yancha that isn't exhalted with imperial connections. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Plastic Bag Mold Disaster or Just Humid Storage

I can hear Professor Z's stern tut tuts across the vast oceans - yet another hapless home aging experiment gone awry.  I had stored some pieces which had been conditioned with a bit of extra humidity then stored in plastic bags-  I had been monitoring those pieces quite closely twice a day until last week. I had a serious work deadline last week and forgot all about this experiment.

The damage isn't so terrible- just six chunks of mediocre tea which I was experimenting with. All less than a pound of tea.  As my husband says- "Hey, you've got more stuff you can look at under your new microscope."  Yup. 

After reading this fascinating article in the leaf I am a little more reassured:

But there's lots of different white molds in the world and not all white mold could be indiscriminately good. I posted a craigslist posting to get help identifying them. In the spirit of science, I was going to do a few more experiments with these samples.  For starters, I was going to cut away the sections of mold and store them in tiny baggies to build up my tea mold library and see if they bloom any further.  I was also going to remove as much as possible and keep on monitoring the chunks to see if the mold comes back.  Then as is such time passes, I was going to sample some of the tea.

(My husband wanted to make sure he got photo credits as my lab technician.  My hands were to shaky from brewing up too much tea earlier today.)

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

First Hit of Puerh

My very first inoculation of puerh was 15 years ago on the Korean island of Jejudo.  For those of you who hate cute honeymooning couples in perfectly matching outfits- Jejudo is not for you. My husband and I traveled to Jejudo from Mokpo on a slow ferry filled with uniformed school girls on an overnight outing.   You can imagine the four hours of non-stop giggling going on above deck and below.  Luckily we hid ourselves in the ridiculously cheap and spacious "Luxury Suite".

Sunset by the river 

(These are just pretty pictures from previous trips to Korea, nothing to do with the actual trip which unfortunately predates owning a digital camera...)

I tend to avoid hotels and by chance or luck I ended up booking a home-stay with a most unusual woman who turned out to be a passionate disciple of tea.  On our first night, our hostess sat us in her tea room. She said that she had been the happiest woman in the world with a perfect husband and perfect children.  Others told her to be careful because fate is jealous of overly happy women.  Tears filled her downcast eyes as she told us how her husband unexpectedly passed away of a heart attack while mountain climbing in Peru.  Even an average Korean is a cauldron of passion but our hostess was a molten planet of passion.   After four hours on the rough seas,  we didn't know what to say. Home-stay with a Korean household can be an unimaginably intense experience that I highly recommend a traveler to Korea try it at least once. 

Our hostess gave us a most amazing inside tour to Jejudo.  On the second night she took us to a local potter's house for dinner-  the potter was a serious appreciator of puerh known as boicha in Korea. He actually arranged tea buying trips to China for various Buddhist monasteries as puerh had a following among Korean monks.  His house had a shelf full of lovely yixing pots but he also had a playful daughter who would race around the room smashing tiny little pots against each other.  Even to my untrained eyes back then they were precious looking and who knows how many she did crack.  Apparently she had knocked out a treasured pot just the week before and her father's stern warnings of "those pots are not toys" had zero effect.

GuardiansAfter dinner, the potter brought out a beautiful shiny zhuni clay teapot filled with aged sheng.  I really was not ready to appreciate profound teas at that age as I was chasing flavors and mouthfeel of oolongs, whites, and gyokuro senchas back then.  To my beginner's palate,  I could tell this aged pu-erh had a great clarity, depth, and complexity yet I could not appreciate the taste.  I tried to drink it as slowly as possible as my then sugar junkie brain kept translating it as a medicinal/herbal taste.  I didn't know anything about the fortitude of puerh leaves and I kept expecting the tea to end after a few brews.  The magical pot to my ignorant dismay lasted hours. Hours! Oh how kick myself remembering the travesty of my unschooled tastebuds.

The next day our hostess took us to see a Buddhist monk with whom she studied.  He said we needed tea and then smiling at us as if he were providing a special treat, he whipped out an aged sheng.  I remember my young uncouth self thinking then, "Oh no! Not more medicine tea!" I really kick myself for not being able to see into the future.  Neither teas tasted wet stored nor did they exhibit any hints of bitterness or dryness; they were smooth yet deep, their effect was gentle and warming on the body.  It was only at the Pasadena tasting of the six decades of tea that my husband and I realized we were served some serious quality aged sheng all those years back in Jejudo.

This first exposure set what I think as being good aged sheng,  but most importantly it set my puerh karma. The best teas have only come to me not through purchase but through friendship and other means.  After a certain point, one will hit a wall with just internet puerh buying.  I've already hit that wall multiple times but I still keep hoping to simply by myself into good puerh. (The budget ebay experiment was for curiosity more than anything else.)  I think I should just give it up now; I should not force my way in.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

90s Shu

Arranging an autumn tea tableau was the most satisfying part of my tea session.  You might be fooled that this tea was a lovely walk in the woods by this still life alone so read on dear reader.

I tried the aged shu's today from the budget aged pu sampler:
No.1  1990s Zhongcha Red Seal Pu'er Ripe
No.9  1990s Aged Pu'er Brick/7581

I would casually affirm these samples are aged past 15 years comparing against other aged shus I've scrutinized. When you label something 90's, 1999 is technically within bounds.

If you have never seen a mummy  in the dried flesh before, it's still worthwhile to see any example available to you.   If you have already seen the royal line up at the Cairo Museum,  then you need not make an effort to see the only mummy in a 100 mile radius which happens to be a cat mummy that's partially sawn off.  By the way, the Mummies of the Pharaohs exhibit- it's very fine, very fine and not to be missed if you are in Egypt.

The teas are not terrible- it's drinkable although No.9 7581 had an unpleasant musty taste which I associate with wet storage which did not entirely rinse out.   You can see how black, stiff and leathery the structure of the 7581 spent leaves are in the photo which added to my suspicions of wet storage.   (Actually after every tea session, I rub all the leaves with my grubby paws quite vigorously before throwing them in the compost.  You can only get the texture post mortem.)

This tea kit is instructive if you've never had aged teas before. You need anchoring reference points so when you do get a boring dry aged tea from somewhere else for more, then you know the tea should have been better.

I was sent finer examples of aged shu from MarshalN and Su - the Tea Sultana of Malaysia to improve my tea mind. The genre of aged shu must not really be for me as I can tell their examples are superior with a more lively mouth feel and herbal aroma but it's still not for me.  

Friday, September 19, 2014

Keeping Up the Cha-rade

Boiling silk larva the old fashioned wayWhen I was a wee pollywog growing up in the swamps of Seoul, one of my favorite snacks was the steaming pile of grubs that were to be had on almost every street corner.  Bbeondegi (번데기) or silkworm pupae also comes conveniently as a bagged snack available in the States but it was mysteriously labeled as "Fish Bait" .
(The lady in the photo is boiling silk larvae in the traditional style at a folk village near Suwon. The bbeondegi is a by-product of silk production. )

I was quite nostalgic for the fresh version for a decade and had no shortage of times bragged to my husband how "chewy, nutty, and utterly uniquely delicious" these grubs were.   So the first time I took my husband to Korea, he demanded to see me relish them steaming hot from the street cart.  For about a dollar,  I bought a small cup's worth from a crinkly old man who's probably been selling them for fifty years; he looked me up and down. My husband looked at me, and looked inside the cup. I looked inside the cup, I looked at my husband.  It was all too much pressure so we went several blocks down so the vendor could not stare me down.  I put a grub in my mouth and tried to force my jaws to masticate.  Swallowing of course was a different matter, In the end we abandoned the cup in a street corner in case some exceedingly fortunate flock of birds would chance upon it.

I had many theories why the golden memory did not pan out. I thought perhaps the vendor was not offering the freshest example of this genre.  Business is down. Kids in Korea now a days don't go for such old world fare preferring pedestrian snacks such as corn dogs or spaghetti in a cone.  In truth, I probably had beondegi no more than a handful times as a kid as my mother was most strict about food safety. But most likely my palate had been Westernized as I had not kept up bug eating in any capacity.

If I go a few months without drinking shu,  I fall down the shupu ladder.  It takes a good long while to coax my taste buds into accepting shu again.  Now I just force myself to drink shu almost every other week so I don't have to keep on paying the setup fee.  Sometimes I wonder why I bother drinking shu. I bought this samples box from teashop-china to see if I could buy some cheap aged tea to relieve me of having to drink shu.

This kit is a MUST if you've been feeling left out and you too want to partake in Jakub's dry storage meme.  I myself have a strict no Star Wars no Star Trek reference policy.   I've only tried teensy tiny sips of the three aged samples only to quench my curiosity.  The leaves are definitely aged and if you like dry, they gots dry.  Oh god. Is this really the fate of our dry-stored collection?

I think I was more grateful that it wasn't moldy or wet stored in any way because I can take dry but I can't take wet.  But  I can see that the rock bottom prices on ebay are not entirely a fluke. I'll try the other samples tomorrow- perhaps the dry aged shu might be more to my liking.   I still went ahead and rolled the dice in the vain hopes that one of their higher priced beeng might taste decent enough to avoid shu.  Whether this was a foolish waste of money- I'm sure no shortage of tea friends would want to satiate their curiosity.