Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Neutralizing Sheng's Acidity

Peter Menzel is my favorite portrait photographer whose books I go through multiple times a year.  His work is so rich that I see new details or understand something new each time.  Last week, I noticed a curious detail on this portrait of a Bhutanese family (the Namgays of Shingkhey village) in Hungry Planet- a most excellent book which shows families around the world with their week's worth of food.

On the bottom left of the tangerines, I spied a small packet of baking soda leaned up against two sheng mushroom cakes(looks like XG Bao Yan Holy Flame). According the the text, the baking soda is "used to neutralize the acid in tea".  You would think the yak butter would be enough to fulfill that role. The cost of the teas is listed as "$0.76" which also includes the Red Label black tea for "guests only". I squinted quite a few times and finally decided it must be sheng as it wasn't dark enough to be shu. For about $0.25 per mushroom, you can imagine the kind of gut wrenching sheng they drink.

I've long known Southerners to add a tiny pinch of baking soda to sweetened iced tea to get rid of the bitterness of the tannins but I've never thought of applying it to sheng.  Such adulteration is not for puerh purists but I'm all game.  It's one thing if I was unknowingly served such smoothed out sheng at a tea house but I'll totally dope my own tea if it makes it better.

What would I do first if I had a magical powder to take the rough edge off a sheng? Can I really finally drink the Jin Dayi?  Should I? Should I do it? I don't want to take the risk just yet as I am just getting over a weekend bout of food poisoning so I'll just bring out a less punchy but plenty rough and face puckering plantation 2004 Xiaguan tuo to test.  (I don't have a XG sheng mushroom, only a shu to reproduce.)

It's been a long while I've done a controlled study that is lab worthy but today I'm just going for a rough conclusion. Is baking soda an enhancer worth considering like salt on corn on the cob?  Milk and sugar are the universal tea enhancers but since they impact the fundamental taste too much, I would love to get my hands on a more invisible agent.

While brewing up the XG, some questions cropped up:
  1. How much should I sprinkle in? A smidgen, a pinch or a dash? In situations where proper dosage is unknown, the standard protocol is to start with the smallest amount and then add in increments. A smidgen did almost nothing so I kept progressively adding more until the taste of baking soda just about ruined the tea. My 04 XG was so plenty bitter than even an eighth teaspoon in a tablespoon of tea did not erase the bitterness. Once you add too much, you get that weird slippery coating in your mouth like you just swallowed swimming pool water.  
  2. Should I add the baking soda to the brew or to the leaves? I added it to the brew so I can control it more.
  3. Does it just merely taste smoother or is it better for your stomach as well? Given people take baking soda for acid reflux, heartburn, and other stomach woes, I might do well to take a baking soda tonic(one teaspoon per cup) after a sheng session anyway. 
When you add baking soda to acidic liquids such as lemon juice- it fizzes. The sodium bicarbonate(baking soda) reacts with the citric acid of the lemon to produces sodium citrate and carbon dioxide bubbling up. When I added the baking soda to the sheng brew- no such fireworks took place in my teacup, but the color did deepen.  I've read that Tibetans and Northern Indians add baking soda more to deepen the color of tea but I'm not sensitive to tint- I'm only after taste enhancement.  I could dig deeper into the chemistry of sheng but that won't change the face that I didn't quite get results I was hoping for.

The baking soda didn't dampen the bitterness much but subsequent sips did give a sweeter mouthfeel.  It still doesn't make me want to brew up this XG more or drink it more.  I thought perhaps the tea in the photo was shu not sheng so I also whipped out my XG shu mushroom but the baking soda made the taste worse. The Bhutanese family in the portrait are subsistence farmers and cash being scarce- they would not purchase anything regularly unless they perceived baking soda added value.  For me I leave the baking soda for the other 101 uses.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Sheng And The Seaside Do Not Mix

I opted for a seaside retreat last week to officially welcome the summer.  The first thing my husband noted when we set foot inside our cabin- "This house smells like puerh. Wet storage." Spoken like a true puerh spouse.

Strangely enough the mustiness of the cabin smelled exactly like a Guangzhou stored cake that needs a bit of airing. The cabin had such spectacular views of the Pacific, I decided to not be bothered.  But being constantly assaulted by smell of (mildly) trad stored sheng dear reader is no way enjoy your precious vacation nor to whet your appetite for an aged sheng session. We had all the windows open.  Summer in Northern California is a chilly affair requiring a goodly amount of fleece and I rarely peeled off except to dunk in the hot tub.

I've tried a few times unsuccessfully to enjoy a sheng session by the sea. Perhaps the tea's interior mountain origin does not meld with the salty seaside air. Perhaps the blustery winds and white noise of the waves are too distracting. Most likely I was not used to the chemistry of the bottled water provided. Whatever the cause, teas I know I enjoyed somewhat just fell flat so I did not bother to brew up the last of the Hai Lang Hao Chawang Yiwu I brought to celebrate.

I am going to give up on taking puerh to the seaside and stick with oolong and hongchas on such trips from now on.  Sheng sessions are finicky as it is on home turf so the force of the ocean is just too much.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Twenty Dollar Tong

I've been progressively decluttering the house this month in an attempt to bring material order to my chaotic life. I've disposed of three boxes of books and now turn my attention to pruning the tea closet(yet again). I can win some battles but I concede I am losing the war. It's clear I need a radically different approach.

I've been researching the various schools of minimalism and organization. The most offbeat novel approach I tried was the konmari method named after Japanese tidiness guru Marie Kondo. She advises putting all the items of a single type you own in one giant pile on the floor, touching them one by one and getting rid of anything that does not "spark joy".  If the item in question does not do it for you, you are supposed to thank the object and respectfully send it on it's way. Arigato gozaimasu '06 Haiwan LTZ (with deep bows).

You can only imagine how it all went down. Being a tactile creature, holding and touching the furry leaves of unworthy cakes made me want to hold on to them even more- I can't turn away these lost puppies.  I'm not holding on to these mediocre decade old cakes because I'm deluding myself that they are going to get that much better with age. I keep them because the role of tea in my life fluctuates. I used to treat sheng mostly as a special session tea.  But now that these budget beengs have reached or gone past the decade mark finally becoming a tad more drinkable,  I want to down such sheng with my dried seaweed and squid snacks.  I'm totally holding onto my lifetime supply of casual consumption sheng. 

Old time readers might recognize my 2005 Liuda Cha Shan sampler tong brought back by a friend doing her Beijing Fulbright back in 2006. She bought it for 180 yuan or about ~$24(back then) from an official 6 FTM Tea Company store in Meliandao. She chuckled quite amused that tea could be so "dirt cheap".  Anyone who's ever bought a bag of sterilized potting soil knows that dirt is not necessarily cheap but this tong is still disturbingly cheap. But I add that this really was the price back in the day and no one bothered to fake low end things like these.

Not all cakes in this tong are valued equally- the Yiwu, Banzhang and the Spring Tips(first flush Menghai plantation) are probably $5 and the others less than $2 a piece.  The Banzhang is Xin Banzhang with random Bulang mixed in.  Each cake proudly proclaims to be 野生  yěshēng/wild or forest tea but so does more than half the big factory cakes in my collection.   I used to harbor terrible mixed feelings about this tong because I didn't send my friend a thick wad of cash for something better.  But now I'm even grateful she didn't get me the '06 FTM or a tong of Haiwan LTZ.

 I originally held onto this tong to act as a reference set despite misgivings.  This "Spirit of the Six Famous Mountain Yinji" series as an acknowledged low-end plantation blend provides a useful benchmark against other boutique cakes touting single mountain wild tree origin. I've only cracked open the Yiwu for such a study.  This Yiwu is pretty decent for what it is- it tastes like Yiwu. I brewed it up today and I like it more each time. The huigan is blatantly obvious- there's something gratifying about a beeng that doesn't pussyfoot around.  Despite missing the beguiling delicacy of higher end Yiwus, it's tasty enough that I'm glad this tong survived multiple tea purges.  

We have two sides to cheap and cheerful factory cakes like these. MarshalN completely disses 6 FTMs as worthless crap to be avoided.  Don't even try to fob off such cakes to your friends. Hobbes however being more mindful of procuring our puerh on the internet has a more generous attitude towards the Six Machine as he calls them.  The common people including me need decent budget options.  I'd say don't go out of your way to fill up on such 6FTM now as you won't find rock bottom prices anymore but don't throw it out or feel bad if they are sleeping on your shelves.

After the konmari decluttering exercise, I did not get rid of much tea.  However I'm no longer conflicted about holding onto my decent low-grade factory productions.  I'm going to have the luxury of enjoying mediocre aged sheng alongside all manner of stinky provisions.  I plan on eating a lot of dried squid with peanuts so this twenty dollar tong may not last the next decade.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Persimmon Hongcha Kombucha

Our lovely friend L recently gifted me a kombucha starter called a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) so I can start brewing my very own.  Kombucha(紅茶菌)'s basic inputs are sugar and tea. Since I don't have cane sugar readily available in the house,  I used the diabetes inducing cans of Korean persimmon punch (soojungwa) I had procured for post earthquake refreshments.

Not sure if the resulting brew would be something worth drinking- I experimented with a nano batch only with the persimmon punch thinking the SCOBY would consume the sugar within days. The fermentation took a lot longer than expected- over two weeks.  I suspect this is because the antiseptic cinnamon oil probably is not friendly to SCOBYs and also they cannot really thrive without tea of the Camelia Sinensis variety. So after a week I added some random hongcha being the traditional tea type for kombucha - not the Indian and Ceylon teas.  As the cinnamon and persimmon flavors are so dominant,  the tea taste barely registers. The now much lighter beverage has a nice vinegary tang and I should do a picobatch of persimmon vinegar to see how they compare.  I harvested most of it tonight in another bottle to undergo secondary fermentation to get the fizz.

Green tea makes for the healthiest SCOBY and I naturally have sheng brews in mind once I grow enough SCOBY to play with. But first I must also get over my inability to buy a bag of sugar.  I would not be surprised if shu kombucha turns out gnarly and gross but according to Kombucha Brooklyn, both shu and sheng provides worthwhile kombuchas.  I got a tad suspicious when I saw they source from David Hoffman.  I guess I will just have to empirically determine the truth behind puerh kombuchas for myself.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Hoarding Water

It's come to this. Due to the continuing severe drought in California,  our water utility district EBMUD will be switching to a lesser quality source to improve conditions for spawning salmon.  The new water while safe to drink will unfortunately contain stinky organic compounds from algal blooms in the open reservoirs.

I already use a carbon water filter but I won't know until next Tuesday when the new water flows out of my tap what this means for my tea drinking.  My current filter might be strong enough. In the meanwhile I am refilling every water vessel in the house.  Hoarding water is a futile act since we will have to live with the new stinky water until end of the year when the rains return.

The shot above is not our new water supply but "Glass Beach" - a cove in the Berkeley Marina. The tides bring glass pieces from the bay to this tiny cove so the little bit of beach is strangely glittery.