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, puerh 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. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Flashback with Samovar's 50s Vintage Sheng

About ten years ago, I took my husband for his birthday to Samovar Tea Lounge in San Francisco to try their 50s aged puerh.  Their menu confidently proclaimed:
"1950 Vintage- Ancient and amazing. Complex for each of the 7 infusions you will enjoy. This is the end, as we purchased the last existing 10 pounds of this unparalleled brew. Green processed, this is the old stuff, the good stuff. Not for beginners"
We were dubious but curious.  They also listed a puerh from the 30's:
"1930 Vintage- Truly archaic. Camphor, minerals, molasses. Taste Mother Earth. Sip, and time-travel to 1930 China. Where were your grandparents? Where were you?"
Probably their menu wins the cake for cringe-worthy copywriting. ( I'll include more highlights at the end just for late night humor. ) The owner Jesse Jacobs most likely handcrafted those very words and if you have ever seen him speak, you will not be surprised by such flashy confrontational descriptions.   Samovar Tea Lounge is a brick and mortar SF tea cafe serving a wide spectrum of teas- oolongs, sencha, lucha, assams, ceylons, rooibos, yerba mate, herbal tisanes, and puerh alongside light fare.   They used to list 8 puerh selections on their teahouse menu back then compared to the 3 loose shu Imperial Tea Court served.  Now Samovar Teas has pared down their puerh selections to serve three loose shus with two of them being blended with cacao, yerba mate, essential oils and such. They call their unadulterated loose shu "Maiden's Ecstasy"; I wonder what Hong Kong grandpa would think about that.  I don't know any maidens that would go into ecstasy over a cuppa of loose shu.

I had asked my husband if we should try the tea from the 30's but he stoically insisted the 50's tea was good enough for him.  I vaguely remember the price was something like $23 vs $38.  The waitress brought out a yixing teapot crammed full of tea leaves.  It was aged loose leaf sheng and the brew out-lasted more than a gallon of water despite the specific "7 infusions" listed on the menu.  My husband asked the waitress to put the spent leaves in a to-go cup and brewed it continuously the next day as well.

50's vintage it certainly was not but it was a good robust tea- very mineral tasting like licking a limestone cave.   Of course I knew squat about puerh 10 years ago so I can only guess that it was a twenty year old if that.  The tea was clean and bright tasting- no traditional storage mustiness at all and it was probably a sheng.  Shus normally don't possess that kind of endurance but I didn't know the leaf rub test back then.

I have always wondered what the supposed 30's tea was about but they removed it from the menu shortly after my visit so I never got the opportunity.  If you per chance did try this tea back then- please fill us in!

As promised, some over the top tea Samovar menu descriptions just for late night giggles:

Creamy Oolong- Velvet and warm milk. Downy, seraphic caresses for your tongue. A most memorable gustatory journey with each unfurling leaf
Oriental Beauty- Ambrosial, sweet, dark, and so complete. This brew will assuage your worries and float you to the elysian ether. A haunting flavor with an evolving complexity

(I really should hold a contest for the most ridiculous tea advertisement.)

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Aged Pomelo Stuffed Oolong and Puerh

What am I doing with such an assortment of stuffed pomelos?  The first fat death star of a pomelo I got ten years ago from Samovar Tea for $65- a princely sum for tea back then.  But my husband had a persistent cough and I read on the internet with some hope that these were a natural cure.   Samovar Tea advertised the vintage as 1993 which could be up for debate. I also drunk a loose leaf puerh advertised on their menu as being "1950 Vintage Ancient and Amazing" at Samovar back in 2005- a story for another time. 

These pomelo skins were hollowed out, stuffed with steamed oolong and licorice and then charcoal fired to oblivion.  It's pretty cheap grade oolong judging by the broken leaves and stems. Why would anyone use top grade leaf for something you're going to flavor and bake to death. The brewed tea leaves are carbonized jet black.  I've read Hakka tea farmers in Taiwan commonly make this type tea for medicinal purposes but I'm suspecting the versions I have is bottom grade Wuyishan yancha.

The Samovar version was misadvertised as being stuffed with puerh and it's definitely oolong.  This tea did little to cure my husband's cough but it was tasty enough for me to search for more.  Lightly smoky, the comforting citrus notes of this tea is just the thing to warm you up on cold rainy days. The next speciment I found was dated 2001 from Seven Cups but the tea proved still too astringent to drink even in 2006 which made me wonder if the Seven Cups version was either potentially younger than advertised or such pomelos require at least eight years to reach drinkability.  The type of astringency is what I've often experienced with young roasted yancha.  I would estimate the Samovar 1993 version was at least five years old when I got it in 2004 making it at least as old as 1999.  

Two pomelos were not enough to satiate me and I bought three more from Holy Mountain Tea. They are the youngest at 2003 and I have yet to even crack them open.

Do you see the odd man out in the above photo? The gaudy hot pink wiggly ribbon should tell you there is something more exciting going on.  I went on one last pomelo rampage in February of 2006 and got two puerh stuffed you zi cha(2002) from YS. These appear not to be baked but sun dried and were advertised as being "Pomelo Sweated Puerh".  The citrus taste can definitely overpower the gong ting loose shu.  You can sometimes lighten and perk up other boring shu with tiny pieces of pomelo skin. I generally prefer my teas naked but a marriage of citrus and tea can be a fruitful one.

If you are wondering, age appears not make the tea any more wonderful.  Being baked to death, there is no more transformation besides mellowing out. It may wrongly appear I drink a lot of this tea but in reality, I gave most of the missing chunks away. I hoard this tea mostly because of the lovely pomelo scent that relaxes me.  It's too expensive to put out as potpourri so I bring out the storage boxes to sniff them from time to time.  

Friday, October 17, 2014

Dry 2001 7542 vs the Lucifuge 90s CNNP

To ease my mind from encroaching ebola fears, I thought I would take my diversion in tea this afternoon.  Up first is a random CNNP frosty brick from ebay.    You can see there is generous white frost on the surface and stems inside. After all my adventures in mold, I actually did not bat an eyelash when I opened this brick. The storage of this brick was advertised as:
"Clean, Ventilating, Lucifuge, Dry, No Srange Smell And Pollution"

I have some vague notions about what this "Lucifuge" condition is about. To regurgitate wikipedia, lucifuge comes from "lux" latin word for light plus fuigio meaning to flee.  "He who flees the light"!  Lucifuge surely must be storage under dark conditions. But if it also means Lucifuge-the demon in charge of Hell's government oversaw the aging of this cake, I'm down with that too.  Most likely it would have been one of his minions as I'm sure the real Lucifuge is crazy busy with weightier matters.

I must have graduated from wet storage 101 because I can drink it without gagging. That is something. The brick must have dried out for many years as it does not smell so bad and the brew is lighter brown so the wet storage was not too overdone.   That moldy shicang flavor has finally grown on me.   I've drunk this tea multiple occasions without ill-effects and I'm curious how such a brick will dry out here in Berkeley. The slightly wet 90s Ding Xing is doing so much better so I'm keen to load up on more slightly wet cakes.

The ebay listing photos did not show any signs of mold so I wrote the vendor who kindly will send me a dryer version.   Is this brick really 15 years old to merit the 90s designation?  At least 8-10 years I would guess and I should get some younger trad stored cakes to compare.

As an antidote, I finally open up the 2001 7542 sample Jakub sent me that started the whole Luke Skywalker dry storage meme.  It's like eating a slice of English cheddar after being assaulted with a ripe morbier.  This 7542 is a pricey chunk of pu from Sampletea and I'm happy he sent it to me instead of another dry storage hater.  I was saving it for a dry vs. super dry comparison but I went for it today.  

Compared to the 2003 7542 MarshalN sent me,  the 2001 version is rather of ho-hum but still a pleasant aged experience. It's not terribly exciting but it's drinkable which is more than what my cakes are now.  But if I had to pay triple digits for something like this now, I would be kind of upset.  I'm glad I didn't splurge on too many expensive shengs back then only to see them hollow out like this.   However if my ten dollar ten year olds start tasting like this in a few years, I would not mind at all.  

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Red Dayi 2000 or Not

After multiple shu giveaways, I am now reduced to about 40+ different shus including some premium Dayi that I rarely bother to drink. I have dozens of shu samples that I haven't even bothered to brew. Why I even spent precious tea money on more shu - an aged Dayi of dubious authenticity- does not make logical sense.

However like any jaded tea buyer, I just want me a little excitement and mystery now and then.  Truth be told, I'm not even a Dayi fan but I sprung $75 to satisfy my curiosity about this cake.  I knew this wrapper looked suspicious because of the BEENCHA being smooshed into one word. However it was the very same wrapper at Vancouver's Chinese  Tea Shop that really egged on my interest.

When I received this cake, I had one final chance to still back out.  I knew even as I tore in that it was a fake but I still wanted to know if a tasty aged shu was masquerading behind that facade.

The beeng was a lumpy dirty mess- hairs, plastic strings, miscellaneous fibers; I do not think this cake is Menghai quality even at their worst.  Dayi is the most faked cake in the world and this is the first one I have knowingly encountered.  I'm never deterred by something so benign as hair or string so I brewed it up straight away.

Judging by the number of stems present, this tea was made with grade 9 leaves or as advertised-  "thick bold leaves".   If it were a Dayi, it would be a 7592 or a 8592 recipe which are fine mellow recipes.  However the brew has latent muddy undertones but otherwise is a shu shu- woody and earthy.

Gambled and lost.  I think fake Dayi stories rarely have a happy ending.  I had actually bought a second cake to give to Ira just in case but the vendor let me return it right away and credited me shipping charges.  Actually, the cake's not terrible and it is definitely aged over 12+ years.  It's just not good for $75. What is ever going on with Daniel Lui's 7262?

In corresponding with the state side vendor of my cake- he told me the difficulties of stocking puerh through middle-men in China.  Among other mishaps, he's been sent a jian of tea which tastes nothing like the original sample and is fit only for compost.  My middle-men in China don't always pan out for me either- reputable or otherwise but I only buy less than two cakes at a time.  It's all worked in as my tuition for the year.   Originally I thought I would find last month's gamble from my Hong Kong ebay vendor to be riskier-  I'm actually enjoying my dodgy aged cakes more than expected even though one of them is obviously wet stored.  It's also because I felt somehow satisfied with the ebay purchase that I rolled the dice once more this year.

More and more I've noticed shu prices have inflated outrageously even for cakes I bought only two years ago:

2010 Douji "Phoenix Tour" Ripe selling for $59.99 (bought $12.99 in 6/2012)
2011 Douji "Phoenix Tour" Ripe selling for $42.99 (bought $11.99 in 6/2012)
2011 "63" Ripe from 6 FTM selling for $24 at teaclassico (bought 2008 version for $8.90 in 6/2012)

Actually I didn't even bother trying the "63" or the 2011 Douji and just gave both away.  I'm conjecturing shu prices have gone up due to a lot of sheng collectors and drinkers can't drink sheng anymore and so they are forced into buying up shu.  After all this, I'm feeling paying more than $30 for a shu is not worth my while and I should just hunker down with my now inflated shu collection which will probably last me two decades at my present rate.