Sunday, January 12, 2020

Extra Dry 06 Menghai San Ji Pu

When I visited my parents over the holidays, I was confronted with the box of various puerh samples I had left for them to drink in 2014. Unsurprisingly, none of it was consumed so I flew it back across the country. The desert like conditions of my parent's Virginian heated home in winter is epic, I've gotten a nose bleed from the dry air.  Needless to say, I got an unintended 5-year experiment of XXX extreme dry storage for shu.

In this motley collection was one of my favorite Menghai ripes- the 2006 San Ji Pu, a special batch produced with mostly grade 3 leaves. Alarmingly, the texture of the extra dry beeng pieces are different than the one stored in Berkeley.  It's got a disturbing hollow crunchiness like layers of dry husk. It barely smells. I should condition it in a ceramic jar but I'm curious how it tastes now.

The tea brews up tasty enough with that unmistakable Menghai quality you can trust. I guess it's harder to kill shu with just aridity. Unlike the silky feminine charms of the Golden Needle White Lotus, the San Ji Pu after the initial brews develops  a more stately profile like mahogany. The lovely lingering licorice finish of the 5th brew makes me immediately want to procure another cake.  I know Scott still sells it so I run to the website.  I actually growled.  To use a Hobbesian phrase, it's now sporting an eye-watering price tag of $95.

Bagging pretty satisfying shu for $16 a kilo makes you forever an unsufferable shu cheapass.  Considering I still have 10 kilos of pretty good shu crammed in the tea closet and my rate of consumption being less than 1/4 pound per year,  I'd have to be pathological to want to order more shu at a premium.  (I hope my husband appreciates this reformed sensible turn to purchase maturity.)    Actually if I had a choice between overpaying for aged sheng vs shu, I would go for sheng every time. I've enjoyed plenty of above-average aged shu, but have yet to encounter aged shu which makes me close my eyes in rapture or have the tea linger on the palate hours after a tea session in a way that aged sheng can. No surprise for a refugee in shulandia, I'm here until I can start drinking my aged shengs.

I got my original San Ji Pu from YS in early 2007 for $28 during the '07 run up.  Considering HLH Lao Banzhang was $40 in 2006, $28 was a stinging crazy price for shu.  This was one of my last puerh orders for many many years.   Do the elevated prices of even my ripes make me  behave differently as a shu drinker?

I also had brought back a 2009 Menghai Dayi 99 Square still unopened. I was going to just let my husband take it to work as the chocolate bar form of individual squares would be convenient for him to brew.  Out of curiosity I looked it up and was shocked, just shocked to find it selling for $380HKD or USD$49. It mentions being a lucky collectible for numerology reasons.   I got it for $6.50 from China Cha Dao but now I'm definitely going to store it away.  As my husband grumbled, "What, I'm not worth it." I gamely insist we must enjoy it Sept 9, 4719(2022 in the Chinese calendar) to obtain heightened numerology benefits.
Was going to let husband take this little guy to work for casual convenient drinking...

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Friday, December 20, 2019

Coombergram Direct From India, Malt and Fruit

(This post was languishing in my drafts from early December...)

We take a break from our usual puerh musings to enjoy the box of teas from another vast populous country that is not China but India. The main purpose of this tea load was to procure some dark malty assams that will wean me off my stubbornly persistent morning coffee habit.  And friends, it look less than 3 days of STGFOP assam to fade coffee.  Success!  I guess it was the caffeine all along because these here higher grade assams literally make your hand shake. I guess the grocery store assam that is heavily fermented floor sweepings in convenient sachets could not do the job for lack of fire power. The China black teas I have on hand are too mentally stimulating to start the day.  It's was combination of a robust non-distracting cup delivering enough buzz that was the key in kicking coffee to the curb.

For India teas which are fairly well-known quantities, selection and price are often the consumer driving factors. It must be challenging for vendors striving for customer stickiness as frequent buyer programs goes only so far. I used to get my darjeelings from Vahdam Teas formerly Golden Tips.  Teabox currently offers a more diverse collection in assams and nilgiris and they were holding very aggressive Black Friday sales. This kilo of mostly quality tea set me back only $66 with free shipping.

Teabox is backed by venture capital and having raised ~$5M this summer, they may be absorbing some of the cost to grow their customer base.  $8 for 100g of Castleton muscatel 70% off is a crazy low price and in hindsight, I should have just bought a motherlode.  But the secondary teacloset is already crammed with darjeeling part of a 3 year aging experiment.   A savvy consumer should take advantage when investors are providing such subsidies.

I've easily spent upwards for 10+ hours agonizing about a puerh tea order. I take a much more relaxed approach to India tea purchase as navigating the inventory is refreshingly manageable. There is nothing like the risk and drama for gambling on a single $80+ beeng that may end up as musty leaf clippings.   Since most of the Darjeeling tea estates are a familiar product- Goomtee, Castleton, Giddapahar, Jungpana, one can buy confidently based on flush.  Because the tea prices on the whole tend to be reasonable(compared to puerh) and the expected enjoyment factor moderately assured, you can casually load up your cart.  Also more friends and acquaintances drink India teas so it's easier to share excess. (Try off loading some tongue scraping plantation bulangs or a barnyard shu to a friend...)

I'm not as picky about Assam tea estates as I've been treating assams as more of a commodity tea. I've had Mangalam, Harmutty and other estates but none had been memorable enough to imprint a preference. It's a bit like paying for the best dianhong where the premium after a certain level has vastly diminishing returns in enjoyment.

When trying to get a grasp on a new tea vendor's inventory, even if assams tend to be low risk, one still has to parse out code words for less attractive traits.
  • "unripe tree fruit", "unripe fruit"=astringency
  • "raw fruit" = tartness(?) 
But to a puerh drinker, the astringency and bitterness in India tea doesn't even register on the low end of the scale.  I pick unripe apples off my tree because I just don't like it when fruit gets sweet so I'm not daunted.

The first of my low to mid-range assam selections- the Coombergram promises a "full-bodied, well-rounded, fruity" cup.  I've mixed feelings about high-grade STGFOP  assams.  For being a STGFOP1,  this Coombergram lacks golden tips and is reflected fairly in the price.   I'm hit with the same adjustment my husband would not make with coffee- after decades of dark roast, he refuses to drink floral fruity light roast Ethiopians.  Floral fruity notes I enjoy most in oolongs, darjeelings, and purple leaf but when a meaty roasty assam shows up with such a fruit patterned dress, my palate is flummoxed. I love the pairing of malt and dried fruit flavors but higher notes of raw fruit was not a match I instinctively liked.  As in such cases where I'm unsure, I served the Coombergram to my man.  He really enjoyed it but would not say much more. I guess when you are relaxing in front of your wood stove, one doesn't want to be tea interrogated.

The second assam I pull out- Dikom has much more of a sprinking of golden tips and is appropriately priced at $9.99 instead of $6.99 per 100g for the Coombergram.  These two assams esp. the Dikom is very close in taste to Yunnan dianhong.  Because I'm more habituated with the taste of quality dianhong, I initially had a mental block accepting these assams.  Yunnan blacks are like a rich oil painting while the assams felt like a water color that has been too heavily painted opaque like a gouache.  My natural impulse is that I'd rather be drinking imperial dianhong.  (I tried filling up a cart with dianhong from YS but I was struck with such a hard case of decision paralysis while browsing the puerh section that I've given up for now.)

After a month of these assams, I've come to appreciate them for what they are and I've not thought much about coffee- desire for the bean just evaporated.  That was strangely much too easy after more than two years of trying to rid myself of that addiction. Even weirder is that I only require one strong cup of assam in the morning and desire for further tea drinking is quenched. So I can happily go into 2020 as a tea drinker again.
* Dikom has the distinction of being one of the "dry" gardens in Assam.  Early this year 130 unfortunates died from bad batches of illegal country liquor in Assam.  Dikom purportedly banned all alcohol from the tea garden as chronicled in this fascinating youtube video.  But human ingenuity always has a malicious way of defeating limitations for addictive vices.  There is the dark side to tea production that we promptly forget when enjoying the comforts of our favorite beverage.

Related posts:  coffee, darjeeling

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Puerh As An Investment

Everytime I check current puerh prices, I run through the same hamster wheel.  I get sticker shock, then I run up to my husband to gleefully tell him that puerh X is now risen to crazy price $Y and what a good investment it all was, also adding just too smugly you can't even buy most of our puerhs now. My husband never fails to get his hose of ice water to spray me. His dismissive reply of "Are you going to sell it? It's not an investment then." is promptly followed by my assertions of his extreme good fortune that he has full and free access to drink all kind of puerh he would not have were it not for my early hoarding. But he never blinks.  He would be singing an entirely different tune of utter gratitude had I been a scotch whisky hoarder.   😤

Friends, the minimum 15 year period to age a new born sheng is a long one and I'm surprised how quickly the years have passed. It's an entire economic cycle and we've had one of the biggest booms and busts known to humankind.  I have to subject myself to the obvious thought experiment what would have been the better investment alternative to hoarding my inadequately aging tea.

All investments attached to monetary value can be simply and objectively judged against standard stock market returns. Compared against two common ETFs for the S&P 500(SPY) and the tech heavy Nasdaq(QQQ), you can see that an initial 10K investment yielded 325% and 555% in the last 14 years.    I'll use the more common S&P 500 returns of 325% as a more reasonable measure, otherwise one could say why not use bitcoin or amazon stock as a comparison.
 Total returns with an initial $10K investment from
Purchasers of puerh today know even humble mass factory '05-6 beengs bought under $10 now easily exceed 3X-5X and some Menghais verge nearer 20X+. Ask yourself where can you buy a good full sized 357g 2005/6 sheng beeng for even $80? Exactly!

So would I rather?  If I honestly ask myself would I rather have plugged this money into the stock market with the SPY 330% return than have the collection I've amassed?   The answer is not really.  This is not because of the hoarder's defensive reaction but because of my financial situation.  If I had student debt, car debt, credit card debt or a miniature human sprung from my womb that came with decades of endless expenditures, the answer from a sheer financial prudence perspective must be yes.  But I am thankfully not in dire need of said funds and if I had the money again I would buy tea.  And the tea has brought great joy and moments of calm and contemplation during turbulent times, something I would not give up for money alone.

I have regrets of a different sort.  Puerh collectors know coin is only the entry token but the real investment is paid in blood, sweat and tears.   I don't begrudge spending tea money.  It's the excessive time and mental energy that I should have split more evenly into learning about financial investing alongside junking out about puerh.  For the hundreds of hours devoted to puerh, I still know relatively little about this infuriatingly inaccessible arena of tea.  Even 1/50 of the time invested studying fixed income markets would have had massive dividends over the last 14 years that would have made my tea expenses trivial.  I am making up for lost time and I can enjoy drinking my collection while I do so. I always take the view better late than never and I have been diligently studying preferred stocks, REITs, and closed-end municipal and infrastructure funds like it's the secret to home sheng storage.   Somebody should have just done a PSA and broadcasted the secret, "THE SECRET" if you live in a dry region is plastic wrap.

Unlike my puerh studies, my steady investment into melee and ranged combat has paid high yield dividends almost every week. Shameless plug for my Yakuza 0 video.

Monday, November 25, 2019

04 DeHong Wild Tree Purple Turning a Corner, Finally

In 2012,  I had been exceedingly disappointed that one of my early favorites the 2004 Dehong Wild Tree Bricks had become a ghost of their former selves.  But this morning I have a small glimmer of hope that something more is afoot as the brew gave my jaws an unexpected pull and a squeeze. The tea has a staying power in the upper palate that is not entirely unwelcome but not praiseworthy yet either.  The actual brick is still tight as ever, still don't want to give it up. It's all deliberately chopped up leaves that you often see in XiaGuan pressings and it is pressed tighter than an XG if you can believe that. The ultra tight iron compression has made it age glacially in comparison with my other stone pressed beengs so it may be too early to tell yet.

Mangled brick
The brew has a heaviness of sugarcane that is also paradoxically and simultaneously too light in the way some budget Yiwus are. I realize there are no longer "real" budget Yiwus out there and the budget Yiwus of my youth are probably undeserved overpriced triple digit cakes now. High end Yiwus I've had the pleasure of enjoying have a beautiful effervescent lightness yet surprising strength - like elven swords. (If you are wondering,  I tend to favor the heavier dragon bone weapons but only because I've got a glut of dragon carcass materials cluttering up my smithy.)  But such Yiwu endurance of huigan can be epic sometimes lasting across meals stimulating long dormant tastebuds in long lost corners of the mouth. Budget versions are a bit more heavy handed initially on the tongue yet leave a "lighter" imprint on the jaws. Not exactly the lightness of titanium vs lightness of plastic metaphor but I'll leave it here.

The De Hong is definitely not the young savory yet mouthwateringly juicy sweet brick I fell in love with and the anthocyanin flavors have long departed.  However the lightly lingering huigan growing more prominent on the teeth makes me more than a wee hopeful.   This transition is definitely is a huge improvement from the muted yet bitter brew from 6 years ago.  Perhaps they were stuck in the 8 year awkward phase, neither young nor old.  And as evidence that it's becoming something more interesting to me, even though the sheng tea broth was immediately bothersome to my belly, the brew was compelling enough that I've been drinking constantly for the last few hours.  So I will gladly retaste it in another few years.

This isn't to say I feel warm and fuzzy about cold dry home storage I've got going on in Berkeley.  Don't get excited Cwyn!  But I'm nodding my head that it isn't as bad as I feared- that my sheng are not mere desiccated mummies worthy of scorn.  Incidentally in the last few years my usually dry home had suffered mold issues. It turned out the ancient plumbing beneath our house burst and our dishwasher and bathroom sink were draining straight into the crawlspace creating a moist environment for worms and mold for a few years. I wonder now if this actually gave my sheng a boost.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Breaking my 2019 Tea Purchase Hiatus

Yes dear readers, I did not make it all the way through on my 2019 tea purchase hiatus.  It's not that I drank up all the home supply but I ran out of a particular profile of tea- robust, dark, uncomplicated yet tasty. That sounds suspiciously like coffee and when you've punched the mornings out with the devil's brew for two years, tea grapples to take it's place.  The puerh crammed in my closet I've come to recognize is just not functional enough and is too inconsistent for daily utility. But I didn't hoard all those beengs for utilitarian purposes.

Not a photo... latest Kojima game.
The hiatus was not about saving money and more about simplifying one's life or at least not complicating it with yet more boxes of tea that have no place to go but pile up on one's overburdened desk.  All year I made respectable progress drinking up un-ageable teas(seasonal green teas, lapsang souchongs past due) and I cleared out a dozen random bags of half open tea samples.  There is a refreshing freedom to not thinking about procuring yet more tea and simply drink what you have.

As I've not strained my purchase decision muscles buying puerh, I've diverted my energies to the delight of my husband into buying new issue preferred stocks and municipal/infrastructure funds instead.  I have to admit choosing financial instruments is much easier than selecting a sheng beeng to age. The other day, Fidelity despite their "no commision" switchover charged me $50 international fee to make an OTC purchase of a new Canadian preferred issue.  And this pilfered $50 could have been a decent tea order and definitely a lot of quality assam.  When one leaks money in unwanted fees, one can right this wrong by leaking the same amount into something you do want! Laugh away.

Behavioral economists talk about our completely irrational way of dividing up money as mental accounting.  The most common example is when spouses who pool all their assets together still consider gifts bought with "earnings" from the other spouse more special even when paid from the same family till. I should consider tea my husband bought on his own volition something special except the last unfortunate incident involved gnarly large leaf barnyard shu from Oakland Chinatown. It was an act of complete sincerity on his part. Why oh why except husbands sometimes do weird things with the best of intentions.

I did drink shu this day...
But back to my first tea purchase of 2019, I had a great hankering for assam which I've found to be my ideal base for a brisk morning brew. I find selecting Indian black teas a relatively low stress task. Unlike buying puerh where there is a huge wild card factor involving the underlying tea and it's past storage conditions, I've found the tea grading system to be a reliable gauge for  Indian teas.  Especially with assams, one TGFOP isn't wildly different to one from a different estate and my tea enjoyment can be expected to be roughly the same.  But enjoyment pegged to a vertical price/quality gradient is not as useful as lateral comparisons.  One can expect an GFOP to be more robust and brisk in taste than those higher up the quality/price ladder. GFOP can do morning duty much better than the highest grade SFTGFOP but whether or not one would enjoy the pricier SFTGFOP commensurate with the premium is not entirely assured.  Indian tea market has always been largely a buyers market and tea classification system sure does make comparison shopping easy for the small fry consumer like me. I don't ever expect such efficiencies to enter the puerh market.

I had no shortage of vendor options but ended up ordering for the first time from Indian middleman teabox.  In the U.S., Upton has the largest loose leaf assam selection but teabox had a more compelling assam lineup with better prices.  Most importantly teabox carried a tea in my tea bucket list- a winter Nilgri frost black tea.  I followed common sense that an Indian vendor has better depth of Indian teas than a U.S. based one that carries a world selection  so we will see next Tuesday how this bundle of assam joy from India will shake out.

International tea buying is always a slippery slope. I really only needed ~100g of tea but $50 gives you free shipping and then you want to make a tea haul worth your while.   I pared down the order to a mere nine 100 gram packets of quality assam(2 pounds) $66 free shipping. I'm sure my sweet husband would appreciate my restraint.