Friday, December 19, 2014

04 Chen's Teapot Ancient Tree

I recently ordered this '04 Chen's Teapot Ancient Tree and had been a bit on the fence.  It doesn't quite brew up the way I expect as the early brews are rather thin and I thought perhaps the two weeks it spent in extreme aridity in my mother's house might have done some harm.  The lasting brown sugar tail on this tea is intense but still there is something not quite right.  The cynical part of me says that there is something always amiss with currently available older teas around the affordable $100 price tag.   My single lady friends used to lament that there is something always wrong with single available men after a certain age- I used to mumble lame uplifting nonsense to make them feel better.  Now I realize this is exactly how I feel about aged tea that's readily available to me.

Though not an apple to apple comparison, I whipped out '08 Chen Yuan Hao Gushu Mushroom sent to me by Su a few years ago.  In my flawed algorithm for puerh mental accounting, I wanted to see how this compares.

First a little on this Changtai. Characters on Changtai wrappers are so stylized, it takes some guess work as I can't use my Chinese handwriting recognition program.  Some of the Changtai brands carry four leaf grades so I only need to take the closest match:
  • 极品/極品 Jipin = highest grade
  • 珍品/ 真品  Zhenpin = precious grade
  • 精品 Jingpin = fine grade
  • 正品 Zhengpin = authentic grade
These grades do not strictly convey actual quality as I've read that even though Jipin by name should be the best quality,  but apparently many judge Zhenpin the best.  Drats, this one is a jipin but still it's a higher grade belonging to a higher-end label of Chen's Teapot. 

The cover translates as:  
??茶餅 - cha beeng/tea cake
野生 極品 - yesheng  jipin/wild highest grade

Red Lantern Tea also labeled this cake as "Ancient Tree" although the wrapper states yesheng and not gushu but I'll just take those dubious designations with a grain of salt and let the tea speak for itself. 

I brewed up the '08 Chen Yuan Hao Gushu first this morning as I remembered it being a delicate brew soft in the mouth like many of the gushu I've had.  My husband says right away "It's good. It's immediately sparkly in the mouth".  I'm jumping up and down. "Sparkly! Sparkly! How come you can taste sparkly and not me!" I never know if he's messing with me but he insisted on sparkliness. I was astounded as my husband is quite congested with a cold.  I don't register the sparkliness but the soft lingering sweetness tastes very much like a Yiwu.  Chen Yuen Hao- another high-end Taiwanese outfit - is currently not readily available to the Western market but is worth finding.

So the '04 Teapot is just good enough that I bought one last Changtai- the 04 Purple Yiwu.   I'm weary of having to much Changtai in my collection.  Changtai is notorious for oxidizing maocha a bit longer than is safe for aging but still I like their stuff well enough.  Like many factories, their earliest productions are deemed superior when they had ready access to old tree maocha and perhaps 2003 or before 2004 represents some cutoff period for their better stuff.  I can definitely taste the underlying weakness in their later productions but weak tea doesn't bother me.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Holiday Tea

After yesterday's unsuccessful pu session, my mother meekly asked, "Is this type of tea okay to drink?"  She held out an orange tin of Harney and Sons Hot Cinnamon Spice.  One of my father's students had gifted him this tea and she had saved it for me because she knew I loved tea. Putting the puerh aside, I have been quaffing a great deal of this holiday brew with milk- it's a crowd pleasing sweet concoction and everyone in the household can enjoy it without effort. When in Rome...

Puerh and the likes of my mother's cosy tree do not quite mix where as the flavors of cinnamon and dried orange peel fit like a glove.  I'm not giving up just yet but I need more of a creative approach to spreading the puerh cheer and I could see medicinal benefits being the most likeliest point of entry.  But medicine rarely leads to pleasure and enjoyment. Puerh is not a tea you can just push onto a family member- not enough immediate palate gratification. I thought of starting them on oolong and then easing them in.  But also my parents said the fussiness of brewing looked like it was a lot of trouble.  You can't win 'em all.

Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Same Tea Different on a Different Coast

This morning with much anticipation I brewed up various puerh for my parents as my mother innocently asked me about puerh the week previous.  I had happy fantasies of being able to procure better aged sheng for my parents (and me) all under the guise of filial piety. I brought my porcelain travel kit that I use at work but everyone was amused as Koreans use such tiny cups only for hard liquor.  My cups have done double duty as the occasion demands.

As the wintry day was blustery, I thought I would start off with a shu.  My umma and appa were quite polite but I could not get anyone to go for more than a few sips.  To my absolute dismay, the first tea- a reliable 06 Dayi San Ji Pu tasted like some one had snuck a dried anchovy in my gaiwan.  The municipal water here comes from the mighty Potomac that has slaked the thirst of many a president. But theirs is a hard hard water not suited for puerh- all four puerhs I brewed  tasted muted, vaguely muddy and flat with the '98 Yiwu suffering the most. 

My own Berkeley tap comes from the western slope of the Sierra Nevada with water hardness running at 18-42ppm.  My parent's water clocks in at 70-120ppm- you can only imagine the calcium scale buildup inside their electric kettle. Actually taking a bath in such water is exceedingly hard on your skin and slathering oneself with body lotion is essential if you live in Virginia. 

I tried switching to bottled water on hand(Nestle Deer Park) which was not much better and with their hardness rating published at a wide range of 15-120ppm, it's most likely it was just as hard. Also using a carbon filtered Brita water was a bust since such drip filters do not remove much calcium.  I have no choice but to go to the grocery tomorrow and look for the softer Poland Spring sourced from Maine at 10-23ppm if I am to have any decent brews this week.

But the fishy notes were lost on my parents. Their reaction to puerh was exactly the same as mine sixteen years ago. They said it tasted of hanyak- traditional Korean medicine- a dark bitter brew of various herbs and deer antler.  I had to go straight away to chocolate tasting after the first shu to restore the holiday cheer. 

I used to be paranoid about the home water supply especially when I don't enjoy the teas many are praising. However I  do have wonderful sessions with a small minority of teas so I deem the Berkeley water fed from the Mokolumne River blameless.  But the water here makes it tough to be a puerh lover. I wonder how many drinkers have the misfortune of hard water and don't even know if they are missing out because they're used to it.  You also have to use higher amounts of leaf with hard water. I'm  regretful I didn't bring harsher leaf like a Dayi or XG sheng which might respond better to such water.  

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Brewing Weak Tea Weakly - 03 Not Menghai Yiwu Big Tree

Due to stormageddon, I'm stuck in SFO with a box of teas but no where to brew.   While running around like mad yesterday gathering gifts including Japanese erasers in shape of a lobster dinner, I brewed up some aged sheng to figure out what to take on my trip. My mother has expressed some interest in trying puerh so I tried to pack the most inoffensive mild mannered teas I could muster.

Feb. 2006, I got this Yiwu Big Tree from M&J - the first of the suspicious eBay vendors I'd burn through.  When I opened the wrapper, my heart sunk- it looked like the pressing was a home job and the cake barely held together.  I was such a pushover then and did not make a fuss over the fake or the XG Canger tuocha sent with a big bite taken  out of it. I just never ordered from them again.

The tea was not bad.  It does take a good five turns to get it going. The first few brews are weak and thin but then then it turns to orange blossom and some huigan- enough to feel pleasant that you didn't waste your session.  Back then I actually liked this imposter because it was one of the few I could drink. But a lightbulb did not go into my head that I should be looking for older weak teas.  It tastes vaguely like Yiwu.

This tea responds well to weak brewing. At $27, I could have done better back then. In today's dollars, I guess it's all good. 

p.s. My plan for making tea money is foiled and I lost a few thousand dollars instead. But I'm not deterred.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Yiwu Alternatives

I've been retasting a lot of Yiwus recently.  I'm planning a purchase freeze policy in 2015 which means I have one last chance this month to buy myself a birthday beeng for next February. Yiwu is one region where it's dead easy to get a beeng with assured fireworks in the maw. Yiwu old tree is also one of the few types of newborn sheng I can tolerably handle. Since almost every boutique vendor specializes in high-end pressings from specific Yiwu villages or carry aged Yiwus in some form, it's easiest for me to go Yiwu.

However I have to sheepishly admit that Yiwus are not my native preference- too pretty, too elegant and restrained.  Just like neo-classical sculpture, I can see how majority of the Western world considers it the pinnacle of art making but I'd rather be gazing at Assyrian reliefs or West African carvings any day of the week.  But because excellent neoclassical examples are so prevalent in museums, I'm forced to look at and appreciate a lot of exquisitely carved marble.  

To make the analogy a bit more down to earth-  if Yiwus are thin and blond, let's just say I instinctively prefer plump and dark.  However, I've been warming up to Yiwus more and more as it is the region I've had the least disappointments.

According to Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic and echoed by, our current market regard for Yiwu got kicked off by the Taiwanese tea lovers/"tea madmen" who yearned for the historic nostalgia of Yiwu flamed by master examples from Tonging Hao and Songpin Hao.  

Yiwu during the Qing dynasty was not considered the highest quality leaf as the distinction belonged to Yibang(倚邦).   The "golden melon" imperial tribute tea was made from Yibang tea from Mansong village.  Yibang being the administrative seat for the 6 Tea Mountains apparently was bustling enough to house 7-8 brothels according to this fascinating post.  Sadly Yibang fell into decline last century and many old trees were cut down to make way for crops like corn.

I've tasted only a few Yibang samples with an autumnal production from the Tea Urchin being the most intriguing.  Just because a tea mountain was good enough for imperial tribute does not mean it will match my peculiarly picky palate but I've looked up some Yibang cakes I might spring for:

  • Tea Urchin 2014 Spring $86 for 200g -  Definitely worth a sample.  
  • 2004 Shi Gun Mu Gushu $121 for 400g - Jakub recommended it to me but I rashly rejected it because he wrote the Shi Gun Mu needed careful attention.  I need to include it in a sample in my next Chawangshop order. 
  • 2005 Changtai Yi Chang Hao $97.90 for 400g - So many stems! Why didn't I buy this for $18 when I had the chance. As there are no samples- I'm not likely to roll the dice.
  • (Need to fish out my YS Yibang as I just can't remember what I thought of it.)

There is one Yiwu which makes me salivate before the screen.  Almost every night before I go to bed in the last two weeks, I've been scrutinizing the furry gold buds of this 2004 Changtai Hao Yiwu Purple Bud.  Of all the different sheng types, purple teas have been my sentimental favorite.

But it's a gamble to put a hundo down for this purple bud which may not have aged well especially in the humid warehouses of Guangdong.  I've spent already more than 16 benjamins on tea this year and I didn't want to face yet another tea I'm lukewarm on.  My purchase decisions are made late at night on impulse even-though I spend untold hours staring at sheng inventory of every major internet vendor.  But I have a plan to make more tea play money next Thursday.  I'll let you know if I achieve any success.