Monday, July 30, 2012

Joys of a Dilettante

 I am not ashamed to be a mere dabbler of numerous delicious edible and imbibable delights.  Try as I might, I accept that the realm of true pu-erh connoisseurship may be outside my physical abilities and limited purse.  I'm only willing to put a hole in my stomach once a week so expanding my palate with young sheng becomes a real challenge.  I'd rather save up for more real estate than throw my hard-earned ducats on the best examples of aged sheng.  So where can I take this hobby?  Where does this rabbit hole end?

 I'll be drinking tea daily for the rest of my life as I have done at least for the past quarter of a century. And given how much pu-erh I've snuck in the house, it's very likely I'll be drinking pu-erh till the very bitter end.  That is an extremely comforting thought to have such a constant to look forward to.

I'm not necessarily looking to scale the Everest of taste discernment.  I want to know what the good stuff is but I don't have the need to drink it regularly.  But most importantly, I want to be able to enjoy pu-erh effortlessly without having to think so hard about it.   Obsessive analysis definitely hinders the moment of enjoyment, and since most of the teas I brew I'm sampling for the first time, my mind is uncontrollably whirling with comparative analysis. 

Cheeses, chocolates, salumi, wine, olive oil - I am entirely content to enjoy at a subjective level. Although each of these products boasts complex flavor profiles from terroir and different methods of processing that  could merit obsession,  I just take each encounter simply as an opportunity for pleasure. And perhaps in a few years time, my pu-erh pursuit will mellow out in the same way.

The above is my candy purchase for the week.  I normally special order dark chocolate bars by the case but since my order had not yet arrived,  I had to resort to a grab bag.  It took me less than 4 minutes to select these goodies since I know this grocery store's chocolate inventory by heart. Half of these I have been passing on for years due to my small-minded prejudices.  For one,  I've avoided bars with endangered animals for over a decade, but even I have to admit these eco-marketing bars have come a very long way in flavor.

Normally I get single origin bars 70-88% but I'm giving a reprieve to my daily recipients and going for some fun and easy stuff- classic blends of fruit and nut,  chili peppers, coffee, cacao nibs, as well as new exotic mixes of coconut and curry,  and even a salt and pepper chocolate bar.  That's what most people like- not the uber dark bars with subtle and complex flavors that you have to scrunch your face to enjoy- but stuff you pop in your mouth for instant gratification. 

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Impromptu Wildcrafting

During my Sunday afternoon run at the Albany Bulb, I happily noticed that the wild blackberries along the path were ready for someone to come along and enjoy their short-lived glory.  I wasn't quite prepared and so had to collect my bounty in the only thing I had on hand - two coconut water aluminum cans.   The Bulb used to be a landfill for construction debris decades ago but now it's a natural habitat shared by shore birds,  graffiti artists,  and homeless people alike.  The Bulb also has the craziest blackberry patches I have seen in my life.   Every summer brings about a mega-blackberry bonanza as far as the eye can see, but sadly a great part of the yearly harvest simply rots on the bush.

I prefer the extremely over-ripe berries that have started fermenting-  it's the subtle sweet sour flavor I relish.  Vendors normally don't sell them so ripe so wildcrafting is an ideal option.   I went deep into the bramble to find what I like and predictably, I got my shanks all scratched up.  As somebody from Oregon told me, you have no right eating blackberries if you mind getting scratched.

This morning I had 4 different shous. I was going to write a Lao Cha Tou Death Match post but I'll save it for later to properly extract this golden source material for some real humor.  Two of the Lao Cha Tous were so unexpectedly disgusting, I spat them out.  I had gotten used to drinking pretty good shous and hence forgot that I need to sip cautiously when in doubt.  The Lao Cha Tou brick which I enjoyed most had a thick black lady's hair in it. Are hairnets only ever employed at squeaky clean Haiwan? But really, you have no right drinking shu if you mind finding such bits in your brick.

While I was walking back to my car, I saw an elderly gentlemen bend over to collect a few berries at shin level near the park entrance.  I almost stopped and gave him Berry Picking 101 lecture.  Sir- aim high. This is a dog park after all!

(I see Pulling Radishes has a lovely Blackberry Shou Jelly recipe which appears to be a love of labor.)

Friday, July 27, 2012

2006 Wild Elephant Valley with 2003 Hoffman Snow Mountain Yinhao

I'll admit I shamelessly bought this cake for the lovely wrapper and nefei.  But who doesn't want to drink tea so richly nourished by wild elephant dung of  Wild Elephant Valley 野象谷 (Ye Xiang Gu) in southern Xishuangbanna. Ye Xiang Gu is the very last refuge in China where wild elephants do roam freely.   In 2008, an irate pachyderm flung an American tourist breaking a great many ribs; such run-ins are not uncommon there. 

An elephant emits ~200 pounds of black gold a day and with the Ye Xiang Gu herd being estimated to be over 30,  my math indicates the valley should be exceedingly fertile.   The herd in the photo I took not in China but in a nature preserve in South Africa.  My astonished eyes set on a hundred elephants roaming wild and I can vouch first hand for the impressive dung production that would make any organic gardener weep.

Who knows to what proximity the source tea trees for this beeng are to such elephant action?  Would there be any indication in the flavor even if the tea trees were knee deep in it?  I'm pretty sure I have encountered such direct flavors in a shu. Normally I dismiss them under the umbrella of barnyard flavors but now a closer retrospection convinces me I should revise and branch out the manure tastes more- cow patty vs. wild elephant dung.

This beeng is chock full of yinhao- pleasing furry white tips that gives any pu-erh an instant good-to-drink now sweetness.  This plantation tea was an extremely fragrant and grassy tea back in 2007 when I got it from for a "rather likable sum" of $16.90.  For that, I won't hold them too closely to their overreaching promise:
 "this special cake makes an aromatic treat today, or may be put away to produce what is sure to be a rare and valuable treasure in the future."
I personally have many such rare and valuable treasures lining my tea closet.  The producer- Qingyun Tea Factory is probably no longer.  Seven years have passed so let us see if the beauty of the wrapper extends further and what's become of this pretty thing.  

I brought it out for evening relaxation for my husband yesterday. The non-yinhao leaves dominate in the first few brews with a leathery bitterness even though the tea feels overall 
quite smooth with the trademark yinhao taste.  If I were a manga character with deep passionate feelings and if this tea were a bit more flavorful, I would be instantly transported to a fantastical tea reverie.  I would be riding a wild tusked elephant- that was drawn more like a wooly mammoth -   wandering deep in the Xishuangbanna forests.  But instead I just nod my head a few times and wonder what source of humor I can exploit for this blog entry. 
Only in the fourth brew does the bitterness ease up and a sugary sweetness emerges.  Still an enjoyable brew for about $0.20 worth of tea despite it being somewhat forgettable. 

I still want some better yinhao tonight for comparison so I crack open one of the silver buds that Emmett (of Cha & Kungfu blog) has generously sent me.  I try to split my 2003 Hoffman Silverbud Da Xue Shan sample carefully into two portions.  I don't want to blow my wad tonight as I want to save some for a morning brew. (My husband firmly informs me that the "wad" in blowing one's wad does not stem from a "wad of cash" reference.  I have been using this term freely all my life always imagining a crumpled wad of five dollar bills only to be so handily corrected tonight. Why didn't my husband say something to me decades ago!  Should I expunge such a phrase from my vocabulary...) 

I am surprised how well preserved this 11 year old loose white tea has remained - almost like Sophia Loren back in the nineties.  I always assumed white tips tend to fade albeit gracefully after a while and tips were generally considered poor aging material.  But I am surprised by teageek post on an 80's yinhao where he manages 15 interesting brews. But he drunk a yinhao tuo which does not imply pure bud. I've seen many a yinhao tuo with just a smattering of buds on top. Yinhao is also a brand name. This needs further investigation.

Hoffman’s specimen has a surprising long-lasting creamy almost oolong mouthfeel.  I am totally riding a milky white pegasus amongst the clouds to Big Snow Mountain. (Giggle, giggle. Those of you who have read Drops of God,  you know there is a manga post coming! )

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Ira's Update on the 2008 Nayun Gushu GMS Conference Beeng

One of the readers Ira has kindly provided some insight into my co-worker's friend's beeng.

Your 2008 gushu beeng is made with Na Yun's ancient tea trees - got the following brief description from - sorry but this is the only website google provided that has na yun tea related info...

"2011 Nayun Ancient Tree Green Pu-erh Cake (那允古树茶)
The tea was harvested from ancient tea trees (over 300 year old) at Anlang Mountain (2000-2500m above the sea level) that closes to Jingmai Mountain.A Nayun tea is less known to most people, and its tea is truly grown wild in the most natural environment."
Na Yun is a hill/mountain about 7 km away from Meng Lian (wikipedia: Menglian Dai, Lahu and Va Autonomous County (孟连傣族拉祜族佤族自治县; pinyin: Mènglián dǎizú lāhùzú wǎzú Zìzhìxiàn) is an autonomous county under the jurisdiction of Pu'er Prefecture, Yunnan Province, China.)  ..... Meng Lian used to be a very important puerh tea city on the cha ma gu dao/ancient tea horse road, and it is supposedly around a few km from Burma. the maocha they produced supposedly of very high quality. (I got this info from a book - Pu-Erh Tea Talk by Wu De-Lian)

Also, on the bottom the producer's name is Puerh Tian Fu ( seems like they are not related to Ten Fu (Ten Ren) China even though the name is similar.

Happy drinking!

best regards,

Thank you Ira as is a source of some very interesting research.

I do most of my chinese web surfing on Google Chrome (Canary) and so I was able to read that Tian Fu is trying to improve on the floor/shovel method of shu fermentation. A translation of the process:

"In my tea factory workshop, a long conveyor belt runs through the entire plant. The process in general is as follows: Pu'er tea after entering the shop, using negative pressure cyclone separation principle, raw materials are winnowed automatically to avoid resulting tea fragmentation. Teas are filtered out with a belt conveyor to automatic mixers, avoid artificial mixing by the sprinkler stir (uneven) and then by conveyor belt to the top of the fermentation greenhouse, wood laying. After one cycle, according to the degree of fermentation, so that automated tiered tea transported to the next level, and so on, each pass breathable, aerobic, temperature, humidity, thickness uniformity, avoid piling up too thick, or the temperature becoming to too high.  Water does not become too heavy to cause heartburn, mildew and other undesirable consequences. Upon completion of the fermentation, tea is conveyed to the drying room. After drying, tea automatically goes through a second winnowing. Tea is last finished last by applying ultraviolet disinfection, sterilization, packaging, you can sell."

I would imagine Lao Cha Tous are rare with such a system.  The company has their fingers in all sorts of research- providing pu-erh to AIDS patients as well as growing purple "winsomely" tea using modern greenhouse techniques.

I'm definitely curious to try more of their products esp. their shu produced in this new fangled way. They sell a loose shu translated as "ups and downs of life (沉浮人生)" which most likely is such an example. (I'll go to lunch tomorrow with my Kunming colleague.)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

2008 Gushu GMS Economic Corridors Forum Cake

I finally took a quiet Sunday to break out this tea pressed by a childhood friend of my co-worker.   This cake was not preceded by any hype or gushing blog post. It didn't have a romantic title like Secret Fragrance or Secret Lives to sway me.  There wasn't even an over-promissory vendor description to decipher.   I didn't know what to expect but I made this cake the first official recipient of my Biggest Twig Embedded in A Sheng award.

The compression is loose enough that I can carefully separate out the leaves in layers and I think I barely have enough for 3 sessions.  The brews were extremely pale straw colored- so pale that I worried I was too stingy with the leaves.  But after only the second sip, my tongue is instantly covered in a sugarcane sweetness.  This tea had probably one of the fastest acting huigan I've encountered.  Fourth sip and the back of the tongue is covered with sweetness.   I'm already plotting devious ways to get the rest of my co-worker's cake.

After my fourth brew, I jump up. I realize I have to be somewhere. I have to meet a friend visiting from Hong Kong in SF and I contemplate the discourtesy of showing up late. But they are not tea drinkers and would not understand such an explanation involving huigan.  I have to rush to get ready but as I shower and wash my hair, the sugar on my tongue is overwhelming, and clusters of sweetness keep exploding on my tongue. Even after an hour after I've stopped sipping, I am still surprised with the last latent bursts of sweetness on my tongue while I sit in a noisy BART train tapping out this entry.

Is such huigan evidence of being from a real gushu?  I've gotten decent huigan off Nannuo plantation before and I'm even suspecting this cake is a Nannuo but I hadn't drunk any in 6 years.  Now I am curious about the other old tree beengs I have whose huigan is nearly not as long lasting.  I will need to dust off some cakes this weekend for comparison.

The flavors for this tea weren't particularly complex- light and smooth with an underlying bitterness which went away after a few brews.  It's fun having so much sparkling exploding sugar action in one's mouth.   I feel like an old man who by fortune is seated next to a cute and sassy school girl on a long long transatlantic flight. (Once on a flight to Seoul, I saw an elderly gentleman sitting next to a most adorable school girl.  That guy was smiling the entire flight even when sleeping.)

Who knew a cake commemorating the GMS Economic Corridors Forum could be such a gem? I will try to find out a little bit more about this tea and get more.  After this round, I feel I should do more blind tastings as they tend to force you to stick strictly to the cup.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Cremains Box Update

Last month, I sent away for basswood boxes to hold my overflow collection.  The biggest cheapest boxes I found for under twenty dollars were the  9x8x8 unassembled "cremains box" kit.  I could have asked my handyman master carpenter husband to build me something custom, but then I would be totally indebted. Ahem.  As I bought the cheaper unassembled kit, my husband still helped me put them together with brass screws. He was wholly unsatisfied with the wonky rough fit of these boxes but it's hard to expect high craftsmanship at twenty dollars with U.S. labor.

BoxesNSuch sells this kit for hobbyists to carve the wood for a more decorative effect. I cannot imagine using these boxes for their intended purpose. Apparently cremated remains of an adult human takes 110 to 180 cubic inches where as a beloved pet horse can take much much more.  (This is an aside but if I do get cremated, I'd like a super fragrant young beeng to be burnt with me.) But for my particular purpose- these boxes snugly fit 8 beengs each.

Basswood has no odor and is often the wood of choice for gourmet food containers.  I've received chocolate covered figs and fleur de sel caramels which were presented in short basswood canisters.  My husband couldn't smell anything on these new boxes but I could still detect an acidic wood smell so I let them air out in the sun for a few days.  One of them holds shu and really it didn't take long for the overwhelming wodui scent to take over. The other holds wet stored sheng.  While these cremains boxes are not that great, I find that they are definitely more acceptable aesthetically as well as socially.  The clutter of cardboard boxes piling on top my desk could be construed by guests as a prelude to "Hoarding-Buried Alive".

I also have flat basswood boxes on top of each cremains box that my friend S gave me as a great birthday present- tea is a tricky gift for friends to give me but I will happily receive a basswood box in any shape.  One of them holds samples Emmett generously sent me last week including a nineties sheng from Hoffman 's Phoenix Collection. It's like looking into the future for my collection as Hoffman's stuff is seriously dry aged.  I'll save the Hoffman brew report for another post.  Good night.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

One Tea for a Billion but a Hundred Teas for One

I recently breached the psychologically significant ceiling of 100 different pu-erhs in my private collection not counting samples.  I also have various dianhong, white, green, oolong, and herbal teas tucked away in canisters all about the house.  So when I ask my husband quite innocently, "What tea do you want to drink tonight?",  he just lets me to choose. (Sometimes rather grumpily I might add. )

I have an ipad app to keep track of the pu-erh.  Luckily when it's evening we can limit ourselves to 40 shu selections.  But I try to air out shu at least a day before I drink it so we have to go with what's loaded in my immediate shu queue - four small porcelain containers crowding my dining room table.

I break out the 2010 Hengfu Lao Hei Cha- a smooth and roasty, slightly woody undemanding tea with the barest hint of licorice and mint.  It's an uncomplicated tea suited for evening relaxation after a complicated day.   Most of my shus fall in that category.

Shus definitely provide a broader range of flavors than coffee, but shus hold only a pinky's worth of depth compared to sheng.    When I try to enumerate the shu flavors I've encountered below,  it should seem that shus can more than amply provide a respectable diverse range of flavors:
  • wood/bark  - Mengku, XG Baoyan, Fuhai brick
  • cola - the Gong Ting cakes
  • coffee - MGH Chocolate Bar, YS lao cha tou
  • rootbeer/sarsparilla(when it has more licorice flavor) - Menghai Caravan to Tibet
  • malty/roast grain
  • creamy
  • brown sugar/burnt sugar
  • plum/prunes/dried dates
  • licorice/hyssop - Menghai GNWL
  • herbal/medicinal/minty/camphor
  • dried mushroom
  • compost, dirt, forest floor
  • wet blanket/dish rag
  • pond
  • dried fish/dried squid (only in scent)
  • mold/mustiness
The reality is that shu often can taste just like shu and one most often mumbles, "Oh, it's not so bad...".   When I drink shu, I normally seek comfort of the rich and smooth variety.  Comfort my friends is the most common reason why billions of people drink the exact same teas day after day.  It used to blow my mind that a billion people in India drink a similar over-sweetened milky concoction called chai despite India being the biggest producer of leaf tea in the world.  If you think about how complex and diverse Indian culture is with a crowded pantheon of Hindu gods,  is it not amazing that everyone enjoys the "one" tea?

I know very well my 100 teas are excessive when at least a billion people get by with just one.  I wish I could see the peak but there is a deep tea restlessness in me.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Two Degrees of Separation

The company I work for has four operational researchers from all corners of the world - Turkey, Russia, Texas, and China.  Our Chinese scientist happens to be from - you guessed it - Kunming and his friend - you guessed it- happens to run a tea business back home.  ( I must be more diligent about this kind of connection right in front of my nose...)

This wrapper is for a sheng his friend pressed from tea leaves sourced through his in-laws who own a mountain with hundred year old tea trees. He gave me a sample of this very 2008 sheng to taste which I have in my queue. (My husband says I have DSB- deadly sheng backup - an acute syndrome caused by having too many untasted unopened shengs to sample.  If I tried to taste them all in one sitting, I would probably die.  )

My co-worker could not tell me anything more about this sheng but said he would send any questions back to his friend.  I will faithfully report back this weekend the tasting.

The wrapper definitely says :
qiaomu gǔshu (乔木; "tall tree", 古树; "old tree").

Sunday, July 15, 2012

2010 HLH Yiwu Cha Wang's Consort

Today I whipped out another Birthday Beeng contender, the 2010 Hai Lang Hao Chawang Yiwu recommended by Jakub.  HLH does not reveal an exact location in Yiwu for this cake but they have been known to source from Yi Bi, Gua Feng Zhai and Ding Jia Zhai villages. At $205 for an entire cake, one would hope that this is 100% finest Yiwu ancient arbor to be had.

The scent is rather muted, but the first sips reveal that this an elegant tea with a special delicacy.  After the second brew I notice a sweetness under the tip of my tongue which is a first time experience for me.  I didn't know the undersides of my tongue had taste buds. Then after the fourth brew, sweetness spreads to the undersides of the entire length of my tongue as well as the usual topside. It is one of the few young sheng that doesn't outright bother my stomach.  This tea is not as fruity or intense as other Yiwus I've drunk and I could not convince anyone to do a Yiwu vertical tasting today so I'll have to compare this against other Yiwus another day.

The term Cha Wang (tea king) has been overused to promote products with less than regal standing and I wonder if I will ever meet the true Cha Wang.  Wang implies a more obvious show of power- this delicate flowery Cha Wang could easily be overtaken even by a Bulang commoner.  It's more apt this tea is the king's consort than the king himself.  Actually I will downgrade it further to the consort's handmaiden or one of the king's many concubines as observers of any palace politics would know that even the king's consort is someone to fear.

I received my 10g sample from Yunnan Sourcing at  $9. I used a 5g sample in a small glazed clay pot which was more than enough to experience the Yiwu charm.   So $4.5 for a lovely session among four friends is a bargain by today's standards.  I mistakenly ordered green tea at a London pub once for ~$4.5 and was served a stale FooJoy bag. (Actually my husband informs me that there is almost no difference between a fresh FooJoy bag and an aged one).  But would I plunk down $205 for an entire Cha Wang?  Alas I'm not smitten so much that I would put forth an amount which can also get you a Nexus 7.   

The Cha Wang leaves weren't in the best of shape and they did not look as plump as the HLH promo photos.  The leaves also reveal a fair amount of red oxidation.  I guess I expected glorious perfect leaves for $205 a cake. The 2011 Cha Wang 2 is a further record busting $240.

Can there really be a $100+ young sheng which lives up to the price tag?  Do these hyper-expensive teas really taste better than mid-level ones?  Social scientists who have done blind taste studies in the realm of wine indicate knowing a high price of a wine triggers us to enjoy it more. However,

“individuals who are unaware of the price do not derive more enjoyment from more expensive wine.”

I highly recommend listening to this freakonomics podcast episode on whether or not expensive wines taste better.  Do these findings translate to the world of sheng? The first issue of Art of Tea had blind tea tastings of 11 teas from 2000 by various experts and the results were all over the place.

Emmett has an interesting review of the MGH Yiwu Guafeng Zhai which is composed of mostly big leaf huangpin.  Even though he states the brew is not as complex as high-end GFZ, he enjoys it enormously.   After reading his post, I dug out the biggest leaf sheng I've got- the 2006 Douji Dayeqingbing. I quaffed quite a bit of it today and yesterday which offered heroically unflagging brews of pure refreshment on the same set of leaves.  This Douji has a cooling mouth feel that is immediately enjoyable - one need not think to enjoy this tea. The leaves are still giving so I may try to brew it up again tomorrow.  Even though this Douji is less than twentieth of the cost of the Cha Wang, I actually enjoyed it a lot more at a visceral level.  One cannot discount the simple enjoyment factor in our tea pursuits. 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Feel Good Tea Blogs and Other Random Musings

Just as in your tea consumption, you need a varied diet when reading tea blogs.

If you need the cold hard truth and real thinking- you head straight over to MarshalN because he is tirelessly challenging us to drink better teas, think for ourselves and not lapse into complacency.  

But sometimes you don't want to think critically about all the mediocre tea you've bought.  You just want to feel good about puerh in general.  That's when you head over to read sunny blogs like Wilson's Traveling Teapot.  Wilson exudes the most overwhelming aura of positivity. You can tell straightaway from the title font of his blog that he will provide you a cheerful experience and it's rare he meets a beeng he does not like.  He's mostly a shu drinker and he always manages to focus on the positive.  (I had not been too keen on my Haiwan and Menghai shus but he fixed that for me and I'm excited to retry them. Thank you Wilson!) 

However, when making a purchasing decision based on blog reviews- you might weigh the blogger's hit ratio compared to your own. It's difficult not to be biased by other reviewers especially when their blogs are your daily comfort food. Wednesday night I was really struggling  with the Hengli Chang.  Despite such high praise from so many bloggers, my palate was giving me an alternate opinion which I have to save for another post.

In our family, we are always brutally honest about restaurants.  My mother will dish out a pithy analysis like "MSG and sugar covers up cheap ingredients. Let's never come here again." Some families don't think it polite to state negative opinions so they end up going the same mediocre restaurants over and over again even when there is definitely better food out there. While it's easy to never patronize an establishment, it's harder to avoid a bad beeng you just bought and it's better to think kinder things of it because most likely you are going to be drinking it for days to come.

It's near impossible to avoid mediocre teas.  The very definition of mediocrity would dictate that's what fills most of our shelves.  Pu-erh is the only category of tea where plantation leaves are held in  disdain.  It's all plantation for almost every other type of tea out there. I actually don't want to be drinking mind-blowing off-the-charts-cha-qi-sweat-inducing old tree teas every day.  I just have to find a good balance.

(The above photo is taken from the Hayward Shoreline. Those of you who live in the Bay Area may be surprised that a city with as much industrial and trailer park charm as Hayward could hide such a natural gem. It is by far the loveliest bay trail bicycling in the East Bay with a surprising diversity from salt pans, grasslands, to pickleweed marshes- but best of all you can still enjoy the industrial landscape on the other side. I love drossscapes and I think the contrast is what makes it doubly enjoyable for me. )

Thursday, July 12, 2012

First Date with Hengli Chang

The Cha Ninja kindly traded me a sample of 1997 Heng Li Chang Bulang for various 06 Banzhang and today this treasure was patiently waiting for me at my doorstep.  I was planning to brew it up this weekend so I can invite friends but I just went for it tonight.

Even the first rinse brings out a pungent musty yeasty aroma which I now recognize that trad stored scent but this one smells more like a mix of Korean monastery wood posts, oatmeal soap, and dry egg yolk- all in a good way.   The first few brews are dark, bitter and fuzzy tasting so I skip ahead a few brews.   

Starting the sixth brew,  this Heng Li turns into a sweet amber concoction- more maple syrup than any other sweetener.   The sips also taste a little more drying in the mouth and throat and I start feeling a teensy weensy bit of astringency in my esophagous.  Power of Bulangs are not overrated if 17 years with some traditional storage hasn't entirely tamed this bitterness.

I finally peg the continuing fuzzy flavor in this tea to lucuma icecream.  Icecream made from fresh lucuma, a Peruvian fruit, is one of the world's most intriguing yet comforting flavors. It's like the spirit of hot porridge made into icecream form.

I know the half-dipper said this is a tea with "trousers"  but for me, this Bulang is a tea wearing fuzzy slippers.  I guess I expect trousered teas to have cleaner lines of flavor.  I'm grateful to have had the chance to sample the famous Heng Li Cheng Bulang but on first go it does not match my particular preferences.  This tea is very different from the aged shengs I remember in Korea which had a cleaner more savoury medicinal mushroomy reishi flavor profile.   

The Cha Ninja also sent me a bonus '03 Bada sample which is also traditionally stored.  I will try Heng Li Chang a few more times with the Bada to see if traditional stored cakes are for me.  Tonight was a much needed education.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Cacao Break

Tea drinking and tea thinking has been more stressful for me than needed lately so I thought I would take a break tonight and write about simpler tasting pleasures which must strictly be enjoyed in the present. With tasting sheng,  one inevitably thinks past the present to how your future self will enjoy the future aged state of a sheng.  One's brain can get tied up in knots.

Every other week I buy stacks of dark chocolate ranging from 75% to 88% cacao.  Normally I buy the usual suspects- single origin bars that are surprisingly good for being three to five dollars.  Sigh. Back in 2003 - 2004 before my first pu-erh craze, I used to regularly enjoy the king of chocolates Chuao and the queen- the ever delicate and ever floral Porcelana from a Tuscan outfit called Amedei. Just like Chen Sheng Tea Factory in LBZ,  Amedei wrought exclusive control over beans from Chuao -a coastal town in Venezuela.  Amedei successfully kicked french chocolate maker Valrhona out of Chuao in a rather nasty price war pushing Chuao beans to a world record $9 a kilo from $1.5 per kilo.  Of course Amedei easily passes this surcharge onto the ever-willing end consumer.  For a decade now I have been satisfying myself with what I can find in the neighborhood markets.  To be fair, Berkeley supermarkets carry a most respectable gift-worthy selection of dark chocolates and no one need be ashamed of consuming such solidly produced chocolate bars. 

Out of the six bars this week, the clear winner was the odd bar out- the Taza 80% which exploded in my mouth full of jammy fruity high notes.  Unlike all other Western chocolate bar makers,  Taza does not conch their chocolate.  Conching is a process where by you slowly beat the crap out of the cacao paste to give the resulting chocolate a silky texture. But this process generates heat which also mellows out the paste by removing the acetic acid left over from less than perfect bean fermentation.  Italian bars from Cuba Venchi are incredibly low acid nutty productions with a silky smooth texture because they conch more than 72 hours where as mass producer Hershey's will conch for 12 hours but compensate for poor bean quality with diabetic amounts of sugar.  Just as in puerh, there are many industry post-processing and manipulation tricks to cover up any flaws of the source material.  

In order to skip conching, you really need the highest levels of bean quality. While the texture of Taza bars are gritty,  they preserve the original fruity taste of the bean.  The ancient Maya certainly never conched and we're lucky an American bean-to-bar producer took the more difficult road to produce such a chocolate bar.  I rarely eat more than a few squares of any bar leaving the rest for my husband but you can see that I had to control myself to leave two squares to enjoy tomorrow.

When a shu is rather ho-hum, I  enjoy it with a good dark chocolate bar and sometimes a few bacon bits to great effect. When a chocolate bar is ho-hum, I just make hot chocolate out of it.  Bad bars don't hang around for years taunting me with it's plantation mediocrity highlighting my bad selection prowess. I'd like to stabilize my pu-erh collecting and drinking to where I enjoy moderately good teas for daily drinking and save special cakes for special occasions.   But I still have a steep steep sheng tasting curve to overcome.

Waiting for Wuliang Part I

In 2007,  I ordered a Wuliang beeng.  Due to an unfortunate mix-up which was half my fault, I instead received a beeng from a neighboring mountain.  Thus I was transported unwillingly to Mournful Prison Mountain(Ailuo 哀牢山) instead of ascending Limitless Mountain(Wuliang 无量山)Thanks to Hobbes and Jason Cohen for the translations. Perhaps this mix-up was the last straw that broke the camel's back but I did not buy any more pu-erh for 6 years.

To right this wrong, I finally bought two pure Wuliang shengs produced by Yunnan Sourcing, the 2010 beeng from YS-US and the 2012 version from YS Kunming. I also had started on the road to Birthday Beeng selection with Jakub's recommendation of enthrallment- the 2010 HLH Yiwu among many other fun samples to be revealed later.  Today while I was at work, my husband e-mailed me a photo of a box from Kunming Post.  I was shocked to receive Scott's order in a record 4 days! It cost $36 express shipping but still I'm impressed. 

Wuliang is a sizable mountain range bordering Dali and Lincang so Wuliang teas must surely show up elsewhere.  I may have been unknowingly quaffing Wu Liang brews all along as Xiaguan uses materials from Wuliang Shan as does (or did) Nan Jian Factory.  The 07 Xiaguan "FT" #4 is comprised of Wuliang and Bao Shan leaves while the 08 XY 8853 is all spring Wuliang and Lincang leaves.  I vowed no more Xiaguan buying for me in 2006 so I only got the Nan Jian pure Wuliang mini-bricks for doing the big factory comparison.

Scott's YS cakes are made of leaves from the remote Zhong Cang village (中仓村).  Further web research with the google translator indicates that Zhong Cang villagers grow tobacco and walnuts as well as slaughter 1300 hogs a year.  In 2006, the village had a total of one car, three tractors, and 44 motorcycles.  I could only find the following pictures of Zhong Cang village tea trees on the provided link which may or may not have any correlation to Scott's beengs which are advertised to be from 200 year old trees.  Google maps indicate a fairly heavy agricultural use of the village lands.

Sunday I brewed up the 2010 Wuliang to enjoy a moment of pre-dinner contemplation.  The cake includes the bonus of a tiny rough twig and a few grain husks.  My first two quick rinses were  strongly yellow.   I couldn't stop sipping because I really really miss drinking sheng - this tea has a subtle bitterness which is perfect for remembrance.  The youthful astringency reaches all the way down my chest and I had to clutch my collarbone all the while drinking this tea.  My mouth is continually salivating with sweetness.

I tried to decode the sensations to visualize shapes and colors. But instead I hear the muted low notes of a vibraphone.  The fifth infusion becomes intensely sweet- more sugarcane than honey and I start gulping it down rather greedily.   I'm enjoying myself head to throat while everything below is burning. Part of me is wondering if my foray into shengs is now progressively worsening my intolerance. Today when sniffing the 2012 shengs, I could feel the astringency in my gullet. My husband shakes his head whenever he sees me crazy eyed looking at my shengs. I think I will risk tasting the 2012 version this weekend.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Red Violin of Puerh

I spent some lovely stretches on my swing finally catching upon summer reading.  The most enjoyable of the batch was the "Billionaire's Vinegar" - a non-fiction mystery about the scandal filled world of rare aged wines which was entirely applicable to the similarly murky world of aged pu-erh.   The title comes from a misrouted bottle of a 1787 Lafite supposedly ordered by my FFF Thomas Jefferson. Infamous wine collector Hardy Rodenstock "found" this bottle amongst other wine gems perfectly sealed up within the walls of an undisclosed Paris apartment during demolition.  The Forbes family bought this particular bottle via Christie's for $150,000 and stored it proudly under a toasty halogen light along with their other presidential memorabilia.  An employee with sharp eyes found the shrunken cork floating in the world's most expensive wine.  Forbes had never meant to drink this wine but bought it to own a piece of American history.  But did this wine really belong to Jefferson?  Was this wine even from 1787?

Only if someone would write a pu-erh page turner a la the"Red Violin".  Perhaps it could be about this 1895 imperial golden melon featured in this pu-erh documentary. You may desire to skip straight to the scene starting 7:42).

The author could interweave at least a century of Chinese history from the decline of the Qing all the way to the rampant capitalist China of today. The author could lard the story generously with useful details of puerh manufacture for types like us.  Maybe the author can exploit the inevitable switzeroo  plot device twice, once during the Cultural revolution and then a second time during the pu-erh boom years to multiple black market buyers one of whom could be Russian(or Bulgarian) mafiosi with a Chinese girlfriend.  (Video spoiler alert- were you as crestfallen as I was upon hearing that this golden melon was stored underground and had some "insecticide" issues. After that, I definitely agreed that "we dare not covet the emperor's golden melon."  )

Back to the original book review- the most unfortunate and glaring parallel between the world of aged wine and aged pu-erh revolve around rampant forgery and the suckers who fall for them.  Most commonly it wasn't oenophiles(a.k.a. serious wine drinkers) but rich people with too much money that would pony up for these outrageously priced aged wines to display in a trophy collection. (I also was scratching my head for the proper term for pu-erh lovers- puerhophiles? We have to be very careful with the spelling since "puer" could be mistakenly interpreted in an ancient Greek direction.  A bit dorkier but magnafoliophile is definitely a safer way to go but my latin is completely rusty so if someone could suggest something more elegant.)  

By the time someone does open a bottle and find it undrinkable,  most people don't know enough about aged wines to deem it a fake and may just blame bad storage conditions.  But just suggestion and price tag alone sometimes would convince drinkers the authenticity of a bottle.  Those who knew enough to find themselves had,  they cannot prove conclusively that a wine was fake or it may be too late to catch up with the original perpetrator in a long chain of middle-men spanning the centuries.  According to this book,  even the venerable auction houses Sotheby's and Christies were well aware of fakes exploding in the market place, but they were only too happy to be party to the commissions generated by such a lucrative market. 

For me, one of the most useful nuggets was the lack of a conclusive scientific method to date wines older than 65 years.  Scientists can measure the presence of radioactive compounds to determine that a wine predates the atomic age. Wines after 1945 hold certain levels of decaying tritium or cesium-137 which match against a time curve.  Probably there is a new curve which goes against Chernobyl and now Fukushima. Unfortunately such tests are the foray of hyper-expensive labs; a home Geiger counter simply will not cut it. 

Thursday, July 05, 2012

July Fourth Tea - 05 Yiwu Bamboo

Early in my buying days, I tended to be attracted to the novelty subgenre of puerh- stuffed pomelos, stuffed bamboos and their ilk.  Was it subpar tea made more palatable and marketable by a gimmick like the strawberry papaya popcorn white tea or are these fringe pu-erhs something unique to be treasured?

This here fat tube of bamboo stuffed sheng was advertised as 2005 Yi Wu Mountain Bamboo. The processing is similar to the "Dai Tribe" sheng that YS sells where maocha is steam stuffed into giant bamboo stalks and roasted vertically in small fire pits. The final tea is dried for a few days, then removed from the charred stalks and repackaged into bamboo husks. Despite this trial by fire, the tea has no smoky smell and you have to squint to spot the very few black dots as evidence of the charring.  (Makes you wonder how HLH can get so many crisp burnt edges on such expensive cakes.)

Unlike my other thinner Xiang Zhu stuffed examples where the leaves are more forcefully jammed and crammed in, I can tell a more careful loving hand-stuffing was practiced. (Perhaps the compression style varies by the stuffer's personality. )  I can easily pry out a nice chunk just by wiggling a long stem.  My mouth waters looking at such full and dark furry leaves. I  have the rare pleasure of easily removing sections to see that the aging on the outside of the tube is noticeably different (darker more matte and dry) from the golden sheen of leaves inside.  I really should be preparing my cheese and fruit platter for the neighborhood Fourth of July BBQ potluck but instead here I am sniffing and brewing.  There is something ridiculous about writing a blog about a tea that you can't drink. It's like a lactose intolerant Asian keeping a blog about milkshakes. (Actually that was me...)

I call my closest surrogate tastebuds into action. The husband is really into it. He digs the mineral seaweed profiles likening it to oysters.  Is this the subtle aromatics described most commonly as "unique" from being steamed in a bamboo?  I hazard only a few sips. It's a mildly rough concoction, subsequent brews taste stimulating and drying at the same time.  I doubt it really is Yiwu for $13 per half a kilo but it's an enjoyable afternoon session. 

I pop out to my bamboo patch and cut a few stalks to get a whiff of the bamboo smell.    My common bamboo (a poor poor cousin to the Yunnan aromatic bamboo) smells quite unremarkable like fresh cut grass.  Koreans had a fad of products made from salt stuffed in bamboo by Buddhist monks.  The Korean bamboo toothpaste was altogether reprehensible.  The bamboo bath salt left a weird film requiring a thorough shower afterwards.  Super expensive fragrant bamboo rice was a culinary disappointment.  I would normally recommend against gimmicky bamboo products but this bamboo stuffed tea is a fun diversion to the more civilized paper wrapped sheng experience and the husband likes the flavor profile to boot!

The leaves are unexpectedly lovely due to the long stems and you can see plenty of buds. The brew doesn't reflect a woodiness in the taste and is lighter and more refreshing than expected- probably due to autumn leaves.  I may even try to get the Dai version to compare- I had bought this particular batch even though Scott was selling the Dai version even back then because the Dai version looked gnarlier with older leaves. 

I had planned to drink the more thematically authentic "Hyson" green tea to celebrate July Fourth.  For those who haven't watched Indepenence Day starring Will Smith- July Fourth is when we celebrate our break from our greedy British overlords.   I was explaining this holiday to my colleague in the London satellite office.  He promptly switched this most sensitive topic to the Queen's Jubilee.    It's an oft spoken truism that the British turned Americans into a nation of coffee drinkers with unsustainable taxation.  Tea probably will never overturn coffee's favored status here but for those like me who are entirely hooked on Chinese tea, I am ever grateful I even have access to these weird fringe varieties of pu-erh. 

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Evicting Sheng Duds

In the next two weeks, an immoderate amount of tea is to arrive at my doorstep.   I need to serve eviction notices for cakes which do not hold my favor.  The pickier part of me says I should start swapping out with more stellar examples of their genre but the retentive part of me has all sorts of creative reasons not to let go.

What are these despised duds wantonly taking up precious tea real estate?  

Back in early 2006, I saw the 2004 Changtai 16 Cake Set for a ridiculously dirt cheap price (~$80). I asked my husband if I should buy it as a learning tool and he said to me without any sense of future irony, "Hmmm. That's a lot of tea. What are you going to do with that much tea!" So I didn't get it and then it promptly sold out.

This 2 kilo 4 beeng Xiaguan Big G Set was the rebound purchase.  As you can imagine, it really did not make me feel better. I know the 2004 Changtai tasting set came under scrutiny and accusations flew that some cakes were not truly single origin due to lax oversight but I don't think I would have regretted that purchase- definitely not for $80.  Changtai beengs are sometimes known to have a wee bit extra oxidation but still, I would of had a lot more fun with that set than this Big G one which the vendor description indicates is all the same blend.   All same inside. All same (head hung low...)

"The four cakes are all the same blend of leaf: Orange Wrapper - Xiaguan Feng (Xiaguan Wind) Blue Wrapper - Er Hai Yue (Er Hai Lake Moon) Red Wrapper - Shangguan Hua (Shangguan Flower) Green Wrapper - Cangshan Xue (Cangshan Snow)"

Cangshan is the snow capped mountain range west of Dali with Erhai lake(ear shaped lake) sandwiched in between. Xiaguan is based in Dali and it's all a naming theme with no relation to the tea source. The vendor also described this Xiaguan collector's box as being the best quality Xiaguan produced that year. It has lost that sweet Xiaguan spring tea smell leaving that signature Xiaguan smoky leathery fragrance.  

For the first time in my life, I am able to break a Xiaguan product with by bare hands. I'm going to optimistically claim victory in Berkeley aging. My husband brewed it up tonight for the first time in 7 years and I am breathtakingly awaiting a report.  

Every collection must include some Xiaguan if not for reference and what's wrong with this best Xiaguan?  Every time I look at this box I sigh.  The ChangTai that got away caused me to overcompensate and buy all sorts of subsequent tea I should not have.  These 2003 Xiaguans are not a dud because there is something inherently wrong with them besides the chopped plantation leaves.  They just give me pangs and twinges of collector's remorse that I can't seem to dispel.

Second up is the 2005 6 FTM Yinji Series.  A friend moving back from Beijing proudly and cheerfully exclaimed on 7 cakes bundled in a bamboo basket(Ban Zhang, Yi Wu, You Le, Bang Wei, Nan Nuo,Yi Bang plus bonus Spring Cake), "Can you believe it! This was only $20!"  Yinji or "Spirit of XXX" series is 6FTM's lowest entry level offering which blends a very small percentage of mountain in question.   I desperately wish I had just wired some money to her but it's tricky letting a non-puerh drinker to buy pu-erh at Meliandao. I am hugely grateful she brought some pretty nice Doujis as well.

I was rereading Ethan Thompson's 26 Mountains, Fifty Cakes on the Leaf. He reviews the instructive Jing Mei Tang 50 Cake Set which he contrasts to his Changtai set. Ethan talks about "market-floor garbage" and "garbage cakes". I'm pretty sure at least this pile of 6FTMs could be a poster child for  "market-floor garbage".  But is this any reason to kick these poor cakes to the door especially since they came into the house as gifts.  I actually have never cracked open any of these FTMs because I always had better to drink.  

More and more,  I'm coming to the conclusion that factory plantation teas have a time and a place in my collection. While one shouldn't go out of their way to fill out a collection with them, if they happen to already be part of your collection, there are many good reasons to keep them around. Here are my top 5 reasons to keep my early mistakes:

1. I apparently like cheap tea.

I've been enjoying aged cheap quality shu recently. Even though I am forced to pay dearly for them now, those bricks must have been a few yuans back in the day with leaf quality to match. You can only imagine the hygiene of communist tea factory floors.   (Probably better if you don't).

All my dud cakes are much higher leaf quality than those filthy bricks and will probably end up being as good as or if not better than those shus.

2. Reference tea. You need big factory teas to make you really appreciate your small batch artisanal teas.

It's good to have special teas for special occasions. The single mountain teas tend to require attentiveness. I don't want to be drinking high end single varietals all the time because some days you just need a tea to get the job done.  

3. I need aging sheng to give away to beginner drinkers who need to broaden their palates with these kinds of factory offerings.

4. I need experimentation material.
I need ready material I'm willing to use for experiments with aging.  Why buy new when there is already this available supply.

5.  These guys have been aging with me and are part of the tea family.
Sounds ridiculous I know and such sentiments are common to those who exhibit hoarding symptoms. These teas have been with me for some of the hardest years of my life and the bitterness in life is best swallowed in tea.

And so you can see with logic like this, I have never evicted any cake from my collection.