Saturday, September 29, 2012

06 Menghai Caravan To Tibet

More shu.  I know.  Due to the cooling weather, my system has been more sensitive to sheng lately so you may get an endless winter stream of shu reviews.

I drank four different shu's this morning- technically I got out of bed at noon.  In continuation of my cheap shu project, I popped in the $6.80 Tianpin Ripe to slug with my fried egg on chinese leftover brunch. Ever since re-uptaking my pu-erh obsession,  I'm just not interested in spending time cooking and will resort to bare minimum to keep my system going especially when the cook is out. Chocolate bars for dinner last Wednesday was a bit of a low point- sad considering I used to be a serious cook but a tea junkie must get a fix before all else.

For $7, the 07 Tianpin Ripe is passably decent- i.e. I drank three small cups of it. I had a handful of shus that I either spat out or refused to do more than sipping recently so even being able take it down means much.  If you don't have this brick, you're really not missing out.  If you did get it, it just adds to your pile of cheap shus with a woody profile.

When I don't quite get the fix I need,  I immediately have to go into the arms of another  tea I know that will do me right.  So I brought out my 2006 Menghai Caravan to Tibet.  "That's more like it!",  I tell myself as I sip the first brews.  Menghai Factory released this unique one time batch to celebrate their 2006 media stunt setting out a caravan of 99 horses to travel the ancient Tea Horse Road.  This tea of course did not take this arduous journey. (I also forward readers to Phyll Sheng's post for further reading.)

Flawlessly smooth and balanced with just a hint of sasparilla- I can rely on this solid shu.  Thick body with tangible mouthfeel, I'm satisfied. Whew, now I can go onto take care of laundry matters.  To think I didn't snatch more of this up when Scott was just giving these away for $15. I wasn't forced to drink shu back then. All you youngsters quaffing sheng without a care and being sniffy about shu- be ware- it could happen to you one day.

These high end Menghai shu's are no longer an interesting experience to me but they represent to me a baseline quality like drinking a nice VSOP brandy at the end of a day.   I personally prefer the robust maltier more livelier 06 Menghai Sanjipu(my Menghai ATF) over this CTT but I'm lucky even to have both.
For interested readers, I also have the 2006 CTT sheng which remains unopened. Back in 2006, I found the Menghai blends to be too rough and so I've intentionally decided not to open that beeng.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Shoveling Compost

Yesterday I went for a run at the Berkeley Marina when I was welcomed by tall mounds of pristine black gold.  Several times a year, city of Berkeley dumps municipal compost at the Berkeley Marina free for anyone to lug away. After trying to run a mile and half, I got excited and returned with my truck and a shovel.

The word "compost" shows up in many a bad shu review.  But after breathing in and tasting compost dust for an hour,  I'll never be so casual to overuse such hyperbole again. 

Ira has unexpectedly sent me a welcome box crammed with timely tea.  After a trying day, it warms my heart to see her handwriting. I know I've turned into a samples hoarder but winter is coming and I want to be ready.   I've thus far kept up my two month no-buy pact.  Tonight I brewed up perhaps one of the most expensive shu bricks to cross my path.  Although I am itching to use the C word on the latent wodui,  I've decided not to post anything further and let this sleep.  The shock is too much even for me.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Golden Memories and Palate Preferences

I drank a gushu sheng blend today but could not force myself to write a tea review.  The reader survey was quite mixed as to what people wanted more of.  A third die-hard pu-erh heads of course only wanted more of their fix. Even for myself, when I'm not drinking it, I want to read about it.  But more than half responded that I should write whatever moves me so today we go for two delicious brown stuffs that isn't shu. 

 For every one of my friends, I like to play a little guessing game- predict whether or not they would like a particular new food or tea they haven't tried before.  I feel an extra glow when I start truly understanding a friend's palate.

Every month or as often as I can manage, I lunch with two of my best work friends who left last year to join a startup in San Francisco.  We used to enjoy so many good chocolate bars together in times past and  I try to bring something to continue on our chocolate camaraderie.

Last month I had brought two raw examples from Pacari  - first I was dubious that skipping roasting of the beans would result in a superior bar.  Even though it's conched, it definitely is less sweet with high acid notes making it an acquired taste. My friend who loves comfort food did not take to this new fangled taste. My Swiss friend- an adventurous eater and a partner in pork of course did.  Preferences does not indicate raw bars as a genre are good or bad as raw bars take a particular palate to appreciate.

Of course I never put all my eggs in one basket and I brought a crowd pleasing trad bar. The Wild Boar chocolate bar  I was enticed solely by the wrapper but it ended up being a surprisingly charming bar all the way through. The bar itself had simulated bites out of it along with a frieze of a boar lying on the bottom.  Even though it's a clever way for this chocolatier to give you less chocolate- they do it with such style that I don't mind.  Even in the world of pu-erh, a pretty wrapper and neifei gets you further than a uninspired communist one.

I love pork and boar above all and that's what made me jump at this boar bar. If a vendor sold a beeng with a cartoon boar, I'd probably be would be all over it.  Sometimes when I feel a little down, I recount my memories of enjoying the most delicious wild boar bacon once fried up and fed to me by my dear husband.  But I try hard not to overuse such golden memories and have to rely on the lesser remembrances of a recently enjoyed BLT with a favorite friend.  Perhaps dear reader you have a very different kind of golden memory than boar bacon sizzling on a cast iron fry pan. 

The weather is cooling down which means I can start mailing chocolate bars out to my friends around the country which was the occasion for this today's 23 bar purchase.  Also now that my company has moved to a new location,  a new visiting season has started.  Nothing is more heart-welcoming than handing out chocolate bars.  ("Yet another picture of organized food," my husband quips. )

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

05 CNNP 7581 Brick vs. 07 Menghai Adorned in Red

If you are not a shu drinker and just want to get to the heart of the matter- I will sum up that 05 CNNP brick was too gnarly and the Menghai was respectable but failed to capture my heart.  Shu drinkers  read on.

This 05 CNNP brick sells for $8.5 at tuochatea so you can imagine how dirt cheap it must have been back in the day.  Actually you don't have to imagine because you can just take the way back machine to find that something similar was $5.90 for 4 bricks(a kilo) in 2006.

Even a wild tree brick was $5.90 per 4 pack kilo back in 2006. Who's enjoying such tea now I wonder.   I normally do not dabble in such shus but I had a cheap shu experiment in mind to determine if I could find a enjoyable cheap sub $10 shu.  

When I break off a piece this CNNP, it's all very flimsy and powdery and I'm having misgivings about even brewing it up let alone sending it down my gullet.   As I am currently suffering heartburn which I'm blaming squarely on this cheap shu- I try to think of situations where I would be desperate enough to drink this CNNP which is at least more potable than the Numi brick. My husband drank it without too much complaint. Me- I'd rather drink Lipton than this brick.  Here is square evidence that cheap bad shu does not improve into something worthwhile with age and I really wonder how or why I bought two bricks with such confidence. I have a Lucky 2006 7581 which now appears to be amazing next to this miscreant. Tuochatea says this brick is "based on 7581".

I was so distraught, I went straight into the arms of the lighter fermented 2007 Menghai Adorned in Red.  I sigh with relief at the smooth respectable taste of a high-end Menghai shu. But the CNNP put a shu curse on the night, I did not love this Menghai.  Actually I have many fine Menghai ripes such as the 06 Caravan to Tibet, 06 San Ji pu, 06 7452 and 06 7572 and I don't love them either so it's nothing unusual there.  

Thus far, the only cheap shu I have enjoyed is the 06 Dehong Plateau. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Finding Mr. Tong

Unlike some of you who might confidently purchase a tong of tea without batting an eyelash, I remain a one-of-everything postage collector.  I really do want to meet that one special sheng that I want to get a whole tong of.  At my rate of consumption, seven beengs in a tong means I'll probably drink it until the end of my days. I know I'm not marrying this tong but whoof- it's been much more difficult to find an ageable tea that really captures my heart than I originally thought it would be.

All my tea friends have been actively and perhaps even unknowingly playing matchmaker to find this Mr. Tong. You can see in the photo below that it can take years for me to even to seriously go through the candidates.  (But a pu-erh drinker can never have too many samples especially when one is trying to stick to a two month no-buy pact...)

Instead of storing samples by region or year, I reserve a special basswood box for each person. Ira represents the right half of this picture with two large boxes.  (You can click on the image to see the flickr original and hover click to see which boxes belong to each tea fellow.)  Each box represents unknowable hours of research  from the sender and surprisingly there is zero overlap even without explicit coordination.

Puerh collecting is one of the few unique hobbies where you can share so fully with another collector.   I appreciate how each box is a time capsule of that person's particular palate.   A majority of these samples come from the internet and many are no longer so readily available.  After being out of the scene for six years, I'm grateful to be able to makeup for lost time.

Multiple times a day I'll peer into each box selecting a tea to drink.  I enjoy imagining each person peering intently into their computer often late into the night studying reviews to make a purchase decision.  I like to figure out their collecting habits, which was their splurge purchase or impulse purchase.  Even if I don't find Mr. Tong, I'm ever grateful that I'm even able to try such a bewildering array of teas.  Thank you.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

2000 Fuhai Yiwu Yesheng Cha

Many times I drink pu-erh and I'll be indifferent to it's charms or lack thereof.  Sometimes I have to really make an unnatural effort to get into a tea. I have to bend my noodle to this way and that way, research the provenance of a tea,  and try to come up with reasons why I like or dislike a tea.  When a tea is just flat out boring, one can't bore readers with boring descriptions of boredom.

So today when I was trying out the mini-pot Emmett sent me,  I was surprised by the instant chemistry between me and this tea. I just liked it and really could not even think of reasons why.  But I didn't have to. Imbibing this tea brought instant relaxation. 
There's a blog I like called You Are Not So Smart which covers all manner of self-delusions. David McRaney, the blogger, writes that the actual reasons why we think we like something follows after we like them, not the other way around.  I.e. we are forever rationalizing why we like or dislike things but after we subconsciously have made up our minds about it.

I had put in Ira's sample mistaking it for the 05 Yiwu Zheng Shan Yesheng and found something different.  The aged taste is soothing and clean without any hint of trad-stored talcum powder taste.  Not too dry(XG Butterfly), not too wet (Hengli Chang Bulang),  this tea was just right.   

Despite it's Yiwu yesheng designation,  I could not detect any sort of Yiwu fruity delicacy or wild tree strength. Is it aging or the tea leaf being a blend?  It's not a complicated tea but it doesn't matter when you just want to wind down instantly.   It was a gift from Ira so I wonder if my mind will change about this tea if I knew how outrageously it was priced.    

Moving Non-Humorous Controversy to Teachat

To keep the tone of this blog congenial and focused on what I do love about tea, I thought I would start posting what I find egregious(and lacking a sufficient humorous angle) on teachat.  When I noticed something newly suspicious on Verdant Tea about a 2006 Tiandiren Bulang being too prohibitively expensive to import and will be offered only through their special Pu-er Reserve project,  I couldn't help but alert the public:

I was a bit surprised to see that my public service efforts against vendors who upcharge 900% have a backlash this month.
  • on teachat -  David Duckler has responded indicating that he will improve his transparency and include a $40 Fuhai.  Mentions he chose Star of Bulang because it had the closest flavor profile to a Yiwu. MarshalN responds with fact and reason. Verdant Tea's business manager Geoffery Reiff shows that the 2006 Tiandiren Bulang they carry is not the cheap $11 Bulang but a more expensive version  $33-$50.  If you consider a sub $50 beeng too prohibitively expensive to import, there's something wrong with the margins of your puerh business IMHO. 
  • on steepster - I wouldn't expect any less in Verdant Tea's strong hold where they miraculously dominate the top 7 spots for best puerh of all time.  Insult to injury, a supporter has reported me as being malicious for stating the plain fact that Yongming and Tiandiren are low-end factories producing budget cakes not worth $156. However she removes her insult laden post.
  • on redditSpoonvonstup- reviewer of 41 Verdant Teas on Steepster- has wagered -  "I'd eat both of my shoes if David ever tried to "pull a fast one" on anyone." Never addresses the core issue of Verdant Tea's massively overpriced cheap factory puerh.
  • on MarshalN- Bonnie, an ardent Verdant Tea supporter has shown up to take a stand against tea snobbery of those who find fault with Steepster or Verdant Tea's exorbitant pricing.
If people want to drink way over-priced low-end pu-erh and never really experience better teas for the same amount of money or much less- who am I to tell them otherwise. The two defenders are coming from a subjective emotional defensive angle and I don't want to touch that.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Metaphorical Fannings

Two lucky things happened to me today. I received a tiny teapot from Emmett along with Hoffman samples. (Korean-style grateful bow to Emmett.) It's been almost 6 years that I bought any yixing pots as I vowed to put an end to heartaches when I inevitably chip such delicate things. (I'll try extra hard Emmett!).  I'm not a, ahem ahem,  a compulsive teapot buyer and I don't want to start either because it could end up like this.  That is a serious fleet of teapots one can be proud of.  Probably my collection would not be as tasteful as MarshalN's as I'm a sucker for pumpkin and gourd pots liberally decorated with clay insects.

I often thumb through a fantastic photo book called Material World where they take photographs of average families around the world with all their possessions.  The man from Mali has little but he is smiling big because he has two wives.  The Kuwaiti family has perhaps the craziest ottoman sofa that is longer than the length of my house.

I often wonder if I should also take out all my tea stuff and take an honest candid photo. Nothing makes you confront exactly how much tea you do have. Ira once said to me, "You have a lot of tea". I got flustered and denied any such thing.  Compared to the "heavies", my tea load is light!  I think if I had to lift all the teas I owned, I could do it!  I think.

From my survey, you can see there's quite a few of you that probably could not pick up all your teas in one go.  If think if my house was burning, I would not bother taking tea at all. But there may be some of you who could not let some precious aged beengs burn.

On to my second lucky thing.  Earlier today, I looked out the window while interviewing a candidate and saw the Endeavour passing by from our new office. Actually the office was closed and only a few of us were there so it felt like a special treat.

We immediately ran to the veranda to see it loop back around. You can barely see a tiny dot near the American flag. The new digs have lovely views of the bay but much less shelf space.  I may have to make do with a simple tea tray and two teapots max.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Numi's Organic Puerh From 500 Year Old Trees

This morning, I had the surprise of my life. Puerh from 500 year old trees waiting at my desk!

"Numi's Organic Puerh comes from 500-year-old, wild, organic tea trees grown in China's pristine Yunnan Mountains."

Actually I almost fell out of my chair I burst out laughing so hard. You can see from the picture that these words refer to a rather humble shu brick.  How did I get my hot hands on such a brick? One of our I.T. guys casually mentioned that he was interested in puerh.  You can only imagine how my ears perked up.   He had his start with this Numi brick and I've vowed to introduce him to some proper pu-erh since.  We started easy last week with a mellow YS lao cha tou brick and an MGH shu brick.  He was kind and brave enough to bring his Numi brick in for me.

Numi - a San Francisco Bay Area tea company started by a brother and sister team, is known for their strong social values and commitment to community.  How is their pu-erh?

Drats. Am I the kind of guy that's going to diss tea from a feel-good fair trade organic tea company that provides jobs to the learning disabled?  Numi started a "Puerh to the People" marketing campaign and I'll all for pushing pu-erh to a wider audience.  But I think this brick may actually turn drinkers away.

I brewed it up tonight and as my husband says, "That's awful. That's just terrible. Throw that away."  I tried to take a few sips of all four brews but could not do much more. My top reasons why this Numi brick is not palatable:
  1. Leaves are so finely chopped(CTC style) and the compression so tight, you can't really rinse any of the wodui flavor out. So the resulting barnyard brew is quite frankly not something you want to drink. Probably they took whatever they were going to use for their bagged puerh teas and pressed it instead of pressing direct from leaf. 
  2. This here brick is a young 'un.  Shu needs a few years to mellow out.  Current year or even last year's shu is not really ready for drinking. Numi misleadingly calls this "Aged puerh tea brick".   The wodui cooking process of shu is not considered "aging". 
  3. The crashed high expectations promised by the "superior tasting tea"of a 500 year old tree adds to the bad flavor.  Note to marketing department- supply of maocha from such ancient trees is so tight that none ever end up in shu let alone mass market shus like this one. 
I am not a shu snob and I enjoy cheap shu quite regularly. I think the Numi people should definitely give Jim at Puershop a call and have him help press their bricks.  He sells a non-organic non-fair-trade but smoother and actually drinkable Menghai Lincang blend-  2010 MGH Brick for 6.95.  I'm not a fan of puerhshop since I spent $180 and was burned by their high end offerings.   However their American Hao brick is a good deal and tasty too - the only one of my purchases I didn't regret and wished I had one more of... You can tell from the image below that Jim manages to include golden bud tips.

It's not just about price but does fair trade organic tea company with a social mission have to resort to misleading marketing and sell an inferior product to boot?   I'm an enlightened Berkeley citizen and support no shortage of organic fair trade businesses.  I could have just ignored this tea as I've done on other shus.  But I want Numi to get honest feedback from actual puerh drinkers so they can improve on future teas.  Whole leaf pressing should be one place to start.  Currently, this brick does a disservice to the tea that we love and obsess about. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

teacloset Twitter Feed

Dear Readers,

I may be MIA for three weeks due to two back to back conferences and a company move. I tried my hand in composing some rather racy pu-erh limericks in advance for future posting but I'm afraid to drive away gentler readers with such low-brow humor.

As a courtesy to mobile readers and to those wishing to receive notification of new posts which may be less frequent,  I created a twitter account for the teacloset -

I also have a great many tea opinions that aren't formed enough to be a full-on blog post but worth a sweet tweet now and then.  You may find a new twitter gadget below the comments widget.

I didn't know it at the time when I took this aerial early this year but the Iranians have a hidden military base on Qeshm Island on the Straits of Hormuz.  Often with pu-erh, I feel I am looking at something directly but miss out due to inattention or the fact that I don't even know what I am looking for.  Of course you can only see so much from the surface.

I love pu-erh for a great many reasons but one of them is the tea's ability to bring contemplative mindfulness in a time of imbalance.  I guess I'm in serious need of such quietude now.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

06 Zhai Zi Po Ripe

Some of you who were buying back in 2006 may have your budget memories triggered by the sight of these Nanjian stags.  Cheap and probably cheerful, I remember Nanjian stuff going for so low(few bucks) that I didn't  buy them; it just didn't feel right to be paying more for shipping than actual tea.   Was Nanjian more like the $2.75 taco dinner I enjoy weekly at my tried and true taqueria that has not let me down even once in 10 years or was this brick just one more example of cheap factory floor tea better left in China?

This here brick is from Yun Zhou Tea Factory and Zhai Zi Po (寨子坡) is their brand.  Yun Zhou Tea Factory was once part of Nanjian three-way with Tulin. Although I perhaps erroneously associate the stags with Nanjian- Nanjian now uses the double phoenix logo as Yun Zhou Tea Factory is no longer part of that partnership.

The leaves hail from Yun Xian(云县) in Lincang noted for sweetness.  I bought my brick from Mandala Teas for $15 and it has now risen to $18.  That's a 20% return in two months- currently my best performing investment for Q2. This brick is a respectably interesting shu with a licorice mouthfeel and is much lighter than standard Menghai.  Predictably the leaves are a blend of heavily fermented shu with even lighter leaves holding onto a greenish tint.

Although lesser quality leaves are used for bricks than beengs and tuos, I've been enjoying shu bricks such as this one more than my high quality premium beengs. Larger leaves definitely bring a smoothness that is tolerant to overbrewing.  I'm always surprised such mass produced shu bricks can taste good at all and this one is worth having more of.  

Monday, September 17, 2012

Tea While Camping

Last weekend, I traded in my internet tea life for hanging about with cherished pork buddies around camp fires and the beach.  I was amongst coffee drinkers so I wanted to share something that would be toasty, malty, tolerant to overbrewing and generally enjoyable- a Wuliang dianhong fit the bill nicely.  

I boiled water in a copper pot on a tabletop range, brewed loose tea in a stainless steel creamer and then strained it with a mesh.  You could see I was going for unbreakable more than anything else. While my setup was functional enough, I could see more than one of you brewing gongfu style with a gaiwan even while camping.    

Since the beach required a fair hike, my fantasy of pu-erh at the beach had to be limited to a bagged Taetea shu that Wilson sent.   Even though my friend in the background is wearing shorts, it was freezing enough to wear both my duck down vest and a duck down overcoat.  So my uninsulated cup of hot water was just tepid by the time I brewed and the resulting tea was weak and  I randomly thought it was shu but Wilson tells me this is 6 year old raw! 

Now I'm even more sad I  squandered this precious bag.  I would be more than grateful if airlines started carrying it as one the their standard tea options.  I'm nigh regretful I didn't save this teabag for a conference I'm going to at the end of the month. ( I'm actually planning to go grandpa style with oolong since those conference tea amenities are never good for rinsing. I may alternatively whip out a flask of whiskey just to crack up my colleagues. )

Now that I've had a taste of loose tea in the great out doors, I want to make more of an effort to take tea outside either grandpa style or pre-brewed shu in a thermos.   My taste buds are not as sensitive outside most likely due to the sensory distractions but at the same time I appreciated these teas much more.   I've hatched all sorts of new plans. Pu while prancing in the woods? Pu while mushroom hunting? Pu during viewing of the Hobbit? You can see I did not take a break from tea this weekend but rather tea breaks.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Two Month No-Buy Pact

Wilson of the ever-cheerful Travelling Teapot has been ever-so gently trying to convince me that I need not buy so many teas. Ha! My husband has been trying for years without much success.  Wilson has four lovely daughters so he must have developed some extraordinary powers of persuasion.   Somehow his advice has wiggled into my psyche until I thought I had conceived of this sensible notion all by myself.  Probably publicly announcing that one won't buy any more tea for oneself for even two months (from the normal internet) is just setting yourself up for failure.  I've been tempted all week. Oh how sorely I have been tested.

Making such a pact is quite lonely and very hard to keep solo.  I've convinced someone else who shall remain nameless to join me.  I know quite a few people who could do with a respite. But I don't want anyone to blame me for missing out on the pu love of their life.

Vendors don't hate me...

Anyway it's quite clear as day to me that after buying 48 beengs this summer (to say nothing of the numerous bags of samples),  I really need to seriously start assessing these new teas and really understand where my true preferences lie. It doesn't seem real at all that I bought 48 beengs- some of them minis- only because I really don't feel passionate about any one of them.  Some of them are quite nice but not stellar and definitely not better than my old 06 collection. I cry because I spent under $2000 to figure this out.

Trading is a fantastic way to try more teas without triggering the hoarding impulse.  This tight little bundle arrived in the mail today from Wilson packed with Singaporean efficiency and precision. It was even shrink wrapped - my husband joked that by law all Singaporean households must own a shrink wrapper.  Each tea was double bagged and so perfectly fitted into this tin box that I actually could not figure out how to get them all back in.  I'll be beach camping for a few days and Wilson was prescient enough to include a TaeTae teabag.  I've no wi-fi access and I have to resort to looking at the Pacific ocean instead of hunting for tea on the internet which is my usual diversion.  Detox!

(But but- I really need to buy a gaiwan and a few teapots as I broke my favorite teapot last month and I've been limping along with toy teapots.  So this no-buy is for tea not teaware. But it's such a shame not to include a small packet of tea when the vendor I want to buy from carries so many teas. Slap slap slap! Just one more shipment, just one more... )

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

06 Douji Bada Qiaomu Wang

I know I should be getting ready for bed but I cannot resist cracking open the only Bada beeng I have in my collection- the 2006 Douji  巴达山 乔木 王.  I have many cakes yet that you have never seen deep deep inside my closet.

Unlike the Douji LBZ, I'm pretty sure this Douji is pure Menghai Bada since Bada teas weren't in hot demand back in 2006 - there was no reason to adulterate. Rather- Bada leaves are used for other Menghai blends. Besides the Hobbes driven anomaly,  Bada still is not a coveted mountain. You can easily get the fat 400 gram 2008 Menghai "Peacock of Bada" for $21 on YS and $22.95 on jas-etea while supplies last. Supplies have been holding I might add.

Is this Douji Bada Qiaomu Wang really plucked from the famous "Bada King of Tea Trees" - the 1700 year old wild tree on Bada's Dahei Mountain near Hesong Village? Photos from chawangpu show unsightly barbed wire fence around the Bada King. That is no way to treat a tree of kingly designation. I don't think even one or two ceremonial king leaves are thrown in this beeng for Douji to rightly plaster 王 on the wrapper.  My thoroughly commoner palate could not detect any particular kingly material and I think Douji is using 王 rather figuratively.

There's been some discussion on T as to how tea from Bada mountain will age.  I have two reference points. The first is a Hong Kong stored 2003 SunSing Bada that I liked more than the Hengli Chang as it was a little less muffy and much less bitter than a Bulang.  Due to my wet storage prejudice, I probably won't part my money with such an example. I guess if I was really invested in Bada, I might checkout the 1999 Bada sample from Bana.  Let us see how this second 2006 example performs.

Even before I even take a sip, I get a whiff of pure sugar from the steam.  Even as a six year old- this tea tastes quite lively and young. Translation- this tea still burns my insides as it goes down but I march on. After a few sips you get a pleasant sweetness on the tongue. The bitterness is entirely palatable.   Definitely a pleasant fruity sweet enjoyable tea judging from the first two brews. Then it hits me- what am I doing drinking sheng so late in the night. Crazy guy... I shake my head and prepare for bed disappointed in my lack of tea common sense.

You can see I've been quite liberal giving chunks of this Bada away as I thought it was something easy to enjoy. I don't have any other young bada examples yet to say how this compares but on first impression it's a likable fruity cake.  I'm not jumping up and down to get more though.  How I wish I can confidently buy a tong of something, anything...

Monday, September 10, 2012

Midnight Shots of the 05 CGHT

Last Sunday night I had every intention of tucking into bed at ten in preparation for the coming Monday work day, yet I found myself curiously hunched over my desk attempting microphotography of the corked 2005 CGHT way past midnight under the worst of lighting conditions.  

Ira had written to let me know she retasted her beeng side by side with a piece of MarshalN's sample I had given her. She found her beeng even after initial airing to be still "really gross". Can I visually detect this "gross" flavor with a $3.50 microscope? MarshalN said I should see spores or "little plants" if there is mold (not a definitive indicator for grossness).  I might simply need a higher power microscope than this budget 40x. 

Actually, this late at night- it's just mesmerizing peeping in on tea leaves and I'm really taking portraiture. These are just another alternative to the beeng and leaf shot and I will need a good repository of such photos to even gather patterns.  For now, I'm just  trying to get the weirdest furriest shots possible. The bottom right looks like a worn out footpad of a bear.   

A casual blogger like me is faced with a choice- write more frequently compromising quality or produce more slowly giving the posts the loving craft that it needs.   I can't take the Hobbes haiku route since my poetry takes even longer to produce.  So I may from time to time just resort to micro-photography.  

Sketching was another avenue I considered but I'm a slow sketcher too. I took this sketch from the San Diego Zoo of koalas sleeping.  I put it in just so I'll go to bed now. Good night- I am totally going to sleep early tonight!  

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Mr. Gao's Yi Bang from Tea Urchin

(Dear Reader,  As this is anniversary weekend for me and I have to type out a post rather hastily past midnight, please excuse any inconsistencies.)

I had been fiddling with my shopping cart on Tea Urchin for months now.  Due to the hefty baseline of $20 shipping, I wasn't sure if I should gamble to get an entire beeng or go with all samples.  But this Friday, I didn't have to make any decisions because - well you guessed it - Ira provided my first introduction to Tea Urchin's offerings.   She graciously invited me to her immaculate home for water experiments with tetsubin pots following MarshalN's water post which has similarly stimulated other drinkers to go forth and experiment.

We spent a pleasurable six hours brewing four teas.  I didn't even know six hours had passed until my husband anxiously called wondering what had happened to me.  I had fallen in a tea time warp and probably could have gone on indefinitely with Ira.  More important than the tea itself,  it is a true luxury for me to be able to meet up with a tea friend like Ira- we can shamelessly go on and on obsessing about minute trivial pu-erh details and be both totally into it! She knew the way into my heart not only by tea- she fed me tasty pork ribs and some of the most delicate cigar cookies I've enjoyed in a long while.  I had to really control myself not to gobble them up while she left the table briefly.

All four teas merit their own post but the Yi Bang really stood out for me as a singular experience which pushed my pu-erh palate into new territory.  This Yibang is a unique savoury tea like no other I've tasted thus far. It is all umami- I would not be surprised if this tea has the highest concentration of glutamates to be found in tea anywhere

Initially I had trouble with the slightly brackish fishy flavor of the tea, very much like the scent of pickleweed fields in the bay or a bonito broth.  We didn't get any huigan during the first few brews but when Ira provided us cups of just plain water to sip between brews, we taste an intense raw cane sugar juice sweetness which mounts after each brewing.  Even though Ira is quite humble about her knowledge, she's already taught me quite a few things about vintage tetsubin pots and water sipping between brews.

We also notice the water from her tetsubin pot is definitely far sweeter, fuller, smoother, and more rounded out than the tap water in the electric kettle which tastes markedly thin in comparison. I vow to keep my eye out for such a kettle on ebay although I fear getting re-addicted to trolling ebay for hidden treasures.  I could just pay up on hojotea on any one of their lovely high-end kettles but I'd be depriving myself of that special pride of bargain hunting prowess every time I boiled water in it.  I think getting into tea accoutrements is a danger all in itself and I've always tried to spend money on tea rather than teapots. But a proper iron kettle I see now is worth the investment. I've had some modern disappointments in decades past but I didn't know much fifteen years ago.

Back to the tea- is this savoriness in the tea the work of Mr. Gao or is it a regional hallmark of Yibang or does it only exist in my head?  In wine,  the vinter's handiwork is critical to the finished product more so in bad wet years.  In pu-erh processing, the quality of the leaf dominates the end product. However in autumnal productions, the skill of how shaqing (kill green) step is performed is critical in bringing out the intensity of the tea without burning the leaves.  I've been avoiding autumnal productions due to some weak examples I suffered back in 2006 but this autumnal beeng is unique enough that I'm game to try more.  Surely the quality of this tea must attributed to the able hand of Mr. Gao who is shown dry frying the wok with his bare hands.

Ira did not get the same impression of this tea and when I try to read other reviewers, Eric's discipleofthetealeaf post and Hobbes, I'm surprised to find very different flavor notes which don't match my own.  I should stop writing flavor reviews altogether.  The brackish savoriness of this Yibang broth is not yet to my immediate personal preference but I want to taste this this tea or something like it every few years to refresh by palate memory.  I'm quite curious how such a tea would age and I would include a new sample in my order.

Ira again sent me away with mind-bogglingly generous bagfuls of tea including a 1960s Dan Cong and a slew of Da Hong Paos amongst some pu-erh I cannot buy easily on the internet.   I should not be buying any tea at all for a few months to do justice to her  samples. 

Friday, September 07, 2012

Tea Inventory

Sooner or later, you'll have amassed enough tea that you can't reliably remember what you have-  let alone the provenance and production details of each tea.  When you collect pu-erh, you're in it for the long haul. Without written records, will you really remember with accuracy all the various Bulangs you bought twenty five years ago?  Your aging wetware compounded with an ever expanding tea collection can be aided by something as simple as an excel spreadsheet. (Warning- wetware does not refer to porous teaware like yixing.)

I use a general inventory program on my tablet constantly and it's relieved me of a significant burden.  My memory banks are rather full with non-tea matters so I try not to commit to memory anything which can be easily referenced.

I've tried various on-line inventory methods over the years but finally have settled on an inadequate iPad program called Itemizer. I use a more fully featured program called MyStuff2 which I love for book and media inventory.  Sadly it suffers from performance problems handling too many image files and hence is not yet ready to be used for tea.

I wouldn't recommend Itemizer but even with all it's shortcomings, I refer to it constantly due to the simple fact that it's so readily available on my  tablet. What does one do with a pu-erh inventory on a daily basis?
  1. House Tea Menu.  Figure out what tea's to drink that day.  I have over 50 shu's alone and so picking out a selection takes some browsing.  Normally I'll sort by tea type, region or year.
  2. Tea Purchase Reference. Before I buy tea I make sure I don't have something too similar and will do a price comparison analysis.
  3. Figure out gaps in my collection for regions, vintages and factories.
  4. For tea trade, figure out which teas to send out as samples.
  5. Figure out how much money I've spent on certain tea categories. Since I have an exact figure, I can't fool myself.  
  6. Stare at it to make sure I understand I have too much tea and should not be buying anymore...
  7. But then feel good that I bought most of the tea for cheap by today's standards and hence should be buying more tea with the "investment earnings"
The screenshot above show shu's which I procured in 2006-2007.  You can see that I spent $146 on seven 2006 shu beengs. I paid dearly for most of them during the 2007 bubble with sheer bad timing. In 2006,  Menghai shus were ten dollars or less and I couldn't be bothered with drinking them at all. I bought the Menghai Caravan To Tibet for $14.89 for the hype- $15 was expensive for a shu in 2006. 

At one time in 2006, bearsbearsbears decided he wasn't a shu kind of guy and he sold off his entire shu collection on livejournal. I think he had been grossed out first-hand in Yunnan by the insanitary conditions under which fermentation is conducted.  I similarly thought shu was disgusting back then and didn't jump at that once-in-a-life golden opportunity.  Of course I have forever regretted not relieving Jason of his goodies. 

All the categories and fields are customizable and so I have entry fields like "Husband Rating" to  denote teas he particularly liked.  Even with my efforts, I still find tea hiding in various corners of the house that I vow to register before the new year.  I can see some reader's shuddering at the obsessiveness of this kind of record-keeping.  The data entry is tedious but it's fun swiping your finger through the collection contemplating which teas to drink on the subway ride home from a long day's work.   

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Bus Ride to Yiwu

This Monday, I brewed up 90's Yiwu from Hoffman sent to me by Emmett in an effort to get a better grip on dry storage. For those of you who are aspiring to age sheng in the dryer colder climes of the world,  it helps to know how you will like the taste of such dry-stored tea. If you don't and you have tongs of it, don't worry.  You'll grow to like it.  Dealing with such cognitive dissonance is one of the our most useful and necessary defense mechanisms not only as a tea drinker but as a generally well-functioning human being.   MarshalN has mentioned that my teas are aging very very slowly but I take comfort that my beengs are not dead. It's the start of foggy season in the Bay Area which means I'm cheered up every morning to see my hygrometer register 60% inside my tea closet.  Delusions make life more palatable and I'm solidly clinging onto the notion that DIY aging in Berkeley will turn out.

When I brew up the Hoffman Yiwu which must have spent the latter part of it's life in Hoffman's Marin cave, I'm surprised how young it tastes and how long my own teas will have to go. Then I notice  this sample tastes like a blend.  The fruity notes of Yiwu are accompanied by a plantation roughness which recedes after subsequent brews.  By the sixth brew, the lesser leaves turn sweet or have toned down.  The web lore has us believe that pure mountain cakes were kind of rare and blends tended to be the norm before this century so it makes sense this nineties cake is a blend.  According to this informative bannacha article, the Yao minority who live in the wilder parts of Yiwu cut most of their ancient tea gardens to grow rice as recent as fifteen years ago as price for their tea had been dirt cheap.  What regret.

I'll take the HLH Yiwu Chawang as a benchmark for readily available pure Yiwu.  And out of curiosity, I brew up the 2012 YS Gao Shan Zhai which was an enjoyable session but now I don't remember much other than marveling that good quality Yiwu's don't bother my stomach as much.  I wonder how this Hoffman's cake compares with other Yiwu blends. A friend brought me a cheap cheap tong of 6 FTM blends which I have never touched but tonight's the night to crack open the Spirit of Yiwu blend to see how Hoffman's supposed Yiwu fares.

I've held a low low opinion of 6 FTM ever since the 2005 Year of the Rooster Cake.  That astringent smoky production probably  accelerated if not triggered the start of my sheng problems.  My friend got this 2005 6 FTM Yiwu Yinji blend at Meliandao for less than $4 so I was expecting a flabby barely Yiwu experience.  But instead I get a decent Yiwu sweetness. Not too complex but fantastic for a $4 beeng. Probably in 2005, 6 FTM could still source decent maocha. I dare not buy any new 6 FTM now even for cheap.

Let's take stock of the rides I had to Yiwu. At the top end, a deluxe 4x4 limo service took me to a half- day tour of the highlights of Yiwu.  Like such high-end luxury tours, that HLH was definitely overpriced.   At the bottom end, a bus ride dropped me off on the outskirts of Mahei.  Another was an old school communist van tour packed with some frowning lao tong zhis.  But I still managed to get to some part of Yiwu and enjoy the views. Even if I can a afford nicer ride, it's fun to see what the local bus action is all about. There's uncomfortable sardine packed bus rides of the South American and Indian variety, but this FTM Yiwu but is more like a country Korean bus, roomy and not a bad way to travel for cheap.  I've read repeatedly that early few years of FTM production were of decent quality. Probably 2004-2005 is some cutoff point.

Are boutique productions always superior to mass produced beengs from big factories.  It's mostly true when there's a steep cost differential. A $4-$15 beeng cannot compete fairly with a hand-crafted $200 beeng. You can watch the 6FTM company production video here to see how such low grade industrial beengs are made.  I've ripped the most interesting shots below in case you cannot tolerate the brutal dramatic soundtrack or the terrible buffering from China.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

90's Menghai Under The Microscope

A week ago I had been planning to treat myself to a USB microscope for about $70-100 when I found this tiny thing on Amazon for $3.50 including shipping from Hong Kong. I read people had clipped it onto their iphones to take some budget microphotography. I'm totally into $3.50! I added brass coinage from Emperor Chi'ien Lung's reign as reference for size- if not for value.

I hunch over my desk tonight for an hour fiddling and taking dozens of blurry photos. I'm using my ipad camera even if it's woefully inadequate because I can upload direct to flickr and that counts for a lot. I may try a real camera this weekend.

I whipped out the sample of the 90's Menghai 8972(which I dubbed dry and dreadful) too see if a peek under a cheap ass microscope can shed any light.  Are the white spots mold or the bloom- a crystallization of the oils in the leaf also found in cigars.  I don't see filaments so I'll go for crystallization.  The hairiness is a bit scary looking- like spider legs.

Not bad for $3.50 but not great either.  I have a dear friend in drosophila research who has access to a two-photon microscope well as other powerful equipment for doing microsurgery on fly brains. Alas she lives in San Diego. 

Peering under a microscope tonight does nothing to solve the conundrum on why this tea was so bad. But I don't know what I'm looking for yet as this is my first peek but I have all sorts of grand plans for this little magnifier. 

Monday, September 03, 2012

A Pu-erh Beginner Syllabus

I've been trying to formalize what it is I'm trying to learn and understand about pu-erh. I'm in pursuit of intangible knowledge such as understanding what is great tea. However like in any discipline, there's a rather straight forward list of introductory topics and exercises to get a beginner grounded.   Feel free to chime in and I'll amend this list.  (I can see some Europeans shaking their heads muttering American's are so goal oriented...)

I've left out other important aspects to pu-erh - gong fu brewing, pottery, and history more for simplicity than anything-else.  

Clueless Beginner 
  • Can tell young shu from young sheng by sight and taste.
  • Tasted tea from the Six Famous Mountain regions(Yiwu, Bulang, Nannuo, Jingmai...) 
  • Tasted big factory blends, Menghai, XG, Haiwan
  • Tasted small press wild tree, wild arbor cakes
  • Experienced huigan
  • Some understanding of terms such as huigan, kuwei, shicang, wodui
Intermediate Beginner
  • Experienced and understand which teas have good huigan, huitian, hongyun
  • Tasted most famous regions and subregions and and understand their regional characteristics 
  • Have tried sufficient aged samples 
    • Can detect shicang from scent and taste.
    • Can identify the degree of wet storage from taste 
    • Can tell between aged sheng vs aged shu by taste
  • Producers
    • Know most major factories and their characteristics
    • Know characteristics of different factory recipes
    • Know most significant boutique producers and their characteristics 
  • Recognizes most Chinese characters off wrappers
  • Have read and reread every entry in chadao,, half dipper.
  • Purchasing Prowess
    • Knows how to buy good stuff and not get ripped off.
    • Know how to buy good stuff off of Taobao 
    • Can hone in on the best deal in Yunnan Sourcing's 1000 pu-erh listing in under an hour.
Advanced Beginner
  • Can taste difference between wild tree vs. plantation
  • Can differentiate single mountain characteristics in a blend 
  • Can gauge age of tea by taste
  • Know what mold is safe to drink  
  • Understand what types of cakes will age well from experience

Sigh.  Like a seasoned yixing pot, will I ever get to a stage where I can invoke huigan just by visualizing the leaves?

This stuffed pomelo purported to be from 1993 was one of my first pu-erh purchases made back in 2004.  I didn't even know such a thing as shu or sheng existed back then and I was more than happy to fork over money for the most fragrant and strange tea I had ever laid eyes on. Despite the fact that I overpaid and this isn't the best example of it's kind, this tea really brightened up a dreary winter.     

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Stone Face of Menghai 8972 Circa 1990

Nick Herman recommended I give the "90's Menghai" a try after the XG Butterfly fiasco.  Who happened to leave me just another shiny mylar packet labeled "Circa 1990 Menghai 8972" for me last week. The incomparable Ira!

I gave this tea a go this morning without reading anything about it because a blank mind is an open mind.  I really really triple really wanted to love this tea for no shortage or reasons:
  • I'm a tea lover.  It sucks for me as much as it does for anyone when teas don't measure up.
  • Ira left if for me as a gift - I don't want to be the ungrateful teachum that I am.
  • I felt bad I dissed Nick's beloved Butterfly tuo.  It was like trash talking his girlfriend.   I don't wan't to do it again.
  • Ginkgo seems a sincere vendor who specializes in dry stored aged pu-erh providing samples at a reasonable price. Such vendors should be heartily supported.
  • I don't want to end up as yet another tea controversy link on teachat. But there's no avoiding that today. 
  • I'm looking to add good aged pu to my collection.  If I love it, I can get my grubby hands on more with just a credit card. I don't want to have to go to Hong Kong and Malaysia just to buy tea.
So I snipped open the package hoping for the best. I sniff a dry aged sheng smell but I also get a whiff of the faintest barest hint of something- wet storage or even wodui?

I was expecting aged sheng because the leaves look dark greenish despite the unnatural darkness of the photo above. But it just brews up just too dark and it doesn't taste all like aged sheng nor does it taste all like shu.  A peek inside the teapot quickly shows dark and light leaves. A blend then.  It makes complete sense as I drink it.  The cooked part of this tea is much more obvious and dominates as it cools. The shu taste is undeniable when this tea is cold.

I get to 8+ brews without this brick giving up it's drying astringency.  The mouth drying power of this is brick so formidable,  I vow to pre-buy some of this 8972 as a natural remedy for when I need to control my drooling in my nineties.  Hopefully I'll be spared such indignities of age but it's always good to be prepared.

In the ninth brew I sense a mouth coating.  I hesitate to call it a creamy mouth feel- more like skim milk which is not entirely pleasant.  I'm trying hard to find the best qualities of this tea and I'm coming up short again and again.  I just can't do it. I go on line to find what other's have appreciated.

It's beyond relief to find Jason's review from the hey day of pu-erh at live journal:
"Please don't let this be what I have to look forward to when I taste my cakes years from now. *panic attack* If this brick is indeed uncooked, this is possibly the worst I have ever had. The milkiness really made this experience a nasty one.'
Whew, I'm not an unreasonable suspicious crank! Jason is talking about a Hou De version of this 8972.  Even in bear's time there was great controversy over whether it was all cooked or a blend. You can see below this cake holds at least three different ages of leaves.  I apply the test I learned from bearsbearsbears himself and sure enough it doesn't take much to rub some of the darker leaves to make them fall apart.  The really black leaves are rubbery. The greenish leaves hold their form when rubbed. 

Personally I would judge it a blend and definitely not a pure aged sheng as the vendor advertises.  But this brick's composition doesn't matter to me because I find it dreadful all the same.  Even if it was a blend, I would shell out $120 for this brick if I liked it even a little because decent aged stuff is hard to come by in the West.

There you have it. So sorry to Gingko, Ira, and above all to Nick. Yet another extra dry-stored aged tea that I just could not appreciate. The sample is only $6 which is a good introductory price- I only used $1.75's worth today and left the rest for Ira.  Even though this cake tastes extremely dry-stored now, I saw some white mold spots here and there which may indicate some "humid" storage early in it's life.  I don't mind a little traditional storage when it enhances the flavor but this here brick tastes too dry even for the likes of me. Is it over dry storage which ruined this tea or was it not very good to begin with? Jason's version which appears to be less dry-stored actually match my impressions which would indicate that the tea itself is at fault.

There's even a 2007 discussion even where the age of this brick is under suspicion
"8972, from sources, was first seen in the market around 98-99, using leaves harvested and processed in 96. There were around 4 productions of this brick, the last in around 2002.

All productions vary in fragrance and flavor for one unstable variable in the production of this brick - mist. Unlike conventional cooked puer that are fermented using measured amount of water sprinkled on to the tea pile, this was fermented by spraying mist over the tea pile, which made the fermentation uneven, hence the cooked & uncooked leaves that one finds.

There were rumours that some of these 8972 bricks were kept in high humidity environment (or wet storage) to speed up its ageing process, after the bricks were produced. Otherwise, those that were not kept in such environment turned out quite nicely."

For me,  none of this matters because it's about the actual tea in the end. Even if it were misted and was amazing, I'd take it all the same.  Sadly, it's just dry and dreadful and I'm grumpy all day.

(My husband and I used to patronize an Indian restaurant many years ago. The proprietress who would always take our order always had a severe tight drawn face which made me feel relieved when she left our table.  Her husband was a much much older man and she had two young children that could often be seen doing their homework at a nearby table.  My husband called her "Stone Face" and it became a code word for people who never cracked a smile.

Many years later, my husband and I were soaking in the YMCA hot tub when he kept giving me the eye.  Then he whispered as loud as he could, "Stone face.  That's stone face!" A woman had entered the tub with a much younger man and they were both laughing and smiling and having a lovely time.  I just could not believe it.   "No." I kept shaking my head. "No, that can't be her."  But she caught me staring and I knew.

Perhaps this ~1990 8972 also needs a much younger man to coax it out of it's severity.   Perhaps Nick Herman, if he did enjoy this sample, may have enjoyed a radically different experience than mine..)