Thursday, December 25, 2014

KDrama Puerh

Somehow over the holidays I got sucked into the black hole which is Korean drama.  I don't own a television not due to any sense of superior virtue but because I know I lack self control.  In this dangerous age of VOD, you can find yourself binge watching on a tablet until wee hours in the morning when the right drama catches your fancy.  Imagine my surprise to see puerh being part of the plot.

The actor below is a crooked head of a baking conglomerate calmly enjoying the puerh he won at an auction as his daughter-in-law is being arrested after he carefully framed her for fraud.   The character mentions the excellent tea fragrance so it's definitely not a shu nor a wet stored wonder.  I have to ding the set designers for not brewing real tea leaves as it looked more like herbal dried citron tea than aged sheng.

This MBS drama- the Legendary Witch- is a twisted tale of four women sharing a room in prison who end up starting a bakery together.  When you get a mention on a major network kdrama, it means you've made it big in Korea.  My mother tells me that puerh is considered a premium tea in Korea and has made a showing on other dramas being served to powerful men.  Maybe there will finally be a tea based drama.

Friday, December 19, 2014

04 Chen's Teapot Ancient Tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Holiday Tea

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

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

Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Same Tea Different on a Different Coast

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Brewing Weak Tea Weakly - 03 Not Menghai Yiwu Big Tree

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Yiwu Alternatives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Searching For Lift

When I seek out new puerh, I'm constantly searching for a characteristic I call "lift".  At it's most magical,   it's a tea that will crack open the mundane weary human condition to give you a heady rush of mentally flying.  But I'm happy to encounter even a thimbleful of lift which at it's most basic is just a small party in the mouth- not unlike a spoonful of brandy splashed into the jam I spread on my morning toast.

I was trying my durnedest to enjoy the white tuo last week but it was just stuck in the mud - no lift... the larger leaves having too much carbon tasted overwhelmingly of graphite lead.  I immediately brew up the 06 7542 and even the humble lift on this lightly fermented shu is immediately obvious- high notes add an extra lively vibrancy that makes you want to sip more.  I'm going to leave this tuo a few months more to rest and if it doesn't come alive by then, I might have to put it up for adoption.

So today I geared up for my weekend morning fix.  Every Saturday morning I block out four hours for tea while my husband is away at class.  I don't eat until I get tea satisfied.  When I don't get a fix within the first two hours, I have to end with a tea that consistently provides some lift so I can eat breakfast and avoid a low blood sugar crash.  A decent quality Yiwu easily provides enough lift and so I declare defeat for my five other teas and end with a 2001 Jin Chang Hao that Israel sent me.  It's a lady tea that's pretty in the mouth- though not pretty enough to make grown men giggle like other younger Yiwus. But it's enough lift so I can now head to the post office and start my day.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

2015 Tea Blogging Hiatus Warning

Dear Readers- this is the teacloset's 278th post.  I've quadruple said anything I could possibly say on tea matters.  I hardly like most of the teas I encounter and readers don't read this blog to be led to better teas.  I write only because we are creatures of habit and we just like the story to continue on somehow.  I'm amazed that real puerh knowledge is still scant and we are still pecking around for crumbs in the dark.

The puerh tea blogging community is in yet another state of transition with many old-time bloggers decelerating or falling silent. Hobbes and MarshalN are finally sputtering.  Puerh on teachat is a ghost town, B&B is a Shah soliloquy,  reddit is more of a vendor space.  But new comers like teadb and cwyn have entered to continue on the puerh blogging line and hopefully there will always be someone holding a welcoming torch for new comers.

When I restarted blogging in the spring of 2012, I began with reflections on what little I did know after a 5 year hiatus.   After a flurry of tea activity in the last two years, I turn around and again wonder what did I learn if anything.  I can summarize my hard-earned puerh nuggets in less than half a page:
  1. Dry home storage - you can do damage to sheng by storing it in overly dry and cold conditions. Had I tasted a few 10 year old Bay Area dry stored tea in 2006, I might not have bought newborns with such abandon. I actually did not like aged tea back then and I wanted my teas to stay young. However, the flattening out and muting of my once vibrant cakes is a sad thing to see.  If you live in dry climes,  youngish sheng that has been humid stored for a few years might not be a bad way to go. 
  2. Pumidors in home storage - mucking about with complex humidity schemes can easily lead to unwanted mold problems. But you need not pitch teas for a bit of white mold.
  3. Second guessing yourself - our taste buds are fickle enough that you won't know what you may or may not like a few years from now much less decades from now. It's good to keep your options open. Get fewer teas of higher quality and you can always trade with others later on.
  4. Making up your own mind - there is a lot of opinions and when they form a chorus it might convince you your own instincts are mistaken. Always remember it is you drinking the tea.  
  5. Mediocre tea - most of what you will buy on the internet will be quite mediocre. But just because you don't live in Asia and don't have the funds does not mean you cannot heartily enjoy this mediocre tea.  Just don't overpay and don't let the tea snobs get you down.
  6. Young sheng and health - I know so many who have stomach trouble after over indulging in young sheng. Just because other people are flaunting their daily Bulang sheng intake does not mean you can too.  Don't take unnecessary risks- you have only one stomach and the damage can be cumulative.
I'll do a few more posts before I shutter up the boards this year.  If anyone is interested in any particularly last topic from the teacloset, please post a request.   No promises but I'll try my best.

In another five years, I may have another blogging surge as it will be when the bulk of my cakes will putatively start to come of age.  Until then, take care of yourselves and your precious tea stash.

Yours Truly,

Friday, November 28, 2014

Taco Tea Series 1 - 05 Yiwu Song Pin Xing

Back when the Yiwu Zhengshan Tea Company was getting off the ground, they first printed under the Yi Cheng(易盛) brand as well as the more obscure Song Pin Xing(宋聘興) label before they launched the wildly successful premium Douji brand in 2006.  Song Pin Xing appears to have had just a short one year run in 2005.  This wrapper looks similar to the Yi Cheng(易盛) which had been more readily available on the internet in years past- a frenzy started between MarshalN/Hobbes when they were still collaboratingto help us find better teas.

If you are a Douji fan and have never seen this one before, don't get too hot and bothered. There's good reason why I consider this a taco tea.  Seeing as how many times Yiwu Zhengshan is slathered on the wrapper,  is this round cake way more Yiwu than the Yi Cheng?  Lets brew!

This red label being an autumnal production is not the most captivating Yiwu to be had.  How do I know it's guhua?  My test involves popping most of the stems apart afterwards- fibrous stems are a sure sign as spring productions are much more juicy and give with out much effort.  Actually you can tell how woody the stems are on the raw cake without having to brew it up. The muted taste and weaker huigan of course complete the picture but I've also got that extra dry storage thing going on... But if you've got a sheng intolerance and you can glug it down, it's gotta be autumnal.

By Douji standards, these leaves are a mess. There's more burnt black edges and stems. Compared to the '05 Yiwu Montain Bamboo, these leaves went through some rough handling.

This Song Pin Xing entered my house summer of 2006 having been procured by a friend in Meliandao for about 10 bucks.   I would have preferred the spring pick purple label but beggars can't be choosers.  I know you youngsters absolutely hate it when I keep repeating that sodas were just a nickel back in the day.  Ironically back in 2006, on a Sanzui post on this particular tea, a forum member called this an expensive tea for 70 yuan(!).

Regardless of what these teas have become due to label and age premiums,   I relegate this particular Yiwu in my pile of taco teas- tasty enough for the cost.  It's mild enough that I can enjoy it anytime as my budget Yiwu option.  If I had paid today's high price on this baby, I'd be disappointed. But at $10, it's all good.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Following the Crowd

I went through a twenty day cycle of embracing weak teas and I snagged a few shengs that would be gentler on my body- a Guangzhou stored 2006 Changtai 65th Anniversary Ancient Tree and a 2005 Mengku Spring Tips.  Actually, Red Lantern Tea kindly sent me the 65 gratis after the unfortunate feather incident. They are both amiable easy teas.  The Changtai is not unlike the Douji Dayeqingbing full of long stemmed mature leaves. "Ancient tree" probably indicates older plantation and the mostly large leaves have no bites left.  However, they are both refreshing and probably can be served to unsuspecting lucha drinkers.   The two teas pose very little burden on the body but when you get what you want, it's not exactly what you wanted at all.

In a fit of feeling sorry for myself that I was stuck with such wussy teas, I swung the other direction and bought four samples from white2tea which arrived Monday.  My husband who has a cold and can barely smell gave me the hairy eyeball for having the radioactive White Whale(still inside an open plastic bag) on our breakfast table yesterday morning.  When wet stored cakes arrive in a plastic bag- you need to give 'em a few days or weeks to breathe out as the storage aroma intensifies into something more shocking during the journey from China.

This morning after a night of coughing fits,  I'm slightly delirious but want to brew up.  I only have myself to blame for getting this sick. My husband kept offering me preventative zinc and elderberry tablets all weekend and because the zinc completely numbs the palate and I wanted to taste my teas, I refused what was good for me.  Now that I'm sick, I can't taste that much.

The sheepish whale on the wrapping can win any frosty heart including mine.  This mini brick is cute enough for any Japanese school girl but not for what lurks beneath.  First off this little guy is tight- XG tight.  It does not want to give it up. It feels slightly wrong to be wrangling such a tiny brick as I hear tiny squeaks of "No don't hurt me!"  I'm only able to flake off mouse nibble bits for a tiny pot brew.

Man is this tea bitter. I like dandelion greens bitter not arsenic bitter.  I had resisted putting in an order to white2tea mainly because of Hobbes.  The man tends to like strong punchy bitter teas. He also likes 'em drank(dank and rank) and sweaty.  While reading about them is great fun, my unwilling stomach cowers before such leaf.  Cwyn did warned me but the WW is a tolerable stomach burner.  

Am I that "empty husk of a man subsisting on hatred and bitterness alone" that can't quite enjoy this tea?  Me? Drats. The overriding bitterness with the not entirely desirable storage taste coating my upper palate puts me on the fence.  I may or may not like it better after I give it a week to air out more and my proper palate returns after I rid of this dreadful cold.  Plenty of others will champion this tea and so Paul will need not worry about one oddly picky reviewer.  (Sorry Paul...) I look forward to brewing up the other white2tea samples and his Yiwu was quite lovely and worth getting if not for my budget minded ways. 

The White Whale is one of the must-try aged samples like the Hengli Chang just to get a sense of reference points for other bloggers.  You can predict with micrometer accuracy what MarshalN will say of this White Whale.  Nobody fork it over to him- I don't want us to get yet another brow beating.

Can a true tea wraith get joy out of looking at such cupcakes? Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Cheap Taco Syndrome and the Trouble with Expensive Sheng

I love Mexican food and eat tacos at least twice a week if not more. At the low end, there is the truck taco selling for less than $2 a taco. Because of the genre as a fast food- there is a 3x price ceiling on tacos and $12 is really as much as you can charge for plate of 2 tacos in the Bay Area.  At the higher end, I enjoyed two calamari tacos for $12 at Padrecito in Cole Valley where probably 75% went straight into to paying their exhorbitant SF rent.   Although a taco truck might employ lesser grades of meat,  even a truck taco is highly satisfying and quite tasty.

I eat out several hundred times a year from $4~$75 per head but because cheap tacos are so satisfying, it's becoming harder for me to enjoy expensive dinners.  I've had many a meal this year at $40+ that was only a hair better than my usual neighborhood $3.75 taco on a hand made tortilla. In hind sight I would have done better to save those thousands of dollars for tea. 

This kind of cost analysis is constantly disrupting my tea sessions since my tea closet if full of cheap taco tea.  Today I tried to enjoy an expensive aged Yiwu and it was good- the huigan lasted over an hour.   But because it was the most expensive Yiwu I've sampled,  my expectations cast a shadow over the brewing.  At a certain price point, i.e. over $300 a beeng,  I wrongly expect miracles in the mouth.  I am not the person to drop thousands on a beeng although I might drop a hundo on the right sample.  The current price of serious aged teas is such that it's an extravagant luxury in the province of rich businessmen.   Really, I don't mind drinking my less than stellar genres of tea which are often times as satisfying as the best tacos.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

90s XG Tuo And The Triangle Theory of Shengpu Premiums

In my younger days, Hugo my indomitable father would try to impress upon me various life lessons with a diagram only an ex-military economist could draw.  Foremost was Hugo's triangle theory of life where one's life was principally composed of
  • intellectual side- including work life
  • emotional side- love, friendship, family life, home life
  • muscle side
You had to secure at least two sides out of three before your life got wobbly and fell over.  Hugo has squeezed my unsuspecting husband's biceps and chided my man for neglecting his muscle side.   There was a time when all three sides of my life were teetering and my life did predictably fall to utter chaos.  The triangle pattern runs deep in my psyche for all sorts of things so I present to you the triangle theory of sheng purchase premiums.

When I buy tea, my analytical mind automatically tries to deconstruct the tea price roughly into three areas:
  • leaf quality
  • aging/storage
  • processing - including brand premium and I'm going to sloppily include the vendor premium here so I don't have to go quadrangle and mess up the analogy.
In the last few months, I've been mostly paying out an aging premium over so so leaf made by so so factories because that's what is basically available within my price points.  This morning after trying the 90s XG tuo,  I realize I need to break out of this rut as I've probably gotten enough of such ho-hum aged teas.

Yesterday I was pathologically compelled to almost buy a suspicious 90s XG tuo on ebay even though I have pounds of decade old high-end XG I wont' drink.  Then I remembered I already had a sample in my ebay kit so I brewed the tuo sample up this morning.  This 90s tea tastes like it could be even as young as ~2003 and whether or not it's really XG is moot. Even after a decade, this tuo reproduces with high fidelity the XG signature astringency but it's probably not that hard to replicate the northern plantation summer leaf taste.

What I've always appreciated about run on the mill XG tuos is that they are no nonsense teas not aspiring for imperial tribute designation or rare old tree cachet. Plantation blend and proud of it.  At their best, the sand paper roughness and astringency can give way to leave only the trademark XG smoke and leather which is unabashedly masculine.  XG tuos are a taciturn northerner and it seems wrong to talk too much about it.   But I'm glad I didn't clutter up my collection with yet more tea I won't drink.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

90s CNNP Storage Learning Kit

After some deliberation, I contacted the ebay seller about this moldy CNNP brick which was advertised as being dry "Lucifuge" stored.  To my happy surprise, he promptly shipped me another replacement.  His reassuring words exactly "Hi, Friend, So sorry. May be stored close to the ground. The ground is so wet. Don't worry. I will resend. Before sending, I will carefully check."  And carefully check he did as the second brick showed absolutely no signs of mold.  I'm assuming he sniffed up the replacement brick as the original wrapping was unmolested.  Actually it doesn't take a hound dog and I personally needed only one continuous whiff between the two bricks to differentiate that moldy shicang "wet storage" smell.  

You can imagine inside a storage warehouse crammed full of massive amounts of tea- not everything gets evenly rotated. So even in the same lot of tea from the same vendor we have this kind of disparity.  The original brick with shipping cost me ~$48 which is too steep for what it is.  But I am inadvertently the lucky recipient of a storage learning kit.  Probably this nothing special brick was no more than a yuan when it was newborn.  At $24 each, it's a palatable price for drinkable albeit mindless undemanding sheng and I will be comparing it against that famous White Whale in a week or so.

When I brewed these two examples side by side, I surprise myself by enjoying the furry version more. The "wet stored" version conjures up a more dynamic taste compared(!) to the drier brick. But as the brews progress- the two more or less become more similar.  But drinking the teas cooled amplifies the storage taste- I cannot stomach the furry brick once cold.  Drinking teas cold is also how I gauge quality in shu- a good shu you can drink cold as the heat can mask the storage flavors.  A shu that you thought was not so bad can be gross at room temperature.

In the search for last of the cheap aged sheng, I probably am scraping bottom in 2014.  I have mixed feelings about drinking (originally) cheap bricks like this one - I would not stoop to buying a newborn CNNP brick now.  But the spectre of a continually shrinking pool of aged tea combined with ever inflating prices makes me grasp at these last chances. I've been buying at today's fool's prices because even in a few years from now I would have been a fool not to.

We're lucky that most Chinese puerh investors appear not to have much interest in this moldy tea. That shicang smell and flavor- it really can be instinctively off-putting at first- your brain can send all sorts of pre-wired warning signals not to drink it.  It took well over a year before I went over the hump.  It's more likely that there will be increasing market demand for such traditionally stored tea and not less. Whether it's worth investing $300+ on a better aged cake instead of a $50 brick, I've sent away for more samples to investigate.  I'm working through aged samples tea friends have sent me, and I'm leaning towards having a representative range from low to high.  I'm not obsessed with having only top end cakes because for me I mostly want daily enjoyment of easy sheng I can drink. Knowing what you want even for the present is really a big step alone.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Lapsang Souchong Finale

Some genres of a tea have a taste ceiling after you reach certain level of quality.  I've found that with dianhong- the world's best dianhong and pretty good imperial dianhong are not that far apart so paying more than a 1.5x premium is not really worth my while.  But with teas like puerh and oolong, even a 10x+ premium might be warranted. So what is the case with Lapsang Souchong.

There is leaf quality and then processing.  Xiaozhong is a smaller leaf Wuyi varietal which can be grown in Wuyi outside the designated region at similar altitudes of 1000-2000m. The cold winters which supposedly allow for a deeper rest also is not limited to Tongmu village.  Then to the smoking- despite the claim of ancient secrets handed down generations and such, smoldering pine wood appears not to be rocket science as I've tasted better done smoking in a Waishan than some Zhengshans.

The most pricey LS in our line up is Jin Jun Mei(golden eyebrow) and if you haven't gotten swept up in the jin jun mei craze last decade, no need to rush.   Xiaozhong jin jun mei is the thinnest rolled leaf I've encountered ever.  It brews up delicate and refined- with a fleeting lingering aftertaste. It's worth trying once at least.  For those who drink Yiwus- this kind of delicate aftertaste is rather frail and such a drinker might irately mutter to themselves "Is this it? Come on! This is $40 per 100g."  But if you've never had a lingering aftertaste with black tea- you might get a short-lived thrill.

So on the Zhengshan vs Waishan debate, I'll say it's not important for me.  Given the market, I prefer a quality AA+ Waishan($9/100g) at over a middle grade Zhengshan($20+/100g) that is twice as expensive and not even half as good.  The JKTeashop Zhengshan Imperial grade was too obviously smoky and pooped out quite early after a few brews.  You can see how thick and chopped the leaves are from yesterday's post and in the above drawing. I'm dubious this can be counted as imperial grade which requires more golden bud and no chop.  The 2012 AA Zhengshan I had from Chawang Shop is the best LS I've had(beside the JJM) as it had the dried fruit high notes and subtle smoke for which I'll gladly pay $20 (although the cost was much much less).

Since the Zhengshan LS supply is limited, you have a high chance of getting lower quality leaf for top dollar.  I didn't purchase any more Zhengshan for this tasting because I could see the from the leaf  size and chop from other vendor photos that their commanding price was too high(~$30/100g) making the jin jun mei at $40/100g a bargain.

More Reading If You Are Inclined:

Friday, November 14, 2014

Tale of Ten Lapsang Souchongs Part I

Ever since Jakub turned me onto good LS, I have ditched Yunnan dianhong for the charms of that wonderfully subtly smoked tea from Fujian. Although lapsang souchong was once an elevated drink for European royals and their court, I'm a lucky commoner to enjoy it almost daily with my pork laden breakfast.  I normally keep at least two leaf grades at home- a higher grade leaf for guests and for chocolate pairings and a more robust leaf for casual and mindless morning brewing.

I'm quite happy with Chawangshop's offerings but Honza often sells out of his AA+ and he doesn't carry Zhengshan Xiaozhong currently. I kick myself for not hoarding a few kilos of his fabulous ZX then as LS is good for at least three years. Chawangshop holds the sweet spot of quality vs price, but a girl can look around from time to time... Can't she?

Top on my mind- is it worth the extra premium to buy the original Zhengshan LS from Tongmu village or is the surrounding regions(Waishan meaning outer mountain) produce tea just as good? Are two or three year old LS better than current year LS? If your LS is vacuum sealed, can you age LS for longer?  Lastly, what are reasonable prices for a quality LS? To solve some of these riddles,  I assembled a Zhengshan vs Waishan standoff:

2012 Zhengshan Xiaozhong AA $12(? cannot remember)/100g tin (shown right)
2012 Fujian Waishan Xiaozhong AA  $8/100g
2013 Late Spring Fujian Waishan Xiaozhong AA+ 
2014 Fujian Lapsang Souchong AA 

From jkteashop - all Zhengshan/Tongmu

2014 Spring Mingqian Jin Jun Mei  15g/$6.50 or $40/100g tin
2014 Spring Organic Imperial Traditional 100g/tin $20.00 (shown center)
2014 Spring Organic Premium Traditional 15g/US$2.40 or 
$16/100g tin

The above photo lineup is incomplete- three other samples I excluded for the following reasons:
  1. Organic "authentic" LS from an American vendor was so shockingly smoky and undrinkable,  I've banished the offending tea from the house.  I would probably advise tea drinkers to skip buying LS stateside. 
  2. LS from ebay advertised as LS but the tea was clearly just another type of hongcha. It was a decent hong cha that guests have enjoyed but not the LS I crave.
  3. Vicony's LS via Hobbes- I want to buy more from them as they have a diverse selection of LS including laozong or leaves from older bushes. However they are a wholesale outfit and  I'm not quite ready to buy a kilo as a minimum order.
I normally eschew formal tea tastings because a lack of discipline on my part. Also the tea drinking becomes too much like homework.  My tastebuds get fatigued easily so I rarely do more than three teas at one sitting so today I picked a Waishan and two Zhengshans.  

Before the big reveal, I thought I would leave the reader with some guessing.  In the three types of leaf below (1. Top left, 2. bottom left, and 3. right ), can you guess
  • for each- which leaf grade is it - Jinjunmei, Imperial, AA+, AA, Premium? 
  • for each, is it Zhengshan or Waishan? 

2006 Changtai Bird Feather Nannuo From Red Lantern Tea

Today I blanched a bit when I saw a bird feather embedded on this Changtai beeng. I don't mind hair, string, straw, pebbles, insect wing, or even live bugs. But a bird feather is one level below what I'm willing to tolerate. I know, I know. You are saying at least in wasn't a rodent tooth but if you have ever kept a flock of chickens- the offending feather looks to be a chicken down feather- you have real cause to be grossed out. Chickens and maocha should not mix.

When I requested to initiate a refund and an exchange, I was curiously assured thusly by Red Lantern Tea:

Dear Buyer,

First, we would like to say sorry for the inconvenience caused you.
The tea was from the ancient tea tree and it happens sometimes.
It is the same logic with bird nest swallow saliva which is sell thousand dollar.
Kindly no need to worry and we can guarantee you that the tea wasn't contaminated and won't harm at all. :)
If you noticed that most of aged pu-erh tea have tea bugs inside but that's not a problem at all.
Everything will perish by using boiling water (212F)
You can ask about this to some tea junkies on the tea forum as well.
Kindly let us know if you still have problem.

Best wishes

Red Lantern Tea does charge an extra premium on their prices which I presumed was for customer service. Including shipping, this 2006 Lao Chen Nannuo was $50, not cheap for what it is. This Changtai is not ancient tree as it tasted blended.   

Dear Readers, was I wrong to expect a different response?   I was taken aback to receive this lackadaisical reply when I clearly requested to replace the cake.  Such a reply is one sure way to lose a customer and I'm sure I'm not the first to have received those exact excuses. Surely this is a sign for me to stop buying this year.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Puerh Video Junkout

I spent all Sunday morning in bed watching the video footage which accompanies Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic by Jinghong Zhang.

In case you are in a hurry, I'm embedding my favorite section here:

It's available on youtube(better streaming):

The footage was originally posted on(in case youtube copy gets taken down):

In lo-res low-budget glory, the author takes us from Hong Kong to Yiwu showing us the entire food chain from tea farmers/middle men/more middle men/producers/vendors/tea houses/drinkers.  You will never trust anything anybody says about the quality of your tea again.  I've had my suspicions but the video footage made me think it was even worse than I had imagined.

The most intriguing character is Mr. Zhun(?), a producer who is serious about the taste of tea. I like how he serves the tea back to all those who come to sell him tea even to the kid who's peddling a puny bag of forest tea.  If Mr. Zhun kept a tea blog, I'd be all over it. Actually I'd buy his tea.

Many puerh tea farmers and middle men know little about the taste of tea.  When Mr. Zhun brews up for a middle man the best plantation tea to contrast against the rubbish he had brought, the clueless middleman said it all tasted bitter to him and he couldn't tell the difference.  Mr Zhun really crams his gaiwan full of maocha and I wonder how strong his brew is. The middlemen were heavy  chain smokers and really- you cannot detect Yiwu delicacy with a cigarette dangling out of your mouth.

When another producer goes to gather maocha in Yiwu - he admonishes the farmer and his wife for mixing their tea with some other low quality taidicha they had bought.  It's evident most farmers just want to make money and could care less.  I also see so many hands shoveling maocha around in the tea sacks that you definitely want to rinse that tea at least twice.

I came home today to this happy scene. I was trying to snap a photo but then my husband appeared out of nowhere to pose uninvited as a hand model.  He also grilled delicious aji-Spanish mackerel for our supper so I really could not expose my new beengs to such abuse.  Thwarted! 

Saturday, November 08, 2014

06 Mengku Gu Hua - Search for More Weak Ass Teas

I used to avoid buying "labeled" autumnal sheng productions with gusto.  Autumn flush or gu hua is picked any time after the summer rains in September and extend as late as early November.   I crudely thought gu hua cha was for suckers that didn't know any better.  Why bother with weaker leaves that lack the vigor and pique of their spring counterparts?  A tea tree puts forth it's plumpest qifull(I just made up that word right now but when I looked it up it's some wireless charging product name) leaves in spring. By the end of the season, the tea tree becomes quite depleted especially if it's been over harvested as is common since the puerh boom of 2006.  The tea tree prepares for winter rest by retracting nutrients from the leaves back into the tree and as a tea drinker, you want those nutrients in your cup.  

However weaker leaves make for less bitter palatable sheng that's easy on the body and that is where I am. I've read that many spring labeled beengs are actually blended with autumn leaves to tone down the bitterness so most likely I've probably got plenty of autumn leaves in my collection.  I've often suspected that most of my gu shu labeled as spring flush is mostly gu hua and that's why they taste so smooth.  Late autumn leaves can contain more lignins giving that mellower woodier base but even autumn leaves can be young buds that sprout after the rains.  Gu hua can in general brew a thinner body and hence is not ideal for aging but is easier to consume newborn.  You can really cram your teapot with gu hua leaves and brew for longer.

In the multi-tiered world of puerh leaf quality,  gu hua is second to spring flush as generally reflected in the price. However they are considered better than summer leaves which contains the highest amount of bitterness and astringency due to the intensity of the summer sun producing more polyphenols. You rarely ever see a sheng proudly billed as summer flush. If a tea is not forth coming about the season it was picked, it's probably a blend of summer and autumn.  Is it as straight forward as a spring first flush gushu being the highest quality? I could definitely see a summer plantation Bulang being the triple whammy of mouth puckering bitterness, but perhaps a little blend of autumn leaves may not be a bad thing.

I forward the reader to for further reading. the article has some interesting nuggets about theanine being produced in the roots and it is the sun which forces the leaf to convert theanine into the bitter and astringent polyphenols and catechins as a defense mechanism.  Hence the first spring flush has the highest levels of theanine present.

These Mengku Gu Hua samples which arrived yesterday came sealed in 10g packets. No one was home yesterday so the postman left a delivery notice and my husband dutifully went to the post office without being asked so I could come home to a tea package waiting for me.  That's a man who loves his tea-loving wife.

This tea was aged in Guangzhou and the dank stale basement taste is in full force- imagine such flavors being sealed up to intensify. So a predictably weak tea paired with a strong storage taste is not a winning combo.  I need to air this out for months if not years.  I'm not sure I want to downgrade myself to drinking full-on basement gu hua cha no matter how desperate I am.   Ironically, the only other Mengku in my collection is an autumnal LBZ that I bought long ago just to have some subdued LBZ I can drink.  I need weaker tea but there's probably better ways to getting there than this Mengku Gu Hua.

There is a lot of gu hua out there and tea vendors have to sell all kind of leaf. For red hot regions like LBZ and Yiwu, producers can sometimes only get their hands on autumn and summer maocha. All I can say is don't pay top dollar or spring prices for gu hua cakes. But gu hua can be a more affordable approachable entry into a crazy over inflated area.

Despite all this autumn tea bashing,  I did encounter one very special gu hua -  Tea Urchin's Mr. Gao's Yi Bang (2011?) that had a unique thick savory brackish broth and I would try more of their autumn selections.  So processing can count for much. But I would not gamble to age pure autumn cakes. 

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Conference Shui Xian

I was in SF all week for yet another pole dancing conference.  Yesterday morning I was foolishly practicing U bend moves in my precious seat on a crowded subway train and made the terrible mistake of forgetting all about an open thermos in my purse.

I drenched my subway seat mates and my little glitzy outfit I had so carefully picked out. Dear readers, having a full cup of lapsang souchong soak into your cotton bloomers is no way to start your day.  A tall imposing woman in the back was just shaking her head back and forth "tut tutting" me for a good twenty minutes.  She probably doesn't approve of pole dancing either.  I was in such a dark mood all day but at least I consoled myself that I did not spill a cup of smelly fishy shu.

So to right the wrong of yesterday, I took the roasted Shui Xian/Shui Hsien and TLH that Su sent me to brew in situ.  I'm attending a rather a high class conference compared to the one in Las Vegas and hot water and mugs were provided all day long. I came up with a small improvement.  I figured out when the servers would bring out the fresh batch of hot water.  I would warm up the mug by pouring hot water into it first, dump it in a second mug and then do a proper brew. I think such effort adds a few degrees of heat but it makes you look more like a total germaphobe than a serious tea drinker.

Still the joy of being able to evade bagged Earl Grey is priceless.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Rainy Day 2004 Wet vs Dry Update

These two factory teas are about the same age- or purportedly from 2004 and potentially with some wild tree content.  Your eyes might pop out at the ever so light straw colored brew and green green leaves on the left but this tuo has been drying away with me in Berkeley since Feb of 2006.  Even back in 2006 and in comparison with the 2004-2006 versions of this cake, I had no doubt as to the age of this tuo plus it had a convincing factory stamp.    Which brew do you think is more bitter? 

The humid stored brew on the right still holds onto an obvious plantation bitterness while the barely aging wild tree tuo on the left is smooth to drink now as it was in its youth.    

Behold the '04 Changtai Brick with a Menghai Brick Tea  猛海茶磚  label:

I recognized this brick on ebay from an old forum post where Tehahlia from Indonesia provides some intriguing information:
"This brick is going for about SIN$5, isn't it? There are fake ones in the market, so be careful when you hunt for it, the similarities between the real and the fake are hard to tell.

The first production from Chang Tai's new factory in Jinghong city, using a blend of old abandoned leaves and cultivated ones. Most of these bricks were snapped up by a Hongkong tea vendor."
At SIN$5, it probably wasn't the finest Banna brick and this one certainly tastes like that kind of cheap plantation brick; it must have been a tongue scraper back then and such tea demands humid storage.   I brewed up so little that I wasn't able to differentiate two set of leaves to confirm a blend of older leaves with taidi cha.

I was surprised anyone would even bother to forge such a low end brick but I remembered back then you could get an entire 6 FTM beeng or a Lao Tong Zhi for just a few bucks.  You can see the Changtai wrapper is quite bug eaten and one whiff lets you know this cake enjoyed humid/light wet storage although it has no visible signs of surface mold.   I'm assuming the 401 means 2004 first batch.   The specimen I have compares to other 10 year olds. I would be okay to buy this for $16 with shipping- the Changtai part really doesn't matter to me that much. The cheapest deal on ebay is $16 with shipping but I wasn't diligent so I paid a tenner more.   It's not the best, it's not the worst. I don't have that many humid stored examples yet so it's okay to fill out.

Next. This age defying tuo is the '04 Xiaguan Wild Tree.  It smelled incredible when it arrived- it emanates the fragrance I associate with fermenting overripe blackberries when I pick them later in the season.  The intensity of the scent on this tuo fluctuates with the seasons being most subdued during the winter.   Like it's XG beeng counterpart,  this tuo is a mellow brew without the usual XG mouth drying powers.  You can see a fair amount of huangpin and older leaves which must be the old tree part.  And is customary with XG style- the leaves are all chopped up and the compression so tight, you need to sweat and bleed to get some flakes.  

This XG tuo is aging much slower than my 2004 plantation tribute melon of the same size -250g with equal or greater compression.  My melon has been progressing respectably and is entirely drinkable now even for me so it's more leaf composition rather than compression or storage which keeps this XG evergreen. The excess carbon in the huangpin and the older leaves make it extremely slow to ferment.

(My husband cracked up in telling me last month that while sleep talking with my eyes fully closed,  I said, "Hey do you want to see my melons."  He didn't realize that melon was actually a puerh form but I whipped them out for him to clear up any confusion.)

Because the heady fragrance of this tuo is so lovely- I shudder at the thought of this scent being contaminated with a shicang aroma.  I don't mind this tuo is never to age. I've easily gotten a thousand huffs out of this tuo and the fragrance alone makes this worth holding it young forever. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Paying Up for Guangzhou Storage

I've been aging sheng for nine years and on bad days I curse with both fists the lameness of natural Berkeley storage.  Just think- if Bay Area storage was anything special- that David Hoffman would be making hand over fist right now. His hoard of "last millennium" sheng aged in his Marin hideaway would be in great demand.  In drinking several 90's sheng from Kunming,  Kunming storage does not seem to me that much better either.  Some drinkers may hold onto the fantasy of extra dry storage and slow aging producing more interesting teas.  I've gotten over such wishful notions and now have to deal with the implications.

My house is on average 55-65%RH and it's perfectly comfortable for humans.  It's moist enough to cause mold problems in some of my antique rosewood and teak furniture but it's not enough for sheng to happily ferment. It's more of the double whammy of cold and dry as it rarely breaks over 75F.  For a while, I held onto that last refuge that my teas were in the "awkward phase" between youth and age where they can go a bit flat and quiet.  I've got my tweens and also the 90's samples from Phoenix Collection Emmett sent me so I know it's not going to magically get that much better in the next five years.

I've been surprised by lower quality leaf that a little humid storage has made into something more interesting.  I have high quality leaf that has just flattened out or has barely aged here.  I initially did not appreciate mildly wet stored/humid stored cakes because I was used to drinking dry stored. I've come around as the livelier mouth feel and depth of humid storage is superior to dry climate dry storage.

I am following Plan B- get more mid-range cakes that have had 5+ years in a humid zone.  I really kick myself for holding out for so long.  The most affordable humid stored cakes available to me currently are the ebay vendors out of Guangzhou and prices appear to have leapt double in the last two years.

In browsing through pre 2006 sheng for the most reputable Guangzhou ebay vendors Red Lantern Tea and RJ Teahouse carry mostly big factory goods with no shortage of overpriced Dayi;  Red Lantern Tea which has a better selection does not do samples.  I get a sample of  the truly gentle beeng- 2006 Mengku Gu Hua- double whammy of autumnal and weakened by humid storage.

More gentler is the 2005 Mengku Spring Tips for $67.80.  There's nothing more galling than seeing the ebay purchase history with some lucky dog buying this for $29.50 back in Nov. 2011. I remember this very beeng going around $16(probably cheaper) back in 2006.   I used to have an unjustified prejudice against Lincang sweetness in sheng back then and so did not bother even with a sample beeng.

It would make better sense to get a twin of something I already have.  However I can't quite force myself to spend 4x for a mediocre plantation factory tea I already dislike and none of my good cakes are even listed.  After much deliberation, I settle on a 2006 Changtai Lao Chen Nannuo from the Old "Man" Chen series.  Don't groan, I have my reasons:

  • vendor description says "floral and soft" - "soft" is vendor speak for weak-assed and I apparently love the gentle caresses of a mild mannered tea.  Probably this is why I am drawn to Nannuos in the first place. 
  • see how a mediocre factory tea improves with 8+ years humid storage.
  • compare against my supposed old tree Nannuos from 2004-2006
  • compare against my other Changtai cakes
Lao Chen is supposed to be named after Changtai board chairman and really for $9.50-$11 a beeng for the 2005 versions I paid, it's decent.

I just bought a few starter humid stored cakes to see if I should ramp it up. I'm also looking at a few Guangzhou aged shu wondering if it's worth sinking yet more money into shu.

(It will take at least a week for these teas to arrive.  )