Friday, December 20, 2019

Coombergram Direct From India, Malt and Fruit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related posts:  coffee, darjeeling

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Puerh As An Investment

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 25, 2019

04 DeHong Wild Tree Purple Turning a Corner, Finally

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Breaking my 2019 Tea Purchase Hiatus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 14, 2019

Burnt Barley Chocolate

Chocolate bars to welcome autumn
I recently took a trip back to the East Coast. I always bring back a few chocolate bars for loved ones and came across this unique Icelandic concoction of cocoa butter and burnt barley. There isn't any cocoa in it similar to white chocolate. I brought this bar for my father as I love to have him taste new things even if it's a marriage of two familiar flavors.    
Although my rule is to never let the wrapper seduce me,  I have to confess I totally fell for the stylish geometric design of ravens.  As my favorite poem is Wallace Steven's Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackird, I was instantly smitten.  omNom Chocolates is a small batch bean to bar maker out of Reykjavík and they tend to specialize in slightly sweeter bars(milk to 73%) than I normally get. The risk was small, the potential pleasure medium to high.
My mother told me the tastes were very reminiscent of roasted barley tea and we enjoyed the novelty of the roasty malty flavors of this pitch black bar. The extra blackness is from activated charcoal which doesn't add to the flavor.  The tastes were comfortingly amiable with the extra crunch of the barley grains providing some more fun in the mouth. It's definitely a pleasing bar to share at a small dinner party. 

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Now for something completely different...

Dear Readers,

I been quaffing tea mindlessly and regularly but find squeezing a few words let alone humor out of tea harder and harder and have plied my content creating skills to gaming.

For anyone that has an interest in video games or romance in general might find my latest effort good for at least one chuckle. If you manage to keep a straight face for the entire 4 minutes, well I have failed you.

(Channel link:

Monday, April 22, 2019

Dark Magic of Black Cocoa

Most of us have had plenty of black cocoa knowingly or unknowingly in the outer cookie of a classic oreo which has a unique flavor that isn't quite recognizable as chocolate.

This darker color of cocoa results from a heavier hotter application of the dutch process which mellows out the acidity of cocoa with an alkalizing agent. The "dutch" designation comes from inventor Coenraad Van Houten, the enterprising Dutch chemist  whose father Casparus invented a hydraulic press that would separate cocoa butter from the processed cacao nibs to leave a cake which crumbles into that miraculous powder from which we make hot cocoa.  The son invented the process that makes for a milder less bitter hot chocolate that dissolves more easily. This father and son tag team really made hot cocoa the beloved beverage that it is today.

Unfortunately dutching while taming the astringency progressively destroys the healthful flavanol antioxidants present in cacao  according to this 2008 study(full pdf),  Black cocoa has less than 10% left but not all that is imbibed must provide a health benefit. I'm just glad it doesn't eat brain cells.  As a puerh drinker,  I get my fill of healthful bitter compounds.

Since I got this particular batch bulk packed from Berkeley Bowl labeled only as "Organic Black Cocoa", I have not much to go on about the source of the beans but it's a good guess these are robust Forastero beans most likely from West Africa. Delicacy of heirloom beans would be wasted with such a heavy handed process.

Since black cocoa is used mostly for color in baking in conjunction with a lighter cocoa to provide a more chocolatey base flavor, I wasn't sure what to expect for just an all black hot cocoa.   But the resulting cup enhanced with blackberry honey is velvety and beany in a good Asian dessert sort of way.  It's not hot chocolate the way you would recognize but I welcome it as a more robust alternative.  I was planning to add some natural cocoa or quarter of a chocolate bar but I really enjoy the black cocoa flavor on it's own- not unlike drinking an oreo cookie without the center creme. In years past I would have dismissed such heavy handed processing that destroys the natural fruity flavor of cacao.  But just as the dark roasting of espresso beans make for a rich intense cappucino, heavy dutching has produced a black cocoa with malty charms that has transformed a mundane Monday afternoon into something more magical.

(Addendum: My husband the morning after tried a little of my black cocoa almond butter and he recoiled a bit at it's bitterness.  I cannot detect bitterness in it at all which is probably why I can glug down sheng. )

More reading for those interested:

Monday, April 01, 2019

Ding Gu Da Fang on a Rainy Day

The pleasure of being a tea pack rat is that one routinely finds various manner of forgotten packets that can cheer up a rainy day.   Another of China's storied teas attributed to that tea active monk Da Fang,  Ding Gu Da Fang is wok fried and shaped similar to longjing.  At first glance, I mistook it for longjing when I peered at the unbrewed leaves.  The tint is a bit more golden indicating longer roast times.  A few slightly burnt minuscule spots on the brewed unfurled leaves confirm work processing.  And the taste is also not too distant from longjing except more buttery, more artichoke. 

The noted floral aromatics for this tea are somewhat mute in this specimen although they may have fled by now. This Anhui green's peak taste was probably last year at the year of processing but I'm glad I at least caught the window within 12 months and not a decade later. When one's majority stake in tea is in aged goods, it's easy for freshies to get lost.  No knowing if these leaves are indeed from Huangshan or an reasonable imposter from nearby.

I was at one time looking for Da Fang's other tea gift to humankind, Songluo tea. James A. Benn describes it so alluringly in his "Tea in China:A Religious and Cultural history",
"The color of Songluo tea was compared to pear blossom and it's fragrance to bean stamens; "drinking it was said to be like munching snowflakes".
I've munched on plenty of snowflakes, sniffed plenty of bean stamens and gazed upon pear blossoms in my mini-orchard but never all at the same time. This trifecta of odd sensory delights will have to wait until next year due to my purchase ban.  Aging puerh has trained me well, drained me of urgency.  There is pleasure in delaying and reserve novelty as there are plenty of decades left in me and only so many tea types in the world.

The rains in the Bay Area have now stopped although the hills are muddy and one has to trod carefully.
Gaining the vistas of SF require strong iron haunches.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Overbrewing 06 CuiYuan Nannuo By the Sea

 It's winter in the Bay Area which thankfully this year means rain.  What better way to welcome the new tea year than to cozy up with cups of puerh in a rustic cabin by the sea. Instead of agonizing and carefully curating a tea selection for this trip, I just took a grab bag of puerh- whatever happened to be handy in sample bags.

On the second day, I randomly put a chunk of Nannuo in my thermos for a hike. Much to my surprise- after the second hour of heating in the thermos,  thicker more complex flavors emerged that I didn't get from gongfu for this tea- this brew became redolent of the orange blossom notes in orange blossom honey.  This batch is purported to be from century old trees of a 4000kg production ($24 in 2006 if you must know) is a delicate weak assed tea- just the way I like it. I concluded it's definitely more old tree than young plantation due to it's exceedingly gentle nature.  In thinking about it some more, it makes sense that quick successive gong fu infusions may not extract all the story of an aged leaf.

We normally avoid overbrewing to avoid the bitterness and astringency of tannins- but sheng has a bitter profile anyway and using less leaf reduces the astringency. It's not just grandpa style but a delayed grandpa style- i.e. drinking after more than 1 hour of brewing with some agitation (I'm not sure if sloshing from vigorous hiking was a factor).  I'm kind of excited to try more this way.  I've accidentally brewed oolongs this way with much success and I don't know why I haven't pushed this further.  For shu, I've noticed if I forget a brew in a pot, it develops more herbal flavors and even if I have to water it down with hot water to make it drinkable.

Beyond technique, I realize a more laid back approach to puerh drinking has rendered more enjoyment for me.  Drats. This all along this had been my husband's approach to drinking- never taxing his brain cells with tea analysis.  Well he doesn't read this blog so I don't have to put up with any spousal smug satisfaction. Connoisseurship and deep vertical appreciation for puerh is for the very few and I've given up climbing that mountain long ago. It doesn't mean one can't enjoy the views from the valley below.

 (These cabins are part of the California Park system unaffected by the dreadful federal government shutdown. They have no running water or electricity perfect for detoxing from your devices. See here for more details. )