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The Very Limited T-Shirt for Cwyn's Tea Fund

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Clay, and 2016 CYH Mahei

Our February this year is a confusing mix of warmer spring-type weather, think April, alternating back to winter. Best to ignore the weather now and fold myself into my puerh hobby. If you have a lot of puerh tea, free time spent in the company of your teas is time between worlds, somewhere between the places of home and work. I imagine our tea hobby is somewhat comparable to greenhouse gardening of orchids or roses when paying attention only to the plants and what they are saying to us. 

Slipping into the space of puerh tea is like raising a hooded cowl over my head, seeing neither sideways nor above, just a narrow focused meditation, the work of observation. I feel I am moving backwards in time, through my farming ancestors to the medieval times and even further in the human act of storing food in ceramics as I store my puerh in crockery. How much we have in common with all of humanity that has ever lived, observing our stored tea in the same fashion as herbs, vegetables and teas are through the centuries. We communicate faster than light now, my tea collection welcomes me back to earth from cyberspace. 

Lin's Ceramics Tea Ware
2016 CYH Mahei puerh tea in the cup
Last week I read an interesting article in  The New Yorker about ancient clay crockery (M. Bjornerud, 2017). You might have seen this article as it has appeared on a number of websites. Of course The New Yorker is not a scientific journal, but the ideas are interesting. Pieces of ancient crock jars are used in experiments to measure changes in the earth’s magnetic field. This field is what reflects back radiation from the sun and outer space. Apparently the magnetic field in the atmosphere varies from strong to weak, and we are currently in a weak cycle. When this happens, more Carbon 14 is available and shows up in clays which appear younger because of the extra carbon. But when the magnetic field is stronger, the clays appear older. Clay from ancient Judah bore tax stamps which allow for close dating even before the clay is analyzed. Clay pottery tells its story because the firing cycle of hot/cool locks in the iron oxide into a stable form.

Concentric incision on a jar handle
from Ramat Rahel, modern-day Israel
Photo courtesy Oded Lipschits
Reproduced in The New Yorker 13.2.2017
You may have seen this image as it appeared in most other articles on this topic, such as in the Daily Mail. I like this jar handle which reminds me of my clay teapots and redware crockery. In fact, somehow this handle evokes my Lin's clay boiler kettle in the photo above. I don’t know what effect, if any, variations in the magnetic field captured in clay might have on puerh tea, either stored tea or tea brewed in a clay teapot.

I wonder if pottery truly has a magnetic field and whether minerals in water interact with that field and have any effect on the flavor. Certainly my tea friends have explored mineral waters for brewing. Tea people think minerals in water add something to the flavor of the brew. But a potter has more hands-on insight into clays. I think of my potter friend Inge Nielsen who makes iron clay teapots that I like to hoard. I message her to ask if she saw any articles like the one above. and turns out she already has. “Like a tape recorder,” she says of the clay.

So with my hooded cowl I channel the buzzing magnetic field in my teapots. Good tea and bad does not get any worse, but I feel glad now for my crock storage. I wonder how my tea will taste someday when compared with a pumidor like the one I previously had, lined with plastic. Will my crock tea have a magnetic field that rocks the drinker off her feet? Maybe the field is linked to hoarding behavior. Perhaps my brain is affected by all this magnetism and I am inexorably drawn to buying more tea and clay tea ware. I am not right in the head to be sure. Now that I think of it, I really started hoarding after putting my tea in all these clay jars and crocks. I did not have big problem before. No, this cannot be, for I have plenty of hoarding friends with pumidors and nary a clay shard in the house. The tea is fully to blame.

Speaking of which, I just tried a bit of my sample of 2016 Chen Yuan Hao Mahei sent by a friend last month. This is a rather generous sample, so I still have half of it left after picking out 7g to drink. The leaves are long and pretty and not easy to carefully stuff into a taller teapot. I brewed my water in a Lin’s clay kettle to get an extra dose of earth's magnetism. Earth's magnetism will surely be linked to a longer life span and possibly greater sexual libido by some tea company very soon. 

Long Leaves are always a turn-on
Teapals is no such vendor and the 2016 CYH Mahei is still available for purchase by sample, cake and tong. The description states that the tea lacks any bitterness, and to get more qi one can “soak” the tea. This suggests that perhaps the tea dies out rather quickly. I did not rinse the tea, and am glad because the first fragrance is orchid-like and fruity, which dissipates quickly in subsequent steepings. The leaves look a bit oolonged on a few, with red edges, the description emphasizes the sun drying and lack of char, but I wonder if the chaqing was short to preserve the floral sweetness of these leaves. 

Amber first steeping.
The brew is pudding thick and sweet with not much astringency. I get a bit of qi along the back, and increased visual acuity but I drank on an empty stomach which magnifies tea effects. The flavor is all top note floral and fruity, with not much underneath. This is a grassy tea, and to be fair is still less than a year old. After the fifth steep the tea died out markedly in flavor. I “soaked” the tea as recommended and got some sweet/sour bitterness. The brew looks right with the golden color, but this seems like a prime loose leaf green at this stage and skews vegetal after the initial beautifully floral nose.

Some reddish leaves in the pile.
Again, reserving some thought that the tea is less than a year old and perhaps still needs to settle in, I worry about my ability to store this sort of tea. My conditions are on the drier side which could easily fade this tea or turn it sour. On the other hand, too much humidity will kill it. You can find lots of examples of Mahei Yiwu teas on the market, such as from Wymm Tea or puerh.sk of varying quality. This CYH is certainly a decent leaf, but at the outset I am missing some lower notes. The leaf might do better in a blended cake, giving the drinker something to enjoy now in the somewhat oolonged Mahei leaf, and then something else from a different leaf down the road that ages well, yet more darkly bitter when young. CYH has a history of offering Mahei in blends in the past. I need to try this again in another year perhaps. Certainly my storage will speak to me at that point. I will either have a sour brew on my hands or the tea will steep out longer than five steeps as it settles.

You can get a 75g sample of this tea for about $40, and a 357g cake is about $180, making this tea one of the less expensive options in Chen Yuan Hao. Looking at the other CYH teas from last year, the high end teas like the LBZ and Guafengzhai, and even the Mansong are long gone. The fan base for these productions will jump on the good stuff early, and they have the money to spend. This Mahei tea falls clearly in the middle drinker range and probably is not what the typical CYH buyer is after. But as an example of a nice fresh Yiwu, you can do a lot worse.

Early 2017 spring greens are already showing up on sites like Yunnan Sourcing. The season is right around the corner. This reminds me I need to tackle my sample stash, and soon before the samples dry out. I will try and post any interesting ones I find.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Re-tastes, and Re-tasting

I just received a complaint today. Yes, I know a week has passed since my last post. Okay, more than a week. How is a person supposed to keep track of time while drinking puerh tea? Truthfully I have been drinking a lot of tea lately, more than usual. Instead of confining my puerh time to the evenings, I now start drinking earlier in the day. Most of my attention lately is on re-tasting teas from my collection. One needs to do this regularly as a way to check on the storage because measuring devices for humidity or temperature do not tell us anything about how the tea tastes. Also, I like to check on my new cakes to discover changes that occur in the first year when puerh tea settles from processing. More changes occur in the first year than in any other time span.

Tasting in the First Year

I taste each tea I buy when I get it, but then I wait another six months or more before sampling the tea again. This applies to fresh, new puerh tea but also aged tea I have ordered. Fresh tea needs time for settling, and aged needs time to acclimate and perhaps air out any storage odors. I might review the tea, but I try and confine myself to talking about the leaf quality and flavors without a big judgment on the tea.

This brings up something that is bothering me over the past year. I see more and more people buying new puerh especially, and then writing scathing reviews at first taste. I do not understand how a person can judge a puerh tea immediately after pressing on any aspect except leaf quality. We can notice much about the thickness of stems, the durability of leaf, whether the cake is poorly processed with too much or too little chaqing. But we cannot judge the quality of the tea brew straight off the steamers! We cannot know how well a tea will age when the tea just came out of the cotton bag!

Yet I see folks posting reviews on Steepster or blogs or Reddit with damning judgments on the flavors of brand new tea. Or reviews of aged tea straight out of the mailing box. Yet how many more reviews are posted over years and years when the writer says something like “I hated this tea at first, what a night and day difference six months (a year, two years, five years) makes.” I have tea friends writing some of these judgments too or posting them in photo form on social media.

I can discern fine leaf quality and clean processing at first taste when I receive a new or aged tea. An aged tea also has a storage quality that I can judge, dry/wet etc. My views of leaf quality, processing and any storage issues are not likely to change. My opinions on the brew, however, will change because the tea is going through stages of change.

The Need for Re-tasting

My dears, we need to keep looking, and keep tasting. Otherwise, we merely look upon a painting and comment upon the image alone, without seeing the layers of paint and how the effect we admire, or not, is created. Some tea writers will say “my tastes have changed,” but the truth is the tea is changing as fast as you are. Who is to say that you might store a tea very well, and find you have a nice one on your hands a few years down the road that you can appreciate all the more?

Perhaps tea reviews give the impression of a constant buying of tea, or constant sampling of new teas and not enough time spent re-visiting stored teas. I suppose blog posts of re-visiting teas are not as exciting to write or read as are posts about brand new teas, when everyone is eager for information. Yet I hope we are as eager to know about teas we are all storing. Now that we have tea clubs, more people together are storing the same teas, in different locales, using different storage methods. We have more opportunity than ever to generate consensus about teas.

2016 Head by white2tea

I first reviewed this tea last summer, and noted that the tea fresh out of the steamer was very green. I and many others noted a vegetal, almost sweet green pepper flavor to the tea. When tea is this new and green, we can note the strength of the leaves and the clean processing but we can hardly judge the brew at this point. I believe I noted that on my post back in July.

I am surprised now to remember from reading my post how Head arrived smelling like a hot tomato vine during a period of very steamy summer weather. For 2016 Head smells nothing like tomato vine today.  2016 Head has changed vastly from when I tasted it nearly seven months ago. I brewed up a pot of this tea and my clumsy fingers spilled tea all over the kitchen counter. From this mess wafted up a smell of a lily of the valley garden patch, and I was stunned at the florals and how sticky my fingers got while cleaning up the spills. The brew is now more golden yellow rather than green, indicating the tea has settled from the “green” tea stage to now a puerh ready to begin slow fermentation.

In the cup, the florals are now at the forefront, and the savory aspect deeper, more of a lower note. Also, the cup aroma after drinking is heavily floral which makes the tea seem more expensive than it is. I normally find the strong cup aroma after drinking in more expensive teas than Head.  I went ten steeps easily and the tea has more to go. I forgot to take a photo.

Afterward, I emailed TwoDog and mentioned the changes in Head. He replied “I know the material well enough to know they should age better than they are…” But even he had not re-tasted Head in awhile. So this confirms to me that teas often change drastically long after first pressing. If you purchased Head last summer, give it a re-taste now. Otherwise, this tea is still only $69.

2011 Xiao Jin Gua Sheng by Verdant Tea

Yes, you all griped about this one that I reviewed last spring, and bought two of. This is an autumn 2010 production. I noticed that Verdant is now selling a 2016 Xiao Jin Gua, which consists (supposedly) of both spring and autumn material. Seeing a new pressing of this production, I decided to re-taste the more aged version. Back then I really liked the storage on this, and I still like it now.

Around 10 steeps. I used a lot of leaf.
This tea was stored by the owner/presser and he sold all but ten of the melons to Verdant. He wanted ten for himself. This storage is what I would love for all my teas, that perfect humidity that pushes the tea a bit but still keeps that “dry storage” aspect lacking in mustiness. The tea brews brown in the early steeps, a color that takes many brews to fade back to a darker golden yellow. I also like the spiciness of this tea. I have tried this tea maybe three times now and I still like it. Apparently so do other folks because Verdant commissioned a new pressing in 2016. 

I cannot vouch for the new pressing because I have not tried it, and part of what I like about the melons I own is the storage so far. I am glad I bought two because I am certain I will drink up one within the next couple of years. Also I am glad I didn't need to spend an entire month's salary to get a drinker tea, but a low $38, and the new pressing is on sale. As always, when buying from Verdant just ignore the photos of anything except the actual tea cake. Their marketing is dodgy but the tea might be fine enough. 

2015 Autumn Bang Dong by Yunnan Sourcing via LiquidProust

This tea is from the Sheng Olympics box that LiquidProust put together. He aimed for depth in the box by including a 2012 version of this same production so that people can do deeper tasting. You get to try a younger version and a five year aged version. I wrote about the 2012 last month. I like the five year stored tea, seems to be aging along nicely. This newer tea is brewing past ten steeps for me, but it needs to rest after two steeps before it will give more. Like the autumn Xiao Jin Gua above, I taste that deeper spiciness. Autumn tea is a nice mild version of puerh that is growing on me, and the advice to try several years of a production more than once is sound advice indeed. The 2015 Bang Dong is a huge 400g cake of tea for $69, and the bargain of the three teas in this post. 

Some big leaves. Steeps nine and ten in one cup.
My teas in this post are all stored in a ten gallon vintage stoneware crock. They have remained fragrant in the crock without much additional moisture this winter, which I attribute to the milder and wetter year we have had. I air the crock about twice a week by lifting the lid. The crock is very full which helps keep the tea water content stable. I rotate the teas a few times a month mainly when I am looking for something so the cakes get naturally shuffled. 

I hope people will write about puerh teas they buy with at least some reservation in judgment until they have owned the teas for a time. I see a lot of flip flopping judgments going on. Deeper notes in puerh change over time, and I want to see writers noting these changes without needing to say “I don’t like the tea” fresh off the steamer, when you have no idea what it will taste like in a few months. Keep in mind other people are reading your notes. If you are flip flopping on your judgments, you either cannot discern leaf quality or you are not aware that sheng tea changes, and changes yet again. I believe that we can firmly judge the quality of the leaf, processing and storage of teas. But the flavor notes are ever-changing and on-going, and judgment of the brew itself is expected to evolve. 

Sunday, February 5, 2017

2014 Hekai Ripe and 2013 Xigui Raw

This 2014 Hekai Ripe is one of those “what the h***?” teas I found in my stash recently, and then tracked down where I bought it from. I bought this cake from puerhshop.com during a period of insanity last year when I needed more ripe teas to store for my sister. I like Hekai tea in raw form, and hoped this cake might be as nice.

Puerhshop is one of those somewhat guilty shopping sites for me. Located in Troy, Michigan, the online tea store focuses on low markup, no-frills and mostly budget puerh teas. Given the location, you can expect the collection is kept in dry storage, however you can find plenty of humid teas on the site, as well as newer Menghai teas. Here you are getting the traditional “factory” experience teas. In a sense, the inventory is a bit like a Taobao or Aliexpress shopping experience without the shipping hassles. The downside for me is I can easily spend a lot of money very fast and indeed I have spent quite a bit both times I have placed an order. But I got a lot of teas for that money, all in the drinker category.

Puerhshop uses some sort of testing kit to test for pesticides on their teas. There is no way a single test kit can identify all the possible pesticides in teas because pesticides can drift over from other crops. So the kit probably identifies some of the major pesticides, but I do not view this as a guarantee you are getting “organic” tea. With factory teas, usually you are not getting organic, and with puerh, organic is not necessarily better tea. But collectors and drinkers who buy factory teas usually have a good idea of what they are buying and prefer the taste of recipe teas.

This ripe tea made by Yunnan Shunda Tea Co. and is supposedly is single-origin and premium smaller leaves, such as you might find in a Phoenix shou blend. The cake I got looks better in person than the photos on the website. I thought the tea might be a bargain because of the gram weight, a 400g cake. The extra grams are in the thickness rather than width, so the cake is the same width as a 357g. The $32.99 price is therefore $0.08 per gram.

I went heavy and brewed 15g in about 150ml of water using a Jian Shui teapot. I definitely recommend using a dark clay teapot dedicated to shou or heicha for this tea, such as Yixing or Jian Shui that holds heat and tempers heavy puerhs. The tea is heavily fermented. I noted a heavy fermentation smell to the leaves, and a dirt/soil smell. I rinsed the tea three tea times which got rid of most of the soil and fermentation odors. A cold rinse prior to the hot rinses might help speed the clearing without losing brew, and I will try that next time.

Four steep after three rinses
The tea brews up dark, and very thick with the parameters I used. The liquor is brown with a bit of a red ring, and the clarity is hard to see until later steeps. I should have gone lighter on the leafing to get a less heavy brew, but I like my tea heavy. In general I either brew shou very thick like this, or I use a pinch of leaves and grandpa my shou in an Yixing mug which will also produce a dark brew because the leaves stay in the mug.

The drop behind the fish dried thick like blood.
This tea really reminds me of white2tea’s White Tuo from a couple of years ago, long sold out now. The White Tuo had the same dirt/soil and required months of airing out before brewing, but that tea was also much older than this 2014 vintage, so the fermentation flavor had departed from the tuo. This one has something of an old sock odor, probably not the best fermentation. 

Probably best to read the Chinese and skip the English if you can.
At the same time, the tea is very powerful and I had a bile reaction (white stools) probably from overleafing. The reaction was two days in a row while drinking the tea and departed when I stopped. The tea had a lot left to go. A risky and medicinal strength shou.

Heavy fermentation.
2013 Xigui from Teavivre

Teavivre wanted to send me some puerh samples. I don’t get many vendors asking to send me samples. The few vendors who try offer teas I do not drink, and the vendors clearly have not read or looked at my blog. But this vendor offered puerh so I said okay. The initial offer included a stuffed mandarin which I cannot have so I asked if they could substitute their Hekai or possibly the Xigui instead from their catalog. I got both.

2013 Xigui sample from Teavivre
I used to buy non-puerh tea from Teavivre, but then stopped buying tea from them for two reasons. One was that for awhile their website had a hack and several Steepster people lost money on credit cards. The last time I attempted to purchase nearly two years ago my browser refused to complete the transfer to Paypal, claiming a malicious third party intercept. I also found a pubic hair in one of the puerh samples. I find hair all the time in puerh, but I draw the line at pubic hair. Not that the company has any control over such things, yet the experience left an impression. I know people order all the time from Teavivre so maybe the Paypal issue got fixed. In any case, if you order from them make sure to order via Paypal.

A nice sample chunk
Many people are interested in Xigui tea because the prices for this area have skyrocketed over the past couple of years. Puerh heads have speculated that white2tea continues to offer some form of premium Xigui ever since the 2014 Autumn Apple Scruffs which I still regret not buying. Teavivre sells a 357g cake for $90. The tea has been in their catalog for a few years, and some buyers have posted short reviews. I brewed up the entire sample of 8g. I cannot recommend their suggested 3-5 minute brew time, a gong fu brew suffices.

The 2013 Xigui has some suffering from sample packing, in that the brew seems a bit dry and muted. I don’t have any idea how long ago the tea sample was packed. I am not a fan of pre-packaged samples as very often the teas can be packed years ago, not the same as a sample freshly chipped from a cake. The tea seems much younger than four years old with no evidence of real aging.

Window shot on a rare sunny day in winter
I liked the floral aroma in the cup after the first three brews or so. The tea took awhile to open up and present with some thickness, which is better than getting all the thickness in early steeps. The leaves are small and broke down a little with boiling water in a porcelain teapot after nine steeps, which is a shame because the tea clearly had more to go. I would like to try the tea right from the cake. 

Not much aging here.
The price is fairly good and the tea has a Lincang profile, which is about all I can say about whether or not it is Xigui. The tea gave me some burps and a bit of a tea drunk. I wouldn’t mind trying a full cake, but the tea falls in that nether middle region of drinker tea. The price might be too high for some, but not considering the size of the cake, yet the price is higher than the Xigui tea ball I bought last year. Again, this is another tea to try at your own risk. I cannot say whether you will like it or whether it is a good buy.

Lately I am a creature of extremes with puerh. Sometimes I drink really cheap drinkers or I drink really great tea. That middle area of “okay” tea is the tricky nether zone for me. Some folks stay firmly in the cheap tea zone, or maybe in the mid-tier area of drinker tea and are content. I want to pony up the cash for tea I cannot live without, and anything less than that I will go cheap. The middle zone still leaves me scratching my head. Tea is subjective indeed and puerh is every man and woman for themselves. Unless you have $1k to spend.

Monday, January 23, 2017

2017 Realistic Tea Goals

Everyone has a list of tea goals for the New Year, all with the best of intentions. Old Cwyn has no room to fail because the horde in the background waits to pounce and raid the stash. She fends off potential visitors regularly and the list of suitors grows longer by the month. Of course the son who will not leave home is looking for the opportunity to throw out mother’s tea. All these threats to my tea existence mean I too must set some goals for the year, even if just for show.

I will lose 20 lbs this year because I drink puerh.

People keep right on telling me that sheng puerh promotes weight loss, so it must be true. This year my efforts to drink puerh tea for my health will pay off big time and I will get right back into that Size 4 St. John suit I put on layaway the day I started my doctorate and paid off the day I deposited my dissertation. If not I can mail that suit to my shou-drinking sister and check this goal off either way and make the Dear Son happy in getting rid of something on my own.

I will spend at least $100 on tea from some lying, cheating, money-grubbing son of a gun.

Normally I spend more than that but this year I will surely spend less. Everyone says so in every list of tea goals, “I will spend less.” But then more topics spring up on Steepster or Reddit thanking the likes of Mei Leaf and Verdant with more photos of huge tea orders. How do we continue to order against all that learned logic we keep buying again and again with our student loan payments? Oh, but we have reasons. I remember how obnoxiously loud OxyClean mail order commercials were back in the day, but now you can buy this detergent booster in every grocery store in the US. Tacky and tasteless sell, and lies sell even better. Failing the tacky, we still have Facebook to thank for super premium collector sales that nobody with a credit card can resist, and everybody is already selling their WMD Mansa one year in.

Think you won’t fall prey to social marketing? We have an orange wig and a flag to show you.

Someone will find the 2000 year old tree and sell it by the kilo.

1800 never struck me as a nice stable number, we need to round up. Puerh needs to be at least as old as Jesus to sell in the west like pieces of the True Cross which are more than two miles long when all laid out in a line.

Yunnan Sourcing will have at least one 12% off sale.

I can check this goal off already.

I will mold at least one of my puerh experiments.

Ditto this goal. Done and gone. I learn more from mold than anything else. Menghai tea recovers well, by the way, and nasty old Xiaguan best of all. Keep your northerners dry, they don’t experiment well.

An as-yet-un-named Tea Entity will determine the correct spelling for puerh 普洱茶

Now, I’ve written this before probably but my friend Rob and I are still carrying on the same English argument ten years on. He lives in the UK, and I live in the US, and the chat goes something like this:

Him: Everything you do over there is wrong. You Yanks are butchering our language.

Me: No, we are cleaning it up. And I’m Polish Hungarian Jew. In no American universe will I ever be considered a Yank.

Him: It’s spelled flavour, not flavor. And you’re a Yank.

Me: We are clearing out all the extraneous vowels you cling to that nobody pronounces. The French vowels, and the Latin, and German, and the Welsh. The ones Microsoft Word corrects, which we invented.

Him: I drive my Ford on the correct side of the road, the same side horses rode for centuries.

Me: We invented Ford too, and nobody jousts anymore. They tweet.

Him: What you people play is not football.

Me: The people own the Packers, not some rich guy. We dumped your tea overboard for a reason. It was bad tea.

Him: Just let me know when you need more Yorkshire tea bags.

I’m really wondering, is your Paedophile somehow less odious than my Pedophile? Because if someone says to me “So sorry about your diarrhoea” I am happy he cares even though nobody pronounces the “o” and there is no reason for that letter to be in the word whatsoever unless it suggests—well, never mind. The point is, nobody pronounces these extra letters and no one wants to remember how to spell them.

Which suggests that puer is better than puerh. But I really doubt the apostrophe in pu’er is gonna stick because it will not. No one will use it, neither will they use the dash for pu-er or pu-erh. In fact, I think Puer is a good way for English to distinguish the city in China from the beverage puerh. And as of now, despite babelcarp’s best efforts to promote the Chinese word bingwo, I bet my entire collection that beenghole will stick.

Why does everyone assume that different spellings of a word automatically mean taking offence? Or offense. English spelling has never been uniform, even Shakespeare himself spelled the same words differently and so did Ben Franklin. No one cared all through the Middle Ages nor the Renaissance to spell any word the same every time. Why should we start now? The English and American people have spelled the same words differently from one another for over two centuries and will go right on doing so. As long as they keep exporting Christmas and we keep exporting movies I’m sure we will all stay friends.

I will find one beengcha in my stash that I could not find last year.

Highly unlikely. But the other goals are achievable, so I can fail this one.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, January 19, 2017

2015 Chen Yuan Hao Mansong Yibang

Recently I received an incredibly generous gift from a tea friend, a group of about ten huge samples of ChenYuan Hao puerh teas. I expected a couple of samples and got a haul that stunned me when I opened the package. So, this blog post begins a series on CYH teas that will likely take some months to complete. I plan to intersperse reviews of these teas in with other posts so they don’t get too monotonous for readers.

ChenYuan Hao (CYH) teas are super-premium grade puerh teas made by a Taiwanese group. You can buy them online from a Malaysian company TeaPals. CYH has been around for more than a decade and the quality of their teas has increased steadily during that time. My last opportunity to try a CYH tea consisted of a fairly dried out and powder-y swap sample that didn’t impress me much. The teas are a whole ‘nuther experience now, and you’re darn right I will get out my very best tea ware to enjoy this tea, as my friend will surely want me to do.

Photo Teapals.com
This CYH Mansong Yibang was reviewed by James at TeaDB in October 2015, not long after pressing. It comes in cake form and tins of loose leaf were available in limited quantity. The cake is sold out now. The final price listed at TeaPals for this tea was 4800 MYR, or $1005-1173 depending on the conversion calculator you use. That’s right, $1005.00 for one cake, 357g. I quadruple-checked it because I could not believe what I saw in the calculator. This is a sale price, for the original retail price was 6500 MYR or about $1400, and around $3 per gram. Malaysian Ringgit currency fluctuates against the dollar quite a bit, the price I’m quoting you here is actually about $70 less for the full cake than it was a few days ago. A sample size tin of 70-80g cost $246 and is long gone. Perhaps politics are adding some volatility to currencies lately. I’ll get into more of the painful price later on.

Sample divided into two sessions
The samples I received are from a different friend than supplied TeaDB with their samples. My friend lives outside the US. All of the samples I have are in very fine condition, carefully double wrapped to protect the leaf integrity. In total, I received 8 grams of this tea, and I separated the sample into two sessions of 4 grams each. I used a 60 ml porcelain gaiwan, a Lin’s Ceramics cup, fragrance cup and also a Lin’s clay boiler to treat my water. No strainer. You chew tea this good if you have to.

This CYH tea has one of the most impressive aroma profiles I have ever experienced. The tea in the drinking cup and in the fragrance cup smells like gardenia, what is sometimes referred to as “orchid” and rather like grandma’s bath powder. After using the fragrance cup, I allowed some tea to dry out within it, and kept it near my bed for several days. Exhaling slightly into the dried fragrance cup completely revives the aroma, so I can enjoy it day after day. I feel like my friend gave me a bouquet of flowers, and am humbled at the beauty of this singular olfactory experience.

Tea ware worthy of the tea
I am familiar with the light Yibang profile and recognize it here, as more fruity than floral. The first three steeps contain some acrid-tasting char, visible in the cup. In this my sample differs from TeaDB as I’m brewing a chunk rather than loose leaf. James did not find any char in the loose leaf, likely because loose leaves will allow char to flake and fall off of the tea. The char isn’t much, however, but it contributes to a Chinese medicine under taste.

This tea is about eighteen months post-pressing, and of course is very young. The leaves and buds are on the small side and some buds are barely developed. The soup is golden with a ring of pink around the edges, a mark of quality, starts out a bit thin. However, the bubbles don’t pop which suggests this tea will thicken up with more aging.

I managed to capture the unique color of the brew,
a tinge of pink in the first few cups.
After around four steeps and just approaching the 200 ml mark my head goes foggy. An “I can’t do math right now” sort of foggy, and “I need to go to bed” foggy. I note tension around my ears, very much an internal brain feeling rather than concentrated face melting. It’s the feeling you get when out in the extreme cold for some time, or after swimming in cold water, back indoors and then a relaxed need to nap. The mind and body are still and drop away into sleep. Maybe I’m just getting old and sliding into the grave, whereas younger people might party all night on this stuff.

This tea is not terribly bitter, with notes of the flowers and fruit, honey and incense. The best of the aroma and floral lasts about eight steepings. Then the tea flavor mainly fades into honey notes, with the touch of char still present. These leaves are extremely durable for as small as they are, like leather, and they continue to give tea well past a dozen steeps. At that point the flavor is productive with some astringency, but the tea develops concerning sourness in the brew. The foggy tea “high” is still present but muted. I could have continued steeping past fifteen steeps, but the flavor continues to present a sourness that needs to change over.

Overall the first 8-10 steeps are glorious. I definitely get the experience of a superior tea and the leaf quality and durability are obvious. This tea is wonderful to drink now for the incredible fruity florals. Later down the decades the floral will probably decline, and the medicine and leather profile will develop more. The tea will require a warm and humid climate to develop properly which presents the question of whether I can provide such a climate, if I owned a cake. The sourness at the back end of the session, when the tea could provide so much more yet, poses a concern. One cannot blame storage conditions at this young stage, but storage will be crucial to move that sour along.

Realistically this cake needs serious babysitting to age properly. My friend’s tea arrived in a slightly humid-smelling box, so I’m not worried about his storage conditions. I can probably service a couple of tongs of tea like this, but any more and I would need a major vault setup for storage. Otherwise, the tea is going to suffer from my dry climate and end up forever sour. The leaves are tough and require heat and humidity to break down. Teapals is located in Malaysia which is ideal for aging, but for tea this young it hardly matters where the retail selling point is. Teapals could make more money storing half their stock for ten years to benefit from the climate, and then sell it to people in climates like mine. But of course they have plenty of buyers at the outset. I’m at the point of seriously considering a warehouse in Malaysia. Anyone else in?

Now we are back to price. I need to clarify that this tea is not similar to teas like The Treachery of Storytelling. The region is completely different. Treachery consists of large leaves probably of northern origins. One cannot really compare these teas aesthetically because of the difference in the leaf growth style. In price, this CYH Mansong Yibang is three times as expensive as Treachery. One cannot really ask: “Are we getting 3x better tea?” Some might debate storage, whether teas like CYH store better in the long run, but the truth is we really don’t know that yet. 

Small leaves
Teas at this caliber are carefully cultivated both in the garden and in the business relations required to procure this tier of tea two years or more in a row. You are paying a premium for business relations that you cannot possibly develop yourself. Premium puerh tea buyers know this. They know the difficulties of procuring these teas change vastly from one year to the next, with ever-changing variables involved. They do not balk about the premium cost because they have no idea what transpires each year to even get this type of tea. One can talk about wanting lower cost teas, and the market has plenty to choose from. This is not the tier of tea for complaints. Complaint tea is another vendor, in fact many vendors are available to adequately service the complainers. 

Still, I feel more comfortable with this tea in the $500-700 range. If it truly cost $500-ish as James mentioned in his review over a year ago, that would be a steal. But then with tea at this level, the people who can afford it will not consider a $300 price difference as terribly significant. If $300 differences in puerh cake cost is significant to you, then this tea is out of your price range. It’s out of my price range.

Along with paying this price tag, I have to think about how to drink this, because with this tier a cake is indeed just a sample. I would want to drink it young to experience the florals at different stages. 
Then I would want to drink it aged too. But a 357g beeng will likely get drunk up in seven years. A person really needs a minimum of two cakes and ideally an unbroken tong plus one taster cake. This is about $6000 in investment tea. I also need to know I can provide the proper storage. One big advantage of this tea over the currently available YQH is that this CYH tea is not yet overstored, there is no wet storage killing off some of the character, and not so much char needing that masking wet storage.

I could, of course, consider buying a sample tin next year. But a tin sets me back $300 just to drink this as “young” tea only. If all I want is a tea high, I can find that for less. It’s the difference between buying a whiskey already in the bottle and buying the whiskey still in the barrel. Or buying into wine before the grapes are picked. This tea really is best purchased by the tong. Or maybe two tongs in case you get divorced, because splitting a tong in court is a painful consideration. Two tongs cost the same as a car, and you can’t split a car either. If I lived in a city where I don’t need a car, buying two tongs is a good idea for a married couple, along with a clear pre-nup.

People talk about selling tea later on in life, and most of the teas we can buy online are not the kind that you can expect to sell well above market value. Teas like CYH or YQH are teas that you can invest in and probably sell for more down the road, assuming you can find collectors who will double your money and pay $24,000 for two tongs. That’s a big if. A better guarantee is buy the two tongs and forgo having children.

But oh, this tea, it’s truly fine, my friends, at least the early steeps are. When I think a firm “no” on the price, even with a sour back end I can’t forget how good those early steeps are. I think if I were twenty years old I might forget about getting married and put every last dime into this. Never buy a single handbag. One can better afford a Quonset hut with tea like this.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Causes for Sour Flavors in Puerh Tea

Recently I tried a tea recommended by a friend which I found to be very sour, to the point where I didn’t want to continue drinking it. I’m not a stranger to sour tea. But of course I feel bad when I think a tea is sour because I know the reasons why. The question is whether the tea is a loss or still has hope of further transformation. I’d like to recommend reading as much as you can about fermentation in general, along with puerh fermentation articles when you come across them. Using a very informative book published last year, Modernization of Traditional Food Processes and Products, (A. McElhatton and M. El Idrissi, eds. Springer, 2016), I will attempt to apply the fermentation concepts described in this book, and explain sourness in a more approachable manner in the context of puerh storage. Hopefully then I can pick out a cause for what I taste in my friend’s tea.

Sour flavors in puerh tea are due to acids which are secretions, or by-products, of bacteria and enzymes. In any fermentation process of vegetable matter, acid formations are normal and an important stage toward getting the finished product you want. A mild sourness is indicative of a desirable stage in slow-aging sheng puerh. Acid formations provide a favorable environment for growth of fungi like Aspergillus niger and Penicillum, but also provide an unfavorable environment for putrefactive bacteria so that the product does not spoil or rot.

Fermentation, to put it simply, is a three-stage process of bacteria->to acid-> to yeast in which all three are in enough of a balance that the correct bacteria and yeast will grow at each stage. Gallic acid, among others, is the primary compound responsible for a mild sour flavor when puerh is aging well. Aspergillus fungi such as niger, foetidus and Penicillum also produce a mild gluconic acid as the result of fermenting glucose sugars. In the middle of fermentation, a mild sourness is normal.

However, other acid products are produced during fermentation as well. When acids get overly abundant, beneficial bacteria and fungi cannot continue to develop and the next stage of fermentation cannot progress. Either the tea doesn’t make it to the stages responsible for breaking down bitterness and developing flavor, or the tea ferments too fast and breaks down before the good yeasts get a chance to add flavor. So, we can end up with tea that has too many acids and didn’t properly progress to the next microbial stage. Let’s take a look at some of the possibilities for overabundance of acids.

Too High Heat and Humidity

Several organisms can grow out of balance when tea is stored or fermented in too hot conditions. The enzyme Rhyzopus is active at temps of 32-40C and is important in breaking down the starchy cell walls and pectin in the tea. This will allow for an effective release of tea juices into an infusion, and add fragrance. So this enzyme Rhyzopus is important in fermentation of puerh tea. Rhyzopus secretes fumaric acid, lactic acid and succinic acid. While breaking down the cell walls of the tea leaf is the desired function, an overabundance of Rhyzopus will break open the structure of the tea completely. In a high-heat situation with too much Rhyzopus, your tea cake will develop mushy, melded spots because the leaves are breaking down into wet globs.

Too-wet tea that arrived moldy.
The globbing of the leaves is evident near the neifei
Unfortunately, this is how poorly controlled fast fermentation with high heat can result in a sour tea product. This is true regardless of the length of time the tea is kept in a too-high heat situation. The longer the high heat continues, the more Rhyzopus breaks down the tea making backtracking impossible. The tea will taste sour because it is browned and too broken down, and the brew is muddy or dirty looking. However, if the high heat conditions were for a shorter period of time, the tea may be able to rebalance as long as it’s not broken down too much. Alas my friend’s tea suffered from too much breakdown so I don’t think it has anywhere to go from its sour state.

Too Cold and Dry

Lactic acid is an important part of fermentation because it creates positive conditions for beneficial yeasts like Aspergillus niger. Aspergillus niger is a carbon source of food for Saccharomyces yeasts which are responsible for transforming the bitterness in tea into sweet and mellow flavors. As long as the acid environment is under control, in late-stage fermentation the Saccaronmyces yeasts will get their opportunity to convert the bitterness in the tea into nuanced flavors. This is because Rhyzopus has done its job to break open the cell walls and make the plants juices available to this yeast. But when a tea is too cold and dry at the start, Rhyzopus may not sufficiently grow to break down the cells of the tea. Fermentation cannot progress and the tea appears green and young.

Both Rhyzopus and Saccharomyces need sufficient heat and humidity to grow. A too-dry and too-cool environment means the tea is stuck in a state where the earlier yeasts and bacteria produced the correct acids, but fermentation stopped there. If kept in this state for too long Aspergillus and Rhyzopus will die out, and their waste carbon products needed for Sacchronmyces food are no longer available. Thus the Sacchromyces yeasts will never get their chance to develop those lovely flavors from the bitter plant juices. In addition, our friends Sacchromyces are responsible for clarifying the juices from cloudy to clear. The tea will remain bitter and acid sour, and the brew will be cloudy. Fragrance too is gone.

This is what produces the familiar “dry storage sour,” but unlike the too-high heat situation, if the tea is not cold and dry for too long, then heat and humidity can be applied to correct the stuck tea and get fermentation moving again. When puerh collectors complain about “too dry and cold” conditions in the west, they are referring to the possibility that western collectors cannot provide enough heat and humidity. Thus their tea will remain sour and dry until it passes a point of no return when all the microbes are killed off. The tea tastes flat in addition to dry and sour.

Charred Leaves in Chaqing

Another cause of dry storage sour is char produced by the wok in processing the maocha. Burnt smoky tea is an addition to the puerh cake that is not intrinsic to it. The tea is altered by the addition of burnt carbon. Heat and humidity can speed up the usage of this carbon by yeasts, but the fragrance and flavor produced by the char may overpower the subtle flavors produced by Saccahromyces. In my experience, char is the most common cause of bad flavor in puerh tea because it’s an addition to the tea that will not go away by the normal slow fermentation process. It requires a correction of high heat and humidity for the perfect amount of time, and the perfect time is rarely achieved. 

Puerh collectors are accustomed to accepting this processing flaw as “ordinary” when in fact it is not. “Retired smoke” is not caused by improper fermentation, but a condition imposed on the tea leaf during the wok process of chaqing used to stop the oxidation of the tea leaves prior to pressing. Another cause for smokiness is when chaqing is performed in a closed, smoky room such that the odors from wood burning permeate the leaves. I feel sad when I taste this, because a fine leaf may never get a chance to be what it is meant to be. Poor leaf, well, nothing lost and nothing gained. Yet many collectors are so accustomed to char or smoky flavors that it is accepted as a normal condition. Indeed, many people have learned to like it. Once in awhile I like it too, even though I think it is a flaw.

My favorite Manzhuan tea developed some flavor from char.
Breaking up the cake into a clay jar for a few months
corrected the problem, and I no longer taste it.
Setting aside a char factor, let us return to the main causes for sour tea during storage. A very mild sourness is normal when puerh tea is young and in a fermentation state under the correct conditions. But sourness can get out of control in two ways.  One way is too much heat and humidity, causing too high levels of acid by-products that will not allow late stage fungi to develop flavor, and the tea gets too broken down to retrieve it from the acidic condition. The other way to get sour tea is by slowing fermentation via too cold and too dry conditions, leaving acid by-products unavailable for further fermentation, cutting off the process mid-stage.

My friend’s tea suffered from the overly hot and humid wet storage condition. The tea has no remaining green and is not likely to change much after some airing. You will know when that sour problem can be corrected and when you have a loss on your hands. I have had many opportunities to experience these problems and it is always a learning experience to recognize them. Tasting your tea regularly is the best way to assess its progress. As long as you maintain your tea for as much of the year as possible at 68-80F (18-26C), and RH 60-70%, you will avoid a permanent storage-related sourness assuming you purchased good quality raw tea with excellent processing at the start.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Bang Dong and Balls: Sheng Olympics 2017

This year’s Sheng Olympics by LiquidProust Teas in conjunction with various tea vendors is an exciting opportunity to sample a variety of sheng puerh teas for not a lot of money. I missed out on Sheng Olympics last year to my abiding regret, mainly after a couple of bad group buys soured me on shared tea buying. Half the fun, of course, is drinking and sharing the same teas with a number of people at the same time. It's not a bad deal money-wise.

Sheng Olympics puerh sampler
The package includes anywhere from 10-12g of each tea plus a really cool Yunnan sticker. You get Bitterleaf Teas 2016 Alter Ego Mansa Huang Pian, and 2016 Autumn Straight Bulang No Chaser. From Crimson Lotus Teas we get a Midas Touch tea ball. From Yunnan Sourcing we get the Hi-Tech Dragon Tea ball,  and both 2010 and 2015 Autumn Bang Dong. From Tea Urchin we have 2012 Bang Dong to compare to the YS offerings. Finally we get an exclusive white2tea 2016 Tuhao as Fk tea ball, which isn’t in my group tea photo here because I’d already consumed it. I have the wrapper though.

All this cost $25, or $20 if you got the recent discount, and shipping to my address cost just $3 or so. To order all these samples separately from each of the tea companies would cost so much more just for shipping than for this whole package. Spreading out the cost among dozens of people makes this buy possible. Otherwise a tea package like this is, well, frankly impossible to acquire. Unfortunately as of this writing, the package seems to have sold out.

Wrapper from 2016 Tuhao as Fk exclusive tea ball
LiquidProust is probably best known on Reddit tea forums for offering free puerh samples to newbies, an effort which has cost him a lot of money and to which many puerh heads have donated excess tea. His blog is well worth a read though. As his name implies, his efforts in tea are directed toward a theme: can a tea experience resemble good literature, such as if Proust turned into liquid tea, what would this tea taste like? One of his recent blog posts in pursuit of this theme created a “Narnia” tea, which is a white tea wrapped in silver leaf. Not sure what that tastes like, but I found the post interesting and the tea rather beautiful and tweeted it in case any foodies out there are looking for a themed tea.

The puerh tea world is rather devoid of well-read, literary people in the US, where for some reason tea attracts science types more often than literary folks. LiquidProust states his inspiration around Proust was his read of what I assume is the entirety of In Search of Lost Time. My own reading of Proust began and ended with Vol. V, The Prisoner, perhaps an unfortunate choice. I’m certain Proust is back in vogue now after years of firmly out until someone “out-ed” Proust, and his Albertine as very likely a disguised Albert. 

Knowing this intrigues me further when someone names his straight avatar LiquidProust, winning more admiration last year when I checked out his other social media. I found a rather frank journey from a conservative Christian background to exploring other faiths, including one rather impromptu visit to a synagogue’s Sabbath service, an adventure he defended later among the inebriated friends who joined him. The young man has a lot more going on with his inner journey than just a narrow obsession with tea, displaying expansiveness in his thinking, To wit, tea is a point from which to explore and find common experiences with other people. While tea-as-literature adds a layer of thinking beyond what the tea itself presents, this theme is indeed a point of view lending toward open discussion rather than closed debate, and a theme which LiquidProust takes on with more than a little enthusiasm. 

I am certain he won’t feel comfortable with my musings here, or the fact that I’ve read a lot of his past social posts even back in his college years. Just to clarify, I read a great deal on people whose thinking I find interesting. I’ve read tea blogs in their entirety front to back, and tea forums with hundreds of pages. I only take the time to do this when I find intelligent people. In LiquidProust’s energetic postings I find themes of spiritual searching, literature, tea, sex, work, and what the ancient Greeks called koinonia, in communion or community with others. I have tried chatting with Mr. LiquidProust in sentences which include all of these themes in a rather compressed fashion, but my efforts mostly evoke a bit of paranoia from him, wondering if I am criticizing. Not my intention at all. Perhaps I am a bit fumbling and not so socially graceful, adding too many layers into what I try to say, perhaps poorly, obscuring my intention to pay the highest compliment I feel I can give to anyone, to address the entirety of pure intelligence. For he is a rare person.

Might not look like a lot of leaf,
but this is a 200 ml gaiwan.
Had to move the tea from the teapot above.
Anyway, on to the tea! The Tuhao as FK teaball is a highlight for me, as I own the 2015 cake but have not yet tried the 2016. Those of us participating in Sheng Olympics were to drink it on Christmas Eve, but I fell asleep early and slept through the entire evening. I finally got down to the tea a few days later. This tea ball is a LOT of Tuhao, much more I than I would use in a session. Tuhao as Fk is not a wimpy tea.

Thick stems
However, I wish I’d waited a year or two because the tea ball is still very green and due to the compression is not yet out of the green tea stage. You can see from my photos the greenish tint to the brew. The 2016 version is every bit as durable as last year. I needed five days and about 26 steeps and the tea still isn’t done yet. 

Red is a complementary color of green,
so any green visually appears brighter.
The brew starts out floral and rather bitter, and only at steep 13 or so honey notes emerge. Yet even after 18 steeps a bit too long on the brew time and I’m rewarded with punishing bitterness. My last steep at 26 still had the bitterness and honey note, the tea is lighter at that point, yet nowhere near done. Leaves are mostly a bud plus two leaves, with thick stems. This tea is huge on huigan, Tuhao is just a big Las Vegas of a tea, and well worth the money to buy and store away.

Steep 24, green brew mellows somewhat to a honey color.
Tea balls seem like a great travel option, but in fact they are challenging to brew and require far more time than a chunk from a beeng. Tuhao is a glorious tea, as wonderful an opportunity as this custom pressing is, at the same time it’s a waste of tea. Tea balls made from such fine tea are really a waste for me because I can’t break up the tea ball and drink less. From what I can tell, others drinking this Tuhao tea ball finished up with it in one evening. I rather doubt they drank 20 steeps, but if sharing with other people, then perhaps one evening is feasible. I think I understand now why mini teas use so-so tea so that you don’t feel guilty drinking some of it and then tossing it out.

Such leaf quality for a tea ball!
Regretfully I tossed those fine leaves after steep 26 and brewed up the 2010 Autumn Bang Dong by Yunnan Sourcing. This tea is available for $56 from the China site for 400g. The leaves are tiny and the tea brews up with a spicy, pecan pie scent. My first two brews left my gaiwan stuck to the plate with sticky tea. The sugars are emerging from the cell walls within, and I expect this tea to develop more stickiness because the aging is coming along nicely. Comparing my gaiwan of leaves with the photos on the listing the aging is obvious, my tea is browning while the original photo shows a very bright green.

2010 Bang Dong aging apparent when comparing the listing on YS.
I leafed this tea heavy with 7g in 60ml gaiwan, and my heavy hand is punished with a bitter, yet medium thick brew with vanilla and spicy nuts. The tea thickens noticeably around steeps 4-6, and slowly thins from there. Spicy notes are typical of many autumn puerh teas, and this one tastes rather traditional with hay, spices and vanilla. This is one of those puerh teas that approaches a barrel whiskey type experience, albeit a fairly comfortable brew compared to actual liquor. I've learned that Yunnan Sourcing productions are best leafed heavy, especially after TeaDB found out how heavy Mr. Wilson himself leafs a gaiwan. To know what he sees in a tea, I feel I must also go heavy. This 2010 is a nice value drinker, a huge 400g cake costs the same as many cakes half this size. 

Steep 4
I plan to get to the other Bang Dong teas later. While the idea of a comparison between these teas is a great idea, I don’t expect the teas to truly compare, and not simply because of differences in storage or age. Tea terroir has changed a great deal in the past seven years, and Bang Dong area yields a variety of tea and quality too. I’m not sure a 2010 or 2012 tea even from the same trees is the same in 2015. I'm guessing the Bang Dong + Balls is more about the implied pun in this tea sampler. 

Bitterleaf’s Alter Ego is comprised of the huang pian from their spring production of WMD Mansa, a tea which sold out early and packs quite a tea high. I’ve heard from other tea drinkers that this same tea high experience is in the huang pian brick. Price-wise, the tea costs the same as white2tea’s Fade, $24.50 for a 200g brick. Tea chatters debate which tea is the better one, with some preferring Alter Ego to Fade. I haven’t had a chance to try Alter Ego yet, but when I do I will post some notes on Steepster.

Looks like the Sheng Olympics might sell out, I hope you didn't miss out on picking up this sample pack from LiquidProust, It's fun to share tea with other people drinking at the same time, and I will look forward to trying the rest of the teas at some point. This week I received a generous package of samples of CYH teas and I will get into these next. I seem to drink tea more slowly than many bloggers, I apologize for that, but I try and steep them out as much as possible or drink more than one session!