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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

On the Lake

On Pike Lake in northern Wisconsin where I grew up, nearly all of the houses were built high above the water. To reach the lake, you had to get down thirty or more feet of embankment covered with oak and birch trees, and numerous plants including poison ivy. Homeowners put in long flights of stairs made of wood or brick, or carved out winding dirt paths. A neighbor’s house, however, was the only home built right on the water, on a small peninsula that I can only describe as a bit of fairy land.

In this house dwelt a reclusive old timer somewhere in his seventies or eighties. Although the neighborhood, while still forest-y in most places, was largely residential, at one point this old timer small-farmed his property. To reach the road, he had to go up a quarter mile or so, and on the way he had forest on the right hand, and bits of open field on the left and up near his square brick garage which held an old car he drove once in awhile to the store. I surmised he must have farmed a bit because he sold part of his property to my father which included a “boathouse,” in actuality a small animal barn.

In the back of the barn was a dried out old chicken coop with tiered wood nesting areas, ancient brown straw and rusty chicken wire. The barn’s attic must have served as a hay mow, because the ceiling inside had a square opening with no ladder and the front of the attic had a large door into which farmers usually pitchfork up hay or straw. My guess is the farmer grew straw for his chickens and pitched it up into the mow, because although he had enough room for a cow or two, he would not have had sufficient pasture to support these. He must have stopped farming sometime in the 1940s or 1950s. My father used the small barn alternatively as a boathouse, tentatively as a party spot with an old wood bar, and a garden house when he put in a vegetable garden for a few years. Later on we made a playhouse there.

But the old man’s property is still with me now, because we played there so often. His very plain old farmhouse looked a bit like this.

Many an early 20th century farmhouse looked like this.
photo of Dane County 1910 house
by Joann M. Ringelstetter
Imagine this house on a small peninsula jutting out on the water surrounded by lake and forest. He had a small, rickety red dock on one side over the lily pads and another larger boat dock at the end of the peninsula where the water had a sandy bottom instead of muddy weeds. The grass around his house was a soft sort of grass that didn’t need mowing. And a small patch of what I can only call fairy grass always grew down by the water, with a moss edging at the start of the forest. This grass felt lovely on bare feet.

I don’t remember much about the old timer, except he used to visit the apple tree that he had put in, or my father did, right on the edge of the property. One day he brought up a stool and picked up fallen apples from the ground. My brother and I spotted him sitting under the apple tree. I was four or five years old and my brother three, perhaps. The old man cracked acorns from the red oak trees on my father’s property just below. He beckoned us over.

“These are good to eat,” he said, cracking open a few acorns.

We tried the acorns which were so bitter we ran, spitting them out and laughing. The old man laughed too, but continued to eat them himself. Later on when I broke open green acorns and pinched the nuts sometimes they broke apart into powder. I read about how people made flour from acorns back in the old days, and that idea made sense to me when remembering the old man eating from the oak trees.

“Oh that never happened,” my father said years later, when I told him about the old man feeding us acorns.

“It did too happen,” I insisted. He shook his head.

After all, I had tried nearly every plant possible that grew in the forest, right down to the stems of the water lilies. I even tried some poisonous plants, like the sumac, though I wasn’t stupid enough to eat the berries or the leaves. But sumac branches can be peeled and split open, the spongy core inside is pleasant to chew like gum. I know the acorn story is true because I could just as easily have tried eating the acorns on my own, and surely I would remember learning for myself how they taste. I didn’t need to make up a story about the old timer living in the house below us, feeding acorns to me and my brother.

But the real lure of his property was the truly fairy quality of the water, the grass and the forest. I imagine he worked out a rural living during the Depression and war years on his chickens, maybe a goat, acorns and berries. Ducks laid eggs in the woods near the water, and fish were easy to catch right from the shore, or on the ice in winter. With a bit of coffee, salt, flour and butter I bet that old man got by just fine with his eggs, some squirrels, duck, fish and maybe a deer or two. I remember water and sewer lines were put in all down his driveway when I was about seven or so, after the old timer died and a wealthy family from Madison bought his property to use as a summer house. I shudder to think what the old man did for sewer before that.

In winter, my brother and I used the long dirt ruts of the driveway as a sledding track. When the snow packed just right, we could sled all way down and around to the water, so fast we ended up well out onto the lake ice. A long walk back up and down again we flew. One magical winter the Madison family children visited their summer home, they were young adults and joined in on the sledding at night, turning on the outdoor lights, grabbing one of us little kids and jumping onto the sled. The family didn’t visit often.

So in summer time, the rest of the property was our playground. We found beds of moss covered with canopies of bushes that became imaginary houses. We found an old tree house in the woods, not much left except the sturdy platform and a few beams, maybe a deer stand rather than a playhouse. We went into the old man’s garage and looked at his car, and later the boat kept there by the Madison family. I don't remember what kind of car the old man had, but it was big and old, not like my dad's blue Chevy.

I dressed up in long dresses and ran barefoot over the soft grass, imagining I was a princess. The house faced the lake to the northwest, and only in summer could the sun reach the house. In the late summer afternoon, the sun shone golden on the peninsula and shimmered along the dock.


My brother pulled out fish after fish off the old man’s dock every time it rained. We lost our lures in the pine trees on the shore. Huge bull frogs lived in the lily pads around the peninsula, until we fished them all out for the legs my dad enjoyed frying up. Bullhead fish with stingers nested near shore and we caught them, for dad knew how to cook those too. Big sunfish and northern pike roamed the shoreline and huge snapping turtles, all of which we caught, cleaned and ate, sometimes in huge neighborhood turtle roast parties. I found wintergreen berries in winter and chewed the leaves. Yes, I am certain the old man got along just fine, back when he was the only one living on that land.

One early summer when I was a young teenager, I walked around the mossy woods above the old man’s house and saw asparagus, a huge patch of stalks eighteen inches tall and some even taller. I never saw asparagus there before. I know that asparagus can return year after year, but who planted it, and when? I ran back to the house and coaxed my father to come look. After some convincing, he walked out there and sure enough, we cut down a lot of asparagus that day. The stalks looked like magic staves coming up from the weedy green forest floor, wielded by the wizardly tall birch trees. I peeled their paper and cut plaque fungus for carving, wondering what else I could make from birch bark. I knew about Chippewa canoes, but only later seeing Russian birch bark basket art did I understand fully possibilities I could only intuit as a child.

The old man never invited us into his house, and we didn’t dare go close when we saw him about. But later on when playing near his house, long after it became a summer home, we noticed two small doors at ground level. We opened these, and they clearly held yard tools in a space under the house. But we were small enough to play in there, under the trellis-covered open spots beneath the house. One day, while playing under the house we found an old iron key. Indeed it was a key to the house. Finally we could see the inside of the house we only imagined before, the house on the fairy peninsula. The key opened one of the doors, and in we went.

To our surprise, the inside of the house had yellow, pine wood paneled walls, and plain tweed furniture, like maybe early 1960s small couches, chairs, lots of very basic places to sit. We saw a tiny kitchen and even tinier bedrooms. At this point the house was just an ordinary summer cabin, like so many others on lakes in Wisconsin at that time. The fancy new owners clearly hadn’t done much of anything to improve the place. It looked like the old man still lived there with an old coffee can and not much else. We didn’t take or touch anything, but we kept the key to the fairy house, which was just an ordinary wood farm house after all.

Yet the fairy peninsula was everything, still is everything, all of my religious vocation, the spiritual pursuits, the soft grasses and mosses and herbs, the chicken coop, the trees and the asparagus. Thinking of it brings me a timeless peace, for the land there never flooded and the house still stands even after more than a century. In my mind’s eye I still stand on the grass beneath the trees there in the summer sun during the moments of greatest duress, in moments of violence and human horror, bare feet on damp moss in a place of no fear. Often I have wondered what people do without this, though I suppose in a city children may find secret places of repose. I know people speak of Central Park this way, even in the middle of New York City.


In a moment’s flash of memory, I may stand near the two doors where the yard tools were, where we found the key and now I have a fresh, new puerh cake in my hand, still in the wrapper, still yet to be opened and known. I buy my tea with the same fairy promise, in the moment before using the key. I can hold the cake now open in the wrapper, me in my long dress, the old man up above with his acorns. The acorns and the house look like magic, but inside they are plain and bitter. The tea itself chids me for believing the wrapper, for getting lost in the trees and the white lilies. “Use the key,” it says, because now the chicken coop helps me more than the lake does.

I should find a photo of the place, I think to myself, for all that it meant to me, still my mind’s spot to lose myself. Looking around on the net, oh, I find one! The property was sold not long ago.

photo WoodburyRealtors property listing
The house has gained many sections, owners adding onto the original house, obscuring it. Now the house is huge, I suppose as large as most people want today. But it takes over the peninsula, dominates it, rather than merely sitting upon it, letting the bit of land be the nature’s miracle it is. Yet, vestiges of what I recall remain. I see the soft patch of ever green grass on the far left, as it always was, and the lily pads still growing on the lake. The trees still jut from the shore, and the forest is actually denser. Despite the haphazard additions to the house, obviously the owners see something of the magic by their choice of adding cathedral windows to better enjoy the lake views. The style doesn’t fit the plain old farm house, but a bit of church and castle in their choices reassures me that they feel what I felt. The previous inhabitants honor the forest magic in their own way, even if the overly large house tries to suck all of it out from the peninsula.

I feel certain now the wood paneling inside is long gone, and the interior matches the promises outdoors. The house probably has an amazing bath and fancy kitchen. Surely this is so, for the photo is from a real estate listing which says the property sold for $399,000. The old man probably never imagined this kind of money. Or maybe he knew all along, as we did, that what he held onto for so many years, so plain and ordinary for him, is someday worth so much more.





Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Raw and the Cooked: 2017 Puerh Predictions



Last year I enjoyed writing an article about puerh season predictions. Some of them came true. So this year I assembled a few more, just for the fun of speculating off the top of my head. After all, my tea hobby is mostly speculation, brewing and stewing anyway. 

2017 is a Rooster.

The other word doesn’t work in English without tittering unless you want to use the word beenghole or Bacon Log in the same sentence. We are barely a month out of Chinese New Year and the jokes are old already. I am loving 2018 Dog right about now.

The Trees are one year older.

This means adding 100 years in retail marketing. With evidence too, so we expect more photos of trees full of leaves no one is allowed to pick, and plenty of grandmas willing to swear on their betel leaf that those trees were around before the flood. Likewise, I am fairly certain my Dear Son will happily testify under oath that my tea collection is ten years older than it really is. He can probably find a Tea Sommelier to certify stamp a piece of paper for him for $50 or less, a small fee to pay to add thousands of dollars to the worth of my collection. Business is booming all around the tea industry, and I haven’t a thing to wear.

The Tea Harvest will Happen.

Yes, the forecast is optimistic we will have new tea this year.

The Great Shrinking gets dodgier.

Last year we started seeing more and more 100g and even smaller beengcha, with better material than in the past. I continue to see these small cakes as dodgy buys at best. While this small cake might be an opportunity to taste a higher quality of tea in a very few cases (and I mean few), it’s not a good size for future hoarding. To clarify, I’m not here to represent the sensible buyer and most readers of this blog know that by now.

We want as much good tea as possible. I see the 100g and smaller cake size as a trial size for people who are new to puerh and don’t know what they are getting into. Otherwise, why would I want a cake of maybe 12 sessions? If the tea is good, then I regret the small size and want more. A good eighth will flake off a cake in normal conditions anyway, especially when the wrapper gives out which we all know it will. If I want a sample, I will order a sample and it arrives in a bag.

Also, small cakes are clutter in the storage. Forget your nice stacks of 357s, the small ones fall all over in a messy way. I feel like buying a reliable 357g every year such as a good old boring Menghai is a better move in the long run than futzing with tiny cakes until you grow weary, and drink them up quickly just to be done with the tediousness of caring for that small size. Keep in mind tea vendors are thinking about selling tea, and this is why they make these small sizes. We buyers are storing, and for storage and long term relationships with our tea cakes, the bigger size wins for my investment.

Somebody will invent the Pumidor.

Old fridges and unplugged wine coolers are reaching a social peak, and yet anxiety abounds amongst tea heads huddled over hygrometers showing >1 SD variability in humidity levels. This situation is ripe for the next huckster to crowd fund the perfect puerh storage cabinet to bilk worried collectors out of the price of a premium tong. Barring that, we have an opening in the western puerh market for Florida homesteaders to rent a warehouse and start charging for long distance storage. This could unleash yet more market opportunities for things like chartered flights to visit their Pu and blocks of hotel rooms serving continental breakfast boba. I can’t wait.

Someone else will discover Bug Shit tea.

Yet another blog post waiting to happen and you know it’s inevitable. Funny how we never seem to see consistent reviews year after year by the same blogger of this season’s new BS tea, with nuances in flavor and such.

The term Boutique will lose all meaning.

So, what exactly is “boutique” nowadays? Does Chen Yuan Hao qualify as boutique? After all, it is a brand sourced by a single entity. For some, “boutique” means northern tea, or what gets called “oolong” tea which presumes that tea cakes made by small entities won’t age, even though none of the so-called “boutiques” have existed even ten years at this point. To others, “boutique” refers to (mostly) white people traveling to Yunnan to make tea cakes. Oddly too many of those making such a proclamation about aging have not even tried the teas fresh or aged.

I don’t know about you, but I see small buyers/producers of puerh tea coming and going from the retail scene, maybe more coming in than going out. But not enough time has elapsed anywhere to determine which teas will age into anything good. We are talking 10-20 years here, and that presumes such tea will even survive the storage years, either getting wrecked or drunk up by the owner well before any Judgment Day arrives. As for wrecking in storage, at this point I know several people storing tea longer than five years in the west, people who own both “boutique” and factory teas and I will bet money their tea survives quite nicely. I am not counting myself in that handful of people either. I plan to drink up or wreck mine. Anything left will be placed next to my urn in an unmarked location.

Despite all that, Social Media will break into all-out war over Factory vs. Boutique.

More than a few grumblings and rumblings are poking themselves into my blog comment section lately, and louder still around the forums. Right now, Factory is winning. I don’t know if factory tea is really and truly better or if this reflects a desire for aged tea, and we just don’t have any aged house tea from small boutique producers. I was surprised last year at a tea tasting when alongside some truly fine new teas, the group vote overwhelmingly chose an aged factory tea as the best one served that day. I do not know if this was simply a preference for aged tea over fresh. But the new teas were far and away super premium leaf, unspoiled by poor processing and yet most folks wanted the grungy old cake that had no real depth of character except for the fact that it was fifteen years old.

So in lacking other aged alternatives people buy older factory teas, paying huge mortgage-sized sums in a few cases, putting up with very wet storage and retired smoke. On some level, the flavors in older factory teas are what people are accustomed to. On the other hand, some older teas do pack a punch and I respect the stomach enough to know that aged teas are better to drink. I hope that we don’t always need to settle for dusty old brick simply because it’s aged, or pay out the child’s college fund merely to drink decent aged tea.

I also hope that as people get more heated in debates over tea preferences, we remember to respect the drink of our fellow men and women. In the remains of a long day we all need our tea, and punching someone’s enjoyment steals peace from the tea table. Disrupting the tea table is the bigger faux pas, and a huge rudeness in the end. The reality is in a moment of thirst we all will gladly drink that dusty old brick if it’s the only thing we have rather than a jasmine oolong, though I suspect many of us might quaff the oolong too. After all nobody is going back to coffee.
.
To wit, the “Taobao Tea Melee.”

Tea heads are not the only ones duking it out. I rejoiced to see this headline in translation on puer.cn. I envision Taobao store owners engaging in hand to hand combat with girls in candy colored swimsuits walking around with numbered placards for each round, and clowns flinging puerh discs like Frisbees to eager outstretched hands. It’s about time puerh tea gets more fun because really the whole scene is far too serious.

Actually, the article is referring to the quick buck made by Taobao sellers of fake old tea, mostly “wet warehouse” designed to jump-age the tea artificially. The author points out that people are fooled once, maybe twice, but eventually customers catch on to the game. He advocates for “small profit” tea selling of the genuine brand. I like that, but it’s a pipe dream. What I really glean from these articles and around the net is a continuing down trend of highly wet stored tea in the consumer palate. A bit of humidity is good for buyers in the west, but more than 3-5 years humid storage is a risky buy, whether on Taobao or anywhere else. Stick to dry unless you are certain you like overcooked tea.

Yunnan Sourcing will make a Jinggu cake.

In a tea world of such contention and climate change, some things in the puerh tea world are reassuringly reliable. As my post here goes to press, Yunnan Sourcing has announced they will be rolling out a new website format in the next few weeks. Apparently the old site is straining under an antiquated architecture. I glanced at the new site, and the look is quite different. I am sure the new site will be serviceable, but I will miss the reassuring feeling of tea shopping with the gold and red colors of the old site. I want to thank Scott Wilson for giving us so many wonderful years with the former site, and I look forward to testing the new one.

Well, now you have my predictions. Do you have any predictions for this year?







Wednesday, March 8, 2017

On Drinking Shou, a 7581.

The winter is nearly over, and I realize I did not drink much shou this year. In part, my edema just is more noticeable and I find sheng gives me a bit of relief whilst shou seems to exacerbate the feeling of too much water in my arms and legs. Also I’ve had more than my share of gut bomb shous over the past year, teas that are likely to age out well because they are so strong, but not so wise to drink young. Yes, I do well in buying shou but not so well in waiting to drink them. All too easily I get entranced at the idea of well-aged shou, a delicious drink, and keep buying what I think will turn out well with some years on it. I delude myself that my son and sister will continue drinking my collection after I’m gone, even though I know my son will happily call a tea vendor and tell him to come get Mother’s tea.

But giving more thought to the issue behind avoiding shou, I remember now that I drank shou happily for years. In fact, I bought shou cakes and 7542 back in 2009 and dipped into my shou cakes regularly for years. So what happened? Suddenly I realize that I used to grandpa my shou, rather than gongfu brew. I never had a gut issue during those years. I also know that I tend to leaf heavy in the gaiwan, and probably my strong shou teas are just that, too strong for heavy leafing and probably tending toward medicinal strength. I admire strong sheng and shou puerh teas at what I consider to be medicinal strength because of my decades studying and using herbal tisanes as tonics and light medicines. In fact, these teas are stronger than so many tonic herbs, and as I am accustomed to caffeine and theanine, it is easy for me to take for granted how strong puerh teas really are.

So I find myself digging in the cupboard today to find a forgotten shou mug. After a couple of years drinking tea, I bought this Yixing mug specifically for shou. I liked the idea of not washing the mug, just a good rinse and wipe and all set to dry out for the next day. Also, shou stains regular mugs as you probably know. Confining my shou to one mug rather than muck up mugs others in the house wish to use is a good rationale to shop for tea ware.

Yixing tea mug with cover.
This Yixing mug is one I bought from Enjoying Tea for about $24, and isn’t the best Yixing as you can imagine. The clay is a bit muddy smelling at times, but is fine for heavy shou teas. Maybe the extra mud actually helps me digest the shou better. I need to remember how I used to brew shou, and try this old ritual again with a brick of 7581 shou.

Bricks like this are easy to find for about $10 with shipping incl.
I got this 250g 7581 brick over a year ago and cannot remember where, EBay or Aliexpress perhaps. I know I bought a couple of these and paid $9.99 and got free shipping. I know I was mentally ill at the time in my tea over-buying habits which is probably why memory is fuzzy on the details. In defense of my purchase, the 7581 brick is a favorite of many people. Our Steepster friend Yangchu once wrote something like “if you don’t like a 7581, them’s fightin’ words,” a rather…strong endorsement. Seems this tea is a staple in many puerh cupboards.

The bamboo is folded around the brick,
easy to put the tea back in and slide the ties on.
Back to recalling my old ritual. I chip off a bit of shou about the size of an American quarter coin and place it in a hand strainer. Then I rinse the tea in the strainer under cold water. This will remove any fishy or dusty dirt flavor without activating the tea and losing any brew. Then I dump the tea in the mug and do two boiling rinses and pour off the rinse into the strainer to catch any stray leaves. Sticks usually will float out readily and I can toss those. Then I fill the mug with boiling water and put the cover on.

Yes, yes this tea will make me lose tons of weight
lower my cholesterol and prevent diabetes,
as well as recover from hangovers and improve my sex life.
The first half of the mug is on the light side as the tea slowly releases itself. The second half gets sweeter and more densely flavored. This particular tea has a very sweet huigan, and also some astringency.

Rinse shou in cold water
using an ordinary kitchen strainer.
Then rinse with boiling water twice.
When about 1/3 of the brew remains, I refill the mug with boiling water and continue drinking. This 7581 has a nice chocolate smell. I usually go for yet another refill before discarding the leaves. My Yixing mug gets very hot to the touch, except for the handle, and nice for cold hands but not so much if you have small children around. This mug is good to keep at work. Nobody else is likely to borrow it.

Hey, it's not how we brew, but how much we enjoy.
I suppose if I return to drinking shou mostly by grandpa style, I will still need to assess a shou using a gaiwan. But whatever works for tea is all good, however we drink it. Bricks like this 7581 are very inexpensive and are not a huge commitment for someone just getting started with shou puerh. A regular ole coffee mug works just fine, no special equipment needed. 



Sunday, February 26, 2017

Tea Scum

More lovely samples of Chen Yuan Hao await my discovery, and today I plan to drink a 2016 Yiwu tea. The sample is courtesy of a tea friend, who labeled the tea Yiwu, so I am guessing the sample is the 2016 Chen Yi Zi Hao aka Yiwu Chawang here from Teapals.

I own plenty of Yiwu teas and while the best ones have a grape top note and honey base, Yiwu teas are fairly diverse in the finer points, including leaf size and aging potential. In fact, Yiwu varietal teas extend south of the Yunnan China border into Laos where they cannot “properly” be called puerh tea even though the trees themselves do not know this political requirement. I should not necessarily generalize about a Yiwu tea before actually trying it, because the smaller distinctions make a huge difference in price.

Before I try this tea, however, please note this image of a pristine porcelain gaiwan.

Gaiwan by Inge Nielsen, Etsy
While of course this is a fairly new 65 ml gaiwan made by potter Inge Nielsen (@i.n.clay on Instagram), I tend to keep my all my tea ware on the clean side. Now I’m all for Patina, but we have Real patina and Fake patina. Patina is a dark stain left behind on tea ware from years and years of use. This patina is often shiny and a muted tea color which indicates aging, very pleasing on Yixing and other clay teapots. Patina is so desirable it is often faked to make teapots look older.  Thus, Patina is the new riche for tea heads. So much so in fact that some people must get that patina going at all costs by never wiping or cleaning off the tea ware. So you see tea gear that looks something like this.

Tea Scum
I am reluctant to share the source of this disgraceful tea ware, after all I am only poking a little bit of gentle (I hope) fun. However, the owner does have a registered government non-profit organization so I feel not at all guilty leaving off an attribution. And to be clear this org has not replied to any of my two year’s worth of emails pleading for help getting  acceptance of SNAP benefits at Yunnan Sourcing and other expensive puerh dealers because food stamps do, after all, cover tea and coffee. No one works harder than Old Cwyn on behalf of tea people for real issues despite the fact that I don’t have 501c tax-free status myself. Any complaints regarding all this can be directed to the contact form on the right hand side of this page.

Because the truth is this type of tea staining is not Patina, but Tea Scum. Tea Scum is the result of tea trapped beneath a combination of oils and minerals in water which eventually form a crust. Rather like this:


Rehabitat.com
"How to remove hard water stains"
Over time bacteria gets trapped in mineral crusts. I mean really, do you let your tea ware resemble your toilet bowl? Well maybe some do. I know puerh hoarding and trouble with cleaning go hand in hand. In the toilet bowl level one can perhaps understand this, assuming the stats are really true and 85% of puerh readers are male, so they don’t need to sit down constantly like women to do their business except after a particularly nasty shou goes south which no respectable tea collector ever drinks. Personally, I don’t keep my toilet looking like this but of course tea ware is more important than the toilet bowl. Right?

For educational purposes, going beyond the focus of my blog which is mostly confined to Tea Filth, let me show you what Real Patina is.

Two years of use produces a very light patina
Lin's Ceramics cream color cup
Any stain that does not scrape off with a fingernail is Real Patina. That which scrapes off with a fingernail is Tea Scum. Just so you know. You can pay me to try a questionable shou but not in the tea ware in the photo above. The Midwest where I live is known for the adage “cleanliness is next to godliness,” and this is not mere regional stereotyping. Cleanliness is godliness. Alas, Tea Scum lurks within the best company and not just vendors, and boiling temperatures do not kill off bacteria on Venus, something for man to dwell upon.

My advice, always travel with your own gaiwan and cup as a backup contingency. Inspect all tea ware carefully before using anyone else’s. Having a wet wipe in your wallet is certainly worth a thought if you don’t want to insult the host by insisting on using your own tea ware. You can pretend to inspect the “beauty” of the piece by holding it at a distance far below the level of the table while applying a discreet wipe, and remind the host of properly warming the wares with boiling water afterward, prior to brewing.

2016 Chen Yuan Hao "Yiwu"
 Using my pristine (for now) gaiwan, I can truly give the 2016 CYH Yiwu the attention and aesthetic it deserves. For this tea costs 1200 MYR for a full beeng which rings up at $270. Not the most expensive Yiwu out there, the Last Thoughts cake comes to mind, but well past any budget Yiwu. I have a most generous sample thanks to my friend, and so many sessions available to me.

Steep 3
The initial nose is an acrid smoke in a vegetal base which reflects in the flavor of the first two cups after a rinse, and thankfully washes away after three brews. The gold color of the brew is surprisingly dark for a tea less than a year old, but perhaps the bit of char lends some color in the early steeps. My photo appears consistent with the Teapals photo. I get more bitterness than usual for many boutique Yiwu teas. A very heavy body qi after about three small 60 ml cups causes me to pass out early in the day. 

This tea also possesses a strong throat feel that lingers long after drinking, like a ball in the throat you know the tea is there. The flavor range is representative but somewhat narrow, a single octave like G below middle C to G above. None of the thickness of more premium Yiwu teas but of course that may improve and the tea is not even out of the first year yet. This one brews long, past ten brews and thickens a bit in steeps eight to ten.

I notice how small the leaves are compared to other productions, rather like the 2002 Yong Pin Hao Red which is also a first flush spring tea. A well-cultivated garden behind these teas, and both have dry storage. The 2002 YPH is now up to $260 a cake, just $10 behind this CYH but of course you’re paying for the age in the former, and the label premium in the latter. Ah, my white wrapper 1999 Yiwu, were that tea still available, seems like bargain now at $330-ish before it sold out.

The tea has some durability in steeping, I went ten steeps and the brew still had strength, however I noticed some disintegration of the leaves. Doing a strength test by rubbing the leaves between my fingers, some turned to mush but others did not. 

Steep 9
Cloudy brew from disintegrating leaves
This affected the soup, the disintegration lent a sour vegetal flavor. This tea is still young, so one must subtract the months-old tea as a variable to some extent until the leaves tighten up more. The durability of the brew is encouraging for the long term and I’d like to try this again some months from now.

This tea is definitely a better experience than a plain drinker and really one’s collection is a determining factor. Do you want yet another Yiwu in your stash? If you don’t have a decent Yiwu tea this is a good consideration. Or if you’ve tried the YQH teas and don’t care for the Taiwanese heavier storage, this tea is a new one you can try your hand at storing dry. This is where I think the tea has the most merit for me, the opportunity to age and retain more of the top notes. Quite honestly, the leaves themselves interest me more than drinking the tea they make, just for observing changes over time. This could be one of those long-drinking Yiwu cakes as long as it doesn’t sour along the way. Care is everything and the storage challenge is intriguing.

Leaves after steep 10 when I stopped
Otherwise, the price is off-putting for anyone new to puerh tea and more appealing to those with some experience of labels. Most puerh folks need to convince themselves with personal trial and error what tier of tea various amounts of money will get. A writer telling you all this really means nothing otherwise. I can say the tea is properly situated in price tier between other teas, whether or not you feel the tiers as a whole should drop down a clean hundred bills, well that is not likely to happen. This tea will hit the $400 mark within five years, I’m sure. On the upside, this production is yearly so when last year sells out you can likely expect another offering in 2017 with give or take roughly the same price.


Cheers!


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.