; Cwyn's Death By Tea ;

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

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Blog Awards Day 2, or My Teeth are Floating

Today I reached a milestone of puerh decadence consuming the most tea in a 36 hour period ever. Yesterday's post documented my drinking truce with boychik2989, where I learned that two Puerh heads can seriously put away some tea, and need for photos will stop the insanity. Today continued the tea festivities starting with lunch at Saveur magazine offices. Here is the wine I didn't drink. 

After all one doesn't want to ruin one's palate for an upcoming session. I know that a lot of you enjoy wine and other beverages and many puerh drinkers find parallels in the complex notes of single-malt whiskies with aged tea. I certainly don't disagree but I've mostly given up alcohol. This brings up that Munchies.vice.com article which turned into a topic on Reddit r/tea and has certainly got much attention online in the tea community. Both the Munchies article and the Reddit discussion came up today both at Saveur and later on at a session with In Pursuit of Tea. The Munchies article details a session held by  TwoDog from white2tea when he served puerh tea at an event with Wine Sommeliers, in between six champagne wines and single malt scotches. One of the Wine people described the 2016 Treachery of Storytelling cake as "soapy artichoke water." This resulted in a discussion of expectations of flavor when drinking old arbor puerh and how wine or alcohol people expect a lot of up front mouth flavor and specifically spit not to experience the alcohol effect. By contrast, old arbor tea is entirely about swallowing and drinking with the body.

Today during the wine talk at Saveur, I kept thinking of the phrase "soapy artichoke water." Back in August I attended a tea tasting with TwoDog where Treachery was sessioned. I haven't written much about this session. Treachery was the third tea, following Mengsong tea club balls and the old arbor Mengsong 100g from the August club. The fourth tea was the 2002 Jiaji cake from white2tea. Then TwoDog asked the group to show hands to indicate which tea they liked the best. The majority chose the Jiaji. Now, I'm not sure whether the preference may simply have been about the more aged offering. The Jiaji is very tippy, and nicely aged with the old book flavor I like. But it's nowhere in the league of Treachery, which is a once in a lifetime tea as far as I'm concerned. When tasting with my body, the Treachery is a serious tea to sit with, not taste and spit. The body is the judge. But when the group preferred the Jiaji, I decided right then to stop blogging. I couldn't write about that session. I couldn't keep going as a blogger in that moment. 

Obviously I haven't stopped writing. I confirmed with Saveur that the Wine Sommelier speaking today isn't the Soapy Artichoke Lady. I just watched the other bloggers. Many didn't try the wines mainly because they were served before lunch and the bloggers obviously did not want to consume the wine before getting some food going. But then the wines were removed from the tables before the meal because other wines were planned for the food. And I noted that the Sommelier had a spit glass and she spit her wine, and the bloggers did not have spit glasses. Some were disappointed to lose the wines before trying them but no one said anything. More than anything else I did not have a loss, because I wanted to save myself, my body, for the tea I planned to drink very soon.
I am fortunate that my friend Lew Perin of Babelcarp.org arranged a tea session at In Pursuit of Tea. Lew writes the best Twitter feed. If Tweets can be food, his are like petit fours, little treats for the tea drinker's day. Snippets of puerh obsessions. I managed to find my way to In Pursuit of Tea from the Saveur offices, skipping the desserts and afternoon talks. I have not heard of In Pursuit of Tea because apparently I live under a rock or am buried under a mound of tongs. But I looked up their site in advance. We began a round robin of musical puerh chairs, taking turns brewing the teas each of session participants brought. I of course had my 1998 Yiwu cake from white2tea. Lew brought some 1990s Hong Kong natural storage teas. In Pursuit of Tea provided first flush Darjeeling for starters, then a 2015 Jingmai and a 1990s Orange Mark with natural dry storage. 

In Pursuit of Tea stores puerh in bamboo dim sum steamers.

We discussed the drinking with the body, and I cannot drink teas such as we had today without feeling my body. The entire experience is the body, and sitting together with other people sharing the same awareness. Each tea offers something unique. My Yiwu has that old book flavor I love. The Jingmai is a young tea with a floral flavor profile and excellent processing. Mr. Perin's Hong Kong storage teas contrasted the drier storage teas with sweetness, dark and sticky. The Orange Mark is a tour-de-force of a tea that I can only describe as the perfume of one's grandmother in her drawer of notions, like pieces of cloth stored in wood drawers with sachets. Thick, medicinal with that old lady powder, or my own grandmother's lingering scent of Adorn hairspray on her braids wound around her head. 

Ten or more steeps on every tea, my body in a place between worlds. All sorts of things look interesting when tea drunk, such as the teaware and storage jars at In Pursuit of Tea.

No, puerh tea isn't merely about the body effects, but neither is the tea merely about flavor. It's all of it, the whole experience. The long legs sitting in the belly, the medicine in the throat, the florals on the tongue. The black pepper notes that require nine steeps merely to bring forth such a tang from the leaves. We agreed that no matter what tea a person prefers, our preferences are colored by our own experience, this is the starting point. I do believe that time and experience shapes one's preferences, such that I know what makes the Orange Mark special, but I also know what makes excellently aired Hong Kong storage so wonderful, and why a dry stored Yiwu is splendid, and a first flush Darjeeling is a prize to be savored in the early months after harvest. And I know why the Treachery of Storytelling is a very important tea, but that doesn't mean I am not enjoying a Jingmai too. Not every tea needs a decision or judgement of "would I buy this?" The session trumps the need for a conclusion, it is the session itself which matters.

Lew put me on a subway train to get back to Brooklyn for the next Blog awards event. I got out of the subway but I was too tea drunk to find my hotel. I wandered around and found a deli and then this Orthodox Church. 

I completely missed seeing the cop car and saw it later in the photo. Whoops. Luckily no one has invented the puerh breathalyzer yet because I'd be in the can right now, except with my groceries and cane I can pass as a homeless bag lady stumbling around on a 24 oz beer buzz. I found a bench to sit on, and eventually the presence of mind to reorient myself with the sun's direction to find my hotel. 

The Blog Awards ceremony featured fine gourmet hors d'ouvres and my favorite, traditionally air cured hard salami. I avoided the raw tuna and scallops. I didn't win my category, the sourdough blog won it. One of the Obsessive category bloggers told me, "I don't know why I'm listed in the Obsessives category, I'm just detail-oriented." Yup. 

My tea started wearing off and the food resulted in a case of heartburn that I cured with a mint. One must be careful with food mixed together, some combinations just don't sit well. Just to be clear it wasn't the liters of tea, not at all. 

In fact, I really needed more tea and asked Saveur's Digital Editor Max Falkowitz if he wanted to share a session of my Yiwu. He did. We went through fifteen plus rounds and he told me about a trip he is planning to Yunnan this weekend to document autumn tea with white2tea, so we have this to look forward to in the coming months. "I just want to continue to raise awareness about this type of tea," he said. Here are the steeped out leaves.

I'm incredibly grateful to all the people who made this trip possible for me, my sister, my son, my Steepster, Instagram and SlackChat pals, all the readers who contributed to the crowdfunding and t-shirts, and every one of you folks who read tea blogs and drink tea. They say blogging is a dying art. I'm grateful for the folks at Saveur for continuing to promote tea, the art of blogging, and for inviting an incontinent old tea lady to New York City to celebrate the best of food and drink. I still have part of tomorrow to enjoy the city before flying back to Wisconsin just in time for my annual physical. I'm working on the phrase "Doctor, I've been drinking a bit of tea..." We will see if I can get it out of my mouth this time.

Requiescat in Pace.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Saveur Blog Awards Day 1

1998 Yiwu by white2tea
A long journey to tea heaven started yesterday in my death trap of a car driving to Milwaukee to stay overnight with my sister and catch the plane to NYC the following morning. Now, my car is exactly 22 years old, what hasn't rusted and fallen off is now caving in from the roof. Cracked manifold, corroded radiator, power steering squealing and not just in cold weather, and last night some sort of horrible high pitched squeaking from the back axle somewhere that I convinced myself is due to all the rain we've had lately. But as least I know where my car is. Our nephew called last night after I arrived.

"Auntie, I can't find my car. I was just buying drinks for everyone at the bar, and I don't know why these cops gave me a ticket and drove me around for an hour. They put me on a bus going north." 

As far as I know, he's still looking. He doesn't drink tea, is why.

The Saveur events started this evening at the William Vale hotel with a cocktail party.  Was starved not having eaten all day, and the munchies offered at the cocktail party consisted of a veiny cheese, some sort of bread pieces the size of a thumb, grapes, and some very nice people. I'm a quarter century older than everything and everyone. I can be a talker but I'm self-conscious as a person socially because I spill food on myself, pee when I laugh and I don't get the blissful effect from alcohol that most others get. But I'm a sport. I hydrated with orange juice and seltzer and I repeated the same same conversation five times with different groups of people. 

Me: "Hi, nice to meet you."

Others: "So, are you one of the bloggers then?" 

Me: "Yes." 

Others: "And what kind of blog do you write?" 

Me: "Tea, pu--"

Others: "Tea! Oh that's wonderful, I drink a bit of tea. Mostly coffee." 

Me: "Well, a particular kind of tea, I just write about one kind of tea. Puerh tea." 

Others: "It's called what?" 

Me: "Puerh. Fermented tea cakes." 

One other: "Oh, you mean those disk type things? I've seen those around. Haven't tried it myself." 

Me: "It produces hoarding behavior." 

That usually ends the conversation.

Had a nice chat with a waiter holding a tray of wine glasses. She suggested I go upstairs and check out the bathroom, but so many stairs I'd need a lot of tea beforehand. And I needed food. Hadn't eaten since breakfast. 

Then I found a rescue message from boychik2989 on Instagram. Thank god, she's coming over and bringing teaware. Now if you use Instagram, and you drink puerh, you probably follow her feed. She and I have been playing an evil game for a year or so now. Both of us have a teaware problem which has got worse due to one another. We take turns looking for enticing, heavenly pieces of teaware on IG, tag each other and see who cracks and buys something. I didn't have a teaware problem myself until she came along, but now I have no available surface left on my dresser or anywhere else in my room for that matter. According to her it's my fault she has no drawers in the kitchen for utensils but I really don't think anyone will believe that story. 

Boychik brought puerh-sk's 2015 Gushu Naka to go with my 1998 Yiwu from white2tea. We drank both teas at the same time out on the deck, the Gushu Naka in her cups and the Yiwu in my cups, which she noticed to my immense satisfaction are Lin's Ceramics cups. We debated whether or not we really have a teaware problem and agreed the thing to do is blame it on our kids. I lost count on the steeps after ten rounds of each of the teas and then I think we doubled that. There is no way I can drink past her. We stopped at a point of mutual agreement to take photos. You'll have to check her feed for the tea and teaware. I contented myself by photographing a glass we used for the rinse.

The 2015 Gushu Naka is a tea with presence. Strongly bitter with thick stems and sturdy leaves, this tea has an incredibly long huigan. It doesn't leave the mouth and has strong legs extending into the chest and belly. Boychik noted the full mouth action, this tea coats everything it touches and lingers almost numbing the tongue with intensity. Chasing each cup of the Naka with the 1998 Yiwu made the Yiwu taste incredibly sweet by comparison. We didn't come close to brewing out either tea in three hours of drinking, so she took the leaves home. I'm so thrilled I got the chance to meet this lovely lady and after all that tea to feel like myself again. Hanging around a tea buddy like her, I don't feel awkward and I don't have to explain. In fact, I can feel normal which of course is true all along. What the tea does is not my fault. 

All this means I'm in fine form all set for tomorrow!

I'm incredibly grateful to my readers and friends who made this trip possible for me. Thank you so much to everyone. I promise I'll make an effort tomorrow at the other events and will steer people away from the tea on Black Friday lists.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

2014 Xigui Ball

2014 "Xigui" tea ball 250 g
I’ve been busy getting ready for the upcoming trip to NYC for the Saveur Blog awards. I want to thank everyone who participated in the crowd funding at GoFundMe, the trip fund is now at $1210/1400. There are no words to express my gratitude at this opportunity to go and get away from my son for a few days, and attend an event like this. Right now I’m cooking away trying to get some meals in the freezer for when I’m gone so there are no more complaints. Next week I’ll post some updates to my blog while I’m at the events, so stay tuned! The fund is still open until it reaches $1400, if anyone else wishes to participate. Until I leave I’m also still mailing t-shirts and tea samples from the crocks to those who wish to get a shirt, see link above right.

My real plan for the trip is to bring along some puerh tea and see how many people are willing to give it a try. I’m going big with a super nice tea too. Why not drink the good stuff, right? So I’m bringing my 1990s Yiwu from white2tea for brew heaven instead of cocktails. We will see how many brave foodies there are in NYC.

In the meantime, I’m moving my puerh collection off the porch with the flooding rains we are having. Humidity is great but then seven inches of rain is a bit too much, remnants of Hurricane Paine. Now, I live on the opposite side of the continent from hurricanes but this one is actually drifting up to my area in the form of torrential rain. This is an unfortunate event for the farmers here trying to get corn and soybeans dried down to harvest. Even when the rain stops, which is not likely for another week at least, the ground is too muddy for combining crops. The machinery will get stuck in the fields. Prices for grain are so low now too, just adding to more to Hurricane Paine.

While moving my puerh, I came across a tea ball I purchased last spring on EBay and decided to crack it open. This is a 2014 “Xigui” tea that I’ve had on my Watch list for well over a year. The tea arrived last May during a hot spell smelling like wet daisies and green tomato vines. So I let it enjoy the summer heat until now to air out. I bought this tea because I have several friends who like Xigui tea, assuming it is real Xigui, and I have a friend obsessed with tea balls.

2014 "Xigui" 250g tea ball
This tea is made by Gu-Zi-Qin, which I understand to be a wholesale brand. I’ve seen this brand on Alibaba and a few other places. For awhile I was watching a 2012 Xigui, but that was fairly pricy at $149/357g so I didn’t buy that before it sold out. This tea ball is 250g for $34 including free shipping. I’m assuming the tea ball is the same tea as the 357g 2014 Xigui beengcha the same shop sells.

Surprisingly, the tea ball is less expensive at 14 cents/gram than the beencha, which sells for $68, or 19 cents a gram. You’d get a better value buying two of the tea balls and get 500g for $70. My expectations are always low for EBay and for wholesale puerh brands. Having a list of cheaper teas though can help one avoid buying more expensive teas when trying to stick to a budget. Since I’ve been watching the Xigui productions from this wholesale label for nearly two years, I can say they do sell out eventually just like tea anywhere else. The EBay seller of the tea ball also has a 2016 label in stock.

The "hole" is more of a nipple.
My opinion thus far is that this tea is likely autumn tea. The tea ball is hand compressed, which means hand formed by twisting a cloth full of steamed leaves and pressing the tea together. So the tea leaves separate easily from the tea ball into large, long leaves with minimal breakage. No worries for tea pick injuries! Also, this is good news for storage as more heavily compressed tuos are harder to age in my climate. And if this is indeed Xigui tea, the tea should be consumed within 5-10 years at the latest since it is likely to fade.

Top side of the ball.
Initial steeping shows the tea has tightened up, though still green of course. The soup is a clear and dark yellow gold, with some respectable thickness. Processing is remarkably clean with minimal char, unexpected for a wholesale brand. 

Nice long leaves, minimal breakage.
This tea has floral and honey notes with a light bitter finish. A very pleasant cup, and I’m of the opinion this is definitely northern tea. It doesn’t have the punch of a spring tea picking of course, but enjoyable to drink now or let sit for a few years. This tea wasn’t done after eight steepings before I moved on to something more pungent. I’m certain it’s good for at least 10-12 brews.

Second steeping
The wrapper is a cloth-like paper tied with a ribbon so the tea ball is easily retied into its wrapper for storage. This tea is a nice stocking stuffer for your puerh loving friends in real life, which of course are many. I’m kidding. But I know some of you participate in Secret Santas with your online tea buddies, and I’m sure that any puerh lover or puerh newbie will enjoy this as a treat regardless of their taste in puerh. I forgot to take a photo of the wet leaves, but picture green and wet.

Next week I’ll write from New York, stay tuned!

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Puerh Madness

Fundraiser Getting Close!

I want to thank everyone who has generously donated to my Saveur Blog Awards NYC trip fund. As of right now, looks like I’m going to be able to go. The fund is at $900/1400, with only $500 left to raise. I’m hoping to raise the remainder by September 20. I will leave the GoFundMe going until just before the trip. I am very humbled by the support of the tea community, and grateful to everyone who reads this blog. I'm so grateful for the nomination for the Saveur Magazine Blog Awards 2016. You can contribute to the trip fund here, or purchase a t-shirt at the link in the upper right of this page and I will add a nice tea sample from my crocks to the package. Thanks everyone!

Puerh Madness

In the year 2020, one morning at the local community mental health center….

Therapist. Good morning! I’m glad to see everyone here today taking the first step in dealing with your problem.

Betty. Is this the Tea group?

Jeff. I don’t have a problem.

Therapist. The first step in making positive changes in our lives is recognizing the issues and the symptoms which lead to difficulties.

Ray. My probation officer sent me here.

Betty. My husband says I have a tea problem. I’ve been thinking about it, but really he wants to throw out my cakes which is a bigger issue.

Therapist. What cakes are these? Like chocolate cake?

Betty. No. My puerh cakes.

Therapist. Your pu errr cakes…I don’t think I’ve ever tasted a pu errr cake before.  

Betty. Of course not.

Therapist. Well, this group is for tea addiction. The Sugar group meets at eleven.

Ray. I don’t think she knows what a puerh cake is.

Tom. I’m guessing not.

Ray. Lady, a puerh cake is a type of tea.

Betty. Yes, they have certain recipes.

Therapist. So you do bake them?

Ray. No, she orders them. Online.

Therapist. So a…pu errr cake has a recipe?

Tom. It’s spelled puer-h.

Ray. No, it isn’t. It’s puer.

Jennifer. I think it’s pu’er actually.

Tom. Pu-er cha, Are we going to argue the pinyin? Because if we are really gonna I have Pleco on my phone.

Jennifer. Well, I have Babelcarp on my Twitter feed.

Therapist. You are supposed to turn off your phone for group. Now, I’m guessing that pu errr is really a type of tea you are talking about?

Ray. No.

Betty. Yes it is. My spouse thinks I have too much.

Therapist. So what does the recipe you are talking about have to do with it?

Fred. An example would be a Xiaguan 8653. Starts with an X.

Therapist. Sha--Zee ahh…what?

Fred. Xiaguan 8653.

Therapist. I see you must know a lot about this pu errr tea.

Ray. Damn right!

Fred. Some guy told me on TeaChat back in the day that 05 Xiaguan 8653 sucks. Turned out his one is the last batch of the year...a thin, paper non ironcake.

Tom. Yup, no accounting for taste.

Fred. He paid 1/3 the price I paid, but the satisfaction is probably 1/10 or less.

Therapist. Okay, let’s get back to the topic. We are discussing tea addiction. Does anyone else want to share what kind of tea is your particular addiction?

Fred. There’s several different 2005 productions of that 8653, some with significant differences in quality and a large price variation.

Therapist. Anyone?

Betty. I have a little oolong in the cupboard someplace.

Therapist. Okay.

Jennifer. I used to drink matcha but now I think it tastes like dirt.

Fred. This is the list of 8653 made in ‘05. Jan/Feb 2005. Thick paper Traditional Fonts 8653 iron.

Tom. Got that one.

Fred. 2005 Thick paper Traditional Fonts 8653 non-iron.

Tom. Drank mine.

Therapist. Anyone else?

Fred. March 2005, Thick paper Simplified Fonts 8653 iron.

Tom. Buddy wanted to trade me for a bit of that. I said forget it.

Therapist. I mean, what other kinds of tea do you collect?

Betty. Never swap tea, heaven only knows where it’s been.

Fred. Then we have 2005 Thick paper Simplified Fonts 8653 non iron.

Betty. People and their dog hair, bedbugs, mold, cigarette smoking, pubic hair--

Therapist. Okay that's fine. What I want to focus on now is the harm caused by tea addiction. Ray, can you share your recent issue with housing?

Ray. Yeah, some cop arrested me after my neighbors complained about the stink from my apartment. I told ‘em it’s shou puerh and nothing to worry about. Landlord wanted in, I said ****off.

Fred. In July ‘05 we had Thin paper Simplified Fonts 8653 iron cakes.

Ray. So the landlord calls the fire inspector. Says I am a fire hazard, too much tea. Told him I was getting a pumidor, but Restore can’t deliver it for two weeks.

Tom. Wine cooler, or old fridge?

Ray. Old fridge. Kinda dorm-ish, but bigger. My goal was to clear off the sofa.

Jennifer. I just keep mine in the kitchen.

Betty. Oh, god, seriously?

Ray. Next thing you know, I get an eviction notice slapped on my door.  

Therapist. Thank you, Ray. Now here we have an example of the harm caused by what we call hoarding, a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Fred. Also in July 2005, we got Thin paper Simplified Fonts 8653.

Tom. Yeah I don’t think that one compares with the iron cake, but it’s arguable.

Ray. Hey I want you to know that landlord booted me because he could rent market rate to his cousin. I know that for a fact. Had nothing to do with my tea.

Therapist. I think your probation includes no tea shopping.

Jennifer. Geez, where are you living now?

Ray. In my storage garage. I got the rest of my collection in there.

Betty. Maybe you just need to keep your tea in the garage instead of at home.

Ray. Yeah, but what about the winter?

Therapist. So Ray is currently homeless and living with his tea. This is an extreme example, but hoarding can lead to homelessness and spousal problems.

Betty. Oh, that’s so true. My spouse is a huge problem.

Jennifer. I know, right?

Fred. FT also commissioned the "logo cakes" FT8653-5 iron and FT8653-5. FT means for the Taiwan market.

Tom. Taiwan storage sucks, I’m sorry.

Betty. I just keep mine in crocks like Cwyn does.

Tom. Cwyn doesn’t know shit.

Therapist. Language, please.

Fred. The difficulties with storage involve aerobic and anaerobic processes of fermentation. If you close up the tea you only get anaerobic. Need circulation.

Ray. See that’s why I got the fridge. Now I need to get it delivered to the storage garage.

Tom. A fridge is just as bad, all that plastic and rubber sealing.

Betty. But my tea smells real good.

Ray. You gotta own your home, otherwise the government’s gonna tell you what to do.

Fred. But the FT logo cakes are typically milder than the usual iron pressings for the Chinese market or the minority market.

Therapist. Fred, I need to stop you right here. We will not tolerate slurs against minorities at the mental health center.

Fred. I mean the Chinese minorities like the tribes in Mongolia or Tibet.

Therapist. I’m talking about people of color. And I need you to stop that right now. Does anyone else see a problem here?

Jennifer. I do. Can anyone tell me if the mail’s delivering, I got tea club stuck in customs.

Betty. Oh, I hate that.

Ray. Lady, do you know anything at all whatsoever about puerh tea? Because if not, I’m leaving.

Fred. Minorities is the correct term in China. But like I was saying, the Taiwan taste is somewhat milder than the Chinese market, hence the special pressings of the 8653-5 done back in 2005. So the 5 tells you what year and you can recognize the FT that way.

Tom. For most people FT is just a phase. Tuition tea.

Fred. Depends, sometimes the price structure is affected, but the good news is nobody fakes these.

Tom. True that.

Therapist. What steps can you take to begin to reduce tea hoarding and addiction?

Ray. Pray?

Jennifer. Oh god.

Betty. What?

Tom. Exactly.

Jennifer. Just got a tweet. White2Tea is having a Mystery Sale.

Therapist. One step you can take is to try and focus on the triggers that spur your need to collect. These triggers can include moments of stress, such as a bad day at work, or maybe a lack of sleep the night before. These are accompanied by a rise in blood pressure which can, for example, increase the need for dopamine response in the brain.

Let me share with you a brochure I have on triggers, I have a whole box right here if you need more.

Wait. Where did everyone go?

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Airing, Storing and Wrapping Musty Old Puerh Tea

Saveur Blog Awards Ceremony

Just an update on the award nomination this blog received from Saveur Magazine. I had hoped to attend the awards event in NYC September 26-28, but at this time I don’t think I will be able to get the money together in time. While I can pull together a few hundred in a month’s notice, the funds for a NYC trip are just beyond what I can scrounge up in a few short weeks. While this is disappointing, I’m mostly resigned to the idea that I probably won’t be able to attend. A friend encouraged me to try GoFundMe, so I did set up a fund. The link is above at the top right hand of the blog, and here. If I can meet the fund goal remaining of $1350, I will be able to go. If not, I will return all donations.

Stack of once-moldy teas and a soft, but stiff craft brush.

Airing and Storing Musty Old Puerh Tea

Over the past year I’ve worked on airing some particularly wet stored puerh teas. I received these teas from friends who had declared them a loss, and planned to toss them out. When I suggested trying to air them myself, my friends graciously mailed them to me with a “good riddance” or some such. So, exactly when should we air out our puerh teas?

*When the package arrives off the boat from China, or elsewhere.

I’ve noticed that nearly all my puerh teas arrive in need of airing, some more than others. Shou puerh definitely needs a good airing and settling time. Most teas are stored in warehouse storage by vendors, often in huge stacks. Some warehouses have a climate control system, but others might not. The best stored teas are usually from collectors who take premium care of their tea, but most of us are buying tea from vendors who use some type of warehouse storage. Regardless if the tea is dry or wet stored, most teas benefit from airing upon arrival.

*When the tea undergoes a wet storage process.

Many puerh vendors offer teas with a “wet” storage process. Many people enjoy the flavor of a wet-stored puerh tea. I like the excellent start to aging a puerh tong that a few years of more humid storage yields. In my drier climate, I can air and finish off the aging myself, and this results in the tea moving through those awkward “teenage” years of fermentation more quickly. As an older person, I can’t expect to live long enough to age out many of my teas. I’m okay with that, but I do want some drinkable teas and a bit of wet storage is just the ticket.

Musty Taobao cake sample, acquired from a friend
However, some puerh teas are fermented in a fast “wet storage” process which is meant to mimic the twenty to thirty years normally needed to fully age a sheng puerh tea. These cakes then are sold as fake imitations of famous brands and recipes. Some wet stored teas are well done, and turn into nice daily drinkers. Others are more of a mess. I think just about anyone getting into puerh tea will get a musty cake at some point in their buying history.

"Start photo," September 2015.
The moldy teas in this project consist of a set of four cakes originated from a Taobao vendor and arrived literally covered with white frosty mold. This is a type of mold which can be aired out over time. I also received another sample of a 1/4 beengcha which similarly resembled a powdered doughnut, and the friend who sent this to me felt afraid to even try the tea. I used my vintage crock bread bowl as storage for airing these teas over the course of about eleven months. Now that I’m approaching a year with these teas, it’s time to assess their condition.

"Start photo," September 2015
When the intact beencha teas arrived, they had wrappers which smelled musty and had bug bites. Even in the dry weather, the musty smell clung to the wrappers. Washing them was unsuccessful, as the paper used to wrap the tea was not a high quality fiber paper, but just a tissue paper quality which disintegrates in water. 

Washing the wrapper--a fail. 
Given the poor condition of the wrappers, I decided to toss them and start fresh with new wrappers. So, I aired the tea in the bread bowl without any wrapper. If you want to save your wrapper, try exposing it to sunlight for a few days and definitely keep it apart from the tea for a year or two.

Over the winter, I aired the tea in the bread bowl, alternating a day or two exposed and then covered the bowl on dry days. My house is exceptionally dry in the winter with around 10-30% RH, which is desert climate. This is enough to send most molds to the grave. Occasionally I wiped the wood lid with water to keep at least some moisture in the tea. This is a balance of humidity and dryness to keep the tea alive but not enough to allow the mold to proliferate.

Montage of "start" photos, Sept. 2015.
As the mold died off, I used a soft but stiff craft brush to remove the frost from the exterior. I know that the interior of these teas likely contains spores as well. In fact, breaking up the tea is the best idea for airing and storage. But I’m certain my friends prefer intact cakes. Airing through the cake entirely to integrate the wetness will take another several years.

My goal was to encourage the correct fermentation and discourage mold without killing off the tea. In other words, I want to get the tea back on the right path of fermentation. The teas are still a bit green, and this green needs to live in the meantime and ferment more, but without the nasty white mold taking over. The tea lost most discernible odors over the dry winter months. In the late spring of this year with the start of the hot summer season, I moved the bowl to my three season porch along with my other teas to take advantage of the humid time of year.

In bright sun for a photo, summer 2016
This summer we’ve had an unusually muggy and rainy summer, many days with tropical pouring rains and heat. Alas, the local farmers are reporting “sudden death syndrome” in soybean fields. The disease is due to a fungus located in the soil which attacks the roots of the soybean plant and kills the plant in late summer. Even worse, if this fungus shows up on a large scale, the entire field of soil is ruined for soybeans. Crop rotation does not remove the fungus from the soil, and currently no treatment exists except to plant other crops which are not susceptible. So, you know how humid our summer is when farmers report “sudden death syndrome” in the fields. That’s bad for soybeans, but good for my teas.

September 2016
Our humid summer added moisture back into these teas. I observed very faint frost come and go from the cakes early on. At the start of the summer in mid-May, on very muggy days, the tea returned to a grayish look. This tendency stopped over the following months, however. Well into August I didn’t notice any differences in appearance on muggy days or drier days. We had many days where my porch got well over 20C during the day, and even over 80% RH at night after rains and fog. On days like that I kept the cover off the bowl and I keep a large ceiling fan running all summer long. When frontal systems passed through my area, we received much drier and cooler days with humidity lower than 60%. The combination of drying over the winter and then a moderate humidity added back, on and off again, re-started the fermentation. I believe the difference in developing mold versus not is the air circulation and also the spells of dry and cool days and nights.

Another sunlight photo.
Today I removed the teas and gave them a good brushing outside to remove any dusts or particles from the exterior. I don’t notice any particular smell now to these cakes. It’s time to re-wrap the tea.

Finished stack of tea.

Wrapping Puerh Beengcha

I’m not an expert wrapper. Despite what Old Cwyn thinks of herself, she won’t be hired by the puerh industry any time soon. But I can re-wrap a cake well enough for storage. I like the mulberry papers sold by Wymm Tea. Unfortunately the price has increased from the 50 cents per sheet I paid to now $1 per sheet. But the papers arrive nicely rolled up in a slim box which is great for storing them until needed.

Start by placing the cake upside down.
A good wrapper like this, when pulled to the center of the cake will naturally form a crease. It’s not necessary to make perfect creases. Also, the quality of the wrapper is more like a “rag” texture, which means I can re-wrap these teas many times again and the wrapper will hold up without tearing, and allows one to “ball up” the ends to secure it as the cake is consumed.

Starting creases.
The trick to wrapping is to pull the wrapper toward the beenghole and work with the creases that form, adjusting to the size needed. I'm doing a right-handed fold. A left handed fold faces the opposite direction.

Pull the wrapper toward the beenghole.
Firmly crease the fold with your thumb once you get it where you want it. You might notice that the first few folds will take in the corners and form a a sort of straight line across the cake. Someone folding more perfectly might have better geometric lines.

Folds spaced about one inch or 2 cm
My reward for this project is scooping up loose tea from the bottom of the crock bowl. I have enough loose tea for a gaiwan. This tea is lively on the tongue, so it’s definitely not dead. I give the tea three rinses and drink around six cups or so. I see a few green leaves in the mix, which means a bit more flavor left to develop. All this age in the tea makes for a warming brew, and although the brew resembles shou, the tea is definitely sheng.

The musty flavor needs a couple more years to integrate into the tea, but I’m certain the white mold won’t return under ordinary dry storage conditions. By that I mean a proper room temperature with a moderate relative humidity. 

Wrapping a partial beeng holds best with a twist of the ends.
Once integrated, the musty odor will turn to more of a mineral or graphite taste in the tea. Using a clay teapot will take the musty edge off the tea in the meantime.

Secure the cakes with ordinary string.
Storing the stack of cakes in a crock is sufficient. Any excess of humidity in the surrounding air will absorb into the paper wrapper before it gets to the tea. I don’t have a problem storing this with other sheng cakes because the wrapper is rather thick, but not everyone stores wet and dry teas together.

Loose tea from the bottom of the crock. This stuff is a bit white still.
I hope everyone remembers to air out new teas as they arrive from China. Give them a chance to develop over six months before making a final opinion. A tea you hate on arrival may taste very different to you down the road. And don’t throw away those musty old teas or Taobao mistakes. You can always find someone online willing to take tea off your hands if you still hate the tea after giving it a chance to develop. While most people don’t want to do the fuss of proper airing and storage, I encourage anyone to spend relaxation time like this with your teas.

Steep after three rinses.

Have a great Labor Day weekend!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The LBZ Word

Doubt is the stance I take when tasting puerh tea. Any puerh head who says they do not experience any doubt in their tea is fudging or in denial. The type of doubt I hear about most often from my friends is in their buying decisions, the kind of doubt that makes a person walk away from a tea, only to go back later and find the tea is sold out. Doubt like this fills tea chat between friends stewing over what to buy. This isn’t my type of doubt, though. To the contrary, I feel confident when buying tea simply because I care less about my money at this point in life. But when I taste the first cup of a purchase, doubt begins.

Although many of my reviews appear very confident, I go through steep after steep of doubt to reach an idea of how I feel about a tea and about myself as a buyer. At the very moment of first sipping I doubt my purchase and everything in my ability to choose a tea. Doubt is magnified by smelling the damp leaves when I detect anything that suggests over-heated chaqing, or a smoky medicine smell, and when I see bits of char in the gaiwan. I feel doubt when I find the sourness of dry storage. Or when I smell damp I imagine the beauty of those fresh leaves now killed off by too-wet storage. I feel doubt when I smell nothing at all, thinking I now own a dead tea. My mind races through ideas of what I can do correct flaws because I don’t want to give up on the tea yet. In reality, my steeping doubt means I now need the tea to win me over.

So, believe it when I say I doubt every single purchase I make, from the $400 tea cake all the way down to the idiot $9.99 brick with free shipping on EBay. I like to think this is intelligent doubt. For me, ignorant doubt is what I hear from people who say “that tea is too expensive/cheap to ever be worth the money” when in fact these naysayers have not tried the tea, and never plan on doing so. Doubt is a question and not a conclusion. While anyone can and should question a tea, doubt remains an open-ended thought.

With some teas, my doubt never really goes away. Especially when considering teas labeled with the LBZ Word, doubt is always the biggest factor. “Lao Ban Zhang” is just a village but also a tea term on par with “Jesus is Lord,” a phrase mostly embarrassing to hear or say out loud, much less publicly blog about.

For those of you new to puerh tea, Lao Ban Zhang is a tiny village in Yunnan, China with a hundred or so households, surrounded by ancient tea trees which for some unknown reason produce the finest puerh tea, known as the “King of Puerh.” This tea is prized for a balance of bitter to sweet, an incredibly long finish and heavenly body effects that place you on a plane of existence known only to aliens or angels. LBZ tea is the Ecstasy of Tea Drugs. Every year tourists pull into this tiny village by the hundreds, hoping to get a taste of this tea, only to discover that no amount of money will be enough to acquire any. Not only is this King of Teas impossible to get, Lao Ban Zhang is the most faked puerh tea on the market. Prices are insane for this tea, thousands of dollars a kilo. Farmers arrive from neighboring towns to this village to sell their ordinary tea to buyers who pass off the tea as real Lao Ban Zhang. Everyone wants to take advantage of the huge amounts of money flowing into the village.

The demand is high in part because 80% of the village farmers signed a contract with a single factory in the early 2000s, the Chen Sheng Tea Factory. Today this factory has a brand new building in Lao Ban Zhang which apparently required demolishing ancient tea trees make room. Not all the villagers signed the contract, but most did. So one tea factory has virtually an entire monopoly on all the tea picked there. The village possesses ordinary farmed tea gardens, hillsides of untended trees and a forest of ancient trees at least a hundred years old or more.

All this put together doesn’t yield very much tea. But because of the faking going on with LBZ, you can find teas everywhere trying to take advantage of suckers who don’t know any better. Because LBZ tea is such a tiny harvest, the Chen Sheng Factory must blend tea leaves from other villages into their tea cakes to make the good tea go a bit further. Even if a buyer is somewhat convinced that their LBZ tea cake is genuine, we don’t really know how much of a blend is in the tea, whether a brother or cousin might have brought tea over from a few villages away.

So owning a cake of Lao Ban Zhang tea is like saying you acquired a piece of the True Cross. A blogger who uses the LBZ word is immediately questioned, and so most tea bloggers use quotation marks and disclaimers when discussing LBZ tea. But some people do actually own “Lao Ban Zhang” tea, whether real, partly real or an outright fake. Doubt is highest with LBZ puerh tea, from the wrapper on down to the tenth steep and fiftieth session, unless the source is unshakable. Labels are notorious liars. All we can do is let tea speak and see if we enjoy it. I must say that the two 2008 “Lao Ban Zhang” cakes I purchased recently did convince me that they are decent teas, and the two are very different from one another.

I wrote about Wilson’s 2008 Haiwan LBZ on Steepster after I drank it. Wilson told me that when he opened his store, he wanted to put up some very good tea to both celebrate his store opening and show buyers that he has good tea to sell. He stated he bought a few tongs and kept one for himself, selling the rest to those of us lucky enough to grab a cake.  So I think his idea was to tease buyers into suspecting he has even better teas in his collection. His blog is certainly a tea-se with never enough detail and his store is the same, rarely un-wrapping a tea to show us the goods. He is a master of tea porn, always leaving us wanting more.

Wilson's 2009 Haiwan adventureineverycup.com
Hoarding blogger selling his stash
Wilson’s 2008 Haiwan is a ball buster of a tea, with bitterness that kicked me so hard my scalp lifted off the top of my head, pulling my hemorrhoids up into my throat. This tea is so bitter my tongue ran away and hid with nowhere else to go. I find white2tea’s Bulang-ish Amerykah series incredibly bitter, but this Haiwan cake went one further still, suggesting a blend of perhaps more Bulang or Laoman-e type leaves. The qi in this tea produced profuse sweating along my back. After eight cups of this madam I felt like I’d had sweaty sex all afternoon and needed a shower. I was so tea drunk that if a cop stopped me on the road I’d have blown out a breathalyzer. The 2008 Haiwan LBZ real or not has presence, and she is larger than life. I got twelve steeps in over two days before the hot, muggy weather forced me to toss the leaves.

Three friends of mine bought this tea from Wilson too. I immediately offered to buy them out, but of course no one is selling. Wilson’s Singapore storage has a nice slightly damp note, and we wondered how much more bitter this tea was just a few years ago because the liquor shows brown with a bit of red already. I’m not showing full photos here only because Wilson’s 2008 Haiwan is sold out. It is my most recent mental note going into the 2008 Lao Ban Zhang from Tao Tea Leaf. By now I’ve mainly forgotten the LBZ I shared with TwoDog last year which paled next to an incredible 1960s puerh tea we spent more time drinking. I remember TwoDog’s LBZ started out a nice tea drunk at our afternoon party, but really the 1960s puerh got me drinking the wash straight from the bamboo tray, something I don’t do every day.

2008 "Lao Ban Zhang" from TaoTeaLeaf.com
I didn’t mean to purchase this Tao Tea Leaf cake, but a friend directed me to the site to check out chaga mushrooms which this shop also sells, and my friend likes the shop’s Wuyi oolong teas. Tao Tea Leaf also had a weekend sale at the time, a 50% off “Boxing Day in July” sale. I decided to pass on the mushrooms and instead wandered over to the Puerh section of the store. The 2008 Lao Ban Zhang is the only beengcha tea the store has. The 357g beengcha normally sells for $190 Canadian dollars. But at the 50% off sale I got it for $95 Canadian, which after the favorable American dollar exchange left me with a final price of $85 US, including shipping. The tea has three enthusiastic reviews posted on the site, and these plus the low final sale price sold me.  

Owner Tao Wu is a young man who apparently grew up on a tea farm in the Fujian region before moving to Canada and opening a tea store at age 28, calling himself a “tea master,” although he also got a tea sommelier certificate in Canada to cover the bases, I suppose. He claims to have ordered his 2008 LBZ by private, special order in 2007. He doesn’t say where he ordered it from, and doesn’t show the wrapper in the listing for the tea. His description discusses Lao Ban Zhang village and also mentions the nearby Xin Ban Zhang. I read this over several times wondering if this is a hint that perhaps some of the tea is from the latter nearby village. The wrapper of course says Lao Ban Zhang on it, but very often private orders end up getting a wrapper that really isn’t from the factory making the tea. The wrapper might be extras “on hand,” because special wrappers sometimes aren’t made for small private orders. Because the listing does not show off the wrapper, maybe it doesn’t mean much. I won’t get over the doubt of the wrapper even if somebody tells me it’s all legit.

The tea arrived during a hot, humid spell of weather and surprisingly had no smell. I started to worry that the tea is dried out and about “Toronto dry storage.” Tao Wu doesn’t discuss his Toronto dry storage in specifics. I opened up the cake and let it sit in the humid weather for a few days and it still didn’t develop much of a discernible smell, leaving me to ponder whether I have a dead tea on my hands. I also know that some real Lao Ban Zhang teas don’t have a strong floral smell.

Finally I decided to try the tea when the weather cooled off. First two rinses yield a slight Chinese incense/medicine odor and I sigh, here we go, not my favorite profile and gotta mean some burnt tea in here. Upon rinsing the leaf I see that this is small leaf tea for the most part. Buds are evident in the mix, with a few medium sized leaves but mostly they are fairly small. The description says that the tea isn’t charred, but during the rinses I find char in the gaiwan to match my charred medicine perception on the leaf odor. Not much char, but it’s there. Two cups go down in short order. The first cup is slightly medicinal, a bit of fermented hay, and the second a bit less so.

The beenghole photograph. Reader demands...
Actually you can learn a lot picking a beenghole.
Sometimes the leaves on the underside are lesser quality.
Like most compressed teas, the first two cups are on the thin side, but a bit active in the mouth, so not a dead tea as I feared. I get a slight bitterness, some sour dry storage on the early two cups, a bit of honey and a touch of floral but maybe I’m imagining it. I wonder if the tea is a bust so I hunker down with my computer to read about the tea again and look up some newspaper articles and reviews on the tea shop.

Second steep. Brownish-yellow dry storage.
After fifteen minutes of reading I sit straight up. My lower back breaks out into a sweat and qi flew up my spine into my ears. Holy cow this is creeper qi. I’m reading, forgetting my cup and this qi takes me by complete surprise. Although the tea is not terribly bitter, nowhere near the 2008 Haiwan and not even bitter compared to most new teas, sure enough here is returning sweetness too.

My throat seems a bit full like a ball of draining sinuses. The tea sits in my belly for an hour or more. I get hiccups. My mouth dries out like sailor’s jock strap. Just to be certain my throat is feeling the tea and not sinus drainage, I pop an allergy tablet. We’ve had so much rain and the ragweed is in full bloom. I return to my computer and consume dozens and dozens of pages on LBZ to see if anyone else has a 2008, or had one to sell, or reviewed one. I can’t find anything.

Three hours later, after cat box cleaning and other household chores, I pick up my cup and sniff it. The floral and honey, powdery smell is incredible, so much so that I immediately doubt whether I washed the cup before starting. I rinse it out with boiling water before continuing with more tea, and I make certain the cup has no odor this time.

Two more cups. I don’t notice a Chinese medicine smell or taste anymore. The fourth cup is much more bitter than any of the previous because the tea is opening now. The soup is a bit thicker. This time the qi doesn’t hit until about a half hour later, but before this I cannot doubt the full huigan of this tea, because my mouth sweetens up. Nor can I deny that this tea sits in the belly like hot pepper jelly beans. The astringency hits even harder an hour after drinking, but of course I need to blame my allergy tablet too. Finally, I must admit that my empty cup smells like a garden of honeyed orchids, even when dried out to the point of only a drop or two left on the bottom. I marvel at how this fragrance is more alive in my dried cup, and not really on the tongue when drinking. I’m glad I chose a tall cup which holds fragrance better than small wide cups.

The fourth cup has spicy hints as well as bit of wood but not the strongest flavored cup overall that I’ve ever had. I feel like there are layers here I can’t describe, complexities I perceive more than taste. Honestly I don’t smell much in the gaiwan after pouring water on the fifth steeping except a hint of the medicine, a bit of green wood. Still some bitterness, a feeling in my esophagus of swallowing overly large radishes, a heat that isn’t like chilis, and this suddenly changes to sweetness within about 5-10 minutes. I can easily do 1-2 cups of this tea and then just sit back with what I drank for a couple of hours, observing the effects. All this I’m typing at 2 a.m., and then I realize I left my big cat outside. I let him in and feed him, and on this cool night just moving to the door my body breaks into a sweat with waves of qi along my back and ears.

Steep 8
The next morning I steep out the tea. I over-steep a bit on number seven whilst going after my kitten when he starts walking on dirty dishes. I get even more bitterness than steep four. I want to over-steep this tea to push for flavor and that’s the wrong way to go, this tea isn’t about the full flavor as it is about subtlety. Over steeping just gets me a bitter cup which kills the chance of tasting anything deeply. I miss the oak cask and vanilla but get more of the radish stuck in my throat, and hiccup-type burps.

Day three: twelve steeps in and not done yet. This blog post has meandered on to god-only-knows-what, that nebulous zone of tea heaven where teas never quit. On steep thirteen I’m going long on steep time, so am gonna quit now. Wait, I’m still feeling this tea in my throat even though the flavor is very light now and the fragrance is about gone. I’m sure I can squeeze out a couple more steepings, the stems are rather large, so fifteen is a good estimate for this one considering I over-steeped at least two. I’ll conclude this tea is part old arbor and part plantation/garden, and darn nice for my $85.

Char evident on leaf tips at the top of the photo.
Not much to worry about here, but present. 
I doubt the wrapper, I doubt the origins, I doubt the vendor, I doubt the price, I doubt the storage and the processing, but the damn tea won’t let me go past itself to the conclusion of anything other than this is one interesting session. Or maybe my body is having an interesting session and I really drank nothing at all. In comparing the two LBZ teas, I hate to use the sex metaphor, but Wilson’s Haiwan LBZ is like sweaty slamming against the desk in a hot office, and this TaoTeaLeaf is a bubble bath with spiced yellow mead and white towels.

Everything about this tea makes me doubt, except the tea itself. If you are interested in trying this 2008 tea, TaoTeaLeaf offers a number of sample sizes to choose from. The whole cake is on the pricey side. But you can plan ahead because the shop has two 50% off sales per year, one on Boxing Day (December 26) and the other Boxing-Day-in-July. The $190 Canadian dollar price converts in the shopping cart after you enter your address information.

You can say whatever you want. The vendor can write me pages and pages justifying this tea and tea heads can write comment after comment denouncing it. Any LBZ tea is a guilty, idiot purchase or an act of faith, take your pick. But I’ll stand by Wilson’s Haiwan and Mr. Tao’s LBZ as unique teas. I write about “Lao Ban Zhang” teas so you don’t have to. You can quietly purchase whatever LBZ you want, rewrap in plain paper and hide it in your dildo drawer. Nobody needs to know.