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

Thursday, August 2, 2018

2018 (It is Damn) Splendid

2018 Splendid by white2tea
When I first started writing this blog back in 2014, I knew very few people aside from myself drinking puerh tea. Of course, many people drink puerh, but at that time I drank my tea mostly in isolation. I had maybe two or three friends online I chatted with about puerh. We had one rather huge thing in common, which is that we had the money to buy any tea we wanted. Even as my online tea buddies expanded, along with a few I met in real life, I existed in a tea bubble of sorts. Sure, we could gripe about the money we spent, how expensive good tea is, but for the most part purchase prices were a matter of choice.

Just over a year ago I wrote a post called “How Can I Afford this Hobby?” out of my growing awareness that not only were prices of tea going up, but a significant group of tea buyers wanted to purchase puerh tea and really needed budget options. Over the past year since writing that post, I watched week after week as it got more page views than any other non-current post on my blog. The number of page views on “How Can I Afford this Hobby?” now dwarfs all of my past posts except for those on storage (after all, everyone into puerh needs to think about storage). Thousands and thousands of page views speak for themselves. We have a significant group of tea shoppers who need budget puerh tea options.

I have to show off the new gooseneck water boiler I will use
for my tiny gaiwan here. This is actually meant for
single-cup drip coffee water, but who cares?
"Miyacoffee" Natural Wood 400 ml kettle.
Made in Japan. About $44, ships free, eBay
The oft-repeated sage advice from bloggers, I among them, is to save money toward better teas rather than loading up on drinkers. But what if one’s savings do not add up to a “better” tea over the course of a year? What if you have $5 a month to put toward tea? That’s $60. Does $60 buy a markedly better tea than $50 (my budget challenge in the aforementioned post)? Honestly, the answer probably is that we need to compare specific teas rather than draw a general conclusion, because comparing two teas might indeed stand out with one better than the other. At the same time, in the budget tea category, one can bide time to compare samples and wait for word of mouth, while the choices sell out before deciding. After all, the decision between two budget teas is not as stark as a budget tea compared with a pricey tea.

Miyaco uses 18/8 Stainless steel for the interior.
You can get a Miyaco tea kettle which is larger, but costs much more.
Yet I believe tea vendors are paying attention. I can still find teas under $0.40/g that I feel are worth a try. Many of the teas I suggested in that past blog post are still available. As for this year, I decided to order a few budget options from vendors rather than starting out with the pricey stuff. I did not order anything from white2tea’s 2017 line-up, aside from the excellent We Go High, which is actually an autumn 2016 tea. I sort of took a pass on last year’s lineup, so this year I bought two budget options straight out of the gate.

The 2018 Splendid gets me excited because of the price, $28/200g. That’s $0.14/g. Along with that, the old lady on the wrapper might resemble me, except she actually resembles Abe Lincoln in the face. Probably the suggestion here is a stingy old biddy. I actually like this tea.

I brewed a small amount of this because I know it’s still wettish, using 3g/30 ml (filled gaiwan less than half full). Why waste tea on a session when the tea will tighten up and change a bit over the next year? I can see the greenish cast to the brew, although it’s surprisingly yellow already. The leaves are smallish in this, including some small huang pian leaves. The description promises some decent huigan and delivers this in spades on the first five brews.

Second steep, still has greenish cast of fresh tea.
Initial aroma going in is vanilla caramel in aged oak, followed up with a daisy stem/tomato vine greenish weedy flavor, common to puerh teas when this green and wet. The first steepings coat the mouth, tongue, throat and I feel it in the stomach. Steeps 3 and 4 pour thicker and the thickness continues until I stop at steep 10. Heavy bitter tongue and mouth coating, throat vapor. Some mild face-numbing and munchies after four steepings.

The remarkable aspect of this tea is the lingering mouth coating, especially as the tea gets more oily in the pour on steeps 3-6. Alas, this slowly dissipates after steep 6 or so, but the tea still retains some bitterness and caramel huigan. The caramel seems to wind around my teeth that have gaps in between, the tea is a bit chewy. While this isn’t super premium gushu (did you expect that for the price??), this is quite nice for a super-budget tea. I can find plenty of super budget teas, but I don’t remember any with this kind of mouth coating bitter vine and chewy caramel. It’s ridiculous.

Steep 10, the greenish cast brewed out.
I definitely feel this tea in my stomach, but for me it’s soft and leads to munchies, but I am not sure about those who have stomach issues with fresh tea. I am fairly confident in my 10 steepings on just 3g wet so far. Yet I have some concern that the leaves are smallish and thin. Will this tea hold up to hard aging? Unless I plan to drink this now… if I live in hot hurricane Florida, I am thinking this tea will get overwhelmed fairly quickly. Of course I’m drinking this wet already, maybe it will tighten up some. If I live in Florida, I’d look elsewhere for something bitter, smoky and Menghai-ish plantation for the price.

But I don’t live in Florida, and Splendid might be good for pumidor type storage where tea ages slowly and doesn’t lose the top notes. Maybe this is a tea for more temperate climates. TwoDog is crazy. What is he thinking selling such a nice tea for $28? This is Chawangshop pricing, not white2tea pricing.

“Glad you like it. I feel the same, was just aiming to make a few decent teas that don’t break the bank.”

Thank you, this is a vendor paying attention. I know other vendors are paying attention, too. I see budget choices everywhere this year, and rumors are that some vendors are pressing more ripe as a way to counter the high prices of premium raw. More than anything I would like to punish this tea with some aging, and so I plan to buy more for aging and comparison with a control. I need a couple more of these for sure. Or maybe a tong. A tong gives me five potential experiments.

If I have to recommend budget teas, right now I’d suggest this Splendid for fresh, and the 2005 CNNP Big Yellow Mark at Yunnan Sourcing for a more aged choice.

Just because I’m cheeky, I had to ask TwoDog about that $200 Dancong Oolong beeng. What the hell is up with that tea? Carbolic Soap...I have that in my cupboard and use it to poison my neighbors.

“It’s sort of just what that level of Dancong costs. I think Puer is still a better deal than most high end teas. I mean compared to the high quality oolongs out there, Puer is still sort of a bargain somehow.”

Thursday, July 26, 2018

There Oughta Be a Law

Really, I don’t know what these tea people are on about. Now, I am a person, well okay I’ve only been drinking puerh a few months, but I bought all the teas they tell me I should get and you know what, I just don’t like them. Still I know my taste and for a fact I can buy teas a lot cheaper than that Hype cake for $38 at white2tea, just look at Yunnan Sourcing you will find puerh teas that cost a lot less than that. I just can’t find any right now but I know there are some, true fact.

Quite honestly I am so tired of Yiwu and all those sweet teas that guess what, they are hongcha and oolong!!!! They are all made into oolong!!! If they are not oolong, then they just taste like wood and dirty leaf pile. Supposedly they have fruit notes and spice notes and flower notes and lemon notes and probably cliff notes (no what thet’s yancha), and who wants cliff notes I don’t know, but I really don’t like the wood and leaf profile. They better be for real super aged like the teas I bought on Amazon last year which still taste like something and cost me a lot less!!

Otherwise, if you want to tell me about other teas I will have to demand proof. I don’t mean proof like bloggers posts, because bloggers either lie or they all get free tea or paid to write and anybody can blog. I mean objective proof. Seriously I’m a STEM and that means show me the research because yes, we are going to science the fuck (thank you Greek lady) out of this puerh tea or else it’s just all made up, all hype, yes HYPE and you will pay $38 for a mere 200g for the privilege of posting on Twitter just how cool you are with the foodies telling you where to go to eat spaghetti. And you will pay $25 for that plate of spaghetti, I’d rather buy the sauce and eat it on a potato. If you haven’t done that, try it sometime.

Show me the research and I mean links, and more links because it’s up to YOU to prove me wrong. Also I want shou that isn’t Bulang and tastes like brown mud because this is what I bought so far based on everyone else telling me what to get. (Does NOT taste like chocolate.) I am happy to try what you suggest and I will do it right away and tell you whether I like it or not. I am doing the same with 2018 because all the teas I tried so far just are not good and I don’t see any reason to try them again at this point. I have made up my mind by now. Maybe I can get a refund. If you want samples I have plenty which I can sell to you because I don’t want them, and even some supposed old ones because they just are not aged enough. And don't believe the whole qi thing, there is no qi in any teas, smoke weed like I do if you want qi.

Bottom line, I really cannot find any better puerh than what I bought a long time ago and it has been fine in my plastic takeout tubs at least six months now. Unless you can prove to me differently I don’t see the reason to spend any more money at this point, though maybe I will if I can find something under $30, which I probably can and it will be a lot better than the teas people keep chatting about. Waiting 20 years is just dumb. Stupid Hype people, be smart like I am and save your money, or better yet buy coffee if you feel as done with puerh tea as I do.

Sent from my iPad

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Taobao Puerh Group Buying

Just over a month ago I participated in a friendly Taobao group buy with some tea friends. We all paid $27 for a bunch of samples, basically beengcha purchases divided between a lot of people. This is a small amount of money to get in on some tea fun. One person usually does the work of selecting teas, ordering, collecting money via Paypal, and then dividing and mailing out the packets of tea. Usually it's fair for the person doing the work to get a little more tea from the dividing if s/he is not charging any fee. A little extra tea is the payment.

Trying to find good tea on Taobao is something of a fool’s errand, so doing a group buy like this is a good way to go rather than wasting a lot of one’s own money. If I lived in China, I would probably constantly buy off Taobao, playing the tea lottery, random beengs like scratch-off instant win tickets, except that scratch-off tickets are mostly instant-lose. How do people with a tea problem manage to live in China and still have furniture? Maybe that’s the point in a puerh collector's life when you need to open a tea shop and rent a warehouse. Otherwise, for those of us living outside of China, while some Taobao shops are starting to ship overseas, most are still only shipping within China and you need to pay an agent to order, and double shipping costs. Splitting these costs among a large group of people makes sense. 

With a Taobao cheap tea, brown and not gray is good.
This sample is labeled 2002 Mahei. I know nothing about it. Probably everyone in the group buy discussed it and I didn’t read any of the information. The leaf looks a bit autumn to me with long stemmy leaves. I decide to use a Lin’s Purion cup to mitigate…whatever needs mitigating. The chunk weighs 14g so I might as well brew the whole thing up, going with my guess that the tea is autumn. I used my 125 ml gaiwan. Three rinses, one to open up the chunk and two more, I notice the brew is on the soapy/foamy side.

The storage on this smells nice, the tea obviously had some very aggressive storage early on, based on the browning and reddish cast to the liquor, but then stored in dry conditions, leaving behind an old wood/hay smell which definitely takes time to achieve. One mark in favor of the stated age. My fear with Taobao teas is overly wet, moldy flavor and luckily none of that here.

First steep has mild bitterness and some old wood flavor, but not much else. I toss and move on to the next two steeps. The tea has more mouth-coating mild bitterness, fairly thin, smoked meat with a touch of floral. For steeps five and six I extend the brew time from flash to sitting another 10 seconds, but aside from the bit of bitterness, I just don’t taste much in this. The next two steepings are thinning out more and I brew these in my glass cup. The Lin’s cup has a floral aroma when empty. I need to make sure this isn’t due to build-up of other teas, and change to a glass cup. But my glass cup and the cha hai don’t have any residual aroma, so my Lin’s cup is now leeching other teas in. That’s actually a desirable quality of clay teaware, but not so much when evaluating one tea.

Steep 7, I didn't use a camera filter either. Picked up the red more, I guess.
After eight steepings, I am feeling the astringency now. But overall the tea just lacks flavor other than mild bitterness. At 14g/125ml I expect the tea to hit me with whatever it has to offer, just unfortunately not much here. I kinda think this is autumn tea, aged wet early on and just not holding up after that. Mahei is Yiwu-ish, less aggressive than perhaps other areas, but I remember that beautiful 2016 Chen Yuan Hao Mahei with the rare pink color, like nipples. Never mind, it’s an unfair comparison.

If you want to get in on group lottery buys, places like Steepster or even Reddit may be a good way to meet people. Just post a topic and ask, usually somebody can steer you to someone else. Who knows, you might a tea that fits your taste. After a few rounds of group buying, saving the money toward a really nice tea is probably a better plan.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Puer Aeterna, Naka in 2018

2018 Naka tea ball from Bitterleaf Teas

I feel hesitant writing about Naka puerh now. Back in the early days of my blog I wrote about white2tea’s 2005 Naka white label tea, and that post has followed me ever since. Naka became a meme for tea drunk puerh. I get direct messages from random people asking “are you drinking Naka???” I assume these messages mean white2tea’s Naka, of which I own two beengs. Perhaps surprisingly while it is one of my favorite teas, I have not tried it in a couple of years. I suppose I am hoarding it, even though white2tea has reassured me that they have a nice supply if I need more. 

Back then my blog post also included a discussion of the long-sold-out 2007 bamboo Naka from Chawangshop, which is a traditional preparation of Naka leaf. The tiny leaves for which the region is known are stuffed raw into bamboo tubes then heated to set the tea. This rough bamboo Naka I own is not as potent as the white2tea beeng, and the difference in price reflects the quality and preparation. I’m not the only person who has tried both the white2tea and bamboo Nakas from Chawangshop, and the Chawangshop teas sold out fast years ago. I think we generally agreed the 2007 had more body feels than the 2012 bamboo, but all this is a memory now, long gone in old discussions.

The difficulty with the white2tea beeng is the cash outlay, today you need $369 for a 357g tea. You can buy a 25g sample, which is nice, and when people talk to me about this tea, they usually have purchased the sample and not the entire beeng. I hear again and again “I wish I could buy the whole tea.” After the Chawangshop teas sold out, I bought a couple of random cheap Naka teas from Taobao and eBay, mainly to answer a question to myself of whether or not we can just “buy” Naka easily. The answer very quickly emerged as a no, and I stopped wasting money after that. Naka has older small leaf tea which I like, and modern tea gardens too which are not the same as the small leaf. So, I cannot say for certain that my cheap buys are not Naka, since they could contain modern tea from Naka. But I can say for certain they are not the small leaf variety, and they are unremarkable.

In a recent purchase box from Bitterleaf Teas, I got a Naka ball as a free sample. Let me say that this is not a blogger premium because I know non-blogger tea heads who also received the same sample with a purchase. We are lucky that Bitterleaf generously gives these samples and I imagine they are limited. My tea ball weighed 6g, with 1g water loss as they sell at 7g weight.

The size of a dime 
The ball is not as tight as other tea balls I have tried in the past, probably because of the recent pressing and because the size is small. It opened up with a bit of steaming in the gaiwan.

The first three steepings contain a considerable caffeine punch, which is a difference from the semi-aged Nakas I own, obviously they have diminished in caffeine over time. This new Naka has wonderful feel into the stomach and chest, I can feel the tea for a good thirty minutes after a couple of steepings. As a new tea, the processing is clean with very little char in the strainer, no smokiness and I don’t see many red edges, but obviously my sample is quite small and not the actual 100g beeng. The tea is already past green brew into a more yellow tea, a nice sign, and I had let the tea rest for a few weeks outside in my hot, humid porch. A small amount of tea like this firms up fast.

Steeps 5 and 6
I feel relaxed after a few steeps, not the babbling incoherent crazy woman from my other Naka teas but I’m sure my son doesn’t want to see that person very often. The chest feels from this tea clearly set it apart as a better tea than the 2018 Laoman-e, but at $1.28/g (beeng price) compared to $0.38/g I expect the Naka to be a vast improvement. Both teas have a nice floral top note, and are not especially sweet, but I control bitterness by flash steeping and drinking hot. Of the two, the Laoman-e is much more bitter when allowed to sit or cool. The more expensive $1/g Laoman-e has the best leaf quality of any of these teas, in terms of the plucking and processing, but this Naka definitely offers more body experience, if less strong in flavor than Bitterleaf Laoman-e.

But alas, you pay for body experience and more money every year. I find this Naka tea fairly durable for 10-12 brews but the young leaves are still somewhat mushy when rubbed. The floral notes fade and I think the body experience is likely to endure longer in this tea than the top notes will over time. One of my LBZ teas is like this, the tea flavor is quite muted but the physical effects are still there. The only way to get that incense note in teas like this is to wood smoke process them. The white2tea Naka has more retired smoke which contributes to some depth, but it required more humid aging to get that worked in.

Definitely the small leaf. Any red in the leaves is my fault,
I sessioned this tea over several days, during which it
oxidized somewhat.
Price-wise, the Bitterleaf 100g beeng is $1.28/g. By comparison, white2tea Naka is $1.04/g but you will need $369 to buy a 357g beeng, as opposed to $128 for 100g at Bitterleaf. In this case, the semi-aged tea is actually less expensive per gram. The same is true for sampling: 21g of Naka balls costs $29 (3 balls), and white2tea offers 25g Naka samples for $29.90. In the first case, you may lose a few grams due to water loss, in the second case a chipped off sample of aged tea will naturally result in some tea dust and loose leaf in the baggie. Most people cannot afford the $369 outlay for white2tea, a few more can likely afford the $128 for 100g, even though white2tea’s beeng is a better value. 

Really, anyone considering this is likely to think wallet pain first, and then whether they prefer young green versus older factory. I could say I’d like a beeng of this new tea from Bitterleaf, but am torn because of what I already own. Bottom line, if we want Naka, we are gonna pay a lot of money, no way around it. Luckily, both vendors make smaller samples available to folks who are content with a few sessions worth.

As long as I keep writing about tea, I suppose Naka will be my “puer (a) aeterna,” distinguishing my tastes for some people. In Latin, puer is the word for “boy,” my eternal boy. I prefer the English transliteration puerh, rather than puer, because it distinguishes the two cultures, my own Latin-based language and Chinese. I guess I prefer the Chinese characters more and more anyway, especially 熟普 for shou, because the “cooked” character has representations of cooking flames, or heat from composting. I suppose my point is that I appreciate tea more widely than just the Naka people associate with me from the blog. I can tolerate myself as a puera aeterna of Naka. The eternal Naka girl. But if you feel inclined to ask me if I’m drinking a dime-sized Naka at the moment, think of the prices. My answer is probably, alas, “no.” Same as anyone else. A lot of heartaches for a dime. 

Telecaster, anyone?

Sunday, July 1, 2018

2018 The Bitter End (a Tea)

2018 The Bitter End beeng, and loose leaf high grade

This year our weather morphed from winter into hot summer within four weeks. I took this photo in mid-April before shoveling out of this snowstorm.

I took this photo on date April 18, 2018. 
Now we are sweltering in hot temps more akin to southeast Asia than close to Canada. The past two days the temps soared to over 100F (up to 43C) and dewpoints close to 80, giving my tea welcome Hong Kong-like storage conditions. While my tea is very happy, I am not so happy. My window AC units really cannot cope well with these high temps, the air is stagnant and barely tolerable as long as I do not move.

Everything hurts, I ache. I used to be an agile person, what happened to all that? I cannot stand to drink hot tea, much less write about it and I refuse to write about tea I am not drinking. Instead, I buy bags of ice and chug cold drinks all day long, when I am not sleeping that is. Wake me up come September. We lost a few degrees in what the weather people are calling a “cool off” which is short for “not much change.” I thought “I need to drink some tea and talk to myself on the blog.”

I recently purchased Bitterleaf Tea’s aptly named 2018 Bitter End, reportedly a Laoman-e 200g pressing selling for $77. Along with this, Bitterleaf offers baggies of “better” tea from the same farm, for over $1/g, or $11.50 for a 10g bag. I bought two of these baggies because one is not enough. This is a great opportunity to try two different quality grades of tea from the same farm. Laoman-e is tough to find nowadays, given this area is right next door to Lao Bhang Zhang and often substituted for LBZ in the past.

This is a close up of the loose leaf higher grade from the bags.
Laoman-e is known for bitterness along with the neighboring Bulang area. I like my teas bitter when young, so hit me dad. The teas arrived smelling slightly vine-y because they are just two months old. In fact, the tea was picked on the same days I had the above snowstorm. I gave the teas a two week rest in part for the tea, and in part because it’s too hot to drink tea most days. So, what is the real difference between these two teas?

The date on the wrapper is backwards, but it is dated April 18,
picked the same day as that crazy snowstorm photo above.
The cake consists of younger cultivated tea leaves, and brews up with a lovely floral scent, but don’t be fooled, the bitterness awaits me. Right now the tea looks green and under boiling water gets quite bitter from steeps 3-6. The cake is very, very clean, not a hint of smoke or charring. I expect the tea to thicken up during aging rather than when young.

This is a 200g beeng.
The bitterness lightens up after six steepings, so now the tea gives perhaps 8-10 decent strength brews, and may eventually produce more as it tightens up over time. The leaves appear a bit stewed at this point, although some of the leaves do not crumble when rubbed between the fingers. It’s a decent tea, and the price point seems right.

The brew is still fairly green, normal for a recent pressing.
The “better” Laoman-e sample is in loose form, and of course the leaves are lovely. Here is the main difference, the “better” tea adheres to the picking standard of 1 bud/2 leaves and I see more buds. The brew is stronger by far, tongue-punishing bitterness that lingers in the mouth for a good hour afterward. 

Brewed leaves from the beeng, I used a hefty amount.
Three cups of this is plenty to convince me that this is the better tea. The color and viscosity are the same with both teas at this stage, but one is a mild bitter hurt and the other is bitter pain.

Brewing of the higher grade loose leaf,
the color and viscosity are virtually identical.
But the loose leaf is quite strong.
For me, the main reason I carted these teas is for the opportunity they offer to try two different quality grades from the same tea farm. A few years ago, white2tea offered a similar comparison from the Mengsong area. Back then I found this comparison informative and fun. Not only am I able to refine my palate in tasting differences between tea grades, I gain more insight into how tea buyers taste teas. Even if I had my youthful agility back, a trip to Yunnan for this same experience would cost me thousands of dollars. Instead, I can get this experience at home for less than $100.

Here is the loose leaf, I used a lot less and
got punished harder. You can see the 1 bud/2 leaf, and
some double buds.
I feel a bit of hope with this offering from Bitterleaf , seeing a doorway for me contending with high prices for puerh. Maybe vendors will continue to offer a reasonably priced tea like the beeng here, and then also sell samples of better quality from the same farm. In addition, Bitterleaf sells a huangpian brick from this farm too for a reasonable $28. This is quite a nice line-up of options for the wallet. I can store away the affordable beeng, and yet still enjoy a bit of good tea too from the sample.

Bitterleaf states on the listing for the higher quality tea that they could consider doing a larger buy if enough people are interested in a purchase. I am guessing the offer may consist of a 100g pressing. In any case, I see the dilemma of the professional tea buyer, which is just like our own as amateur buyers, the uncertainty of whether to really spend for that high grade leaf.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

2015 Quanjihao Manzhuan Cha Gao

2015 Quanjihao Manzuan Cha gao 

Cha gao paste is often viewed as the Nescafe or Sanka of puerh tea. Meant as a portable form of puerh, all you need is a bit of boiling water and you can have your puerh with no messy leaves to dispose of. Usually cha gao is rather inexpensive, and just as Nescafe is not really the same as fresh brewed coffee, cha gao too falls short of the real puerh session. Nevertheless, last year I spotted this 2015 Quanjihao (tea house) Manzhuan raw puerh paste in Chawangshop and grew fixated on acquiring some. Part of my fixation is due to this product’s entirely homemade origin.

How Cha Gao is made

Cha gao is a decoction of tea leaves and sticks which are boiled, and probably mashed and strained, before cooking down the entire decoction into a syrup. With most decoctions, one cooks leaves, roots or stems til soft, strains out the tea material and sets aside the cooking water. Then, mash the material with a wood or marble pestle until pulverized, boil again in new water and strain, adding the new water to the original pot. One can repeat the boiling/mashing process, but after mashing you get cloudy water, so for a nice clear liquid either do only one mashing or you need a method of straining like slow drip rather than simple cheesecloth.

All the cutting of bamboo pieces, folding, beautiful
Cha gao often comes cut into candy-shaped pieces in candy-like wrappers which suggests an industrial conveyor belt production. This 2015 Manzhuan paste, on the other hand, is made by one man, a tea shop owner in his 60s who started cooking in his kitchen back in the early 2000s, trying to learn how to make chagao. I like the homemade part, and I can relate.

When I was a kid, my family produced maple syrup in the spring. Either we did it ourselves or relatives made it. The sap runs in maple trees when the snow is melting and daytime temperatures get above freezing. A good maple year is when the snow melts slowly, and the frozen nights are crisp with clear skies. Maple sap is clear and very watery, if we get too much rain or the ground loses frost too fast, we get a very watery sap that produces syrup with less flavor, rather like a rain on puerh leaves during harvest produces a water-logged  beeng and weaker tea, and like rain before a ganja harvest produces weaker buds. Watery maple sap means cooking far longer to get that sap into a syrup consistency.

The block takes on texture from the bamboo.
Maple syrup requires a lot of sap just to get one nice bottle of syrup. Strictly speaking, maple syrup is not a decoction in the sense of mashing and boiling plant material, because the tree provides a clear liquid on its own. We get to skip the mashing. But the boiling down part is the same. We used huge 10 gallon pots burning on woodfire stoves for days. Every morning at 5 a.m. we went out to collect sap.

The long process of making syrup inevitably led to long afternoon beer drinking sessions on the part of the adults, who got progressively drunker and consequently forgot about the syrup. We ended up with dark, slightly burnt syrup. Maple syrup is graded on color and flavor, with the lighter, more golden syrups receiving Grade A, and darker, more burnt syrups getting B or even C grade. I think my family syrup is more of a C grade, and maybe a D, but D doesn’t exist. I grew accustomed to darker syrup, and I buy B or C grade to this day. The best maple syrup I ever had was my uncle’s B grade which he kept in a massive oak barrel with a tap, and the oak imparted a lovely nuance.

Cooking Maple Syrup, by Ohiofarmgirl
photo credit
Most maple candy is cooked to a very light golden soft ball or soft crack stage. You can see how the colors vary quite a bit. I have noticed that cha gao tea paste varies in color as well, from very burnt liquid or hard crack cooked, like peanut brittle. In Chawangshop’s photo of the brewed cha gao, I see a pink color. Is the brew of this tea really pink? I wanted to find out.

 Now, some of you think I meander on and on through my memories. But the truth is maple syrup and this cha gao both are all about a man standing over a large cooking pot of sap. Cha gao requires ratios of water to leaf at minimum 1:10. Mr. Quan used 1:18 for this tea…wasn’t 2015 a wet year for puerh, or just this Manzhuan? By comparison, maple syrup is usually a 1:40 ratio, so who stands over that boiling pot longer? I meander over my memories because from one part of the world to another, boiling sap from tree products is the same activity. You need a large soup pot, a lot of time on your hands, and maybe alcohol to drink. To get the best end result, you tread a fine line between making hard candy and burning the sap, between exquisite flavor and carbon dust.

Maple syrup taffy of different colors, Canada
photo: travelbliss.com
 While we make maple candy here by pouring sap over snow, Mr. Quan poured his tea paste into folded bamboo pieces. I love the little boxes, I can see all the cutting and origami-like folding, along with the elastic “hair tie” closure, the glued-on label which says Six Big Ancient Tea Mountains, Raw Puerh Tea Paste, and the name of the tea shop which you can also see in the photos on the Chawangshop listing. We put our maple syrup in canning jars, with a label for the year, and decorate the lid with a piece of patterned cloth and tie with a ribbon.

I meander over my memories because I see myself standing over the syrup pot and wood fire just as Mr. Quan stands over his tea syrup pot. We stir and stir and stir, with patience giving way to impatience and back again. Did he turn down the heat at night to sleep and resume the next day, as we do over our syrup? Or did he really stay up for three days continuously stirring, keeping himself awake with tea and maybe the radio?

“I wish you could meet Mr. Quan, he is really a tea master,” Honza of Chawangshop writes to me.

Oh, that I could! I would bring him a gift of maple syrup and make him pancakes, and maybe he could make the tea. I would bring a box of maple sugar candy, and I would show him a picture of the sugar maple tree in my yard. I know he would see the parallels. This is crystalline structure, it is sugar, both puerh tea and maple sap. Fermented puerh tea is breaking down the leaf structure to release the sugars which change and mature via fungi, yeasts, mold and bacteria.

Cha gao is proof of sugars in the puerh tree. I meander over my memories because we all make things from the trees around us. Only later will this process become mystified, because puerh is from China, but cha gao is no more mysterious than maple sugar. Maple syrup is a good source of manganese and other trace minerals, and likewise trace minerals are found in cha gao too.

Breaking off pieces, hold the pick firmly in hand,
use a stabby-stabby motion like chopping ice.
I will admit that I licked the brick a little, which tasted like bamboo puerh and horehound candy. The next problem is how to get a piece of tea off the brick. Honza suggested 0.5g of tea for a small cup. This is a teeny, tiny piece which lends a view of the cost ratio. For puerh tea, this brick is expensive, 100g at $50. But at ½ gram per cup of this strong stuff, we have 200 sessions here, give or take, depending upon dust loss. The brick of tea is like hard candy and I use a tea pick to break off a little corner.

The tea dust on my tongue tastes like smoky puerh in bamboo and is very bitter.

How to brew Cha Gao

“Brew it by pouring boiling water over a strainer,” Honza says. His photo shows pouring the water into a fairness cup. I don’t own an actual fairness cup. I have similar vessels in my house which are made for…guess it…maple syrup.

Brewing in a vintage maple syrup pitcher,
circa early 1960s, by Syracuse "China"
This is like water dripping on a spoon with a sugar cube into a glass of absinthe. Only the sugar cube is a chunk of cha gao this time. I pour the water very slowly over the chunk into my little maple syrup pitcher. The tea dissolves leaving tiny bits of dark leaves. The tea is sweet, tasting of bamboo and…maple syrup…no I’m projecting, surely. Sticky, astringent, like dark sugar, with mineral after taste. The empty pitcher smells amazing, like syrup or dark honey. I feel like I used a bit too much water on the first go, I want more flavor.

You must use a metal strainer with fine mesh,
such as this one by teaware.house
 Unexpectedly, I get some qi or buzzing around my face and in my ears, and with summer weather now a hot tea gets me sweating fast. Fifteen minutes after finishing my little pitcher of tea, it all hits. The caffeine in this tea is very strong, as is the astringency. I guess maybe cha gao is indeed concentrated puerh in more ways than just the sugars.

I “brew” the tea again using bottled Nature’s Source spring water, which is a Wisconsin brand, rather than my tap water. The top notes of florals, horehound, incense and bamboo are a bit more noticeable this time.

 Cha Gao Storage

Honza states in the tea listing that the tea improves in flavor after several years. I notice that my tea liquor is browner than the pink brew in his photo. This cha gao is 3 years old already which may explain the differences in the photos. How can I best store this tea?  For me to determine the storage, I need to figure out how humidity/water affects this tea paste.

I found a photo on Yunnan Sourcing with the idea of using 1/2g of their Jingmai raw cha gao in a bottle of water on the go, rather clever. The idea of mineral water made with a chunk of cha gao is appealing to me. I decided to give it a go and put a chunk of this cha gao in a bottle of spring water. Unfortunately, it did not dissolve. However, rubbing the wet chunk between my fingers afterward pushed some brown liquid off of it.

I attempt to dissolve a chunk in cold water.
The tea did not dissolve, however.
The reason why this cha gao does not dissolve in cold water is because it is cooked past hard crack stage to the brown liquid stage, or 170C. When boiling candy sugars, you can test the stages by using a glass of ice water. Drop in a few drops of the liquid. When you remove the drops from the glass, a “firm ball” drop will make a caramel at room temperature. A “hard ball” can be pulled to make molasses taffy.

“Hard crack candy” is most of the clear hard candies wrapped in plastic you can buy at the store, and also peanut brittle. “Hard crack” is used for very hard candies that dissolve in water slowly and have a very long shelf life, such as jawbreakers, Inferno Jawbreakers (hot cinnamon) and Wonka’s “Everlasting Gobstoppers.” Pushing the heat past the hard crack stage, the sugar liquid will turn permanently brown, so you cannot color it red or green or whatever you want. Many cha gao like this one are brown to black.

Sugared candy has a storage shelf life. Humidity melts all but hard crack candy into a sticky glob. I read that temps of 35 centigrade on clear hard candy for six weeks is equivalent to six months of room temperature shelf life. I stored the cha gao on my three season porch during 30C temps and 70% RH overnight and it was not sticky in the slightest. When I put a chunk in my cold water bottle and it didn’t dissolve, I am now sure that this cha gao is probably past hard crack. This means the shelf life is pretty much indefinite, but from now on it won’t change much, it is very cooked.

By contrast, Yunnan Sourcing’s Jingmai cha gao raw is a lighter color with a taffy appearance. This is probably soft or hard crack stage cooked, and thus it will dissolve in cold water more readily. The cooking stage explains why their cha gao paste dissolves in a bottle of cold water. I also noticed the foil wrap on Yunnan Sourcing’s Jingmai. Foil is used to wrap candy with a shorter shelf life. For example, chocolate is foil wrapped. The foil will preserve candy much longer than plastic wrappers.

I am thinking that any bacteria, fungi etc. are killed off from days of boiling, and the plant juices and minerals are locked in a crystalline sugar structure. At three years henceforth since this tea was made, I do not think this tea will change much from this point. Perhaps the tea may mellow a bit more, especially the astringency which is still strong, but right now it is quite sweet and an interesting drink.

Mulling over the above, storage of this cha gao means that humidity is less useful than time in general. I am also concerned about ants or other insects chomping on my cha gao. I decided to go with a tin for these two boxes of cha gao, for dry tin storage. After a day in the tin, my two packages smelled nice when I lifted the lid. By contrast, leaving the tea out it seemed to lose scent. I expect tinning will preserve a sugar form product better than humidity will. I would like some mellowing but I don’t think I will like the tea to stale as fast as it will if I use high humidity and temps. This isn’t likely anytime soon with how cooked to nearly burnt this product is, but eventually it could go stale, unlike the decades we can expect for regular puerh leaves.

My second brewing attempt,
tea is slightly cloudy, but sweet
Reasons to try Cha Gao

After three brewings, I am now interested to compare some other cha gao products, Prior to seeing this product I really had no interest in cha gao. Why would I want a candied version of puerh tea when I can just brew the leaves? Travel is an obvious reason, several grams of cha gao fit in a tiny baggie in one’s luggage and only require boiling water and no special tea ware. This cha gao packs a caffeine punch and is better than tea bags.

Chawangshop sells an interesting selection of homemade, local craft products such as this cha gao and many of their heicha teas. Honza has a good eye for teas that local artisans produce, and I hope he will continue to feature craft teas. Chawangshop products don’t go on discount, so if you want this pick one up before it sells out. Half the production is only maybe 20 little 100g boxes or so, not much to go round. Yunnan Sourcing's Jingmai is about $10 less for 100g, if you want another option.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Why Don't People Understand Puerh Fermentation?

The so-called “mystery” of puerh fermentation keeps cropping up on forums. Why do people not understand how vegetable plant matter is fermented? Fermented foods are basic farm science, not rocket science. Puerh fermentation is a two step process. In the first step, the cell walls of the leaf must break open to release the bitter leaf juices, and this work is primarily done by Aspergillis Niger. Next, the bitter juices are sweetened by a new set of microbes, primarily Rhizopus, which use the carbon waste matter from Aspergillis as food. The process requires heat and sufficient humidity to keep the microbes alive.

While I am simplifying the process for the sake of discussion, this is not an inaccurate description. The most common remark that I see is “we don’t have enough research.” Yes, we do. Puerh has fermented again and again for hundreds of years supplying peoples in regions of China with necessary dietary microbes to supplement a meat diet. Not only puerh, but Hunan brick, FuZhuan brick teas, all of these teas have a long history of production, storage and consumption in areas like Tibet and Mongolia, more recently in Taiwan and Malaysia.

How much research do you need? Taetea and Xiaguan understand exactly how to produce teas that store and ferment properly and provide people with a dietary supplement. They’ve been doing it for decades. Even during times of war, China has made sure tea bricks are produced and transported to the people who need them. This is no more a mystery in China than how milk cartons get to school children in the US.

Okay, so some people need “research,” here is one article: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4918958/

I like this article for several reasons: the quantitative analysis, the demonstration that aged sheng and shou puerh have virtually identical microbial communities, and finally, a sound analysis for throwing out the first rinse of your tea.

This is just one article. I can find many books and journal articles with the science behind fermented puerh tea. People who complain about a lack of research are either too lazy to do a search or too lazy to read, because the research is all out there for anyone to find.

If I gave a class on fermenting puerh tea to women in my local community, Amish and farm women with no more than a high school education, I would merely need three minutes to show and explain what a Yunnan Leaf tea is. I would not need to explain fermentation because these women ferment vegetables and beverages every year. These women can go right out the door and age puerh tea without any instruction whatsoever. I doubt I would need to give them the parameters, even.

I think the “Problem” is not a lack of scientific research, the problem is many urban people do not know the origins of their food. They don’t grow, harvest, ferment, kill, butcher or cure. They don't store food over a long period of time.  Food and beverage processes are a mystery when people buy everything from a store ready-made, or depend on restaurants to eat.

Taetea and Xiaguan are two factories which produce proven teas. Their jincha, beengcha, tuos and iron cakes are proven to store and age well. Their shou puerh teas are proven to contain the necessary microbes for consumption, they are shipped to peoples all over who need these teas. If you want a guaranteed tea to age or ferment well, these companies have the proper and safe products for you to buy. A nice bitter, smoky Xiaguan tuo costs about $10 and in 20 years properly kept that tuo will taste as intended.

So, what is the real mystery here?

The real mystery is not the “how” of fermenting puerh tea, but rather the why behind great teas. Why is a 7542 a great recipe? Why do some teas turn out great, and some don’t, when stored in exactly the same warehouse, storehouse, basement, etc.? Can we predict which teas will turn out well? Or rather, why can’t I predict whether my tea will be great? 

Well, we already know that a Xiaguan tuo will turn out just fine, great even, every year. For other teas, we have a hundred theories not only related to storage, but about blends, climate, over-picking, the soil, and who knows maybe even the wrapper. One big reason value grows for older puerh is because so few teas survive to 20 years or longer. Just surviving is a major additive value on a puerh tea. 

Tea lasting past 20 years is one big problem in the mystery of predicting great teas, for reasons more than storage parameters. We just don’t get too many teas surviving past that 20 year mark. The vast majority of teas are consumed or disposed of past the 20 year mark. Keep in mind that a 357g beeng is a small amount of tea. In parts of the world where puerh is consumed regularly, a 357g beeng is 2-4 weeks or less  of tea for a family of 3-4 people. This is not much tea; even if a family holds their tea in storage for 20 years, they can consume a tong quickly. 

Why do you not have 30 year old dried cranberries? Does your beef jerky last you ten years? How many 30 year+ bottles of wine do you have stored up? People consume their good stuff and toss what goes bad. People move. Houses get flooded. People need money, people get bored. People need to drink the tea so they drink it. Or they give it away. If you manage to put away a bottle of wine or puerh tea and still have it at the 20 year mark, this alone is worth money. 

The Vendor Problem

We have many vendors nowadays who are not interested in aging. They are interested in what sells, not necessarily what might age well. Given the cost of tea, this is not surprising. A vendor must sell a tea whether or not it is processed correctly. This is because their cash investment is up front, not on the back end like clothing retail or crops like corn for which money is borrowed at the start of the season and paid back with interest when the product sells. A vendor who buys maocha must sell it whether or not it is processed properly for aging. Vendors also have the problem of consumers with too little experience, who expect the tea to taste good now, rather than in 20 years. This is an incentive to process the tea to maintain its fresh shelf taste, because the customer will try and drink the fresh tea and complain if it tastes bad or harsh. 

The realities of selling tea, in addition to the problems of urban food consumers with understanding food, all contribute to confusion in how to ferment raw tea. Making a batch of shou is very informative and I wish people would do that, but few will. People want guarantees without the work involved.

A 100% Guarantee

Guess what, we DO have guarantees. We have Xiaguan tuos and jincha, we have Fu Zhuan, we have Hunan brick, and we have Taetea 7542. I can 100% guarantee you that these products will ferment properly given room temperature storage and 60% relative humidity. These products have and will keep people alive and well. 

This is such a sure thing, we even have an old expression in American English, “I will bet you all the tea in China that…” Fill in the blank, because China has people and tea factories that know damn well how to make proper tea that will ferment, such that I can bet it all and win that bet. If you can get the proper storage conditions on these teas, whether in a plastic bag or cabinet or crock, wherever, the tea will age eventually.

Of course, we still have unknowns when buying new tea other than the ones I mentioned. Aside from proven products, any other tea you buy is a best guess for the future. Your teas will indeed ferment, but whether or not they turn out good or great involves a number of variables, the greatest of which is simply keeping the tea out of the dumpster.