On Friday, a colleague at work asked what I had planned for Valentine’s Day over the weekend. “I plan to drink tea and eat candy hearts all weekend,” was my reply. “How about a glass of wine?” she suggested, as if my tea doesn’t really qualify as a drug or a relaxer or even a reward, despite the fact that my tea costs more than most bottles of wine and certainly more than what she probably spent on hers. Not to mention that my tea will make me drunker than any glass of wine, should I choose it to do so. But of course the issue isn’t really the tea or wine, is it? “Don’t you have anyone to buy you a drink this weekend?” Now here is the real issue behind the beverage.
People sometimes ask me why I don’t date anyone. That’s because I know where it goes. And right now my bed contains no fewer than two laptops, an IPad, two cakes of sheng, a Ruyao gaiwan, two tea tables, an empty ramen bowl, ziploc bags, a couple batteries, a fork, a pen, a very large tea pet, a 500g brick of shou in a tin, corn pillow, pot holder, scissors, two dirty handkerchiefs and my meds. Where in all this am I going to put another person? They’d have to sleep upstairs. Yes, this is all disgusting and no one in their right mind would want to be around any of it. I’m waiting for my son to hurry up and move out so I have one fewer person to bother me. Normally I don’t feel I need to offer people an explanation of how or why I lack a “significant other” because I’m already sleeping with my tea which doesn’t require me to sleep on chux, and my tea doesn’t need to try and find a sexy way to undo sticky tabs.
My colleague wasn’t really asking about my sleeping arrangements. After you turn 50, nobody wants to hear about it anyway, the visuals alone are probably enough to put most people off. What she was really asking is “do you have anyone to treat you nice this weekend?” The truth is, with tea I have people treating me well almost every day. In fact, I have the extreme luxury of turning people down who would send me their nice tea just to try. And I can guarantee you that the offers of tea from my wonderful tea head friends are all about sessions costing far more than a single glass of wine. None of this reality gets explained to my dear colleague, at work no one wants to listen past ten words. The thought counts, and one is lucky enough to receive this much.
This weekend was all about cheering me up in the midst of record cold with an optimistic cake of white tea, in this case with the 2014 Fujian Fuding Bai Mu Dan from Chawangshop I ordered some time ago. I hadn’t actually planned to open up this tea, because I bought it purely to store. But recent white2tea club offerings included some excellent aged white tea, so I thought maybe I should review a currently available white tea. I shelved my reluctance to open up the wrapper for the sake of the Dear Reader, and of course this weekend now the 2014 Fuding is sold out. Here I am with the photos all done and the tea cannot be purchased now.
This cake really needed some airing after it arrived, which is another reason why I waited as long as I did. It arrived in a plastic bag, and when I opened it to give it a sniff, I smelled a warehouse puerh odor that definitely did not originate with this tea, like a whiff of smoky Xiaguan. I pushed away my first thought of “oh no,” hoping that sniff is not indicative of the actual tea. So I left it on the bed for a week and then out to air in the main room with the rest of my tea crocks. This strategy seemed to pay off, because the odor was indeed confined to something the wrapper had picked up from general storage. This tea is beautifully wrapped with perfect 1.5 centimeter folds which I’ve wrecked now for almost no reason except done is done.
On the surface of the cake I spot some small furry leaves which are of course the fuzzy white tea buds and small leaves, but I wonder if some Taliensis varietal got mixed in to add thickness. I brewed about 2 grams of the tea, a small chunk in about 40 ml water and normally these parameters are not what I consider especially satisfying or even a decent session for puerh, but this is not puerh. I’m rewarded with a floral nose, this tea is heady indeed. Early steeps in the cup are thick like syrup, somewhat confirming my impression that we have a bit of Taliensis here. Along with this is a sour note of fermenting storage, and a look at the leaves indicates that perhaps some earlier stored tea was mixed into this lot to add some depth of flavor, or to cut the amount of fresh leaf used. These might be the browner leaves and more dried brown stems compared with the greener leaf and buds. So I am getting at least three distinct notes, the floral and fruit together which are rather like a pinot wine, and then this darker sour tone. Later the sour mellows into more of a tangy lemon but the floral also fades. Thickness and color in the cup continue well past 7 steeps, but the flavor is mostly gone.
This tea tolerates boiling or under boiling for the first two or three steeps when the chunk is unfurling, but then suffers under hot water once fully opened. I may have killed the floral earlier than I might by continuing with the very hot water, because the leaves started to smell a bit cooked like watery asparagus. This would not be the case once this tea has fully aged and most of the green matter turned and dried. Anyone planning to drink this tea fresh is certainly rewarded by the floral notes, many of which are likely to be lost over time.
Storage for this cake represents a challenge and is my main interest for the purchase. The challenge is accepting the loss of floral notes, but the tea lacks the strength to survive very dry conditions or to turn into anything else. The idea is to find a way to mostly preserve the tea in its current state, to slow down the loss of flavor. This means getting the humidity just right. To simply preserve the tea, one would need humidity levels in the mid 50s-60s. Any lower and the tea will dry out and fade. Any higher and the water will muddy the cake and kill the top notes.
My first thought is purely to plastic wrap the thing, but after my friend Allan sent out samples of puerh stored in plastic last year, from the east coast area, I learned that plastic wrapper tea goes flat very quickly compared with pumidor storage in North American winter climates. Allan’s multi-year storage comparison experiment with samples taken from one cake taught me a great deal. So too did his sample of extremely funky brick pu. I have him to thank for a lot of learning from a single package he mailed me a year ago.
At this point, my best bet is to store the tea with fresh puerh in a pumidor setting with relative humidity in the 60s percentile range, but moderate temperature. I would not want the pumidor to have any humid storage puerh and definitely not strongly smoky puerh, all this would easily overwhelm a cake of white tea. Probably the safest would be purchasing white tea in a tong for the bamboo protection, and then a tong bag over the rest so the cotton bag can absorb any off odors.
In fact this will be my recommendation: if you are looking to get into some aging of white tea cakes, buy bamboo tongs and invest in a tong bag rather than messing about with exposed single cakes. Keep it drier than you might for bitter puerh which can take higher humidity and temps. Or, just plan to drink it up. I think my 2014 is past that point, however, the sour note coming from the older tea in the mix means it is beyond its prime fresh date, so I have no choice but to age it longer.
Checking around on the internet, I see that the $24 price is about middle of the range for white tea Fuding cakes. You can certainly find less expensive than this, with free shipping, on Ebay, and cakes which cost more as well. White tea is a hot investment at the moment, because aged puerh is bought out now and in the hands of collectors, as is aged oolong. Heicha is close on the heels, as each new “found” basket is going for higher prices than ever before. So, collectors are looking for new opportunities and white tea cakes are still relatively inexpensive. Let us hope our favorite online vendors like Chawangshop continue to hunt down white tea cakes for us to buy!
Valentine’s weekend 2016.