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Friday, February 9, 2018

3 Reasons to Make Shou at Home

Long time readers of this blog may remember the batch of shou I made back in 2015. Hard to believe three years have passed since I finished that shou. Over the first year I continued to taste the tea every six months. Later I sent a sample to a vendor who tried the tea, and sent me more maocha to make another batch. I have just completed one of these new batches, and still have maocha left over.

The super exciting part for me is recently trying the first batch again. When shou is freshly made, the brew will start out a little cloudy, requiring several steepings to clear. As my first batch is now at the 3-year mark, it shows clear on the second steeping, rather than on the 8th steep. I also noticed that the tea now smells like every factory shou I own that is younger than ten years, it smells like regular shou. In early months, the tea had a musty, funky smell. All that is now gone, and I cannot tell the difference between this shou and those I have purchased in the past. Let's review how the tea changed over the past three years.

You can see how cloudy the initial cup was after I finished the shou. I need to steep the tea eight times for it to clear.

Then, at six months, I needed to steep the tea six times for it to clear. 

Now today, my shou clears on the second steeping. 

At 3 years, the tea has cleared much and is a bit more brown.
My newest shou turned out a bit less cloudy than the first batch. The maocha is also different, and this time I do not know anything about the origin of the maocha. I was also told not to drink the maocha raw, perhaps the tea had some less than clean processing. 

Week 1 of new batch, just starting out.
Any bacteria in raw maocha from unclean hands or factory conditions will work itself out during fermentation and years of resting. In my first batch, I moistened the tea with a premium Yiwu brew, rather than just plain water, and that also accounted for some of the initial clouding, and I can taste a lively-in-the-tongue bitter edge to my first batch, indicating more aging potential.

After a few weeks, I could have stopped but felt the tea was
a bit uneven due to some spots drying faster than others.
For my current batch, I just used plain water to moisten the tea leaves. I do not want to drink my current batch yet, for it is too fresh and musty, but I brewed up a couple of steepings, and here is the tea after two rinses, with two brews poured in the same cup. 

At 9 weeks today, the tea is finished and much more evenly fermented.
Obviously I did not want to use much leaf just for the sake of photos, so I need to pour two steeps together to get a cup for the picture.

Today's first two brews of the tea in the last photo above.
Not bad looking at all! Smells musty though, so I
do not want to drink it yet, just a smell check.
I have learned so much about puerh tea from this process of making shou and resting it, which gives me the most important reason to make shou.

Deepen my understanding of puerh tea aging and fermentation.

This is the best reason to make shou. I get to smell this stuff and experience how funky and almost nasty smelling puerh tea is during the shou making process. I get to see what happens when I spray or pour more water into the batch to continue adding moisture, the water seeps a little liquid to the bottom of my crock bowl and I can check the color. This tells me when the shou is done, the liquid goes from a dirty yellow to reddish brown. I can watch tiny dots of white mold form on the tea. I turn my tea daily and work in the moisture evenly.

As the tea rests, I can check every six months to see how the rested tea tastes and looks in the cup. I can see how my first batch of shou tea clears first around steep eight, then six, and now just two steepings. My vendor friend assured me the tea would clear, and this has indeed happened.

Using up sheng I probably will not drink.

Making shou is a great idea for tea that I doubt I will drink and probably should not try to pawn off on someone else. Most of us have at least some tea that we either wish we had not bought, or maybe our tastes have changed. A bitter, smoky puerh in particular will make a decent shou. You can always steam apart a cake or brick to use in a shou batch.

Earning myself a decent drink after a few years!

This is the very last reason to make shou. Who cares if I drink it or not? The point is, I got my head further into the puerh I enjoy so much. I really do not think I can decide on the “quality” of my shou until the tea rests, and even now shou continues to improve with more years. I have learned that shou older than 10 years is the best. Hard to say if I will last out my current batch of shou, but I am okay with that.

Anyone can make shou. I really believe using some sort of crockery, glazed stoneware, makes the most sense for shou. We have all seen photos of shou on a cement factory floor covered with a browned tarp, so we know just about anything goes for shou. A small amount of tea can ferment in a glass jar with a cloth over the top. The main ingredients aside from the tea are water and heat.

I find the heat the tricky part. Right now we have very frigid cold weather, so my cast iron radiators are hot all the time and this provides the heat under the crock bowl. In Yunnan, the weather is warm and muggy during the summer. For me, summer is not ideal because we get high heat and then cooldowns for a day or two, I cannot guarantee the conditions for the 2-10 weeks required for making shou. In winter, my radiators provide the conditions much more reliably.

Aside from the heat, we also have dry air. I run a humidifier and use pans of water on each radiator. Despite this, my shou batch will dry out within a few days and so I need to check it. I also need to turn the tea and mix it, I usually find some dry spots and some wet spots. In the crock bowl, the tea on the bottom can compost quickly. Turning the tea prevents that. I use plastic gloves on my hands to turn the tea.

If you start a shou batch and do not turn it often enough, you will first notice blue/green mold and affected tea must be tossed. Dots of white mold are normal and okay, and these will seem to disappear when turning the tea. Turning the tea and airing it a little daily, or as often as I want to, allows me to look and smell the situation. Shou smells funky and musty, all that will eventually clear out.

Remember, if you make your own shou, taste and spit for the first six months. Your sense of smell will tell you when to drink it. 

Thursday, February 1, 2018

2017 Mansong New Company Yiwu Mountain Tea

YiwuMountainTea sample packs
I received some unsolicited samples from a new company in Yunnan called Yiwu Mountain Tea. The owner emailed asking if I wanted some samples (no, not really) but then I got talked into it. I am glad I did! Yiwu Mountain Tea has a retail website, but the owner stated they mostly do wholesaling, with some purchases direct from small time farmers and some of their retail offerings appear to be factory label teas.

While my kettle boiled I opened up the 2017 Mansong and started brewing before checking the website to find out this tea is already sold out. I went ahead anyway since I had already opened the packet, although I prefer to try teas that are still available to buy. On the plus side, I have a fairly recent memory of an excellent Chen Yuan Hao Mansong for mental reference, and the prices on Yiwu Mountain Tea approach the high premiums we would pay for CYH.

2017 Mansong
This still-green Mansong hits all the right notes for me in what I want in a premium tea. Hits like a truck with full sweating, full body qi, hot flashes, some thickness in early steeps, yun, and bitter as hell as it cools. Mansong is a bit on the north side of Yiwu, but recently the prices of this small area are high. I notice the leaves are definitely first flush, mainly younger trees. I am tea drunk enough to give a fast thumbs up on this sample.

I had planned to try the other samples before posting this, but I notice the prices of full cakes are steep for what most people reading my post here are likely to afford. Most of the 2017 are not available to buy in full size teas. The good news is a sample pack is available for $31.64 that contains a total of 8 teas, 120g. The website also says that “free gushu samples” are sent with any order over $30. As a comparison, a 2016 CYH Yiwu Chawang at Teapals sells for around $70 for 75g sample pack.

Second steep
This seems like a fairly decent deal and probably limited in availability. If you are like me, we are priced out of the premium market now so opportunities to try teas like this are scarce unless you know someone willing to share. I am not sure what I think of the factory teas on the site, but the sample pack is certainly attractive. 

Friday, January 26, 2018

When Tea Gets Ugly, and other 2018 Puerh Predictions.

The online tea world just gets nastier every year. I look back to a couple of years ago and the conflicts in the puerh world seem warm and fuzzy by comparison to what is going on lately. We are well past the point now of joking over 1800 year old tea and all the great things puerh will do for your diabetes. What is new is a consumer backlash, in my opinion. This backlash has a number of elements, some of which have more to do with the consumer than with tea or tea vendors. The biggest factors in play right now are: 1) shift in marketing preferences by consumers; 2) increase in puerh tea prices, coupled with 3) continuing stagnant purchasing power of consumers.

Marketing Shift

For the past decade or more, tea marketing has focused on health/wellness side of tea drinking in hopes of converting coffee drinkers and selling a lifestyle image. Largely this wellness marketing focus has aimed for and appealed to financially well-off persons over the age of forty. These people are primarily responsible for the success of gyms, spas, and high tech devices. Aging always drives spending money in staying healthy and youthful, and lines the pockets of wellness gurus worldwide. Now we have a younger buying cohort who is not yet preoccupied with aging, and has less purchasing power per person and prefers lower tech living. Consequently we see gyms on the decline, and high priced tea brewing devices fail.

Along with this, the wellness marketing trope feels tired. It smacks of privilege not felt, along the lines of wishful thinking rather than reality. The consumer is aware that tea with a Zen lifestyle is not provided by hard working, benevolent vendors. These are experiences consumers create for themselves. Tea is an ingredient of experience in the daily actions of the buyer, but not the entire experience bought in one huge package.

With a more “ingredient,” nuts and bolts focus, people are impatient when they feel someone is trying to sell them an image or lifestyle when really the purchase is tea. I consistently read consumer complaints over marketing which includes “image” based tea labels, with no real information on the actual tea. This scheme is all the more obvious when accompanied with tea photos taken from a wholesaler stock catalog and the consumer recognizes the repeated usage from one vendor to another. 

The term I see more and more on tea forums is “marketing schtick.” Consumer backlash is increasing against teas sold via images or lifestyles, rather than a description of what the product is, “objectively,” origins and so forth. Consumer discussions continue for months along these lines, for example the Mei Leaf 1000 year tea discussion on Steepster. Consumers also see through the schtick of vendors who “name drop” on labels, naming conventions like “Little Bingdao” on teas that are about as close to Bingdao as Milwaukee is to Chicago. 

Online discussions stemming from a "disconnect" between vendors and consumers now get really ugly. An example of the worst might be one about a monthly tea subscription company selling lifestyle when the teas do not measure up to expectation, and consumers taking to social media to complain, resulting in threats by the vendor to sue. Even bloggers are starting to hear threats of lawsuits for negative reviews of teas, an unlikely scenario but certainly not pleasant tea meditation. Another ugly discussion continued for days over the alt online names of a tea vendor presumably anonymously self-promoting teas and bashing the competition.

All the disillusioned discussions online point to a decline or shift in social marketing of tea, with too many tea companies using social media in the exact same way. Too many tea companies focusing on image, lifestyle or boasting a guru lead inevitably to consumer weariness, whether via photos, blogs or podcasts. Tea marketing is in a sort of reductionist phase, the thing rather than the image of the thing. But we have a few more factors at play in 2018, the picture is not quite so simplistic.

Increase in (Puerh) Tea Prices

Tea is more expensive in large part because more people are demanding a premium product, and the amount of premium tea available cannot possibly meet the demand. In addition, weather plays a role in how much premium tea is available in a given year, and the past few years were affected by unusual climate events. Governmental policies such as in Taiwan have made high mountain oolong more scarce as well.

In the past four years the cost of a nice puerh tea has literally doubled, and that is not including the increases in puerh tea costs before or even after the big bubble of 2008. Ghastly price increases are coming at a bad time too, because on the one hand long-time collectors have plenty of tea and are not likely to open the wallet except for increasingly rare tea experiences, and people new to collecting are priced out before they even start. Over the past year, one of my blog posts has consistently remained in my top six “most read” posts, the post called “How Can I Afford this Hobby?”  I suspect that the people finding this post are new to puerh. They are dealing with sticker shock and want recommendations. The same can be said about oolong and many other premium teas as well. Buying premium tea is increasingly out of reach for most of us, myself included. We can still find decent budget teas, as I wrote about in that post, but decent is not the same as premium.

Continued Stagnant Purchasing Power

Premium tea was once an affordable treat, but while teas are increasing in price and scarcity, the consumer is ever more aware of how little their money buys. Crypto currency is a huge topic right now, in part because people are frustrated with how little cash they have and how little their cash can buy. I think this is the real anger in the ugliness of the tea scene. How dare vendors pitch “schtick,” lie about tea, sell lifestyle tropes, mark up prices more than 10% a year, use social marketing to find customers when the reality on the ground of the consumer is so damned painful?

Along with this pain is the realization that change is not going to happen anytime soon. The whole notion of “change” is political, and politics are more stagnant than a wet pile of shou. Consumer anger peaked over the past year or so and now people are onto what they hope are solutions, whether it is crypto currency or changing buying habits. I propose a few concepts that will be key in this year’s puerh buying.


Budget teas rumored to have good quality will sell out quick. Yes, they always sell out quick but we have more buyers now than four years ago. More people are seriously looking for decent budget teas. The high end collector side is likely to remain stable with a few people able to afford the best of the best. I believe the successful vendor to the western market will either focus on the budget end or scale back significantly and cater to a small group of high end collectors. The middle tiers will be slower to sell, especially and unless “better” drinkers are vastly different year after year, which for the most part they are not, so the middle may be the most stable price-wise, and perhaps the toughest sell.

Chinese Factory Teas

Western ignorance of the Chinese language and myths about Chinese politics favor factory teas more this year, with budget so much of a factor. People cannot read the wrappers, so they are essentially “empty” of marketing imagery for the western buyer. Even if the wrappers are all about the tired health and wellness tropes, people cannot read them. Even if the wrappers lie, anyone who cannot read Chinese will not know.

More importantly, Chinese puerh wrappers have the nostalgia factor politically. They project the old-time state owned factories with emotionless number recipes. The bland sameness of the old CNNP label suggests a society with no elites, when premium tea and bad tea shared the same wrapping. Now of course the old reality had elites, despite the “worker” philosophy. But for a customer with stagnant purchasing power, abandoned by the state, left to the mercy of corporations, essentially the customer in “capitalist” countries, a factory wrapper suggests a political change that needs to happen even if it does not. Chinese wrappers simply do not push the sore buttons, and one can find a lot of budget-friendly factory teas for under $50, full-size cakes too, not these bottle-cap sizes that we see more and more of.

More Auctions and Group Buys

The middleman is not responsible for the mess, and may carry an advantage of coordinating budget-friendly group tea buying. Personally I see this as an expensive way to buy tea in the long run, but in the short term might be the only option for folks who hope their current budget will change for the better in a few years.

Along with this, more and more people buying tea means more tuition tea, not merely bad tea. People need time to learn what they like in tea, and so the secondary market is not yet kicked in as much as it will be in a few years. More people will decide to sell teas they do not like in order to buy other teas. Right now this has not yet really started in the west, but it will and maybe 2018 is the year it really starts to increase. I bought some very good tea last year this way, and sold a few I knew I would never drink.

More Interest in Storage

Tea storage is rather low tech, as inexpensive as you like. I believe this is the real meat of the puerh hobby, and obsessing over storage rather than shopping is the healthy direction our hobby needs to go. I see more and more discussions of storage than ever before, and the ideas are grand. I applaud the failures too, because we learn more from failure in the short term than anything else. Long term storage is still anyone’s potential success story. I see far more marketing potential in storage than in lifestyle or wellness. Unfortunately I think the tea vendor world will continue marching along with the tired lifestyle stuff rather than stock up on storage solutions and custom thermoses.

Overall, I think 2018 is the year of the Testy Customer and I will be interested to see what emerges from this on the vendor end. Of course these are merely my own observations and predictions. Anything can happen and probably will.

Happy drinking!

Friday, January 19, 2018

Blind Sample Greek Puerh Tasting via Yunnan Sourcing

In November 2017, I was invited by Matt of mattchasblog to do a blind tasting of Yunnan Sourcing samples, in the manner of the old Half-Dipper blog posts where the samples are marked with Greek letters and the teas are revealed afterward. We were given a deadline of January 15, and I am a few days late in finishing up. My medications are wrecking my ability to drink puerh on many days. My gut is okay, not damaged or anything like that, but it is sensitive and I try to avoid provoking it. So I spread out the tastings and tried to get as close to the deadline as I could.

I decided to brew the teas in clay rather than the gaiwan, just for variety among the bloggers who I assumed would likely choose a porcelain gaiwan. I chose a light clay tea pot made by Inge Nielsen (Belgium) that I use for young sheng. I measured 7-8g of tea per 100/ml and ended up using less water than that for most of the teas, more like 80 ml.


A very green tea yet.
Young. Leaves are plump and attractive. Fruity/floral, pours with some thickness, has that YS “house” taste I find in a lot of YS teas. Not much bitterness, very yin and cold. After –taste a little sour, likely needs some heat/humidity. Might be better down the line after it settles more. 


Rather good.
Young tea but with some browning, small leaves, fragrant in the pouch. Decent thickness to the pour. This tea is more to my taste with darker notes of aged oak cask along with the fruity floral. More yang than Alpha sample. Warm, autumn peppery spices going down the throat. A bit of euphoric stoner qi in the face and torso, making me want to guzzle the way Menghai tuos do. Still very sweet, warm mead, some house flavor.

Nothing burly I’d want to age but a pleasant drink for people who like brandy, cognac or spiced rum and a fuller profile in a young tea they can drink now. Hell, yeah. Wasn’t gonna binge drink but I think I will.


Worth it for the throat feel.
Green, Menghai-ish aroma. Tippy, small plantation leaves. The sample consists of loose tea and a chunk that resembles a mini-cake. Third pour a bit thicker. Finally, we have a tea which is somewhat bitter. Some throat feel. Not bad, but nothing special.

Overall I am finding a disturbing lack of decent bitterness in the teas thus far, despite how green and young as they are.


Sidling up to the bar, can I get some puerh already? It is one of those days, life is a miserable affair and certainly not worth living and I need tea to make it all better. Days like today are why God made dirty tuos, the back alley tavern beverage of choice for the puerh snifter, this western puerh drinker, I am such a stereotype and caricature of everything I come from, preferring the heights of heaven and depths of hell even in my beverages while eschewing the mildly pleasant middle. Aristotle shakes a crooked finger at people like me, a nice way to put it, because the thinnest veneer of schooling lies between me, as I am now, and the bar brawler that nature evolved me to be.

I probably did not give this tea a fair trial,
but could not bring myself to revisit it either.
This one has dark greenish black leaves, and smells of YS house teas. First two steeps show a touch of pink amber in the yellowish brew. Very pretty. Floral/fruity reminds me of the Alpha sample. I let it sit too long cooling. The cup then tastes sour. I have not had a single lick of food touch my palate yet today. Next…


This sample has green/black loose leaves, no chunks. I brew up 7g/100 ml and this is almost flavorless. Pushed with 80 ml water yields a more balanced and nicely bitter result that coats the tongue and provides a fast huigan. 

Not terrible, but not memorable.
Otherwise the experience is the same one note I find in most of the other samples, a mild fruity floral, all top note. The huigan reasserts in the throat ten minutes after the last sip, so double huigan, an initial one upon sipping and then another shortly afterward. Very clean tea overall, no storage notes perhaps because the tea is still young. Despite the promising start, the tea is cashed around steep 5, the loose leaves of course will give out sooner than a chunk. The session is like a highly anticipated erotic moment that finishes all too quickly.


This sample comes in a large mylar bag, the kind that Yunnan Sourcing once used for samples with a purchase but now buyers must pay for these. The bag contains large chunks of…shou. The shou appears to be on the young side, by the looks of it. I drink less shou now than I once did, and I prefer it older than ten years. I also use less leaf than I used to. But I will momma-up and donate the gut for today. Also, I must switch teapots from a sheng-dedicated clay and choose a thick porcelain to generate enough heat to separate the rather compressed sample.

A potent and rather tasty shou.
The tea brews up dark brown, and thicker with each steeping. I like it, this is a rather good shou, with a traditional Menghai factory flavor of soil, wood, vanilla, root beer, yeast bread, very tangy and lively. Some bitterness left shows some potential for age. This will one day get the sort of plummy flavor old shou tuos and bricks do at fifteen years, but likely to brew a lot longer. Right now the pile flavor is still very heavy in the tea. I take to the tea like a diabetic to a box of chocolates, my brain quickly forgetting any idea of caution on my gut. I feel a presence in the throat from the tea and a contented happiness flows.

Last year I bought a Year of the Goat shou cake from YS, and it is too young to drink now but I wonder if this sample is the same recipe, one of the Chinese year shous. If so, I will be happy I bought Goat. The sample is shou for days, brews a long time. I let water sit in the teapot to form a  thick cough syrup and the tea leaves are nowhere near done after six steepings, and can easily be boiled when they fade. One thing in favor of this tea, the flavor is similar to factory shou but so much more potent, a reminder to myself that Yunnan Sourcing, Crimson Lotus, or white2tea house shou puerh are a good value because the tea leaves are much stronger than traditional factory recipes, so I can use less tea and brew them longer.

Final Thoughts

A big thank you to Mattcha and also Yunnan Sourcing for the blind tasting experience.

Overall, with the exception of Beta, the sheng puerh teas have a similar flavor profile to other Yunnan Sourcing sheng puerh teas I have tasted in the past, and similar to the two or three I already own. If I intended to buy more YS sheng productions, the main factor for me is price. The year or name on the tea honestly will not matter much. I suggest to buyers looking at YS sheng productions to compare years for prices, the same teas year over year are likely to taste similar so whichever one costs less will be the best value. Beta is a tea I might consider as it stood out from the others with a fuller profile, deeper notes. The shou is good, but if it is a yearly production like Goat I will stay with what I own.  

I also am aware of personal subjective biases. These teas are clean and nice drinkers, but I want unique teas, something new or different than what I own. I already own plenty of drinkers. Nowadays I tend to look for very strong tea, either a strong burly and bitter tea, or intense mouth, throat feel, body effects, or qi. Or I am looking for storage and fine aging. This means I might not be the best person to try these teas. Someone new to puerh might offer a fresh perspective, and the teas are clean enough, and mild enough, to recommend them to anyone new to sheng puerh. 

After Note

 Since posting the above, I have now read some of the other blogger notes, and there seems to have been an expectation to either guess the region or production. I assume that many YS productions are blends, so it did not occur to me to try and guess where the leaves are from. And I am not familiar with the entire YS line, and thus not in a position to guess specific teas. Hopefully what I wrote will suffice.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Letter to a Prioress

Here is a letter I wrote to a long time nun friend. I have not written to her in some years. When I decided to write her again today, I looked her up to see where to send the letter, and found she was elected to lead her order last year. Congratulations are most certainly overdue on my part.

As always with posts of this kind, names and places are masked to avoid any potential embarrassment and I let a week go by so she will have received the letter.


My very dear Rev. Mother Prioress previously known as Sister___,

Well, still known as, but it’s an opportunity to open my missive, goodness me, I haven’t written in ever so long, can’t recall how long exactly, but you walked across a dream two nights ago. I woke up and thought wow, I should really write. Google’d the address to see where you are at these days, and the news articles, so many, I really must congratulate you on your recent election! Now today, six or seven months pass since your investiture. Long enough for the newness to wear off perhaps, but not long enough to completely lose the “get me out of here.” ?? Maybe?

Nah, of course not. I saw it in you, all those years ago. But how are you, my friend? Enjoying all the meetings…

As I said, I cannot recall exactly the last time I wrote, I do remember writing back during my days as an associate (postulant) in (___), from my room where the mice ran over me at night. I kept up writing a couple of years at least, Sister B. told me to “keep it up, try and phone etc.” so I did for a time. Then I got busy with my own bunch. I also wrote to Sister M. some years longer, I do still have some letters from her, and photos, as well as the sketch I drew of her. No doubt your archives have plenty of her materials but if you need more, I can always send over what I still have. I wrote to Fr. I. until his death as well.

And speaking of archives, I took so many of my college notes using the clean back sides of paper from the to-recycle bins in the liturgy office, the start of my career as a dumpster diver. Looking through them one day I noticed the used side of many pages are sheet music, with handwritten music parts by Sister T. and Sister D., descants, flute parts, depending upon the week and the musicians they could scrounge up for Sunday, so they wrote extra parts for whatever we happened to sing. I am sure these sisters have written many more in the thirty five years since. I wonder if the parts still end up in the recycle bin for some student to rescue.

My current biography is that I am---old, hair’s gone white. I left my order some years ago, finished a doctorate, and worked for some time in clinical mental health and case management, married/divorced, cellist husband moved to Communist China, son is twenty-seven and a bassoon player, I am mostly retired with a nice pension. I write a bit, have a tea blog of all things. Fermented puerh tea, long story. I might put this letter up, names removed of course, simply because my own tale is nearly impossible and I barely believe it. Really the truth is, we grow older much the same and there is just more of everything.

I don’t know how your bunch came through the Vatican inquiry stemming from the LCWR*, I followed the news with some interest. I knew that my group would get a tough scrutiny after our own president got elected to the (___) and then the signing of the petition for national healthcare, something I’m rather proud of, but I know the heat must have been intense. I still go back for community events on occasion. The last time I went I planned to ask how the whole process turned out. But I got there and did not need to ask, I could see immediately what had gone down. One cannot miss Franciscan priests in full habit at the motherhouse, (not just collar mind you ), they somewhat stick out. What I did miss, and you can tell Sister M. this, is the music is gone. All my sisters use now are the old hymnals from the 1940s. None of the beautiful pieces by Marty Haugen etc., no instrumentals, stuff we used to play, all gone. I don’t know if this is a directive or a kind of protest, “we will sing our own music” and that’s all, I see people who can play or direct liturgy but instead everything is stripped down. Hopefully nothing like this has come to pass at St.___’s, I hope Sister T. has liturgical freedom because there is mission in it more than ever.

My order hired a futures study in the late 1980s that projected the financial needs and retirements. The findings were presented at a community meeting for discussion. I remember that the futures projections showed the numbers of sisters and in the year 2027 only one member remained, and her death projected for 2037, ten years alone at that point. That was my data point, and it shook me to the core, over the next couple of years I got to where I could no longer stay. I could not face a holocaust of hundreds, but more than that obedience is impossible in a situation where they will be gone and yet are giving me certain directions for my life which includes no retirement while also not paying into the national Social Security.

It’s not the money and I wish today were only about the buildings but we have more than a century of non-stop, round the clock adoration, and that’s the painful part, what will happen to it. Are lay members enough, and will lay members continue to join when there are no longer sisters to partner with? I’m sure some of these questions are yours as well, and you have more strength with them, perhaps, and anyway you coped with the funerals better than I did, more strength than I would have on my own. Even through the newsletters I can feel the grief, worry and fury of the few contemporaries I had then, who still remain. I feel like your monastic tradition has bedrock to lean on and monastic vocations historically continue to trickle in, but I know this is also a kind of wishful thinking when facing the realities of today for orders formed nearly two centuries ago to teach and nurse immigrant communities.

In some ways, I wish religious life had a model for essentially what I got from it, to train other young women and give a foundation. College is not really the same, especially with all the drug and alcohol use these days, and back in my day too. I suppose if someone is seeking what religious life has to offer, even as a lay person, it’s all there for those who look even without needing to join. But hundreds of years ago, for young women and older women as I am now, religious life was an option for a time, not necessarily for all time. I wish it for so many women, I do not know now what I would be without it, well, I do know, either crazy or a drug addict, or both. Instead I am strong and mostly sane.

The year I left I took a job as a pastoral associate at a parish with extra building space, and a sister named D. had an office in this building to work on a diocesan project. Now I am sure her name is familiar, I thought of her when I read today that St.___ Priory was assumed a few years ago. That same year I signed my papers to leave, D. was in her exclaustration* year. She was one of the greatest gifts of friendship, we were both dealing with the same issues then, and we could talk and talk. I kept in touch with her until her death a few years back, used to call her once in awhile. What a dear lady, she talked as much as one could and still be monastic. I think we both saw a similar future, I wonder if she wanted and perhaps needed something like what the Madison priory is now, but twenty years before it came to fruition. I know she got to a fully ecumenical* place before the shame of such a view disappeared. Now it’s rather fashionable, D. was way ahead in her thinking. But I know she also had a huge self honesty as to what is incompatible with today’s reality, and how or where she departed from monasticism and took responsibility for her own stuff, as it were.

I remember reading when Father P. died in a car accident in 1999, he was cousin to my associate (postulant) director and visited our convent house once, the one where the mice ran over me in bed and where I wrote to you. He stayed with us after a trip to Australia, brought us a nice box of huge apricots coated in chocolate, never tasted the like since, they were as large as my hand. All the news of St.--- over the years pained me so much, shook me really, larger church issues too.

Okay I have to ask. Do you get those weird looks, are people treating you differently now? You walk down the halls and previously no one paid you much mind, maybe a nod etc. because you were one of the young ones, and now has anything changed? Because you did not get a mask or costume for the job, something you can wear and then pull the mask and go “Boo!” to remind them you are still you and not a hallowed idea. Well you are a hallowed idea.

I remember when my cousin was about to be elected and she served two terms as president, I had a difficult time with it. Mainly because I felt I was part of a circle of a number of the leaders, and it was not inappropriate and probably part of the training, but it was enough that others felt left out, and that made it a little wrong. An in-group, not bad but just a step in towards exclusion, the kind we cannot have and it destroys community in small ways because issues that were only conversation might become policy. I had differences in historical perspective too, because I wasn’t alive when Kennedy was shot, so I definitely felt the in-group keenly and someone warned me too, probably not soon enough.

My cousin left shortly after I did and moved to New Mexico. You probably remember my sister A., she lives in Milwaukee. She has traveled a great deal in her life as I figured she would. Her health is not the best, she has some immunity and thyroid stuff and remains fragile but still she sparkles.

Well now I am certain you have better things to do than continue to read a letter that goes on and on. My best to you and everyone at St.___, in my mind I can still sit in your chapel any time I wish to go there as a mental traveler, and I do, so if you see me, wave.



*LCWR (Leadership Conference of Women Religious)

*exclaustration: a one-year of separation required for perpetually vowed nuns prior to leaving their order permanently.

*ecumenical: a view embracing commonalities among religions rather than differences.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

What a Puerh Lover Learns from a Fruitcake

This year I decided to bake a fruitcake. I have made fruitcakes before, and even have a recipe I developed back in my vegan days using beans. For this year’s fruitcake, however, I wanted to make a rather boozy version along the lines of a fruitcake I picked up during a trip to the UK a few years ago, what was called a “Christmas cake” with frosting. This cake tasted very unlike the fruitcakes I avoid here in the States. 

Many Americans dislike fruitcakes, mainly because of mass production of this confection in the mid-twentieth century with nuclear green candied fruit. I learned from my English fruitcake that many US mass produced versions are mistakes, but what I did not know until this year is that a quality fruitcake "matures" in a rather similar fashion to our puerh cakes. That is, if looked after properly, a fruitcake and puerh over time will develop sought-after complex flavors.

For my fruitcake, I hoped to use up much of the dried fruit accumulated in my kitchen cupboards over many years. Alas, one large fruitcake made only a small dent in the number of packages of prunes, apricots, dried cranberries, figs and the like that somehow ended up in my house. Where did all this dried fruit come from? I like dried fruit, but really! Apparently I do not eat any of it, and neither does anyone else in the house. I guess I ate it to stay regular, but now in recent years I need only brew up a drain cleaner puerh for this purpose. 

Fruitcakes are part of my family history. My aunt Alvina baked fruitcakes every year. She developed a family tradition during World War II when my uncle Leonard fought as an infantry soldier. Aunt Alvina sent him care packages at Christmas time with fruitcakes and frosted cookies packed into a huge box full of plain popped popcorn. The box arrived with most of the cookies broken, but the popcorn and broken cookies eaten together were a huge hit with my uncle’s infantry unit. So Alvina continued mailing out Christmas boxes to her brothers, my father included. Dad was the only one in my family who ate the fruitcakes. They remained in the refrigerator wrapped in tin foil well into the following summer (I found out the tin foil actually has a rationale for maturing fruitcakes). 

I remember asking my dad one July whether I should toss the leftover fruitcake.

“No, no don’t throw that out, it is still good.” 

He’d hack off a chunk, eating it in front of me to show he still planned to finish the cake. One could never be certain of food facts from my father. This was a guy who ate lettuce and pasta out of the sink drain, and saved soups in pots out in the garage for weeks.  

So really, in terms of fruitcake knowledge, I am on my own here. Although I have plenty of fruitcake recipes in my kitchen already, I am intrigued by a BBC recipe. Sort of following the recipe, I cook up prunes, apricots, cranberries and figs into spiced rum (I am not a brandy fan) and then fold them into the cake portion of the recipe. I did not have fresh lemons, so I use a chopped preserved lemon. I cannot bother to go buy one orange just for the zest, so I toss in some fruit punch instead. I slow bake the lot in the oven and the cake turns out all right.

My fruitcake
Now, this is when the OCD kicks in. I have some notion that a fruitcake needs to mature with some alcohol in it, but not much idea of how to do this because all the fruitcakes of my past were ready to eat. How much booze do I use? How often should I add some to the cake? Do I just pour it on, or brush it on? How long should the cake sit, weeks or months? I turn to the internet for information.

Let me tell you that every single fruitcake article on the internet for the past seven years is repetitive and blatantly plagiarized from the same sources without attribution. I am ashamed at all the blog posts I read on fruitcakes that repeat the same tropes over and over as if they are original to the author. A typical fruitcake article has the following:

--a trope on ancient Roman fruitcakes
--a trope on Filipino fruitcakes
--a Johnny Carson joke
--a Jay Leno joke
--a trope on American fruitcake nuclear green tutti frutti (even I repeat that one here)
--the American designated day for fruitcake toss games.
--the 106 year old fruitcake found in Antarctica, still edible.

Finding useful and apparently obscure information on “maturing” fruitcakes takes no fewer than eight pages into a Google Search, and I ended up scouring more than twenty search pages.

So, a fruitcake “matures” over time with periodic “feedings” of booze. The skins of the fruits break down, releasing the tannins. The flavors of the tannins reduce the sugary sweetness, balancing it out and creating flavor nuances. In this sense, fruitcakes are more akin to wine maturation than puerh fermentation.

97 year old Australian fruitcake. It's still good.
A fruitcake does not mold, or should not mold, assuming the cake has a much higher proportion of fruit to cake. One reason the cake should not mold is the amount of alcohol which is preserved by wrapping the cake up in layers of plastic and tin foil. If the cake is to be kept for long term, people wrap the cake in muslin soaked with booze, and then cover the thing in plastic and tin foil. Another reason the cake does not mold is because of the high sugar content. Apparently, sugars are resistant to molds, the butter and flour are susceptible to mold rather than the sugars.

A light bulb goes on in my head. Over time, puerh tea breaks down its cell walls to release the bitter juices which are converted to sugar via Rhizopus yeast which uses carbons from bacteria as food. As the tea sweetens with more and more plant sugars, the molds present in the tea decline over time until they die off at the end of decades of fermentation. A fully fermented puerh tea should have almost no bacteria or mold, because these are consumed by fermentation and replaced by plant sugars. Thus the puerh tea is safe to drink, and sweet rather than bitter.

I learned more about the nature of sugars in fruitcakes. Apparently, sugars with their crystalline structure are very hard, and hold water. If the fruitcake is appropriately moist, the structure of the sugars is loosened. But if the fruitcake dries out, the sugars want to return to hard crystals. Should a fruitcake dry out and harden, the sugars in their crystalline structure can be induced to release water and return to a moist state. To do this, one can heat the fruitcake in a dry low heat oven.


Wait...so, a dry, hard fruitcake actually returns to a moist fruitcake by heating in an oven, without adding more moisture? Apparently so, and this is because the sugars are holding the moisture.

I start to think about the overly-humid stored puerh cakes that get dried out like old autumn leaves. Of course vegetal matter has simple sugars, whereas a tighter sucrose sugar has an extra carbon and a more complex crystalline structure that holds water molecules. I did add about ¾ cup dark brown sugar to my fruitcake. 

But I wonder if added heat does more to reconstitute a dried out puerh cake than added humidity. Not to mention the musty mildew odor that can disappear with added heat. I have that dried out humid eBay fake tea donation from July…should’ve thrown it away, but didn’t. 

eBay Fake, from this post
Into the oven it goes.

I am not expecting this tea to turn into something miraculous, it is a health hazard more than anything else. However, I am curious to find out what changes, if anything, after an oven-bake. To reconstitute a fruitcake, a scientist recommends 140F (60C) for 10 minutes. I have a small oven to use (no way am I gonna fire up my expensive gas oven for a piece of crap) that has a lowest temp of 150F (65C), but tends to the cold side when using it for cooking. Close enough.

A rack seems like a good idea.
After ten minutes of bake time, I get a wafting odor of basement from the oven. I went twelve minutes, doubting whether this is enough time for the heat to completely penetrate the tea cake. Come to think of it, a dried out fruitcake is likely equally dense if not more so. I am going to try the outer leaves anyway, not the innards. I fire up the kettle.

Oven view.
The tea does not look any different in appearance after the oven, so I did not take another photo. As for my previous testing of this tea, I used 8g and the same Yixing pot. I threw away the first three rinses as before. I still smell some mildew basement in the Yixing, but much less than I remember.

Could be worse...
The brew is light and actually sweet. Not that unpleasant really. I still feel just a slight tongue numbing but if I can get past that, the tea is still a bit lively. Now the wet storage is at more of a perfect level: when a wetter stored tea has one part woodiness and one part humidity, to me that is just the right touch. 

I cannot discern whether the tea is actually made sweeter by the heating, or if the basement humidity is reduced enough to taste the sweetness which was already in the tea, but previously obscured. I do not recall seeing green in the leaves the last time, but perhaps I did not look closely enough in the sunlight to see. Maybe the cake is not quite dead.

I notice now the leaves still have some green.
One thing is certain to me now. If I have a tea with storage that I feel is a bit too much, I will definitely put the tea in the oven for ten minutes. After all, most rather wet teas are on the less expensive side, so I am not potentially risking a very fine tea. I will also consider the idea of using the oven to reduce any accidental white fuzz on tea. In fact, if tea is not yet a loss I might rehabilitate an experiment “gone too far” by oven heating. At such a low oven temp, I am not risking burning the tea. 

So, what did I learn from fruitcake that I can apply to tea? A fruitcake is actually more akin to wine, but has a maturation process fed by moisture. High sugar content and alcohol inhibit mold, and once tannins are released from the fruit, a complex balance of flavors emerge. This too happens with aged puerh as it converts bitter tannic juices to sugars. Those of us with a craving for complexity might find a fruitcake hobby satisfying, and certainly more rewarding in the short term as we wait years for our tea to mature.