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Saturday, April 17, 2021

North American Puerh Buyers

 


Recently Lew Perin sent me some photos of a beeng date stamped 2004 pressed through the efforts of one of our earliest North American puerh bloggers, Mike Petro. The "Just Puer" logo and simple-style wrapper were designed by Mike, and he arranged for the pressing and wrapper printing with a factory in China. An order for custom tea was placed and the communication with the factory required using "an early translation software." This relatively early effort to order factory tea from China reveals to me how little has changed with puerh buying for people in North America. Nearly twenty years later, people interested in buying new and recent factory teas from China are still working channels and translation software. Yet puerh tea consumption and buying has exploded since then. 

While outlets for buying proprietary fresh teas from online boutiques grew tremendously during this same time, markets for people interested in factory teas are still mostly inaccessible and at best inconvenient. With just about everything available online these days, including products from China, I am amazed at the poor access to Chinese factory puerh teas with the size and monetary power of North American puerh buyers. Chinese factories express interest in accessing North America as a market, but perhaps not in a way that currently matches the interests of buyers.

How Many Buyers?

The pandemic, if anything, increased the number of people trying puerh tea at home and looking to buy. Once down the rabbit hole, puerh buyers are additive, no one really goes away. A significant route into puerh tea for the North American buyer is through green tea consumption. Green tea has permeated everywhere in North America. Even where I live, in the middle of nowhere, my very basic grocery store for some reason carries at least a dozen fresh kombucha teas. People are drinking green teas of all sorts and raw sheng puerh is an easy jump to make from green tea. 

This is an important characteristic of North American puerh buyers coming from green teas. The leap from green teas to raw sheng puerh tea is much easier for the cultural palate than it is to go from green or red teas to shou puerh. The path to shou puerh is often through aged sheng. This factor is important to note when looking at the mismatch of puerh marketing further.

But how many of us are out here? The horde of North American buyers is large enough at this point that I struggle for a comparison. I am reminded of the size of specialty cannabis strain buyers back in the 1990s before cannabis became legal. We always had cannabis users in the same way we always have tea drinkers, but a subset of these had an interest in gourmet hybrid strains, hydroponic growing and efforts to develop legal markets. In other words, people no longer buying ditch weed bought gourmet strains of cannabis basically underground for a couple of decades before states made this market legal. Nowadays of course this market is mainstream. I would say that puerh buyers are at least the size of the early days of hybrid cannabis devotees. How big is that? Big enough that current avenues for buying new and recent factory teas are long inadequate.

Current Outlets for Factory Puerh

Right now puerh buyers are fairly well served if a buyer is looking for fresh, proprietary blends of tea from small, individually-owned online puerh vendors. These are house teas and they form the bulk of easily available teas to the American buyer. Really these teas are an incredible gift to puerh buyers. But I have to say that a large contingent of puerh buyers, maybe even the majority of buyers, are also interested in factory puerh teas, if not exclusively so. Even buyers who purchase fresh boutique blends still dabble a finger into factory teas now and again. But the reality is very few vendors sell new and recent factory puerh teas. Very few vendors sell semi-aged teas also, but aged tea is always going to be a secondary re-sale market, unlike for new and recent teas. 

Hard to believe that all these years later, anyone wanting to buy new or recent factory teas is still looking to Yunnan Sourcing and primarily their China location (the US shop currently has one raw Dayi beeng for sale). Aside from Yunnan Sourcing, the few vendors offering factory teas dwindle to a handful of tea shops, with a handful of teas, or enterprising individuals doing special orders or even Taobao buying. Just as Mike Petro worked the translation software all those years ago, nowadays people are plugging in Google translate just to access new and recent vintage factory teas. Western vendors have little to no interest in selling factory teas, and the few people who do offer these teas do so as a courtesy rather than as a focus. Buyers are left to work Taobao or buy teas from other collectors rather than via official or tax-legal market channels. 

What the Buyer is looking for.

North American puerh buyers develop a sophisticated set of preferences for puerh very quickly. The buying community learns fast that spring raw sheng puerh is more desirable than summer or autumn harvests. People want teas with strong bitter and astringent profiles, not the sweet, drink-now versions that some factories are trying to market. People want to age their teas and enjoy their development with varying degrees of success, and this is the fun of the hobby for many. 

Buyers are well versed in the history of puerh teas, and know that the best vintages from the past are factory made, and some are recipe teas and therefore people want an amount of factory tea in their collection. Access to these teas is not as straightforward as might be the case, due to several issues.

Mismatched Markets.

Chinese puerh factories have no need to sell sheng puerh teas to the western market because the Asian market is more than adequate. When the Taetea 7542 of the year reaches over $300/beeng in resale we know the market has little impetus to offer retail 7542 anywhere outside of China. Not to mention the rare special edition teas which rarely see the light of day in western buying outlets. By western buying outlets, I primarily mean Yunnan Sourcing. We also have a few sources like King Tea Mall from Guangzhou, which is a fine seller but again located in China and not in North America. Here too we don't find special edition teas and we pay a premium for resale and shipping, again to be expected.

The biggest mismatch, however, is the actual interest Chinese factories currently have in selling to the west. When reading puercn news and meeting with tea factories at events like the World Tea Expo, the main interest factories have is in selling shou puerh and also "excess tonnage" of tea to the west. Excess tonnage includes summer and autumn tea and anything leftover from late spring which probably also means shou puerh products. Yet where the real money is right now is for sheng puerh products, rather than shou puerh. People want access to the same sheng products factories are producing primarily for Asian markets. 

Non-specific Warehouse Vendors.

Sheng puerh teas can be found in warehouse model vendors like Awazon at Amazon. Occasionally teas sell on eBay but most buyers view eBay as a less desirable way to purchase tea due to the possibility of fakes. Aliexpress had factory puerh teas at one point, but Aliexpress banned the sale a few years ago which was a loss of access for North American buyers. Taobao is even more difficult now, and sometimes boots online accounts from the west, and requires a buying agent and navigating in Chinese. 

People are still buying from Yunnan Sourcing after so many years. We have to give props to Yunnan Sourcing for offering at least some factory teas, even if most of these are ripe shou teas. But Yunnan Sourcing is a large vendor with their own house teas and equal if not greater emphasis on other types of Chinese tea. Scott has spoken about looking for a way to retire someday, and so this single outlet which barely meets the demand will not be around forever. 

Boutiques and Tea Shops.

Small outlets like these are not able to adequately serve buyers looking for factory teas. I would include possible ideas like franchising, such as when Taetea licenses small dealers as official retailers. The problem here is the lack of access to capital to purchase stock up front and then sell it. We don't have a retail loan structure for puerh vending because the financial world by and large is still ignorant of Chinese tea. 

Then we have a problem experienced by nearly all small boutique retailers. The further away distance-wise the retailer is from the factory source, the lower the priority for stock. This is an issue in every designer goods sector. The retailer has plenty of buyers, but is not getting in the stock needed to satiate the buying appetite of the customers. Most designer boutiques have this problem, lots of buyers but the shop doesn't get priority from the factory label for shipments. This is where a franchise model in the US is likely to fail. Not only is retail space expensive, but a US location is on the low end of the totem pole compared to Asian locations. A franchise won't get enough stock for the size of the puerh buying community.

And how big is that buying community again? We are large enough at this point with enough dollars that a single retail location shipment could be bought up entirely by one buyer. Just think if that 2021 7542 had made it to a retail location in the US at the original retail price. One person easily would swoop all that tea up in a single buy, and any appearance online would result in inquiries from overseas buyers as well. This is yet again why a small shop or boutique-style vendor or franchise cannot possibly keep up with customer demand for factory sheng puerh, even if that shop had adequate access to stock which it likely won't at such a distance. We have all too many buyers with the money to buy up tongs and tongs of tea, single-handedly. Then we have huge group buying efforts to pool money and split tong purchases. Good luck to any retailer looking to keep up with this kind of behavior. It won't happen. 

Addressing the Mismatched Market.

We want more than the dusty tea brick from a local market shop. But we can't simply apply more pressure to existing outlets. Something has to give in the Chinese market to improve sales and access to North America. We have the buyers. We have plenty of money to spend. What can be done to improve access to sheng puerh tea?

Warehouse-model selling.

Chen Sheng Hao has taken the step of opening a warehouse in Vancouver. North American buyers can now access these teas through this warehouse. However, their pricing and products are on the top tier end. Right now I am sure the customers in this market need convincing that CSH teas are worth $1000/beeng. I don't think buyers are certain CSH teas are of a quality to merit this price tag, and if the teas are, then people need experience trying the teas to find out. The main market is looking to buy lower, at the under $100/beeng price point but in bulk.

Yet the warehouse model is precisely what is needed to meet consumer demand because the small boutique does not have the capital nor the priority. More factories will hopefully follow the example of Chen Sheng Hao and open warehouse options in North America with teas at a lower price point.

Develop and sell new recipe teas and teas with a picking standard.

Do what you do well. Customers want spring teas and especially teas with a bitter and astringent profile designed for aging and warm humid weather. Factories could develop new recipes and productions for everyone, everywhere, that could incorporate some of that excess summer and autumn tonnage blended with spring tea. Or offer more premium blends that adhere to a picking standard, such as the one-bud-two-leaf, rather than the chopped over-oxidized mess that many productions use. 

Once a customer develops a taste for aged raw puerh, they are more open to drinking shou and other heicha teas like Fu Zhuan and bamboo stored Liu Baos. Cultivate the raw sheng customer with the carrot of what they want, and other teas are likely to benefit from increased sales. 

Open up factory-direct and Taobao with English service and shipping. 

I realize this is a diplomatic stretch involving many cultural factors. I know China does not need our puerh business. But North American puerh buyers are a well-educated and gainfully employed lot, in a variety of industries, and they drink tea at work. Sommeliers are more popular in food service and we have thriving $100/session puerh service in fine restaurants in places like New York City. Many unknown business connections into the future may be gained in North America in the same way as puerh enhances business relationships and diplomacy in China. 

Support the secondary puerh market by offering factory teas.

More factory teas in the hands of collectors means more tea for potential resale later as aged teas in our own markets, which leads to more interested tea drinkers buying new. It's a cycle. To expand our aged offerings so we don't need middlemen in Asia, we need to buy teas direct when they are new and recent and more cost-effective. 

Over the past year, we read lots of bad news about Chinese-North American relations and attitudes. Yet I can assure the reader that the opposite is the case with regard to Yunnanese sheng puerh tea. More and more people are attracted to this tea and yet the buyer opportunities, especially for factory teas, have hardly changed in the past twenty years. Tea is consumed and gone forever, and so the market only increases in demand. The buyers here are legion and ready to spend money when opportunities arise and we need more legitimate and direct sales options to meet the increasing demand.

Photo credit: photos shown are by the kindness and permission of Lew Perin (photographer) and Mike Petro. 




Monday, March 29, 2021

Bad Connection


Been three years now since the ex-husband moved to China and we got a divorce over Skype. That first year he lived in Hefei, so before he left I made sure he tried plenty of Anhui heicha just to prepare, but then he drank zero tea the entire time he lived there. To be fair, the smog got awfully bad that year in Hefei and he stayed indoors much of the time. The next year he moved to Shanghai where the tea scene is better, and I gave him some emails for tea people to meet for dinner and tea shopping. But then the Coronavirus arrived, and he again spent much of his time in his apartment . When things opened back up again he preferred to go to Disneyland rather than follow up on the tea leads I provided.  

Last fall he moved again, this time to guess where, Guangzhou in Guangdong Province. Yes, the home of Guangdong storage where puerh tea ages nicely whilst retaining its integrity. He doesn't have coronavirus restrictions to keep him home, and he is out and about daily in Guangzhou and could be spending his considerable free time scouting the tea scene. Now I am not entirely self-centered in my endeavors to provide him with connections of tea collectors and vendors to meet with. In fact, I have told him not to buy me any tea. 

The ex is constantly complaining about money, even though he has a pension, teaching pay and gets free housing from his employer. Tea could provide a lucrative side hustle. Especially because now we have so many people looking for cheap factory teas. Yet another vendor option in Guangzhou willing to slap on a shipping label to the west could make some nice cash. I am thinking in particular of his live-in girlfriend who is of course unemployed. I am uncertain if she speaks Cantonese but with all the free time she has I am certain she can learn. 

"Amy is busy, she is doing lots of painting of oil and pastels." He objects. 

Of course Amy is not her real name. I don't think he knows her real name. 

"Her style at the moment is like Modigliani. We plan to be like starving artists."

"So what will she do after you leave China in two years?" I wonder. 

Crickets. Bad connection. I message him that nobody has taken his 88 year old mother for a vaccine. More crickets.

Naturally it's a big fat nothing again when tea friends of mine offer to take him (and her) out for dim sum, and he doesn't bother to answer the invitation from them. Meanwhile the money situation is getting serious. He misses two car payments for the car he owns currently residing in my driveway, which I was forced to take for storage by the divorce judge. 

I send him a screenshot of the 2021 7542 sold by the competition. 


You read that right, $319 and change.

"Look at this, you find a few of these to sell, even a hundred bucks less and you're still making money. All you have to do is find anything Taetea, in any condition and we've got a market here. I can set you up with plenty of buyers." Even the hurricane/flood-destroyed tea must be cheap and people will surely think it tastes like Hong Kong stored.

"I've seen TV commercials for Taetea," he says. "They seem like a huge company."

"They’re like the Oscar Meyer of wieners." 

My ex used to live just across from the Oscar Meyer plant in Madison. 

Joshua Rainey Photography, Shutterstock

"Ew." 

Oscar Meyer occasionally leaked waste water into Lake Mendota and globs of meat fat rolled up on the beaches. 

"You don't have to drink the tea," I say. "I certainly wouldn't. The important part is the wrapper, people want the Chinese wrapper more than the tea in some cases."

I start to explain about the stickers and needing to buy a black light but his VPN disconnects.. 

Next I see on Facebook he spent money on a computerized sound board. "I'm starting a career in writing film music, I met a local actor in the movie business." He posts.

Another payment notice arrives in the mail for the car. I email reminding him about Taetea.

Just imagine yourself in this situation, you are a puerh head, right? Otherwise you would not be here reading this. Imagine you have someone in your life that you have known for more than thirty years who is now in Guangzhou. More than that, you have a child with this person. A grown child, even. Can you think of any better connection to the puerh world than this? He has an unemployed girlfriend who speaks the language. Well, one language anyway. Could be two if she applied herself. But of course they need money to start up considering expenses like: 

ex's expenses

Yes. Coffee. He goes out for coffee in Guangzhou. Probably like most everyone else. Are we seeing a pattern here? What are the chances he does anything related to tea?

"TaeTea is a company like Starbucks," I email. Starbucks is heavily invested in Yunnan. Look it up. 

"You said it's like Oscar Meyer wieners."

"Okay yes, nobody here who drinks factory tea eats Oscar Meyer. They probably eat Tofu Pups from Whole Foods, but for some reason huge factory is okay when it has a Chinese wrapper. Look I can't explain it, but do you guys want a decent side hustle or not? I'll put up the money to get started but not for the car."

He calls on Skype. 

"I don't know about the tea thing, but I could use the money. We are looking to book a house for the summer in Kunming."

Of course he is. 




Thursday, March 18, 2021

Spring Cleaning a Puerh Collection


Management issues come up with a tea collection when one has so many teas that some level of organization and possibly curating down become necessary. Various reasons for organizing or reducing the collection can happen based on life events, or maybe just wanting to use the sofa. Incoming life events, such as moving house, getting married or having children sometimes result in needing to make space in one's life for these. One blogger not long ago got rid of almost his entire collection when he got married. That's a fairly drastic decision, most people probably are not getting rid of everything if they need to curate. 

I am at the point where the number of years I have left to drink tea are not enough time to age a new tong. I base this estimate on my worsening health conditions which are the same as my parents had, and I am approaching the age of my father when he passed. The pandemic year has added an additional sense of impending time, although I have received a first vaccine now. The jury is still out on how well the vaccines will do against virus variants and while I am not especially worried, it adds to the concerns I already have. So, I prefer to focus on my best teas along with a nice curation of drinkers for morning medication time when I need a mild tea. My evening tea time is now completely lost to bowel-harsh medicine, so that leaves early afternoon for enjoying a session of puerh tea. 

In any case, it's spring cleaning, every year just gets more important for me to do this, so now is the time for me to sort out my teas.

Keeping a Blogging Collection

Making an inventory spreadsheet of teas is a great idea but does not substitute for going through the collection to do a spring sort-through. It's curious that people seem to equate my blog posts with my entire tea collection. Even more interesting that tea bloggers will assume this when they don't show the contents of their collection. 

Like most general tea bloggers, I have focused the blog posts on teas that are either interesting to write about or people are planning to buy. No one emails asking "can you review the 7542 because i want to know if it is good so i can buy it." Insert the name/number of pretty much any factory tea. At this point, very good reviews exist on those types of teas and what more can be said? Doesn't mean I don't own a few, or more than a few. They just are not in my blogging stash.

More importantly, like most tea bloggers in general I prefer to focus my blog posts on teas that are easy for people to acquire. That's because as a reader nothing is more disappointing than reading about a good tea and it is not available to buy. I also have teas which are some of the finest I own, but they had a requirement that I not post anything on either a blog or social media, or else I am not going to get in on the tea. This is fairly common, I've heard from a number of collector people recently who said things like "if I get access to a really fine tea, I don't tell anyone." Bottom line, if a tea is sold out/impossible to acquire easily, I generally don't write about it. 

Many of my very fine teas are in maocha form
The haul is small. You have to take loose tea
sometimes to get the best, and stay quiet.

Many teas I wrote about over the years were of interest because at the time people wanted to buy before the tea sold out, and for budget reasons needed a tasting note from someone first, so I did it. It wasn't a big deal for me to pick up the tea or I got some blogger samples. I try to post before a tea sells out, but sometimes it does and I still might post anyway because a number of people bought the tea and we had fun reading everyone's notes. Someone in our group might post a steep-by-steep rundown on their blog, Steepster or IG, so I didn't do the exact same thing myself. Mainly I look for teas to wax on about for the sake of enjoyment, and many of these teas have been very good for my blog. A number of teas I don't own anymore, and that leads to the first category of teas to sort out. 

Teas to Sell

Might surprise some but I no longer have the first two teas I posted on this blog. I sold them to TeaDB fairly soon after those posts. In this case I was selling to someone I thought had been a tea friend. So even though the teas had sold out by that point, I came up with a figure that took into account the tea I took out but no profit of any kind. Every year after my spring clean I sell at least some teas to tea friends who are looking for something long sold out that I happen to have, and I can part with some or all of it. These are teas I bought with my own money, not teas I got for free. I am usually open to selling during the rest of the year if I see somebody in my tea circle looking for something. 

Another category of teas to potentially sell from a collection are teas that have wrapper value more than anything else. An extreme example of that is the 2011 Dayi Gold, which I sold and in this case took a profit. Such teas are a dilemma because their value lies in being untouched. Do I really open a tea like this just for a taste or just for a blog post? I usually decide nope. Right now we don't have a ceiling on where prices go for some wrapper teas, and I am at an age where I probably won't see the ceiling. So it comes down to a decision every year whether or not I will drink the teas or just babysit them. I don't like the image of the old person in complete denial who thinks he will live forever sitting on his riches, that life is not for me. Not when someone younger can enjoy watching prices for far more years than I have. Some tea collectors my age plan to open a shop but that life is not for me either. So, I have maybe only 6-12 of these wrapper-dilemma teas left and I will contact a few tea peeps to see who might want what I'm culling this year. 

Teas to Toss

I wonder if people find tossing more difficult than selling. Maybe, because people send me teas they really need to toss and can't do it. I still have a few of these sloshing around my collection and it's time to dig them out. I usually give some time to them to see if shipping sickness or temporary storage were issues. Really the main criteria here is whether I will drink them. If not, then why hang on to them?

Culled contents of one area of the stash

Some teas are actually perfectly fine, nothing wrong with them, but they are not great and I will not reach for them. I have to face facts and get rid of at least some of these every spring. One excuse I tell myself is I will experiment on them but I don't, will I let them sit another year?

Then I have experiments I am done with. Usually these teas have undergone conditions like molding and drying a number of times to see what happens. The tea might actually still be fine but realistically I won't reach for it to drink. 

Samples

Finally we have tea samples. Some of these need to be tossed because they are old or I know I won't drink them, or write about them because the teas are sold out. I have a hard time going through tea samples, it's the most boring task ever. 

More samples...

Teas to Donate

Except for last year in the pandemic, I usually donate some tea to a new tea drinker or maybe a student on a budget. Some of these teas are blogger freebies, some are just bits of things I thought were nice, and some of the better samples as well. 

Teas to Prioritize

This is really the goal of my spring clean. I sort out the teas that make me happy and are my best teas for drinking this year. They need to be within reach, not at the bottom of a pile that got turned over and over during the winter. Some I may break up into tins to get ready to drink. I also have teas that lacked storage and now I have room for them. Come summer I will put these teas out onto my three-season porch for some heat and humidity. 


Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Social Media Fu Zhuan Tastings

My 2012 CNNP Fu Zhuan kilo brick

Last month I received a packet of Fu brick samples from Oolong Owl who had completed a review of Moychay's Fu brick teas. Moychay is a Russian tea house who had sent her Fu Zhuan teas for review, and they sent not just samples but entire 800g bricks! So she reached out to a number of people via social media offering to send samples. She asked that I do some tea notes. The samples are well-timed for me because of my project to drink up my 2012 CNNP Fu Zhuan 1 kilo whopper brick this year. So I am very familiar now with that brick and can compare it to the samples. I consider my notes here to be addenda to Oolong Owl's post. I did not photograph my samples because her brick photos especially give a better idea of the product than my small samples. 

But first, an update on my CNNP brick. I have been drinking this in the a.m. since the first week of January, although I took a week to consume the samples from this social media sharing, and recently I have been drinking a bit of hongcha in the morning. You can see from the photo above that the brick now fits in my square tea tray rather than draping over the edge. So that is progress, but I still have quite a bit of tea left to go. When I break off chunks I get a lot of tea dust that cannot really be brewed so that is some loss which will mean going through the brick a bit faster. I admit that while I am chugging along fine on the brick, I feel a little bored drinking the same brick tea day after day. The CNNP is clean and pleasant, but Fu is a bit on the bland side compared to puerh tea. 

Moychay has several Anhua Fu Zhuan Teas, you can check out the bricks for yourself. The prices compare nicely with the Mojun Fu Zhuan bricks at Yunnan Sourcing. I brewed all my samples in my Teforia as I have been doing with the CNNP brick.

First I drank the 2017 sample, which comes from the 800g Anhua Fu Zhuan brick. This tea is very green with large leaves, and you can see from Owl's photo the number of thick sticks in the brick. I feel as though my CNNP brick has a better leaf quality with smaller leaves and fewer sticks. The sample is large enough for two different Teforia brewings, and I brewed each sample for two days for a total of six steepings per day, or twelve times two (24) for the full sample. The green flavor dominates the profile, like freshly cut weeds and green olive. After four days of drinking this tea, I really could not stand it anymore. It is just too green for me to enjoy. The tea has healthy golden flowers, and some warming qi but I could not get past the weedy profile. I really like my Fu teas more aged, and some tea factories age their Fu brick teas for a couple years before selling, so they are already a bit browned. 

After the 2017, I just could not bring myself to try the 2016 sample, although this one was Owl's favorite of the three Moychay samples. It is green like the 2017. So I moved on to the 2014 Shou Zhu brick. This tea has a browned appearance, with smaller leaves and fewer sticks than the 2016 and 2017. I did the same four days of 24 steepings total on the sample. This tea seems rather comparable to my 2012 CNNP brick with a nutty flavor and hints of fermented shou. I can't think of a reason to prefer either tea, except my CNNP brick at 1000g for $65 was a better value at the time when I purchased it. 

Owl included a few other samples in the package she mailed me, fortuitously one of them was the 2018 Fu Zhuan from Mojun purchased through Yunnan Sourcing. I am right out of Mojun Fu brick tea, having drunk all mine up since we met with the company at the 2017 World Tea Expo. Brilliant that she included a sample from Mojun along with the Moychay, because Mojun's Fu is still my benchmark for good Fu brick. Steeping up the Mojun sample, everything about it is a clear difference from all of the above teas. Mojun's Fu brick teas feature small leaves with the fewest sticks. The flavor is much more nutty and full bodied. Their teas are aged to a bit of brown before selling. The Mojun sample had the best qi and a sweating effect on me. 


Owl's package also included a couple of tea bags and instant powdered Fu teas. The T-85 teas are by Tea Garden, a company Owl met up with at the 2019 World Tea Expo, I believe. The teabag Fu did not contain enough tea for my Teforia steeping and came out rather weak and flavorless. The Premium Tian Jian, however, is a very nice tea. I did not realize it was not Fu tea at first because I did not look at the bag carefully, and the tea has so much flavor by comparison to Fu brick I was startled drinking it. The T-85 Tian Jian is similar to Zhu Xiang Ji bamboo-log Tian Jian teas that I notice are back in stock at Yunnan Sourcing US, also of Hunan-Anhua origin. 

Fu Zhuan is a pleasant tea on the body and probably beneficial for the digestion. It hits a bit of a wall, however, in that Fu just does not have the fine aroma and complex mouth experience that puerh tea has. However much that Fu Zhuan lacks in the flavor department, very often it can offer similar qi experiences as puerh tea for a lot less money than great qi costs in puerh. For these reasons Fu is worth considering as part of a tea diet, especially if you are not fond of shou puerh and want an alternative. 

I just do not think I have the storage set-up to handle a really green brick of Fu Zhuan, because I don't want to store it with my puerh tea. Even with my 2012, I did not use any special storage and so I cannot get the highly encrusted flowers on mine except in summer. In winter time, the drier air shrinks the flowers somewhat. Setting up storage for Fu brick just isn't worth the trouble for me and I prefer to purchase Fu tea already brown and then age it until it hits 7 years or so. The younger Moychay samples are just too unrealistically green for me to consider a purchase. 

The Mojun Fu tea tops them all including my 2012 CNNP. The leaf quality is good, the qi is great and flavor is nutty. Yunnan Sourcing just added a third Fu brick from Mojun to their offerings, I know the Yi Hao brick is good and at $51 for a half kilo, can't be beat. I hope Yunnan Sourcing is able to offer the Mojun brick teas via their US site at some point, because the shipping from China is pricey, but I cannot expect it this year with the freight issues affecting imports from China. If however, YS is able to offer them on the US site, I am sure they will sell out fast. Our encounter with Mojun Fucha representatives at the World Tea Fest has got around the tea community now, mainly because Oolong Owl has sent samples to so many people these past few years. 

My thanks to Oolong Owl for the samples! I will get around to trying the instant Fu teas one of these days. Or maybe I will save them for a sick day. 



Thursday, March 4, 2021

You Deserve to Drink Better Puerh

72 Hours from white2tea
an excellent puerh if you picked it up

The whole endeavor of drinking puerh tea and building a collection is really about my best teas. My truly excellent teas define my collection, not the average drinkers or worse garbage I really need to toss out. I want to focus my collection on the best teas, because this is worth the time and money. In this blog post I am going to address the idea of fine drinking, because Chinese teas, let's face it, are the best in the world at reaching the sublime and puerh is really king of the pile. This blog post is addressed to the puerh snobs and tea whores and yes, the connoisseur. If you cannot handle that, please run along elsewhere, there is a group for you someplace else today. 

The truly fine puerh teas.

What is this level of connoisseur puerh tea drinking? More than anyone else, Mr. Max Falkowitz tried to bring the connoisseur puerh experience into the world of fine food and drink during his time at Saveur magazine. Max Falkowitz suggests that "flavor and aroma are only the beginning. Taste is fleeting. But the way the aftertaste manifests in your throat or down your gullet, how the tea makes you feel, where the qi activates--these are lasting hallmarks of quality for which connoisseurs pay dearly. Some of my favorite teas don't taste like much at all. The drama happens from the neck down." [I'll post a reference to Mr. Falkowitz's quote below rather than a link because the link brings up a PDF file] He's not done yet, he writes at least 2-3 published magazine articles a year on tea, mainly puerh. Barely anyone in the puerh tea community has heard of him and yet he was on the finalists for a James Beard award in 2019. I have a fortunate memory of taking tea with Mr. Falkowitz and I brought what I had at that time as my best tea. 

In many respects, his work has shown me that the western food world receives ideas of connoisseur-level puerh more readily than western puerh communities. No one wants to ask themselves: are my teas and drinking all about the best possible experience for my money? It causes pain, ego bruising and very often defensive posturing. But in honestly evaluating my collection, facts must be faced. If whatever I am drinking is not at the experience level described here, then I am in truth drinking downward in my collection. Any defensiveness on my part about this assessment can lead to closing myself off to trying better teas and having sublime tea sessions.

Frequently puerh discourse focuses on a practical mundane level of owning tea which gets turned into a non-drinking aesthetic experience. Tea reviews in blogs function at a mundane data level when describing the number of steeps, the provenance, the cost per gram as virtues. All this data certainly assists in the purchasing decision of a tea. But people think describing all ten steepings of a tea is an aesthetic end in itself, rather than the pleasure they experience, if any. So too are posts about the nuts and bolts of storage. Tea nerdism in the details, but aesthetic pleasure of fine puerh is in the bodily drinking experience. Did I really enjoy the tea or did I just get my caffeinated storage worth?

"Excuse me," Falkowitz writes in the same piece above. "No one tells you this when you start drinking Chinese teas, but the good ones make you burp. There's an idea in tea drinking called qi, which literally translates to 'breath' or 'energy flow,' and refers to the somatic effects that sometimes accompany a quality brew. It's a rare thing--the vast majority of teas aren't powerful enough to summon it--and a personal one, but the feelings are hard to ignore. Think sudden sweat on your palms. Tingling along the back of your neck. A wave of relaxation down your spine, like the relief of a well-placed acupuncture needle. The more tea you drink, the more qi squirrels its way around your body. Eventually, all that breath needs somewhere to go. So you burp."

Can we agree that an excellent puerh tea has the qualities of the finest aesthetic experience in the body, ranging from the aroma to the mouth to the gullet to the body sensations? It's worth the investment to find such teas, and to do so we need sources of conversation at this level. Instead, much day-to-day puerh discourse aspires to what we could consider "office tea drinking," which is satisfied by caffeinated barely drinkable puerh tea with garbage storage.

Vendor and blogger Wilson is fortunate to belong to a group of puerh enthusiasts who, in pre-Covid times, met at least once a year to drink and consider puerh tea at the highest level they can acquire. His latest blog post "short" illustrates the difference between office type drinking and a serious connoisseur session. For practical purposes, he describes brewing up to 5 cups of oolong or puerh at one time to take to his computer, so he does not need to get up for more tea while busy. When buying tea, he pragmatically brews up a thermos of a sample to sip on while running errands, pondering whether or not to buy that tea. 

But then he hints that his more serious sessions are quite apart from practical office drinking. "Readers will know me that I do not describe a tea by each and every infusion but rather by initial and ending thoughts. I enjoy the complications of a tea, the aging results of storage and pleasant sensations after finishing a tea session." He is sitting together with the tea rather than needing to record data on every steep. My experience of Wilson is that he talks equally about easily acquired satisfying teas as well as teas which are more rare and costly. He knows he has readers interested in both. He has sent me many a sample just because he thought I should try something. A couple of my most memorable teas are purchased from his collection. 

The best tea is gonna cost.

Good tea is certainly subjective and aesthetic and I will own my opinion as a personal one if it makes you feel content, or maybe less mad about the things I write. But really, you deserve to drink better tea, not just cheap tea. When I consider what excellent tea costs, it's not cheap. It's more like $200 and up per piece. By "piece" I mean the unit such as a beeng of any size for consensus-level fine puerh.

At a connoisseur level of tea, apart from sampling we are not talking about buying grams, or price per gram. Anyone buying in grams has a financial limitation and is probably drinking downward rather than drinking better. That's just the truth of it. In wine we have plenty of popular discourses directed at finding the $9.99 bottle of wine that tastes like a $50 bottle of wine, but no one seriously considers either of those prices as representative of a connoisseur level of wine drinking. It's the dinner-beverage level of wine drinking. 

Any time I'm drinking tea that costs me less than $200 a piece today, I am drinking downward in my puerh collection, not up. I am doing office drinking or I am accepting storage that ruined a tea. It is true that not every tea costing $200 a piece and up is a worthy connoisseur tea--we do have cultural preferences and collecting quirks and outright scams to sort through. But I can guarantee you that a piece of puerh tea costing less than $200 today is not going to be an aspiration tea. It's downward drinking every time. It's settling for average ordinary tea or worse. 

The very fine level of puerh tea is simply quite costly today, and the best pieces may be out of reach of many of us. Nevertheless I can still buy tea at a fairly top level of quality if I save the money, and am ready when the real opportunities of buying aspiration teas arrive. Keep in mind I have spent salary money, inheritance money, investment money and retirement money on puerh tea. And at my age, food becomes less important a pursuit. It's very possible to make friends who share tea with you if your taste is truly refined, or start your own blog. The money is a real gateway but the opportunity after that is fairly equal if you cultivate sources, which you really should be doing in any connoisseur hobby. If you do not know people, at least start there. 

Cheap tea is not top quality tea.

Office tea drinking and its discourse is not really aesthetic so much as a kind of puritan moralizing. This moralizing celebrates paying as little as possible for a piece of puerh tea and tries to extol some good traits about it because you paid so little. It's not an aesthetic aspiration but a financial limitation and trying to feel better about it. Or trying to feel better about the office, but the office is not about drinking great tea. The office is about a virtue of getting work done and not really your tea. It extols productivity and thrift, and opposes sloth and waste. This is the opposite of the connoisseur and aesthete. 

Drinking downward and not upward in my collection is also the case when I cannot afford aged teas and instead try to pretend hotter or wetter fast storage is my version of "aged." We have a level of tea discourse which tries to pretend office tea prices can acquire old or fine tea, such as on Taobao, and this is simply a falsehood despite the desperation to believe it. There is a reason many teas are so cheap and it's because the aesthetic quality is poor, the body experience is non-existent and it is base drinking at best. 

I can accept a time and place for such drinking, but it is not an aspiration nor a connoisseur level of tea drinking. If my stomach really requires such teas, I suggest that drinking downward is the cause of the distress, and drinking better quality tea is a level where the tea is comforting rather than distressing. If you don't believe that, I will suggest you have never really consumed the fine level of puerh tea, the finest that it is capable of. In other words, you deserve better than that shit tea. 

I can think of a few other reasons why a person might want to aspire to better puerh tea experiences.

Really fine puerh tea is still possible to buy.

The environment in Yunnan is not completely wrecked yet by global warming, or chemicals or farming practices, any and all things that could someday result in a massive loss of tea. China is also still open to the idea of selling puerh tea to people outside of Yunnan. Sure, we have levels of puerh tea accessible only to a few insiders, but we still can buy some excellent puerh teas even from our remote spots on earth. If the post will deliver, we can still get our hands on some good stuff if you have the money to do so. We also have more collector sellers. But we cannot take for granted the tea available now will be so in five years time. The market is changing fast and prices keep on going up. If you think I am pessimistic, others are far more blunt in saying the boat to great tea is sailed and gone, if you want to look around for more opinions.

The puerh hobby is a bother.

Why bother with puerh tea if I am not going for the best I can get? Puerh tea is a pain in the ass to research, buy and store. I am not in a hobby where I put bottles on a rack, leave them to sit and dust them off someday. I either have to pay someone to store the tea, or pay extra for the existing storage as a reality. Any type of storage ranging from a constructed tea vault to shelf storage requires work on my part to check the tea. I give my tea all sorts of mothering for more years than a child takes to raise. 

Given that, why waste my time with all the effort involved just for office quality tea? I can buy a tong of office tea from any factory or vendor or another collector when I need something to drink, and buy the next one when I run out. I personally cannot be arsed to spend my little bit of time remaining on anything less than the best I can get. It's too much trouble. I might as well just buy some hongcha or shou or gunpowder tea, something that doesn't require the elaborate care and storage that raw puerh does.

The storage is not really a worry for the best tea.

We are probably going to drink our best puerh teas well before they hit 20 years. How many of you out there, right now, are drinking tea older than 20? Anyone? You cannot buy genuine 90s teas easily anymore, if at all, so if you are drinking tea that old then you stored it yourself. But I am guessing that all of you drinking "aged" tea are actually drinking somewhere in 10-20 years, and the tea is still greenish, and your finest teas have a bunch of bite marks in them because you've been dipping in all along. In a way the pressure of storage is actually off of us because truly good leaf, kept at least decently well, retains its good qualities. Hard core storage is more of a worry for people collecting wrappers to sell, or on trying to heat mostly mediocre tea to turn it drinkable, and for that the tea needs storage strategies.

The best tea leads to the highest level of aesthetic appreciation. 

Does my tea inspire me on a poetic and gastronomic level? Anyone who thinks tea writing is flowery crap is drinking office tea. Or moralizing on why paying so little for tea is a virtue. Or trying to dump bad tea. I have bad teas in my collection too. But I also have excellent ones that define my collection. The best tea is physically memorable and truly will make a person sing or babble like a baby or strike one dumb in silence. This is the level of tea we truly deserve. I hope you can go where that tea is. I know the best is what I need to drink before my time runs out.


Reference

Falkowitz, Max, "What Drinking Tea Taught Me about Drinking Everything Else," Imbibe Magazine, imbibemagazine.com, Nov/Dec 2018, p. 94.



Thursday, February 18, 2021

1997 Menghai Shui Lan Yin "Water-Blue Stamp"


Recently I ordered a sample of this 1997 Menghai Shui Lan Yin tea from Houde Fine Tea. Most puerh drinkers online recognize this Houston-based tea vendor who has been selling from a personal collection teashop for well over a decade now. Houde is one of the few vendors back in the oughts selling well-known factory and Taiwan boutique teas from a US location, well covered in puerh blogs. This is the first tea I have tried from Houde. In years past whenever new Houde teas got posted, selections of any interest to me sold out immediately. I do have another factory beeng from Houde in my collection, but it is much younger and I have not tried it because it needs more aging. 

I keep thinking of Houde today though because of the catastrophic weather disaster occurring in Houston, Texas and all over this state. Texas is undergoing an extended period of bitter cold temperatures for which homes and state infrastructure are woefully unprepared. The temps have fallen below -10C at night for more than a week now, with snow and ice storm events. Homes are not equipped for these kinds of temperatures and people are dealing with loss of electricity, heating and water. Houston is currently struggling to keep electricity on and is under a boil water order. Water pipes are likely frozen and burst in homes. Unlike up north where I live, Texas houses have water pipes running along the outside of the home because the weather rarely gets cold enough for them to freeze. Fireplaces and wood stoves are not common in Texas, leaving people with few heating options when the power grid is out.


It is difficult to overstate the human tragedy that is happening. We do not know the scope of this yet. I expect that more loss of life will be found in coming days. Food and water shortages are common. Stores are running out of food and trucks cannot get food delivered because the state roads are snow and ice covered. Farmers are dumping milk they cannot deliver to dairy. Farm animals are dead or at risk of running out of feed. Vegetable and fruit crops are lost. Restaurants are closed or limited because of no water and food deliveries. I have two friends in Houston that I have been unable to get news of. 

Houde has stored his tea collection in an outdoor garage. Normally the warm and humid Texas weather provides ideal puerh storage conditions. I am guessing the tea had to be moved into a house to avoid freezing, but then when the power went out in Houston, keeping tea warm is not a priority or even a possibility. One can only hope Houde and his family are getting by at home, or at a hotel, or have left the state for a time as some people have done. My understanding today is that power has been restored to most people in the Houston area, but the city is still under a boil water order and the power grid is still fragile state-wide. I would guess the food and water shortages are daily life here as well. If Houde is still at home, he has much to deal with just with daily living. 

After this event ends, no doubt he will evaluate the state of his tea collection. One favorable side to his collection is the number of aged teas which, if dry enough, might be okay. Another favorable aspect is the durability of heavily compressed teas like iron-pressings, tuos or bricks, these tend to survive weather events very well. The biggest risk to tea along with the cold is condensation from thawing temperatures. That is aside from any water issues in the home. Of course a tea collection fades in importance to family and home, yet a collection is an investment one might turn to in times when home repairs need funds. I hope we are all ready to buy up some tea if we see any posted in coming days. Right now any teas ordered from Houde are likely to need understanding for delayed shipping. I am not sure of the state of postal services, trucking and flights from Texas.


This 1997 Menghai Shui Lan Yin is a rather famous tea in collector circles. Houde provided an auction link along with his photos, I am unsure if this is provided for information or if he bought the tea from this auction because he does not say how he came to acquire the tea or how long he has owned it. Many of his other teas came from trips to Taiwan. Unfortunately I don't see a photo of the full open beeng on the listing. An important fact about this tea is that few examples of it exist, and it is very likely that the few that surface such as at the 2019 auction are coming from Hong Kong provenance. He had 7 packages of 15g samples to sell for $90 apiece. This puts the full beeng price at $2142 or $6/g. I wish the photos had included full pics of the open uncut beeng, but the close ups are nice.

I bought my sample and noticed one other sample had sold the same day. Then the remaining five samples sat for a couple of weeks, and then only in the past few days I noticed the rest had sold. I don't know if it will be restocked.

I decided that given the cost of the tea, I would brew in 3g increments, which is not my ideal ratio. I often feel I cannot get a full taste of the tea brewing less than 5g even when I keep the water proportionate. The tea does not have the fullest flavor and it cashes out quickly just brewing a few grams. But I can at least get some idea of the tea and brew more later.

While getting the tea ready to brew, I had the chunk photo done and was busy pouring out a rinse when the phone rang. A friend from the Midland area of western Texas called up. We have been talking daily. He lives by himself in an apartment building and is dealing with all of the issues I wrote above like other Texans. Over the phone we decided to complete a food stamps application for him together, and I drank the tea while working on the application and talking on the phone. Consequently I lost track of the number of steeps. 


I noticed the tea has a very nice aged aroma of traditional storage, in that the storage has been done some time ago and now smells earthy and basement-like, but not moldy in any way. The tea has what I would consider a well-done Hong Kong type profile, the leaves are definitely of an older tea in that they are thicker and more plushy than the thin tissue paper-like plantation factory leaves we see nowadays. 

The brew is very warming and brandy-ish brewed in a Ruyao glaze gaiwan. Next time I will brew in clay to mitigate the storage some. The tea has a tangy fruit profile and a mineral finish, unfortunately heavily affected by the wet storage which has mostly obliterated the tea. If you like this type of storage, you will find the tea very pleasant. The caffeine level is still high, the qi is moderately good with some facial numbing and body warming. I get a nice sweetness on the back of the tongue. The tea shows some green yet in the leaves but has no remaining bitterness.


I just kept pouring out the brews while talking with my friend and working on the application. I know I pushed well past 10 steepings just out of the 3g of leaf which is impressive. The tea is pleasant enough but the storage does not dissipate and remains a dominant note. No doubt the price of the tea is fair given the collector and historical cache. I do not think finding this exact tea with drier storage is possible. However this is a lot of money to pay for a tea sample and you have to decide if the experience is worthwhile. I would guess that mainly for tea historians this is an experience not to be missed, but those who simply like the factory and storage profile, obviously you can find satisfying teas for much less. 


The qi is good enough for me to stash the remaining sample and see if I can air out the storage some more. I had thought about giving the sample to a tea friend given what it is, but with the heavier storage it's probably not the best tea trade.  I do not think this is an example of Houde's storage because it was done before he acquired it. My other tea is likely a better example when I try that someday, and I hope to find more teas of interest to order from Houde in coming days. 





Sunday, February 7, 2021

2013 Guafengzhai by Wymm Tea



Remember Wymm Tea? Been awhile since I thought of this vendor, and you probably never have. Wymm is on nobody's radar and just as well. In fact if a puerh tea doesn't fit your $10 wallet and cellar-ed taste, do feel free to run along now but maybe check out their mulberry puerh wrappers because Wymm Tea is one of the only places I know of in North America to buy thick puerh paper wrappers. I tossed a 15g sample of the 2013 Guafengzhai in my cart along with a re-up on puerh paper.


The last time I wrote about Wymm Tea their website conjured up for me an image of a female customer with nothing in her house and who never eats. Let's see where she is now, because the pandemic has done a number on her with gym closures. Her Botox has long worn off and she lets her hair go silver at the roots. She probably went back to Wymm not for the tea but for the music playlists to download and she can dream of traveling again later this year. Stuck in her house on Zoom calls she longs for a moment of a park bench with a masked stranger and maybe a remote controlled vibrator, as good as it gets anymore, unless she has a husband on a Peloton who mainly drinks coffee which he makes because he doesn't trust anyone with his equipment. Thank the stars for meditation and a hot shower because it works if nothing else. 


I think of her because she more than anyone needs this tea and 8 full grams of it. The sample, like her face in February, is a little dry but nothing a day in a steam room won't open up, if only just. Tea with a middle-aged Yiwu-ish bent is a gentle lull which requires shoving but of course she is pushy. Takes awhile to get going too but she is used to that. Wymm Teas don't offend with acrid factory dirt, never allowed in the house, not even from the dog. 


Five chocolate covered apricot steeps in are enough to melt the Westman Atelier foundation off her face and onto her lap where it oozes to the floor. She watches her lipstick liquify with some fascination, maybe the bitter cold outside adds to the dizziness of the tea except her mouth is finally hungry amidst a fifth steep of intense salivating. She doesn't remember eating except at Thanksgiving, so she nibbles a bit of cracker and fish which will ruin her palate for a few steeps. 


I personally doubt she can take more than five steeps of a tea like this, only the puerh fiend can go further for another five and more cranial novocaine. From one freak to another I ask you, do you merely enjoy your slurps or do you want something more from your tea? Yes, I do think about where I put $20 and I have a whole menu of things to drink here at my house. This is a gentle tea but not for fools. In fact, only the starkly minimal women of my imagination should drink this anyway, for nothing else except to float away a grey frigid dirty sick winter of small hopes in a Harrods bag. She certainly doesn't have better teas than this. I have, but at a higher price point still. How much will people pay to release tears? Then again, maybe she'd rather not or you would rather not. It depends on coping with cracks, or not cracking.


I will leave it for her to decide. 15g for $19, or 200g for $168. Wymm currently ships only to Canada and the US.