; Cwyn's Death By Tea: September 2014 ;

Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Reality Check

Wisconsin rhythms are in my blood. In the spring, I know when sap starts to bleed from maple trees. And when the smelt fish run in huge schools into the inland rivers from Lake Superior where we caught them in huge nets in middle of the night, frying them in beer batter at dawn. Then too I know the best time to search for concretions in Lake Superior, when the lake melts completely from ice and we can go search out rocks which are perfect round balls, formed and smoothed from water dripping on sandstone cliffs. All this I know without needing to see because the weather conditions are just right. Now in September, I know when the wild rice is ready.
Wild rice grows well over your head, photo Wisconsin DNR

Not a true rice, native wild rice is actually a cereal grass. It looks like rice, but cooks up with a taste somewhat similar to Russian kashi, or buckwheat groats. Wild rice grows in quiet flat waters of northern Wisconsin, Minnesota and Canada, and the rice stems are very tall. Wild rice was once a staple of the native tribes of the Chippewa (Ojibwe) and Menominee. But nowadays this notion is a bit more on the mythical side.
Real native wild rice. photo classicprovisions.com
Native tribal chiefs today still determine the time of rice harvesting for the state of Wisconsin, and tribes have the first harvests rice. Many Americans like to cook wild rice on Thanksgiving Day, because wild rice cooks up nicely in the belly of a turkey. But few buy the real stuff. Plantation-grown wild rice is what most Americans recognize, and plantation costs much less. Most Natives too would rather buy potatoes or nearly any other rice at the grocery store for less than a dollar a pound than do the work of gathering wild rice.
Plantation wild rice, photo by allcreatures.org
Wild rice is time-consuming to process. Once harvested, the rice needs to be dried in the sun and then lightly pan roasted. After that, one must don a pair of moccasins and stomp the rice to loosen the hulls. Then the rice needs to be tossed on a windy day to remove the chaff and allow the breeze to carry them off. With all this work involved, buying rice from India or China or even California for less than a dollar a pound becomes more appealing. Who has the time to process wild rice anymore? Of course people still do it. But one can also buy plantation wild rice at the grocery store for $5 a pound. I can buy the real stuff here, but it costs more like $15 a pound. Compare that to a large bag of Indian subcontinent basmati at 10 lbs for $15 and then guess which rice I'll eat more often.

Only residents of Wisconsin are allowed to harvest wild rice within the state. I am allowed to purchase a rice harvest permit for $8.25 which provides rights for my entire family. Harvest rules are strict. Tribal chiefs determine for the state when the rice is ready, and when non-minorities may harvest. Within wild rice waters, harvesters must use a rowboat or canoe with no motor, paddled only by human muscle power and oars. Rice is harvested with two wood sticks, which must be rounded and no longer than 38 inches. Only the boat hull may be used to catch the rice, which will fall into your boat when tapped with the wood sticks.
White people harvesting wild rice, photo Wisconsin DNR
Only about 10-15% of the total wild rice crop is harvested. The rest falls into the water to re-seed the paddy. Along with other rules that could affect the water table (such as no dams placed nearby), the rice paddies continue to yield rice as they have done for a thousand years or longer.

Y'all know where I'm going with this, right? The parallels with puerh tea leaves are kinda obvious, ethnic minority harvest rights, plantation versus wild, the intrusions of modern life on cultural traditions. I'm feeling the pull of wild rice in the September air, but I didn't even think about parallels with puerh until the other day when I started reading publications by the faculty of the Tea Sciences department at Yunnan Agricultural University. The parallels between wild rice and puerh tea got even more creepy.

Yunnan Agricultural University dedicates much focus to the culture and environs of Yunnan, and that, of course, includes puerh tea. Something of a sister school exists here in our Northland College at, guess where? Northern Wisconsin. A comparison of the majors available at both colleges reads very similarly, with a few minor differences. A bit more on fishery and logging at Northland College, a bit more tea chemistry and goat breeding at Yunnan NAU. Both schools are focused firmly on their responsibility for the native ecology of their respective regions. I cannot bear the thought of what might happen without joint efforts between governments, schools, industry tribes and citizens. No doubt all our citizens are grateful to the parties involved and to these schools who are working hard to preserve our wild terroir for generations to come.

The Journal of Yunnan Agricultural University offers interesting insight into the research directions of puerh tea. The journal has Social Sciences and Natural Sciences editions. Both are searchable online in English and Chinese, and I found 90 records for tea in the Natural Sciences edition and over 100 in the Social Sciences edition, although these searches did bring up irrelevant articles. Most articles about puerh tea in the Natural Sciences edition explore the chemistry of tea, mainly focusing on identifying the health benefits compounds or quality control variables. A few, however, identify the compounds behind aroma in puerh tea, and even a "chestnut" aroma in teas in general produced by the Fuxiang Factory. Those compounds are linalool α-Terpeneol, Geraniol, Nerol, Nerolidol, α-Humulene, Longipinenepoxide, Caryophyllene oxide, Butanoic acid, 4-hexeryl ester, 2-Hexadecen-I-oL, and 3,7,11,15-tetranethyl.

When reading articles about variables and controls in tea cultivation and processing, I can't help but wonder if the tea cake of the future will consist of results of this sort of research. If whether that chestnut aroma isn't attributable so much to my tea experience and palate, but rather to tea genetic engineering, or even compounds added to the maocha to enhance particular flavors. All the talk about palate and experience and aesthetics and even variables I've discussed in my past blogs posts might be a moot point in the future, the more engineered tea trees become.

Can you imagine a day in the future when harvesting the wild tea trees is restricted only to the ethnic minorities in Yunnan? Or maybe the minorities and residents of Yunnan who buy a harvest license for something like $8.25? Say goodbye to all those SUVs of tea buyers trucking in to spend millions buying tea for themselves and their friends. The rest of us will get plantation tea. This isn't so far-fetched when I think of wild rice here in Wisconsin. The day is already here when only residents and ethnic tribes can harvest wild rice, and most Americans already eat plantation wild rice, and rices from other parts of the world rather than our native wild rice. Nobody even thinks anymore about plantation rice as any different from real wild rice. If research directions in puerh tea are any indication, then this is the way of the future for tea cakes as well.

Does all this seem too far-fetched? Do you think there is so much mysticism around ethnic minority traditional products that they will always be available at reasonable prices, and that people will always believe in the seànce-like atmosphere of tea tastings? Or is there a reality we don't want to see, something like Chang-Rae Lee's science fiction story "On Such a Full Sea," wherein we eat fish created in underground "perfect fish" tanks in B-Mor cities? Do we truly believe there will always be natives in Yunnan who really want to spend their time stuffing tea into bamboo tubes, or Ojibwe who will always want to harvest wild rice and stomp out the hulls with moccasins?

The myths still persist, such as the mystical idea of the Ojibwe subsisting on wild rice in this article.
1800s painting Native rice harvest, en.wikipedia.org
And then compare similar mythical ideas about "reclaiming" puerh tea as art, medicine and just a hair shy of magic, in this article.
Tea harvest painting, aneducatedpalate.wordpress.com
The articles might be one day just as outdated as the myths expressed in these paintings. Even though modern photos of wild rice and tea harvests look more realistic, it's tempting to cast the modern photos further above in the same romantic vein as the paintings, but are they truly less mythologized?
Wild rice is my reality check, because I am most certainly not immune to myths and mysticism. When my Hong Kong-based gaming guild (N = 232) invited me to visit them in China, I rather naively told everyone I looked forward to drinking puerh tea with them. I got a good laugh from my friends. "Oh, we don't drink that old stuff, we prefer American coffee."

Requiescat in pace.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Old Lady Tea

I don't drink young tea all that much. Maybe once a week or every two weeks. Most of the young teas (<10 years) I try are either for my son or things I will eventually give away elsewhere. Right now I'm in the process of choosing a puerh cake for a wedding present. The downside of too much young tea for this old lady is I feel a bit hungover afterward and need a nap. Then I spend the next five days or longer drinking shou, or really aged sheng, or perhaps a black tea. My normal drinkers are at least ten years old and preferably older than that.

The past couple of days are a case in point. My last blog post featured a couple of teas that some might not consider all that young, 2004 and 2005. But these teas were stored dry, and still are very green to me. The leaves taste good in these teas. I hate to waste tea so I've been trying to steep them out. The Menghai is getting close to done. But the Jianshen is like a young boy toy who won't go home and doesn't seem to sleep.
2005 Menghai and 2004 Jianshen, aren't they done yet??
A third day in, and I find myself sniffing around my tea samples and older cakes, longing for a bit of humid storage and some dark flavor. I like a little traditional storage on a tea, but not so much that "musty" is the only flavor I can taste. I want to taste other flavors too after the first few steeps. My personal theory is people living in humid climates don't even notice "musty" anymore, but those of us in drier climates can pick up the smallest whiff of damp.

My mother was one of those people. She had a mission in life to eliminate all possible mustiness and mold because of a constant allergy problem. Seeing her all stuffed up and puffy in the a.m. was typical. To add to the challenge, she insisted on living in a lakeside home, where a bit too much rain led to water in the basement and frantic efforts with dehumidifiers and bleach to dry everything out. When she changed her clothes closet between seasons, anything she planned to store got packed into vacuum-sealed bags to avoid the tiniest spore. Even the pillows on the beds were covered with plastic cases, which seemed to me more likely to cause mustiness than simply washing them often, or replacing them as needed. Eventually she gave up on the battle with mustiness and moved to Arizona, where she started a battle with dust and sand instead. Mom would have hated the musty tea I drink, and anyway not worth trying to move her away from the sugary, powdered Lipton lemon iced tea she drank for decades. But humidity ages a teacake far more quickly and is a godsend to someone of my age and health issues, making a puerh tea much easier to take.

An inspection of my stoneware crocks turns up this 1990s Menghai Red Star sample I picked up from Tea Classico last month.
1990s Menghai Red Star, by Tea Classico
I've been airing it in a small turned-clay jar I made in high school. (You know you're getting older when the stuff you made back in school qualifies as vintage.) This tea is described as having Hong Kong "dry" storage. I've learned with puerh however, that "dry" in Hong Kong still means some humidity, just about the right amount in my opinion. Once in awhile I get a tea from Hong Kong that has been vacuum packed, such as that 2005 Naka I wrote about last week. But a Hong Kong cake packed in space/time-warp wrap is something of a disappointment, if I wanted bone dry I'd order from somewhere else. This time, however, I can smell a bit of mustiness in the sample.

You can see in the presentation dish that the 20 gram sample I have includes some loose tea underneath with a few smaller compressed pieces. I put away the big chunk for now, and focus on the loose stuff weighing 6 grams in total. I have a tiny Yixing pot, but I'll go with the gaiwan instead so you can see the brew. Look at that dark brown color! Just the ticket for too many young sheng sessions. One rinse, because the loose tea doesn't need much more help to fall apart.
Go to bed with a boy, wake up with an old man.
First steep, very mineral-ly. Love it! I feel better already, knowing this is gonna go down nice. The tea has some liveliness on my lower tongue. Takes a few steeps to get rid of most of the humidity, but I don't want to toss these steeps or I'd miss out on that strong mineral flavor. Now into steeps 4 and 5 I'm getting tea flavor, a bit of green tea, but nothing like the green bitter brew I've been drinking over the past few days. Now this leaf isn't the wild old tree stuff, so no fancy flavors or incoherent babbling. It also starts fading after 8 steeps, and I increase the steep time. Worth sampling, and feels good to drink it today, but I don't think I'll be springing for a cake.

I don't have any actual tea advice to offer aged people, but a few things work for me.

1. Buy the best aged tea I can afford.
2. Develop a palate for at least some humidity in the tea cake, it widens out the choices of buying tea considerably than restricting myself to just dry storage choices.
3. Grandpa-brew a little bit of leaf in a Yixing mug with lots of water if I need a bit more hydration. Medications are drying on the body and rough on the kidneys.
4. Focus on teas I can drink right now. When someone recommends the latest plantation cake, I try not to feel tempted. I don't have the time. Unless I plan to give a gift to a relative, those cakes are for the young people.

Requiescat in pace.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Tastes Like Bacon?

Midwesterners call a spade a spade. Very often I think of the speech patterns of rural Wisconsin as just a hair shy of a language disability, because of the value placed on spare speech, of saying only what needs to be said in the fewest number of words possible. Too much about too little, such that when the need arises for people to really say something, they can't find the words. Whole worlds exist inside the mind that emerge only with difficulty.

Some folks here have diagnosed the spare speech trait here as a throwback to Scandinavian ethnicity burrowing into the current culture, or more specifically, cold weather ethnicity, of what happens to people who are stuck indoors for nine months of the year, who can't simply go outdoors to escape the annoyances of seemingly endless life in a room with other people. Perhaps in order to survive harsh winters with families intact, people learn to keep their mouths shut, to say as little as possible, to speak only when spoken to, or only when required to speak, so as not to annoy your housemate beyond the level of endurance already required to get through the darkness and cold. Oh, and let's not forget the "be humble" part, that too goes with it.

Along with such a culture apparently goes a higher suicide rate and lower murder rate. In contrast to warmer climes perhaps, where better weather allows the luxury of heading outside to get away from words, from heaven or hellfire poetry the size of Dante. Instead of doing your own self in, you can just kill the other guy. Personally, I'd rather go kill the other guy than suck it up, but in Wisconsin overall, a "put up and shut up" mentality reigns supreme. If you need to say anything, try and be as passive and vague as possible, and hope your annoying roommate gets the hint. 

Apparently the same can happen with tea blogs. A poster on a tea forum complained that tea blogs eventually progress to the point of vagueness, of saying nothing at all. I highly suspect that if such a tendency exists in tea writing, the reason is when we speak of qualities of tea, or Aesthetics, if you will, many descriptors of tea are what we can call Qualitative. In scientific research, we use Qualitative Methods to study and understand phenomena that are complex, multidimensional, highly subject to personal opinion, "Relative to the Individual," political, or ethnographic. Ethnographic means relative to the culture.

I'm asking an Ethnographic question if I inquire whether Wisconsin spare speech is really a Scandinavian or cold weather cultural trait. In tea, I'm similarly asking a Qualitative question if I inquire whether or not a puerh is "complex" or has "qi." Such questions imply a whole host of multidimensional variables, many of which might be hard to pin down, and perhaps even vary by the individual doing the tasting. All of a sudden tea drinkers who have a lot to say might experience difficulties in finding the words. Exact words. Words that, as another tea poster put it, might actually help a new puerh drinker as opposed to leaving the newbie "confused."

Separating out Quantitative (Objective) variables from Qualitative (Relativist) variables is not that hard. Quantitative variables are straightforward, and can be be measured with numbers. The real question is, why isn't anyone in aesthetics interested in doing any quantitative work with variables we actually can measure? All it takes is a pencil, or computer, and a little bit of high school algebra. But first we have to understand what kinds of variables can be quantified and studied with numbers, and which variables require qualitative methods.

I started out talking about Ethnography, and this is a Qualitative aspect of tea we must separate out if we want to look at more objective variables. For example, if I say, "this tea tastes like bacon," what does this mean? Probably a third of the folks sitting around the tea table are going to get up and leave the discussion because they have not tasted bacon. They have not tasted pork in their lifetime, and have no intention of doing so. Saying that a tea tastes like bacon is culturally-based, Relative to the Culture. If I'm the only person at the table who has tasted bacon, then I have said something highly Relative to only myself as an individual.

The Post-Objectivist researcher looking to study the larger Population (p) of tea drinkers worldwide needs to find quantifiable variables. An easy way of doing this is to identify binomial variables. These are either/or traits. Bacon could be an example of a binomial variable. Either a tea tastes like bacon or it doesn't. That's assuming we can agree on what a bacon taste is, and we don't have a wise guy in the room who says something like "I get the pork reference, but to me it's more of a prosciutto." Pork or bacon traits could be binomial variables, but unfortunately they don't have the wider cultural meaning for a worldwide Population (p) we are looking for. Perhaps as a Relativist, Qualitative researcher, I might otherwise write an interesting "Ethnography of Bacon Characteristics of Puerh Tea in Certain Wisconsin-Dwelling Individuals (Sample=P) with Internet Access." An amusing read maybe, but not helpful to non-bacon eaters and not for generalizations about aesthetics. Thus we must say "tastes like bacon" is not an aesthetic of tea for the general population (Population = p) of tea drinkers worldwide, and not worth bothering to study as a binomial variable by a Post-Objectivist quantitative researcher.

So, let us consider a more viable example, using Jane the Tea Vendor.

        Jane the Tea Vendor runs an online tea business selling a variety of teas and teaware. She also   offers puerh teas, but these aren't selling as well as she had hoped. Jane sees some of customers on tea forums, where she goes to promote her tea (smart lady), but these customers have primarily been buying her tea ware, bamboo charcoal, tea pets and non-puerh teas. She knows many of her customers drink puerh tea, but why aren't they buying hers? Jane decides to investigate her customers' taste preferences in tea, so that she can invest her money in teas that will sell, and stop wasting money buying teas that don't sell. How can Jane confidently survey her customer preferences?

One of Jane's teas that is not selling is a Menghai tuo, rather like this one.
2005 Menghai tuo from Yunnan Sourcing
Jane's Menghai tuo isn't exactly the same, but hers is very close. Brewing up 8 grams in her gaiwan, she notices the tea has a dark and significant smoky quality, and visible char in the strainer. She doesn't feel this processing trait impairs the tea in any way, and possibly a humid storage method, or enough aging into a tea will work this flavor out to some extent. But perhaps her customers don't agree, so she decides to check customer preferences for Smoky Tea. Fire and smoke are scents which are not culturally based, but a common human experience.
2005 Menghai
By selling tea worldwide, Jane knows that Smoky can have a positive or negative connotation with regard to cigarette smoking in some parts of the world. If customers new to puerh tea are asked directly about Smoky Tea, they might automatically respond negatively, when in fact they may already be drinking Smoky Tea, but have not recognized the smoke trait yet. Other customers might be turned off from buying a tea that anyone calls smoky, even before trying it for themselves. She also knows of customers who really hate smoky teas, and they won't drink a smoky tea if they know about it in advance.

So Jane plans to give two blind, unnamed tea samples to a number of her customers asking them to taste the teas, and respond to two survey questions online afterward. She offers a 10% discount coupon to her customers who taste the teas and answer the questions. Jane knows she can deduct these expenses on her taxes, and will recoup the costs in the future by investing her capital in teas her customers want.

Jane decides on a sample of her Menghai tuo along with another tuo of Jianshen Lancang tea, rather like this one.
2004 Jianshen tuo from white2tea
Again, Jane's is not exactly the same as Cwyn's, but close. The tuo is supposed to have "tobacco" notes. She brews up 8 grams of this tea too in 125 ml water, just to make sure she hasn't missed any smoky trait the tea might be hiding. But nope, the Jianshen tuo doesn't taste very smoky, because the processing exhibits almost no char in the strainer. She feels that her tuo differs enough from the Menghai that customers will have a preference for one or the other.
2004 Jianshen
An either/or preference situation can be represented by a binomial confidence interval, which will give Jane an idea whether her customers prefer a smoky tea or a non-smoky tea. Jane doesn't want a "no preference" situation, so she will ask customers to definitely pick one of the two teas.

Our Positive will be Smoky Tea, and the Negative will be Non-smoky tea. Because she doesn't really know about her customer preferences in truth, she will arbitrarily hypothesize that 50% will prefer the Smoky Tea and 50% will prefer the Non-Smoky Tea. Thus:

Positive=Prefers the Smoky Trait. (Menghai tuo=A)
Negative=Prefers Non-Smoky Trait. (Jianshen tuo =B)

The two survey questions will be:

1. Which of the two tea samples tastes smoky? (A or B)
2. Which of the two tea samples would you prefer to buy? (A or B)

Jane can use these two questions to sort out whether or not the customer detects the Smoky Tea, and then whether or not the customer would buy either of those teas. If the customer identifies the correct Smoky Tea, and prefers to buy the Smoky, then Jane records a Positive for that customer. If the customer correctly identifies the Smoky tea, but instead prefers to buy the Non-smoky, Jane can record a Negative for that answer. If the customer incorrectly identifies the Non-smoky, but prefers the Smoky, Jane records a Negative and assumes the customer didn't recognize the trait. If the customer incorrectly Non-smoky taste and prefers Non-smoky, Jane also records a Negative. The possible answers are succinctly summarized like this:


By using two questions like this, rather than the one question "which do you prefer," Jane can learn whether or not her customers detect the Smoky trait and have buying preferences based on that, or whether they don't detect it, and their buying preferences aren't affected by this trait. Or, that the customer might correctly identify the Smoky tea, but for unknown reasons, other than just Smoke, the customer wants to buy the Non-smoky (leaf quality, or number of steeps, complexity or some other trait).

Jane would like to have a 90% confidence interval with no more than 10% margin of error. She mails out the two sample teas along with the survey instructions and continues mailing only those two tea samples in all customer orders until she has mailed out 100 sample sets. She gets 68 people who try the teas and answer the survey questions to get their coupon.

Then Jane counts up the number of Positives and Negatives as described above. Jane gets 48 people (or 71% =.71) of customers with Positives for Smoky, and 20 people (or 29%=.29) Negatives for the Non-smoky. Remember, she started out hypothesizing an equal 50/50 split in the Smoky vs. Non-smoky. To find her confidence interval, she calculates the following:

N/z²[PQ+z²/2N +/- z√P x Q/N + z²/4N²]
68/(1.29)²[.71+1.29²/2(68) +/- 1.29√(.71 x .29)/68 + 1.29²/4(68)²]

where N = number of customers, P = %Positives as a decimal, Q =%Negatives as a decimal, z = critical test value, which on a z chart is 1.29 for a 90% confidence interval with 10% margin of error.

"Can this get any easier?"

Try using this online calculator. Enter the Positives 48 into the "Passed" box, and for "Total Tested" enter 68. Use 90% for Confidence. The results will be a chart on the right side of the page. Most of the results will be very, very similar. Differences have to do with corrections based on the sample size and for situations where fewer than 5 cases fall into Positives or Negatives.

"I can't handle math..."

Try this simple online calculator. Enter 48 for the number preferring the first option, and 20 for the number preferring the second option, and 90% for Confidence. The quick result will tell you whether or not a significant preference exists, without any numbers.

Originally Jane had hypothesized that 50% (or .50) of her customers preferred the Smoky Trait. But her experiment turned out that the actual trait falls between about 61% (.61) and 79% (.79). It's a pretty wide interval. But she had set her confidence interval for a big margin of error in order to reduce the number of customers she needed to mail teas to, and still get enough information to make a decision. Jane rejects her original hypothesis of a 50/50 split. Her customers are somewhat more likely to prefer the Smoky Menghai over the Non-Smoky Jianshen.

Plus she can make one Incredibly Important conclusion.

Jane can make generalizations that her results approach the entire population of tea drinkers, not just her own 68 customers. You might wonder, why go through all this riga-marole? Why not just use one survey question and take that 71% and go with it? This might be okay if all Jane wants to know is about her 68 customers who answered her survey question. However, you cannot generalize sample data from 68 people to the larger population using only a survey percent!! (Even though people do so erroneously all the time.) But because Jane went through all the above math and blind taste tests, she can make generalizations about entire range of the tea community beyond her own sample with a certain degree of confidence.

Let me say that again: a confidence interval of a binomial distribution with sufficient power, and a sufficient sample of people can be generalized to the larger Population (p). But a % mean average of a survey by itself, without the above methods, won't give you a range beyond Jane's customers. Jane went through all this work for a reason. She spent her money in the right way so that she knows something more about a Trait in the larger population of tea buyers, not just about those 68 customers alone.

Remember one more thing: Jane knew that if she simply asked customers if they like a Smoky Tea, a far larger majority probably would see the word Smoky and say "no," just because of negative cultural connotations about Smoke. She would not have got a true picture of tea drinker preferences just by asking a question alone, without the blind samples. She might have been tempted to dump all her Menghai tuos, or sell them for far less than she might otherwise. In fact, after all her samples, she is likely to actually sell more of her Menghai tea now than she would if she simply describes it "Smoky" in a survey or in her online sales description without blind sampling beforehand. She now can use this data to guide her tea descriptions, pricing and marketing.

Some other considerations...

Speaking of money, Tea Vendors might say "Hey wait a minute. If I send 2 samples of 10 grams each to 100 people, that's 2 kilos of tea. I can't afford that!" There are two ways of getting around this problem. If you want to use a smaller sample size, you'll need to adjust the Margin of Error you're willing to accept, and the Confidence Level. For decisions about capital investment, and for social science research, a higher Margin of Error (say, 10%) and a lower Confidence Level (say, 80-90%) might be perfectly acceptable. This will lower your required Customer N by quite a bit. You can use a smaller N of 50 people, and get that hopefully by mailing out the samples to 75 customers or so. But you can't use fewer than 50 people, or else the procedure isn't valid.

There are a couple of downsides to using fewer people, one being you may not get much information with a wider confidence interval, not to mention skewing your survey. As it is, a 90% with 10% margin of error is pretty wide. For exploratory work people preferences, however, this can be okay. But in fields like medicine, we don't want to be giving a medication to people unless we have a very high degree of confidence (99%) that we won't be causing adverse effects or death. In the "hard" sciences we need confidence levels extremely high, and error extremely low, compared to trait preference situations like Jane's. Does this make sense?

Another way around the expense problem is by replicating a study. If enough people conduct the same study, we can pool together the results and create a new Sample N > 300 and apply our more stringent margin of error (5%) and higher confidence level (95%). This is a post-hoc analysis. Researchers do this regularly in reviews of available research. Jane could get together with other tea vendors who agree to similarly sample their customers. They will all have different teas, but the main requirement will be to sample a definitely Smoky tea with a Non-smoky tea and ask the same exact two online survey questions.

Tea vendors can pool their results with Jane's, and apply the confidence interval calculator on their new aggregate group sample N. All they need to do is convert their percentages of answers into decimals for the formula, or plug the Positives into the online calculator. Using different teas is perfectly fine for tea vendors, and for social scientists studying Aesthetics or Traits. Obviously different teas won't be good enough to provide information for tea factories or people interested in leaf differences, for example. But to merely understand a trait, as long as the samples conform to the trait, the teas can certainly differ. And we know that teas often differ even among batches.

Jane can also get more data by looking at single answers. For example, if she gets an unusually large number of people with B, B answers (>10%), for example, these are people who didn't correctly identify the Smoky tea, and who prefer to buy the Non-smoky. She might want to follow up with buyers who have actually purchased the Jianshen and get information from them about their experience with it, and look for any reviews of the tea. These buyers might have additional variables for her to consider as she makes decisions on buying tea for her business in the future. She might also question whether the Smoky tea she picked for her study really provided enough of a contrast for reliable customer data.

Obviously I made up Jane's sample results, and they are not actual values. Nevertheless, binomial variables are a straightforward, either/or way to study a preference or Trait and determine with a degree of confidence whether that trait is likely to exist in the general population, given an appropriate sample size. We can make conclusions about tea traits with a reasonable understanding of statistical power and unexplained error.

Can you think of any other traits about tea that can be explored in this way?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Doctor is Naka-erd

Chasing a good tea sometimes feels a little like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football. For those of you not familiar with American comic strips, Charles M. Schulz's "Peanuts" main character Charlie, a bit of an everyman-oaf, tries to kick an American football held by his neighbor Lucy. At the last second, however, Lucy pulls the football away, causing Charlie Brown to miss and fall flat on his back. Yet like Sisyphus perpetually trying to roll a rock up a mountain, Charlie Brown never learns. He continues to try and kick that football, and soon we know Lucy will pull it out of reach every time. If puerh drinkers are forever chasing the Incredible Tea Cake that must be out there someplace, then perhaps we are a bit like Charlie Brown always trying to get that football. Then I have to ask, who is Lucy?

Schultz offers another Sisyphean motif. In this recurring scenario, Lucy sets up a booth with a sign saying "Psychiatric Help 5¢ The Doctor is In." And Charlie always pays the nickel and Lucy gives cheap and often pithy advice every time. The message is that someone is always willing to dispense cheap advice, and always an idiot around who will fall for it. Sometimes Lucy isn't even there and Charlie Brown pays the nickel anyway. So, if puerh buying is a bit like forever trying to kick the football, or like putting a nickel in the jar hoping for advice that changes everything, then we are all Charlie Brown in a sense. And Lucy is the expert with an opinion for a nickel.

In a Relativist universe of tea, everyone has an opinion and no one's opinion is better than anyone else's. In that universe, we should all set up a Paypal link for people to pay a nickel. But if tea drinking is not an entirely relative experience, does this mean it's possible to be an expert? I've noticed how many people in the tea world stop short of using the word "expert." The idea of "expert" assumes that there is an objective set of criteria with which a person can become familiar, up to the point of claiming expertise. Perhaps expertise is something to read, like volumes of tea science, or philosophy, written by someone like a Thomas Aquinas with his forty volumes, and an expert is the person who knows those volumes inside and out, and has written a thesis and successfully defended a premise in a jury of peers who have also read the same forty volumes.

But what do we do in a Post-objectivist Puerh Universe if we don't have those forty volumes? Or if we do have those forty volumes, what happens when Thomas Aquinas wakes up one day after a bad bout of pneumonia and calls his own forty volumes "rubbish," as he most certainly did? What happened to Thomas is that a Vision of the most sublime kind convinced him that a Divine Experience reigned supreme over any rational proofs that he could devise. In fact, one could argue that familiarity equals experience, and an expert is someone who has simply consumed more divine tea than anyone else. At that point, wisdom or expertise becomes a function of time, and thus of age. Or, at the most wishful, an experience of luck, of Divine Intervention. If experience, age, and Divine Experience are the criteria for expertise, then I've got a nickel booth to sell.

My nickel booth most certainly is about Age, and my tea buying criteria has everything to do with my age. The main reason I will choose one tea over another is because I don't have as much time left as you young people. I want teas I can drink now. I can't wait for a hoard of plantation cakes to hopefully age into something drinkable.

To be completely honest, I'm mostly looking to get wasted on tea.

One of the reasons I love puerh tea is sometimes I get so utterly tea drunk that I think I'm 20 again. For an old lady like me, nothing beats a nap and 8 quick steeps to forget, at least for a little while, that physically I've turned the corner. I hoard any tea that gets me so completely delusional as to forget my white head of hair, the ridiculous number of medications I have to take, and my occasional incontinence. Some teas work better than others, and in this I might possibly have a suggestion. A couple of teas recently have got me stoned, high, dry-mouthed, and left with the munchies. Drinking this stuff isn't for pleasant company, it's for lying around and avoiding. Like any other addict, I don't want my supply compromised. I fear a run on these teas once the word gets too far.

Twodog2's 3rd tenet about tea is if you find something you like, then you better move and buy it in bulk quick, before the stash is gone forever. This is wise advice, but the problem is one of the cakes I like requires the sale of my first born. So I've been trying to pawn off my First Born on everybody I run into, including the plumbers working on my house last week, but so far no takers. The most promising possibility has been "if you'd asked back in May, we'd have taken him." So I'm stuck with wanting to buy more of a tea that I can't afford. However, my couple of months of research did yield me a few possible substitutes.

The cake I really like is white2tea's 2005 Naka. Now this tea is described on the website as providing "an uncommon body response of deep calm." No, I'm not going to help you by providing a link, go find it yourself. Or better yet, don't go. Leave that tea alone. TwoDog2 wrote me a short letter saying "this tea should come with a note saying 'don't operate heavy machinery.' The tea is pure drugs." And it most certainly is. In fact, I'd recommend it for writing your Essay on Human Understanding, which none of you really want to write, do you? Turning into a babbling idiot on purpose is wasted on anyone with lesser intentions, myself included. However, for writing something of lesser import, such as beginning a tea blog, it's a great tea to start anyone out.
2005 Naka by white2tea

With the experience of tea being entirely relative, with some possible Objective Universal Criteria floating out there in a foggy bog, I don't expect anyone to believe me, at least not without some kind of "objective" research. I've had at least 5 sessions with this 2005 Naka cake, and I've got an extra cake, just to make sure I have a stash put by. My sessions have been the usual 8 grams with 125 ml water, but I'm thinking of cutting back these parameters so the tea lasts longer. After all, a good 10 steeps is a good 10 steeps whether in a small teapot or a large one.
Front of cake, white2tea 2005 Naka
To get another opinion, I mailed a sample of this tea to someone else, somebody whose palate and tea writing I respect. And who is less of a stoner than I am. He was able to confirm the experience of being buzzed via email. In the next email he complained about the munchies. After that he went strangely silent. I suspect he passed out, though he hasn't admitted it yet. I am not going to say who this expert is, in part to avoid any potential Embarrassment that might be had in exchanging tea with The Likes of Me, but also because he might decide to review this tea himself someday. Now two people don't constitute a Large Sample, but more than one person brings us outside of the relativist universe.
Reverse view, white2tea 2005 Naka
What do I mean by stoned? I mean face and head buzz, woozy eyeballs, incoherent babbling, a dizzy feeling of unreality, and mild vertigo. I do know what I mean by stoned from my younger days actually spent stoned. Back in grad school I was quite a heavy cannabis user hanging around a lot of other cannabis users. Seems to be a requisite grad school experience, and lacking experience in such key areas of life I joined right in. I remember going to my graduate statistics classes completely baked, and the feeling of heady awareness spreading from my right brain over to the left when I experienced a full, and yet nuanced, understanding of linear regression analysis from a particularly fine aged professor combined with a young sinsemilla.
First steep, 2005 Naka by white2tea
So what's up with this tea equivalent of pot brownies? The fact that it has some humid storage early on makes for more aged leaf than the cake should have at just shy of 10 years, and a nicer tasting brew. (Though with these effects, who cares how it tastes?) But the effect is likely due to the source material. Naka village has at least two types of leaf on the market. We know that the Lahu people have been tending tall, old trees up on the mountain. At the same time, there are terraced tea gardens further down that are sold to the market. People are also tending tea plants in their personal gardens, which consist of young trees, probably plantation cuttings, alongside maybe an old tree in the yard too. All this tea gets sold to the market, some mixed together with other regions, and some of course probably outright faked.

The mountain old trees in the area produce a smaller, more yellowish leaf than the terraced teas below. That mountain stuff is likely the tea that produces the psychoactive effect, supposedly Age and Experience in tea trees produces the ability to repel nasty insect invaders and this bug repellent produces the tea drunk. Of course it's always possible that terrace tea pesticides are getting me stoned, which is fine by me since I don't have future unborn children to think of. Or possible too that somebody is growing cannabis in their tea garden. Maybe a particular insect chews on the tea leaving behind a sort of saliva. Or, tea experience might be entirely relative or I am completely full of hogwash and you should consult an "expert." But who can tell whether one cake will get you completely Naka-erd and another will not? I have read enough tea reviews of Naka teas in which nobody has mentioned feeling stoned. But I'll make an effort to do some comparison testing, for no better reason than to sound more Objective. What I'm looking for is tea with smaller leaves. Might be difficult to tell chop from small leaves, but the surface of the cake, for once, might actually tell us something.

So too might the processing technique. Chawangshop carries Naka produced the old fashioned Lahu way. Lahu folks cut bamboo stalks at least one year old, but not too old because the sticks need to be a bit damp. Tea is stuffed into the bamboo and then the whole thing is steam/roasted. Once the leaves are wilted down, more tea can be stuffed in until the whole thing is packed tight. The tea can be aged in the bamboo or removed at this point and wrapped in paper. To me this sounds like a great home technique for dealing with that big tea tree in your yard without needing any special equipment. The Mason jar of Naka.

I'm guessing Lahu folk sell their maocha loose, but perhaps the bamboo stuff is what they keep under the floorboards. I have a hard time believing anyone will go to all the trouble to stuff tea chop into bamboo when whole leaves are so much faster, and easier to deal with. And I can't figure out why the Lahu people would want to sell their bamboo-ed mountain tea leaves. If I were one of them I'd be putting it all under the floorboards for myself and telling the tea buyers to bugger off. But maybe a few people actually sell it, and maybe Chwangshop has it.

Chawangshop makes no claims about their Naka village tea, but they have a 2007 spring and a 2012 autumn, as well as a boxed 2010. Any bamboo gets removed for cheaper shipping and apparently to help avoid customs issues. The spring 2007 version seems like something of a ballpark comparison with my 2005, and the description says it's the high mountain stuff. And no, you're not getting a link for this one either.
2007 Naka Qiao Mu Bamboo Raw, from Chawangshop
When mine arrives, the tea is tube shaped and wrapped in paper. It appears to have the smaller leaf. However, all of it is incredibly dry and green. For a 7 year old tea, this seems to have little to no age. And it's very compressed, giving me visions of gory puerh pick injuries. I put it into a ceramic glazed jar with a lid and add some humidity for a couple of weeks until it turns a little more brown, and starts to smell sweet and malty. Enough loose tea came with the package for a session, so I decide to go ahead and drink that. Got about 5 grams of loose into about 100 ml water. Liquor comes out orange with apricot scent.
First steep, 2007 Naka from Chawangshop
Reluctantly, I must say, a minor psychoactive effect is confirmed. Not as intense as the 2005 Naka from white2tea, but definitely there. So too the dry mouth and munchies. Now at $7.50 per 100 grams, this is cheaper than weed. But it's so green yet, I wish the bamboo storage device had been included with the purchase.

I investigate other Naka possibilities on Taobao and Ebay, just to see if I can find more cheap Naka with the same effect. At this point I either want to compare a plantation/terrace tea or find a lucky mountain tea. Both would be interesting to compare with the two I've tried so far. I find some decent-looking teas on Taobao varying in price from $5-29, but the real kicker with Taobao is shipping cost, plus any fees from a broker. These costs add so much to the price of a cake, I'd be halfway to buying another cake from white2tea. I leave the Taobaos in my cart for now and check Ebay. Ebay cakes usually include free shipping, and luckily I find a 2005 "Naka" cake for $21.99 from a store called fengyuan-teashop.
2005 Naka by fengyuan-teashop
This beeng cake is unusual at 370 grams. The leaves look big, even though the listing claims the tea is the mountain type. I don't believe listings, wrappers or even the cake appearance until I try it. Storage is claimed to be dry, but the tea ships from Hong Kong so I hope for at least some humidity. Optimistically I stock up on Old Dutch Cheesy Puffcorn. (A cheese popcorn substitute, hulls are hell on 'roids.)
Front of cake, 2005 Naka from fengyuan-teashop
When the cake arrives in shrink wrap, the completely dry storage is clear. Just a light dusty sweet odor and the leaves are lightly brownish-green and black. A side-by-side comparison with the same age white2tea Naka makes it difficult to discern any difference between the front of the cakes, but back sides are telling, and the difference is even more obvious once brewed.
Knot hole in the Ebay cake is off-center
 The Ebay cake brews up light orange and peachy, and within a few brews starts tending toward yellow. This tea also tastes smoky, something that a more humid storage would either mask or have worked out of the taste. Some char in the gaiwan with this one.
First steep, 2005 Naka from fengyuan-teashop
I get a pleasant feeling of relaxation usual when drinking puerh, but nothing like the first two teas. Also, the differences in the leaf size are far more obvious in the gaiwan than on the cake. You can see the larger leaf here, and I find a few big honkers in the Ebay cake, rather than the small leaf of the other two Nakas. Well, what do you expect? It's Ebay! Still, as a drinker tea, I could do worse for $21.99. It's not bad, after the first few sourish steeps the tea tastes a little like many of the factory tuos I've tried. But this old Doctor isn't Naka-erd this time. Even though it's a little less money than the bamboo Naka, the Chwangshop tea wins the cheap Naka contest in leaf quality, taste and stoner effect, though neither entirely rival the white2tea 2005 Naka.

Thank you so much to everyone for stopping by my nickel booth! I really appreciate the fellow tea writers and drinkers taking the time to read or comment. And I especially appreciate the folks in my age group who have dropped me an email, those of you in the same position as I am who have turned the corner and are dealing with progressive health issues, who are aging faster than your tea, or who want to get into puerh tea and find things you can drink right now. I am so with you...(pssst, you guys try the white2tea Naka, sample it, it's the better tea, leave the cakes for me).  `

Requiescat in Pace

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Death Book of '80s Tea

Really Old Tea
Tea Classico's 1980s Ying Ming Hao takes me back to my younger days exploring herbal teas and remedies. While my mother was Jewish, my father was a Catholic priest who spent his entire youth in the seminary. I followed suit with a similar education and so off I went to the convent. Spent my 1980s as a nun, and the Order invested a great deal into me, for which I'm eternally grateful and unable to fully repay. My thorough training at their hands started out with correcting my appalling lack of cooking skills.

Back in the 1980s, the nuns began to rethink their traditional German style farm diet when all too many aging nuns developed heart disease, diabetes and cancer. They followed the example of Thomas Merton, probably the most famous Cistercian monk ever, who traveled to Asia in the 1960s to spend time in a Zen Buddhist monastery, until his instant death in 1968 by pulling a metal electric fan chain while getting out of a Buddhist bathtub. Thomas Merton wrote and spoke extensively on meditation and other lifestyle practices he learned from monks in Asia in the short time he had before taking that fatal shower. In his opinion, eastern and western monasticism had much in common in terms of development, we all get the same results with different methods. But eastern monastics pay far more attention to their physical bodies in comparison to their western counterparts. Consequently, monastics of all types in the west began to examine the role of diet in the development of the spiritual life, how lighter diets support meditation practices, and heavier diets contribute to sluggishness and snoring in the choir.
Thomas Merton, OCSO, photo at pbs.org
My own convent had got to the point in the 1980s of having two food lines in the refectory. One was the regular German diet of roasted meat, starches and cooked vegetable, and the other was the "diabetic" diet, usually consisting of fish and a  "better" vegetable like steamed broccoli as opposed to canned green beans. When I visited last year, the refectory had finally changed the "diabetic" food line to "vegetarian." However, in the 1980s the nuns sent me to vegetarian cooking classes and to study at a meditation center with a Sufi master. Sufi is the mystical order of Islam, and you've probably read Rumi whether you know it or not. I continued to study with the Sufi master even after I left the convent for a total of ten years.

At the meditation center and the convent, I got a thorough grounding in herbal medicines, teas and chai. I gathered local herbs and grew familiar with everything from tonics to purgatives and even abortifacients. Read a lot of vintage herb books I can't even find anymore. I wish I could get the herbal chai teas we had back then. These were the original Yogi teas. The Yogi website history refers to the teas they provided to meditation centers in the 1960s-1980s, but unfortunately they don't show the photos nor seem to sell them anymore. Like puerh recipes, these teas had recipe numbers, such as 8 herb, 16 herb and 22 herb. The 8 and 16 herb chai's weren't too bad, they consisted of lots of sweet roots, barks and seeds like cinnamon, pepper, fennel and so on. The 22 herb was a bit obscene, too many mixed flavors as I recall.

Still I miss those teas. I look back Nostalgically to the days of scraping the inner bark off trees, scouting out wintergreen beneath the snow, working in the herb shop at the meditation center which was a repurposed old wooden post office. Rather my Brother Cadfael era, lived well before that show appeared on public television. The whole thing finally culminated for me at a high point of making Egyptian kyphi incense, in the full flower of my virgin maidenhood, a meditation on a night with a particular phase of the moon. While I no longer have any of the herbs or teas from back then, I still have a big jar of that incense which contains things like wine, honey, raisins, frankincense, myrrh and benzoin and must be burned on charcoal. Can't get myself to open this last jar nor throw it out. 80s teas might be in the same boat as this 80s incense, a curiosity but nothing worth pursuing.

My Virgin Incense, and other Relics
As far as I'm concerned, herbal "tisanes," as they are now called, are nostalgic and nothing more. My opinion on tisanes, biochemistry labs aside, is that they are virtually useless in treating any real disease. You won't get healthier, prevent cancer, have better babies nor cure any condition whatsoever with herbs. Probably the best use for herbs is to get stoned. For me, herbs are as antiquated as Death Books. 
Virgin Incense jar. 
Preparing for Death used to be a real business for Nuns, and for everyone in general. If herbs worked all that well, then people might have lived longer in the old days before modern medicine. As it was, children were far more likely to die before the age of 8. The lack of painkillers is a good reason to meditate on death ahead of time. People needed to prepare psychologically for the  "agonies" of death in a way we don't need to anymore. You could potentially ruin a whole life of good deeds and holy intentions by screaming obscenities at God in the pains of cancer, and end up in hellfire because the Lord will not forgive you. To avoid this, Death Books got you to think about your feet turning blue in advance so you can hopefully keep your wits about you as your entrails rot. "A good death and a perfect end, amen."

Luckily we don't need Death Books anymore, because we largely dodge the majority of people killers with antibiotics and other modern medicines. Herbs and puerh teas will not cure any condition nor provide much, if any, health benefit aside from what your body is already in a condition to do. You can argue this with me if you like, but I have pushed this limit. In my 30s I developed a tendency to kidney infections, a tendency inherited from my female relatives and I was late to that party, since my mother and sister had been dealing with kidney infections from childhood. With my background in herbs and meditation, I tried to power it out. The result was increasingly stubborn gram-negative bacteria that grew to resist one antibiotic after another, the ones I didn't develop allergies to, until I was down to ciprofloxacin, the end of the line before needing the hospital and a whole IV cocktail for every episode. A series of lifestyle changes, including slowing down, avoiding alcohol, harsh weather, bad sex, and drinking cranberry extract and a pot of green tea a day were all hopeful prevention measures. But truth is this: without antibiotics  I'd be dead. My own mother tried to get help from Chinese herbs this past year to treat diabetes and congestive heart failure and she is now dead.

So, don't try to power out health conditions using green tea nor any other herb. Get thee to a Real Doctor. I do believe green tea has helped as a PART of my regimen by keeping fluids going and avoiding worse stuff. I haven't had an infection for 8 years and the last was only 1 in 10 years. Still, drinking tea is now a lot more fun now than 17 years ago when I started putting green tea bags into a coffee maker basket. Nevertheless, I'm going to leave my herbs in the past where they belong and enjoy them as a memory while drinking a 1980s tea today, courtesy of a real herbal innovation called Internet Tea Shopping.

This assumes that Tea Classico's Ying Ming Hao is really 1980s. Who came up with this date? Going in I'm not going to assume that the purported age of this tea is going to give me an experience any better than da fine shit of White2Tea's 2014 Manzhuan, a real wife beater of a tea outside of a smoky Menghai tuo. But I'm willing to risk $25 and what's left of my kidneys to Tea Classico to find out.
17 gram chunk, before the jack hammer
5 grams in a 70 ml Yixing pot circa 1980s from Origin Tea. As of this writing, Tony has 3 of these teapots left. If you don't have an older Yixing, get over there and buy one for under $100. He has a 15% off coupon in place on the home page. Normally I'd use a gaiwan but I only have 20 grams of this tea in total and want to enjoy the experience.

Two rinses and the wet Hong Kong storage smell emerges. I aired the tea for two weeks and perhaps it should go longer. Always in a hurry to taste my teas. The color of the soup is red and brown for the first three steeps, mellowing to a dark brown from the fourth steep onward.
Second steep
Incredible mineral-ly flavor, and lively on the tongue and lips. No doubt Tony's  teapot is contributing to the mineral quality, which lingers long afterward. Going past the third steep, the storage mellows into a wet soil flavor and my mouth-feel is even more full of minerals. Ah, this wet soil of memory, if we'd had this tea no doubt the nuns could have thrown away the death books sooner than they did. To actually smell and taste six feet under, rather than just thinking about it. How much more rich a sensory experience puerh tea is! The soil we return to, the musty old post office herb shop, a green aged back to brown. I'll take my cup of the present day, and the wet dirt future and the minerals of past ideals when hope existed in cutting fresh green northern spring nettles mixed with a few tears and it's all good, all good. The cup and what's left on the tongue.

Tea Classico's early 1980s Ying Ming Hao comes in a large 400g beeng. I highly recommend it and of course I want more. But the cost? $325 and selling my Virgin Incense for a song.

Requiescat in Pace
Feast of Rose of Viterbo