; Cwyn's Death By Tea: Breaking the Bad ;

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Breaking the Bad

It's not what you think.

But you'll understand anyway.

Last Sunday I decided to do a massive historical sheng session. Over the past few months I've collected a number of samples from a single maker. All of the samples came from different people sharing a bit of their collection. I saved up all the samples until, by good fortune, I had a representation spanning a total of 15 years of tea storage. So in one day I was able to sample a 2012, 2011, 2008, 2005, 2003 and a 1990s. I prepared 8 grams for each tea, and used the same gaiwan and tried to keep the steep times similar, with a few minor adjustments in case a few leaves didn't want to open up. In other words, I did everything I could to make comparisons of apples with apples, while making allowances for the individual circumstances to pay attention to each tea. In the end, I found myself with a sad conclusion. One of the teas is a fake. Not only was I faced with the task of deciding whether or not to write about it, the worst part is if I can bear to even discuss the fake tea with the friend who owns it. The writing part isn't so important, it's breaking the bad that bites.

The tea that appears fake to me is the oldest tea in the bunch. So right away you know that the friend in question spent the most money of everyone whose tea I sampled on Sunday. When bad news involves hundreds of dollars, I have to sit back and wonder if I'm really going to tell him. Or if I might say something completely untrue instead. There are different types of lies: lies that spare feelings, lies that preserve dignity. The Black Lies of the criminal. Little white lies, those don't hurt so much. Lately I'm telling the truth as best I can when I write, but so often the honesty I'm trying for causes more problems than simply lying. Sparing feelings seems the best way to go, so I'll just label the teas using a bit of statistical nomenclature. Thus, I have tea samples Xi where i = 1...6.

Second Steep
The youngest tea X1 is a 2012 tuo. This sample was given to me to experiment with storage. So I put it through some crock abuse. And despite that, the tea kicked me in the arse up front and center. The 2012 tea is so bitter I thought my teeth might fall out, and this is as it should be for this tea when young. The tea is darker and more angry cloudy than it should be at this age because of the crock treatment.

Next the X2 tea is a loosely compressed (stone compression) "boutique offering" from 2011. It's one of those "drink now" types of teas, boiling water doesn't make it bitter.

Second steep.
This is a sample from a friend too, and his dry storage is paying off now. In this case, I'll let the friend know so he can drink it up sooner rather than later.

X3 is a vendor sample from 2008, passed on to me by another friend. This is an export tuo, dry stored, completely broken up into very small pieces and then bagged.

Second steep more yellow than the boutique and crock stored samples.
Hard to know what happened with this sample, but the tea has gone flat with no flavor at all. The leaves are dried out and have been for a long time. Maybe the tea was packaged as a sample 7 years ago. Given the condition of the leaves, and the fact it is a vendor sample, it's not worth evaluating so I just throw it out.

My own sample has some honker sticks (border tea tuo).
X4 is a 2005 compressed mushroom shape tea with dry storage, and this one I bought for myself to share with a friend. But this is almost a year ago now, so I doubt we're gonna get together for tea any time soon. Why should I resist trying this tea, especially because it keeps rolling out of my pumidor whenever I open the door. Roly Poly Mama's Little Fatty. I've given this tea the Gold Treatment storage, a stable RH at 65% for nearly a year. The tea looks a luscious brown. My friend can't seriously believe I'm going to simply look at this tea any longer without trying it.

Second steeping and...yum.
The leaves on this one are of a far lower quality than the others, this is a border tea. We were going to try and make yak butter type tea with it. The tuo is full of large leaves and sticks, including a few honkers. These twigs are in a tea that is meant to be boiled, and twigs must be boiled in order to extract any flavor. Steeped infusions do not extract flavor from huge twigs so I just pick them out. If I were to go ahead and boil the tea, I'd leave them in but I'm doing a steeping in a gaiwan so I pick out the big twigs. The tea has that untanned animal smell that I've called "yak butt" in other border teas.

So, X4 produces the thickest tea by far of those I've sampled. Engine oil thick body. Some bitterness, but surprisingly smooth. Just a bit of the animal meat flavor. I took a break for lunch before trying this tea, and now I'm breaking into a sweat. The qi on this is great, and I sit back and enjoy 4 cups altogether, reminded of my dad gutting deer when I was a kid.

The next tea X5 is a 2003 machine-compressed cake. I received this from a friend who wanted to me to crock-store it, but I haven't had a crock available for it without breaking up the entire cake. So it's been sitting out in a plastic bag with nothing special added for humidity. The tea has had dry storage and is fairly easy to chip off at 12 years of age. Leaves are smaller and more chopped than the other samples.

Second steeping, machine pressed, choppy.
But the cup is similar to X4 in the thicker body and similar color. The flavor is similar to X4 minus the yak butt, a bit smoky and still bitter but not biting. I expected a sharper tea, and I don't know for certain this is the real deal but it's close enough to X4 which I know for sure to be real, that I can temporarily believe in X5 unless I get some new information.

Finally I get to my sample of X6 which is the 1990s-era tea. This tea has had traditional Hong Kong style storage, unlike the other samples which are all dry stored.

Oldest of the samples, 1990s.
The storage isn't terribly heavy, but the tea is really tight in the chunk, after a cold water soak and two boiling rinses I pry apart the tea and it's still dry on the inside. I didn't cold water soak the other teas but the soak didn't do much anyway. Once I get a good brew going, the tea seems thin and watery compared to the other samples, except of course the X2 is a boutique tea and the X3 got ruined by the vendor so they don't really compare.

Second steep. Leaves have that softness of wetter storage.
But some of the thickness and flavor of the other samples should be present here. I'm tasting a thin tea and just storage. I do about 7 steeps to give the tea a chance but it just thins out even more. I am not convinced this tea is the same maker as the others. The original wrappers on the tea look brand new in photos. I can't see how wrappers can be this shiny bright with the wet storage, unless they were stored naked and recently rewrapped. I want to talk to my friend about this tea, but don't know where to start.

When I think about how people feel about their tea choices, I'm reminded of marriages. The tea cake is the spouse. We have honeymoon stages with tea cakes, and then we have the long term relationships with them to look forward to. Marriages turn into battlegrounds with everyone defending their individual turf. Props go to the person who suffers the most, who takes the biggest hit to their integrity while standing beyond reproach. The point of all that pain is trying to find each other desirable again. Desperately wanting to prove to oneself that a mediocre tea is fine, just fine. I want to feel betting the farm was a good decision. This is the scenario we hope for, and I think most of us can live with some uncertainty about a tea purchase over the long haul, because so many factors are involved in the life of a good tea, including a few bad years. You're in deep with the branding and the purported age, and can't see when the tea doesn't hold up to more than a few brews. And when the heavy storage is masking reality. The problem is nobody wants to know they sunk a few hundred into wrappers so shiny that everyone but you sees she's a floozy. And because you care about your buddy, you can't tell him she's bad news.

In case you're wondering, this tea isn't yours. It's someone else's. And I really enjoyed spending a full 7 hours with all these samples. One reason I did this today is because with my health issues I just don't know how much more time I have to drink bitter sheng samples. If I come clean to my doctor the time would be zero. So I'm on my own cliff edge and starting to get some acid reflux from anything but the highest quality sheng I own. A cup or two for tasting is probably just fine, if I limit myself, but I can't completely steep out teas like this anymore. My time has come to wrap up any remaining love affairs and turn my attention to the best tea I can get.

Requiescat in Pace.


  1. Hello Cwyn,

    Obviously this is a delicate situation. I understand how you feel as I have encountered this myself. There is no one answer and you just have to assess it case by case based on the person and your relationship with him or her.

    Sometimes words aren’t the only form of communication. On occasions (if possible) I would simply send a sample of my own tea (same age/type/brand) back to the person. The answer is in the tea. Often times the person will get back to you and initiate the discussion.

    Best, VP

    PS: The truth is painful but it can make us better and wiser and could save us from worst situations in the future,

    1. Most of my friends have all the tea they can drink and more. Generally they refuse to accept tea unless there is something in particular they are looking for and I happen to have it. I'm trying to convince them to accept venison jerky instead.

    2. +1 on being wiser. We all need to be more acceptable to the wisdom of those with experience. It may be a delicate situation but letting them know so they can avoid a mistake again is good to learn. I call it "tuition" tea and I probably will still have some get me this way.

  2. Hi Cwyn,

    Many thanks for the excellent review of similar teas from different periods.

    Just a question, if you do not mind, is there any particular reason as to why you started with the youngest tea to the oldest in that order? I am just curious as, if tea is like Scotch, there is the influence on the palate from previous tasting for a while. Being a Scotch drinker besides being a Teahead when I go for tastings of multiple whiskies I always start with the oldest and smoothest ones. Had I started with a young Scotch with a lot more accentuated taste, this would hide some of more subtle accents of subsequent older whiskies.

    Kind regards.


    1. Older sheng is a bit easier on the stomach so I started out my day with the gut bombs and ended on the gentler stuff. Thanks for stopping by!

    2. Thank you very much for the explanation Cwyn. It makes sense and I am going to consider that point of view as my stomach is not what used to be in my youth.