; Cwyn's Death By Tea: This Much is True, Relatively Speaking ;

Thursday, April 9, 2015

This Much is True, Relatively Speaking

Spring is in very early days for tea, and I find myself thinking about this year's tea cakes even though I could easily let such thoughts slide for another month or two. I think what brought this up is the early appearance of Misty Peak 2015 Spring Puerh cakes in late February or early March. I wasn't entirely paying attention at the time until people started questioning whether the tea being sold could possibly be new spring tea this early. In fact I still wasn't really paying attention at all until I drank a swap sample of 2010 Chen Sheng Yi Hao currently offered by Tea Urchin. Issues of marketing and representation crossed by truth and relative truth can leave tea drunks like me more confused than usual.
2010 Chen Sheng Yi Hao at Tea Urchin
The 2010 Chen Sheng Yi Hao is supposed to contain 10% Lao Banzhang leaf. Tea Urchin discloses that the cake also contains Bulang leaf. Nothing about this description is inaccurate, at least not on the part of Tea Urchin. But when I tasted the tea, what I taste is the "Bulang" character. All I can surmise about the LBZ in the cake is that it is likely chopped leaf and/or sticks and twigs because the LBZ certainly isn't very prominent in the flavor profile. Tea Urchin doesn't say how much Bulang is in the cake. Is Bulang the other 90%? Or something less? Perhaps Tea Urchin doesn't have the answer to that 100%, and tea origins sometimes are so murky that nobody has the answer after the tea changes hands too many times.

My sample of 2010 Chen Sheng Yi Hao
And this is the whole problem. How much is true? We really have a kind of Relative Truth going on. Tea factories or vendors can call a tea cake LBZ, price it accordingly and when there is some truth, some LBZ leaf, even if just chop and sticks, well that's apparently enough to truthfully label the tea a LBZ, relatively speaking. But as long as the cake has at least SOME of what it claims, we can't really point the finger at any lying cheating bastards because nobody is lying and nobody is cheating. I have been told what I'm getting and the rest is up to me to decide, up to me whether or not I want to buy, and up to me to determine how much is true. I can decide whether the cake is fairly priced for what it is and make up my own mind to spend the money or not.

But the situation isn't always so clear. And "clear" is rather relative too, since the Chen Sheng cake is only 10% clear in truth when we come right down to it. Things can deteriorate from there. Some tea vendor lying is fairly obvious. MarshalN has pointed out a million times that ancient gushu is not going to be $6.99 on EBay and most of us are smart enough to figure that out. But what we face far more often isn't the obvious scam, it's the situation of Relative Truth when we have 10% LBZ, and the cake is sold accordingly because of the LBZ content. Tea Urchin isn't guilty of anything, and in fact if the cake is 90% Bulang, the 400g cake is priced somewhat fairly for Bulang at 5 years of age. People are starting to notice Bulang too. The price for Bulang has been increasing, and we are seeing cakes labeled all-Bulang, when in past years Bulang was simply a filler as it was in the 2010 Chen Shang Yi Hao cake. You can argue with me over the word filler or the specifics on Bulang if you want. However, Relative Truth is far more difficult to pin down when nobody has done anything particularly wrong. No one is at fault for the fact that LBZ is hyped to the point where no one can afford it, and nobody has misrepresented the tea because barely enough information is available for a buyer to freely decide whether or not the price is worth it. 

Misty Peak Spring 2015
In the situation of Misty Peak current "2015 Spring," I decided to order a small cake for myself. I have 2 other seasons of Misty Peak tea, you might recall my crock experiments last fall when I used a Misty Peak sample to test the viability of southwestern US native pottery for use in tea storage. This was just a test situation when I needed a fresh new tea sample, as opposed to a dried out and aged sample, so I could find out if new tea picked up any odors from desert pottery. And I found out that it does pick up odors from that style of pottery. So I have some 2013 Spring Misty Peak and then I have Autumn 2014 also, in addition to my "Spring 2015" that has been available for a month or two now. 

So the question with the tea is, what is it and where did it come from? After some of the chatter questioning these early spring cakes, I immediately noticed a topic on Steepster that Misty Peak posted asking people "how important" is knowing the season of the tea....hmm I figured that "oolong" is not really the tea situation Misty Peak wants to discuss. Relatively speaking. Because I have no way of knowing for sure whether their 2015 tea cake really contains 2015 Spring tea, or any spring tea at all. 

Second Steep plus more compressed Spring 2013, on right
When the cake arrives, I can tell from the brown leaves and loose compression that this is stored maocha that perhaps has been pressed only recently. But there is no way this is "new" spring tea. In fact, when I place my 2013 spring cake piece next to the new tea, I can see a difference between fresh wet tea pressed into a cake in the same way juicy freshly-cut grass compacts itself than I'm seeing in this far drier, loose Spring 2015. 

For comparison, Autumn 2014, also with loose compression,
Could the Spring tea be, say, 2013 or 2014 spring tea in a fraction like the 10% of the LBZ in the Chen Sheng cake? I see some buds in my tea. But I can also see the browning of older tea. 

Browning on the steeped leaf
Flavor-wise, I do like the flavor of Misty Peak's Yiwu-floral type character. And I'm now in a position to treat it better than last year with this vintage crock humidor I found this week in a thrift shop. My 2013, 2014 and now "2015" seem to all have the same amount of aging so I don't feel guilty breaking up the new cake and putting all the tea together since it is single-origin. Or so we believe.

I mix together all my Misty Peak tea into this vintage humidor.
Misty Peak really isn't misrepresenting, relatively speaking, if the 2015 cake is a 2015 pressing containing true "spring material." Right?? Maybe in 2015 they pressed up some material that happens to contain spring material from another year. So the cake is 2015, check. Spring material, check. But we don't know how much Bulang is in the Chen Sheng and we don't know how much Autumn might perhaps be in the Misty Peak tea. We might have spring tea in the Misty cake but maybe it is mostly older twigs and chop like the LBZ in the Chen Sheng. Again, maybe the vendor isn't really doing anything wrong, and might have hit upon a brilliant marketing idea in doing a new pressing in Feb/March before real spring tea is available and tea drinkers are thirsty for spring. But still we have a Relative truth because the tea really isn't the fresh spring pick.

When I consider other industries, Relative Truth is the order of the day. I remember the bomb to the cosmetics industry back in the early 1990s when Paula Begoun "the Cosmetics Cop" exposed how little of an active ingredient is actually present in facial creams. She wrote huge encyclopedic books taking apart the ingredients of nearly every popular cosmetic available on the market. For example, many face creams labeled as "shea butter" had less than 5%. Sometimes a cream contained even less than 2% of the miracle ingredient claimed to be in the formula. Finally she developed a rule of thumb that anything not in the first 5 ingredients can be considered to be virtually non-existent for the purposes of any effect on the skin. 

Beautiful mid-century humidor pipe crock by Deco.
Cosmetic companies hated Paula for showing that most skin creams contain water, a humectant, a binder, preservatives and virtually nothing more, and that a $5 face cream might have the exact same ingredients as a $100 face cream. The companies defended themselves with the response that anything truly effective must be regulated as a medicine or a drug, so of COURSE a cosmetic mustn't actually contain active ingredients. Paula's work barely made a dent in the end. The cosmetics industry charged right on and the prices of face creams continued to go up while touting miracle ingredients present in such miniscule quantities as to actually have no effect. Women regularly buy $200+ creams and we can't call the companies lying bastards because the cream might actually contain an teensy weensy amount of an ingredient, thus making the cream worthy of its claims. Relatively speaking.

Another possibility in the tea world is we could have a bait and switch situation when the tea that is chosen for pressing is not the one that is delivered. Tea is expensive, and a bait and switch can be quite lucrative. This happens in the jewelry industry, when the diamond bought and paid for in an engagement ring isn't the stone that gets mounted into the ring setting. Or the kitchen stove that I bought which was a "floor model" and the one delivered to my house actually has a dent in it. Or when I buy a Ralph Lauren shirt. Ralph Lauren never touched nor even designed the shirt, he has an army of people creating "ready-to-wear" lines under his name but the shirt costs $100 because his name is on it. The shirt is "his," relatively speaking. Nobody complains about this relative truth and people continue to buy Ralph Lauren shirts that he wouldn't even recognize. So what do we think about tea vendors who might have bought a quantity of leaf, but then the tea that is delivered is not what they picked out? Or that a tea can be called 2015 simply because it is pressed in 2015 but actually consists of tea from other years?

The entire cosmetics industry shields itself by doing what everyone else is doing, and if tea is doing the same, why should I be surprised? I might be smart enough to call an Ad Populum when I see it, but how does this really help me or anyone? The truth is I'm probably an idiot for not going along with all this Relative Truth and downright fallacy. My life might have turned out better than it has by going along. I could convince myself that I'm quite the scholar if I had published the exact same article in 6 different academic journals, just changing the details slightly so as to appear to have written 6 different articles, qualifying for tenure based on this absurd quantity, rather than the quality or originality of the papers. 

Am I too "pick-y?"
Who do I think I am, believing the world should have this perfect type of moral honesty? If truth is so relative, I'm just a fool and late to the big party of life. I missed out and probably just because of unattractive appearances, because my childhood visions of success included guys with beer bellies, gold coin nugget rings and Brylcreem holding court every Friday night at the supper club over a steak and a Manhattan. And the rest area toilets north of Highway 10 that are wider because, let's face it, the women are fatter and only later I find out the real truth that the genetic heritage around here, taken out of the farm, doesn't even need to eat meat to fatten up because just sitting around is sufficient. My efforts to avoid appearances of sleazy relativity in business sales masked a reality of people who actually were successful.

If I had looked past those appearances and drank the collective Kool-Aid I might have more to show for a life. All it takes is shameless self-promotion no matter what that entails. Like promoting myself as a representative of a miracle skin cream that contains less than 2% of the ingredient. Or promising the security of "life insurance" that in truth only pays out upon an accidental death? I definitely reached a certain point years ago when I stopped being critical of people doing well through faking, because the reality is they are successful at what they do, and nobody is forced to buy the Relative Truths they are selling. Objective Truth is that a cabbie with a PhD has no respect and the dignity of honesty tastes even better when it has meringue and a cherry on top, even if what's underneath came out of the deep fryer.

So why do I expect the tea world to be somehow more honest? Is this a hidden form of magic and mysticism I am STILL placing onto tea, despite my efforts to de-mystify and remove my fantasies behind tea drinking? But the truth is tea is a business like any other business and we can't get clouded by the product no matter what a vendor decides to do. A tea seller suggested to me that not using regional labels at all might be better for sales, so that one store's Spring Laoshan isn't confused with someone else's Spring Laoshan. Like maybe calling teas evocative names like Envy or Rapture. A Dead Rabbit puerh might be a better idea than Yiwu. I don't know. At this point hubris will probably sell tea just the same as a product in any other industry, and maybe much better.

Whatever happens in the end, most tea vendors will need to follow suit. Offering spring tea "early" is like KMart deciding to stay open on Thanksgiving Day. The outcry from other retailers is huge, but eventually they have to give in and do the same, or lose the holiday dollars spent on Thursday rather than Friday. Misty Peak sold out their first run of 200g cakes in just a couple of days. Now they have 100g cakes on offer too, and that's what I decided to pick up to add to my crock. The $39 price point grabs people who want "new" tea but are also holding dollars for the big buy later this spring. A lucrative fudge like this is hard to pass up for tea vendor and tea drunk alike. But where does this leave people who don't know what they are getting into?

This much is true: 1) the tea industry is full of Relative Truths like many other industries; 2) the power of my wallet isn't enough to change things; 3) I could use a nap, and 4) I can leave it to the young people to sort out this mess.

Requiescat in Pace


  1. One of Nicholas Tang's articles was about people starting up in puerh tea in the '90s. It was even more Wild West then than it was now, even though the actual choices were pretty limited. Only a few recognized good factories, but they were faked with a relentless determination.

    People getting in on this puerh thing must get good at drinking puerh as quick as possible, though I'm not sure if it's not already too late to nab anything good for anything like cheap. Be more like trying to get something you like without getting ripped off.

    I think it's also important that people recognize that famous mountains are pretty much a done thing. There is much more recognition out there that it's simply impossible to get good real stuff. If you didn't buy your gushu by the end of 2011, then it will always be an arm and a leg for something with 15% nice stuff. Thus, there have been more of a move towards simply not disclosing where things are from and having a label for the taste/feeling profile the teamaker wishes to create. Also, more of a focus on blending, and lastly, there's been a strong push towards added value products like premium shu.

    1. In some ways it is amazing that we can get puerh tea at all, when I think of wild products here like wild rice. I wrote about Wisconsin wild rice last fall. True wild rice, as opposed to plantation rice, is now limited to the native tribes first and then Wisconsin residents by a purchased permit. Outside residents cannot harvest any at all. I've wondered if the tea trees will be regulated in a similar fashion and it almost seems surprising that we can get the tea that we do.

    2. You set me thinking about the 'good' in goods'. For me the Quality in most things come from the cumulative care and thought that has gone into them by the people that made them. A lovingly hand-crafted cake of tea will always have more Quality than a Tetleys tea bag, whatever your subjective opinion of their respective tastes.
      Life is short. If it is to have value we should create and seek out Quality. Deceptive commercial practices go against that grain, and we should shun them if we can. Make our own stuff, or buy from the artisan craftsman, not Walmart.
      PS your posts are like finely crafted little gems of wisdom, and so of very high Quality.

    3. Thanks for your thoughts, guys, all good stuff to keep in mind. :)

  2. Just a quick note on LBZ and Bulang - note that LBZ is a part of Bulang (or is very close to it anyway), and given the fairly large variance of tastes of Bulang (and young LBZ as well), I think it is not really possibly, in young tea, to taste 10% of LBZ among other Bulang leaves. Imho, after 8 or so years, the LBZ taste does sort of drift away from other main streams of Bulang and it's quite unique, but I am not convinced that young LBZ is that much different from certain young Bulangs. Also, the processing is important - it's not like there is a single LBZ character...

    1. Seems to me the premium isn't worth paying in this case. But I also prefer to put that same amount of money toward something else with a little more age. Alas I'm starting to struggle with acid reflux with younger tea.

    2. It's relatively hard to tell most any tea from any other tea.

      There's a distinction to be made with northern bulang tea and southern bulang tea. Northern is more Menghai area flowers and honey like Nannuo, Pasha, Mengsong. Southern tend to be floral in a medicinal way, and ages into darker flavors.

      I suspect that very few LBZ cakes out there are made with 100% >midgrade LBZ leaves. To the extent that there were 15%LBZ, it's probably anon low grade stuff.

      Don't get caught up in areas. Names are usually used to lift other stuff that isn't from there or isn't the best. Figure out the grades of tea. Broad areas of puerh growing zones typically approach one another as the quality goes up, generally regardless of area. Name areas are where there's the most of it (not talking about the constant churn of hot Yiwu areas). The best Nannuo will have something in common with LBZ, etc, etc. However, the best stuff is very expensive. Thus, you have to figure out what traits you're willing to pay for. Chances are, a number of areas will give you one thing, as you as for more and more features, the number of areas that can give you what you want shrinks, until you're talking the best of the best.

    3. And this kind of evaluation assumes the vendor or factory is telling the truth about what is in the composition. I'm making an assumption here about the remaining 90% because Tea Urchin's description is not specific. And they are relying on either factory or anecdotal descriptions themselves. I'm not sure we can depend upon getting the truth in many cases nowadays about what is in the cake, when the best interests for everyone, at every point of sale from the farmer to factory to vendor, are skewed toward misrepresenting the tea in favor of a higher value. This is the entire theme of what I'm saying here about Misty Peak as well.

      But in reply to shah: with so much fudging going on, is it really even possible nowadays to take on the exercise of learning regions when the samples are completely unreliable?

  3. Hello Cwyn and friends,

    Thank you so much in advance for the beautiful article. I am Nicholas of Misty Peak Teas.

    I must start by saying that the article and points are very strong, and worth taking seriously. As we(tea drinkers) spend our own money and trust on tea from companies, we must start asking more questions and dive deeper into the world of tea. There is so much misinformation out there. There are countless stories of folks who have tried "aged" Pu'er dozens of times and then try real aged Pu'er and realized a lot. This is my effort. Many purveyors will tell you it's not about the money, nor is it about misinforming. I rely solely on the tea from one family's farm picked during either Spring or Autumn. And if our product is labelled as Spring, it is 100% Spring. If it is labelled as Autumn, it is 100% Autumn. Our prices reflect the difference in value, one's taste will allow you to have a preference.

    As for timing, Spring Pu'er tea is picked as early as late January(2014) and usually in early February most years. Our Spring 2015 was made available March 17, 2015, giving us over 50 days to get the tea from farm to the states. EMS delivers in less than 10 days, and even SAL delivers in less than 30 most often. Many vendors allow themselves much more time, but we are happy to have the freshest teas available at all times.

    Cwyn said it so beautifully "In some ways it is amazing that we can get puerh tea at all," I love this. As a purveyor, I know about the long walks in the mountains and the long airplane flights away from our comforts. As a tea drinker, we must be educated and do side-by-side comparisons and notice the differences. This is what old trees taste like, that is what young trees taste like; this is what Spring tastes like, that is what Autumn tastes like. Ah, the educated consumer will be one step ahead of even most retailers! We must.

    I am so happy to hear that the author enjoyed the tea and even happier to hear that he has questions. We are happy to offer side-by-side samples of SPRING VS AUTUMN for anyone who may be interested.

    Thank you again for the photos, the writing, and being a part of what we are sharing.



    1. This is still unclear. The Spring 2015 cakes you started selling on March 15 via coupon promotion on Steepster for 200 g sold out in 3 days. The current 100g Spring 2015 is not fresh tea. As I hinted in my post, this tea might be "old" spring tea, but it is not this year's harvest. This is rather deceptive because everyone is under the Impression they are getting new spring tea.