; Cwyn's Death By Tea: June 2015 ;

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Thursday, June 25, 2015

the Back-Up Plan

Sejak, left; hwangcha, right.

Might surprise a few of you that I do drink tea other than puerh. Every pu head needs to have a back up plan for those occasions when drinking puerh just isn't possible. For example, they don't allow puerh knives in prison. In my case, I'm heading for the nursing home where no laws are supposed to apply, but those people cut your meat in advance, and I'll be lucky if I can keep my Xbox, to say nothing of piling up bamboo tongs in my room. No, I expect that unless I want to file a court case I'd best identify some other teas I'm willing to drink before I'm unable to do much more than mutter over the tea bags in the community room. Actually, I'm quite partial to Korean tea so the decision of what else to drink is easy. But finding it? Not so much.

Korean teas have a delicate leaf that reminds me of saffron fronds, and that leaf resembles no other teas in the world, in my opinion. During the hot weather of summer that we're having right now, I like me a nice salty Sejak. The only problem is, a good Sejak is difficult to find. When you do find any Korean green teas, they are expensive, and sell out fast. And once gone, you won't get another opportunity until the following year. The new teas tend to appear in the west in late summer or early autumn. I've been out of sejak for almost a year now, and so when recently clicking on the Sale button over at puerh-sk, I was surprised to see a Junkro Sejak and hit the Back button real quick. I couldn't believe the price which came in at about $14 for 50g.

First steep.
This high mountain sejak doesn't disappoint. I'm mainly looking for the salt in the first steeping which is a bit of that misty ocean air. You can taste it all around your lips and for me it mitigates the beany-umami flavor. I find teas with an overwhelming umami flavor to be a bit too sweet for my liking, and so I'm particular about the sencha I drink for this reason. I gong fu brew sejak, and I don't measure the leaf. Because the leaves are very delicate, they tend to lift up in a clump and I don't want to disturb them too much. A rinse is unnecessary for me, this ain't warehouse pu. And I can forgo a strainer and waste bowl for once, any stray leaves at the bottom of the cup can go right back into the gaiwan. I use 10 second steeps for the most part. The second steeping is darker still, but the real action is that first cup, in my opinion. I usually get a good 6 steeps or so out of sejak. In the summer, the thought of that salty steep just makes my mouth water, especially on hot, muggy days when I've been sweating away.

I suppose I will suggest you pick some of this Sejak up, but I'd rather you left it there in case I need it. Actually it was an excuse to also pick up some pu and naturally a teapot too. I wouldn't have done all that but for my friends on Instagram constantly taunting me with teaware, and puerh-sk is the place to go to hoard both tea and teaware in one big shopping spree. So really it isn't my fault I now have this Sejak.

by Jeong Jae Yeun
Another Korean tea I'm very partial to is Jeong Jae Yeun's high mountain "hwangcha." Jeong Jae Yeun dedicates herself to creating this one tea only, organically grown wild and semi-wild tea trees literally at the highest altitude, much past which tea won't grow. This type of processing is most similar to Chinese yellow teas, but not the same, so really this Balhyocha is a tea unlike any other. This past year, What-Cha carried this tea but they are now sold out. Before that, the only vendor I'm aware of is Arthur Park at Morning Crane tea, and he usually does a group order in late August or early September. Sometimes he has left over packages and you can drop him an email if you're interested.

This tea, aside from puerh, is what I can recommend as the best tea. Full stop. My initial curiosity with this tea came from the story Arthur Park tells on his blog about how a Buddhist nun tasted this tea at Jeong's home and then stopped later at an artisan pottery workshop and shared her experience of drinking the best tea she'd ever had. I wanted to try and discover what a Buddhist nun might see in this particular tea, and the answer was easy to discover.

Using about a tablespoon of tea, try the first steep in your gaiwan at 150F/65C. I know that Buddhist nuns, especially those on the road, tend to fast more as a rule than western nuns. When breaking a fast, one doesn't want to put boiling hot water into one's stomach. Either use a cooler brew, or you let the tea cool a bit. Now I've done my share of fasting, and what happens is every one of your senses becomes more sharp. The first steep of this tea at a cool temp is a burst of chocolate, and I think the nun must have wept in delight.

Second steep.
Earlier this year I served this tea to my sister along with a light snack of grapes, goat cheese and crackers. She stopped mid-sentence while drinking the tea to say, "I think this is the best tea I've ever had in my life." My sister is the most beautiful person I know, and so I mailed her my extra package of this tea. She is the only person on the planet for whom I would part with my stock of this favorite tea.

Author's lovely sister, in Jordan, 2014
In any case, this tea calls for a cooler temp and a light hand on the gaiwan, and is gorgeous back-to-back with the Sejak, from salty to sweet. In later steeps an oolong plumminess is at the forefront. I think this tea goes very well with light summer fruits, veggies and rice but of course it is so lovely I drink it on its own. I could go on more about this tea but you can find an excellent tasting video from the guys over at TeaDB.

So now you know my Back-up Plan, in case drinking pu just isn't possible.

Requiescat in Pace.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

2015 Last Thoughts and Bitter Things

There's bitter feelings, bitter thoughts of you.
Oh, bitter things in life that have come true,
With never ending heartaches, never ending tears,
Bitter feelings and bitter thoughts of you.

"Bitter Feelings," Larry Lee Phillipson, 1959. On Cinch Records 3858 
and on
No Welcome Home, Live at Green Bay, Wisconsin May 24, 2010 NLT Records
2014 Last Thoughts is the tea I discussed on the very opening post of this blog. The tea fit with the theme of this tea drinker at the end of her life, drinking her way to the grave. I wonder if I'm tempting fate just a little bit by drinking the new 2015 Last Thoughts and then writing about it again this year. But then I thought no, the tea doesn't have to be entirely about me, only a little bit, and in truth the tea isn't about anyone except maybe clues in the writing by a madman on the wrapper. This is the top tier effort by white2tea and that madman who sent me a sample. Readers have been searching my blog already for a review so I should write about the tea.

Pretty baggie.
I think understanding the tea tier is important. This tier of tea is not something which can be picked fresh upon request. It isn't sold by the roadside along with a bottle of water. You can't get it from the farmer or anyone else by asking. In fact, you can't even buy it. At all. The tea is acquired, as opposed to simply purchased. God only knows what Twodog or any other vendor these days goes through in order to acquire this tier of tea, because really all of it has been essentially spoken for and locked down by other investors for years now. So what happens is a little bit gets held somewhere, by someone, and you have to not only find it, but convince the person holding to part with it and pay the premium. And I'm certain the price is more than money, but about something else, and we won't be told. Tweets during the time period stamped on the neifei are a bit about relationships, single malt scotch and bourbon, but these hints are vague at best. Bitter things, no doubt.

Photo white2tea.com
My point here is that when approaching the tea, you'll notice some browning already which suggests that the date on the neifei is the pressing date and the picking date is unknown. This tier of tea is harvested and then hidden away, as opposed to picked fresh the day of sale. Maybe it changed hands already a couple times. And word of mouth saying "I know someone who knows someone who has got what you're looking for." Information is a premium, and you pay a big price for bitter thoughts too.

A sniff session is a must.
So you're darned right I'm gonna spend an entire evening just sniffing the tea in my cha he. In fact I'm not ready to drink it until I'm sure I've got rid of the people in the house, and the cat and everything demanding my attention. If you own this tea, you've paid a premium yourself with hard work, hard-earned pay  and the full treat is to sit down and enjoy without interruption. All these little bits are how I tune into this tier of tea, and I must have snorted when sniffing the cha he because a few bits fly out onto the floor and I quickly scramble to pick them up. So I'm probably brewing cat hair anyway. More bitter things.

First steep on boiling water over about 5 grams. And I drank the rinses, or should I say, I skipped the rinse. A bit of dry storage in the rinses, the tea appears to be a mix of fresher buds and some stored tea. Last year was all gushu, and this year seems to be a blend of gushu with something else far older and more sinister. TwoDog seems to flavor blended gushu more and more from what I read by him on forums, and I have to agree. For I can pick up a fresh gushu like Chawangpu's fruity Hekai and call it a day, but for top tier I want a bit more of an unknown experience.

After getting down the two rinses plus what would normally be a first steeping for me, I broke out in a sweat. I noticed some heart palpitations going on which I haven't experienced on a tea since Camellia Sinensis' Hong Jing Tian shou with the rhodiola herb in it. Need to slow down a little. 200 ml or less and I'm easing back already, this tea has a kick of something going, caffeine plus...? dunno yet but I need a lie-down.

First steep after I drank two rinses.
Two hours later I have some yogurt and nuts and I'm back at it. Two more cups, about 175-200 ml total together. And again, the increased heart rate, sweating and something foggy about my head. I feel the tea in my stomach. The huigan is a real creeper, 10 minutes after the cups I am tasting nothing in particular but then a flower opens in my mouth of sweetness. I am looking around the room to try and find explanations for the sensations, ruling out things like food or meds. But I feel like how my cat looks after I give him wild catnip, he sniffs and starts playing with it and then he stops and stares with a wide-eyed look, as if he is not himself and suddenly realizes it. I feel a bit like I've taken half a tab of hydrocodone, which for some of you might be paracetamol with codeine and an aspirin in there too. And I feel it in my head, my throat and my stomach.

I keep thinking this cannot be possible, that I'm feeling like a lightweight with this tea. I know I haven't had as much time to drink tea lately, but I'm still drinking things like Korean sejak and black tea, and keeping up the caffeine with diet colas on hotter days too, and coffee in the morning. In fact, I drink caffeine all day. And it's only been five days since I finished off that Poundcake, a total of more than 10,000 ml in a 3 or 4 day session. I drank two of those Bonjour 920 ml pitchers back to back. Twice. There is no way tea should be affecting me like this. Listen, 200 ml should not be more than a slurp to Old Cwyn.

On Steepster, I see one of my Friends has tried the 2015 Last Thoughts, and I ask about parameters because this person has a rather short note with no mention of any particular effects. Turns out a rather healthy amount of tea was consumed. So maybe it is just me. But I need another lie-down.

Two hours later I have a protein shake with fresh fruit and veggies blended in. And then two more cups. 10 minutes later those two cups hit me again like a truck as before, the same symptoms. And the creeper huigan, no taste in my mouth and then the explosion of fruit and flowers. My head is disconnected and my heart rate up. I'm going into herbalist mode, thinking not of parameters but of dosages. This is Chinese medicine somehow. I usually need less medicine than most people because the effects of all medicines are strong, and my parameter on this tea means a smaller dosage here. I'm thinking 3g/100 ml for me rather than 5g/75ml. Regardless, I'm gonna push it on myself just a bit more and go for two more cups just 20 minutes after the last two.

At about 10 steepings.
This isn't the post I had planned. I was going to talk about the profile, the thick motor oil etc. etc. based on last year's Last Thoughts. I get the Yiwu top note, and hints of a Menghai flavor base just like last year, but I also get deeper flavors like aspirin and apple vinegar, what I mean is medicine. The tea isn't as thick as last year's, the buds are here but some other leaf has been blended this time. Huigan has that delay but is explosive. I just cannot understand how I can drink all that Poundcake and this Last Thoughts is now kicking my ass, like Dong Quai in vodka. I'm gonna grow a stubby nub sixth finger at the base of my pinkies and turn into Anne Boleyn and she was one bitter thang.

Next morning I start up again, two, well three cups this time. Same effects, I'm zombie-fied. Flavor now is stone fruits, still decent astringency and hot chili oil into the gullet. The tea is staring me down, saying "you're the girl who drank all that Poundcake, now we're gonna give you the what-for."

I might be hallucinating, but I think I see a cross.
The truth is, as an herbalist I focused more on tonics and a few womanly herbs, but I'm out of my depth with the effects this tea has. It would take a real Chinese medicine doctor to sort this one out, and anyone who is a doctor needs to order this tea for their patients...in tongs. Nevertheless I'm determined to steep this one out and hoard the rest. Of course the leaves are still going after 15 steeps. I just can't believe it, I don't remember last year's cake doing this to me. 3g/100ml is probably the ideal dose for me, and not a smidgen more. The tea that knocks out even Old Cwyn.

Around 15 steeps.
Naturally a few more cups in the afternoon at tea time. Ten minutes later of course I'm back to a wild-eyed stare and my mother-in-law asks what's wrong with me. I tell her about high-end, old arbor tea.

"Do you tell your doctor about this tea you're drinking?" she asks.

"If I did that she'd fire me as a patient."

"You should drink tea bags from the grocery store."

And there we have it. See, this here is why I started out with the photo of Larry Lee Phillipson. Phillipson is an old-timer Wisconsin rockabilly lead singer who lives in my home town. Like TwoDog, Phillipson spent his youth jumping on the back of trains and hopping off at farms looking for work. In between that, Larry pressed his musical vinyl discs, just as today when TwoDog presses musical tea discs. You can rely on one thing from your family here in Wisconsin when you come home with Achievements, like Larry from Nashville with "Bitter Feelings" and Twodog from Yunnan with "Last Thoughts." You can count on "No Welcome Home" and someone always acknowledging greatness with "yah okay, now sit down and eat yer peas."

train tracks...oh, bitter things and bitter thoughts of you.

Note: the video poster spelled the name wrong. And the song is original.

Thursday, June 18, 2015


I didn't get my tea review done this week.

But I have excuses! Lately I've been sleeping out on the porch with my sheng crocks. Young people think sleeping outside is a swell idea but the truth is, it's a lot of work. I have never understood the thrill unless the whole point is to pee anywhere you want and give up on bathing. No, I'm in a forced situation at the moment living on my porch because my Former mother-in-law Hildegarde has come to stay for at least a month. Yeppers, Former is past tense and Come to Stay is, alas, present tense.

Facts first. The time period I spent living together with Hildegarde's son was:

A. Limited, and
B. more than 20 years ago. And then we have
C. She has multiple real and actual children to go stay with, including a set of Twins, but
D. She is here at my house instead, and finally
E. She's older than me. By a lot. Which means she's really really old. And she pees even more often than I do which hardly seems possible, but I can assure you it's true. And that means I had to give up my room and sleep on the porch.

Hildegarde lives with my Ex, in a city over 75 miles away which is where she is supposed to be right now. But Dear Ex has decided to head off to the Philippines to meet up with some floozy he met online. He likes Asian girls. I found this out once when he was broke and I let him use my graduate school free ISP addy, and saw the Meet Asian Girls websites pop up under the search bar.

"You can't do that, I could get fired from the university," I told him.

Back in those days the school started cracking down on the "porn at work" types. I wonder if they even bother nowadays.

"Get your own Internet," I said.

So he stopped for awhile in order to continue using my internet. But his interest in Asian Girls persisted. I developed a theory that I made the honorary cut onto the Asian Girl Meter when I was fresh out of the convent, but once with child I got disqualified from the virginal shojo by graduating into the well-seasoned Tiger Mom through very little fault of my own. And now you know what-all went down in that relationship. So it is that over 20 years later I'm required to look after his mother when he's meeting the latest online crush halfway across the world, all the while I'm sleeping out on the porch and re-reading David Hwang's "M. Butterfly."

My Ex and I are actually good friends. Mostly. We met a quarter century ago in an orchestra, where I was playing viola semi-professionally, and he played cello. Divinely. So there you have it. The relationship cost me the viola, no way my screechy weedy musical talent could survive next to a massive and lush magnolia cello talent. And even if mine had barely scraped on by, the final trampling underfoot would have trooped in later with our son's must-be-illegal-it's-beyond-unfair bassoon prodigy, and his scholarships to Aspen and Brevard. By then I was making a career in the theatre instead, and either I had a show, or the Ex had a concert, and one of us always had something going on. He and his mother still come over for holidays. I get to cook and wait on everyone.

The first thing Hildegarde says when she arrives: "I'll be drinking my own instant coffee and heating the water on the stove," which is code for "I'm not drinking that moldy basement tea you drink and I won't be using that Japanese water heater." I had to move out of my room since the spare rooms are upstairs and she can't climb up there. I can't climb up there either so that leaves me with the porch futon. And also huge worries for the tea budget. Now, Hildegarde has other children she could go stay with who have brilliant jobs, large houses and money. So why did she need to come stay with me, an old lady whose two nickels go to tea instead of food when possible?

"I can't carry on a conversation with my other children, " she says. "Half of them are Republicans."

None of this answers the issues around my tea budget after I am required to buy and install a shower bar over the tub.

"I'll take care of everything," my Ex said. He didn't.

Luckily I manage to barge into the Senior Center to successfully coerce a borrowed clip-on tub handle so that defrayed my costs somewhat. But that still leaves the question of where I'm going to get all that food she needs.

"I don't have any money until the end of the month," Hilde states firmly.

I double-check with my Ex.

"It's wrong," he tells me. "She doesn't have any money until the beginning of next month."

Swell, and she uses a lot of toilet paper too. Two days later we've also gone through 2 1/2 rolls of paper towels. My career as a Tea Speaker and Writer is getting more flimsy by the hour and I'm afraid to go and smell my mattress. Her idea of bladder control pads is to steal the blue squares from the doctor's office examination table and cut them up into pieces which fall out on the floor when she walks.

"I drink soy milk, not almond milk," is a typical response to queries about toilet-ing and a dig at what's in the fridge too in the very same sentence. "And I don't think that chair you put in the bathtub is going to work."

Had to move my teaware to the living room.
Even worse, she doesn't get around too good. Arthritis, bad feet, pacemaker, the list is long but after comparing medications I note with satisfaction that my list of meds is longer, hence I outdo her on one thing at least. Another thing, she needs a cane and preferably a rolling walker with a seat but she refuses to use any of these. I've tried explaining all the perks you get with using a cane or an even more obvious walker and what I get for my time on this issue is a change of subject. But so far I've tricked her into using the cane by bringing it along and then when I have to carry the shopping bags I make her take the cane, so we've worked that bit out for the moment.

Hildegarde doesn't entirely disapprove of my tea hoarding but she doesn't approve either.

"What do you need all that tea for," she remarks when another 2 kilos of tea samples arrive in the mail. "Where are you going to put it?"

Good question. Luckily I manage to find a couple of stoneware vases I've appropriated for tea but which aren't currently occupied.

"I don't drink much tea," she says. But she will drink it once in awhile. "I like tea bags," she notes pointedly when I'm crocking up my new acquisitions. Of course.

Aside from all this, we don't have much more to talk about that we haven't talked about a gazillion times over the past twenty years. I've made sure she's heard all my grievances on her son and she makes sure I've heard hers. My Ex is tired of both of us but with him in the Philippines, his vote no longer counts.

"I can't stand dirty dishes," she says. She wants the dishes done three times a day.

"The dish soap makes my hands break out," I counter.

"Not me," she replies. And proceeds to do the dishes anyway and then doesn't know where to put the half dry ones from earlier.

"I'll put them away later, once a day," I have better things to do like playing my Xbox. I'm not going to sit in front of the TV the rest of the day like she does.

"You should do these Word Search puzzles," yet more advice. These are "find and circle the word" puzzle books. I had to walk nearly 3 blocks in blazing heat to get her one of those books, since she couldn't be bothered to bring any from home.

Okay I think I've griped enough. A year ago my own Jewish mother passed away, a good 10 years younger than my German mother-in-law. I loved my mother deeply, but she didn't have much more than a passing interest in my life and wasn't around for the entire time my son was growing up. Whereas my mother-in-law helped raise him, and takes the time to carp at me about my health, when my own mother was too busy looking for young men to go out with. Yes, I am fond of my mother-in-law. I just need to remember that a million times a day for the next three weeks and hope my back holds out.

Requiescat in Pace.

Monday, June 15, 2015

A Few Wrapper Metrics

Ever since white2tea announced the decision to go region-free this year with their tea labels, I've been thinking about changes like this and how they will affect us as tea buyers. Leaving regions out of the labeling reflects the reality that tea cakes are usually a blend of teas and mostly not from the same village. It also signals a departure from the dishonesty that abounds in the tea business as a whole, where faking tea origins happens as a regular practice. In a sense, foregoing region labels altogether is a step toward more honesty because white2tea wants buyers to know that even vendors can't always be 100% sure of the tea they are buying. Tea leaf gets transported from less popular areas to villages that will get top dollar for that leaf. But region-free labeling is also a step away from transparency which is something that we tea drinkers need.

A completely honest teacake should look like this.

Budget Tier.

Maybe not so much.


Okay, so personal taste but at least we know, right?

Absolute transparency.

Tea drinkers always have cats, so a best seller might be:

My dad's Lhasa Apso Blossom actually had a credit card.
Just imagine the thousands of teacakes with names like this. Setting aside the far-fetched and not-so-far-fetched for the moment, let's consider what the market would be like if the tea business suddenly got honest. If you are looking at tea in 2020, how will you know which tea is worth your money?

Top Tier, no samples.
Surely you'd pay big bucks for any of these cakes. But the current tea cake market situation suggests you need to trust your vendor. Implicitly. Because you know they will do anything to sell you tea. Most tea heads buy from vendors whom they believe they can trust, but then trust is Relative to the individual, isn't it? We're in the Relativist Universe of tea. My friend George might buy his tea from his favorite EBay vendor that I wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole, but he trusts his vendor and he is fine with what he's buying. If that vendor says the tea is 1980s, well then he pays the asking fee and believes he has 1980s tea. I met my Tea Pimp in person, but not everyone has that opportunity, and nothing I say can possibly convey to anyone else any sense of my experience. Unless you trust me implicitly.

Thus tea is word-of-mouth recommendation, and one reason why tea blogs, review sites and videos remain relevant. Recommendations become even more important when or if tea labels become cartoons and decorations rather than actual information. But tea vendors have tried real information in this world and failed, and now nobody knows what Truth really is anymore. Might as well buy the cute wrapper from now on and hope for the best.

But culture always swings from Relativism to Objectivism. Hang around long enough and you'll swing both ways and back a few times. In a way, I view our current phase as the Relativist extreme. Recipe teas were at one time by far more objective and rational than they are today with so much faking going on. Now it's all about reputation, marketing and labeling. Another factor to add on is that making your own label teas is becoming easier to do via the internet. If you think we have too many vendors right now,  just wait 'til next year. I expect to see even more.

So where do we go from here? Is there any possible way to introduce a new system of more Objective data about tea, so that nobody has to buy my cat wrapper? We need Metrics for tea buying. Can you think of any wrapper metrics you'd like to see?

1. Spring, or Autumn, or Blend.

Done. Every tea must be labeled with one of these three, no others. Anything else like "pre-rain" or "before May" is therefore "do you believe it?" and "you're a sucker" marketing. I think most experienced puerh drinkers can tell the difference between seasons and can therefore judge a metric like this.

I'm going to forgo a metric for leaf grade because this leaves too much room for fudging in the marketplace.

2. Fresh

Current calendar year tea. In addition to Spring, Autumn, Blend. Your tea is Fresh if picked 100% and sold in the current calendar year. Anything in that cake from another calendar year means you can't use Fresh. You can still use Spring, Autumn or Blend, but not Fresh. People don't need much puerh experience to distinguish fresh from even 1 year of age, we have green and brown. Shou is not Fresh, just to distinguish the raw.

3. Whole leaves vs chopped.

Imagine someone daring to get really honest about this.

4. Number of steeps.

Now this one may vary in a single tea cake from year to year, but the worst I can think of with this metric is the vendor might have to *gasp* dig through that garage and try the tea every year. A single number of steeps isn't realistic, but how about a range? 5-10, 10-15, etc. This wouldn't prevent vendors from lying about the tea and simply offering a refund to unhappy customers who scream SNAD (significantly not as described). But it would give at least some idea how the price is justified. A tea that is still at a high price with a lower number of steeps must have some other qualification which justifies the price.

5. Bitter.

Well yes, every tea is bitter at some point, but not Bitter. I don't think this is necessarily relative to the individual with Puerh since there is a big difference between "drink now" cakes and the undrinkable except for those folks who like pu-nishment. Bitter suggests a cake for aging.

6. Craft.

Craft is a local or farm product. Now whole foods type people might assume that Craft is better than factory, but we know from teas like the Chawangpu Lao Yun that craft means completely smoked by a wood fire. Another craft product is bamboo-stuffed. On the other hand, factory teas might be more consistent, or cleaner. Wouldn't you like to know what you're getting?

7. Herbal Blend.

Anything that is not tea in the tea cake.

Now, we also have some Metrics that Old Cwyn finds personally useful, but perhaps highly Relative.

1. Laxative.

Okay, does it juice the sluice or not? Some days I need sheng to do a number on the number 2 and on other days I need to avoid it like the plague. Yunnan Sourcing: please label Dehong Purple Raw with Laxative. Mark it with a toilet stamp please.

2. Aphrodisiac.

Self-explanatory. I'd add in some more drawings here, but the nuns have found my blog as of this week. I'm expecting a letter in the mail any day.

3. Sticks.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. Sticks need to be boiled for at least 5 minutes to extract any flavor, and anyone who tells you otherwise is probably selling tea. These puppies can dislodge dentures.

4. Allan Keane (AK) Shou bricks above 500g.

We might as well just get this one added in honor of our friend. If you see a shou with these initials, it means store it away for the love of god and don't drink for ten years. After that, you'll have an exceptional shou.

Requiescat in Pace

Friday, June 12, 2015

Tea Sommelier

Last week I decided to apply for one of those hot Tea Sommelier jobs we see cropping up everywhere nowadays. Tea Sommelier seems like a perfect seventh career for me. Imagine spending your day doing nothing but brewing tea, drinking tea, shopping for tea online and drawing dirty cartoons for the company newsletter. Seems like businesses all over are now paying the Help good money for picking tea leaves out of the break-room drain and I don't want to miss out.

I figure my qualifications are as good as anyone else's. I can boast at least as much diarrhea from skanky border teas as the next fellow, maybe more given what I've been chugging lately. In fact, people are complaining to me about my recent recommendation to brew up an entire 20g Golden Melon shou tuo in one session, and seem aghast for some reason that I brewed up all 99 grams of Poundcake sheng. Which tells me that if this sort of drinking is knocking down the younger gens, then I must be the Keith Richards of Tea. So of course everyone wants to hire me. Nobody should risk company assets like CEO's and donut boys when the tea can be tested on a corner relic like Old Cwyn who is uninsurable anyway, the tea equivalent of a wooden cigar Indian parked out in front of the store. All the money I save the company will buy things like more blonde models for the corporate holiday party and upgrades to the next IPhone.

But I hit a bit of a snag when applying for my first job. You guessed it, the Human Resource office pre-screen. The purpose of Human Resource offices is to create online screening tools that nobody can possibly pass so they can avoid the tasks of answering the telephone and reading applications. Now if I were actually talking with a real person, of course they would know who I am and I could skip this part of the hiring process altogether. However, you can't get through to a real person until you complete the application. All is going well until I can't bypass the question of, "Do you have Certification as a Tea Master?" Still, I just go ahead and mark Yes anyway.

Next I must type in my certificate number and the place where I received my certification. I make up a number and then add the name of the nearest resort town. All seems well until I get an automated email saying my certificate number didn't check out. I reply that maybe I'd missed a digit somehow and I would dig out my certificate and get back to them. When an email to the CEO with an offer for a boozy lunch date doesn't materialize into anything tangible, I start looking around for a quick tea class. I'm certain once I spend a few minutes with a real Tea Master, he will see at once that I'm clearly qualified and I will test out of any further remaining studies and go straight to my certificate. After all I'm a Tea Writer already and so therefore Tea Master is a logical next step. Or would I be a Tea Mistress? In that case I'm surely pre-qualified because I've had more cakes of all ages in my bed than Marie Antoinette. But now I need to be both qualified and Bona Fide.

Luckily, tea classes are popping up all over which brings up the question of whether one course is as good as another. Apparently that is indeed the case, which tells me something about the whole racket already. So instead of paying the entire fee up front, I pay the "reserve a spot" $10 amount and figure I'll get a refund on that once I get there and wave my AARP card. With any luck they'll pay me just to stay.

The class is taking place in a town about a half hour's drive away, in one of those resort areas boasting a bunch of those spa-type hotels where People from Chicago visit in the summer so their kids can use the water slide while the adults get drunk. The Elk Hotel seems like a funny place to host a tea class. At this time of the year, the hotel mostly books locals for kids' birthday parties, alcohol recovery and off-the-grid gun conventions. Because I don't trust hotels in general, I brought some of my own tea along just in case. Still, the conference room appears fit for the occasion of a tea class, someone has set up mood lighting and Buddhist-y looking bamboo plants. I sign in and pick up my name tag, and the Registration gal says,

"Welcome to The Elk Hotel Tea certification conference. My, you're certainly an...older student. Have you been here before?"

I feel like bringing up the gun conventions, but that might be a bit of a mood kill, so I just nod.

"The rest room is just around the corner to the left," she chirps, clearly because older ladies pee all the time. "I'll need the rest of your $300 registration fee as well."

"Oh, I left my checkbook in the car."

I brandish my cane and sigh tiredly to emphasize how clearly too winded I am at the moment to make any effort besides sitting down.

The Tea Master looks surprisingly normal in a suit, not too expensive, and rather disappointing. I want to see the flowing robes and whatnot that I will earn the right to wear after paying good money for this class. After all, people won't think you have any special esoteric knowledge unless you are wearing some sort of costume. But he has on a pink tie. I don't know how I'm supposed to impress the corporate types as a Tea Mistress without an appropriate outfit. Then again, I can always just throw on my academic attire or perhaps the Franciscan nun's habit if I'm feeling frisky. Check Outfit off my list of must-haves for the new job.

Naturally the class starts with meditation because we can't possibly brew tea otherwise. I play along, even though I've already done my meditation today in the car while driving. Obviously the Master thinks none of us novices have the requisite number of Oms in yet, and then too the gods always find ways to punish me whenever I'm anxious to get on with it in terms of tea. This is why, if you simply must drink tea with other people, you should be the person in control of the gaiwan.

Mr. Tea Master begins a brewing demonstration. And it...can't be...but it is...Nuclear Green Oolong. Seriously, this is what the Tea Master is drinking? Not even an aged Dong Ding for my $300 fee...well, my $10 fee at the moment, because I'm not going to pay a dime more unless and until he coughs up some of the good stuff. I didn't drive all this way for nothing. But evidently this green oolong is his personal specialty. The Master explains his reasoning.

"Fresh tea. Always serve fresh tea to your patrons. Is much more better when you buy from us."

Of course it is. And I had hoped to learn something useful, like whether Rave hairspray on tea tastes as good as Round Up in case my boss turns out to be an ass. The Tea Master goes around and fills our little cups. I sip mine and nod with the other suckers in the room and then dump the rest in the bamboo plant. Nothing is more disillusioning than when the people you hope to admire exhibit an enthusiasm for aesthetics you passed by two decades ago, and nothing is so reassuring as when the snake oil game remains so deceptively simple.

The day continues with lectures on tea types and brewing techniques. At one point I must have fallen asleep from low caffeine because Registration Girl has to wake me up for the short break, as if she is worried I'm going to tinkle on the chair. I make sure to look too drowsy to get up, which isn't hard to do. The final lecture rounds out with our Dear Leader wanting to meet with us individually, to see if we scrubs are worthy of the Tea Master title. Nothing to worry about for me, so I sit back behind the invisible barbed wire trying to look Busy and important by pecking at the arrow keys on my clamshell phone, careful not to use any of the 24.3 prepaid minutes left.

Then the first lady up for her qualifier returns to the group and informs the rest of us that the test is on brewing technique, but we can choose the technique we're best at. A few people heave sighs of relief. The man sitting next to me says he is worried because he's never brewed tea before.

"Hello and welcome, I think you're the oldest student here today," says the Tea Master. "I noticed your presence in the back of the room."

"Yeah. I get that a lot." It comes with being a Personage instead of just a Person.

"You intentionally waited until last. Perhaps you think of yourself as something of a standout."

"Well, kinda."

The Tea Master waits expectantly.

"One time my ex-husband wanted to meet Mstislav Rostropovich after a concert," I say. "So I just made myself stick out in the crowd and sure enough he came right on over."

"I see. Are you someone who intends to stand out?"

Clearly he wants to peck away at my ego. The nuns tried that on me too. I explain I am up for a big job as a Tea Sommelier and am hoping to get it, leaving out the part about lying on the application.

"But you were snoring during the Brewing Basics lecture."

He has the face for it, I'll give him that.

"I haven't had enough tea yet today."

"And what sort of tea is your specialty?" he asks.

"Mostly I drink pu-erh tea. Sheng. You know, the raw stuff."

"Ah yes. So you must be proficient at gong fu brew technique."

I hold up my tea stained fingers to prove it.

"Do you know how to remove these stains? If not, I can teach you," he suggests cryptically, in what obviously is a test question.

"Normally I use athlete's foot spray which works pretty well, but I ran out and didn't feel like paying 8 bucks for another can."

"Hm." A blank look. "Well, perhaps we should get on with the questions."

"Of course."

"So what other types of tea do you drink besides sheng pu-erh?"

"Uh..." I can feel a Fail coming on.

"Never mind, what would you like to demonstrate for your final exam?" He's ready to be rid of me.

"How about we steep out my '05 Naka and see who is still standing?"

"As you wish." A very agreeable man.

I set up what looks like a 200 ml gaiwan. With this size I will need at least 20 grams of Naka, but 30 seems better and then I sweep in the crumbs so as not to leave a mess. The Tea Master doesn't have a waste bowl because he doesn't rinse any of his teas. So I go ahead and use the trash can.

"Minimal need for a strainer, very good," the Master approves.

"I usually just chew."

He gives a pained look.

"Well, I had to quit smoking," I explain.

Line 'em up, pour 'em neat, knock 'em back just like a bartender and that ought to get any tea head a job. Five rounds in.

"Very nice," says the Tea Master. "I am satisfied with your technique."

"But we've only just got the storage off."

"You're fine."

"I don't think so."

After pouring three more rounds I can tell he's wanting to leave.

"A few more sir, we're just now getting to the actual tea."

Another three rounds, the tea is really opening up. I try and offer the gaiwan so he can appreciate the big fat leaves, but he appears a little slow. Just a couple more steeps now...

"Thank you, but I really must...I'll be right back," says the Tea Master.

He heads off in the direction of the rest room and then trips on the bamboo display.

"Uncle!" Registration Girl jumps to his aid.

"I'm quite all right, thank you." Woozy.

She takes his arm and escorts him to the rest room. Fifteen minutes later she returns.

"I just checked on the Master and he's staring at himself in the mirror with his pants down."

"Oh, I'm sorry. Is he sick?"

"I don't know. What on earth did you give him?"

"Just tea. Want some?" I'm not wasting a $300/beeng tea.


Two more rounds for the road. I dump the leaves out into a napkin and then in my purse to save for later. I feel I deserve the gaiwan too, and so I tuck it away as well. Then Reggie Girl says the Tea Master will mail me my certificate, and she walks over to hand me a slip of paper with the number on it to use for my job application.

"We will require the remainder of your fee."

"I really do have to pee now. You wouldn't want the hotel to think you're responsible for the upholstery."

In the stall I listen to Reggie trying to get the Tea Master out of the men's room. I wonder if she helps him zip up. I best skedaddle now that I have my certificate number in hand and get back home to my stash because I'm feeling the Naka wearing off already.

A few days later my certificate arrives. Proudly, I show it to my daughter. I've been talking up this new job with her for a couple of weeks now.

"No one is going to hire you," she says.

"Of course they will." She likes to be negative with me.

"Mom. You wear boxer shorts and slippers all day long. Your idea of dress-up is pulling on a nylon sweat suit before driving to the grocery store."

I'm miffed. "It's about the tea, not about what I look like!"

She enjoys inflicting these petty tortures on her elderly parent, which I keep track of for the county, but she has a point. More shopping. I spend some time at Kohl's online looking at bras and men's briefs before navigating over to see what's new at Yunnan Sourcing. After all, I need to keep up on my tea knowledge now. I use the opportunity to buy a few shou cakes since the daughter thinks I'm buying clothes with her credit card.

Later on during my nap time I dream about a corner office and custom stone tea table desk with real hose drainage. A cute young guy in a pink tie dinner jacket and no pants serves as my secretary. No doubt in my mind this is meant to be.

So if you need a real Tea Sommelier, you know who to call.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

99 Grams of Poundcake from white2tea

this shape and I have a past.
I hadn't planned on reviewing the new white2tea Poundcake gourd but it is a week already since it arrived and no one else has. The gourd is just such an enticing shape I can think of several uses for it. Originally I thought I'd pass on reviewing this since I have no way in hell of breaking this thing apart. Recently I got a pick injury trying to pry apart a tiny sample, so I worry over the dangers I might face. But what the hell, I might as well brew it on top of my car.

30 sauerkraut jar
Now I'm not just about doing crazy shit for the blog. I did my research. Early scuttlebutt on the Poundcake is the first three steeps are incredible. Seems reasonable to me therefore that I want those steeps as long and as large as possible. So the only solution here is to steep the whole 99 grams at once. Sometimes you gotta go big or go home, baby.

A wise teapot choice, the double-wall.
Big tea calls for big equipment so I drag out a Bonjour borosilicate double-walled 30 oz honker. I don't have a gong bei this size, so instead I am using a 30 oz sauerkraut jar which luckily nestles my strainer quite nicely. Right away I can see that I am going to need to refill and heat the kettle for each steeping. I start out with two rinses and photographed the second one because I don't think I want to stop for photos on a real steep.

None for the neighbors.
Steep number one I use about around 20 oz of water and get a bright yellow brew. I therefore have about 4 cups of first steeping. The brew is entirely honey sweet with no bitterness whatsoever, and notes of nutmeg and cloves, suggesting that "cake" image the tea is named for, and the motor oil thickness that all of white2tea's house label productions seem to give me.

First steep of oily goodness.
So yeah. I drank the entire first steep in one go. I have sheng literally down to the inside of my ankles. If I stand up now I will slosh. Really should be taking my time but instead I gulp the whole thing. Now I'm sweating with dry mouth but not so dry that I need water. In fact I kinda want more. Thought I'd  wait til tomorrow for a second steep, but might as well keep going.

Rinse photo again.
Second steep I moved indoors to use my Zojirushi water heater which keeps my water just under boiling. I must remember to use my Bonjour pot on puerh shapes like this, sheng balls and whatnot. The double walled insulation really keeps the tea lightly steaming for a bit in between steeps which helps to open up the gourd. I really don't need to use a puerh pick after all. The tea is really starting to kick in now and I'm feeling decidedly woozy in a happy way.

Have you ever noticed when green tea really hits you that your eyesight improves? I don't know if this is the actual tea or the effect of hydrating the eyeballs. Or, in my case, floating the eyeballs. I check the scent on the leaves which is rather vegetal, a swampy vegetal since I'm brewing so much tea all at one time.

I've heard this tea will brew more bitter as time goes on and people are reporting a good ten steeps so far. I'm sure other reviewers will be there for you with deeper exploration than I'm providing here. I think the flavor really does have the sweetness of cake and suggests to me that Poundcake is one of those teas for people who really enjoy their young sheng, that the leaves are chosen for this particular flavor in their fresh state.

Right now I've got my Son posted for sale on EBay so I can afford all of the white2tea productions this year. So far a lot of lookers but no takers. In reading all of the Yunnan travel logs from western puerh vendors, I can say that Twodog spent more time in Yunnan sampling more young tea, drinking more alcohol with farmers, eating more insects, and plucking more lunch chickens than any other producer. You all know this is true. We've heard there is still one cake left to come in the 2015 Collection, and that a few of these gourds remain if you contact white2tea.

I'm glad I decided not to hoard the gourd and instead went all out for the huge brew pitcher, just like some people might drink lemonade or beer in the summertime. Come winter when I'm steeping away at shou, heicha and oolong teas I will have a wonderful summer memory of this huge pot of tea. As for now, you know what I will be drinking for the next five days while I steep this one out.

Requiescat in Pace.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Improving Character Recognition

Deciphering tea wrappers is one of the challenges all Tea Heads face. While some of us might choose to study Chinese or Japanese, the vast majority of us will spend our time pleasantly tea shopping until we hit a brick wall with the languages. Is there any way to improve our ability to read Chinese or Japanese without spending years studying the language?

The first difficulty we English speakers face is Visual Discrimination. Visual Discrimination is the ability to detect small differences in details between one item and another. Our language has only 26 letters, some of which aren't used very often, so our Visual Discrimination skills aren't very developed. Our worst problem in English lately is the correct choice between "their" and "there," and "your" and "you're." This issue is nothing compared to the seemingly tiny differences between Chinese characters, which contain huge differences in meaning. Until we can learn to SEE differences between characters, we can't begin to decipher them. The problem is, Chinese characters look like a mishmash to most English speakers.

Another problem is the abysmal pedagogy in self-taught books and online apps. These materials often start out in very unhelpful ways, either by focusing on tourist reading like renting an apartment, or the book goes straight into full sentences. And no matter how the books start out, they all end up relying on the same method of memorizing dozens of characters literally by rote, via flash cards or by smart apps which re-test on your mistakes. What the English speaker really needs is help in Visual Discrimination first, a method to decode what the characters are really about.

A hanzi or kanji character is really just a stylized picture of its meaning. These pictures started out on clay tablets, and the original Simplified form looked a lot more realistic. Later on, calligraphy and ink brushes led to characters looking like they do today. But the very early Simplified forms aren't so hard to distinguish and help make sense of what today's characters mean. And the Simplified forms are nearly the same as stylized Simplified characters you see on Tea Wrappers and Tea Ware stamps.

I'm going to recommend two small books which are a good introduction to someone who is interested in learning basic characters, and just to improve in ability to discern one character from another. The books cost a penny each on Amazon, which won't dent the tea budget. These books are: Understanding Kanji Characters by their Ancestral Forms, and Understanding Chinese Characters by their Ancestral Forms by Ping-gam Go. These books are only around 75 pages long, are excellent bathroom reading and you can open them to any page, any time. The Japanese Kanji book is a good first read because it spends more time on basic characters common between Japanese and Chinese. The Chinese book covers more complex ones. In addition, the Chinese book has a full section on Good Luck characters that you often see on teaware and other art works that we are likely to buy.

Here are some images to show you how the books work, and with images we avoid the problem of Character Encoding on internet browsers.


Notice how the head and arms were originally in the character, and over time the legs and part of the torso remain. Ink and brushes making straight lines allowed the character to be written quickly.


With the Simplified form of Woman, you can decode and interpret my silly cartoon at the top of the post.


Notice my red lines, how the Simplified version of Man is part of the character. The "grass" is the tips of the tea leaves above the man's head, and the bush itself is both above and below him.


How a smiley became a character. :D


Not so obvious, but easy to memorize.


Here we are building upon having learned Ten and Mouth. How word of mouth over time became a representation of Old. All of humanity's ancient texts including the Bible were passed by word of mouth for many generations before being written down.

Hui Gan.

Notice the words for "mouth" here, and something inside the mouth. Tea is held in the mouth, and then becomes "sweet." Hui is also means to return, to go back, to recollect thoughts we have held. So too the sweetness of tea is the memory of the initial bitterness. Here I can appreciate how these characters function as language and meaning together. In English, our word like "sweet" looks like sweet because we have learned to see the word's meaning. In Chinese characters, the words actually mean what we see, form and function.

The word Raw also means uncooked, and unprocessed and is taken from "green" and green comes from "earth." If you look up Green and Earth in the books or on Google, you can see how part of the character for green was adapted for the word Raw, which is pronounced "sheng." Again, form meets function.

This is a more complicated character, but it shows how simpler characters are stacked and arranged to produce a new character, and add to the meaning. This one is pronounced "shu." You can start to "take apart" the pieces of the character visually in order to get the meaning. Notice cooking is done over the "flames" of the fire, seeing this helps to remember the character.

Okay I got the Books, now what?

1) Chinese: I really like the app called Pleco, which is a user-friendly dictionary of sorts. Download Pleco and start typing in words. Try typing "raw" and "sheng" and "shu" and "cooked" and "green" and "Puer." Explore reading the results the app gives you. You can click/press on characters for more information.

2) Japanese: Get a Playstation 3 or 4. The controller has "smart" Japanese keyboarding built in. Press the Select button several times in a Chat box to see the Hiragana and Katakana alphabets. Typing in these will get you a list of characters on the Right to pick from. Use Google Translate to get both the Kanji and the Hiragana for the word "tea." Using the controller, type the Hiragana and see if you can find the character for Tea popping up in the list of choices. Pick up a game that is available in English and Japanese. Play the English one first, then the Japanese. Many people around the world play games in Japanese because the games aren't available in their own language, and because the online servers they have access to are Japanese.

Final Note.

Americans are often rightly criticized for lacking any ability or interest in languages apart from English. Now I don't speak Japanese or Chinese, but despite this we, and many people around the world, can learn to read a little of these languages in order to chat, play games, navigate websites and buy what we want on the internet. I've learned to type a basic conversation in a Japanese gaming room on the Playstation, and I've played Naked Avatar hide-and-seek with my Chinese guild mates online. While Japanese gamers are quick to boot English speakers out of an online gaming room, they are on the other hand warm and friendly to English people when you make even a small effort to cut-and-paste or type characters. You've improved your Visual Discrimination ability just a little bit by reading this post. Anything else you learn will allow you to meet even more Tea Nerds online, and make your tea hobby all the more enjoyable.

Example of one of the Good Luck character pages.
Everything I need to know.