; Cwyn's Death By Tea: November 2015 ;

Saturday, November 28, 2015

On Chinese Mandarin...it’s pu, silly.

Stuffed pu. Photo by createdrinkwrite.com

Oh, how tempting it is, looking at all the new citrus-stuffed puerh out there to buy, especially over the winter when local fresh veggies and fruits are difficult to find in my part of the world. Even worse are those massively plump grapefruits sitting in stores, reminding me of childhood boxes received from Texas and Florida where my father’s friends wintered and thought to send us the best of local citrus. I’m a huge lover of grapefruits, and haven’t had any now in more than two years.

No, you won’t be seeing any reviews of mandarin-stuffed puerh on my blog because alas I cannot have any. You’ll have to look elsewhere for lucky bloggers able to indulge at will. I’ve mentioned before that I cannot have this type of puerh, and since several people have asked for a specific explanation, I can clarify the medication interaction issue behind many citrus types which may hopefully inform others in the same non-citrus boat that I am.

I think most people are familiar with grapefruit juice as a caution for many medications. The issue that is very difficult to sort out when assessing other types of citrus is twofold: 1) the taxonomy of citrus fruit is not entirely clear, and 2) the specific piece of fruit staring you in the face may not be terribly clear either. Let’s start with taxonomy.

While citrus fruit in general is one of the oldest foods that humankind consumed, citrus has evolved, morphed, grafted and traveled its way all over the world, changing as it goes. The entire taxonomy of citrus and hybrids is a complicated business, and while a whole branch of taxonomy is dedicated to it. Complicated means something like this:

wut? (deviant art)
Even a scholar who has the potential to sort out this mess won’t have enough funds to do wide studies to work out every single type of fruit available. And, if you live in California or Arizona or some other southern state, you might have citrus in your own backyard that grew there well before you moved in.

Several fruits are on a parallel with each other. Oranges, lemons, grapefruits and pomelos appear to go back to original strains somewhere long in time in southeast Asia. Mandarin oranges are parallel to pomelo strains. Original mandarins are actually green skinned and not the orange skinned ones you find in the stores nowadays to eat around the holiday season. The Xinhua Mandarin grown in Yunnan may well have a number of varietals, but its ancestral relative is likely the pomelo or some grapefruit/pomelo hybrid.

I dunno what all these are, but Ruby takes my love to town. (www.cell.com)
These fruits contain what are called furanocoumarines, which are the culprits in citrus causing problems with drug interactions. “Furanocoumarin” sounds a lot like the blood thinner “coumadin,” and for a reason! Now, fruits vary a whole lot in the amount of furanocoumarin. Some fruits have a concentrated amount in the juice, some may have concentrations in the white pulp. One grapefruit or pomelo may vary a great deal from another grapefruit or pomelo. See the possibilities for a high degree of variability, and why it isn’t remotely possible to test every single piece of fruit?

Calcium channel blocker medications rely on the same enzymes for absorption and elimination that furanocoumarins love to bind with. Specifically, the enzyme known as CYP3A4 and located in the intestinal tract is responsible for slowly digesting and eliminating a calcium channel blocker medication. As with most medications, only a small amount of medicine in a pill you swallow actually gets absorbed and used by your body. Most of the medicine is removed and excreted, usually via urine at some point. Hence why we have issues with our water supplies, people are peeing out medications constantly and we have no idea how many of them are in tap water these days. But as for medication efficacy, pills are designed with elimination in mind, a dosage is based on how much your body will actually “get” once the absorption and elimination process is complete. Pill dosages rely on knowledge of how the body will get rid of most of the medicine and keep only the amount your body weight requires for the desired effect.

Unfortunately, our citrus fruits come along and interfere with this process by binding to the enzymes needed to process and eliminate most of the medicine. For example, I take Nifedipine, a calcium channel blocker designed to lower my blood pressure. I take a 24 hour extended release form of the pill. It goes into my intestine, then hangs on to the side of the intestine and sits there while the enzymes slowly work on the pill. Some of the medicine gets absorbed into my blood stream via the intestinal wall, this is the medicine I actually want to get. The rest of the pill gets worked on by the enzyme CYP3A4 and excreted. Let’s see a Pac Man version of what happens with my Nifedipine pill when I eat a citrus fruit containing furanocoumarin.

My gut on overstuffed Pu. The blue dots are CYP3A4 enzymes
In this cartoon, you can see that the citrus is binding up all the enzymes, leaving none for my nfd Nifedipine pill. That forces it to dissolve in the tract, going nowhere except into my blood stream since it is stuck in its pill state. This means that too much medicine hangs on in my body, and I can get a lethal dose of the medicine as a result. My blood pressure can fall so low as to be fatal. Even worse, this effect lasts for days. Up to five days later, because the citrus removed so much of the enzyme that my body will need nearly a week to make more. Now if I put yet another pill tomorrow into this situation, I can expect never to leave my bed again. You can see from the Pac Man who is going to win and it isn't my pill. 

But you might be thinking, what effect can a small piece of dried pomelo or mandarin possibly have? A small piece broken into a tea cup or a bit of juice in the tea surely cannot have that much of an effect. As a matter of fact, it can. First off, I don’t know how much furanocoumarin is in a particular piece of fruit. American doctors are working with information gained from readily available citrus to American consumers, such as Florida plantation citrus, or maybe Texas citrus. But this information relies on the product manufacturer to be honest. In general, orange juice might be okay, but how do I know that the maker didn’t sneak in some cheap grapefruit juice or pomelo as filler instead of 100% sweet and juicy navel oranges? I don’t know that.

If you live in the UK, your doctor may well tell you to avoid citrus altogether if you are taking a calcium channel blocker. And if you think “well this won’t be me,” think again. If you have African Caribbean descent, calcium channel blockers are an even more effective heart and blood pressure group of medications for you than for someone else, and a doctor will consider these first when you show up with your BP on the high side. 

I would love to ditch this Nifedipine and have a huge glass of grapefruit juice right now. In fact, I won’t allow any in the house because I can’t keep away from it. My mouth waters thinking about it. Even more difficult for me are the tempting photos of stuffed puerh teas. I have that little voice inside me saying “just a teensy, weensy little bit.” I rarely ignore that little voice. I even tried to rationalize saving money for tea by taking Nifedipine only once a week and drinking grapefruit juice on the other days. Nifedipine ain’t cheap. In fact it costs more than the damned stuffed puerhs.

I can imagine what my doctor might say, though, when she hears the idea of a Nifedipine/citrus cocktail and I know where that conversation will go, out the door along with my ass. As it is, she doesn’t know how much tea I drink. She knows the reading on the blood pressure monitor when I go into her office, and I know that look of satisfaction on her face when she determines she knows her medicine well. And she’s been a missionary doctor in Africa and takes no crap from this old nun, which is why I keep her. And why I take my pill as prescribed and avoid any funny business. This is the point when guessing on that citrus puerh is just not worth it for me.

So, you all enjoy your overstuffed puerh! 

I’ll be over here. By myself. Taking my pill.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Black and Blue Marks

Black and Blue Marks
Over the past week or so I’ve received a number of messages from people wondering where I’ve been and asking me to start writing more often. Attempting to do that now, but I want to put aside any concerns for my health, I’m doing fine at the moment. Lately I’ve been busy with a new job I’ve taken on. For several weeks, I couldn’t find the time and space to even drink tea. Moments like that never last long for me, and I’m back on the sauce with renewed interest. Unfortunately the job I’ve taken on, however, has left me rather devoid of humor lately which is why my writing is suffering.

My job involves managing Medicaid benefits and services for people with disabilities and frail elderly persons, and because of my long experience and credentials, the company tossed me some extremely difficult situations that one hardly can imagine in this day and age. For example, I am working for a deaf woman with almost no education and very limited signing, and even with ample funding, few resources exist in rural areas to assist in helping her become more independent in the community. And then I have a woman with rotting limbs, literally maggots eating her flesh and she doesn’t care enough for herself to get healed. Worst of all, another woman’s boyfriend has beaten her newborn baby almost to death, and I don’t know if the child will live. These situations are endlessly troubling, and while I can set aside time to drink some tea, I don’t have any humor at the moment to write with. All I have are black marks.

And one Blue Mark.

A couple of months ago, I got a sample of a 1990s Blue Mark tea in the mail from a Steepster friend, along with a few other favorites. He spoiled me with a big box, and now that cooler weather has arrived, the aged teas look mighty tasty. I’ve had my eye on this teacake ever since white2tea offered it back in 2014, I think. I see the Blue Mark is still available for purchase but for some reason my eyesight experienced a moment of blindness when trying to check out the price. My eye doctor confirmed the issue last week and told me “You can’t see!” and he ordered me some new glasses. I have to wait two weeks for my new Coke bottle lenses to arrive. So right now, ahem, I can’t possibly read the price tag for the 1997 Blue Mark and you’ll need to check it out for yourself.

I opened up the precious sample and dumped it into my presentation dish about two weeks ago. I weighed it out and now can’t remember what it weighed, maybe 8 grams. Oh, I saved a photo of the sample, so that tells me 7.5g, not bad for an eyeballing. I meant to start on this tea but then all my gaiwans had other teas waiting to be steeped out and I couldn’t possibly throw any of them away. Now with a gaiwan available, I pour two boiling water rinses and start in.

My friend drew a face only on this tea, with heart eyes.
This puerh tea has had some humid storage, but this type of storage is more what we call “natural storage.” Anyone living in a drier climate will smell a bit of mustiness like old books, but it is not the true wet compost-type storage that melts and fuses the leaves in the cake.  Not “on purpose” wet storage, but rather ordinary climate mild humidity over time. I doubt most people living in humid weather could notice this humidity, probably everything smells like this tea. But the musty is a little noticeable, and the effect of browning on the leaves quite noticeable. At first sniff, I wonder how long it has been since I had an aged tea with a bit of humidity. All summer long I’ve been drinking fresh puerh tea almost exclusively for the cooling and diuretic effects. Only recently the weather here has cooled to the point where I’m now setting aside my fresher teas and turning my attention to oolong and aged puerh.

The Blue Mark brews up crystal clear, and this is pure money, in a cup of topaz liquor with a ruby ring. None of the signs of bad wet storage, thick opaque brew or too much dust or swirling clouds of god only knows what. This tea displays aged results we aspire to with storage, obtaining this kind of clarity is the goal of goals. You can have the right wrapper, the right leaf, the best climate and storage solution and even then won’t know until 15 years on if you got it right.

Second steep after two rinses.
This tea is alive with sweetness and energy in the mouth, bits of florals and spices and honey, vanilla and root beer. I can see some big leaves in the gaiwan, so it’s not all about buying tea with mostly buds, these bigger leaves prove a mix of leaf is what we want for a good aging tea. Lots of humid teas out there to buy, but can I find any with liveliness left? Or has the tea wilted too much under the dampness leaving only graphite and a bit of wood flavor?

No filter, steep 8. Clarity = $$$
This tea is a long steeper. Other folks who have tried it report days of steeping. With older, browner teas, I have noticed that giving the leaf a rest overnight or for at least a few hours between steeps lets the water soak in and release more from the leaf. That tea spent nearly 20 years getting to this point, it needs time to stretch out and open again.

Big leaves, with browning of naturally humid climates.
Regardless if our teas are stored more wet or dry, this Blue Mark is an excellent benchmark to test out an example of exceptional storage. With it, I can compare my own teas: are my teas clear or cloudy? Do they taste sweet or merely neutral like wood or paper? Can I find flavors like fruits or spices in addition to the sweetness, indicating depth and dimension? If I can get results like this Blue Mark has, naturally I will become rich.

This tea is sold by the gram as well as the entire cake. I hope you have the chance to at least pick up a few grams of this tea to give yourself an idea of how an exceptionally stored tea looks and tastes. Thanks to my Steepster friend, I've had a chance to give this a try and I expect this will continue to steep out past the two days I've been drinking so far. Teas like this are not fussy to brew, one doesn’t need to mess with parameters to coax a decent cup, puerh tea with perfect storage will give it no matter how you brew. I’ve learned from this one that while leaf and wrapper may be important variables, my tea is only as good as my storage and maybe a few lucky fingers crossed.

Requiescat in Pace.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Put Up Wet

This year I’ve certainly enjoyed all of the 2015 puerh offerings I can cram into a gaiwan, working in between my budget and generous tea pals sending me samples of their favorites.  I seem to have developed a well-deserved reputation of the “gal who will drink anything for the sake of the blog.” However, I still very much feel that anything is better than what I drank for tea back in the previous century. In fact I have the same feeling about video games today, grateful for the incredible things I can play now because it ain’t a sprite running through trees, and I can tune out young people like my son complaining of pop-in as mere whiners. Of course an overall feeling of gratitude for any type of tea might render me a less than discriminating reviewer, but I’m okay with that. You can find picky in a million forums if that is what you require. Oddly enough, though, when I do get somewhat picky in my blog, a rare occasion, I need an umbrella aka email filter for the ensuing shit storm.

But after gratefully tasting a lot of teas this year, I don’t feel I’m too picky to say the tea is put up wet. A lot of vendors have told me that most of their buyers are drinking their teas right away instead of buying for the long haul, and so the western market focus may have shifted in the near and long term toward tea we drink right now as opposed to storing for later. And while I might be one of those short term buyers, given the few years I’ve got left to enjoy tea, I’m aware of the fact that an awful lot of puerh buyers sit back quietly acquiring tea for the long haul and aren’t posting their latest yum-yums on social media. And these folks have got to be thinking 2015 is one wet year. For unless you know a vendor who got in to Yunnan early, before the early April freak rains, and got their teas done in March, such as Crimson Lotus or Chawangshop, you’re probably storing up a few teas hoping they dry out and settle down before even thinking of trying them. And if you’re buying for the long haul, aside from a possible experimental tea like white2tea’s 72 Hours, long haul buyers might be sitting out 2015 altogether.

Looking back now at the drought years of 2013-2014, long haul buyers with a decent storage set-up might think these years are a bit more attractive than before. Especially if you look at what you can get now in aged teas, so many years are simply sold out. Last year I didn’t have much trouble finding a selection of ’01-’04, but I’m noticing just lately these years are getting tougher to find. What remains is a smattering of late ‘90s teas that have a reputation of being rather flat, perhaps just not aged in an ideal way, or perhaps the leaf wasn’t that great to begin with. The few tea cakes that are “known” collector buys like the last good years of ‘90s CNNP are crazy expensive. Then we find less and less available until the over-picked years 2005-2008, everyone seems to have a supply of these teas. Until something sticks out 10 years on, likely those years will still carry a bad rap associated with the puerh price bust.

Years 2009 and 2011 are tough to find decent sheng puerh available to buy anymore, though you can still find plenty of shou cakes, but even the decent Liu Bao from those years is already gone too. I know for a fact that the long haulers in puerh have already given up on sheng and are trying to dig up some overlooked Liu Bao or decent oolong. For others still at it, the only way I can see to go now is to take a look at the drought years 2013-2014 again while the teas are plentiful and still with reasonable prices.

You might say, well Cwyn, how do you know anything about 2013-14, because we don’t know anything about storage in the west and nobody outside of Malaysia can possibly store tea and expect anything decent from it? But you don’t know, either. No one does. So unless you have a buddy-buddy line to someone in Malaysia then you are in as good a position as anyone else to buy tea and store it yourself. Ten years from now we will see who is sitting on a good stash and decide then. I’m not convinced now that teas stored in the west bought from years 2004-2008 represent anywhere near a definitive opinion on western storage. And I don’t care who says otherwise, because I don’t see a decent sample stash of leaf that isn’t low grade factory crap. I am absolutely certain that the teas we can acquire in the west from the past two years are better quality leaf, period. So with sheng puerh buying and storage, in the west it is still anybody’s game.

So anyone new to the hobby who doesn’t know what to buy should feel as confident as anyone else at this juncture. The Newb and Long Hauler alike can look at the 2013-14 puerh teas in the $20-100 price range and make the same crapshoot with the same odds all around. At this point, one man’s unplugged refrigerator storage is as good as another man’s until we see otherwise, and in the end the whole decision may boil down to factors we simply cannot predict at the moment, except that leaf matters. And in this sense, I think the less rainy years of 2013-14 represent the best predictive variable that the long-hauler has right now with tea that is more concentrated and less wet when starting the storage process.

My slightly damaged wrapper cake.
My most recent jump-in was when Scott at Yunnan Sourcing put some 2014 Ai Lao mountain cakes up for sale with slightly damaged wrappers.To be honest, I’m certain I wouldn’t have noticed this tea but for the special due to the few damaged wrapper cakes. However, this tea has a bit of a storage track record already.

My wrappers end up like this anyway, it seems, wedged in the fridge.
Scott at Yunnan Sourcing confirmed that he has sold this blend from 2009 onward, and you can certainly purchase any of the past three years to compare them. This cake is a “blend” of varietals, and I thought I spotted the Taliensis varietal after having tried the 2013 Jinggu Taliensis over the summer (remember when my old mother in law was visiting?). The fuzzy buds are a giveaway and used here to add body to the tea, though Scott didn't confirm this observation on my part. Jingdong County borders the Wuliang region where Yunnan Sourcing gets a number of other cakes made. Both regions have teas which are characterized as strongly floral and fruity. This Ai Lao cake is no exception, the "white camellia" aroma sets it apart from Menghai teas.

Can you spot a red tea seed pod?
One of the main criticisms of floral/fruity teas from these areas is that they don’t hold up with age, that they are more “drink now” teas. But I wonder where this idea came from, is it likely that this idea came from a more humid climate, where teas will need to be strongly bitter to withstand the effects of high heat humidity? Or, do we know how the teas are stored at all? Are there Wuliang region teas stored in the west that have not been properly stored, with attention paid to humidity in drier regions? I really question such blanket generalizations when I read that people are indeed storing these teas in the west with a decent set up. 

The fuzzy buds and bits of older leaf show the blend used.
You can read reviews of the Ai Lao cakes on Steepster and see people like mrmopar, with his decent set up, who is storing the 2011 Ai Lao and he is not losing the floral and fruity quality of the tea at all. This tea can be purchased from the Yunnan Sourcing US site for $32, or $27 if you don't mind a damaged wrapper. MrMopar would have bought his back in 2011 for around $17. This tea costs more now, but not that much. And certainly worth the $27 for a bit more education and 400g worth of experimentation on my part. Worth the effort too to buy a cake that others have purchased and see how mine will stack up against the storage of someone else, and start to develop a record of conversation and data.

Certificate of pesticide testing is in the wrapper.
The 2014 version is plenty strong, in my opinion, at least in the astringency department and I pushed 11 grams here to make sure I could taste how bitter this is in addition to the very nice floral notes. I noticed that after two cups of 11 grams my heart rate increased dramatically and I backed off continuing that first session until later on. After a half hour or so, my heart rate slowed and I had a strong salivation effect in my mouth. This tea is plenty strong. Of course if you want to store Bulang and get a very bitter tea sweet by pushing humidity, then by all means. But why would anyone want to push a nice floral tea, when simply providing a decent storage of 60-70% humidity will keep the cake as it is, and age it more slowly to work out the astringency and bitterness without destroying the subtleties in the leaf with constant, intense basement-type  humidity?

Such pretty leaf.

Perhaps different leaf is appropriate for different climates. We need bitter teas for places like Hong Kong and Thailand where high humidity works on the tea and retains flavor. More delicate teas perhaps won’t hold up to such treatment. This is not to say that a highly humid climate is “better” overall. Instead, it seems like common sense to me to consider each tea for what it is, and give each tea the treatment that is required.

Thick first steep, not much char in the gaiwan.
Fuzz on the buds will turn to dust when removing tea,
and show in the cup as a bit cloudy.
So, check your teas that you bought this year and see if you find additional water in the leaf and then taste what happens over the course of the year. Revisiting 2013-2014 for strong age-r’s is worth doing now while the prices are favorable and these teas are now rested. Many people are setting up storage solutions, and taking each tea into consideration is one factor when determining how to store the tea. I am going to consider purchasing a few more teas that my friends have bought to continue a longer term conversation about storage and add to the notes we already have.