; Cwyn's Death By Tea: April 2016 ;

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Bowels, Bingdao and Bosch: Exploring Nuances of Huang Pian

Tea and Cwyn
You know where it's been.
Lately we are seeing more tea vendors adding huang pian bricks to their catalog. I can think of various pros and cons for buying and drinking an entire brick of huang pian, older leaves from further down the tea bush than the newer spring leaves that most buyers want. One wonders if the higher prices of decent maocha are a reason for some vendors to turn to huang pian. When first flush spring tea is hard to afford, buying older tree leaves is a more wallet-friendly alternative. 

On the flip side, successful aging of various puerh beeng recipes is sometimes attributed to the addition of huang pian in the blend. That is, a few of those older leaves tossed into a blend adds some darker depth and complexity to the brightness of younger tea. I think I agree with this idea, because very green buds and leaves are the bitter component which we definitely want, but a bit of huang pian carries a mellow and somewhat aged aspect already which is less likely to change in a bad way over time. And then we read about the notion of tea farmers saving huang pian for themselves to drink, because it doesn’t bring the prices that the younger tea will. Maybe too huang pian is a bit easier on the stomach. But do I want to drink a whole brick of huang pian? And, how much am I willing to pay?  

Of course, one can take huang pian, pile ferment it and call it border tea. Off it goes to Tibet and other regions as a dietary supplement. I’m a fan of border teas and other heicha, and I think persons over 50 are the best people to appreciate heicha. I read an article by a young journalist covering a visit from the Dalai Lama to London, and the young person expressed some disappointment that His Holiness merely talked about his successful morning bowel movements, and not something more edifying. But to an older person, the question of “how are you today?” has mostly everything to do with how your digestion is working, and having a good void is saying “I’m fine, thanks,” and meaning it. Young folks get assistance from nature with their digestion because nature is working overtime on their behalf. A cup of heicha to an older person, on the other hand, spells relief without Ex-lax. So of course heicha will taste better, and have some measurable effect on us old folks and as far as I’m concerned, all puerh huang pian should be pile fermented for me. I don’t care what you young people want, because my dump is more important by far than your taste buds. In fact, I think I have just talked myself out of even finishing this blog piece.

But I’ll plug along and persevere, as the nuns would say, and offer it up, all my suffering on your behalf or for the poor souls lingering in some unknown limbo or in reality trying to get off the loo. Gonna keep real though, because huang pian is something we puerh drinkers acquire by accident, not something we set out to actually buy. Right?

I recently got another sample of 2014 Bingdao Laozhai huang pian from Wymm Tea when I purchased a sheaf of mulberry papers for re-wrapping puerh cakes. Wymm Tea actually is one of the few places you can buy correctly sized puerh paper to replace worn out wrappers. I did some research, and while you can find craft quality paper easy enough, and for low prices, this involves cutting it yourself and creating some waste which in the end drives up your cost. 

Mulberry Papers folded in half and rolled
from WymmTea
You can always ask a tea vendor for any extra papers, but then you’re likely to get used wrappers with some other tea label already stamped on. But Wymm sells plain papers at 50 cents a sheet. Twenty sheets only set me back by $10. While I was at it, I tossed a cake of 2014 Mengku huang pian into my cart for $38 which is pretty high for 250g huang pian. This is how I got the sample of a pricier 2014 Bingdao, which rings in at a whopping $58/250g. The Mengku went straight into storage where it will probably never see the light of day. In fact, it will undergo experiments which the Commission for Tea Plant Rights will object to strenuously as tea torture.

Sunshine in a cup: 2014 Bingdao huang pian by Wymm Tea
So, I went ahead and drank the 2014 Bingdao sample instead. Now, I’ve had this tea before. The sample arrived last time with some sort of perfume scent in the box which got me going on spas and marketing to a certain type of woman. The brick cost $58 a year ago, same as today. Looking at what little I actually wrote about the tea, I see no reason to change to my assessment of the flavor notes, but I did enjoy the Bingdao more this time around. I get that premium northern floral and grape, and the tea has a decent motor oil thickness for a good eight steeps
Seems like my sample this time is going a bit longer, and isn’t done at eight, perhaps the tea has settled and lost enough water over the past year to extend the number of brews I’m getting now. The tea is quite pleasant, fruity, but I feel like I’m drinking a straight up green tea, the notes are singular for the most part. While I can steep this longer, I’m getting a little bored, which is a problem with huang pian and ultimately with spending money on it. At the $58/250g price range, I’m well toward a decent cake of spring tea. The $38 Mengku I bought, while still pricey, is still in bamboo, gone into storage and I’m missing out on tasting it. But I won’t be curious about it for awhile. I’ll just mark the $58 Bingdao as “better huang pian” and call it a day, because it probably IS better than the cheaper Mengku. Two days of it didn’t help my constipation much, this tea is rather mellow, better for skinny nymphettes half my age on a fast maybe, but not thicker yang broads like me. Let me leave no doubt which is which.

Video for kitty wells woman half my age video▶ 2:30

(YouTube won't let me embed this one, but trust me, it's worth it to click)

Enough old news for now. As I say, we puerh collectors acquire huang pian rather than look to buy, so here is the one many of us acquired recently, the 2016 Fade from white2tea. If you don’t own one of these, then you aren’t in the tea club and if you drink puerh you need to ask yourself why not. Especially now that spring tea season is upon us, we are sure to get something special in the coming months from TwoDog’s tea traipsing to Yunnan.

2016 Fade huang pian by white2tea
Now, here is what I mean about traipsing. I don’t know what those Wymm-en have to do to get their tea, but I have some idea of what TwoDog does and traipsing involves no small amount of mountain hiking with a bottle of Wild Turkey in hand, and a willingness to eat insects and wring chicken necks. 

Do you have what it takes to be a tea vendor?
Doesn’t this just open your floorboards? Apparently it works on tea farmers, and might work on me if I were a woman half my age. People have asked me what TwoDog looks like, since he doesn’t like to show himself online and I’ve met him a couple times. In truth, he is an elf. And I took the time for you people to work out a close-up of approximately what he looks like without violating his “no photograph” rule. I can’t remember if he has green or blue eyes but then I was tea drunk at the time.

A portrait of TwoDog, image by Cwyn, aided by Bioware/EA
The 2016 Fade cake is apparently inspired by some rap album which I can guarantee you in no way compares to Kitty Wells. And I know for a fact those young rappers have nowhere near the amount of canning in the cupboards that a real man requires. So I can ignore the w-rapper.

Darker sunshine 2016 Fade
In the cup, I detect the source material easily which was revealed by white2tea as huang pian from the Bosch and Last Thoughts productions of last year. Bosch is especially noticeable, the bassy dark notes like left hand chords on the piano. This is a very obvious contrast to the Bingdao which is much lighter and singular, more treble with flowery fruit. Fade is also motor oil thick in early steeps, but with more bitterness and much more astringency, although I reserve astringency for your judgment since my palate, and my bowels (domo arigato Mr. Gyatso), are affected by water-drying medications. 

Fade is the darker whiskey to Wymm’s sunshine fruit cocktail. Bosch itself is a tea for lying around and a-voiding, one that demands much attention. My chipped off sample here doesn’t remind me of Last Thoughts, but then that tea is all about the bud anyway. But if TwoDog says it’s in there, then it’s in there. The resemblance is muted, and the name Fade does rather make sense on its own, given that these leaves are not the full explosive mouth experience of the original cakes. Nor would I expect them to be like the cakes, not at this price point.

Side-by-side, 2014 Bingdao (left) and 2016 Fade (right)
And that’s the real kicker here, what will I pay for huang pian? Fade rings in at $24.50/200g, almost half the price of the Bingdao. And less still than the $38/250g Mengku I bought from Wymm just “because” I tossed it in my cart when buying mulberry papers. The differences between the teas are almost not worth noting because the price point is the biggest discrepancy. Fade leaves are more leathery, require boiling water pushing, but not much more so than the Bingdao. Both teas have about 8 steeps, huang pian doesn’t go much further.

Fade is a must-have if you missed out on Bosch especially. You can appreciate the same subtle notes here, though muted from the original. Given the source material and price point, I think the Fade is worth going heavy unless you’re strongly committed to buying only the top cakes at this point in your collecting. As a storage junkie, I am using my club-acquired Fade brick as an experimental control sample, and I bought a tong of bricks for my laboratorial punishment. ‘Nuff said. Still, I wouldn’t rule Wymm out, they recently acquired some DXS bricks that might be worth a try, yet again another region sourced to death where full spring cakes may be unaffordable, faked or simply unavailable. Overall, I am not likely to go too far out of my way to acquire huang pian. Fade is an unusual commitment from me for lesser quality puerh leaves, and very unlikely without already owning the original cake material and receiving one brick through the tea club.

What do you think of huang pian? I’m sure the vendors who have invested in huang pian are interested in your feedback.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Testing the Crock Shou...Again

Made my own shou and lived to tell about it.
You might remember back in January 2015 I began a shou fermentation project using a vintage stoneware bread bowl and a quantity of “gushu/dashu” I received from a vendor. If you haven’t read about the project, you can follow this link. The original project went about 5 weeks. I posted updates during the 5 weeks to show how the tea progressed. I also infused the tea with 2014 Last Thoughts tea near the end, following a research paper I discussed in one of the updates. Then, after the tea dried back out, I completed a taste-n-toss of the leaves, and thereafter determined to try the tea at six months intervals. My last tasting was back in September 2015, and due again recently in March 2016. So, this post is now a month overdue, although not entirely so because I began a session of the shou only two weeks late, and continued over another two week period hoping to completely steep out the tea and get some photos of the brew as it begins to fade.

Unfortunately, I was not able to fully steep out the tea due to my schedule. Believe it or not, I was still brewing the tea as recently as two days ago to try and get to that point of fading. If you’ve ever kept tea leaves over a period of days you know they start to get a bit slimy. Mostly I can avoid this problem because I’m assisted by the still-dry weather of my climate. In fact, we have fire watches this time of year because the air is windy and dry, and ground foliage dead from last year has a high chance of catching fire until replaced with new spring growth. The weather forecasts are for 20-25% relative humidity. The air is so dry now that rain forming in the Dakotas evaporates trying to get here. So, this gives you an idea how I am able to keep a gaiwan of damp tea leaves sitting out for two weeks and not form mold. But the leaves do start to break down a bit from firm to fairly soft and this can yield muckiness and cloudiness to a brew, even though the tea is perfectly safe to drink. Not helpful, however, when the point of drinking my shou this long was to get some photos of un-mucky tea!

Thus, I ended up tossing the leaves at some point past 12 steeps. And forgot to take a photo.

Now admittedly 12 steeps aren’t so very many, but I skipped a night or two along the two week period to drink other teas based on my physical requirements and one evening I did not arrive home at all until too late to want anything except sleep. I’m sad, however, because this tea had a lot left to give past twelve steeps and only reached a 30 second brew time, nowhere near close to finishing up. Not to mention the boiling in a pan part at the end that I missed completely. Oh well. This tea is stored in a vintage glazed ceramic vase, of all things, covered with a small plate, or with a napkin around the top of the vase during more humid weather just to keep dust off. I measured out about 6 grams of tea and brewed in about 100 ml boiling water, starting with more like 80 ml and adding water as the tea rehydrated. Tossed the first two rinses.

Piping hot, first steep after two rinses.
I definitely want boiling water on each steep of this.
The last time I tasted this tea, I got a bit of graphite and not much else. I didn’t expect much change in the tea after only another six months, and if anything I expected fading. Surprisingly the brew this time yielded much more flavor and in fact the first few steeps had a bitter edge, likely due to the addition of the 2014 Last Thoughts infusion. Another six months in more humid air and perhaps the bitter edge might integrate a bit more if it is indeed not intrinsic to the leaf. I went heavy on the fermentation of the leaf, and the dark almost black color of the wet leaves shows it.

Steep 5
The flavor of the first five steepings was a wet wood, with fermentation flavor like most other shou teas. I got a chicory flavor, and hints of that chocolate cherry I had hoped might remain in the tea. But I can only catch these tastes in the first seven steeps, along with the bitter edge. I also got a lot of caffeine in the first five, and had to stop my initial session at that point as I felt quite jittery. Normally I’m something of a heavy weight with caffeine, but I brewed on fairly strong parameters with less than 100 ml on a couple of those first few steepings. I feel as if the tea will be much better in another six months both in clearing out more of the fermentation flavor which dominates the tea right now, and in integrating the remaining bitterness which might bring forth those nicer, more subtle flavors. Maybe summer humidity this year might be enough. Or maybe the whole lot will just fade out more. Hard to predict what can happen now.

Past seven steeps, I got mainly wet wood and more fermentation though the graphite notes are still there. I really think it’s my water, and filtering the water doesn’t remove all the minerals in the water. I don’t have very high minerals in my local water, not even enough to create much scale on tea kettles, but I notice the flavor consistently in other teas I brew, enough obviously to taste it. Local spring waters here are likely to contain even higher amounts of trace mineral, therefore buying water won’t give me much of a change. I can’t complain about my local water quality because I live on the edge of the Wisconsin sand plain. The water table lies below sand and shale layers overall, and my town has a river and swampy areas that are connected to drainage systems for the large glacial lake nearby.

Steep 7
Tea people sometimes tell me now that they associate me with crock storage. I want to emphasize how this way of storing tea is not related to practices anywhere other than those coming directly from my ecosystem, and from my genetic ancestors with their farming practices over centuries of time. In order to survive in the winter, we learned to ferment vegetables in stoneware crocks. We cured meats. We did this in order to maintain the requirements of the body for Vitamin C and to digest meat fats. Alaskan natives did not ferment vegetables in such quantity or at all, however they discovered that the layer of fat just under the skin of whales contains necessary nutrients, found later to be Vitamin C. People survive on local practices which have sound reasoning, even if we might forget that reasoning today.

It is not I who decided anything about crock storage, but my ancestors who decided it for me. Like my father with his huge crocks of sauerkraut moldering away in the hallway, his horseradish grinding that stank up the house, fermented fish and pickles in jars every year even with last year’s still lining the cupboards. In my family, whether or not a fermentation project turns out well is always a matter of opinion. I raved about my aunt Alvina’s dill cucumber pickles, the best I’ve ever had even to this day. “Oh don’t eat those,” she’d say after I cracked open a jar and start crunching away at those fantastic pickles, “they’re not very good.” One year my dad made a huge weekend production of homemade root beer. He bought brown bottles and even a corking machine. Well that root beer of his didn’t just ferment to make carbon dioxide effervescence, the whole batch turned into alcohol and actual beer! Recently I saw for sale at a grocery store “root beer ale” and thought of Dad’s root beer gone bad, now it sells for a premium sum. A matter of perception!

Likewise, our perceptions of fermented tea may be related to all kinds of cultural tastes. For me, fermented tea fits in perfectly with my cultural food traditions. And like my aunt making pickles every year whether they got eaten or not has that kind of illogic of old ladies gardening acres of vegetables for no reason other than they’ve always done it. My dad got an advanced degree and worked so hard to get away from his farming childhood, but he couldn’t let a spring go by without planting acres of squash or something not possible to even pick much less eat all of it. For me, I think I’m at the point where the process of fermenting tea is more interesting even than drinking it, and like my aunt I’m piling up crocks of tea just to look at them. I think the tea smells and tastes quite lively, but I’m doing all this for me, no one else, and because I’m fkkn crazy.

So people should not really associate me with crock storage, not entirely, because I’m past the point now of making any logical sense of what I’m doing. If you come to my house, instead of pickles you’ll find crocks of tea. When you try and drink any I’ll say “Oh don’t drink that, it not good for you” and I will dig around for an oolong or some such. I will, however, recommend using a stoneware crock to keep tea from drying out and to air and restore tea you might’ve left too long in a dry cupboard or in plastic bags. In truth, crocks need attending at least somewhat, no storage is a miracle when left alone, not even open air in humid climates. But if you have an aunt somewhere in your past who got a little crazy with her cooking and her food was the best you ever had, why then, to you my friend I recommend crock storage wholeheartedly, and pray your aunties whisper in your ear.

Requiescat in Pace

An Old Polish Tea Woman