; Cwyn's Death By Tea: Testing the Crock Shou...Again ;

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


  1. Where do we sign up for samples of "Ol' Pole" shu? I'll sign the necessary waivers!:D

    More seriously, thogh, thanks for the blog, as another midwest pu fan your storage stories are invaluable.

    1. Hey thanks for stopping by! The two samples I have are spoken for but I am hoping to make more this year sometime.