; Cwyn's Death By Tea: May 2016 ;

Monday, May 30, 2016

A Bit About Shipping

Today I’m feeling inspired to write a bit about shipping, following yet another face-palm moment when a tea head wrote “I would’ve ordered that cake but the shipping was too expensive.” I know a fair bit about shipping, not just as a buyer but as an online seller. The number of packages I’ve shipped over the past decade is in the thousands. To prove that, I suppose I’d have to give you both my EBay handle and my Amazon handle. And then I’d have to admit you into the online seller’s forum on EBay where I have been a moderator for the past nine years. Now, I’m not an EBay moderator because I love EBay. I don’t really love EBay, it is just that I’m damn good at selling there.

At one point, I was the largest EBay powerseller in the entire southwestern quarter of the state. I started doing consignment selling when people emailed to tell me they’d researched other sellers nearly an hour away to sell their stuff, but no one else had the numbers I did. So I got a lot of business from people looking to sell off their stashes of whatever they owned and couldn’t be bothered to sell it themselves. Doing big numbers on EBay and Amazon is a game, an ever-changing game, and shipping is a big part of the game. In fact, shipping can make or break your numbers. Shipping is also mind-numbingly boring, and I got so burnt out on shipping that I can’t stand selling online anymore in the volume I once did. I still sell, mainly because at this point it’s so easy that even when I’m working a full time job I can still pull in a decent part time living on top of whatever else I’m doing. I just can’t handle shipping more than one day a week. I hate it that much.

Tea heads have funny ideas about shipping, at least from my perspective. But that isn’t anyone’s fault because you all have been trained in those ideas from EBay and Amazon, from the game that sellers play. Buyers have been trained to think that Free Shipping is really free. The reason for this, is because too many sellers are selling the same items, and the profit margin is all in the volume of selling they are doing, not the profit mark-up per item.

So-called “penny dealers” once made a profit from selling 99 cent items plus shipping, and made their money in the shipping; EBay and Amazon only calculated fees on the item price, not the shipping price. To combat the penny dealers, online venues termed this as “fee avoidance,” and encouraged buyers to report on sellers who padded shipping to avoid fees. But sellers knock out penny dealers all the time, all you need is a buying ID and you can report your competition for fee avoidance without retaliation. Penny dealers nowadays are mostly Chinese sellers doing volume in low price items. Selling a $1 item is not profitable because of the shipping cost, but if you spread that out over tens of thousands of sales, you make a very small margin of profit. A tough game to win and outside of China you can’t win the penny game anymore.

Likewise, Amazon trained buyers in the notion of “free” shipping. It worked so well that now Amazon gets away with selling subscriptions for their “Free Shipping.” Amazon created a single $3.99 price for “regular” shipping, a system where you could make money if your item is small enough to ship for less, or lose money if the real cost is higher. Amazon favors itself by offering Free Shipping above a certain purchase amount, but recently raised that amount to make you buy more, or pay for Prime Shipping. I can tell you that Amazon has never been able to deliver a package to my door in 2 days and neither can anyone else.

For a number of years, a seller could get ahead in shipping by comparing the cost of services. UPS versus Post Office versus Fed Ex versus EMS, on and on. All that worked until each of the for-profit services started contracting with the post office to deliver their packages, a system which prevails today. My local post office receives nearly 500 Amazon packages every Monday for my small town, these are Prime Shipping packages which Amazon sends directly by their own trucks to post offices. UPS packages also are delivered by post office and vice versa.

Buyers are trained in Free Shipping by online vendors in two ways. One way is to give the impression that Free Shipping is the best deal. Then, after seeing Free Shipping often enough, buyers now think that Free Shipping is mandatory. The truth is, the real deal may be a combination of the item cost and shipping cost, and Free Shipping isn’t always the best deal.

A most successful seller is the one who has a complete monopoly on their items. If you sell unique items, things nobody else has, you can avoid playing the shipping game entirely if people want what you have. But in the tea world, the monopoly seller is not necessarily unusual. Plenty of tea sellers have teas that no one else sells. The competition is in the sheer number of tea vendors. Too many vendors have items no one else has. Rarely does the buyer have the option to cross-check teas among several vendors, unless you’re savvy about wholesale suppliers. But let’s assume that we do have the option to buy the same tea from several different vendors, and the one difference is shipping cost. It’s easy to compare when everyone offers Free Shipping, but not so when the shipping isn’t free.

First, let’s get some perspective on what shipping actually costs today. When I started shipping, we didn’t have the Priority Flat Rate box. As I recall, the first Flat Rate Box (not envelope) cost $4.60. Today that same box is $6.45. This small box might hold a 200g brick or small samples. Of course most vendors use an envelope for small orders, and take the risk that the tea doesn’t arrive crushed or the buyer doesn’t care the tea is crushed.

A medium flat rate box cost in the $8 range when I started using it, but now is a whopping $13.45 base rate. The base rate is higher at the post office nowadays because of online discounting, you can get Medium flat rate for as low as $9.95 or maybe even lower than that if you look around.

When I sell today, I mostly sell unique items. I don’t have another item to sell if my shipping goes south. Also, the cost of shipping for me depends upon where the item is going. Generally, I offer Free or Flat Rate shipping only because it saves me time and headaches. If I’m having a bad day, I’ll eat shipping by choosing a better box because I don’t want to hear that the item got damaged. Free Shipping allows me to choose the box size. I add in the cost of the shipping to the final price minus fees for selling. So the shipping looks free to the buyer, but is actually in the cost of the item. In the case of my t-shirts, the buyer who lives one state over from me is paying more, but the person from Europe is paying far less. Is that fair? Maybe not, but in the end I merely break even on shipping and that’s the truth.

The Weight/Box size game.

Most sellers play a weight versus box size game. This is a game that favors the seller over the long haul when the seller has many of the same items to sell. It is NOT a game for the seller of unique items because you can’t ship a new one when the buyer complains. But to some extent, tea packages are different sizes for each sale, so buyers and sellers end up playing a weight/box size game whether you want to or not.

Figuring out the cheapest shipping really comes down to the actual package, the weight and size of the box. If you play the weight and box size game, you end up shipping fragile items in too-small boxes and packages arrive with shipping damage. As a tea buyer, you surely know all too well how many packages you get with damaged tea items because the seller skimped on the box and the padding. The seller is playing the shipping game using weight x box size. He pays a lower price to make another buck or two and you get damaged goods. Skimping on the box favors the sellers over the long run, because the few damaged boxes requiring reshipping, refunds, or even better a coupon to make that buyer come back costs that seller less than using a decent box plus padding on every order.

A reasonable shipping cost for average puerh tea orders, worldwide, is in the range of $10-20 today.

Free Shipping versus Paid Shipping

1.      Choose Free Shipping if you’re willing to risk your items arriving damaged.
2.      Choose Free Shipping if another seller has the same tea, but charges extra to ship. If you order cheap shou or Fu bricks, you can find sellers willing to ship these free.
3.      Paid Shipping: divide the total shipping cost by the number of items.

A tong contains 5 cakes, total shipping is $20. Therefore the cost per cake is $4.

But shipped normally a single cake will cost $7-10 to ship. So that $20 shipping fee for a tong is actually less than if you bought each cake separately.

4.      Take slow boat shipping every time. Especially if you paid via Paypal. It might take longer, but the seller will have to replace your box or refund you if your tea doesn’t arrive.
5.      EMS is not better shipping, it is just faster. Mostly. Sellers will still skimp on the box size and weight.  Shipping cargo is the same whether you pick slow boat or packed on a plane. The result is ships and planes are over-stuffed and piled high, your tea is damaged or arrives fine either way.

The 2kg weight myth.

Some buyers have found that the price of their tea box flattens out as you approach the 2 kg weight mark. However, this is often due to where the tea buyer lives. If you live near one of the coasts, this might be true, but if you live in Europe or the middle of the US, that 2 kg number may not be accurate for your mental calculations.

 “The cost of the shipping is the same as the cost of the tea.”

Well sure, if you’re buying cheap tea. Let me tell you something. If your tea costs the same as the shipping, you might as well buy tea from EBay or from within your own country because the quality of what you are buying isn’t worth ordering special from overseas. I can guarantee you that you get just as “good” crap tea from free shippers on EBay or Aliexpress, and you might as well order from them. For decent tea, expect to pay shipping.

Premium Packaging

Nowadays we are seeing new puerh vendors design premium boxes made of wood or cardboard drawers, along with special wrapping papers. As a seller I’m looking to maximize my profit. Even though some packaging materials cost less today than in the past (like tape), as a seller I dumpster dove my boxes and bought tape in bulk. Any packaging you have to buy cuts your profit. I see a lot of tea vendors spending money on special boxes and wrappers, and I know they are all new at this game. Or they get their tea for free from Aunt Minnie. Or they hope that they can win so many buyers that all the investment in packaging will pay off. Cosmetics sales are all about packaging, the actual cosmetic costs very little, the package sells and the package design is what buyers pay for. Some tea vendors confuse cosmetics with tea. 

While buyers do indeed appreciate lovely packaging, those sellers are taking a bath. Trust me. They love their brand more than making money. Maybe they just love selling tea and don’t care about money. That’s fine, but they won’t make a decent living using premium packaging. On top of the cost for the fancy packaging, the final cost for shipping is even higher because the carton is heavier and larger, thus losing in the weight/box size game. Most vendors using fancy packaging will go out of business in short order.

Flat Rate Shipping

This is, all around, the best deal for tea buyers. I hear people complaining all the time about the flat rate sellers, such as White2Tea who charges $14.99 flat rate no matter how much or how little you buy. While $14.99 may not be a deal if you order a single sample, a single tea cake or more actually costs more to ship than this if you want your tea to arrive intact, but this flat rate is usually less. Remember that Priority Medium boxes WITHIN the states are currently $13.45, and they don’t hold tongs. They don’t even hold more than one full size cake (decently bubble wrapped).

The Shipping Quote may not be the final price

This is true for sites like Chawangshop. When you add teas to the cart, the calculator makes a shipping estimate. But you don’t pay your bill from the checkout. You have to wait for Chawangshop to actually package the tea. The final total for me is always lower than the quote. Generally, my boxed tea orders run around $19, still within the reasonable range of $10-20. Then I divide the number of items I ordered. If I ordered 5 items, the shipping cost per item is under $4, quite a decent deal.

I recently bought a sleeve of 5 tuos at $4 each from Chawangshop. The shipping cost was $20. In this case, the shipping did cost the same as the tea. Now, if Chawangshop added the cost of shipping into the tuos, each would cost $9. Nine dollars for a tuo is still reasonable, when you look at the cost of a tuo from around the net. So they could choose to sell that tuo for $9 plus free shipping. I might be a buyer who is attracted to the free shipping, and I might click Buy on that $9 tuo simply because the shipping is free. But I also recognize that the $4 tuo with $5 to ship is still reasonable because I can do the math. The real clincher is nobody else has that same tuo. Unique won, but so did the shipping because anyone living closer to China got that tuo for even less than I paid.

What to Take Away from This

Shipping favors the sellers.

Free is not necessarily the best deal.

Shipping charges per item cost less from China than shipped from within the states.

Flat Rate is usually a deal.

$10-20 for shipping is a good range for most packages from overseas.

You can always get a refund.

If shipping cost bothers you, there’s always loose leaf.

Friday, May 27, 2016

2016 Bitter Tits

2016 Yiwu from Bitterleaf Teas
Finally we have a new spring puerh! As many of you puerh hogs know, this year Yunnan experienced unusually cold weather and even frosts and snow! All of that colder weather pushed back the growth of older tea trees later in the spring. Along with this, vendors likewise appear to be pushing back somewhat against the trend of releasing tea cakes early, perhaps as a response to last year’s wetter teas which required a longer period of rest. So my first puerh in for this new year is a cake personalized for Old Cwyn by Bitterleaf Teas, so I’ll call it 2016 Bitter Tits.

Tear at 3 o'clock. For those who read analog clocks.
My new titty tea is a purchase in response to an offer from Bitterleaf Teas several months ago on Steepster. For just $34.50 I could get a full 357g cake with my own custom neifei! Now how can I possibly resist a deal like this? Well I can’t. Some of my Steepster friends don’t have anything they can use for a custom neifei, but naturally I have plenty already designed using my own personal forefinger in Art Studio for IPad. I didn’t mind coughing up $34.50 for my own tea cake as it saves me a trip to Yunnan this year. And I got several samples along with my cake, quite a surprise making this even more of a value.

Personalized for Old Cwyn
The wrapper itself is one of the best designs I’ve seen. Who doesn’t love a chain smoking monkey with a uni-tit? The only downer is someone else’s name on the wrapper. I don’t know who Kelly Puissegur is. Or how to pronounce it. Kitty Pussy-grr. Meow. The guy who emailed me used the name Jonah. I suppose I could maybe email again and find out, but I’m the end consumer here and this is supposed to be my personalized cake. Whatever, the smoking monkey is cool enough I can let that slide. Also, the wrapper arrived with a tear on the back from the sharp edges inside the cardboard box, yet another small disappointment simply because the wrapper is a keeper otherwise. I guess I can cut out the monkey at some point and paste it onto a spare wrapper, assuming I’m not too arthritic when I have to use a scissors. At least my son can take me to the hospital if I have an accident, yet another instance in the world of ours where old people are overlooked even in the small details of life.

Wetness of the pressing more obvious on the under-side.
I haven’t ordered anything from Bitterleaf Teas before, and didn’t even have this new company on my radar. In fact, their little marketing ploy is probably the only one that can sucker me in at this point, especially when I really don’t need another Yiwu cake. Still, I do need spring tea and the weather is certainly warm enough here that I don’t feel like drinking warming teas like shou or heicha. The date stamp on the wrapper is 25 April 2016, and I received it on 27 May, so the tea is really fresh. And not brown like some other so-called “spring” teas we know of…

A mix of leaf grade.
In fact, this cake is really wet. The leaves are blackish green and tough to chip off this compressed cake right now. In another month or two the tea will likely dry out some more and loosen up a little bit. I managed to pry off 7g from the under-side, careful to preserve my personal neifei on the front, but then threw my back out in the process. One of life’s little trials I must offer up for the day.

I went with 95C on the temp for the water, as I don’t want the tea to turn to mush. Right now this is really what I’d call “green tea,” as opposed to fully rested puerh so hitting it with boiling water is too cruel. The leaves are smallish, as are the tiny twigs I can see, suggesting we have a young plantation cake. In the hohin I can smell a strong mint and lemon, along with the usual Yiwu honey.

Second steeping
First cup is rather unremarkable as a green steeping, the tea opens much more on steep 2 when I took this photo. I popped an Advil Liqui-gel capsule for my back and continued. Steep 3 is highly bitter, a strong plus for a tea going into a collection of rather sweet Yiwu teas. I’m starting to prefer my teas more bitter, I think the more bitter teas are likely to resist fading.

The cooling mint profile shows up in the throat, and the tea is bitter sweet and sour lemons. Lingers on the upper back of the palate, not very long in the legs but I don’t expect legginess in a plantation tea and certainly not one with a naked old lady for a neifei singing in the tune of $34 and Change. What I’m glad about is that I don’t see any padding with taliensis leaf, so the thickness belongs to the main profile rather than added leaf.

Leaves after about 4 steeps.
I’m also glad to note that the processing here is top notch. Not a hint of char in the strainer and no smoky taste whatsoever. This is the reason I prefer to buy teas from sourcing vendors rather than large factory productions. I find that the sourness of charred tea bothers me more and more, it is just an aesthetics issue for me. I want to taste the tea and not the processing. Smaller vendors sourcing their own tea oversee the processing themselves for the most part. For these vendors, their business has a great deal riding on the smaller productions they can afford to purchase. They can’t afford to pick out decent leaf and then end up with poor processing.

Steep 6 is a bit sweeter, the huigan is beginning to kick in, and the throat is still very cooling. Stronger clover honey scent now the tea is opening up. Steep 7 is more green liquid and vegetal in the cup, I think dropping the water temp now is probably a good thing with tea this fresh. I’m going to keep going at 95C because I’m lazy but I will guess the tea is starting to cook at this temp. In a few months when the cake dries out, the tea will withstand the higher temps much better. The tea gives 10 decent steepings with regard to flavor but again the tea is suffering my punishing temps so I’ll stop for now.

                          In case you missed it and want to borrow it.
I think in the early days of trying this tea that Bitterleaf’s 2016 Bitter Tits Yiwu...errr,..Limited Production Yiwu, sits very solidly at $0.10/gram with other teas at $0.25/gram. So I mean that this 357g cake at $34.50 compares very well with 200g cakes in the $50 range. It doesn’t of course represent high end Yiwu, but as a solid drinker and one for aging, the cake has what it takes. And of course with my image on it, this tea is a no-fail.  Even better, Jonah was kind enough to enclose a few other samples along with my purchase, a couple of puerh samples and a black tea. I’ll try and get those up soon on Steepster.


Saturday, May 21, 2016

2011 Xiao Jin Gua Sheng

Well, 2010 really. This tea goes by the conventions of sheng nomenclature attributing the tea to the pressing time rather than the harvest. I scored this cute little 237g melon for $38 when picking up some accessories from Verdant Tea, I’m especially fond of their Yunnan bamboo strainers and decided I needed one for every type of tea. But even more happily, Verdant puerh stocks are rather full, perhaps the whole marketing fiasco of the 1800 year old puerh slowed the pu fanatics from shopping there. I continue to pray that more tea companies fall out of favor with buyers because that means more tea for me. I’m ever so grateful to you tea “monks” leaving room for us tea psychopaths, lacking any tea morals, to prey on the unclaimed stocks left behind.

Nice diaper wrapping.
Verdant Tea mainly sells puerh from the Mt. Ailao/Simao region and has since 2012. This happy little melon is an autumn tea, and while I don’t have a whole lot of autumn puerh in my collection, once in awhile I’ll pick up a little bit because I know that the tea is easy to drink compared to its spring counterpart. Whether I drink it or not isn’t the point, the objective is to hoard anyway, so a tea getting lost in my piles is just fine by me. I don’t exactly have many melons in my lot either. Verdant describes the tea as spicy with cinnamon rum type of flavors, and the tea has browned already in just six years.

Okay so a melon beeng hole is a little pucker at the top.
I chipped off 9 grams for about 100 ml of water, usually I will go heavy on autumn leaf. Hit it with boiling water and smelled nothing at all other than mineral heat. This tea is very much asleep. It was happy clinging to the heavily compressed melon shape and not at all ready to come apart and go swimming. With two rinses done, I poured out steeps 1 and 2 into a cup together.

Honest. Sort of. Scratch the old.
The smell in the gaiwan is a bit apricot-y like a Menghai tuo, though the tea is Mt. Ailao in origin, and very slightly smoky but not much. Smells like an ordinary puerh in the gaiwan. 

Autumn puerh leaves.
In the cup I didn’t taste much from the first two steepings poured together. But then 5 minutes after a good gulp with not much flavor, a massive huigan hit my tongue. Hard. My mouth filled up with sweetness, like the after effect of eating licorice. During my Vegan days I ate a lot of Panda licorice because it contains iron, something that as a vegan female I needed to have in my diet someplace if I’m not eating beef. This huigan reminds me very much of Panda licorice with the lingering sweet aftertaste. Not easy to find Panda licorice where I live now, but once in awhile I come across it and pick up a box. If you’re vegan Panda is a super sweet treat, if not then you might miss the sugar since it is sweetened with molasses.

photo by worldharvestfoods.com
Steep 3 of the tea is bitter, I’m finally getting some flavor here. The tea is waking up. Steep 4 is tongue-curling bitter, a very welcome sign that I made a good purchase and promptly went online to order another melon. Even more explosive huigan in these two steepings, I could swear I just ate half a box of Panda. I kept sniffing the gaiwan because the scent is still just like ordinary puerh. If the tea were a spring tea, I’d expect a very pungent, bitter and smoky cup based on the smell alone, but the autumn tea is much more forgiving. I don’t find the bitterness unpleasant or difficult to drink, other people might though.

First few steeps are brownish, later steeps are more a lighter yellow.
Long legs in the stomach, not very thick in the brew, but cooling on the tongue and I get a bit of sweat and heat in my body. Not that I need any more heat, guess I’ll save this tea for fall and winter. My hands are hot now as I type. I’m a Yang person, someone Yin might be just comfortable but my ring is tighter on my too-warm finger. My mouth is somewhat dry so I break for water. I sniff the cup not smelling much of anything, very often my strong puerh teas leave a honey fragrance behind, but I guess autumn tea doesn’t have that full thickness of spring. 

At steep 8, the green tea youth has emerged, but still potent.
The Verdant description of the tea is cinnamon-raisin-rum and spicy, I get that mostly in the warm effect that spices have on the body, not so much in the flavor. The huigan here is so intense with 9 grams and bitterness left to age. I don’t care what this tastes like, with this kind of huigan and heat I can see why the guy who pressed this hoarded it for five years and still kept ten melons for himself when he sold the rest to Verdant. The tea is still going at 8 steeps and 30 seconds of steep time, and still bitter.

So my advice here to you tea heads is absolutely, positively, stay away from Verdant Tea. And keep your mitts off this melon, the website only allows me to order one at a time. Thank you.

Now, half of you are sitting there having read TeaDB’s piece this weekend on drinking your stash. I think the point of it was to tell people to drink their good teas, but I found a slur in there against the semi-aged tuo like the one I’m drinking right now. And this type of thinking is what I see all over the net these days. People have a yearning for a mythical tea, LBZ or whatever, maybe something they actually own or something they tried once and for whatever reason the tea of today just doesn’t cut it. The leaf ain’t as good, or people just aren’t excited anymore because their heyday of when everything tasted better is long gone.

I have to ask, what do people want? I don’t know anyone who holds the exact same collection of teas as anyone else. And the tuo I just discussed is actually sold out now because I bought the last one. So you can’t even have what I’m writing about here.  Or you might feel disillusioned with Old Cwyn because she is sitting here drinking a $30 tuo from a horrible company. I feel that some people expect that as time goes on, tea experience should get better and better, but maybe with your evolved palate the experience actually gets worse. Fewer teas satisfy and for you nobody is excited anymore, at least not the same people who were five years ago. So what do people want, five, seven years later? Tea is going to be limited in what it gives, and tea just isn't the ultimate aesthetic experience in life. Kind of like how sex is great is your 20s and 30s and then it isn't that aesthetic experience anymore. If you can still stand your partner at all, they have nevertheless evolved into a survival buddy as much as anything else. Your partner isn't LBZ, they are, at best, a semi aged tuo. And if your partner was LBZ before, time and storage maybe didn't sit so well, and now you feel like you got stuck with a dud and want something else.

So, what does a person want at this point? Will you be that 50 year old guy dating a young 20 year old chick again? Does that work or does she take your money and run like Heather Graham? Maybe all that we can expect from tea is what you can get from a decent semi aged tuo or LBZ with bad processing and mediocre storage. But even if someone else has something better, there is no real way to get what he has. At least not for the poor man who is ugly and has no connections. And it is just tea anyway.

So he says often enough, "if I had money I'd buy a tong of this" but then a month or a year later he doesn't like the tea anymore. Maybe that is why people don't drink what they have because a year later they don't like it. I doubt it is all just about the palate evolving, but rather that the disappointment stays the same. People forget in their arguments of Starbucks over Petes that the real alternative that exists in reality and is accessible to them is Folgers. Or for a better tea analogy, if all I can have is EBay, or Verdant Tea, and every other option for buying tea goes away, well I'd be fine with that. It is just tea we are talking about, not a school for my children.

Well anyway. At some point I'm going to be accused of not having enough of a discriminating palate. But I don't need Michaelangelo every day to find a painting to look at. And I don't need Shakespeare just to go to the theatre, I'm fine with "Guys on Ice" (a local Wisconsin musical). My point is, I've been to the Royal Shakespeare, I’ve produced Tracy Letts and rambled my way onstage through Lanford Wilson. And because of that, I can enjoy the Necedah Community Theatre Rabbit play for what it is rather than bewailing what it isn't. After all, the ticket only cost me $5, not $85. I don't feel deprived of any less aesthetically because I realize I don't need to eat prime rib on a daily basis to be happy. I don’t feel deprived of good tea simply because right now I’m choosing to drink a pretty decent semi-aged tuo. I’ve had great tea and bad tea. I’ve internalized all possible picnics, the experience of them lies within me, so today’s picnic can be brats and kraut rather than needing champagne and brie all the time. The person who truly yearns and truly feels deprived is the poor man, the one who has nothing and never did.

So if this semi-aged Verdant tuo isn’t good enough for you, the seasoned tea drinker, I can’t help you. And no one else can, either, not because your palate has evolved, but because your disappointment hasn’t changed.  The only ray of hope I can give is, well, 2016 is another year and may your storage be moist.


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

she's got too much

Just a few weeks ago, one of my chronically homeless mentally ill friends came by the house to see if he could have my pumidor. As in the actual refrigerator that my pumidor is supposed to be. He had secured a place at a campground with electrical plug-in, at least temporarily. Instead of buying ice every day to keep food cold, he hoped he could borrow, well, keep my pumidor. Now I'd planned anyway to discontinue my pumidor and move all tea into crock storage. And I'd offered to give away the fridge before to any number of people, with no takers. Something about a fake wood grain plastic turns people off nowadays, which is just crazy. Who cares what a fridge looks like? Plus those stainless steel fridges everybody wants aren't really stainless steel. You can always tell by their fridge magnets, a real stainless steel won't take a magnet. In any case, I hauled my tea out of the little fridge and gave it to my friend.

So, I stuffed all my pumidor tea into a vintage 1970s orange plastic beauty cabinet, but I needed to get a crock solution quickly. Yesterday I drove off to the antique store with that same chronically mentally ill friend along to entertain and scare the crap out of the staff at the store so they might leave me alone to look around. Nothing more effective than an unwashed bipolar buddy talking non-stop about seeing famous people at the gas stations nearby to keep sales people busy while I'm scouting out the crocks. All he requires as a traveling companion is a Whopper Junior burger and a Pepsi, and permission to smoke in the car. For all his cognitive dissonance, my friend remembers more of our two-decade friendship than I do, and in the car we laughed over his retelling of anecdotes of drinking in rural parking lots, things I certainly don't remember anymore and if I did I wouldn't admit to it.

As often happens when shopping, the first eligible crock I saw in the store is the one I decided to purchase. This is a 10 gallon Red Wing, about 80-100 years old. The big plus is the dealer had a lid to fit it, though the lid could be purchased separately. I grabbed the lid and brought it around the store to see if I could find a less expensive crock that might fit the lid. But this first crock has a thickness that attracted me, the sides felt like stone walls.

Hello, lover.

Back in the days prior to widespread refrigeration, thick crocks like this served as long term food storage. Thicker crocks are slow to react to changes in temperature and humidity. So people stored lard (meat fat), and preserved fruits or hard vegetables like potatoes for the long winter. However, crocks sold today are primarily for fermentation, which is a short term process for most people. A batch of sauerkraut takes only a few weeks, so most of the crocks sold today are thinner. If you want to compare my old Red Wing 10 gallon crock, check out the current crocks made today by Red Wing. You can see how much thinner the walls are, about half as thick, and they don't even make the 10 gallon one anymore.

I paid $189 for the 10 gallon crock and lid, which costs less than the 5 gallon Red Wing crock of today ($248), but more than, say, Ohio Stoneware which still sells a 10 gallon for $109 at Ace Hardware. Ohio lids are another expense, however, ranging from $15-25 depending upon where you buy them. One can, of course, make a wooden lid which I had planned to do if I need one. Wood lids might be better in the summer anyway, but I can always remove the lid from this crock when I want to expose the tea to warmth and humidity. A smaller crock will fit beengcha perfectly. For example, a 5 gallon size crock fits 357g beengcha and will hold about 2 tongs of five cakes each. A one gallon crock fits 100g cakes, about 8-10 cakes depending upon thickness of the cakes.

The stains are a bit more grayish than my photo
At home, I washed out the crock with a light bleach and water solution, and scrubbed the exterior with Barkeeper's Friend. Inside, the crock has a few manufacturer's defects, some small cracks which don't go through the entire piece. Such defects are "factory seconds" for Red Wing, and the frugal farmerwife who bought this crock saved money buying a crock with a few flaws. This affects the collector value but didn't bother her with making sauerkraut, and likewise does not bother me for tea storage. Nevertheless, since the crock is starting out clean I decided to fill the cracks with JB Weld to keep them stable so that the glaze doesn't chip away. I don't want to cover up the cracks with repainting and enamel since they add character, like I would do when repairing a teapot.

So today I moved all my sheng that once occupied the pumidor into the crock. And filled the thing up to the top.

All filled up!

The tea I have stored in the crock doesn't count the experimental teas I have in other crocks. Like this.

Table of various experiments
And this.

Most of this is shou
Or this.

One shelf for tea, another for video games.
Or this.

Teapots and gaiwans hold samples for airing and consumption

Or this.

This is a breadpan full of samples I'm supposed to be drinking.
And then we have the guilty stash:

1970s record case full of...tea samples, shou cakes, etc. etc. etc.
Somewhere in the cupboard lurks...


Uh, and then we have samples all over the living room in various small crocks.

I'm not counting any of the heicha. Those bricks are located in various places around the house too. You don't want to see any of that I'm sure. And then we have teas in the refrigerator, the real cold refrigerator. Stuff like sencha.

As you can conclude, I don't have room in my new crock or anywhere else for any more sheng. I need another crock now. Good lord, how much tea does a person need? And realistically, will I really stop buying tea? A lot of bloggers don't buy much tea anymore, they just take samples and call it a day.

Fortunately, I've arranged for a tea vendor to pick up the lot after I pass and offer my son a reasonable amount of cash, because no way will he want to deal with disposing my tea. He certainly won't want to drink all of it. I take some comfort in excuses. As a normal rural mother with farm roots, my job is to hoard food and beverages for the coming economic depression, and provide comfort to the children by doing so.

In other words, I'm supposed to have crocks of food and canned goods in all available storage places in my home. I know farm women around here who pick or buy and can strawberries, rhubarb, pickles, maple syrup and sauerkraut every year whether they need to or not. Certainly my relatives did the same. And I have palpable childhood memories of ground up horseradish, sinks full of cooked beets ready to can, pickles, fish and peppers all over the house as a kid. Not to mention the pickled fish, ham hocks, and gallons of dried hard cheeses, venison and beef jerkies everywhere. In fact, I remember little else from childhood at this point aside from the constant food preservation.

The only evolution my family made in the past generation is that we stopped eating dandelions. Or at least I stopped eating them at some point and now my son mows them away with the mulching lawnmower. I stopped brewing plantain from the yard when the internet got invented and I could buy the lovely teas I have now. My cat still gets his catnip from the yard and so we keep a patch for him, though I no longer brew it for tea.

My "new" antique crock feels like old stone, and smells like an old stone wall. This is a crock that wants highly bitter tea, not the new sweet sheng meant for drinking right now. It wants old heicha and leaf that takes over and dominates the stone wall. Really bitter sheng will tell the sauerkraut stains what's what. Sounds like a good reason to order one more 2014 New Amerykah. If white2tea accepts SNAP, I'm in good shape for this year and the next Depression.

Requiescat in Pace

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Top o' the Heap, or the Problem of Tea Master-y

In an article focusing on the history of tea sommeliers and practical problems with obtaining tea training, "The Problem with Tea Sommeliers," blogger Jordan Hardin underscored the continuing “problem” behind the definition of who is really a tea master, or a tea “sommelier.” I particularly enjoyed the bits delving into the world of wine tasting, but the main focus of the article is to point out the practical difficulties for persons interested in becoming a tea sommelier, from the definition of the term to one very real problem: who is the final arbiter, the one who gets to decide who is a tea sommelier? In answering this question, Hardin narrows down issues of certification and practice relevant to what I suppose most people want to know, the nuts and bolts of bona fide training that leads to a corporate job of some kind. I think we have larger philosophical and cultural problems which are at the heart of the issue of tea masters, and who gets to “be” one. Specifically, 1) the modern irrelevance of medieval notions of “master,” 2) the problem of “apprenticeships; 3) cultural relativism and the emergence of individual ideas of expertise; and finally 4) the inherent tension between rejecting the idea of someone at the “top ‘o the heap,” and the cultural “wish” to get there.

The idea of a “master,” specifically a “tea master,” evolves from a medieval and even pre-historic role of religious master, or shaman, or abbot, or novice master. The idea of a master was codified into both eastern and western monasticism. By this I mean communities of monks, nuns, tribes where a religious “master” achieves some ideal, or manifestation of progress in a rule of living or a rule of religious practice. The leader is then elected in recognition of mastering the rule of practice, whether this practice is meditation or some sort of holy living resulting in superior personal qualities which are the end goal of the practice. Maybe the master has the cleanest room. He certainly never wanks or sleeps, at least not when anyone is looking. Or perhaps the master has had a revelation of some kind which is recognized by his peers as a goal or reward of the practice of a rule or lifestyle. Usually the practice involves sufficient repetition over a period of years, and to some extent age is a factor in garnering the necessary respect to be elected by one’s peers or designated a master by a majority of the community. So, the ideal of a master is some sort of demonstration of an end goal as a result of years of practice, and exhibiting personal charisma or a revelation that “proves” one’s worth or eligibility for office.

I belonged to a medieval religious order of nuns, which had entered a period of “post-monastic” ideals of leadership. While as a whole, most Catholic religious orders still retain at least the trappings of a medieval hierarchical leadership, in practice most orders follow what is considered a “collegial” process of selecting leadership. To a large extent, personal qualities are the greatest consideration, that is, the elected leadership generally are indeed persons recognized for exemplary behavior in the rules of the lifestyle, and qualities which are deemed to stem from the lifestyle, such as graciousness, a contemplative and prayerful quiet to one’s demeanor. Now today we add on corporate leadership qualities, the ability the follow complicated laws governing relationships between the orders and their taxable or non-taxable businesses like hospitals or schools, meditation centers, or retail enterprises. 

Nun Pu

But the actual leadership today is not so much a master with a stick as a person voted to lead from the membership as a whole. The process of electing a religious leader is often called “discernment,” wherein the entire community discusses and prays over potential candidates who think long and hard about whether or not God is “calling” that person to lead. The leader may not have direct authority over individuals as in medieval times, when a monastic leader decided who got to scrub the latrines much as military leader does, but rather the monastic leader governs the corporate structure and assists the community as a whole in determining the governing philosophy or vision. The point here is that a religious “master” is no longer necessarily a “master” of anything in particular, but rather is a charismatic person with skills in interpersonal relationships and possesses some knowledge of corporate and political processes.

This is not to say that personal qualities are any less important, because taking down a religious leader who violates rules is a public sport. In fact, this sport happens every day to the point where most cultures now have a degree of cynicism about religious leaders, or even the idea of a “master.” Given a master, people immediately look for ways to take that person down. People even confuse politicians with religious masters, and somehow expect politicians to hold to moral codes on the same level as a religion, but in public service in a secular state. The same expectations are applied to corporate leadership, and disillusionment results when a business leader acts in a self-serving manner, or fails to consider the rank and file workforce, when no rule exists within the company requiring the leader to follow any moral code. The problem may not be the politician or business leader, but rather this carryover of a medieval religious idea of moral worth of a master, the divine right of kings.

Medieval practices in monasticism flowed into trade guilds and apprenticeships which saw their full flowering in the renaissance era. The idea of mastering a trade through apprenticeship gives us the notion that prolonged practice of a skill set leads to “mastery.” Even more so if the apprentice starts out at an early age, childhood even. We still see the idea of master/apprentice in trades such as plumbing or woodworking. And of course tea masters today in China are those with skills in tea roasting, which is very much a trade skill. The problems of tea roasting, however, don’t really translate so well over to tea brewing. Regardless, we still expect somehow that a tea apprentice or “sommelier” will spend time in the presence of “master” of some sort, even if we don’t know where that master is, or who he is. It’s a carry-over of the idea of expertise deriving from some kind of hands-on supervision by somebody better, someone elected by peers or designated by peers in the way of the medieval abbot. I am designated an expert because someone else who is more expert tells me that I passed his tests.

"the queen" by Leland Streubig (graffiti makeup by Cwyn)
The academy itself is another conferrer of degrees or expertise. Of course this is our system where professors are both abbot and master, and students are monks and apprentices. Expertise is conferred by peer-reviewed full professors/abbots at the end of a period of training and testing. Some pieces of paper may be better or worse. The same piece of paper from Yale is worth more than the one from the University of Mary Online. Still, notions of “better or worse” with degree certification are more cultural than anything, we culturally accept the idea that Yale is better and may even have “good” arguments for this idea, usually invoking the better apprenticeship, that my professors at Yale are better masters than at Mary Online. Or maybe they recycled the same article more times resulting in more publications of the same idea, simple numbers like book sales or talk show appearances or who got the film deal. Or notions of class or wealth, the master is the one who made the most money or whose family descended from the Mayflower. In fact, one of the current presidential candidates in the US derives all of his expertise from making money and even codified his expertise with his own TV show called “The Apprentice.”

Set up a master or a golden idol and the crowd gathers to take him down, side by side with the followers who are set for disillusionment at the unmasking of their ideal. The greatest challenge to the idea of mastery today is the emergence of the individual person, or individual knowledge. What we might call cultural relativism, which is the recognition that truth is relative to the individual, and that the individual may be the expert of his knowledge. And this idea is, I think, the one which underscores the real problem with tea certification and “mastery.” We are at the stage where you can set up the “certified” tea master or sommelier, and place a tea drinker side by side with his gram scale, his milliliter beaker, and both will obtain the same results with the same tea. We might find a “tea sommelier” at 52 years old, but then a 32 year old tea blogger has brewed her own way through hundreds or even thousands of tea samples and both serve a decent cup. Both might agree in blind tests over a tea and choose the same adjectives. What then is the point of a “tea sommelier” when anyone can practice their way into brewing the same cup using nothing more than a scale and gaiwan? The only difference is, the guy with the piece of paper or the Tea Abbot in his background may seem more convincing to an employer, but the reality is no difference at all.

The problem with tea brewing is anyone with a gaiwan or a teapot can do it. This is what makes the tea classes and schools such a joke to anyone who brews tea. This was the idea behind my blog post “Tea Sommelier” last year, that anyone can easily out-drink or out-brew someone else simply by practice, even an incontinent old lady, without any training whatsoever. Now, that might not mean I can roast tea, because as I noted tea roasting involves equipment and another sort of skill training. But tea BREWING… how is tea brewing a skill that someone needs special classes or an abbot/master to learn? A shopgirl or barista paid minimum wage or less can do it. I can do it. The knowledge of the individual easily rivals that of a master. Who then is a master? Someone who knows more history? Read books, plenty of books out there on tea. Someone who wandered the mountains of Yunnan and ate bugs? That trip is out there for anyone with the money and gumption to go. The heart of this is cultural relativism, the idea that any individual can master the knowledge and nobody can tell him he is wrong. Or if you are political, social democracy might be the theory, or communism, that the worker at the bottom is the real expert. And anyone can start a Tea School if they want, and confer any piece of paper to the “Graduates” as long as students are willing to pay. Right?

Now, while I can think my way through cultural history to get my own brain past images of Abbot Master and Apprentice, working this idea out of the culture takes much longer. We all may be in the age of individual relativism, but somewhere in our heads that idea of Master Sommelier still lingers. We still long for the Master, oh you wise one who will confer upon me when I have Made It, when I am Certified, when I am as holy as You, when my robes are washed clean. Then I can take my place among the masters. We want Masters not because they exist but because we want to be one. While every politician starts out with ideals of serving their electorate, without exception they all feed at the trough not just because they are beholden to business interests, but because they worked so damn hard, they started at the bottom, and now it’s my turn to feed. The temptation to do so is impossible to resist.

The only reason we need and want Masters is because we want to BE a Tea Master, we want our turn at the top ‘o the heap. We want to get paid and have people recognize us as experts, even while we know, we KNOW, that the people in these jobs got them because of luck, because of self-presentation skills, because they had a boyfriend in the company, or were in the right place at the right time. So this is the tension, while we as a culture have largely abandoned the idea of Abbot Master, and have no real system of apprenticeship and while we recognize that so-called experts can be largely self taught, we still want a system of Sommeliers and Masters because we want it as a perk for ourselves. We want a system we know doesn’t exist and when it does we will immediately debunk it, but when it applies to me I am happy to accept it.

For anyone who wants to be a Tea Sommelier, I say call yourself one. Set up a blog or tea classes even if nobody shows up. Design your own certificate. If you succeed then it is your own ability at selling yourself that matters. If you really feel the need for “credentials,” get a graduate degree, in whatever you like. Maybe things like language skills or history or art will help sell your career idea better, or maybe those degrees just give you more confidence or feelings of legitimacy though really your professors don’t care a fig what you got up to with your degree. I can tell you living long enough helps tremendously, and at fifty something you won't give a rat's arse what anyone thinks because most of the people who once mattered are gone and everyone else is younger than you.

I’m not sure Tea Brewing as a skill will gain the centralization to a single body that certifies people as Tea Sommeliers. I have a feeling the school that sells the most program certificate classes, sucking the most people in to pay may establish some sort of primacy. In the meantime, enjoy this time period when nobody owns the profession, because now is the best time for a “nobody” to work in the tea world. Once people realize that no one needs to go to school to brew tea, restaurants companies won’t bother to hire an expert because we will all know how to brew our own tea at work. History and the death of the master will win out, because short of a god the Abbot is truly dead and he isn’t coming back.

Requiescat in Pace, Sir Master, sir (and you too, Mother/Father Superior)

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Late 1980s Hunan Tianjian Tao Yuan

1980s Hunan Tianjian by Tao Yuan
Over the winter I splurged on tea and accessories because what else is there to do in winter except shop? One of my more questionable purchases is this pricey heicha, late 1980s heicha from Chawangshop. This tea made by Tao Yuan FT originating apparently in Shaanxi has seven types of  tea leaves, all first grade spring leaf. According to the listing, today only three types of leaves are used. Chawangshop states that this is the highest grade heicha they have on offer, and the tea is notable for “perfect storage” and pine smoke incense nose. Well, now how can I resist that? Even though 25g costs $24, which is crazy pricing for heicha. One hopes it lives up to the hype.

Another splurge of the winter is this antique English pearwood tea caddy. I’ve always wanted one of these. Sometimes they are apple-shaped.

Pearwood Tea Caddy with copper key.
This caddy I bought is preserved as an antique, complete with tea gunk lining the inside. Most antique people will tell you never to clean an antique, but if you plan to actually use that antique, you have to clean it. So, I decided to clean mine up today while sipping away at this late 1980s heicha. I’m glad I cleaned it out, because the lining is pure silver with no corrosion, and a cute little copper key emerged from beneath the layers of gunk. I oiled the wood and serviced the brass lock and now everything is working smoothly. You’ll notice the ivory inlay, which is a bit rough, but nicely yellowed with age.

Silver lining cleaned up nicely.
My plan is to store the rest of this heicha in the pearwood caddy. The little box of heicha is about the size of a cigarette pack, and the tea is inside a plastic bag in the box. Unfortunately, the plastic bag opened up somewhat during shipping, and I weighed the bag at 22g, losing 3g of tea altogether in the shipping box. Shipping hazard. The baggie is really packed full, so any punch to the little box is enough to burst it open.

Just a few of the 7g I used.
The box itself has a strong odor of wet storage when I received it, like something in a wet basement. Of course I liked the vintage looking box and aired it out for a couple of weeks, and finally placed it in a sunny window which got rid of the smell. But the wet storage smell is still trapped in the plastic bag within, so my efforts to air this didn’t extend into the tea. Never mind, this is an odor I can work out of the tea on my own. I weighed out 7g to give the tea a try in a Jian Shui teapot.

Rinsing heicha is a tricky business because heicha gives up most of itself in the first few steeps, so a rinse risks wasting the liquor. But wet basement, oy, had to rinse it, even though I think the second rinse did start to show liquor that next time I won’t waste. Here is a photo of my first steeping then.

First steep
Gotta love the color. The first cup tastes all storage, and again heicha has no room to waste on early steeps, the tea will be done before that storage odor goes. Two cups in, and the leaves in the pot smell incredibly minty. I guess this is the “pine smoke incense,” like a mentholated cough drop. Of course the wet storage contributes a little bit to the mint, and alas the mint doesn’t really translate into the cup right now.

What I do get is one surprisingly lively cup of heicha, tasting around the storage. Still some bitterness in the leaf, very astringent, tingling on the tongue. My mouth really dried out after a few cups of this. Qi like a rolling, swirling ball in the middle of my back, very energizing. In fact, I feel better now typing this than I have all day long, after a somewhat dodgy night’s sleep. The tea has a bit of a sour note , which is likely again that wet basement. I feel fairly certain I can air this tea out a bit more and bring forth even more sweetness, now that I’ve ditched the smelly packaging in favor of a tea caddy.

Second steep
So, I have only 15g left of tea now, enough for about two similar sessions, though I might ration out a smaller session and hope for three. The pot still smells so very minty after five steeps, perhaps I should boil the leaf. Why not, when I’m somewhat tea drunk already I always want more.

Steaming pot after the 5 minute boil
The tea requires a full five minutes of boiling. I probably went a bit high on the water amount, using 400 ml for the 7g of leaf. But well worth it, the boiling gives me the best cup of the day in terms of sweetness and less heavy on the storage. As the tea cools, the storage flavor returns, but super hot the cup is sweet, slightly woody with a tinge of mint, cool on the throat and active on the tongue, the way this tea is meant to be.

Tea fogged up my camera.
You can see how much green still remains in the tea leaves. I wouldn’t mind having a few hundred grams of this tea crocked away on a shelf. But the price is certainly too high for large scale hoarding. I’m going to make do with the 15g I have left, let it finish airing and look forward to a treat of it next fall.

Still some green left to go...
Gotta say I agree with the tea listing, this is one rare tea indeed and if you can stomach the price, well worth it to try this tiny leaf heicha from back in the days when tea leaves held a bit more punch. Plan on removing the packaging and airing the tea a good few months! I've tasted it for you, so don't waste your grams trying it straight away, let it air out fully.

I think I can get another good boil off these leaves for a few more cups, I’m at nine total now so maybe 12 total after boiling again. Still very mouth-drying long after drinking. Oh this is good stuff.

This is likely the last heicha I will drink for the season, as we are now heading into warmer summer days. My tastes turn now to cooling teas to combat the summer heat and swelling of my legs and feet, and I look forward to trying some of the new puerh teas out this year.