; Cwyn's Death By Tea: August 2016 ;

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The LBZ Word

Doubt is the stance I take when tasting puerh tea. Any puerh head who says they do not experience any doubt in their tea is fudging or in denial. The type of doubt I hear about most often from my friends is in their buying decisions, the kind of doubt that makes a person walk away from a tea, only to go back later and find the tea is sold out. Doubt like this fills tea chat between friends stewing over what to buy. This isn’t my type of doubt, though. To the contrary, I feel confident when buying tea simply because I care less about my money at this point in life. But when I taste the first cup of a purchase, doubt begins.

Although many of my reviews appear very confident, I go through steep after steep of doubt to reach an idea of how I feel about a tea and about myself as a buyer. At the very moment of first sipping I doubt my purchase and everything in my ability to choose a tea. Doubt is magnified by smelling the damp leaves when I detect anything that suggests over-heated chaqing, or a smoky medicine smell, and when I see bits of char in the gaiwan. I feel doubt when I find the sourness of dry storage. Or when I smell damp I imagine the beauty of those fresh leaves now killed off by too-wet storage. I feel doubt when I smell nothing at all, thinking I now own a dead tea. My mind races through ideas of what I can do correct flaws because I don’t want to give up on the tea yet. In reality, my steeping doubt means I now need the tea to win me over.

So, believe it when I say I doubt every single purchase I make, from the $400 tea cake all the way down to the idiot $9.99 brick with free shipping on EBay. I like to think this is intelligent doubt. For me, ignorant doubt is what I hear from people who say “that tea is too expensive/cheap to ever be worth the money” when in fact these naysayers have not tried the tea, and never plan on doing so. Doubt is a question and not a conclusion. While anyone can and should question a tea, doubt remains an open-ended thought.

With some teas, my doubt never really goes away. Especially when considering teas labeled with the LBZ Word, doubt is always the biggest factor. “Lao Ban Zhang” is just a village but also a tea term on par with “Jesus is Lord,” a phrase mostly embarrassing to hear or say out loud, much less publicly blog about.

For those of you new to puerh tea, Lao Ban Zhang is a tiny village in Yunnan, China with a hundred or so households, surrounded by ancient tea trees which for some unknown reason produce the finest puerh tea, known as the “King of Puerh.” This tea is prized for a balance of bitter to sweet, an incredibly long finish and heavenly body effects that place you on a plane of existence known only to aliens or angels. LBZ tea is the Ecstasy of Tea Drugs. Every year tourists pull into this tiny village by the hundreds, hoping to get a taste of this tea, only to discover that no amount of money will be enough to acquire any. Not only is this King of Teas impossible to get, Lao Ban Zhang is the most faked puerh tea on the market. Prices are insane for this tea, thousands of dollars a kilo. Farmers arrive from neighboring towns to this village to sell their ordinary tea to buyers who pass off the tea as real Lao Ban Zhang. Everyone wants to take advantage of the huge amounts of money flowing into the village.

The demand is high in part because 80% of the village farmers signed a contract with a single factory in the early 2000s, the Chen Sheng Tea Factory. Today this factory has a brand new building in Lao Ban Zhang which apparently required demolishing ancient tea trees make room. Not all the villagers signed the contract, but most did. So one tea factory has virtually an entire monopoly on all the tea picked there. The village possesses ordinary farmed tea gardens, hillsides of untended trees and a forest of ancient trees at least a hundred years old or more.

All this put together doesn’t yield very much tea. But because of the faking going on with LBZ, you can find teas everywhere trying to take advantage of suckers who don’t know any better. Because LBZ tea is such a tiny harvest, the Chen Sheng Factory must blend tea leaves from other villages into their tea cakes to make the good tea go a bit further. Even if a buyer is somewhat convinced that their LBZ tea cake is genuine, we don’t really know how much of a blend is in the tea, whether a brother or cousin might have brought tea over from a few villages away.

So owning a cake of Lao Ban Zhang tea is like saying you acquired a piece of the True Cross. A blogger who uses the LBZ word is immediately questioned, and so most tea bloggers use quotation marks and disclaimers when discussing LBZ tea. But some people do actually own “Lao Ban Zhang” tea, whether real, partly real or an outright fake. Doubt is highest with LBZ puerh tea, from the wrapper on down to the tenth steep and fiftieth session, unless the source is unshakable. Labels are notorious liars. All we can do is let tea speak and see if we enjoy it. I must say that the two 2008 “Lao Ban Zhang” cakes I purchased recently did convince me that they are decent teas, and the two are very different from one another.

I wrote about Wilson’s 2008 Haiwan LBZ on Steepster after I drank it. Wilson told me that when he opened his store, he wanted to put up some very good tea to both celebrate his store opening and show buyers that he has good tea to sell. He stated he bought a few tongs and kept one for himself, selling the rest to those of us lucky enough to grab a cake.  So I think his idea was to tease buyers into suspecting he has even better teas in his collection. His blog is certainly a tea-se with never enough detail and his store is the same, rarely un-wrapping a tea to show us the goods. He is a master of tea porn, always leaving us wanting more.

Wilson's 2009 Haiwan adventureineverycup.com
Hoarding blogger selling his stash
Wilson’s 2008 Haiwan is a ball buster of a tea, with bitterness that kicked me so hard my scalp lifted off the top of my head, pulling my hemorrhoids up into my throat. This tea is so bitter my tongue ran away and hid with nowhere else to go. I find white2tea’s Bulang-ish Amerykah series incredibly bitter, but this Haiwan cake went one further still, suggesting a blend of perhaps more Bulang or Laoman-e type leaves. The qi in this tea produced profuse sweating along my back. After eight cups of this madam I felt like I’d had sweaty sex all afternoon and needed a shower. I was so tea drunk that if a cop stopped me on the road I’d have blown out a breathalyzer. The 2008 Haiwan LBZ real or not has presence, and she is larger than life. I got twelve steeps in over two days before the hot, muggy weather forced me to toss the leaves.

Three friends of mine bought this tea from Wilson too. I immediately offered to buy them out, but of course no one is selling. Wilson’s Singapore storage has a nice slightly damp note, and we wondered how much more bitter this tea was just a few years ago because the liquor shows brown with a bit of red already. I’m not showing full photos here only because Wilson’s 2008 Haiwan is sold out. It is my most recent mental note going into the 2008 Lao Ban Zhang from Tao Tea Leaf. By now I’ve mainly forgotten the LBZ I shared with TwoDog last year which paled next to an incredible 1960s puerh tea we spent more time drinking. I remember TwoDog’s LBZ started out a nice tea drunk at our afternoon party, but really the 1960s puerh got me drinking the wash straight from the bamboo tray, something I don’t do every day.

2008 "Lao Ban Zhang" from TaoTeaLeaf.com
I didn’t mean to purchase this Tao Tea Leaf cake, but a friend directed me to the site to check out chaga mushrooms which this shop also sells, and my friend likes the shop’s Wuyi oolong teas. Tao Tea Leaf also had a weekend sale at the time, a 50% off “Boxing Day in July” sale. I decided to pass on the mushrooms and instead wandered over to the Puerh section of the store. The 2008 Lao Ban Zhang is the only beengcha tea the store has. The 357g beengcha normally sells for $190 Canadian dollars. But at the 50% off sale I got it for $95 Canadian, which after the favorable American dollar exchange left me with a final price of $85 US, including shipping. The tea has three enthusiastic reviews posted on the site, and these plus the low final sale price sold me.  

Owner Tao Wu is a young man who apparently grew up on a tea farm in the Fujian region before moving to Canada and opening a tea store at age 28, calling himself a “tea master,” although he also got a tea sommelier certificate in Canada to cover the bases, I suppose. He claims to have ordered his 2008 LBZ by private, special order in 2007. He doesn’t say where he ordered it from, and doesn’t show the wrapper in the listing for the tea. His description discusses Lao Ban Zhang village and also mentions the nearby Xin Ban Zhang. I read this over several times wondering if this is a hint that perhaps some of the tea is from the latter nearby village. The wrapper of course says Lao Ban Zhang on it, but very often private orders end up getting a wrapper that really isn’t from the factory making the tea. The wrapper might be extras “on hand,” because special wrappers sometimes aren’t made for small private orders. Because the listing does not show off the wrapper, maybe it doesn’t mean much. I won’t get over the doubt of the wrapper even if somebody tells me it’s all legit.

The tea arrived during a hot, humid spell of weather and surprisingly had no smell. I started to worry that the tea is dried out and about “Toronto dry storage.” Tao Wu doesn’t discuss his Toronto dry storage in specifics. I opened up the cake and let it sit in the humid weather for a few days and it still didn’t develop much of a discernible smell, leaving me to ponder whether I have a dead tea on my hands. I also know that some real Lao Ban Zhang teas don’t have a strong floral smell.

Finally I decided to try the tea when the weather cooled off. First two rinses yield a slight Chinese incense/medicine odor and I sigh, here we go, not my favorite profile and gotta mean some burnt tea in here. Upon rinsing the leaf I see that this is small leaf tea for the most part. Buds are evident in the mix, with a few medium sized leaves but mostly they are fairly small. The description says that the tea isn’t charred, but during the rinses I find char in the gaiwan to match my charred medicine perception on the leaf odor. Not much char, but it’s there. Two cups go down in short order. The first cup is slightly medicinal, a bit of fermented hay, and the second a bit less so.

The beenghole photograph. Reader demands...
Actually you can learn a lot picking a beenghole.
Sometimes the leaves on the underside are lesser quality.
Like most compressed teas, the first two cups are on the thin side, but a bit active in the mouth, so not a dead tea as I feared. I get a slight bitterness, some sour dry storage on the early two cups, a bit of honey and a touch of floral but maybe I’m imagining it. I wonder if the tea is a bust so I hunker down with my computer to read about the tea again and look up some newspaper articles and reviews on the tea shop.

Second steep. Brownish-yellow dry storage.
After fifteen minutes of reading I sit straight up. My lower back breaks out into a sweat and qi flew up my spine into my ears. Holy cow this is creeper qi. I’m reading, forgetting my cup and this qi takes me by complete surprise. Although the tea is not terribly bitter, nowhere near the 2008 Haiwan and not even bitter compared to most new teas, sure enough here is returning sweetness too.

My throat seems a bit full like a ball of draining sinuses. The tea sits in my belly for an hour or more. I get hiccups. My mouth dries out like sailor’s jock strap. Just to be certain my throat is feeling the tea and not sinus drainage, I pop an allergy tablet. We’ve had so much rain and the ragweed is in full bloom. I return to my computer and consume dozens and dozens of pages on LBZ to see if anyone else has a 2008, or had one to sell, or reviewed one. I can’t find anything.

Three hours later, after cat box cleaning and other household chores, I pick up my cup and sniff it. The floral and honey, powdery smell is incredible, so much so that I immediately doubt whether I washed the cup before starting. I rinse it out with boiling water before continuing with more tea, and I make certain the cup has no odor this time.

Two more cups. I don’t notice a Chinese medicine smell or taste anymore. The fourth cup is much more bitter than any of the previous because the tea is opening now. The soup is a bit thicker. This time the qi doesn’t hit until about a half hour later, but before this I cannot doubt the full huigan of this tea, because my mouth sweetens up. Nor can I deny that this tea sits in the belly like hot pepper jelly beans. The astringency hits even harder an hour after drinking, but of course I need to blame my allergy tablet too. Finally, I must admit that my empty cup smells like a garden of honeyed orchids, even when dried out to the point of only a drop or two left on the bottom. I marvel at how this fragrance is more alive in my dried cup, and not really on the tongue when drinking. I’m glad I chose a tall cup which holds fragrance better than small wide cups.

The fourth cup has spicy hints as well as bit of wood but not the strongest flavored cup overall that I’ve ever had. I feel like there are layers here I can’t describe, complexities I perceive more than taste. Honestly I don’t smell much in the gaiwan after pouring water on the fifth steeping except a hint of the medicine, a bit of green wood. Still some bitterness, a feeling in my esophagus of swallowing overly large radishes, a heat that isn’t like chilis, and this suddenly changes to sweetness within about 5-10 minutes. I can easily do 1-2 cups of this tea and then just sit back with what I drank for a couple of hours, observing the effects. All this I’m typing at 2 a.m., and then I realize I left my big cat outside. I let him in and feed him, and on this cool night just moving to the door my body breaks into a sweat with waves of qi along my back and ears.

Steep 8
The next morning I steep out the tea. I over-steep a bit on number seven whilst going after my kitten when he starts walking on dirty dishes. I get even more bitterness than steep four. I want to over-steep this tea to push for flavor and that’s the wrong way to go, this tea isn’t about the full flavor as it is about subtlety. Over steeping just gets me a bitter cup which kills the chance of tasting anything deeply. I miss the oak cask and vanilla but get more of the radish stuck in my throat, and hiccup-type burps.

Day three: twelve steeps in and not done yet. This blog post has meandered on to god-only-knows-what, that nebulous zone of tea heaven where teas never quit. On steep thirteen I’m going long on steep time, so am gonna quit now. Wait, I’m still feeling this tea in my throat even though the flavor is very light now and the fragrance is about gone. I’m sure I can squeeze out a couple more steepings, the stems are rather large, so fifteen is a good estimate for this one considering I over-steeped at least two. I’ll conclude this tea is part old arbor and part plantation/garden, and darn nice for my $85.

Char evident on leaf tips at the top of the photo.
Not much to worry about here, but present. 
I doubt the wrapper, I doubt the origins, I doubt the vendor, I doubt the price, I doubt the storage and the processing, but the damn tea won’t let me go past itself to the conclusion of anything other than this is one interesting session. Or maybe my body is having an interesting session and I really drank nothing at all. In comparing the two LBZ teas, I hate to use the sex metaphor, but Wilson’s Haiwan LBZ is like sweaty slamming against the desk in a hot office, and this TaoTeaLeaf is a bubble bath with spiced yellow mead and white towels.

Everything about this tea makes me doubt, except the tea itself. If you are interested in trying this 2008 tea, TaoTeaLeaf offers a number of sample sizes to choose from. The whole cake is on the pricey side. But you can plan ahead because the shop has two 50% off sales per year, one on Boxing Day (December 26) and the other Boxing-Day-in-July. The $190 Canadian dollar price converts in the shopping cart after you enter your address information.

You can say whatever you want. The vendor can write me pages and pages justifying this tea and tea heads can write comment after comment denouncing it. Any LBZ tea is a guilty, idiot purchase or an act of faith, take your pick. But I’ll stand by Wilson’s Haiwan and Mr. Tao’s LBZ as unique teas. I write about “Lao Ban Zhang” teas so you don’t have to. You can quietly purchase whatever LBZ you want, rewrap in plain paper and hide it in your dildo drawer. Nobody needs to know.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

A "Letter" from "Taetea"

Dear Cwyn of Death by Tea:

We are writing to express our concern regarding depictions of the Taetea logo presented in your blog. Specifically, in a recent post our logo appeared in an image of Pu’er tea beengcha in the shape of Olympic rings, next to a beengcha that depicts an obvious female breast. We have also noted that last year you posted an image of the Taetea logo on the ass end of a cow. Upon investigating further, we found an inaccurate image claiming that the Xiaguan Tea Company is changing their logo from a crane to a large pelican.

As an award-nominated blog, we feel that the images you are showing with our logo create an erroneous impression of Pu’er tea that is misleading to readers. We see that your blog features no postings of any Taetea products to support the images. Because of this, we want to point out that serious information is missing, specifically regarding the proven benefits of Pu’er tea. You can find this information on our website taetea.net in an article called “Taste the Nourishment.” We also want to assure your readers that no cows or female breasts are used in any of the Pu’er products we sell. 

“It’s the life in Pu’er that makes it so special.”

Pu’er tea helps prevent heart disease by reducing blood pressure, improving circulation and reducing high-density cholesterol.

Pu’er tea detoxifies and improves liver function, especially after alcohol consumption.

Pu’er tea inhibits the formation and growth of cancerous cells.

Pu’er tea aids digestion, settles the stomach, and improves intestinal function, so prevents digestive complaints and bowel disorders.

It’s the Ancient arbor big-leaf and the unique aging and fermentation process that makes Pu’er the healthiest of teas – give Pu’er its long list of benefits.

*Research on Pu’er Tea by Dr. Emily Caroby of Paris St. Antonio Medical Institute, French State Health Medicine Research Institute and Assails Nutrition Physiology Research Institute, among others.



Dear Readers,

Please compare the research information in the above fictional letter with taetea.net/en/health. Then cross-check bestpuertea.blogspot.com and make up your own mind. And if you can find Dr. Emily Caroby, let me know.


Sunday, August 14, 2016


Death by Tea is a Finalist.
Vote at saveur.com/blogawards
Two weeks ago I get an email from a Saveur.com saying my blog here is nominated for some sort of award for Obsessed People. Never heard of Saveur before, myself. Sounds maybe like a porn site? In fact, that very week I got an email invitation from some company looking to put paying ads on my site, and it is an adult porn redirect. I almost went for it but then thought how I’d feel clicking on a puerh tea blog at work and oops... So, when I get yet another porn-sounding email I’m thinking, what kind of scam is this now?

In real life I get all too many pieces of snail mail trying to advantage of old ladies who probably don’t have their all food money spent on puerh tea for the next two years. People just assume we have money. Every month I get unsolicited membership cards from AARP and the Holocaust Museum for no reason other than I continue to exist. Initially, I junk-boxed the Saveur email for half a day.

Later on I look again and re-read it. This time I google Saveur. Turns out it is a Food Magazine website with no obvious malware. My blog is nominated in a category called Obsessive. The Obsessed part sounds like an accurate description of someone else's tea problem. And normally I'm not huge on people's food fotos, especially the half-eaten plate ones. Professional food photos are okay though, and Saveur looks like a very fancy and beautiful magazine.

The computer screen catches glare from my silver and white hair. I try to imagine myself, an incontinent old lady with a Fargo-type accent and cracked stoneware crocks in a fancy food magazine, and fail. “The Obsessed Award” sounds a little suspicious, like what my old dad called a “Hemorrhoid Award” back when I was in school. You know the old joke. I think Dad volunteered his services as a lawyer for the school board on purpose, just to make sure the kindergarten teacher never gave his kid a hemorrhoid ever again. The only school prize I won that my dad approved of was a Debate trophy in high school for “Negative of the Year."

I need a family opinion and email my younger sister, Amy. She replies with exclamation points. She knows Saveur and buys copies at various airports that she feels unable to throw out. My sister Amy has a particular quality the rest of the family probably envies, our dad tends to come out of her mouth without her trying to, and it sometimes scares the crap out of me. She is a good reality check for her “out there” older sister. This, along with her considerable and conservative business savvy makes her the family consigliere. Any idea she green lights is okay according to the family creed. And she approves! So I head upstairs to read the Saveur email to my son, including the bit about the awards ceremony in New York City, TBA in September.

“In New York City?” he says. “Are they paying?”

“Uh…yes. Of course they are,” I fudge.

“Because if they are not paying, you can’t go.”

“Why? There might be famous people there.”

“You don’t have the money for a trip like that.”

Leave it to dear son to Debbie-downer Mother’s enthusiasm at every possible opportunity. I wonder which of his credit cards he is least likely to miss. Last week he got an American Express application in the mail. All I have to do is dig out my old tax returns and find his social security number. But he has a point, even if it is the typical Midwestern dig to the self-confidence. That night I sit straight up in bed with a horrifying thought.

Do I have enough tea?

Now this year I managed to get a teeny bit better with the Tea Hoarding, buying a little less than last year. I got the big obsessions out of the way early, buying my Treachery of Storytelling Pt. 2 puerh cake straight away. Chawangshop helped out by pressing fewer cakes overall, thus reducing temptation. But maybe I am well short of the mark of a true puerh hoarder.

The metric ton.

Do I have a metric ton of puerh tea? Surely the metric ton is a criterion of “deserving” Food Obsessed award winners, the puerh-obsessed type anyway. I know at least two people who have this much tea or more. Maybe three, I haven’t actually counted the cakes on the Half Dipper's shelves myself.

Suddenly I feel beset with insecurity. I am grateful for the award nomination, at least in part because I can justify the Mirka Randová tea table I ordered with the excuse “Mother needs this,” and of course some tea shopping qualifies as well-deserved for a month or two. But now, the reasons for tea shopping take on a more urgent significance, because size matters and “too small” is a disqualifier. Even if it isn’t, I will surely feel better knowing I own a metric ton of puerh tea. In fact, I now have an increasingly urgent need to feel better by owning that Get God on the Phone cake from white2tea for $179, and the Bitterleaf WMD Mansa $88 a teeny 100g, although these are about quality and not so much quantity. Right now the thing to do is go puerh shopping.

Thoughts of new tea cakes cheer me up for a day or so, and my son notices the upbeat mood.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” he says, referring to the blog nomination.

We wait a week for the magazine to post the finalists before we can announce it to friends and family. Though I’m keenly aware that no one on my Facebook reads my blog. I don’t get a Happy Birthday on Facebook, not a single one from any of those “real life” friends and family even when they are reminded. In fact, one of my high school classmates was born on the very same day as I was, in the same hospital too, and even he doesn’t remember me on our mutual birthday. I have low expectations of anyone I know in real life reading my tea blog of all things. Plus I have other problems.

“Mom, you don’t have anything to wear. All your clothes come from Bioware.”

“I earned every one of my gaming shirts.”

“You bought them, Mom.”

“And who of us in this room needed help getting the N7 badge on Xbox? I don’t think it was me.”

I’m miffed. But the boy has a point, I could use some clothes. I don’t buy clothes if I can possibly help it. I always split a new package of boxers with him to reduce expenses and save more for tea. He hasn’t ever dated any girls, and therefore doesn’t know that women are supposed to wear different underwear. I buy used Brooks Brothers on EBay for him and if they don’t fit I just wear them myself. I pull up EBay for a few minutes to search through a few suits and put up a couple bids before migrating over to Yunnan Sourcing’s “New Products” page.

A metric ton equals one thousand kilos. Do I have 2505 pounds of puerh tea, or thereabouts? I think about counting up all the kilos, but the idea of it sounds exhausting. Much easier to just buy the tea now and worry about where to store it later.

In truth, I have absolutely no idea who nominated my blog for the Saveur Blog Awards, if anyone actually did. I have my suspicions, but puerh hoarders tend to be a quiet group, they generally won’t admit to anything unless they score Petr Novak tea ware. We worry someone might show up at the house unannounced like the fire inspector, or worse another tea hoarder who knows what we have stored away. Unless the nominator’s strategy is to divert people over to my house instead which is worrying.

Thank you to the person who nominated this blog. If you wish to vote for "Death by Tea," you can do so at saveur.com/blogawards. Votes count toward the editor’s decision. The big plus is that probably no one knows what puerh tea is, and this nomination will bring more people into the hobby. Or is that a minus? I better finish my tea shopping soon.

Cwyn, the Possibly Obsessed minus a few kilos

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Judgments of Taste: the concept of Derrida's "Frame" applied to Puerh

The thing, and the nature of the thing. A cake is mighty tasty.
I received an email from a reader posing the following philosophical question with regard to Judgment of Taste in tea, specifically puerh tea because that is the usual focus of my blog. Thus, consider the following question:

Question: What is the Frame of puerh tea drinking?

Definition of Frame: an aesthetic experience of a painting is a “frame,” limited to only the painting, minus the effects of architecture, lighting or anything outside of the painting.

Limit: a limitation is proposed on the notion of the frame for tea, taken from wine tasting. That is, wine tasters spit the wine to eliminate the effect of drunkenness, likewise removing the drunkenness effect of the tea is also proposed.

For me, addressing this issue for my email friend, who is a philosophy professional, requires taking a look at who invented this idea of the frame, and how it got applied to a painting on the wall, before I can consider a “tea equivalent.”

Kant identifies a “gap” between aesthetic judgment and teleological judgment. Or, to paraphrase, a gap between the abstract, reasoned consideration of the qualities, pleasure, or merits, or a “taste” of the “thing” versus the nature, or purpose, of the thing. So, the aesthetics of the thing versus the purpose of thing creates a gap. For example, if we judge the aesthetic merits of a fork, we also have the nature or purpose of the fork which is to pierce food to carry to the mouth. Kant’s gap between a specific fork’s merits and the purpose is what Derrida calls the “frame,” at least for the purposes of his discussion in his paper “The Parergon” For him, the frame is defined as “the limit between the inside of the object and the outside of the object (Derrida, p. 12).”

In “The Parergon,” [concept which means the state of neutral observing], Derrida is careful to interpret Kant’s judgment of taste as “not a judgment of knowledge, it is not ‘logical,’ but subjective and therefore aesthetic relation to affect (aesthesis). Every relation of a representation, even a sensible one, can eventually be objective, but never pleasure or displeasure. Certainly aesthetic representations may give rise to logical judgments when they are related by judgment to the object; but when judgment itself is related to the subject [person judging], to the subjective affect…it is and can only be aesthetic (Ibid, p. 11).” So, in questions of judgment of taste, both Kant and Derrida put to bed the notion that aesthetic judgments are objective. They are not. As noted, logical conclusions certainly may arise, such as “this wine contains 30% alcohol content,” or “this tea contains theanine.” But logical statements such as these are not the same as statements like “the roast is balanced,” or “the kuwei lingers long” because these statements are subjective experiences. My tongue is not and will never be your tongue.

Let me stop here for a second. I want to be clear that no true philosophical discussion of aesthetics of anything, or judgment of taste, is acceptable as logical or objective. Unless you want to go with a non-traditional, non-western philosophy which does not separate objective from subjective, and I don’t know of one that is not inherently theological. Otherwise, we must accept that judgment of taste is subjective. Aesthetics are subjective. Maybe you can invent a new philosophy where judgments of taste are objective without that philosophy relying on theology (leaps of faith in a divine being). But right now I’m writing in a world which has, over the millennia, defined judgments of taste as subjective.

What I really want to say, though, is that we shouldn’t feel bad about the subjective nature of judgments of taste in tea, we need to embrace them, celebrate them. The experience of purely subjective pleasure is the dancing in the moonlight moment, let us dance together and feel. What we are after in judgment of taste are the moments of harmony with other people tasting together. And together we might reach an agreement that makes tea or wine tasting competition possible.

All of this lies outside the scope of my emailer’s question. But because we still have disagreement amongst tea people whether judgments of taste in tea are objective or subjective, I felt I needed to repeat much of this before coming up with my own thoughts on the question at hand. Also, I assume most readers are not familiar with Kant or Derrida, even though one can hardly get through university these days without the latter shoved down one’s throat which, in my case, can certainly corrupt my tea drinking palate just by sheer repetition. And I think the subjective versus objective “fogginess” in the tea world corrupts many an argument on tea forums, and results in enthusiastic posters feeling put down, as more subjective than others, when really everyone is equally subjective in judgments of taste. The great equalizer here is that we are all subjective, so let us enjoy it and embrace a diversity of opinion while we can, and leave the need for agreement to the formal competition setting! Only in that environment do tea tasters declare the need for a winner, and recently MarshalN dealt rather handily with the "confusions of the aged" in the competition setting.

The nature of the thing.
"Sugar"...err...now oolong jar, by rmoralespottery, Etsy
To regroup, I have looked at where the idea of Frame came from, and clarified some foggy issues of the subjective nature of taste. Now I can start to take a look at what might be considered a Frame for puerh tea. Let’s consider the wine tasting example to see if it contains any clues that might apply to puerh tea.

In considering wine, my email writer notes that wine tasters spit out the wine in order to avoid the drunkenness effect to purely consider the taste experience. Thus, the wine is judged minus the alcohol content and effects from that content. This seems reasonable to me with wine. However, the nature of alcohol is that it will produce drunkenness 100% of the time, even if the quantity one must drink to obtain a drunken state will vary with the individual. Tea on the other hand, produces drunkenness from the theanine/caffeine combination in only certain individuals, and not in 100% of cases.

Should tea drunkenness be removed as a variable in aesthetic judgments of puerh tea? Increasingly, many of us, myself included, point out specific teas which seem to produce a greater effect of tea drunk. I’ve made jokes about seeking tea drunk teas, because my incontinent and lonely old lady self finds a good tea drunk a substitute for companionship and whatever else my psychology might lack. But I separate my comedy side from my thinking self now when considering a serious matter like this email question.

What do you think, is the tea drunk effect a good criterion for judging a puerh tea? I think the effect of theanine/caffeine “drunkenness” should be removed from judgments of taste, as it is in wine. Puerh tea tasters in settings like the Menghai Taetea factory taste and spit, they must spit because they are drinking so many cups of tea per day they cannot possibly swallow it all. But if the tea drunk effect varies so much that some people get it and some don’t from a particular tea, the effect is unreliable. I know that some people comment to me that a tea I got fairly tea drunk from didn’t affect them at all, and those persons felt somewhat disappointed when their experience wasn’t the same.

Is tea drunk the same as wine drunk? Aside from the unreliable nature of tea drunk, perhaps the reason the” drunk effect” is removed from wine tasting is to remove any impact upon their judgment of other characteristics. When you feel like saying “hell yeah, gimme another glass of that,” the brain is happily drunk and might judge other flavors or aging traits as better than perhaps they might seem when sober. Removing the “drunk effect” is the same as limiting the frame to exclude euphoric or psychedelic effects from the brain or, in other words, to remove the affected Brain from the Frame when judging wine.

Not a tea fountain, but maybe it could be.
Ceramic cat water fountain by ebifountains.com
Removing the brain from the Frame is to limit the Frame to the tongue/mouth/throat, nasal, esophagus and possibly the stomach for wine or tea tasting. So, with tea this means the Frame is defined as the experience of anything oral or olfactory or esophageal or gastric. Looking at Chinese tea terms, we have several that don’t necessarily translate into English well, but nevertheless are defining. These terms are those of the olfactory, tongue and mouth, throat, and also body.

For nose and mouth effects, several terms are used. Xiang Wei 香味is the smell of the dry leaves, fullness of fragrance. Ku Wei 苦味 refers to bitterness, or lingering bitterness or fullness of bitter taste in the mouth on more than just the areas on the tongue normally detecting bitterness, the whole mouth or throat too. Se Wei 涩味refers to the “astringent” effect of tea, a dry-ish, tingling in the mouth, or “dry mouth.” Tian Wei 甜味 is all about sweetness in the mouth after swallowing.

Throat effects are referred to as Hui Gan 回甘which is a returning sweetness that follows bitterness in the throat, or coolness in the throat that follows even when the tea is very hot. With puerh tea, some people consider lingering cool effects or flavors at the back of the throat, as well as in the esophagus and stomach as characteristics to look for in aging. Finally we have Chaqi 茶气, this illusive effect which is more than tea drunkenness, but rather an effect on the body, such as tingling in the spine, neck or scalp. This is different from Cha Zui 茶醉 which means tea drunk.

I don’t use these terms very often in my writing, not because I lack understanding of them, though perhaps I do, because to understand them fully requires a deeper understanding of the history of the characters and their drawing than I possess. Characters are pictures that evolved into more abstract and quickly written forms throughout the millennia. I do believe we can understand these terms through long experience drinking puerh tea. But what I’m after as a writer is finding the place for puerh tea in my local experience, and in creating a discussion in English within my own culture. This does not, and should not exclude the Chinese terms. I’m merely reflecting a beginning movement within my culture to accept puerh tea as a part of my life, as it is where I live. My writing is nothing more than a bookmark in internet tea discussion, one which will evolve as long as more people around the world drink puerh tea from Yunnan, China. Just as people around the world drink champagne, and we now distinguish sparkling wine from champagne because many cultures are creating their own wines that mimic French champagne. While we likely won’t grow puerh tea successfully in North America, we will evolve in our discussions over time, and as a more mutual understanding of tea terms evolves, we can use them without creating confusion or requiring pages and pages to explain.

The nature of the thing. Red. House finch?
And, at the same time, I believe that in serious academic or competition discussions of puerh tea, these are the terms that need to be used. They are necessary not only because they evolved from the culture where puerh tea is produced, but because some languages, like English, lack terms of our own. We need to string together several words or more to convey the full meaning, or even write pages and pages to describe the full meaning these terms hold so succinctly.

Thus I say to my email friend, I believe the Frame for judgments of taste of puerh tea, if such a Frame is assumed to exist, must include all of the above terms, with the possible exception of Chaqi 茶气 and Cha Zui 茶醉 because these vary too much among individuals. Or maybe we need to split the frame into areas of the body. The Frame for Puerh Tea is Olfactory, Mouth/Throat, and Body/Mind. From here we can create other variables for what we consider a “good” puerh tea like processing, aging and the like.

How about you, how would you define the Frame for puerh tea? Does this popular Derrida metaphor work for Judgments of Taste with tea, or can you propose something else?


I apologize for any errors in philosophical definition, as I am not a scholar in philosophy. My degrees in philosophy and theology are at the undergraduate level where I carried a Theology major and philosophy minor, my doctorate is in another field. Feel free to comment or borrow anything from this post without attribution. I only feel brave enough to write about this stuff because of one of my undergraduate professors the late, great classical languages scholar Fr. Ivan Havener, OSB, who once wrote me “theology is not a sacred cow for scholars.” Oh yes, I saved that postcard.

I want to thank my friend Mr. C. Thi Nguyen for the wonderful email.


Derrida, J. & Owens, C. (trans). “The Parergon,” October Vol 9 (Summer 1979), Boston, MA: The MIT Press, pp. 3-41. Stable URL http://www.jstor.org/stable/778319. Translation from the French of the four-part essay Derrida, J. “Parergon.” La vérité en peinture, Paris: Flammarion, 1978, with parts originally appearing in Digraphe 2 and 3 (Paris: Galilée, 1974).

Kant, Immanuel. “Critique of Judgment” (Kritik der Urteilskraft, 1790). Take your pick of editions. I use my dad’s old Great Books Kant edition from the early 1960s that is hardly a decent scholarly edition today, and not worth citing. 

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Sheng Olympiad

2016 WMD Mansa "Ancient Leaf"from Bitterleaf Teas
Tenmoku cup by teaware.house
I love watching international competitions for the very reason that moments of brilliance belong to anyone, from any country. But the US television network holding the monopoly on the Olympics seems to think we’re only interested in events where Americans win, and only the winning moment. We don’t get to see an entire event from start to finish most of the time. We also don’t get to see brilliant individual performances because the cameras are on mediocre USA contenders rather than on the winners worth seeing. And my favorite events are often completely left out of coverage. Actually I love all the Olympic events and this is especially true with the winter Olympics, but at least with summer sports I can avoid the complete meltdown I have when our television network cuts out Curling, a sport I really was destined to earn an Olympic medal, except I never got the chance to try my hand at the sport.

Olympics in Rio! What can top the thrill of excellence, the misery of US advertisements interrupting every single event, and the sheer impossibility of watching any event online? All of these describe perfectly my attempt to watch the women’s Fencing Individual Epee yesterday, which of course isn’t on television. Online, the so-called “stream” loses entire thirds of duels to ads, and cuts whole half hours into nothing but a dead air “coverage will return shortly” screen. After which the duel is long over.

Oh and where is Table Tennis, or Dressage, Air Rifle and Archery? A whole five minutes of coverage on television, and forget trying to watch online when the same three television commercials interrupt most of a competition. Do I really need to see a repeat of American basketball players stuffing fifteen baskets in a row? I know that most nations hate the USA in sports or most anything else, but I wonder if the world knows how much tedium and mediocrity most of us are forced to endure by our monetized and monopolized media coverage. The one full length table tennis match I got to watch had one commentator of two without a working microphone, leaving the remaining commentator asking questions in dead air, and nobody bothered to fix it.

Finally I can’t handle hearing any more Katy Perry knock-off jingles, and I give up trying to watch any of my favorite events online in favor of a sheng Olympics of my own. Our friend LiquidProust started the Sheng Olympics on Steepster this winter, a massive group buy and tea reviewing exercise that we are all looking forward to watching again this coming January 2017.

I start out my own summer Sheng Olympics at home with Bitterleaf’s 2016 WMD Mansa. This is a loose leaf sheng maocha offered for $88/100g online, and I got a sample of it with the Bittertits Yiwu cake I bought earlier this year. I have no idea what WMD stands for. 

Gaiwan in "dirty porcelain" by Belgian potter Inge Nielsen, Etsy
Bitterleaf Teas describes this as “ancient” (of course) and Qing Dynasty-old trees. Yeah…well the leaf itself is beautiful with…very long stems. This tea might play basketball in the regular Olympics, or maybe beach volleyball. I decided to drink this sample up while watching the opening ceremony in Rio, and punish myself by using up the entire sample. Go heavy or go home.

Second steep, one rinse only.
My gaiwan delivers full punishment with a heavy bitter brew, but the scent and flavor of orchids is a nice surprise. This tea apparently grows in a forest somewhere in the Yiwu region. Decent thickness, long kuwei and full flavor mouth feel. I don’t detect much of a deeper profile  in this, but I might not have paid sufficient attention to the lower register because I found myself staring at the Mylar sheets in the  Olympic opening ceremonies and suddenly I could not move. I am tea stoned out of my gourd after the 300 ml or so I gulped rather quickly. My tongue is numbed, my entire face is numb, and my body is a thing floating at the end of the bed completely disconnected from my head. I’m sweating more than the male gymnasts. High bar? Hey, I can do that, no problem. Balance beam is just me showing off. And I’m totally a diver, which means pool and volleyball too. No one can touch me on a bicycle off road or on.

Yes, this WMD Mansa stoner tea is in the “Mortgage? What mortgage?” category, because at $440/tong you’ll need a home equity loan to afford this one, although 500g for a tong rings up at about the cost of white2tea’s 357g Last Thoughts. Bitterleaf Teas hopes this tea is a good cake to age out into “gold,” but I doubt anyone springing for 100g of this will keep it long enough to find out. After all, a 100g cake is only fourteen sessions or so.

I need to transfer the tea to a larger gaiwan after expanding.
But these leaves and stems are huge, I have an entire tea tree in my gaiwan. Fifteen steeps and nowhere near ready to quit, this tea is a mega-steeper marathon. Not easy to finish all this, two cups and I’m in the zone. I hear that Bitterleaf Teas has only a few of these cakes to go around, so act fast if you want to grab the “gold.” What is the price for your personal delusions of fabulous? 

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

2016 Yibang

I wasn’t planning on buying this 200g cake of Yibang from Chawangshop this spring when I ordered a bunch of teas. Yibang is a small area in eastern Xishuangbanna that quite frankly I find confusing amongst tea vendors selling puerh. You can read quite a bit of information online about Yibang using Google, because a number of tea vendors have ventured there in the past. But it is difficult to sort out these teas. Despite the small area, the teas vary vastly in price between vendors and production years. I can find a 357g 2010 spring harvest Yibang from one vendor for 18 Euros, and then a 200g Autumn harvest cake from the same year from another vendor for $82. What accounts for such discrepancies in pricing?
Yibang has several types of tea, one is from scrubby, “untended” tea bushes on the hillsides, and then there are cultivated tea gardens as well. I’ve seen “small leaf” varietals here and there for sale, which are supposedly the more “wild” tea. Puerh hoarders kvetching on forums have hinted at some difficulties in aging Yibang cakes, but again I don’t know whether they are referring to the cultivated tea or the uncultivated tea. So with many confusing factors to consider, I’ve steered clear of Yibang area tea in the past. I hit the Buy button this year, however, after a photo on Instagram caught my eye.

I follow about 75 people on Instagram, and a few of these tea friends bought the $700 tea subscription from Essence of Tea this year. A photo of the EoT spring club shipment showed a 200g cake of Yibang. The person posting the photo typed out information about the tea that said the tea was "limited." Chawangshop wrote that Yibang suffered a drought this year in April, and by the end of April the tea in Yibang had all dried up and died. The area produced very little tea, and what got harvested early escalated in price. So a vendor is fortunate this year to get any tea at all from Yibang.

Having read the Chawangshop listing already, I was rather surprised when I saw a similar "limited tea" story from a club member belonging to Essence of Tea for their club cake. Now, Essence of Tea is a vendor who has been around for a number of years and in the past sold some rather pricey cakes. As a company they enjoy a good reputation among puerh collectors. The $700 club is certainly no small investment. But here is Chawangshop selling their own 2016 Yibang for $28 for 200g. And both teas share a common thread of "limited" availability.

2016 Yibang by Chawangshop
Essence of Tea is not selling their Yibang tea outside of their club membership, as of this writing. Perhaps they plan to add it to their site or maybe they just got enough tea for those who bought into the yearly club offering. Also, I have no idea whether EoT’s cake is the same tea as that of Chawangshop. But now you can understand why I might be interested in trying Chawangshop’s tea, even though I am unable myself to do a direct comparison with EoT’s club cake.

The cake is a bit greener than my photo.
Chawangshop house teas are firmly in the $12-$50 price range for 200g. As a whole this teashop vendor tends to search out the best flavor within this price range. I also find that their puerh teas offer a contrast from one another. That is, each tea is a very different flavor profile from every other tea offered (Lao Yun repeat productions aside). Chawangshop teas are single-origin as well, and are not usually blended from a variety of regions. Some vendors who do a lot of blending end up with teas that are difficult to distinguish one from the other. If Chawangshop offers loose maocha from a pressed production, the listing will say that the tea is the same as the pressing.

200g cake
So I’m never left wondering what I’m getting, and for the most part the teas are decent drinkers rather than collector teas. When I order a $28 tea from them, I expect it will be drinkable, and I might get a pleasant surprise if I’m lucky but I won’t be out a chunk of change if the tea is just okay. 

Chawangshop also offers farm/craft teas, like the Lao Yun cakes and some of the heicha teas that I like because I am a rural woman, and I enjoy a bit of rougher tea produced by farmers themselves. Just so you know that I can appreciate tea products on the high end and the low end too!  

In fact, I’ll brew up my low-end tea here in high-end Korean tea ware and hope for all things equal, a blend of contrasts which says more about me as a ridiculous and insane person than I want to admit. Back in the convent when I was young, a much older Sister Pauline laughed at me one day. She said, “You know, you can be so very elegant when you want to, and then all of a sudden you rip a celery stalk apart with your teeth.” I suppose my blog is full of such contrasts, and Sister Pauline might feel either amused or appalled, maybe both, at how little I have changed. But I am aware of the blessings of the nuns completely dissecting me at a young age and pointing out absolutely everything, no matter how small, in their dear effort to instill in me some sort of mature humanity. Sister Pauline made wine in the basement, by the way. And she shared the exact same birthday as my son and his father too, calculate the probability of that. She also sewed me a zafu meditation cushion for no reason other than she loved me. I can tell a hundred stories like this, and oh, I’m spoiled beyond imagining when now I sheepishly brew my tea.

Zafu meditation cushion

Where was I? I need 8g after all that nostalgia.

8g, is it just me, or the drought? Wiry leaves
Boiling rinses, I did two only because the tea hadn’t opened on the second boiling steep so I began drinking on third steep. A bit of acrid smoke and hay before the tea opens, a few bits of char in the gaiwan to explain all that. These are gone after a couple steeps. This tea is straight up Yiwu on the floral and honey top notes, with some Menghai strength underneath. I like the punchier bitter Menghai base notes and these last about three or four steeps, giving me a nice strong cup. Thickness is rather good for this tier.

Teapot by Lee Chi-Heon
Gallery Daunjae, South Korea
Later steeps are dominated by the sweet floral Yiwu. Unlike many of the Yiwu teas I’ve seen over the past year affected by a wet season, the drought shows in this leaf. It doesn’t cook up in the hot water, but is stronger and a little wiry. I found several bud plus two leaves combinations in the teapot, and a few larger and dark green leaves. Tea brews out a pleasant 10-12 steeps.

Chawangshop also offers loose Yibang “gushu” maocha from this production that I’m now more interested in trying. It would lack the pressed-in char, which actually isn’t a whole lot of char at all, but if I can avoid it in young tea I try to because I can taste it all the way through the aging process. This Yibang tea doesn’t disappoint in the Chawangshop line-up, yet another little shiny gem of a tea for this price tier, and yet another instance in which this vendor gives the most flavor for not a whole lot of money. I don't know if I've cleared up any of the confusion for myself about whether Yibang is a good one for aging, this seems like a drinker to me. If you like Yiwu teas and want this profile without the expense, this is definitely one to consider. I’ll be interested to see if any other shops offer Yibang for sale, and to compare the price because I doubt you can find better in the western online market.

Cha Hai by the incomparable Hong Seong-Il
No-san Clay Studios, Korea
Next time I’ll feature a few of the loose maocha teas I’ve ordered this year, a few for Old Cwyn’s crocks!

Addendum to this Post 4 August 2016

As you can see from the comments below, David C. of Essence of Tea stated that he did not send any information to his club members about the Yibang Tea cakes. However, the Yibang tea he has was very "limited," such that some club members only got a sample of "ancient" tea, and got other tea instead. These were members who mainly joined up "late," presumably there was no more tea left from the EoT Yibang buy at that point. Club members who did get Yibang cakes got two of them, one "ancient" and the other "regular," or tea garden cultivated tea, in order to compare the two types of tea grown on the same land.

I'm still left with some questions about Yibang and tea pricing, however. Honza from Chawangshop states fairly clearly on his $28/200g cake listing that I reviewed here, and on his $1/gram Yibang "gushu" maocha listing that the prices he paid for his tea are drought prices, or price impacts from a longer drought, not just April. Presumably, this means that the prices he paid for his supply are higher because A) Yibang tea is limited to begin with, and B) long term drought pushes prices even higher. Based on the listing for the $28 tea cake, Chawangshop reported that this tea was purchased in early April, before yet another month of no rain killed off Yibang tea leaves by the end of April.

I looked up the square miles of Yibang, and found an article stating that together Yibang, Manzhuan, Mang Zhi and Gedeng are an area of about 386 square miles (1000 km). This doesn't give a precise size for only Yibang, but presumably it is a smaller chunk of this area overall. Certainly this area is similar in size to a county in my part of the world, and it is not unheard of here that part of a county gets adequate rain showers, while another part gets missed entirely. I find it reasonable that two tea vendors buying tea from different farms might find one farm adequately watered while another farm is dry.

But returning to the issue of pricing: Chawangshop's $28/200g cake is a retail price. Presumably, Chawangshop adds a reasonable mark up for this tea and for their $1/gram Yibang "gushu." But I have to say, if $28/200g cake is a retail on top of direct price, this price is still pretty damn low. In fact, Honza reported he felt the price he paid was a bit high, and he hung around Yibang hoping for a lower price, but by the end of April the tea was "gone" in Yibang due to drought, driving the prices up even more.

I can accept it if a vendor like EoT wants to say "our tea is better quality" or "our tea cost us more." We don't have any information, because these teas were part of a larger club buy for people who have it, and not available for regular retail. I was offered the opportunity to try a sample of EoT, and I have to give some credit to the vendor at EoT for offering, even though the suggestion is that I don't "compare" the two. But I can hardly see how to avoid the comparison. And I know people will ask me. I'm just not sure if I want to accept a sample under these conditions, and I'm not out to make a shop look bad. For the sake of transparency, EoT surely gains buyer cred for offering samples publicly.

However, I'm not sure I want to make a comparison I can hardly avoid. The point of my blog post here is to showcase a less expensive option for a nice tea, for people on a budget who cannot afford to join a $700 tea club, or even for people who can afford other options. I think anyone who chooses to purchase either the club or go with budget teas have their reasons and different issues around tea buying. My intention is to show that buyers need not feel left out because they cannot afford tea clubs or high priced teas. I'm aware that I've already written about higher priced teas for 2016, and hope that I can focus attention on teas that are more in the budget range.

I simply cannot help doing the numbers though. If Chawangshop's pricing is drought pricing, and I have no reason to believe otherwise, then either EoT also paid drought pricing or they didn't. If EoT paid drought prices, then I am not wrong in my post suggesting that drought did indeed affect Yibang, even if club members were not explicitly informed. And if EoT paid drought prices, based on Chawangshop's $1/gram Yibang Gushu which makes a 200g cake retail at $200 minimum, then EoT club members spent nearly 1/3 of their membership, at a minimum, on Yibang tea. If EoT did not pay drought prices, because there was no drought where they bought their tea, then I wonder if their price should be even lower than Chawangshop's, and for a $28 cake starting price, this might a little disturbing. Either there was a drought or there wasn't.

Whether or not I try Essence of Tea's Yibang isn't important to me, necessarily. But I have a feeling other bloggers are going to take up this topic of what's going on with Yibang. Someone is likely to do a comparison, even if I don't. Someone will flush this out, even if I am not the one to do so. As we've see written on another cake this spring, the "tea don't lie." I'm happy to continue updating this blog if more information gets posted, or if any of these issues are clarified.