; Cwyn's Death By Tea: October 2016 ;

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Tea Utensils

Some of my best-loved tea items never appear online
Every day I enjoy my tea ware and follow quite a few people on social media just to see their beautiful photos, from artists to fellow tea drinkers. Looking at tea porn is a very relaxing part of a puerh hobby, you can enjoy from afar what others have collected. I have more than my necessary share of tea ware, but when I think about what I truly use every day a few things shake out as essential. I’m surprised that my most useful gong fu items are utensils or accessories, because very rarely do I include them in photos. Well, my current loved but un-lauded tea pieces deserve some space.

Basic Puerh Pick from Yunnan Sourcing.
First, of course we all need a puerh pick or puerh knife. Believe it or not, I don’t own a fancy puerh knife. Yet every day I use a $2 puerh pick from Yunnan Sourcing and haven’t felt a need for anything else. This is a truly humble pu utensil, but it gets used more often than my most loved teapots.

Next, here is a pair of brass tea clamps, or gongfu tweezers.

Brass tea clamps, Verdant Tea
Winston's kitten paws on the table show why I need these.
This is an item I tossed in an order a year ago from Verdant Tea. Yeah, I know, but this thing is now absolutely essential to me, and even more valued because Dear Son does not like it. His main complaint is that it is on the kitchen counter all the time and never gets put away. He tends to move it around in annoyance which makes me extremely crabby when I can’t find it.

The purpose of these clamps is for picking up small tasting cups and rinsing them with hot water without needing fingers. But I use this set of clamps for so many things. I can pick up tea leaves and chunks from a cake and put them in a small teapot. I can pick out a stick or stray debris in my teacup without using my fingers. I can deftly pick up and turn over wet leaves in a teapot or gaiwan. I can stir a tightly compressed tea ball in boiling hot water. I can dunk and retrieve a tea bag that doesn’t have a string attached. All these functions are even more important now for my tea tweezers because I’m still feeding my kitten wet food by hand. I wash my hands really well after doing this, but I feel like my fingers must have cat food germs that I don’t want on, or in, my tea. I suppose I could wear cotton gloves for tea, but I have my tweezers instead.

Another necessary utensil for me is a tea strainer. Some people don’t use strainers. As a blogger, however, I want to use a strainer so people can see the clarity of a tea. Clarity is one factor that determines the quality of a sheng leaf and the fermentation of shou, and most readers likely want to see the brew well-strained of anything that might unnecessarily cloud the cup. I have also learned a lot from straining my tea. I check a fine mesh strainer for char or tea leaf fuzz and rinse the strainer after every pour. I notice how many steepings a tea needs to clear of char, and how much tea dust I created when breaking off the leaves. I can determine whether a tea is sour because of char. Most sheng has a tiny bit of char, but a lot of char means sour or smoky tea that is an issue for my drier storage.

Woven bamboo strainers, Verdant Tea
I own a number of strainers. Lately I use these woven Yunnan strainers from Verdant Tea. The handled one is for shou, and the no-handle strainer for sheng. You can probably tell which of the two gets the most usage. With bamboo strainers, you must dedicate each to one type of tea. I notice right away if I mistakenly use my shou strainer for sheng because the brew is very slightly colored by shou. In addition to these, I have a Ru kiln fine mesh strainer and two metal strainers. I want to try a gourd strainer someday. I feel that my woven strainers are helpful at tempering some of the metallic taste from tea or water, or maybe it’s my medications and I’m imagining things.

Wenge Wood teapot brush, EBay
And more kitten paws shoo-ed but still showing.
Then I have a wenge wood hair brush that I got for about $4 on EBay to brush teapots. The hair might be dog hair, it certainly smelled like it when I got it. One time my son borrowed it for using liquid wax on his bassoon equipment, and left it for me with dried, stuck on wax. I managed to get all the wax out by freezing the brush.

Here is a tea cup that I use often that never appears in my blog or in other tea photos. You can see right away why not.

Porcelain tenmoku glaze tea cup
by Shawn McGuire of Greenwood Studios, Etsy
Can you tell what kind of tea is in this cup? Most people want to see the tea liquid, so I use clear cups instead for that purpose. I’m in love with tenmoku glaze and I don’t need to spend a mortgage payment’s worth of money on a vintage Japanese cup when so many potters are making fine new ones under $30 on Etsy. But I can’t use these to show off tea liquid.

My last “must-have” is new this year, a tea pillow by Mirka Randová. This is the sort of purchase that I thought, “why did I need to have this?” and the thought turned into “why didn’t I buy one of these sooner?”

Stoneware tea pillow by Mirka Randová @potsandtea
This tea pillow is brilliant. The clay is rough to the touch, feels like sandpaper which actually grips the cup or teapot when I’m carrying it from the kitchen to my room or a table. My cup or teapot doesn’t slide around and won’t easily slip and fall when a cat gets under my feet. If I do happen to lose my footing a little, tea can slosh into the basin of the pillow without making a mess on the floor. I can pour water over teapots to brush them, and overfill the teapot if I want. The tea pillow is also a little hefty weight-wise, rather like an old vintage heavy ashtray. So the pillow can sit on my bed or other furniture and if a cat bounds up and over to my lap, the pillow won’t easily tip. In fact, the pillow doesn’t move at all. I needed this tea pillow years ago when I had a small child running around. I don’t even have to wash it.

Hopefully you enjoyed seeing a few of the utensils I use regularly. I’m sure we all go through phases when we use some items a great deal in our tea ceremony. Then we move on to new items as the old ones might need replacing or as our needs change. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Function of the Wrapper in Puerh Collecting

In my reading about collecting lately, I’ve tried to find some comparisons between our puerh hobby and other forms of collecting. As I noted in my previous piece, I struggled to find adequate comparisons collecting the raw tea product that we consume and care for, and quite frankly, other people. Maybe that is a bit too broad a brush stroke. If so, then I need to narrow the focus just a bit. The puerh wrapper itself serves many functions and is a key component of our collections, just as a label is for a record collector. I spent some time thinking about the wrapper, and how difficult “going loose” for puerh tea is, aside from the obvious space issues in our storage. Wrappers have so much to say to us.

Historical and Cultural Context of Wrapper Content

The most obvious information on the wrapper is the factory, the wording, marketing, and perhaps time and place. We might know more about the tea than the wrapper tells us, because we know the story behind the tea enclosed in that wrapper. Cultural and linguistic folks along with tea historians deconstruct wrappers over time, and many collectors know facts like when date stamping began, or what CNNP really means in any given year based on the history of this label.

These are large topics requiring books to really get into specifics. I’m interested in the end user, the person with a collection. We are aware of historical and cultural aspects related specifically to the information on the label. Or lack of it, in the case of modern trends of labels as art rather than as indicative of the product inside. Whether or not the wrapper has Chinese characters, or merely a picture or art, we can look at the function of wrapper as descriptive, as part of the tea object.

Wrapper Defines the Tea as Object

To me, this is when the wrapper coalesces with the object of the tea so they function as one. The wrapper is not merely information about the tea, but is a part of the tea. For example, here is a tea where the wrapper and tea-as-an-object function together.

Photo: Grandness China Tea Co. on Aliexpress
Most puerh fans need only see the crane and tuo shape to know this is a Xiaguan tuo. The yellow box tells us it’s the gold ribbon tuo, but the tuo alone with the wrapper tells us what “it” is, the “it” is Xiaguan tuo. The shape and the wrapper image are a singular identity. When I own one of these, I hold in my hand a Xiaguan tuo, wrapper and tea together. And the box if you're savvy.

Some teas are very special to a collector. Maybe the person saved money for a long time to afford their desired puerh tea. Or spent years seeking out a particular production. Finally when the tea arrives, the collector can hold it in their hands and think “It’s mine, I have it now.” The wanting behind the tea eventually is satisfied when holding the cake with the wrapper in hand.

The wrapper is one with the coveted tea. Very quickly, of course, the tea in our possession moves from coveted object to tea object in storage, where the focus changes from looking and touching to smelling and worrying. The object of the tea in the wrapper takes on the object relations of success or failure in storage. We’ve moved from merely having, or owning, to ideas about the progress of the tea. Or we are moving on to drinking the tea and reaching the point where it no longer exists in our collection, it is object of consumption. Once consumed, we begin to form our ideas about the tea. This moves the tea from an object with wrapper to ideas which encompass much, much more.

Wrapper as Narrative and Consensus

To illustrate this point, let’s look at some teas which we can agree have some historical consensus behind them.

Tea Classico's offering of 2012 7542 teaclassico.com
if anyone is still home over there.
This wrapper indicates much more than the design on the paper, and more than an object to hold. The 7542 recipe contains decades of historical consensus among tea drinkers as one of the older puerh teas to reliably age into a decent drinking tea. Historical consensus is the heart of puerh collecting, it is the narrative of all tea drinkers who converge upon certain teas as worthy. Not everyone likes a 7542, and we are still in the relative, subjective nature of taste. Among other factors, certainly the year matters and storage is important, and where the tea comes from, who owns it, what we call provenance in collecting, the whole story behind the particular cake. Nevertheless the 7542 stands as a tea with historical consensus behind it. The wrapper has more meaning because of the consensus.

As a general idea of “good tea,” we look at the 7542 or the Grand Red Mark in a way that a record collector looks at a Sun Records label of a Johnny Cash song. In the book Contemporary Collecting: Objects, Practices and the Fate of Things, editor K. Moist makes a point about record labels which I think applies rather well to puerh wrappers too. “Many of these labels’ releases, by their very existence, but also through their creative and detailed presentation, call attention to various (mostly unstated) assumptions that underlie consensus musical history (Moist and Banach 2013, p. 241).” This is what I mean about the label, or wrapper in our case, plus the owned object itself representing the consensus narrative behind it. With puerh, the consensus is stated, as opposed to simply inferred, because many puerh drinkers have opined on the tea.

Historical consensus is truly a fun aspect of owning puerh tea, apart from just buying and collecting. People discuss teas at all stages of development. Sometimes consensus changes as a tea takes on age, and perhaps does not live up to early promise. Or maybe a tea sits around in collections for a long time before rediscovery and the consensus moves the tea into a desirable category.

Blue Mark Lan Yin 1990s by white2tea.
Or was, until a sole person went ahead
and bought up all this very fine tea. Son,
I don't fault you for having the money and
the desire to own this production. But seriously,
how many tongs of this $650 cake do you need?
You couldn't leave just a few for the rest of us
saving pennies in a plastic yellow piggy bank?
Really? No, apparently you had to buy it all.
Oy. If you can't pay the mortgage, you know
who to call to relieve you of one of these.
Consensus isn’t always favorable for a tea, and perhaps the image of the wrapper implies a somewhat negative impression. Going back to the Xiaguan tuo, some people love these tuos, others think “smoky, dirt, wood” and wouldn’t drink one even though the historical consensus is that these tuos age well and taste amazing when fully and properly aged.

Misty Peaks 2016 100g cake--my photo.
Misty Peaks tea is a stark example of a newer puerh tea which has a dual consensus emerging thus far. To some, the tea wrapper which also has a plastic “wax” seal indicates a pleasant single-origin tea of Yiwu-ish sweetness. To others, the marketing of this label represents overstatement or maybe outright fraud because of the “spring tea” claims challenged over the past year. The tea and wrapper represent a dual opinion, a divided opinion. Saying nothing at all about the tea quality, achieving any sort of consensus is the result of much buzz and conversation. On the sole achievement of acquiring any consensus at all, Misty Peaks is relatively successful.

A new trend of puerh wrappers as art, or in the case of white2tea using Drake songs, I notice that the song reference carries little meaning after a time, because drinker consensus about the tea takes over its original identity. I don’t need to know what “Untitled 2” means, even though the cake is based on a song I haven’t heard of and don’t plan to listen to. The tea and the wrapper have an emerging consensus that interests me based on people drinking it and talking about it. I’m encouraged to look at YS 2015 Year of the Goat shou and recognize the wrapper because enough people have mentioned it as a decent ripe for my attention and credit card to give it a try.

What other teas can you think of that have some historical consensus among collectors? Here is another one I’d propose, though the wrapper maybe a tougher one for new puerh drinkers to identify.

Consensus, with only word of mouth provenance.
All this is food for thought for vendors, especially ones who might think about saving money on the wrapper and using a small stamp instead, or a plain white wrapper with nothing on it. So how much do wrapper-less puerh cakes tell us? What do you get from looking at this?

A cake.
Compared to this:

Same cake as above, but with wrapper.
Real or fake, this wrapper has huge narrative behind these photos, online and published in books. To me, this suggests that spending time on a unique wrapper, regardless of what design you choose, is worth the effort at creating the possibility for narrative and consensus. I think people want the pressed tea and the wrapper too because the ownership as an object and the consensus together bring status to a collection, or the feeling of good taste by the owners, of having chosen well.

I suggest that the “rabbit hole” behind buying puerh tea, and trying to stop but you can’t is in large part due to how the object and wrapper function as one identity, symbolic of historical narrative and consensus. Sometimes it’s possible to hate the tea but still need to keep it, to own it even when someone offers you a better price than you paid. You don’t want to let go of a tea that has developed meaning. You might even keep a scrapbook of neifei or save the wrappers of teas you’ve drunk to remind you that you owned it, to tell the story of your personal taste.

All my musings about the wrapper here really stemmed back from the idea of “mainstream puerh,” asking myself what it takes for something like puerh tea to become more popular than it is now. Mainstreaming involves more than simply changing the factory wrappers with characters to fancy art and design. Puerh obtains narrative and identity through consensus, through people talking. Yes, we still need those stereotypical people with apparently nothing better to do except obsess over sessions and post online, or write blogs and books. Talking is fun, so let’s keep sharing and see what happens, which teas shake out of collections as truly remarkable.


Moist, Kevin M., and David C Banash. Contemporary Collecting: Objects, Practices and the Fate of Things. Lanham: The Scarecrow Press Inc, 2013.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Us Puerh Collectors, Why We are Different

What defines my living space.
Over the past week I spent some time reading about collecting in general, hoping for some common ground between myself and the rest of collecting humanity. Aside from a few snippets of observed behavior, I must conclude that I am, in fact, different from other collecting people. And I’ve known this all along these past seven years since I started buying puerh. Living with my tea taught me why.

In a general sense, collectors as a whole spend time acquiring and preserving a collection of items. Collecting is a distinct activity from hoarding, which a survival type of activity viewed negatively in the mainstream collecting. As opposed to hoarding, the collector goes after specific items with a set of criteria which define the collector’s taste and discerning eye. Or in our case, discerning mouth feel, and body feel. All this is where commonality with other collectors starts and stops because puerh drinkers and collectors have one aspect of the hobby to deal with that no one else has, which is the development and aging of a raw, unfinished product.

We collectors share in the act of drinking our collection with other beverage collectors. We can discuss nuances in flavor. In our situation, the body effect is a factor in judging the aesthetic qualities of the tea. Other beverage people do not discuss body feel because a true taster in wine or whiskey will spit to remove the euphoric effect of the alcohol when judging the merits of the beverage. I can set aside body effect as merely an aspect of a tea, but not necessarily the most important single trait to seek out. But I cannot set aside the Art and Science of Fermentation. Unlike every other collector, Puerh Tea Collectors have a maintenance requirement that goes beyond mere preservation. We are collecting a raw, unfinished product in the case of sheng puerh which is not in its ideal finished form when we acquire it. Even shou puerh is not technically finished. More than this, we are collecting a living product. Puerh Tea is alive.

Like the whiskey or wine drinker, we can, in theory, acquire a finished puerh tea product at thirty years old and then preserve it in a similar manner as a bottle of thirty-year old whiskey. I say “in theory” because no real market exists in which people can buy thirty-year old puerh unless you get lucky at Sotheby’s or Asian tea auction and have thousands of dollars to spend. Even if you can afford to buy at this level, we simply have no more highly aged tea left to buy that is not already in the hands of collectors. The vast majority of puerh collectors are buying a younger, raw product that needs development, and so our activity as collectors after buying is that of fermenting a living product.

A thirty-year journey
This “living product” is why I got a bit upset at the Wine Sommelier declaring a fine raw puerh tea as Soapy Artichoke Water. A crucial bit of information is missing here, that the tea is not finished, the tea is not yet what it is meant to be. The wine or whiskey collector tastes a finished product, not the mash. Wine makers taste the grapes and the mash, but the Sommelier probably doesn’t. Yet we drink our “mash” in the form of the raw product, and while we might enjoy the raw product in its new and unfinished state, we are also drinking for the future, what the tea will become. We are drinking to test the progress of our collection, and to judge our care in the meantime.

The mere buyer of puerh tea can acquire tea at any age, and keep it in the bag or wrapper and store it in whatever manner they wish, but the tea has a high probability of failure to turn into greatness. The serious collector, however, provides conditions for the tea for its optimal development. The art and science of fermentation and storage of puerh tea is a difficult task, reducing the likelihood of failure only by degrees unknown even today. We hope to reduce failure in our task of storing and fermenting, but we face the prospect of failure every day in the form of unwanted mold or dryness which kills the living tea over time.

What other form of food or beverage collecting has a thirty-year time span? What other beverage has such stringent requirements for storage with such high prospects for mediocrity or failure? Most beverages are finished when people buy them. Wine bottles that shatter in the cellar or whiskies that develop sludge are not the fault of the collector, necessarily. Virtually all of the work going into wine or whiskey is done by professionals before the buyer acquires them. Likewise, foods like aged cheese get their aging work done by professionals before the cheese is ever put up for sale. Puerh success or failure, on the other hand, is entirely due to the amateur collector today and what that amateur collector does with the tea.

We don’t have aged wood barrels to help us, we have nothing whatsoever provided to us except the raw material to guarantee our success. So we must know just what we taste in this raw material we are given, and in this tasting the Wine Sommelier failed. I myself tasted what she did, and it is a great raw leaf. Will it turn into the best aged puerh? If so, then we know an amateur succeeded because right now 100% of the exact tea she and I tasted is in the hands of amateurs.

I’m tempted to throw out all comparisons to collectors of beverages and food and compare puerh tea with champion horse rearing. Horse buyers assess young stallions or mares for their potential, and know the work involved in turning that young horse into a champion. But unlike puerh tea, horse buyers then turn over the development to a professional, and that professional finishes their work in a few short years. In the thirty-year time span needed for puerh tea, the horse trainer has eight generations done and gone.

Is it done yet? Probably not.
All of this is what makes puerh tea difficult to mainstream. Sure, anyone can buy a puerh tea and drink it at any time. The tea is both good and bad every single day until thirty years pass. How many people buying puerh tea will actually reach that end date? And when that end date arrives, many teas may not be worth drinking. I feel a little sorry for the Wine Sommelier because she will not get the opportunity to taste old tea, as I have, unless she manages to find a collector with such a tea willing to share. I hope she seeks out puerh greatness, because without any experience I fear she will miss out, not understanding what she is drinking. She will not get why I dried steeped fifty year old leaves and reused them over and over because they are just so damn good.

Puerh tea collectors are different from every other collector because we have Mold and Bacteria for friends. We commit to decades of time pondering storage and fermentation. We have a living collection that must develop and ferment over half a human lifetime. We can discuss tea culture and history, language, semiotics or collecting as luxury at any point. But at the end of the day, all this is nothing against the reality of success or failure of puerh tea fermentation and storage. As for me, I will die before I ever fully appreciate what’s mine. That’s what makes me different.