; Cwyn's Death By Tea: October 2017 ;

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

New Suits and Old Shous: Sessions with the Longrun Company

At last summer’s World Tea Expo in Las Vegas, I had the opportunity to meet with representatives from Longrun Tea Group based in Yunnan, China. They had a booth set up on the Expo floor, and served shou puerh tea. This booth was not very crowded compared to many other booths, and watching people walk on by I surmised that puerh is still a rather confusing tea for many people, and I suppose typical US restaurants are not necessarily looking for shou puerh. I had the booth to myself which is mighty fine for someone like me.

Longrun Campus
source longruntea.com
Longrun is one of the largest puerh factories in China, and the only large factory with shares traded on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. (see here for English website) The impressive company campus resembles some of the technology campuses we have in the US. In addition, Longrun funds the Yunnan Tea Research Institute, and Tea College at Yunnan Agricultural University, a think tank, and laboratory. These facilities produce many scientific journal papers flooding the research market over the past few years, many with a "pharmaceutical" bent. I have noticed that our National Institute of Health journal archives contain a huge number of papers from the Yunnan Tea Institute. These papers have some critical issues worth discussing in scientific and academic settings. However, this goes beyond my blog and my blood pressure. Younger people looking for research topics and literature review opportunities will hopefully deal with these. A thorough grounding in statistical methods of analysis at the doctoral level is required.

Suffice to say, Longrun is at the heart and hub of the major puerh industry in China. The company produces well over 200 products a year, according to their website. Shou puerh is a particular specialty and the company boasts modern stainless steel production and no fewer than 86 quality checks performed on their shou puerh teas. If you want clean shou, this is where you go to find it. Longrun reports their tea is one of the popular gift teas and ceremonial teas at the national level served to visiting foreign guests. To me this is indeed wonderful, that puerh tea which is a traditional craft product is proudly served and homage is paid to it at the national level. Government dollars invested in research is “walking the talk” of the importance of tea as an industry and culture in China.

Prior to 2005, Longrun was one of the state-owned factories producing tea under the government label. The company was sold into private hands in 2005, and this coincides with the fall-off of writing among many collectors. The teas mainly of interest over the past decade are mostly those produced by the old factory prior to 2005. More famous factories like Menghai (Taetea) still retain collector caché whereas Longrun might be more comparable to Lipton in the US. Such a comparison is perhaps something of a compliment: past articles on puercn have stressed that a goal of shou puerh factories is to find a way to market shou in the west comparable to companies like Lipton. In the US, Longrun has a branch company called SpringTeaUSA which sells some of their products, mainly wholesale.

The professional corporate image of the company was well on display at the World Tea Expo. This is not “flip flops and a rock” factory business. The three men representing the company wore formal business suits, and one member of the team was an American who said he grew up in California. All three men displayed friendly enthusiasm and repeated what other puerh and heicha sellers said, that they found relatively few Americans interested in their type of teas. I could see all the traffic at the green tea and flavored tea booths. I was happy to reassure the gentlemen that I have undivided attention to give a puerh company and am more than willing to drink everything they have, all by myself. In terms of dollars spent, one puerh buyer easily outspends and generally out-drinks a hundred green tea buyers.

Longrun served shou puerh at the Expo, and the company produces both sheng and shou teas. Surprisingly, the shou puerh is the more expensive product in their online catalog, some teas well on upwards of $150 per beeng. This probably reflects the greater production costs of shou puerh compared to sheng. Their leaves are obtained from plantation farmers who must meet strict criteria set by the company.  Thus, the sheng products are not the super premium old arbor “hike up the mountain” teas, but raw versions of the tea they purchase for shou production. I did not try their sheng, and while they had some on display I imagine these are not considered “ready to drink.” Instead, I drank a decade old shou with surprisingly perfect “old book” dry storage, and not much wo dui flavor remaining. This shou was quite impressive, actually.

I have been storing shou myself for going on a decade, and lately I appreciate more and more a decade or older shou teas rather than younger shou. The wo dui tends to overwhelm other flavors in young shou, and I really like a bit of storage flavor. Dry stored shou gets that old book or old wood flavor, and wetter stored shou can taste like oak leaves under wet snow. Storage flavor is one of the flavors to appreciate in any puerh. Of course the more flavor notes the better, but the storage note is one reason aged tea is so wonderful. Longrun’s aged shou is remarkably well-stored, rather unexpected for a company that produces new and gift teas. My appreciation was very sincere: the only other really decent shou I tried at the Expo was a sourced tea sold by Ito En, a Japanese company who obviously did not produce their tea.

The Longrun reps were really friendly guys and they gave me a baggie of tea to drink at home. They said this shou was a pile of tea found in the Longrun factory when it transferred to private ownership back in 2005. The door of the factory closed on full production, and so the new owners acquired everything in it. They found a pile of shou and no idea how long the shou sat there. The tea was dated 2005 coinciding with finding the pile, and the owners kept it since then. Wow, this is quite an interesting find for me!

Old tea nuggets, lao cha tou.
So, I have had this baggie since June and now we are in October. I let the tea stay open in the baggie for a couple of weeks but since June it did not develop much smell at all. My older shous in crocks are more fragrant by contrast. I am guessing this tea is preserved “as is,” but not as actively aged like the newer company productions.

I brewed up some chunks, and the tea is clearly a “lao cha tou,” or the lumps of shou that occur in a pile setting and are normally broken up before pressing into cakes, unless deliberately sold as chunks. This tea took several rinses and a sitting in a very hot Jian Shui clay teapot to open up. The tea is quite lively in the mouth, and to me appears to be a less heavily fermented shou than is usual with lao cha tou, probably evidence that the tea was a project that got left unfinished. It has the wine and mushroom flavors of other lao cha tou teas.

Cloudy brew with yellow ring
shows the fermentation halted.
Two issues with this tea, one is I found some char in the strainer and charred, burnt twigs. The other issue is the tea lacks clarity, evidence of a bacterial imbalance that probably occurred as a result of the fermentation left unfinished and uncontrolled. This is not obviously representative of any of the current products by Longrun, rather this is a historical vintage product from the old days. So nobody can generalize Longrun’s current products based on this shou. This tea certainly appears to match the story of “left in a pile.”

I steeped about eight times before the steep time needed increasing past flash steeps. The tea is not yet fully fermented and can benefit from further aging, evidenced by the yellowish ring around the cup and tinge to the tea, for it is still very slightly raw. The clarity will improve, the tea cleared up quite a bit for the ninth steeping, yet fully clearing will take a long time and I doubt this will ever be a great tea. The brew was not funky or fishy at all, but the wo dui is still strong for a twelve year old tea. In fact, I enjoyed much more Longrun’s later 2007 vintage shou, a cleaner tea with a perfect storage flavor.

Just nothing left after nine steepings, even when boiled.
The tea fell off after nine steeps. I tried boiling the leaves hard on the stove which often yields a nice cup from older shou and lao cha tou, but these leaves were done and I could not get more than just mildly flavored water. But hey, factories do not make premium shou every day and this tea was merely one current project when the factory changed hands. It is what it is. A photo of the wet leaves is difficult to capture the tea, even with my naked eye the lighter brown leaves are hard to distinguish after all that brewing.

A couple of charred sticks, some lighter brown leaves.
What is so special is that this 2005 is a vault tea from Longrun, part of their history as a factory. I am incredibly lucky to taste a bit of this history, for I doubt many people have this kind of opportunity and from such a famous factory as Longrun. I can appreciate the rough character of the old shou because it matches the story behind it, the tea tells that story perfectly well. I can appreciate also that the craft quality of shou tea is now at a new level due to science and improvements in industrial production. A comparison of this tea with Longrun’s newer products illustrates the company’s journey and achievements. The resulting financial and commercial success speaks for itself.

I want to thank Longrun for this rare opportunity to drink a bit of their history. This is a special experience I am not likely to have again in my lifetime. I feel more favorably disposed to consider Longrun teas after drinking their finely stored 2007 vintage. I worry that someday the premium teas may no longer be available in the west. A company like Longrun aiming for excellence and selling in the western market reassures me that we will always have something to drink.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

How to Season and Clean Clay Kettle Boilers

I don’t know whether a post on clay water boilers is of interest to anyone, but I might as well post what I do with my clay boilers. 

Clay teapots and boilers can enhance puerh teas, or at least diminish storage effects on older teas. Clay is also mitigating our water as well as enhancing flavors in tea. Any boiler or tea kettle may perfectly suffice for most people, and I believe that no special equipment is necessary for boiling water. Yet you may wish to consider a clay boiler down the road. These boilers are quite nice to have for brewing tea out of doors in areas with no electricity, such as on a camping trip. Like clay teapots, a clay water boiler softens water and enhances flavors within the tea. Clay boilers also allow one to use lovely porcelain tea ware while still enjoying the enhancements clay brings to tea sessions.

A clay kettle may be used on a burner or kitchen stove or on a charcoal warmer designed especially for clay kettle boiling. The standard advice with a clay kettle is to decide which sort of burner you want to use, and stick with one burner type only. I personally do not believe this is the case, as long as you use the lowest possible heat setting on whatever type of burner you choose. The key is heating the clay slowly.

Some tea drinkers prefer to boil their water in a faster electric kettle, use some to warm their clay kettle first, dump it and then add boiling water. Then the clay kettle stays over a low heat burner to remain warm during the tea session. I use this method, but also I have started with cooler water. As long as the kettle is not starting out ice cold and heated too quickly, there is no danger of cracking the kettle. Keep in mind if you start out using cool water, your clay boiler will need more time to heat up using a very low heat flame or burner.

I own three clay kettles because well, I am a pig first of all. Nobody needs three clay boilers. I am hopelessly addicted to tea ware. I could argue that I like testing various clays and justify my purchases for the “sake of the blog.” Hahaha. Anyway I own a Lin’s Ceramics Purion kettle, a Chaozhou (or Chaoshan area) red clay boiler, and an art ware kettle made of high fired clay by Petr Novak, a well-known Czech artist.

You can find a Chaozhou red clay teapot from Chawangshop.com, they have a nice selection of these kettles and also the proper stoves for sale. Shipping cost is a factor. A kettle or stove must be shipped separately from anything else in your order, adding approximately $20-25 to the cost. Even with the extra shipping, you can get a nice kettle and stove set-up for under $100. But you can also find clay kettles sold from many other sources to compare.

How to Season Unglazed Clay Boilers

Chawangshop recommends their boilers soak in water for 24 hours prior to use. I asked about using a food starch seasoning as this is what I normally use. The traditional starch is rice starch. Chawangshop replied that this method is not necessary for their clay Chaozhou. You can find their instructions on the listings.

Clay Chaozhou from chawangshop.com
For me, I need to consider that while my water is not terribly full of minerals and my kettles do not build up much scale, I would rather prevent this scale from building up. Once the scale forms it is difficult to remove without using anything other than water. A simple food starch seasoning will slow down any scale formation. A starch seasoning needs only to be done one time.

Corn Starch or Rice Starch

These starches are good for very fine particle clays. Start with a dry pot and fill with room temperature water, add a heaping spoon of starch to the pot and stir well. Heat the boiler to boiling over the lowest possible heat temperature.

To use rice, mash cook rice on a plate and then add it to the boiler with water and stir well.

Adding corn starch to water.
I used a tea brush to clean off the mess.
Tea boat by Mirka Randova.
Boil for 1-2 minutes, remove from heat.

Pour off the water as soon as it is cool enough to pour, minding your hands.  Remove any rice if you used rice.

Do not rinse the pot. When the water is poured off while very hot, the remaining water will evaporate quickly leaving behind a film of starch.

Allow the kettle to dry for 24 hours without the lid.

Potato Starch

Cooked potato or potato flakes are a nice alternative to corn, and the cooked potato will fill a more coarse type of clay kettle such as my Novak. Potato works very well with composite clay kettles.

Local tater.
Mash a small cooked potato in a bowl.

Mashed potato with peels removed.
Add the potato to your clay boiler and top with warm water. Stir up the potato.

Add hot water to potato.
Clay kettle by Petr Novak.

Boil the kettle over the lowest possible flame slowly. Allow to boil for 5-10 minutes, stirring occasionally until the potato is mostly dissolved. 

Stir with wooden spoon or bamboo skewer.
Do not rinse, any remaining hot water will evaporate very quickly.

Use a tea pot brush if necessary to remove any excess starch left on the bottom or around the top.

Allow the kettle to dry without the lid for at least 24 hours.

Photo of the lid just after the starch procedure.
A bit tough to see a film left from the starch,
which has mostly soaked into the clay and will dry.
Using the Clay Boiler

You may want to toss the first 1-2 boils to remove any excess starch or use them to water plants.

Do not use ice cold water; allow water to reach room temperature if you are using bottled water. Warm water from a thermos is also okay. The idea is not to shock the clay.

Bring to a boil over the lowest possible temperature on your stove or burner.

Use all the water, or pour off any hot water when your tea session is finished. Do not let water sit in the pot after use. Allow to dry for a full day with the lid off.

Cleaning Exterior Stains from Clay Boilers

Stains add charm to a well-loved clay boiler, but sometimes people want to remove them. Cleaning clay is like cleaning vintage or antique items in that we want to use the least intrusive, least harsh methods first. So, try water with a tooth brush first.

Next, use a slurry of baking soda and water with a toothbrush, and gently brush stains. Wait about 10 minutes, and then wipe off excess. Pour hot water over the entire pot to remove the soda.

My Lin's Ceramics kettle has a few stains.
Normally I would not remove these, but
this is for demonstration.
The next step if you are not yet happy is to use whitening toothpaste. I like Gleem, it is an older and gentle whitening toothpaste that works very well on vintage plastics, glass and porcelain. Gleem will also remove yellowing from your car headlights. I don’t use Gleem on my teeth, but I always have some in the house for cleaning.

Baking soda and water slurry.
Wet-brush the stain gently with Gleem, can also be used on top of the baking soda if you wish. Pour hot water over the entire kettle to remove the toothpaste or baking soda.

Gently brush on baking soda slurry or wet toothpaste.
If you are still not satisfied, you can repeat any of the above or proceed to a dry sandpaper of 300-400 grit. This is the harshest method, so test the sandpaper on the bottom of the boiler first to see how much it affects the color of the clay. Sandpaper will also remove patina, the last thing you want is a more prominent stain. Sanding should be a last resort. At the same time, if you burnt your boiler to a black char on a tea stove then you may wish to completely sand off the char, although there is nothing wrong with leaving it charred.

Stain has lightened somewhat to blend into the pot.
I could remove more of it, but choose not to.
I would not recommend cleaning the interior of the boiler. As long as hot water is poured off and the kettle is allowed to dry after use, then further cleaning is not necessary. If you happen to get dirt or scale inside, boil water in the kettle and pour off.  Wipe out any remaining particles.

I like to try my teas using a clay boiler to heat my water, and compare the clay boiled water with water from another heating method. Clay boiled water is very nice with drier storage puerh teas. By contrast, I prefer to use small clay teapots for steeping wetter stored teas, and then I don’t need clay boiled water.