; Cwyn's Death By Tea: November 2017 ;

Sunday, November 19, 2017

2017 WMD Mansa

Over a year ago I very much enjoyed Bitterleaf’s 2016 WMD Mansa, and I added a 2017 version of this tea into an order I placed last spring. At that time, my attention was primarily focused on Bitterleaf’s collector/hoarder “late 1990s” CNNP, a well-stored tea I am still somewhat obsessed with. When ordering teas, my interest is often laser-ed in on one tea and other teas are add-ons mainly to take advantage of shipping. In the case of Bitterleaf Tea ordering, once you hit the $100 purchase mark you will get free shipping. I was well past the free shipping mark with the CNNP tea so I decided to get the Mansa now rather than order it later and pay the shipping too.
Dark wrapper this year.
Bitterleaf Teas continues to impress followers with their unique artisan tea wares, many of which sell out immediately. So you must follow their Instagram feed or email ahead if you hope to snag a particular piece. While Jonah Snyder primarily answers email inquiries, his wife’s professional-level photography skills make their website stand out from virtually all other tea vendor sites. In my youth I took old-school black and white photography courses, but with cell phone cameras and an “everybody is a photographer” mentality today, I appreciate here that professional skill and know-how are still obviously superior. I must cover my eyes to avoid tea ware temptation, and quickly navigate to the teas on the Bitterleaf website.
The neifei got rather buried in this cake.
My cake of 2017 WMD Mansa got a full summer of warm and humid weather to settle down and now nearly six months have passed since it arrived. The price of the tea is the same as last year, a hefty $0.88/g so $88 for 100g. I re-read my post from last year and further prepared for this year's session by not drinking any sheng two days in advance, so that the full effects of this tea might affect me all more strongly. As I recall, last year’s tea had some serious stoner effects for me. I tried to go lighter on the parameters with a small 60 ml gaiwan, but chipped off 5g so what the hell, steep it hard.
This is a 100g beengcha
The smell and appearance of the wet leaves under boiling water immediately seem to me a different tea than last year, something I have heard from other buyers. This tea does not have the strong florals as last year, although I do smell a bit of floral in the cup, but also an ordinary Menghai note which is new. The leaves for the most part are also much smaller.
Initial steeps have a custard-smooth and thick quality to the brew, some bitterness and a mild Menghai fruit flavor. The tea has some residual lingering in the throat down to the stomach. After four cups I broke a sweat and felt some stoner effects in my face, not so much as I recall from last year, but of course we are never the same on any given day. As the leaves open up, I find one or two that have the thicker stems as last year’s tea, but this year’s beeng is a bit more tip-py with small buds and small leaves.

Steep 4
After eight quick brews I need to push the tea with longer steeping time. The next three steeps are sour/bitter with a touch of fruity floral, very astringent and mouth drying but still decently thick. Yet I’m hitting green tea now and the leaves are forced into a stewed veggie condition. Last year I remember thick leaves steeping for days, easily past fifteen brews. The mix of leaves appears to consist of some of the larger leaves I remember from last year, and much younger/smaller leaves that smush under the finger rub test. The larger leaves are more sturdy and do not break when rubbed.

2017 Mansa leaves
The problem for me is this tea has the same name on the wrapper two years in a row. I am somewhat stuck. I cannot help comparing last year’s production, my expectations are set in advance due to the name. I cannot explain the reason for these differences between the two productions because too many explanations are possible. Had Bitterleaf simply used a different name for the tea, I would not have the same expectations. The truth may well be that these leaves are from the same trees as last year, and the weather or time of picking may explain the differences. But I could just as easily believe the tea is not from the same trees as last year, or that the large leaves are the same but another younger batch of leaves has been added in. Maybe the quantity of the harvest was lower and the production required boosting with another tea.

2016 Mansa leaves on the same plate as above.
Overall the brew is not terribly complex, but then neither was last year’s tea. Certainly the tea is still fairly fresh and may change more in the next six months. Comparing the tea to an inexpensive drinker, the quality of the experience is definitely better than average but the sour late brews and lack of longevity are concerning at this price range. At this point, I am stuck because I know 2017 teas overall are more expensive. So, “this year’s prices” may well fit in with reality. What stood out about last year’s production was leaf quality and longevity, and the drinking experience was also better than the average drinker. If an “average drinker tea” of lesser quality costs more this year, then I could say 2017 WMD Mansa is right in line with other 2017 teas.
So if I buy 200g of this tea at $176, this falls in the higher price range of other vendors, for example white2tea’s 2016 Untitled 2. However I think I prefer a bit more complexity at this price range, and for the money a good alternative, theoretically speaking, is a much less expensive but sold out w2t Bosch. At the same time, not many teas offer similar drinking experiences with the body effects, and we will generally need to pay a hefty price tag for teas that do offer such effects.
I have heard second-hand that vendors are saying they could not make the same productions this year for the same cost as the past two years. I am left wondering about 2017 overall. Because I have not bought any other teas from this year’s harvest, I do not have a good comparison. One can do much worse buying a drinker quality, and this tea is a somewhat better experience. To decide for your own self how much better this tea is than other teas, I suggest sampling first. Honestly with this year’s prices so high across the board, buying samples before committing your wallet is likely the best strategy.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Making Decisions on Buying Tea Ware

Making decisions about tea ware is quite personal and can turn into an obsession rather quickly, whether a person is just starting out or has already built up an obscenely large collection. My recent post on clay kettles brought a number of emails regarding tea ware and other accessories. The vast majority of questions I get can be summed up as:

Should I buy X?

Where X = you name it, everything from Yixing, burners, boilers, to “where did you get that strainer, should I buy one?”

Well, here is my version of the truth summed up as decision-tree type pointers, take it or leave it.

We are alone out there.

No one else can open my wallet and make the decision. No one else can try my water and decide what makes my tea taste the best.

The answer is always No.

This is where to start with any decision-making process regarding tea ware. There is a possible exception in the situation of a Petr Novak club sale, during which we have maybe sixty seconds to decide. Unless one is willing to un-sub from the club emails, then I might as well just click and buy. Get it over with.

A spouse will always say no.

Hopefully you have not pursued this dead end for some time. I suppose if one is truly waffling on a buy, a spouse can tip the scales toward no. At best, a weary indifference means the spouse is unreliable for an objective opinion and we need to ask elsewhere for opinions. Luckily I do not have anyone to object to my purchases that I cannot bully or cajole. These skills are invaluable.

Tea Heads and B/Vloggers are not good to ask.

Most puerh tea collectors already know this. However, a certain obsessive trait usually leads people to continue asking others for advice, even when the buyer’s mind is already made up to go ahead. By exploring this rung of the tea chain I am mostly past the No answer already, and heading toward a Yes. Am I really interested in the opinion, or am I seeking to confirm a decision I have already made? In that case, I might as well skip time-consuming messages for several reasons:

Many tea heads and bloggers have far more tea and tea ware than they really need and another purchase is even less justified. So their initial gut instinct is No. Or maybe they like to buy and need to fortify their shopping defenses against you. No matter the reason, the sheer fact of knowing one has too much already is enough to bias this type of person, and prevent them from objectively considering the item I wish to purchase.

They also are reluctant to suggest spending money to anyone because they do not want to be held responsible for buyer remorse. Or on the flip side, they may actually want the item I plan to buy and could snipe it out from under me. Is this what you want to risk? (By the way, this last bit is the type I am, a proud sniper).

Sellers are worse yet.

This is because the answer is mostly yes rather than no. A rare “no” should be interpreted as a yes in all instances. However, if the seller says “I’ve decided not to sell” and pulls the listing, then I probably missed out because s/he cannot let go of it. In this rare case, I will email and probably phone daily, possibly more often, to try and buy the item or tea.

Okay, so these are the main methods to get No out of the way. Passing all of these and still obsessing over a purchase means Yes is getting stronger by the minute. So now let us consider what else can go wrong before Yes is finalized. These are "strong stomach tests." We need a strong stomach when purchasing tea ware just as we need one for cheap puerh.

Shipping Breakage

No shipping method is 100% guaranteed against breakage. I think I have had a total of three broken tea ware purchases. Of course some sellers/artists are more reliable than others but no package is bomb proof, there is always a way to completely crush a box.

What Ass sat on your shipping box?
 photo by "alex" of Teafriends
reproduced with permission.
Can you return the item or get a refund? 

Broken tea ware may or may not be eligible for refund, depending on the seller. Sometimes it is not feasible to return tea ware. Earlier this year I bought a very pricey tea pot that had a lid at least 3 mm loose, from a rather famous tea ware artist (no, not Mr. Novak). This unacceptably loose lid was not disclosed in the sales listing. I simply assumed a fine artist of tea ware would not sell such an item. I was wrong.

The cost to return it was over $30 even before adding the necessary extra shipping insurance. The gallery and artist promised to refund the shipping and send a new pot only after I shipped it back. Thus the burden was placed on me to return the item intact. I could no longer afford to waste any more money on the purchase, and eat even more mistakes, so I just kept a gongfu teapot that is honestly not suitable for gongfu brewing.

The crazy part: I had already purchased a tea pot before this one that also had a loose lid. Not a 3 mm loose one, but more like 2 mm loose. Yet again this loose lid was not disclosed on the sale from the private collector. I emailed the collector questioning the non-disclosure. The seller replied that because the item was originally from a known vendor, the vendor reputation sufficed. Turns out the original vendor did not disclose the loose lid either. Wait...because an item is from a reputable seller that gives license not to disclose a flaw? Um…not really.

I could tell I was expected to accept what the collector and the original vendor did not realize is wrong about checking for flaws and disclosing them. “Tight lid” is what you want to see on a gongfu teapot listing, it was not there and I failed to ask, though maybe asking would not get me an answer anyway. So really I was stupid twice.

The opposite situation is with inexpensive tea ware that might cost triple its value to return, so a return actually more expensive than simply keeping the bad item. Ruyao teapots and gaiwans cost around $30, and return shipping is probably about that much. 

Can you stomach any mistake? Fortunately I have a strong stomach and rarely allow mistakes to get in the way of my Buy button.

Yixing Tea Ware

The above now informs my view on Yixing and any other clay tea ware. Most tea heads will tell people not to buy a cheap Yixing teapot for a number of good reasons ranging from poor performance to poor clay, etc. etc. But I say: buy a cheap Yixing or other clay teapot first. Decide whether I want or need Yixing clay before dropping $200+ on a decent one. Buy crap before buying the good stuff. Same thing for tea. I cannot know the difference from bad and good unless I start with the bad.  Also, this logic justifies buying more of the good stuff later on.

Factory 1 vintage new/old stock Yixing
photo and listing by Essence of Tea
I have a couple of Yixing tea pots, one for oolong and one for wet puerh. My water really does not require Yixing to add anything to the tea, but the clay is useful for tempering roast or wetter storage. If I lived in a city where the water is of poor quality, I may have a different view.

Tea Kettle Warmers/Burners

A burner heats water in a kettle or keeps a kettle warm after boiling. One can choose between charcoal burners, electric burners, infrared, alcohol and candle style. Does the burner have a cord, and will that electric cord work in my electrical socket? Can I accommodate the cord in my tea area, do I want that cord? If not, an alcohol or candle warmer may be better than an expensive hot plate.

Ovente Infrared burner, eBay
about $24
Charcoal burners are really for outdoor use. If you plan to take tea outside, that is the main reason to use charcoal. If you have little kids around or pets that get into everything, then no on burners. I nod off and forget about kettles on the stove, so I only own a charcoal burner for outdoors.

Cast Iron Kettle

Mostly made in Japan, this type of kettle is popular for tea water. Cheap, readily available rust-free cast iron kettles can be found with enamel coating. Expensive art ware kettles are not lined and one should plan to use it daily to keep rusting at a minimum, and rusting is considered safe in these kettles.

Fine Japanese cast iron kettle
photo and listing by pu-erh.sk
An important fact: the used market has many of both types of kettles, lined and unlined. It is not recommended to buy a used cast iron kettle because it can have cracks the seller may not be aware of, and such kettle may not be safe to use any longer. The only decent resale market is antique value only for certain artists. Thus, a cast iron kettle is a life purchase a person is stuck with it forever. Would I plan to use it daily? Anything less, might as well forget it or buy an enamel lined one for the looks. 

Here is one I have that can be used on any stove to actually heat water. Unfortunately, at $56 the price has doubled since I bought mine a few years ago.

Cast iron enamel lined "Silver Warriors"
$56 (usually includes free tea bags)
photo and listing by enjoyingtea.com
Did I mention cast iron kettles are heavy? Very, very heavy and they get super hot too. Might want to consider steel-toed boots and a decent potholder. I have this cheap kettle solely for the looks and it has an enameled lining. The kettle also holds up well on the charcoal stove, I can simply wipe off any charring.

Silver Tea Ware

These are very pricey products. The resale is nil except for Japanese silver kettles, a person will not get full money back from reselling. Before going ahead with this expensive purchase, try a silver plate creamer as a cha hai from an antique store or eBay first, you can get one for under $10. Next, consider buying a silver cup rather than a teapot or kettle. I have not bought any silver tea ware.

Tiny Teapots

Small is huge among tea ware people. They score high in cuteness but consider your tea, whether it will expand in the pot requiring one to move the leaves to a larger vessel. Perhaps a small gaiwan or shibo is a good way to determine whether you like small size or not before dropping $100  or more on an art piece.

Mini Porcelain Gaiwan 50 ml
photo and listing by teaware.house
I know some people who love small pots and also others who now find them gathering dust on shelves. I use small pots exclusively for highly expensive aged sheng, or very potent sheng, teas I may want only a miserly few grams at a time to brew. Otherwise I prefer 100ml or larger.

Tea Tables

Bamboo wood tables will crack eventually and may also get black mildew stains if not allowed to dry. But they are a good way to decide if I like wood before dropping $300+ on a better wood. Ceramic is heavy. Stone is not easily moved around. Trying a Pyrex bowl may help decide how often I like soaking a teapot during my tea ceremony before dumping good money on a table that gathers dust or might crack. I bought a vintage wood tea tray on eBay for $20 and it has inlays too.

Vintage Lacquer Wood Japanese Tray
A good tea table is a life purchase and I have one very good table, but I am glad I had some cheaper tables first to decide what I like for performance and clean up.

Small accessories

Items like strainers, tongs, presentation dishes etc. may well be useful and these are inexpensive and fairly risk-free purchases. Most people will want a puerh pick of some sort. I like replacement wrappers for beengcha.

The Real Truth

The real dope is tea people have virtually no logic at the time of purchasing anything and usually make up decent logic afterward to justify what they bought. While my item is on its way in the mail, I practice the excuses I plan to use when people ask me about tea ware. Try and remember I am a sniper before you email asking me anything. A savvy collector of unique puerh tea and wares will have only a very, very short list of people not to screw over when a valuable purchase is at stake.