; Cwyn's Death By Tea: May 2018 ;

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Why Don't People Understand Puerh Fermentation?

The so-called “mystery” of puerh fermentation keeps cropping up on forums. Why do people not understand how vegetable plant matter is fermented? Fermented foods are basic farm science, not rocket science. Puerh fermentation is a two step process. In the first step, the cell walls of the leaf must break open to release the bitter leaf juices, and this work is primarily done by Aspergillis Niger. Next, the bitter juices are sweetened by a new set of microbes, primarily Rhizopus, which use the carbon waste matter from Aspergillis as food. The process requires heat and sufficient humidity to keep the microbes alive.

While I am simplifying the process for the sake of discussion, this is not an inaccurate description. The most common remark that I see is “we don’t have enough research.” Yes, we do. Puerh has fermented again and again for hundreds of years supplying peoples in regions of China with necessary dietary microbes to supplement a meat diet. Not only puerh, but Hunan brick, FuZhuan brick teas, all of these teas have a long history of production, storage and consumption in areas like Tibet and Mongolia, more recently in Taiwan and Malaysia.

How much research do you need? Taetea and Xiaguan understand exactly how to produce teas that store and ferment properly and provide people with a dietary supplement. They’ve been doing it for decades. Even during times of war, China has made sure tea bricks are produced and transported to the people who need them. This is no more a mystery in China than how milk cartons get to school children in the US.

Okay, so some people need “research,” here is one article: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4918958/

I like this article for several reasons: the quantitative analysis, the demonstration that aged sheng and shou puerh have virtually identical microbial communities, and finally, a sound analysis for throwing out the first rinse of your tea.

This is just one article. I can find many books and journal articles with the science behind fermented puerh tea. People who complain about a lack of research are either too lazy to do a search or too lazy to read, because the research is all out there for anyone to find.

If I gave a class on fermenting puerh tea to women in my local community, Amish and farm women with no more than a high school education, I would merely need three minutes to show and explain what a Yunnan Leaf tea is. I would not need to explain fermentation because these women ferment vegetables and beverages every year. These women can go right out the door and age puerh tea without any instruction whatsoever. I doubt I would need to give them the parameters, even.

I think the “Problem” is not a lack of scientific research, the problem is many urban people do not know the origins of their food. They don’t grow, harvest, ferment, kill, butcher or cure. They don't store food over a long period of time.  Food and beverage processes are a mystery when people buy everything from a store ready-made, or depend on restaurants to eat.

Taetea and Xiaguan are two factories which produce proven teas. Their jincha, beengcha, tuos and iron cakes are proven to store and age well. Their shou puerh teas are proven to contain the necessary microbes for consumption, they are shipped to peoples all over who need these teas. If you want a guaranteed tea to age or ferment well, these companies have the proper and safe products for you to buy. A nice bitter, smoky Xiaguan tuo costs about $10 and in 20 years properly kept that tuo will taste as intended.

So, what is the real mystery here?

The real mystery is not the “how” of fermenting puerh tea, but rather the why behind great teas. Why is a 7542 a great recipe? Why do some teas turn out great, and some don’t, when stored in exactly the same warehouse, storehouse, basement, etc.? Can we predict which teas will turn out well? Or rather, why can’t I predict whether my tea will be great? 

Well, we already know that a Xiaguan tuo will turn out just fine, great even, every year. For other teas, we have a hundred theories not only related to storage, but about blends, climate, over-picking, the soil, and who knows maybe even the wrapper. One big reason value grows for older puerh is because so few teas survive to 20 years or longer. Just surviving is a major additive value on a puerh tea. 

Tea lasting past 20 years is one big problem in the mystery of predicting great teas, for reasons more than storage parameters. We just don’t get too many teas surviving past that 20 year mark. The vast majority of teas are consumed or disposed of past the 20 year mark. Keep in mind that a 357g beeng is a small amount of tea. In parts of the world where puerh is consumed regularly, a 357g beeng is 2-4 weeks or less  of tea for a family of 3-4 people. This is not much tea; even if a family holds their tea in storage for 20 years, they can consume a tong quickly. 

Why do you not have 30 year old dried cranberries? Does your beef jerky last you ten years? How many 30 year+ bottles of wine do you have stored up? People consume their good stuff and toss what goes bad. People move. Houses get flooded. People need money, people get bored. People need to drink the tea so they drink it. Or they give it away. If you manage to put away a bottle of wine or puerh tea and still have it at the 20 year mark, this alone is worth money. 

The Vendor Problem

We have many vendors nowadays who are not interested in aging. They are interested in what sells, not necessarily what might age well. Given the cost of tea, this is not surprising. A vendor must sell a tea whether or not it is processed correctly. This is because their cash investment is up front, not on the back end like clothing retail or crops like corn for which money is borrowed at the start of the season and paid back with interest when the product sells. A vendor who buys maocha must sell it whether or not it is processed properly for aging. Vendors also have the problem of consumers with too little experience, who expect the tea to taste good now, rather than in 20 years. This is an incentive to process the tea to maintain its fresh shelf taste, because the customer will try and drink the fresh tea and complain if it tastes bad or harsh. 

The realities of selling tea, in addition to the problems of urban food consumers with understanding food, all contribute to confusion in how to ferment raw tea. Making a batch of shou is very informative and I wish people would do that, but few will. People want guarantees without the work involved.

A 100% Guarantee

Guess what, we DO have guarantees. We have Xiaguan tuos and jincha, we have Fu Zhuan, we have Hunan brick, and we have Taetea 7542. I can 100% guarantee you that these products will ferment properly given room temperature storage and 60% relative humidity. These products have and will keep people alive and well. 

This is such a sure thing, we even have an old expression in American English, “I will bet you all the tea in China that…” Fill in the blank, because China has people and tea factories that know damn well how to make proper tea that will ferment, such that I can bet it all and win that bet. If you can get the proper storage conditions on these teas, whether in a plastic bag or cabinet or crock, wherever, the tea will age eventually.

Of course, we still have unknowns when buying new tea other than the ones I mentioned. Aside from proven products, any other tea you buy is a best guess for the future. Your teas will indeed ferment, but whether or not they turn out good or great involves a number of variables, the greatest of which is simply keeping the tea out of the dumpster.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Steaming Apart a Puerh Beeng

When a machine compressed puerh tea is too tight for a knife or pick, I risk injury to my fingers and hands. A pair of pliers will break off chunks, but this breaks the tea leaves too, and sometimes I want loose, whole leaves rather than a chunk. Steaming apart the compressed tea is the only answer, but we rightly worry over subjecting our dear teas to any process. Today I steamed apart a heavily compressed beeng of red tea, and I will show some photos of the process I used.

This cake is 2013 Drunk on Red by Yunnan Sourcing, a very inexpensive 100g black/red tea. Unfortunately this tea is sold out, except for one production with snow chrysanthemum added. I hope YS will do this production again someday. I paid around $4 for it, and the tea is so compressed that I cannot remove any tea. I want to use this tea in my new Teforia machine so I need actual leaves and not chunks, and I plan to tin up the leaves to drink over a month or so.

Steaming a tea is very simple using a strainer and a bit of water underneath in a pot. I made sure the water did not touch the strainer.

Once the water boils, I just need to let it steam a couple of minutes. Keep in mind a lid is needed to start the steaming, but drops of condensation off the lid will drop down through the tea. I don’t want too much dripping or basically I will have drip-brewed tea water.

I turned out the beeng onto a plate. The leaves are hot and steaming, but not drippy wet.

Now the beeng is very loose around the edges, so I can pry it apart with a fork. The middle of the beeng is still mostly dry, however I can break apart some of the chunks with my fingers or just leave them chunk-y if I wish.

Finally I spread the tea out onto a flat pan and set it out to dry. The tea will be dry later in the evening so I can tin it up.

No one needs a guide on how to steam apart tea, but sometimes looking at photos helps with making a decision on whether to steam. I imagine most of us would not want to do this with precious tea, but with hardy teas like bricks or tuos, or teas of ordinary quality, steaming is certainly an option. The tea can go into a caddy and rest until brewing time.


I want to congratulate two puerh writers for their recognition in recent days. Max Falkowitz received a 2018 James Beard Award for his Saveur magazine article “The Pu-erh Brokers of Yunnan Province.”

I was lucky to meet Mr. Falkowitz in 2016 in NYC during the Saveur Blog Awards, and I am grateful for his support of puerh writing.

Congratulations also to MarshalN for his nomination this week for Blog of the Year by the 2018 WorldTea Expo’s World Tea Awards. MarshalN’s “A Tea Addict’s Journal” is one of the longest-running puerh blogs in English. 

If you are new to tea, I highly recommend reading his blog from start to finish. This is the first year that a Tea Industry business association is recognizing puerh blogging, long overdue.

Cups up, friends, and cheers to both of these incredible writers!

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Three Vendors you probably never heard of

How lucky we tea fiends are these days with all the possible vendors servicing our fix. We need every single vendor because each week we see another article online telling the world about how hot puerh tea is. Lordy, but the hoards just keep horning in on our exclusive territory with no end in sight, which just raises prices for the rest of us. We can’t shush up these articles online but maybe we can steer traffic a little bit. Here are a few websites you can bookmark, especially if you are new to tea.

Here is a very general website with inexpensive prices. The teas offered are basic, decent and won’t break the bank for those on a budget. Carts $60+ ship for free in the US, and they take Paypal. Not really a site for great puerh, but the reviewers are real people so we can read some feedback on teas the shop has carried for a long time. Tea ware is the real bargain. I have liked everything I bought from this shop. The Yixing is not so great, but it’s good enough to test whether or not you really want to sink a couple hundred of your hard-earned dollars into a real Yixing. When you are starting out, buying inexpensive will help to appreciate better things down the road. Some items such as an aroma cup are just as useful costing $3 here as $20 and up from someplace else. What about that $1.98 glass teapot sale going on right now? No? How about the “Mini Luck” tea set for $6 from the Top Sellers list?

Here is a Malaysian shop to bookmark. The link above should go right to the Taetea products, probably what people want to see. This is a licensed Taetea shop that takes Paypal, full stop. Stuff sells out fast, like the Gold Dayi they had last month. I suspect that many inventory items never make it into the online shop because they sell out locally first.

Where have I been lately, I missed the opening of this shop by puerh collector AllanK. This seller is a boon for shou lovers. I am rather fond of Allan as he shares many traits I have such as too much tea, difficulty parting with any and please don’t visit in person. Probably unbeknownst to you all (and maybe Allan too) he has inspired several of my cartoons over the years, such as this one called Forklift Tea. Now is my turn to thank him for the delightful person he is.

A few years ago, Allan sent round blind tasting samples of his storage to other puerh drinkers. He had two years stored on a tea in three conditions: open storage, plastic wrapped storage, and pumidor storage. Without exception all the puerh drinkers picked out the pumidor storage sample as lively and in good condition. I have had several other samples from Allan over the years, including a memorable 2013 Hai Lang shou brick.

Like other collectors selling tea, I do not expect this new shop to sell the best teas Allan owns. No one wants to part with those. But he has amassed a number of sold out teas, as well as buys from Taobao and he’s selling a few of these. Do some comparison shopping and look for the stuff you cannot find elsewhere. I will be keeping an eye on his shop. Allan tells me he has sold some high sums already to other collectors, and I know he has more to list. Kudos go out to any collector willing parting with some teas, even if to make room for more.

Every tea vendor out there has pluses and minuses. A savvy buyer learns where to buy particular things, and a few lucky people get a deal once in awhile. The best I can say is most vendors will email personally with anyone and work out problems as they arise. Try and use PayPal or some other payment service with a no-hassle refund as a last resort. Have fun shopping!

Friday, May 4, 2018

The Final Fantasy of Buying Puerh

This spring we confront our realities with an armored wallet. While the puerh harvest ahead appears bountiful, according to early reports, prices are headed nowhere but up. I have viewed some pre-order price lists which always show a bit of a discount for people willing to fund a vendor’s season in advance. But if you expect to buy even decent drinker quality puerh this year, your wallet is going to hurt.

The final fantasy of a puerh drinker is expressed on tea chats every day: “how can I buy X tea, or something like it, for the same price or less?” He wants whatever sample or cake he tried last year, but the production is sold out or marked up higher. She hopes Shop Y will offer the same tea as last year, at last year’s prices. Everyone wants a clue from somebody on where to buy some miraculous puerh, preferably for nothing. Oh yes I do have this final fantasy and I am certain if I post it on a tea forum asking people what tea to buy and where, I just might get the perfect answer and no one will laugh!

People ask me if I think we are in a puerh bubble. I do not. In 2007-8 puerh prices took a huge tumble, a bit of history everyone knows. Back then people complained about a 357g beeng costing $30. Now those teas sell for over $100 at half the size. Factory teas are not immune. If you want a spring production, even a 7542 recipe pushes the $50 mark, with Taetea special productions over $100 at retail, if you manage to snag them at all.

The difference between 2008 and today is that we have far more people with lots of money willing to pay even higher prices, and we are nowhere near the ceiling yet. This is partly due to the scarcity of very fine tea, but I think mainly the wealth gap between the top and bottom is so much wider. Wealthy people are richer than ever, and they want puerh. For a wealthy person, what is a few extra hundred dollars, or euros, or marks, or yen or yuan? A few extra thousand? Not much of a dent; such a person probably has those extras in cash and three more large bills from the wallet is not a problem.

Recently I watched some Gold Dayi from a licensed shop fly out of the Malaysian web store, in tongs. People who live paycheck to paycheck could buy tea as a treat back in 2008, now these folks are out of the game of collecting price value. People try and take comfort in the idea that maybe their low end teas will turn into something spectacular through time and storage. A miracle is needed for the teas on the low end to turn into future gold. Expecting affordable teas to appreciate hugely in value, we are living in a fantasy or awaiting a storage miracle. The big difference today is a company like Xiaguan will produce many more tuos now than in the past, such that everyone has them. Lots of lower value summer tea around to press into bitter jincha and meet demand on the low end. You can buy a compressed tea anywhere and even these budget options cost more than ten years ago. But the demand is not the same as for much better tea. Old tuos selling for big bucks now are from a time of smaller productions and bigger nostalgia.

I don’t know about you, but I am mostly priced out of the really fine tea. I hear from a few people who really do possess the funds to keep up. But I hear from far more who do not. The truth is wages are not keeping up with food, rent, utilities and all the other things we need to pay for. More of our paychecks go to basics, leaving less disposable income at the worst possible time when we really need more and more money than ever to buy important things like tea.

Sometimes people suggest buying semi-aged tea. I see fewer and fewer older teas available except for very wet stored or ripe. Most of the semi-aged teas you can buy are the low end, not the high end. The really fine teas are not sold at a bargain basement price. They sell for even more than an average new tea. Disposable income is again a problem if you manage to find a collector willing to part with something good, you need the money up front and fast to have a chance.

My blog is not really about tea reviews, never has been. I enjoy writing about new teas when I have some, but I did not get many teas last year and I expect this year is more of the same. I simply cannot afford to buy all the teas anymore that I once could. Buying a vendor’s entire season for $300 or even $500 is a fantasy now. A single tea costs that much, and my income has not kept up. Even the tea ware I bought a few years ago costs so much more. The vendors who need reviews are new to the selling game, and they are the folks who contact bloggers. Established vendors do not need or even want reviews. Most bloggers who review puerh have invested their own money or rely on samples sent in by readers. A lack of reviews also impacts the budget buyer’s struggle to find “word of mouth” before investing the bit of money she has.

Right now my final fantasy is to keep writing until I drop and my son puts a note on the blog that I am gone. I have not lost hope. I still pretend miracle teas costing less than $10 will show up somewhere and end up in my house without selling the house. For young collectors leaving school and getting started, you will need to find a very lucrative career to fund your tea habit, so choose wisely.