; Cwyn's Death By Tea: June 2018 ;

Sunday, June 3, 2018

2015 Quanjihao Manzhuan Cha Gao

2015 Quanjihao Manzuan Cha gao 

Cha gao paste is often viewed as the Nescafe or Sanka of puerh tea. Meant as a portable form of puerh, all you need is a bit of boiling water and you can have your puerh with no messy leaves to dispose of. Usually cha gao is rather inexpensive, and just as Nescafe is not really the same as fresh brewed coffee, cha gao too falls short of the real puerh session. Nevertheless, last year I spotted this 2015 Quanjihao (tea house) Manzhuan raw puerh paste in Chawangshop and grew fixated on acquiring some. Part of my fixation is due to this product’s entirely homemade origin.

How Cha Gao is made

Cha gao is a decoction of tea leaves and sticks which are boiled, and probably mashed and strained, before cooking down the entire decoction into a syrup. With most decoctions, one cooks leaves, roots or stems til soft, strains out the tea material and sets aside the cooking water. Then, mash the material with a wood or marble pestle until pulverized, boil again in new water and strain, adding the new water to the original pot. One can repeat the boiling/mashing process, but after mashing you get cloudy water, so for a nice clear liquid either do only one mashing or you need a method of straining like slow drip rather than simple cheesecloth.

All the cutting of bamboo pieces, folding, beautiful
Cha gao often comes cut into candy-shaped pieces in candy-like wrappers which suggests an industrial conveyor belt production. This 2015 Manzhuan paste, on the other hand, is made by one man, a tea shop owner in his 60s who started cooking in his kitchen back in the early 2000s, trying to learn how to make chagao. I like the homemade part, and I can relate.

When I was a kid, my family produced maple syrup in the spring. Either we did it ourselves or relatives made it. The sap runs in maple trees when the snow is melting and daytime temperatures get above freezing. A good maple year is when the snow melts slowly, and the frozen nights are crisp with clear skies. Maple sap is clear and very watery, if we get too much rain or the ground loses frost too fast, we get a very watery sap that produces syrup with less flavor, rather like a rain on puerh leaves during harvest produces a water-logged  beeng and weaker tea, and like rain before a ganja harvest produces weaker buds. Watery maple sap means cooking far longer to get that sap into a syrup consistency.

The block takes on texture from the bamboo.
Maple syrup requires a lot of sap just to get one nice bottle of syrup. Strictly speaking, maple syrup is not a decoction in the sense of mashing and boiling plant material, because the tree provides a clear liquid on its own. We get to skip the mashing. But the boiling down part is the same. We used huge 10 gallon pots burning on woodfire stoves for days. Every morning at 5 a.m. we went out to collect sap.

The long process of making syrup inevitably led to long afternoon beer drinking sessions on the part of the adults, who got progressively drunker and consequently forgot about the syrup. We ended up with dark, slightly burnt syrup. Maple syrup is graded on color and flavor, with the lighter, more golden syrups receiving Grade A, and darker, more burnt syrups getting B or even C grade. I think my family syrup is more of a C grade, and maybe a D, but D doesn’t exist. I grew accustomed to darker syrup, and I buy B or C grade to this day. The best maple syrup I ever had was my uncle’s B grade which he kept in a massive oak barrel with a tap, and the oak imparted a lovely nuance.

Cooking Maple Syrup, by Ohiofarmgirl
photo credit
Most maple candy is cooked to a very light golden soft ball or soft crack stage. You can see how the colors vary quite a bit. I have noticed that cha gao tea paste varies in color as well, from very burnt liquid or hard crack cooked, like peanut brittle. In Chawangshop’s photo of the brewed cha gao, I see a pink color. Is the brew of this tea really pink? I wanted to find out.

 Now, some of you think I meander on and on through my memories. But the truth is maple syrup and this cha gao both are all about a man standing over a large cooking pot of sap. Cha gao requires ratios of water to leaf at minimum 1:10. Mr. Quan used 1:18 for this tea…wasn’t 2015 a wet year for puerh, or just this Manzhuan? By comparison, maple syrup is usually a 1:40 ratio, so who stands over that boiling pot longer? I meander over my memories because from one part of the world to another, boiling sap from tree products is the same activity. You need a large soup pot, a lot of time on your hands, and maybe alcohol to drink. To get the best end result, you tread a fine line between making hard candy and burning the sap, between exquisite flavor and carbon dust.

Maple syrup taffy of different colors, Canada
photo: travelbliss.com
 While we make maple candy here by pouring sap over snow, Mr. Quan poured his tea paste into folded bamboo pieces. I love the little boxes, I can see all the cutting and origami-like folding, along with the elastic “hair tie” closure, the glued-on label which says Six Big Ancient Tea Mountains, Raw Puerh Tea Paste, and the name of the tea shop which you can also see in the photos on the Chawangshop listing. We put our maple syrup in canning jars, with a label for the year, and decorate the lid with a piece of patterned cloth and tie with a ribbon.

I meander over my memories because I see myself standing over the syrup pot and wood fire just as Mr. Quan stands over his tea syrup pot. We stir and stir and stir, with patience giving way to impatience and back again. Did he turn down the heat at night to sleep and resume the next day, as we do over our syrup? Or did he really stay up for three days continuously stirring, keeping himself awake with tea and maybe the radio?

“I wish you could meet Mr. Quan, he is really a tea master,” Honza of Chawangshop writes to me.

Oh, that I could! I would bring him a gift of maple syrup and make him pancakes, and maybe he could make the tea. I would bring a box of maple sugar candy, and I would show him a picture of the sugar maple tree in my yard. I know he would see the parallels. This is crystalline structure, it is sugar, both puerh tea and maple sap. Fermented puerh tea is breaking down the leaf structure to release the sugars which change and mature via fungi, yeasts, mold and bacteria.

Cha gao is proof of sugars in the puerh tree. I meander over my memories because we all make things from the trees around us. Only later will this process become mystified, because puerh is from China, but cha gao is no more mysterious than maple sugar. Maple syrup is a good source of manganese and other trace minerals, and likewise trace minerals are found in cha gao too.

Breaking off pieces, hold the pick firmly in hand,
use a stabby-stabby motion like chopping ice.
I will admit that I licked the brick a little, which tasted like bamboo puerh and horehound candy. The next problem is how to get a piece of tea off the brick. Honza suggested 0.5g of tea for a small cup. This is a teeny, tiny piece which lends a view of the cost ratio. For puerh tea, this brick is expensive, 100g at $50. But at ½ gram per cup of this strong stuff, we have 200 sessions here, give or take, depending upon dust loss. The brick of tea is like hard candy and I use a tea pick to break off a little corner.

The tea dust on my tongue tastes like smoky puerh in bamboo and is very bitter.

How to brew Cha Gao

“Brew it by pouring boiling water over a strainer,” Honza says. His photo shows pouring the water into a fairness cup. I don’t own an actual fairness cup. I have similar vessels in my house which are made for…guess it…maple syrup.

Brewing in a vintage maple syrup pitcher,
circa early 1960s, by Syracuse "China"
This is like water dripping on a spoon with a sugar cube into a glass of absinthe. Only the sugar cube is a chunk of cha gao this time. I pour the water very slowly over the chunk into my little maple syrup pitcher. The tea dissolves leaving tiny bits of dark leaves. The tea is sweet, tasting of bamboo and…maple syrup…no I’m projecting, surely. Sticky, astringent, like dark sugar, with mineral after taste. The empty pitcher smells amazing, like syrup or dark honey. I feel like I used a bit too much water on the first go, I want more flavor.

You must use a metal strainer with fine mesh,
such as this one by teaware.house
 Unexpectedly, I get some qi or buzzing around my face and in my ears, and with summer weather now a hot tea gets me sweating fast. Fifteen minutes after finishing my little pitcher of tea, it all hits. The caffeine in this tea is very strong, as is the astringency. I guess maybe cha gao is indeed concentrated puerh in more ways than just the sugars.

I “brew” the tea again using bottled Nature’s Source spring water, which is a Wisconsin brand, rather than my tap water. The top notes of florals, horehound, incense and bamboo are a bit more noticeable this time.

 Cha Gao Storage

Honza states in the tea listing that the tea improves in flavor after several years. I notice that my tea liquor is browner than the pink brew in his photo. This cha gao is 3 years old already which may explain the differences in the photos. How can I best store this tea?  For me to determine the storage, I need to figure out how humidity/water affects this tea paste.

I found a photo on Yunnan Sourcing with the idea of using 1/2g of their Jingmai raw cha gao in a bottle of water on the go, rather clever. The idea of mineral water made with a chunk of cha gao is appealing to me. I decided to give it a go and put a chunk of this cha gao in a bottle of spring water. Unfortunately, it did not dissolve. However, rubbing the wet chunk between my fingers afterward pushed some brown liquid off of it.

I attempt to dissolve a chunk in cold water.
The tea did not dissolve, however.
The reason why this cha gao does not dissolve in cold water is because it is cooked past hard crack stage to the brown liquid stage, or 170C. When boiling candy sugars, you can test the stages by using a glass of ice water. Drop in a few drops of the liquid. When you remove the drops from the glass, a “firm ball” drop will make a caramel at room temperature. A “hard ball” can be pulled to make molasses taffy.

“Hard crack candy” is most of the clear hard candies wrapped in plastic you can buy at the store, and also peanut brittle. “Hard crack” is used for very hard candies that dissolve in water slowly and have a very long shelf life, such as jawbreakers, Inferno Jawbreakers (hot cinnamon) and Wonka’s “Everlasting Gobstoppers.” Pushing the heat past the hard crack stage, the sugar liquid will turn permanently brown, so you cannot color it red or green or whatever you want. Many cha gao like this one are brown to black.

Sugared candy has a storage shelf life. Humidity melts all but hard crack candy into a sticky glob. I read that temps of 35 centigrade on clear hard candy for six weeks is equivalent to six months of room temperature shelf life. I stored the cha gao on my three season porch during 30C temps and 70% RH overnight and it was not sticky in the slightest. When I put a chunk in my cold water bottle and it didn’t dissolve, I am now sure that this cha gao is probably past hard crack. This means the shelf life is pretty much indefinite, but from now on it won’t change much, it is very cooked.

By contrast, Yunnan Sourcing’s Jingmai cha gao raw is a lighter color with a taffy appearance. This is probably soft or hard crack stage cooked, and thus it will dissolve in cold water more readily. The cooking stage explains why their cha gao paste dissolves in a bottle of cold water. I also noticed the foil wrap on Yunnan Sourcing’s Jingmai. Foil is used to wrap candy with a shorter shelf life. For example, chocolate is foil wrapped. The foil will preserve candy much longer than plastic wrappers.

I am thinking that any bacteria, fungi etc. are killed off from days of boiling, and the plant juices and minerals are locked in a crystalline sugar structure. At three years henceforth since this tea was made, I do not think this tea will change much from this point. Perhaps the tea may mellow a bit more, especially the astringency which is still strong, but right now it is quite sweet and an interesting drink.

Mulling over the above, storage of this cha gao means that humidity is less useful than time in general. I am also concerned about ants or other insects chomping on my cha gao. I decided to go with a tin for these two boxes of cha gao, for dry tin storage. After a day in the tin, my two packages smelled nice when I lifted the lid. By contrast, leaving the tea out it seemed to lose scent. I expect tinning will preserve a sugar form product better than humidity will. I would like some mellowing but I don’t think I will like the tea to stale as fast as it will if I use high humidity and temps. This isn’t likely anytime soon with how cooked to nearly burnt this product is, but eventually it could go stale, unlike the decades we can expect for regular puerh leaves.

My second brewing attempt,
tea is slightly cloudy, but sweet
Reasons to try Cha Gao

After three brewings, I am now interested to compare some other cha gao products, Prior to seeing this product I really had no interest in cha gao. Why would I want a candied version of puerh tea when I can just brew the leaves? Travel is an obvious reason, several grams of cha gao fit in a tiny baggie in one’s luggage and only require boiling water and no special tea ware. This cha gao packs a caffeine punch and is better than tea bags.

Chawangshop sells an interesting selection of homemade, local craft products such as this cha gao and many of their heicha teas. Honza has a good eye for teas that local artisans produce, and I hope he will continue to feature craft teas. Chawangshop products don’t go on discount, so if you want this pick one up before it sells out. Half the production is only maybe 20 little 100g boxes or so, not much to go round. Yunnan Sourcing's Jingmai is about $10 less for 100g, if you want another option.