; Cwyn's Death By Tea: Beginning Puerh with $100 ;

Monday, June 20, 2022

Beginning Puerh with $100

My roof 

This week an EF-2 strength tornado ripped an eight mile long swath through my small town at 90 mph. It ripped out trees, branches and other debris, caving in roofs and damaging vehicles, including my house and car. I have a lot of damage to contend with, and am awaiting the insurance adjuster to come out and take a look. In the meantime we have patched the roof and boarded up a broken window. The incoming water doesn't seem to have done much damage. I am fortunate to have old growth wood in my house structure, as well as plaster board. The weather turned dry after the storm, and dried up the water quickly. Naturally when under stress my thoughts turn to tea shopping like an anxious fancy lady thinks of Harrods. I decided to sweat out the urges as best I could. After all, I have an insurance deductible to meet. 

But I recalled my earliest days reading tea forums and a post by someone who lost their entire tea collection in a basement apartment flooding situation. I don't remember how that person stored their tea or how much flooding it was, the photos posted were more after the fact. But this person had to start all over with their tea collection. Luckily tea friends came to the rescue and mailed boxes full of teas. True, these teas likely did not replace exactly what they had, and probably the owners felt happy to part with these teas, just not their best collections. Still, I wonder how I would start again, if starting from scratch today. My own teas are fine, by the way. Storing teas in big-ass crocks or old metal fridges is probably the best you can do to protect your tea in the event of disaster. Cardboard boxes on the floor, maybe not so much.

I feel like the question of "where would I start?" with puerh is the most common question people ask, with storage or maybe tea gear as the next questions. If I truly needed to start over now, how would I go about buying tea? How much would it cost me? Yikes, I stare at tea listings once in awhile and even in my last post I noted how new prices have gone so far up on teas I own that are still available to buy. I cannot replace everything I own because obviously teas sell out and then the only option is buy from a collector and pay the new prices not only for the tea, but new prices on shipping as well. 

But "where would I start?" is a two-part type of question. Where I would start is not where a total beginner might start. Obviously no one will recommend a complete beginner start out with a $500/beeng tea, when that beginner is not even sure if they like puerh. So the beginner has one question, whereas the experienced drinker starting over has questions more about replacement. 

In this post I will post things a brand new beginner might consider. Thus the experienced drinker already knowing what they like will find nothing to look at here, except some of the accessories might be of note for the future. For the true beginner, we need to keep the cost investment low in case the person turns out to hate puerh tea, we don't want people regretting too hard at the start. Likely the person already enjoys tea, so hopefully the gear can find use with non-puerh teas as well. 

To be quite honest with you, I would do exactly the same as I did when I first bought puerh in 2009. That is, I would buy the same teas, but because of my $100 start price I would pick other harvest years to stay within that budget. If you are familiar with this entire blog, nothing here will be much of a surprise. Yes, you are correct that this is tea shopping without tea shopping, entirely a cognitive strategy for me to stop me from actual stress shopping (heh). I will list per tea vendor what to get, with $100 per vendor as the goal. Obviously you don't need everything. 

Note: all photos are the property of the vendors whose items are linked.

YunnanSourcing.us

Xiaguan sheng minis at yunnansourcing.us

These Xiaguan 2019 sheng mini tuos are 200g for $12. This is probably the bottom end in terms of puerh. I think tasting Xiaguan's house flavor is a good idea for a beginner. You can really separate the chaff from the wheat of puerh drinking in terms of whether someone is going to like puerh tea or not. If you can enjoy tuos like these, even green, you can feel more confident buying tuos in general, or other Xiaguan teas in the future. If not, then your investment is small and you can foist them off on beginners who show up at your house and give them the same test. If they hate the tuos you will know not to waste your better tea on them. Minis also are easy to take on a trip with you. I can tell you traveling with a beeng or even a quarter beeng is a messy affair in your purse compared to tuos like these. 

More importantly, you need to build a palate for puerh. Xiaguan makes many teas, knowing their house flavor is helpful as a baseline benchmark to step up to other things. They represent a more northern Yunnan style of tea.

2019 1901 Taetea at yunnansourcing.us

This 2019 1901 Taetea 7572 Ripe Shou is also a benchmark starter tea. Taetea represents southern Yunnan plantation tea. Even more, it is one of the cleanest, basic shou teas you can start with. I started with the 2009 7572 and that tea is still around but horribly pricey now. This tea is still pricey at $66, it's the name and import costs you are paying for, otherwise it's probably more around $40. I notice King Tea Mall is selling it for $55, but then you have higher shipping cost to add on. (Yunnan Sourcing.US ships free to the lower 48 at the $100 mark.) If you like it, then you can feel confident trying other shou teas in the future. Keep a piece of it and try it every year to see how it tastes as it mellows. Break up the beeng and put it in a crock. It will fade if left in a cardboard box, as I found out. 

2008 Song Pin Hao at yunnansourcing.us

2008 Song Pin Hao Yiwu Taiwan-stored sheng/raw puerh costs $11.90 for a 25g sample, enough for 3-5 sessions. With this sample, you can get an idea if you like aged tea, if you like Taiwan-stored tea, and if you like Yiwu area tea. That's three questions answered by one tea. The information you gain from such a small investment will help you parse other aged teas stored in Taiwan. 

Coconut shell strainer by yunnansourcing.us

I love this coconut shell strainer for $8. It's natural, it's cheap and you do need a strainer to get out the odd bits that slip past you when pouring. I like to use a strainer to see how many particles of black burnt tea bits I find in a tea, a processing issue that affects the storage and taste of a tea down the road. More bits you need hotter and humid storage conditions to get past the flavor. You can also find metal strainers I suppose, but if you hate puerh and toss the strainer it won't be in the landfill for a thousand years or more. 

King Tea Mall

This outfit is located in Guangzhou, China so you are looking at shipping costs and shipping time. But the owner John is excellent with customer service and dealing with lost packages or shipping damage. You will get emails with tracking progress on your package, something few other shops offer, making this shop a safe beginner bet.  

2015 1501 Taetea 7542 at kingteamall.com

2015 1501 Taetea 7542 at $75 is an opportunity to try one of the most basic sheng puerh recipes, and one of the oldest recipes. It's a must for beginners to try a very traditional southern tea like this and to recognize the Taetea house flavor. Now historians will quickly chime in that the processing has changed since 2011 or even earlier, and how the tea itself is not the same as the old days, but you can say this about any tea now. Older examples of 7542 cost used-car amounts of money, so why recommend that to a beginner? Even the past two years the 7542 is selling at crazy speculator pricing, it's insane. But 2015 was a wet year, not so desirable for crazy collector types, which is why it is relatively affordable. And it has 7 years age on it in a very humid location. The 7542 is also probably the most faked tea. I don't think anyone is going to bother faking the 2015, so try the real deal for educational purposes. 

2014 Xiaguan Jiaji at kingteamall.com

2014 Xiaguan Golden Ribbon (Jiaji) tuo at $18.99, yet another Xiaguan? Think of the yellow ribbon in this tuo as the canary in your storage gold mine. This is the best tea I know of as a test of puerh storage, because nothing will kill this tea. You don't need to drink it to use it as a test. If you have overly humid and hot conditions, it will mold and you can scrape it right off. The tea will recover. It is compressed to survive rainy and hot traveling conditions. The compression is such that you can float it in water and the water will not penetrate into the tuo. Does the tuo lack a tea odor when checking your storage? Then you know your storage is too dry. Once you start experimenting with storage, and you will, it's not enough to simply check hygrometers and boveda packs, and you can't possibly taste every tea you own every month or so. This tuo serves a purpose without tearing up your entire storage. 

Digital Scale from kingteamall.com

This Digital Scale is only $5.99, an add-on to your King Tea Mall order. I don't think you can find a cheaper one anywhere. 

Puerh paper from kingteamall.com

Handmade Cotton Puerh Wrappers at $0.99, might as well toss a few of these in your cart. These papers hold up to a 500g beeng size, so you can trim them for smaller chunks. Puerh wrappers once opened on a beeng start wearing out quickly. Aged teas often come in wrappers with bug bites or other damage and require replacing. If you fall in love with a wrapper, save it and use one of these instead.

Tea table hose from kingteamall.com

Balloon drainage hose at  $1.99? Hello this is the first time I have seen a tea tray replacement drainage hose to buy, and look how little it costs to replace if you have a drainage tea table. Sure you can get hose from the hardware store, but you will pay much more than this. Not anything a beginner needs, but I spotted it and it's worth listing here for anyone needing it and you happen to be ordering from King Tea Mall already.

Taiwan Sourcing

This outfit is owned by Scott at Yunnan Sourcing and was originally for selling Taiwan oolong teas and accessories. Recently the site offers Taiwan-stored puerh teas, no doubt in response to customer demand. But before you order any teas, be sure to check Yunnan Sourcing's US site first as many of their puerh and oolong teas are already imported over to the US onto yunnansourcing.us. But the accessories are unique to the Taiwan site. 

A beautiful gaiwan from taiwanoolongs.com
(taiwan sourcing)

Anta "Sheep Fat" Gaiwan 140 ml $79 is really pricey for a beginner. Porcelain is the best material for testing the storage and flavor of a tea. If you are determined to gongfu your puerh tea, learn how to use a gaiwan. A small porcelain teapot can also work, but teapots can cook young puerh leaves faster than a gaiwan that opens up to the air quickly. Sheep fat is the porcelain color name, there is no sheep fat in it.

Sure you can go cheaper (see below), but hear me out on this one. First of all, it's awesome and I want it, I've been looking at it for years but I don't need another gaiwan. It has several things apart from the aesthetics that I like. First, it has a notch in the foot so that the gaiwan doesn't get suctioned onto the plate. This is a hazard of gaiwans, especially for the beginner. When lifting a gaiwan to pour, sometimes the plate lifts with it, and then falls off the gaiwan onto your tea table. That means breakage, a mess, and maybe a boiling water injury. 

Secondly, the 140 ml is a good size to start with for several reasons. One is you can solo the gaiwan with it only half full. Using 70 ml or half the capacity is just right for one person using 5 g or so of tea. More importantly, the gaiwan won't be so full that you burn your fingers on the lid, something that can happen a lot when starting out with gongfu. As you improve your pouring, you can then use the gaiwan fully to serve two people. I have some cup ideas below that will work well for a two-person session with this gaiwan, but of course you can get matching cups if you want. 

If you are looking at a cheaper gaiwan to start, take note of the low height of the button top on top of this piece. In other words, the button at the top is close to the lid. You can find cheap gaiwans but be careful that they don't have a tall button which is much harder to pour from for a beginner, look for low button tops like this piece has. 

You get one of these per order, not all five
Aroma cup from taiwanoolongs.com

A Fine Porcelain Aroma Set, single cup plus bowl $42. This is not an absolute must, but I can vouch for the beauties of the shape of an aroma cup for really getting the full aroma experience from a very fine tea. I have one from Taetea that only cost me maybe $10, so you can go cheap, but why not have a nice one? It is useful with other teas as well and I trust Taiwan Sourcing to properly pack it as opposed to a Taobao outfit. Also makes a nice gift idea for a tea lover. Never buy tea for a tea lover, ever. You cannot possibly pick a tea that your friend will like, but they will surely appreciate this set as a gift. 

Camellia Sinensis, Montreal

I love this tea shop but their puerh is what I would call a bit dodgy, their descriptions need work and I can't recommend any of the puerh teas currently. Once in awhile they get something factory that might be worth the splurge, but just saying. They are, however, a great source for accessories and some non-puerh teas like:

2012 "Aged" Bai Mu Dan
from camellia-sinensis.com

2012 "Aged" Bai Mu Dan $7 for 10g and up, this is a white tea beeng, not puerh. If you are going puerh, might as well try aged white tea too and get it over with. You either like it or you don't. The quotes around "aged" are my editorial because who knows?

Lin's Ceramics cup from camellia-sinensis.com

Lin's Ceramics cup 60 ml $21.38, the odd prices here are reflecting the current Canadian-to-US exchange rate. This Lin's Ceramics cup is the best cup, period, full stop. It's the shape and maybe even the thickness of the clay. If you have truly flavorful puerh, the cup will deposit the tea into your mouth in a ball of liquid which will explode with flavor. You can really distinguish mouth feel and a lot of characteristics with this cup. I never knew a cup mattered until I bought one of these. 

Also, the inside of the cup is a bone-white color. You want that color to see the color of the brew of the tea, something a darker cup will not give you, and it's much more visible in photos too. Clear glass cups are great for Instagram photos, but I'm sure everyone is tired of seeing my boring clear glass cups.

And finally, the size of this cup will work well with a 140 ml gaiwan when half full for a solo, or with two cups when the gaiwan is used for two people. At least 10 ml of water is needed to warm each of the tea cups prior to pouring, and you have that extra with the 140 ml gaiwan. Later on if you decide to buy tiny teapots the cup will be ideal for these. Lin's clay replicates very well the experience of expensive Yixing, so consider their teapots for a starter budget.

Ms. Zhang's Aurora gaiwan
camellia-sinensis.com

Aurora Porcelain Gaiwan 150 ml $28.78. Here is the less expensive gaiwan I promised. I have the matching pitcher for this, so I can say the porcelain is thick and able to tolerate the boiling water temps puerh requires without burning yourself quickly on the lid. It's a really lovely piece for the price and less prone to breakage than thin gaiwans more suited for other teas. It also has a low button for beginners.

Japanese-style porcelain cup
camellia-sinensis.com

Japanese Porcelain Cup 150 ml $17.27. Okay, it's pretty, absolutely Insta-pretty. That's about all. But it is 150 ml and will work with the gaiwan sizes above if you want to drink the whole thing at once, and still see the color of the tea.

Summary

Obviously if you buy everything I have posted here this is quite a bit of money, but no one needs everything on this page all at once, you probably already have cups and maybe a teapot or gaiwan. Each shop may have a shipping threshold for free shipping, and some things posted here are items you can add to a cart anytime to reach the threshold. None of the items above are likely to sell out too soon, many have been on the sites for years now. I tried to hit about $100 per shop, which is a very reasonable tea shop order for most people and most shops (vendors get grumpy with $20 orders). 

Quite honestly ONE beeng of a really nice puerh will cost the same as everything put together on this post!




3 comments:

  1. Wow. I'm so sorry to hear about your town and your house. Best of luck with the damage appraisal and repairs. And thanks for this very useful post. I may be overdue to try some Tae Tea. And for sure I want those Lin tea cups.

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  2. Interesting these tea choices are all Dayi and Xiaguan, with one exception. That makes sense, that someone might start there. An online contact recently visited where I lived and asked about advice on what to buy in shops, and it was hard to specify to what extent general options guidance seemed to need to be adjusted for preference. This works around that, related to suggesting trying some basics, but that guy had minimal exposure to sheng (but was interested in it), and access to shops to taste teas. It worked out to be a similar starting point, but with a lot more discussion about his option to try things.

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    Replies
    1. The Xiaguan and Taetea are gateways that separate people out as to where they go next in exploring puerh. Assuming they discover they like puerh, the next issue is whether they can or will try green puerh with an eye toward future aging. If they really cannot tolerate green puerh, the Song Pin Hao or the shou will point the person into looking at more aged teas rather than buying new and green. The Song Pin Hao is the natural Taiwan-storage buying lane, from here traditional storage is another yet further buying lane. In that lane, one runs into some true puerh trash now and then, and you have to be ready.

      Scott and John are vendors who are great with new puerh people who can say "I tried the Xiaguan/Taetea etc, this is what I thought, what else can you suggest?" I feel fairly certain that boutique vendors with very fine teas would be glad I am not steering the true beginner in their direction without some experience under the belt.

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