Friday, July 21, 2017

The Puerh Conundrum

We are firmly in the clutches of Summer. Summer brings with it many things. Those of us in New York City are in the middle of the first "official" heat wave of the year. The city hums with the sound of a million air conditioner compressors as well as the usual din of cars, buses, trains, and people.

Summer, for those among us whom are tea drinkers, also means that the western-facing internet tea market is inundated with fresh Spring puerh harvests. Weather in Yunnan this past Spring was not the most favorable overall, so many harvests were delayed. I have no doubt that for many the waiting game has caused such personal stress that the sweat dripping from their fingers would be enough to cause any tea held in their hands to spontaneously brew, but I digress. 

While many may flock to their favorite websites, eager to break up the tea into the gaping maws of their gaiwans, I sit at the computer with a profound sense of bewilderment. I have been drinking this bitter artichoke water for about four years now, and while my taste preferences are still developing, I have a reasonable idea of what I like to drink.

While you or I may know what types of teas we enjoy drinking, the problem becomes developing a buying strategy that will ensure a consistent supply of tea moving forward. All fresh tea is marching slowly towards becoming compost. Will we enjoy the type of compost that it becomes? Who's to say..

I only mention New York City as a point of reference for my personal storage solution. Since moving here, my pumidor (a non-functioning wine fridge) has maintained a constant 80 degrees and about 62% RH with no intervention. Only time will tell if this is a sufficient environment for tea aging, but it smells good inside so I remain optimistic.

We finally reach the point of this long-winded article: What, if anything, should we purchase? In my personal tasting I am trying to get a handle on general regional characteristics, but am finding it difficult to do so consistently.  Much like with coffee, there is a huge degree of emphasis placed on single-origin teas in the majority of the market. With coffee this isn't a huge problem, since the price of coffee is more or less the same regardless of origin. There are exceptions, but by-and-large it is a stable market. Not so with tea.

If you're reading this I'm sure I don't have to explain the wild price differences in puerh-producing sub-regions.

With infinite money the solution to our problem becomes easy; buy all the samples. I would love for it to be that easy, but sadly it is not. The samples game is difficult to play for many reasons and often a sample may not be representative of an entire cake, depending on its treatment. Further, something that you like in its current state may not be as pleasant once it has aged in whatever storage solution you are implementing. The reverse may also be true - something you dislike now might be incredible once it has had a chance to sit for a spell.

What, then, should we purchase?  I don't have an answer, but I would love to hear what strategies other people use.

Happy Tea Drinking.


Monday, January 9, 2017

Tea, the Universe, and Everything

Photo stolen unscrupulously from SeriousEats.

I was listening to an episode of one of my favorite podcasts - Hardcore History - on the subject of World War I when I started thinking about something. Quick sidebar - Hardcore History is endlessly fascinating and I wholeheartedly recommend it. It is the author's deeper musing on historical events which brings me back to the podcast time and time again, despite its multi-hour episode lengths.

At any rate, Dan Carlin was discussing the Fermi Paradox. The Fermi Paradox, in essence, poses the question: If the probability of intelligent life existing elsewhere in our universe is so high, why is there no evidence of it? Or, perhaps more simply, where is everyone?

One theory is that it is the natural progression of intelligent species to destroy themselves. 

When did we, as humans, acquire the potential to pose a truly existential threat to ourselves? Many would argue July 16, 1945 - the day the first successful nuclear weapons test was conducted. Dan Carlin argues that it was right around the start of WWI, a little over thirty years earlier. WWI was the first large-scale military conflict in which both sides possessed automatic weapons. The brutality of our own killing machines had advanced so quickly that warships constructed a mere decade prior to the start of the war were outclassed so completely by warships possessed by other nations as to be almost useless.

I only bring this up because I began thinking that if our civilization is indeed marching towards its inevitable self-destruction, then what will inherit the earth? My guess is micro-organisms. I do not mean from the standpoint of the next organism to evolve consciousness, but rather the organism which will outlive all of us - human, animal, and plant.

We are already slaves to our invisible future-rulers. We rely upon them to aid our digestion, to keep so-called "bad bacteria" at bay, to produce the food which enables our plants to grow (and in that sense, enables our lives as well).

We are also at their mercy. Something we cannot even see, if introduced at the wrong time to our systems, can start a cascade which can take our very lives away from us. In some sense our tiny neighbors are more advanced than we are. Dramatically shorter generations enable exponential rates of evolution and thus adaptation we can only dream of as a species. 

Cheese, yogurt, pickled foods of all kinds (a list nearly too long to count), alcohol, leavened bread, vaccines, pharmaceuticals.. the list goes on and on.  

And of course, tea.

Forgiving a few special varieties, nearly all the tea we consume is alive. Puer probably most of all. Many people have touched on this subject before and I find it extremely fascinating. It leads me to believe that humans have far more than the acknowledged "tastes" - sour, salty, sweet, bitter, umami (protein?). I would argue that we have evolved another - fermentation. Sure fermentation is predominantly a mixture of the other tastes, but there is something inherently old and complex about it which many find pleasing. 

What is more interesting is how people who find one or more member of the fermented food family to be to their liking will often find other foods from the family to their liking as well. Liking pickles can lead to liking kimchi and sourdough bread, liking puer tea can lead to appreciating whiskey, and so forth. Complex foods beget desire for other complex foods.

I for one welcome the future lords of our planet, and I invite everyone in this New Year full of doubts and uncertainties to remember that ultimately, we are all insignificant. Practice love, practice compassion, share life, and share tea.  It is the only way forward. 

Happy Tea Drinking. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Protecting the Stash

I hear that some people use their cubicle drawers to store office supplies, files, that sort of thing. Like any good tea-hoarder, mine are filled almost entirely with the object of my obsession. This makes sense, because I do the majority of my tea drinking at work. While I would like to dedicate more time at home to drinking tea, the nature of my commitments makes that difficult on most days, weekends included.

My stash circa 2013

I do try to keep my setup to a respectable minimum : 4 teapots, 1 gaiwan, 1 shiboridashi, a half-dozen teacups, cha hai, strainer, scale, tea-picks, and electric kettle. I even have one of those Tawainese-style competition brewing sets, for the odd work-sanctioned tea tasting, of course.

My drawers contain binder-clipped bags of oolongs, metal canisters of aged oolong, and many, many sample bags of puer, ripe and raw represented. I also keep my ripe cakes at work for the time being, since I do not have a storage solution for them at home yet. I am confident that were my drawers inspected by a casual observer, they would assume that I had quite the drug problem.

As much as I would love to continue describing the extent of my tea-hoarding at work, I must shift the topic to the subject of a different kind of observer. A non-human observer.

I used to sit in a square 4-cubicle pod with J (tea friend of mention in posts past), J (another fellow tea-drinker), and a vacant cubicle. It was quite nice - we even had a communal table at which to conduct very important work-centric meetings involving copious amounts of tea. H (another tea-drinking colleague) from over the wall would stop by to offer her input. I have since moved locations within the building, but I stop by to talk with the two Js frequently.


"Did you know about the mouse?", asks H.
"Mouse?", I reply.
"A mouse got into our drawers, J and J had to throw away a bunch of their tea."
A feverish shiver runs up my spine as my mind rushes to the rather formidable stash of tea a short walk away.

It appears that mice had found their way into a drawer in J's cubicle which contained, unknown to him, a chocolate bar. After finishing off the chocolate, the mice chewed holes into vacuum-sealed bags of oolong. It would appear the tea obsession extends beyond our species.

My tea was, mercifully, unharmed, owing probably to the fact that I sit further away from the scene of the crime. As a precaution, however, I packed up any tea not stored in a metal canister and brought it home until I can purchase a sealed container to keep it all in.

Is that really it?

It is rare that we, as hoarders, face the true extent of our obsessions. We all have underlying knowledge that we might have some sort of problem, but when everything is distributed it becomes harder to keep it all in mind at once.

Inside the fridge minus a few newer cakes, of course.

And no, that is not all of my tea. There are a few cabinets in my kitchen to contend with, along with my small collection of shu puer. Distribution is key, of course.

I even keep a spreadsheet of all the tea that I drink. Mostly for my own curiosity, but also because I like a well-organized spreadsheet. I'm currently consuming tea at a rate of about 115g/month on average. This is well below my acquisition rate, although I do not keep track of that figure.

All this to say - keep your tea safe out there my friends and fellow collectors. As for the m(ice)ouse? We won't speak of that, but suffice it to say that we have not had any visitors since this incident.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Telling a Story

Neither my girlfriend nor I have ever been backpacking. To be precise, and to be fair, I have never been camping at all. The closest that I have come was in the Summer of my junior year of high school. Some friends and I stayed but a single night at a campsite a mere three minute walk to the beach, about two hours south of where I live. There was a bathroom just a moments walk in the opposite direction.

My parents, forced out of the neighborhood of my youth by skyrocketing cost of living, cashed out and moved to Oregon last fall. No longer are they a simple ten minute drive away, and sadly I cannot see them as frequently as I would like to. As it happens, my girlfriend has family in Vancouver, Washington, so we arranged a trip to see my family and hers. 

We traveled by way of Crater Lake. If you have never been, allow me to recommend it with the greatest enthusiasm I can muster. It is one of the most breathtaking natural features you will ever see, a sight which defies all words, a sight which leaves one feeling so very, very small.

Saddled with her brother's backpacking gear, my girlfriend and I arrived at Crater Lake at 5:15 in the evening with the hopes to find a back-country campsite for the night. Our troubles began when the ranger at the entrance informed us that we needed to obtain a permit from the Ranger Station by 5pm. Stricken with fear, we dashed down the road to the station and found that it was not yet closed. We were greeted by a cheerful park ranger who happily issued us a permit. Small crisis averted, we drove back down the road to the nearby market to pick up a couple of essentials and a freeze-dried meal for our dinner.

With our car parked at the lot closest to the trailhead we had selected and, backpack loaded with far more gear than two people could possibly need for a single night in the woods, we made our way downhill and away from the sounds of cars and other humans. 

Hiking at any elevation above a few hundred feet is tiring for a city boy. Barely ten minutes and already exhausted, we passed a helpful couple who told us that some campsites were only another ten minutes ahead. We soon arrived at what looks to have been a campsite at one point in a small clearing surrounded by scorched, dead trees. We shed our kit and took to setting up our tent. 

It is a good idea to put a tent together at least once before you need to really use it. If not only to make sure that you understand how to put it together, but also to make sure that you aren't missing any pieces. Don't be like us. Don't skip this step. Missing no fewer than four stakes and at least one tent pole made putting our shelter together much more difficult than it should have been, but for one night, it would do.

Mosquitoes in suburban California are so small you can hardly see them. Not so in the forest. We were in our campsite for less than one minute before they descended upon us like an air raid, but without the courtesy of a siren to warn us. Bug spray does not smell good. It also does not taste good, so keep that in mind when applying it to every inch of exposed skin on your entire body.

Getting a fire going, now there's something I had done before. Lesson learned here was that when the air is damp, it is much harder to get even small kindling to catch fire. Start slowly, and add larger pieces very carefully.  It was about this time that my girlfriend discovered that a swarm of mosquitoes had settled on my back, which she brushed off, but the damage was done. Turns out these buggers can bite through clothing; I had no less than twenty bites on my back the next day.

After dinner (a freeze-dried vegetarian chana masala, quite good actually), we set to finding a tree to hang our remaining food in for the night. Much of Crater lake had been ripped through by forest fires last year - indeed we could see huge swaths of dead forest as we drove out of the park the next afternoon. We happened to be camped in one such area, and as a result most of the trees nearby were dead, causing their branches to hang downwards rather than outwards. Dark was approaching quickly and we finally managed to throw a rock tied to our rope over the one good tree branch in the entire area and get our bags into the tree.

Night, even in July, was cold. The sky was immaculately clear, lit by an extremely bright full moon. Somewhere out there in that frigid darkness came a yelp of a small animal, followed by a (much closer) set of three distinctive thumps. We shall never know what type of animal was our visitor that night, but when the sun rose, we were once again alone in our little valley. We breakfasted on the remaining food from our hanging bags (still there, I might add) and broke camp.

In spite of all the small things we went through in our endeavor to gain a better understanding of camping, we both agreed that the adventure was more than worth it. Life, it seems to me in the relatively few years I have been around, is all about gaining those small bits of knowledge to better appreciate the world and its small pleasures. These bits are not without cost, but sometimes you need to venture more than just money in order to grasp them.

Happy Tea Drinking.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Hunting for Aged Things

I have been curious about aged oolong (and really all aged teas) for some time. Aging tea was first introduced to me when I started getting interested in puerh. Back then I read through much of marshaln's blog and I noticed that he also devotes a large amount of text to discussing aged oolongs.

James at TeaDB has also devoted time to discussing aged oolongs, and I have read his reports with great interest. I can commiserate with him in the fact that much of what is available to me in the West is largely overpriced and uninteresting. I have been meaning to try some of the more premium aged oolongs from Tea-Masters, however I haven't gotten around to it yet.

A work colleague and friend of mine, whom I have spoken of before, hails from Taiwan and primarily drinks oolong tea. I can credit him with sparking my interest in loose-leaf teas in the first place, so I was curious to discuss aged oolong tea with him. He did not know much about it, and hadn't really encountered many people selling it in Taiwan. A friend of his did have some aged oolong that he obtained for somewhere around $1/g, which we tasted on a break at work and I wasn't particularly impressed by it. It seemed kind of thin and lacked depth.

My work friend, J, had to travel to Taiwan recently to aid at a customer site and he asked me if I wanted him to get me anything. I asked him to try to find some aged oolong.

On his one free day, J went with a friend to the town of Yingge, which is famous for their pottery. It was raining and they had missed their bus, so they had to sit around for a while till the next one came. My name was mentioned ('I have a work colleague, a white American' - I quote) and J told his friend that I was in search of aged oolong tea (particularly the variety that hasn't been re-roasted). As it turns out, an older woman was eavesdropping on their conversation and leaned over to say that her brother sells aged oolong tea, and, as luck would have it, has a shop in Yingge.

J and his friend accompanied the woman on a visit to her brother's shop. It was tucked into the corner of a back alley, and J would have never found it unless he had days to simply wander around.

The gentleman who ran the shop claims that tea these days is impure, that it contains pesticides and pollutants that didn't exist long ago, and so he strives to find old, "pure" teas. He claims he tastes something around 600 teas a year and only selects a few to sell. J and his friend tasted four teas, three of which J bought some of to bring home.

The teas are a 1969 Zhushan oolong, a 1972 Lugu oolong, and a 1978 black tea. All come in around $0.30/g. There was a fourth tea, an alleged 1934(!) green tea, supposedly obtained by a military fellow from Japan. This fourth tea is something around $1.30/g, and J did not have enough cash to purchase any.

Are any of these teas authentic? Who knows. The price for the quality was there, so I'm extremely fortunate to be able to try them. Many thanks to J for the teas, and many thanks for those who have read through all that story just to reach descriptions of actual tea.

1969 Zhushan 

This has a definite smell of Chinese herb shop. This tea was originally stored in an herb shop - it was given to customers to drink along with the herbs that they take. The shop owner passed away and left his business to his son, who found a bag of this tea in the back. The son did not want to continue in the business, so he sold the tea to the gentleman who now sells it in Yingge.

The tea is composed of very small leaves, many are broken now. There is the odd leaf which is bigger, and it was once loosely twisted and given a fairly strong roast. After many infusions, green can still be found in the leaves.

Its taste is thick, and the liquid sits in the top of the throat, producing a 'pooling' effect and a returning sweetness that lasts a good long time. This is the best tea of the bunch, in my opinion.

1972 Lugu

This tea comes from Lugu, the area in which Dong Ding oolong is produced. Was this a 1972 equivalent of dong ding? I can't say.

What I can say is that the tea is is not as good as the 1969 Zhushan. It still provides a nice aged taste, but its body is thinner and it lacks the throatiness of the previous tea. It also steeps out a bit faster. It is extremely difficult to overbrew it, never presenting sourness or bitterness, even when pushed. We have larger leaves here, many of which are mostly intact.

It reminds me a little bit of some of the aged wuyi oolongs from the now defunct OriginTea, albeit with less throat taste.

1978 Black

I'm not sure on the story behind this one. This is the first aged black tea that I have had, and it is an interesting tea. The dry leaf smells very strongly of malt and sweetness, just like a fresh black tea. There is a hint of something darker within the leaves, but it's difficult to detect.

The taste is very fruity, with a throatiness greater than the 1972 Lugu, but not as thick as the 1969 Zhushan. It is very sweet, and it has a mineral character which makes the tongue tingle. I think perhaps this is the aged taste?

I find it brews out rather quickly, although after letting it sit overnight and revisiting the leaves, I was able to get a few more infusions out of them. Its color is also very fresh black tea-like. More orange than the deeper, almost ruby red of the two aged oolongs. If I can find some more aged black tea, I'll be interested to compare. I know TaiwanSourcing has one..

Many thanks to J for the tea, and many thanks to anyone who has taken the time to stop by and read.

As a side note - I'm always open to doing some sample swapping with anyone who is interested. I'm always in the market for some more aged oolongs, so shoot me a message here or on Instagram if you wish :)

Happy Tea Drinking!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Taste vs. Cost

Spring is here!  Okay, more accurately it is Summer in the northern hemisphere, but it has only been as such for the past week or so.  Spring means a fresh harvest of tea.  This year I decided to purchase a sample of every raw puer tea that white2tea has produced.  This order came in at just under $100 for 200g of tea, with samples ranging from just over $2 all the way to an alarming $34.

Something which I have spent a lot of time thinking about is price justification in tea.  The cost we see as consumers reflects raw materials cost, processing, travel expenses, warehouse space, web hosting fees, operational costs, potential sample markup.. the list goes on and on.  This post is not intended to rail against the cost of tea in general, but I feel it bears mentioning.  What exactly makes a tea worthy of a price an order of magnitude above another?  Also, can I even discern such differences?

I am in no way an experienced puer drinker, although I have been getting a bit more serious about it over the past year or so.  I wanted to expand my palate in the realm of fresh raw puer and I also wanted to see whether my tongue's preferences align with the cost of a tea.  To do this, I set up a blind tasting of the 8 different samples I purchased.  I measured out 7g of each tea and placed them in numbered bags and have been drinking through them and taking notes for the past month or so.  Each was steeped in a 100ml gaiwan and went through around 8 infusions.

I'll include my full notes below, along with the ranking I gave the teas after each subsequent sample.


#1 -  Smooth.  Thick, silky mouthfeel.  Grapey/slight apricot sweetness.  Virtually no astringency.  Slight smoke.  Not overly complex.  "simple".  Pleasant throaty aftertaste.

#2 - Juicy.  More up-front than #1.  Similar flavor, hedging towards more fruit.  Better aftertaste with a slight cooling feeling in the throat.  Some tongue-drying astringency.  Developing a coating quality on steep #3, a bit bitter.  Some noticeable energy from this tea.  Caffeine is definitely present.

Rank - 2, 1.

#3 - Thick.  Surprisingly soft, however small amount of hay-like 'barnyard' taste.  Coats the roof of the mouth.  Slight cooling.  Aftertaste is mouth-centered rather than throat-centered.  This 7g is rather stemmy.  Becoming throatier as it steeps out.  Bitterness on par with yesterday (#2).  Vaguely 'grapey' aftertaste.  Slight disorienting feeling like a head fog.  Huigan is building as steeps go on.

Rank - 2, 3, 1.

#4 - Stimulating.  Produces an immediate tingling, cooling tongue sensation that lingers after swallowing.  Almost all taste centers on the tip of the tongue and makes it salivate.  Floral, grapelike aftertaste blooms in the mouth.  On steep 3 the taste moves back in the mouth and develops strength.  A thick sweetness is developing, too.  Mouth stimulation continues as it steeps out, but moves back towards the throat.

Rank - 4, 2, 3, 1

#5 - Throaty.  Produces a 'pooling' feeling in the throat, as if it were physically sitting there.  Interesting cured meat smell on gaiwan lid.  Quite soft overall, less obvious huigan as compared to #4.  Leaf is very bud-heavy.  Huigan building in later steeps.  Developing astringency, too.  Ignore earlier huigan comment - it is extremely apparent now.

Rank - 4, 5, 2, 3, 1

#6 - Subtle.  I'm really not getting much from this.  Fairly astringent, especially in the middle tongue and roof of mouth.  Very few noticeable flavors.  Not really getting much sweetness either.

Rank - 4, 5, 2, 3, 1, 6

#7 - Crisp.  Good smoothness, some tip of tongue astringency.  Bottom of cheek and throat aftertaste - like apples or gentle grapes.  Some salivation, good huigan that builds across the steeps.  Quite sweet on its own, too.  Grainy base.  Good endurance.

Rank - 4, 5, 7, 2, 3, 1, 6

#8 - Sweet.  Medium astringency in the middle of the tongue, but high degree of natural sweetness.  Aroma confirms that.  A candy-like sweetness is within these leaves.  Just very pleasant, easy-drinking sweet tea.  Nice aftertaste at back of tongue and top of throat.  Small leaves, though this is a 'center of the beeng' sample.  After a half-day's rest, not as sweet.  More vegetal, some floral quality now too.  Very nice overall, body still apparent.

Rank - 4, 5, 8, 7, 2, 3, 1, 6


What are the teas?

#1 - Poundcake ($6.50) [7]
#2 - Milk, Cream, & Alcohol ($2.35) [5]
#3 - Bosch ($16.00) [6]
#4 - If You're Reading This... ($6.50) [1]
#5 - Tu Hao as Fuck ($18.50) [2]
#6 - Last Thoughts ($34.00) [8]
#7 - Colbert ($10.50) [4]
#8 - Little Walk ($2.60) [3]

I find it extremely interesting that I rated one of the cheapest teas as my favorite, whereas the most expensive tea I ranked dead last.  Indeed, the price fluctuation between my rankings is about as random as I expected it to be.

What does this mean?

1) My palate for young raw puer teas is not appropriate to appreciate high-caliber teas (Last Thoughts, I'm lookin' at you...)
2) I tend to prefer the easier-drinking teas, and specifically ones with good mouth action beyond just a simple sweetness/astringency. 

I will most certainly be re-visiting all of these teas until my samples are gone.  There are a few anomalous experiences across my tasting which I wish to resolve with a more carefully tuned awareness.

Most of all, I think this goes to show that there are so many factors that go into whether a tea is worth it to a particular person.  Personal taste is definitely the biggest.  You simply cannot make someone appreciate something more expensive if they do not already have a taste for such things.  I'm glad that I took the price of the teas out of the equation for my first tasting.  I still have around 18g of each of these teas left, so I can proceed with a bit more background knowledge when I approach them again. 

If you reached the end of this rather long-winded post, thank you!  I encourage you to take everything I have written with a grain of salt, since I am in no way an authority, or even someone you ought to listen to.  I hope you have found this somehow informative!

Happy tea drinking.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

What's in my Cup : Nov 13, 2014

2002 White2Tea White Whale

Still riding the pu'er train today as I drink a tea about to hit puberty.  Twelve years of age have turned this tea into a very smooth affair.  It has a firm undercurrent of wood, hay, and smoky apricots that lingers in the mouth and throat for a significant amount of time after swallowing.  It has a pleasant sourness that is accompanied by a slight tongue-drying astringency.  

It is notably sharper when brewed in a gaiwan, however the rounding of flavors offered by this yixing teapot is very welcome on a day where I needed some extra smoothness and relaxation.  

If you are interested in pu'er and haven't been to White2Tea's website.. check it out.