A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from November 2008

Trash puerh

November 30, 2008 · 1 Comment

BBB already posted this up, this link came byway of Action Jackson


The video is purportedly of some workers in Guangzhou who were drying out large bricks of “puerh” that were pressed from used tealeaves.

These are cakes that say “Puerh Tea Brick — 1958” on them. They look like this. I’m not saying this store’s tea is the same — at least the number is diffierent.

There’s, of course, no way to know for sure if it’s just some tea sitting on some concrete out in the middle of nowhere. There are a few things that are clear —

1) the place is rather dirty
2) tea is sitting outside
3) the guy narrating is speaking proper Cantonese, saying pretty much that this is some guys drying out pressed tea and then reselling it since they are right at a tea market. This is all fake, etc.

Anyway, there’s been a comment on BBB’s blog that this is nothing more than a shaky video with unverified claims. True. But, in the land of melamine filled milk and fake salt (yes, using industrial salt to fake table salt…. with dire consequences, of course), anything is possible.

The solution? Buy from reputable sellers, and try your very best to educate yourself. Teas that are faked often have very telling signs — a flavour that is rather off, or strange, or too intense. The leaves will look funny. It’s difficult, of course, if you don’t have all that much experience or have a lot of opportunities to see different kinds of things, which is also why it is important to diversify your suppliers — don’t just buy tea from only one or two stores, and see the variety of stuff out there. The people I’ve met in China who were most screwed by their tea suppliers are usually the ones who stick with one or two because they thought they could trust them.

Which is also why I don’t drink things like jasmine, which are often flavoured with some kind of artificial flavours — they might smell great, but you have no idea what’s going into your mouth.

Unfortuantely, that’s the world we live in now.

Categories: Old Xanga posts

Casual brewing

November 19, 2008 · 4 Comments

I’ve been mostly drinking tea in a “casual” way these days, using a yixing pot and brewing as I go, throughout the day. The thing that strikes me the most, but not at all surprising, is that the teas come out very differently when brewed this way. It’s obviously going to be the case given how this is not the regular gongfu brewing, but nevertheless, some teas come out really well, while others are simply not well suited to this purpose at all. For example, I had a roasted shuixian brewed this way, and the result is quite awful — a lot of charcoal flavour without much in the way of depth. When I make it the regular way, however, it comes out quite nicely.

Another issue is simply the selection of tea — some teas work with this, while others don’t. A light tieguanyin is going to taste nasty when you make it the way I do now, with sometimes hours between infusions. The tea will be a bit nasty, astringent, and bitter. Cooked puerh, for all their faults, come out all right no matter what you do, which is why these days I am trying to exhaust some of my cooked puerh supply. Another kind of tea that works very well is aged oolongs, which also don’t get bitter no matter what you do. It makes life easier.

This, of course, also explains why this blog has been rather slow these days — I just haven’t been drinking that much new tea recently. Unfortunate, I must say, since I do miss the daily sitting, but at some point, I suppose, real life intervenes.

Categories: Old Xanga posts
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November 19, 2008 · 5 Comments

I’ve always been a little paranoid about putting all this stuff online. Being an aspiring academic, I don’t like the possibility of somebody taking my work without any sort of attribution. At one point I had my photo album closed off for precisely that reason, although I’ve since decided maybe it’s better to leave it open.

So things like this really has me paranoid. Now I’ve added a little Creative Commons license icon on the bottom right of this page. Not that it has stopped people, but it does, I hope, serve to remind people to respect other people’s work, however publicized it might seem to be.

Categories: Misc · Old Xanga posts

What is wet storage?

November 12, 2008 · 17 Comments

* This is a column entry that will go into the latest issue of the magazine my friend edits in Beijing, but you’ve seen this here first. Some of them are points that I’ve made before in various forms, so sorry for boring those of you with a good memory :).

For the past few years, puerh has been a typhoon that swept through the tea drinking community. Almost everybody, from old hands to newcomers, were swept up in its wake. Interest in this tea skyrocketed, and for a while, a bubble formed with the puerh market. Although things have subsided somewhat in the past two years, there is still plenty of interest and the landscape of puerh production, consumption, and storage has been permanently altered.

One of the issues at hand, storage, is a complicated matter that has led to much ink being spilt. Definitions of good and bad storage differ, and commercial interests, unfortunately, are heavily involved as old tea fetches astronomical sums. Those who have one sort of tea will claim it is the best, while some others who own another type will claim that in fact, theirs is the best. Confusion, unfortunately, is the name of the game.

Among questions on storage and tea condition is the perennial issue of “wet” vs “dry” storage. Both wet and dry are relative terms, and run from a scale of absolute dryness to liquid water. So, what exactly constitutes dry, and wet, storage? Unfortunately, definitions differ considerably, and are largely dependent on where one’s from. Let me try to summarize what I have found so far from personal experience:

1) Hong Kong/Macau

As the inventor of wet storage, people from Hong Kong and Macau tend to have a fairly strict definition of what it entails. I think largely we can summarize it as puerh that has been stored in an artificially wet condition with elevated temperature, for the specific purpose of speeding the aging of the tea and to change the character of the tea in question. This is sometimes also called “ground storage” as many of these storage facilities were basements or built into a hill.

Until maybe ten or fifteen years ago, there was no such thing as “wet” or “dry” storage. A friend of mine who has been drinking tea seriously for twenty years told me that when she first started learning about puerh, she, and some friends of hers, went to some of the very old shops in Hong Kong to search out puerh cakes. They wanted, however, to find cakes that were green – young cakes, so that they can store it themselves. When they asked, the storekeepers generally gave them a strange look, and asked why on earth would they want such a thing – these teas are undrinkable! Needless to say, their expedition was unsuccessful. Nowadays, it is much easier to find raw cakes that have not gone through such storage, but back then, it was nearly impossible.

These days it is much easier to find such cakes that have not gone through such storage condition. For the most part, private collectors or tea investors generally try to store them in a natural environment. What this means is that the storage space is not artificially enhanced with moisture or temperature, but just left alone to the natural cycle of the weather. My friend who tried to buy her tea in the 1990s has been doing that for a dozen years, and is now enjoying the teas that she has in her collection, some of which are very nice. This, to people from Hong Kong anyway, are what is generally called dry storage.

2) Taiwan

When I was in Taiwan doing research I noticed that they have a varied amount of terminologies used to denote different types of storage conditions. One of them is “Hong Kong storage”, which to them means wet storage. However, I have noticed among friends and shops that many teas that are so called “Hong Kong storage” were in fact stored in Taiwan. Taiwan, it must be remembered, has even wetter conditions than Hong Kong. Humidity is higher in many parts of Taiwan, and rainfall is continuous for weeks at a time. For dry storage, there is also a nuanced distinction between just regular, natural storage, and storage that sometimes includes climate control.

I remember in about November when I was in Taipei, the weather had turned cooler, but not cold. I usually left my window open in my 8th floor apartment during the day. There was a week when rain fell almost daily. The bulk of my tea cake collection was sitting on a loft area, far away from the window, but two or three cakes I left underneath the coffee table for easy access as I was drinking them. They were wrapped in their original wrapping paper and sat at least a foot off the ground and a few feet away from the window. The cakes were certainly not touched by water at any stage. Yet, in about two weeks, I noticed that the cakes were quite damp, and that there was the first signs of mould growing on the cake. This, to me, was quite an interesting discovery, because it showed that in a natural environment, away from direct contact with moisture, it was still possible to have mould growing on tea in a place like Taipei (and remember, I was on the 8th floor, not in a basement). So, even if a tea is “dry” stored, it is worth keeping in mind what that means for the tea.

3) Northern China

When I was in Beijing doing research, I lived there for a year. In that year, I spent probably more time trolling the tea markets than anything else, and was able to gain some insight into not only the tea market but also what people thought about what they were selling and drinking, largely through talking to a wide variety of people, from girls who came from tea farms in Yiwu to Beijing entrepreneur-turned-tea merchant. While this does not mean that what I found was a China-wide phenomenon, I do think that there’s some representation in terms of Yunnanese views as well, as Kunming is also a very dry climate (although not nearly as cold).

Basically, anything stored in Southern China is considered wet. I remember trying a few teas that were maybe about 10 years old by Southern China standard and certainly dry stored (again, by that standard). The almost unanimous response was “this is wet stored” and “this is poorly stored”. They demand a very dry kind of storage up north, where teas change very slowly and retain much of their original character through storage, mellowing very, very slowly. If you show them truly wet stored (i.e. ground storage) teas, they often think it is cooked puerh, or simply don’t recognize what they’re drinking.

Part of this, I think, is historical. Puerh really wasn’t consumed outside of a few provinces in the south and Southeast Asia, and so the experience of the Beijingers have been much shorter, generally (at this point in 2008) about five years old or so. Prior to that, they drank light tieguanyin, and before that, longjing, and a little further back, jasmine. Their tastes tend to the fragrant and light side of things (perhaps an antidote to the heavy food) and I think this preference shows itself in their choice of puerh as well.

4) The Occident

So what is wet storage in the Occident? Well, I can’t speak for everybody, but I think a survey of the internet is probably a pretty good approximation of what the consensus is.

To put it simply, there isn’t a consensus from what I can see. There are varying definitions of what “wet” or “dry” storage means, and different vantage points with which to view this issue. There are a few issues that complicate this problem. First, like Beijing, experience with puerh drinking in the West is certainly thin. Moreover, information is hard to come by, with a lot of it being provided by vendors who sell tea. Another problem, and I think this is a critical issue, is the lack of experience among drinkers who ca
n differentiate the different kinds of storage. While I was lucky to be guided by more experienced hands, and have had the opportunity to drink a wide variety of teas, many in the West rely solely on retailers who sell through the internet. The teas being sold through this medium are, for the most part, young cakes that are under 10 years of age. There is also a selection bias in the inventory of such vendors, and so they often only reflect one philosophy with regards to proper storage condition.

What I find generally true is that “wet” storage has been largely seen as a bad thing – it is believed that it affects the tea negatively. I have also seen an interesting obsession with the idea that teas need to retain their “true” “authentic” flavour, and “wet” storage is seen as something that will tamper with the purity of the tea. To that end, “dry” storage is seen as ideal – it retains the flavour of the original tea and thus is “better”.

Long time reader of this blog probably know that I don’t necessarily subscribe to this view. In particular, I do not believe that it is important to keep the original flavour of the tea in order for the storage to be successful. If anything, the point of storage is to change the flavour of the tea away from its original character, which is often harsh and bitter, into something that is sweeter, softer, and mellower. The degree to which this change should take place varies by individuals. However, I think it is not the best idea to think that teas should be kept in a largely similar condition to when it was purchased. If that is the goal, the best choice is to buy well sealed tieguanyin or green tea and drink it when appropriate.

What I think it comes down to is a problem of transmission of information – whereas it is possible to drink a lot of different kinds of teas, talk to a lot of people, read a lot of books, and see a lot of cakes if you’re in Taiwan, China, or Southeast Asia, in the US or Europe, the choices are extremely limited, prices are almost always high, and information hard to come by. What little that exists are fragmentary and prone to personal biases (including, of course, mine). There’s hope for optimism though, as years pass we all gain experience storing teas and buying teas, and give them a few more years, we will start seeing the results of storage conditions in places as disparate as Pairs, Florida, and Los Angeles. Some are bound to be disappointed, and it might not have anything to do with storage conditions as the quality of raw materials also plays a significant role. Hopefully we will all come out richer in knowledge.

Categories: Old Xanga posts
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Tea and physiology

November 8, 2008 · 4 Comments

I’ve been drinking some cooked puerh recently, not wanting to kill my stash of aged baozhong too quickly. It was fine for a few days, but I’ve noticed something — my body’s not reacting to it kindly with some digestive issues. At first I thought it was something else causing it (bad food?). I drank some of my aged baozhong today…. and I realized just now that the issue is gone.

This is like me having trouble with black tea and headache…

So, maybe like Chinese medicine, we should think of tea drinking as something that needs to suit your body, and not just randomly picking up any kind of tea and drink to your heart’s content. Some teas, at least for me, just seem to work better than others.

Categories: Old Xanga posts

Interesting reading

November 5, 2008 · 5 Comments

Among the things that have been keeping me very busy these days is job search — I’m looking for an (academic) job, which means that I have to write stuff, send stuff, and pray, very hard, for a reply. If you have any suggestions for an efficacious deity to whom I should direct my prayers, I am all ears.

One of the things I have to write are syllabi for new courses that I might teach. One of the courses that I tried to write up is a topical survey of tea in East Asian history. I hope to cover, in broad strokes, history of the drink from a variety of perspectives, from the first written record (Lu Yu in the Tang dynasty) to its dissemination to Korea/Japan and the rest of the world, tea trade, and so on, so forth. It’s not easy to find stuff that are both academically sound and relevant to the topic — most of what’s been written on tea are, by and large, not robust enough as pieces of scholarship to stand up in a university classroom, which is quite unfortunate. Heck, we don’t even have much in the way of translations of texts other than the IMHO over-valued Classic of Tea. C’est la vie.

I did, however, come across something interesting while searching for readings that will work for the class. If you have access to JSTOR (an online journal storage) or some good public library (which will have JSTOR) you should be able to find this:

Gardella, Robert, “Tea Processing in China, circa 1885: A Photographic Essay”, The Business History Review, Vol. 75, No. 4 (Winter 2001), pp. 807-812

I showed it to a few people, and much of the response is “things really hasn’t changed that much in the last 100 years”. They’re right. Take a look if you have time. Or, if you have suggestions for other things I might be able to use for the class, please do let me know.

Categories: Old Xanga posts

Three cheers…

November 4, 2008 · 3 Comments

for the new President-elect.

Categories: Misc · Old Xanga posts

Drinking puerh

November 4, 2008 · 2 Comments

Now I finally understand why people thought it was crazy to buy whole cakes, bricks, or whatever, for personal consumption. Instead, they preferred to buy loose tea, or tea that was broken up by the seller in advance.

It’s very annoying to drink things from compressed tea.

I’ve been burning through my aged baozhong stash, so in an effort to stem the tide, I thought I’d sacrifice quality by drinking….. well, cooked puerh that I have sitting around that will otherwise never be consumed. The item in question right now is a Menghai factory brick, one of those 5th grade bricks that I bought for about $4 back in 2006. I got it pretty much just for fun, and still have it around as I barely touched it. I figured, why not?

Well… turns out there’s a hassle after all. When I was drinking tea properly everyday, it wasn’t that much of a hassle to break open a cake or a brick and consume that. When you have all the tools around with you, with the tray that catches all the loose tea, with everything in place, breaking open tea is pretty simple.

When you’ve been used to just throwing some leaves into a pot and then brewing, however, breaking a brick is annoying. Flakes are everywhere. You have to break it off before you drink. It’s hard to figure out how much tea is in the (big) teapot, and so dangers of overdose is high (at least this is cooked puerh from Menghai, so it can’t go terribly wrong). It doesn’t even taste all that great. Why, oh why, would anybody bother with this crap?

Categories: Old Xanga posts