A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from September 2013

Really young puerh is not really puerh

September 18, 2013 · 5 Comments

The title of this post is perhaps slightly confusing. When is puerh not puerh? Let me explain what I mean…

What I’m talking about here only pertains to raw puerh. For cooked puerh, the whole process is different and the tea is puerh (cooked) as soon as the post-fermentation happened. For raw puerh, however, the tea does not go through such a post-fermentation process where it is basically composted to create the flavours you find in cooked tea. What you have instead, at least in theory, is a long period of aging where the tea changes from young to old, and in the process, transforms itself from a very green looking thing to a dark, brown or black cake of tea, with flavours to match.

Presumably, we buy young tea to age because we want aged flavours and profile. Cooked puerh is also an attempt to recreate the aged taste without the time – at least that was the original intention of the process, although now it has taken on a life of its own. Puerh, at its core, is a tea that requires post-fermentation of some sort. It is that process of aging which gives the tea its unique flavours, complexity, and aromas. It’s what makes it different from all other teas.

So it is a bit confusing when we use the term puerh to denote anything coming from big leaf varietal trees in Yunnan compressed into cake or brick or tuo form. This is partly because we don’t have a name for such things – what, for example, do we call current year products that are meant for aging? For whisky, we can call them “white dog.” I’m afraid I don’t know the name of what you’d call wine that hasn’t gone through barrel aging – but the idea is the same. When we have something that is newly compressed and newly made, but hasn’t gone through that post-fermentation yet, calling those things puerh can be a bit misleading. White dogs aren’t really whisky – they are more like dirty vodka. The colours, aromas, and taste profile are not the same as whisky that has gone through aging. Likewise, wine that hasn’t been aged at all is going to taste funny. In those cases, there are legal limits to when you can call them by their names – in scotch whisky, for example, it’s three years. For cognacs, it’s two years.

Puerh, unfortunately, has a very confusing definition officially, so that such nomenclature is all jumbled. The official definition of the tea (at least in the 2006 update) makes room for both raw and cooked tea, but leaves out post-fermentation for raw tea completely, perhaps at the behest of producers who want to be able to call newly pressed raw teas puerh as well (note the date of 2006 – at the height of the first bubble). So we are left with a definition that is wholly incongruent for raw tea, all it requires is shaqing, rolling, sun drying, compression. For cooked tea, it includes “special techniques” that will cause “slow or fast post-fermentation.” So, the first is really a green tea that is only distinguished by the sun drying process, and the latter is what puerh tea probably should be – post-fermented tea.

I have been drinking a sample series of teas made by the same producer but from different years – ranging from 2006 to 2013. Since they were (and still are) stored in the same condition, it is possible to compare them against each other in terms of aging. The experience of this matches what I think to be true – that it takes about two to three years for a young puerh cake to lose the “greenness” of the tea and to start taking on some of the aged characteristics. Of course, the whole thing is a gradual process of change, but it is clear that by about three years old, the initial green flavours of the tea disappear. Of course, this depends also on compression strength, type of tea, storage environment, etc, but generally speaking, it takes a few years for a tea to start taking on aged flavours.

It also takes a few years for the wheat be separated from the chaff. I personally no longer buy anything younger than about three or four years. Yes, it is possible that you will have to pay more, but actually, I haven’t found that to be the case really. Considering how expensive new cakes are this year, with reasonably good tea often costing over $100 or $150 a cake, teas from 2007-2009 are actually quite competitively priced. Sometimes they are even cheaper, with the added bonus that now you can sort out the ones that are turning bad or bland. Not all tea will age well, just like not all wine will age well. It is a lot easier to pick and choose at the three year mark, with much higher probability of success, than picking them when they are brand new. I think that’s a good cutoff for when we can call them puerh.

Of course, some people just prefer them green and new. That’s all good – drink them if you want. You can buy new ones every year to satisfy that need. No need to store though – because unless you vacuum seal them (which some people apparently do right from the beginning) the flavours will change. If you are vacuum sealing the tea, you’re treating it as green tea. That’s fine, just don’t call it puerh.

Categories: Teas
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The retaste project 17: 2005 Yichanghao Mansa

September 11, 2013 · 5 Comments

Once upon a time, in a land far far away, tea was cheap. Puerh was considered very cheap tea, and things like the Laotongzhi, admittedly a very regular cake, would fetch about 25 RMB on the market. The vaunted Dayi, which is now attaining mythical status, was only slightly more expensive. In those halcyon days of plentiful and cheap tea, Yichanghao was among the new stars that promised greatness. They rapidly expanded from their initial foray into tea production in 99 to an important player by 2005. Times were good.

Fast forward half a dozen years, and now there are persistent rumours of imminent collapse of Changtai Group, the company behind Yichanghao. Fact is, ever since the 2007 bubble burst, Changtai hasn’t been doing much – at least, not much that anyone has paid any attention to. They still produce tea every year, but they haven’t had a “hit” for a long, long time.

It was in those blissful days when I bought this thing

Compared with the photos I took right after I bought this cake (romanized as Mengsa, because that’s how the characters are sometimes written, but not on this particular cake), it’s pretty obvious that it has aged a little bit over the years. The tea was stored in Beijing for a year, then for the rest of its life has been in Hong Kong. I haven’t had a chance to drink it since buying it, until a few days ago, anyway. I bought two cakes, of course, and this seems to be not the one that was pictured, but I’m sure they were similar in colours. The liquor is suitably dark.

I thought, when I bought it, that this cake has aging potential. Well, six years later, I can report that the cake has indeed aged. I think my taste is a little more… picky than it used to be, so I am not judging the teas with the same yardstick. Having said that, it’s a cake with this age that’s still generally better than most of its counterparts from relative big factories from 2005. It hasn’t gotten worse, and it has a nice, rounded taste. It’s a bit on the thin side, all things considered, but since I didn’t pay great tea prices for it, it’s hard to expect great tea from it. I seem to remember paying something around 60-80 RMB for one cake at the time, which was ok, but not terribly cheap. Well, now you can find this tea on Taobao for about 300, but RMB has appreciated by almost 30% since then, so it’s actually about 5x the price I bought it for. Is it still worth it at these prices? In the context of new tea prices, absolutely – for a couple cakes anyway, and for more immediate consumption. I wouldn’t invest thousands for tongs of this stuff, but as a drinker and something to be had casually, it’s not bad, so long as the storage conditions are broadly similar and the tea hasn’t been dried out or been stored way too wet.

There is a taste among many Taobao cakes I’ve bought that are of this low-mid price range with 5-7 years that I really hate – I suppose it might be what people describe as “straw” which I find to be the precursor to thinness and blandness. I can see a hint of that here – just a hint, whereas a lot of times that is the dominant taste in cakes. I wonder if it has to do with the temperature and humidity that it’s stored at. I don’t know what the Taobao vendors’ cakes will taste like, it might be interesting to compare, but I don’t feel like throwing 300 RMB at it just to give it a try.

Categories: Teas
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Here, there, and everywhere, at the same time

September 3, 2013 · 3 Comments

Recently I received a pricelist for a puerh vendor’s new offerings. This is one of those higher end outfits that purport to sell gushu teas and which are priced anywhere from a few hundred RMB a cake to a few thousand, all for 2013 new teas. The owner, like many owners of such shops, was already a successful businessman in other ventures, but because of his love of tea (what else?) has gone into tea making and now presses his cakes every year for sale. You can probably find half a dozen such outfits in every major coastal city these days in China.

Also like many such shops, the offering is vast – in fact it’s so vast that it’s completely unbelievable. There are about twenty single origin offerings of various mountains, from Guafengzhai in the east, to Mangfei in the west, and everything in between. For some villages there are multiple offerings, while for others there is only one. This is not counting the dozen or so blends that they offer as well – blends of different mountains, some of which have single origin counterparts, and some don’t.

I say unbelievable, because for it to be top notch tea (and the prices definitely scream top notch) the person making it had to spend some time in each of these places to buy the maocha – maocha, at least of a certain quality anyway, don’t really come to you, especially if you’re not a particularly big outfit with enough muscle to do the buying. Conservatively, if we say the owner needs to spend at least 3-4 days per village to at least gather enough material for pressing the cakes, sort out the logistics, travel etc, that’s already over 70-80 days needed. If he started on one end in late March, by the time he gets to the other end it’s already June. The good tea is not going to wait three months – someone else would’ve bought it already.

It is also unbelievable, because unless you spend an inordinate amount of time in one of these places, being able to tell apart real versus fake (or at least, inferior quality) maocha from various village is difficult. Maocha smuggling – the practice of shipping cheap maocha from cheap production area to expensive villages to sell as the expensive place’s tea – is very common. It’s also not unheard of to pass plantation tea off as gushu, or to adulterate spring tea with fall tea, or other such practices. Just because you got to the village doesn’t at all mean you got the real thing, and even if you’ve gone a few years in a row doesn’t mean people stop trying to cheat you. I have talked to experienced vendors who have been going for a dozen years who still have people bring them inferior tea, hoping to pass muster. If you’re in a hurry and are not picky, you will get scammed, and the tuition gets passed on to the consumers.

Nor is the much vaunted “buy-out contract” model going to work, not well anyway. Over the years various brands and individuals have claimed to have signed contracts with local farmers of some village or another, buying up all their production for the year for a fixed price, limiting production to spring only, etc. In almost all of these cases, there are reports (and confirmed) that the farmers are still selling the tea on the side to others. The fact is, these contracts are basically impossible to enforce. How do you prove that a bag of maocha is indeed covered under the contract in question? In a court of law? How do you prove they harvested in the fall when they were not supposed to under the contract? You can’t, basically. It’s also hard to fault the farmers, who, until about 2006, have sold their teas for virtually nothing. Ten years ago a kilo of raw maocha from gushu material in a not-so-famous village might fetch you 10-20 RMB a kilo. That’s when 8 RMB equaled one USD. Many cut down their old trees to plant rubber instead, because rubber was more profitable. So, it’s hard to fault the farmers for wanting to cash in when the going is good.

It takes skill to press good cakes. It’s not a matter of just going to a village, meeting a few farmers, trying a few different bags of maocha, and buying the best of the bunch – that’s in fact almost a guaranteed recipe for getting scammed. The best cakes I’ve tried all tend to be from people who have had decades of experience drinking tea – all kinds of tea – and who also know the area of production intimately well. This means they spend weeks, if not months, there, often pressing only a few cakes a year or have a regional specialization – only Bulang, say, or only around Yiwu, because you need to control for quality and that takes time and local knowledge. For local producers who are, say, based in Kunming or further south, it is probably possible to have enough contacts and access to do more, but for these fly-in-fly-out type of cake pressers, claiming to be able to do a dozen, or in this case, two dozen different villages, and do them all justice, is pretty much impossible.

Going back to the teas of this outfit – I only tried one, the Wangong. Oddly, it tasted like some Bulang area tea and nothing like a tea from eastern Xishuangbanna, and compared with Zhou Yu’s Wangong, which I also had recently and also from 2013 – it’s not even close. Yet, the tea from this outfit costs almost double what Zhou Yu wanted for his tea. I don’t know who’s buying the story, but you certainly aren’t paying for the tea.

Categories: Teas
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