My inbox is a vault full of tea questions. The more common questions inevitably evolve into blog posts. I’ve even toyed with the idea of starting some sort of “Ask Twodog” column where I give tea and relationship advice. I’m only half joking. E-mail me with the subject “Dear Twodog” and I’ll try to fix your relationship probs – all anonymous – let the dog jump start your love life. But until the advice column gains steam, I’ll be sticking with tea and using oft asked tea questions for blog fuel.
The question that sparked this post was a question type i’ve seen frequently lately:
I was trying a fair amount of the shu and found a few that were OK, but it felt like something was missing. I started adding about 2g of the Gaoshan Qingbing to 6g of shu to get some high notes and like it a lot. The funny thing is that just by itself, the GaoShan is not my favorite. So my question is if you know of other people that do this or am I just strange.
The answer to this question, “am I just strange?” is almost inevitably yes. Yes, you are strange, but strange is normal. This is something that I’ve learned from years of reading Dan Savage. The subjective nature of taste results in broad variations. You’re not normal and neither is anybody else.
For tea folk, the whole subject of tea can become a bit dear – I am as guilty of this as anybody. The questions of good and bad, right and wrong, they loom heavy. They are such an ominous cloud that people sometimes forget to just have fun.
You’re pouring water on leaves. Imbibing a beverage that has thousands of years of human history. Enjoy yourself for fuck’s sake. note to self
With that being said, here are a few question formulas that have hit my inbox lately, with some generic advice for each.
Can I Mix Ripe and Raw Puer?
The question above; is mixing ripe Puer and raw Puer some sort of sacrilege punishable by flagellation? Not at all, people do this. You are OK. Some bricks and cakes are even pressed this way. (Spoiler alert: I have pressed some, but not released them yet) Though, if you do want to mix your ripes and raws, here are some helpful tips:
It helps to mix a slightly aged raw. Young raw profiles are usually far too disparate to successfully meld with ripe Puer
I’ve had more success bolstering a ripe with a middle aged raw than vice versa, though that is a broad rule made to be broken
Don’t be afraid to blend your raws with other raws, too. Crimson Lotus Tea Cats and white2tea Dogs are a collaborative pair of blended tea with just that kind of mad tea science in mind
Is it weird if I like X better than Y?
I get this question a lot. It boils down to people not being confident in their own preferences, which can admittedly take a bit of time. Typically this happens with teas that are from differing price ranges. For example, you might like a $50 tea more than a $150 tea. There are a myriad of reasons why different teas cost different prices, including but not limited to: vendor mark up, fame of the village, fame of the producer, where the supplier purchased it from, who their typical customers are, whether it is Bingdao from 70,000 year old trees and the farmer cut them a “deal”, etc. All of that is to say that price does not always have a direct correlation to quality with tea.
This boils down to trusting your own gut, not the price tag. If it’s right for you, it’s right.
What if I dislike this tea everyone else likes? Am I missing something?
Maybe you are, maybe not. In my life of beverage consumption, there are things that were over my head at various times in my journey. That being said, you should always default to drinking whatever raises your happiness levels at the current time. From a financial standpoint, if you hate old arbor Yiwu, that’s probably great news for your wallet.
Rather than keeping up with the Joneses and second-guessing your own experience, do what feels right. And for the love of tea, if you stumble on a good blending recipe, share it. (#madteascience?) There are a lot of interesting possibilities out there. Blend your favorite teas together and take notes. And don’t be too serious about it.
As 2016 spring teas are slowly working their way into the teapots of tea drinkers around the world, it seems like a good time to reflect on my spring in Yunnan. Technically it isn’t over yet, as I am still here for a few weeks yet, but as everything is being pressed and packed it feels like the rush is over. The streets are a lot quieter and the luxury SUVs full of tea tourists are nowhere to be seen. I much prefer this time of the year. Year after year the early spring tea tourists and whirlwind buyers are increasing, and they make me feel anxious. There are all sorts of festivals, parties, and box socials. I am tired of it. This year I became increasingly anti-social, retiring to my hotel room to drink tea all night and have some snapchat jam sessions, (snapchat: white2tea) rather than going to boozy dinners, crowded karaoke rooms, and meeting up with distant acquaintances. I also found myself becoming increasingly skeptical of new people. It seems every year there is a new person or two showing up, making tea for a year (maybe two) and then you never see them again. This high turnover of would be tea masters and blowhards has left me craving headphones instead of chit chat.
Tea Tourism in Yunnan
There has been a huge influx of tourists over the last few years. Ever since Laobanzhang got its ATM a few years ago, the direction of the current has been apparent. Since then, more and more tourists flood into the village each spring. Most spending way too much money on very low quality tea. Several of the people from Laobanzhang who I am close with told me the amount of money they were making from retailing a few kilos per tourist and I could barely imagine it. Nannuo mountain was the same. Nannuo, which is located very close to both Menghai and Jinghong is a very tourist accessible location. The tea farmers, savvy as ever in their ability to dupe tourists, are making a killing.
One farmer bragged that they took most of their young tree material and put it into small paper sacks, 700g of this, 900g of that, and labeled it all as single tree ancient arbor. (Tree #4, Tree #16b) Selling each bag of “single tree ancient arbor” for a few hundred dollars to random tourists. I can’t say I blame them. If I grew up without electricity and suddenly tuhao (see:yuppy) Chinese tourists started knocking on my door with LV wallets full of cash, I think I’d probably start telling them about the 2000 year old trees in the forest that I picked just for them. And hey, maybe it’s a win-win? The tourists just want a memento and probably know very little about Puer anyway. The farmers are partly selling them tea and partly selling them the experience. As long as the tea farmers are making a lot of money from tuhao tourists, I am happy for their lies. As long as they don’t shovel too many my way.
And a side note; if only these tourists followed my blog they could learn some important tea buying tips. Like, if you hear the words “single tree” or “ancient” just run away.
Shady as the above practices might be, the tea tourism is a boon for the farmers. One farmer who I’ve worked with for several years sold out of his tea before mid-April, selling (almost) all of it to tourists and at a much higher price than he would have been able to sell it to the likes of me or someone else buying maocha.
Tea Tree Age and Descriptions
It’s been interesting to watch how people describe the ages of their trees, for both the farmers and vendors. It’s also made me increasingly cynical about how old a lot of trees actually are. An anecdotal example; another vendor and I split a farmer’s entire production of tea last year. I hadn’t pressed mine, but he did. I was looking at his wrappers and he wrote on the back “Tree ages from 100-300 years old, xiaoshu [little tree]”. This made me laugh for a couple of reasons. First, the material was from 30 year old trees and that is being generous. Second, little tree? How warped is the market that anyone would consider 100-300 years old “little”? For the record, 100-300 year old trees are not only not little, they are rare and expensive. Or put another way, if you took teas from 100 vendors with Puer tea labeled as being from trees over 100 years, most of it would not be from trees over 100 years of age.
Naturally I started giving him shit for his ridiculous age statement. He told me, and I’ll paraphrase, “What do you want me to do? I have no options. Everyone else is writing 1000-2000 years old on their wrappers. If I write 30 years old, nobody will buy it!” And he’s got a point. This same mentality has leaked over into most of the Western market too. People somehow have come to think that 70-100 years old is “small” or “typical”. With some vendors tossing around high three digit and four digit ages, people get a warped senses of what actual tea trees are like and how much old tree material there is. It’s not for me to dispel all this nonsense, but it’s worth repeating something i’ve said 100 times before; ignore wrappers, ignore stories, ignore ages/sizes/village names etc. Most of it is completely meaningless. Just pay attention to the tea.
Price trends seemed roughly in line with what I’ve written in the past. Low quality material dropped a bit in price. High quality material from older trees and famous villages either maintained or became more expensive. A few villages in particular, like Xigui, continued to climb in price. Some areas that are lesser known stayed about the same or dropped in price. The market seems fairly stable, save for a few outliers on either end, good and bad. It all seems fairly natural. The teas of high quality can demand a higher price, as most of them have a limited production and are typically purchased by the wealthy. Historically speaking, whenever rich people fight over limited resources, bad things happen. The low quality teas are going to need to up their game if they want to fetch a high price in the future. There is a lot of over production of crap tea and no real market for it.
Moonshine of the Year
As with previous years, I’ve had many (often unavoidable) encounters with various grain alcohol when tripping around the mountains. This alcohol from Mengsong was this spring’s most entertaining. They took corn based alcohol and drown live mud wasps in it. These wasps are fairly fat and roughly the size of a quarter. After stuffing these wasps in the glass jug, they let is sit until it turns a healthy(?) umber color.
Obviously this drink has significant TCM applications. Most of which revolve around the invigoration of men (strengthening the stinger, if you will) and alleviation of pain. I always laugh at the “relieves joint pain” portion, as if you need mud wasps for this when drinking 50%+ grain alcohol. I’m not a doctor, but the mud wasps probably aren’t doing the heavy lifting on pain killing there. Has anybody with joint pain every downed a glass of moonshine and said, “My joints still hurt! If only there had been mud wasps!”?
Thanks for reading, spring teas will be on the way towards the end of June.
The Difference Between Picking Old Arbor Puer and Smaller Trees
Puer tea trees can be divided into several ages and categories, but for the ease of explanation we are going to discuss three different stages: young (xiaoshu), middle-aged (often called qiaomu), and old arbor trees (also called gushu / dashu). Young tea is around 5 to 20 years old. Tea bushes that are younger than 3 years of age will rarely be harvested in Yunnan as they are still maturing. We will broadly define middle-aged as anything from 20 to 80 years old. Any trees older than 80 years old are quite old and are already very mature, so we will lump them in as old arbor, even though that might make some age queens angry. Some of you who frequently read the descriptions scattered around the internet about 1000 years old trees might be scratching your heads thinking, “100 years old doesn’t seem very old!”. I’d like to gently assure you that even 100 year old trees are the minority in Yunnan and produce spectacular quality tea. Don’t get too caught up in claims made about tree ages. It sounds sexy to drink tea from 500 year old trees, but 99.9% of the time the people who bother advertising that as a selling point are selling you an idea rather than the tea in the description.
The youngest trees, which are usually planted as terrace tea, tend to be ready for spring picking far earlier than their older counterparts. The younger the tea, the earlier it is ready to be picked. In certain low lying areas of Yunnan, this might even mean being ready as early as February, however it more likely means early to mid-March. These are general rules which are weather dependent. That being acknowledged, it would be very rare that spring tea, which we can define as the tea that sprouts forth after a dormant winter, would be ready any earlier than February. Middle Aged tea trees will be slightly later than this, you can think of youth and readiness on a spectrum, with increasing age meaning later budding.
The older trees sprout forth much later in the season than younger tea trees. Old arbor Puer is ready to be plucked in late March at the earliest. Weather fluctuations aside, the earliest I have ever seen old arbor Puer tea ready to be plucked is in the March 20’s. In the images above and below, you can see an image taken on March 26th in Lincang. Some of the tea in this area was ready to be plucked, but only a small amount (the image above). Other trees were just past budding and still need several days before being picked. (the image below) Keep in mind, most Puer tea is not plucked as two leaves and bud. The farmers are waiting for an adequate amount of stem length and a third, fourth, and fifth leaf (huangpian). A mere bud is not enough.
It should also be noted that this is just one example, on one mountain in Lincang. As of the writing of this article (March 31st, China time), the old arbor Yiwu teas that are used in Last Thoughts are still not ready to be picked. Last year, they were ready in early April. It’s not a set time, but rather observing the trees and the weather until the farmer determines that the tea is ready, just as one would do with apples, tomatoes, or lettuce.
How does Altitude Affect the Tea Harvest?
Altitude also affects the harvest time, as temperatures are cooler in higher altitudes. As nearly all of the tea that is considered to be highly desirable Puer tea in Yunnan is grown on tall mountains, that means cooler weather and later harvesting. Some of the teas in Yunnan that are grown in low altitude areas producing tea used for green teas, black teas, white teas, and lower quality Puer teas will almost always be ready at least a month before the older growth teas that are in the mountains at altitudes above 1000m (or in some cases even nearing 2000m). This means a wide array of timing for spring teas, but old arbor teas are never ready for spring picking in January and February. Only small bush teas are ready for spring picking so early in the year and are still dependent on the weather.
Are there Earlier Harvests than Spring?
Farmers have increasingly felt pressure to pick tea year round in Yunnan. Much of this is directed by greed of vendors or short term financial needs of farmers, rather than what is best for the tea plants or the long term integrity of Puer. If you closely followed Yunnan weather last winter, you would have seen some images like the one below of ice covered tea trees and snow in Yunnan. Even in Guangzhou, we had snow that was noted as the first snow on record in 60 years. Nothing quite like seeing elder folks on the streets in awe of the snow. Some of my friends parents had never seen snow before! Suffice it to say that the winter temperatures and snow were some of the harshest weather that China has seen in recorded history. Most villages in Yunnan can scarcely recollect the last time winter weather was so brutal.
Regardless of the 2015/2016 winter months harshness, even in a mild winter, picking tea during the winter months is seen by many to be unethical. Think of an old arbor tea tree as if it were a person. If there was an old person who was lifting weights, it could be a very good thing. A bit of strenuous exercise can help to make a person strong. However, our bodies need rest days in order for our muscles to recuperate and rebuild. Any doctor would advise an elder person that exercising is good, but they’d also recommend the proper pace and adequate rest.
When we pick tea leaves, we are stressing (or exercising!) a tea tree. Removing a trees leaves means removing nutrients as well as one of its sources of energy via photosynthesis. The spring and autumn tea pickings are a stress that most any tea tree can handle, even a picking in the summer months if the rain and weather allow. Summer picking is controversial in many circles, but in recent years, the additional inclusion of winter tea picking is making it a full four seasons of stress on the old trees. First, before any further commentary, I will be the first to acknowledge that tea farmers are just people like you and me, and they need to earn a living. However, the revenues from spring, summer, and fall from high quality trees will net them a much larger long term income if they allow the trees to rest during winter. From the standpoint of a vendor, many would consider it unethical to participate in picking/buying/selling winter Puer tea from old arbor trees. The continuous stress on the trees will eventually diminish the quality of the farmers product and their best natural resource for only a marginal short term financial gain. A shortsighted plan at best.
Couple this constant stress of four seasons of picking with weather like we saw last winter and it is the equivalent of making a seventy year old man hit the gym seven days a week with a broken hip. The only old arbor tea that was available to be picked in January, February, and almost all of March in 2016 was from old trees that have been covered in ice and beaten down by snow. After a tree manages to survive a hundred years and a harsh winter, having its leaves plucked seems like a cruel reward. Hardly the sort of tea that is optimal for drinking, and in my view, it would be a mistake to encourage the production of such tea. It’s selling out the future health of tea trees for short term financial gains. Just like our bodies, tea trees must be cared for and rested to stay healthy and continue to provide us with tea for years to come.
When are Summer and Autumn teas Plucked?
Summer and Autumn pickings are the most weather sensitive times for Puer. Their picking time can vary wildly depending on the whims of the rain and sunshine. Summer tea has been picked with increasing frequency as Puer has boomed, but it does not produce a very high quality result when compared to teas from the spring and autumn. The water content in the leaf is usually very high due to the rain of the summer months. However, where there is money to be made and a brief pause in the rain, tea will be picked. In my view, it is more ethical to pick summer tea, as the tree is lush and resource rich during the summer, as opposed to being in a dormant state during winter. That being said, summer tea is usually not very good, and the price reflects that.
Autumn tea is picked around late September or early October. Again, this is weather dependent. The summer rains have to stop and have several days of consistent sunshine in order to result in quality autumn tea. The more sunshine filled days that you can string together, the better the quality of the tea. Again, this has to do with reducing heavy water content in the leaf and coaxing out fresh growth. Some years, this means autumn tea is excellent. Some years, the tea is worse if the weather chooses not to cooperate. Fall tea is usually considered to be the best quality tea after spring, with summer following, and winter bringing up the rear.
Regardless of seasons and tree ages, the best judge of character for any tea is still the same. Do you enjoy it? Does the price fit your budget? If you can answer yes to those two questions, the dates, ages, and stories all melt away and all that is left if you and a cup of Puer to engage with.
See you all after Spring tea with an update on the state of the Puer nation.
Thank you to my friends in Lincang and Nannuo for allowing me to use the first three pictures – much appreciated!
We are experiencing a new renaissance in tea. This new era of interconnectedness allows a few taps on a screen to connect an American in the rural Midwest with tea from a remote Yunnan village. The ease of this transaction should be a cause for pause, as it used to take months of feet in the mud, hooves on the road, and boats against the current. This new access to tea is a great blessing. One that none of our ancestors would have dreamed of. It makes me feel guilty if I really sit with the thought. My great grandfather would have been lucky to drink garbage tier pekoe dust from India, and here I am, drinking old arbor Puer. What did I do to be so lucky? But due to some stroke of cosmic luck, here I am, enjoying some of the best tea the world has ever known.
This explosion of access to new teas is not without pitfalls. For the average consumer, it will be a blessing and a curse. With unknown territory, there is always a large cast of characters. Every week I get a new e-mail from prospectors. “Howdy, Twodog,” they say. “I heard thar’s gold up in dem Puer mountains. Got any tips?” They grip their shovel tightly, anxious to dig in. “Be careful,” is the only reply I can muster. For the community they are about to enter is a Wild West. There are preachers and drunks, thieves and cowboys. There is a Sheriff or two, deputies, and a whole gang of robbers looking to take it all. That’s where we are. There’s gold to be had, but you have to keep a watchful eye for the snake oil salesmen.
I am no stranger to this gold rush phenomenon. I moved to China in 2005, shovel in hand. I came here because it was a new frontier for me; I stayed because I fell in love with Puer. I’ve been taken advantage of, tricked, fooled, and lied to. I’ve also found more than my fair share of happiness and many, many wonderful people. This is the way of the boomtown. There are crooks and scoundrels. There are valiant heroes and dear friends. Only time and experience will tell you which is which. I empathize with the new hands trying to make their way across this treacherous terrain. Some of them are deeply in need of a cure, and then end up with snake oil.
Luckily, that’s just one side of the coin. I’ve seen the supportive tea community. I’ve witnessed the people who find a common goal and a profound joy in sharing tea. I treasure my late snapchat conversations with people I’ve never met, half way around the world, who are by themselves, sitting at a tea table, just drinking tea and sharing tea; because tea is joy. Sharing is joy. These are some of the people who I have deep kinship with and I don’t take kindly to other folks lyin’ to my kin.
Now, I don’t want to start a barroom brawl, or yell “Cheat!” at the card table. I don’t want to hurt anybody’s livelihood. I don’t have any interest in calling anybody out in the street. I am just trying to keep this community safe. Keep education on the right track. And squelch any of the gossip about this tree or that village, two towns over.
I figure the best way I can keep the community safe is by telling people what I know to be true from my decade of China experience and Puer drinking.
Tree ages are often inflated, by local officials who put pressure on scientists and experts in order to inflate the fame of their area, or by farmers who unscrupulously dupe people who are unfamiliar with Puer. As a reference, the tea in the Last Thoughts cake has tea from trees of roughly 400 years of age, at the absolute oldest. Notice, I did not say purely 400 years old, but that some of the oldest trees in the blend are roughly (keyword: roughly) that age. Acquiring this material each year is no small task.
Yiwu old arbor tea is very difficult to get. This year, I knew of two people who ventured to get tea from areas like Bohetang and Guafengzhai’s chawangshu. One person spent over one week of his own time, and returned with about 11 kilograms. The other person spent four days and returned with a little more than 3 kilograms. In my experience with Last Thoughts, it takes a lot of effort to get enough tea to make one jian [15 kilograms]. The Spring picking occurred in early April this year, old arbor trees were not ready to be picked in March – only plantation tea is ready to be picked in early March. In autumn, there was a very brief period of time that varied between middle and late September, and was weather dependent based on the village.
I have never been offered tea that was truly from teas over 500 years of age. Never. I know hundreds of tea farmers in Yunnan. I spend 1/3 of my year there. I’ve been traveling there since 2005. Never. Not once.
I don’t think Puer tea helps you lose weight. It’s not going to cure cancer or epilepsy, but it is one of the most mysterious and wonderful things I’ve ever ingested on this planet of ours. Puer tea captivated me many years ago, and now I dedicate most of my day to it. Separating the tea from the chaff is vitally important to me.
The spiritual nature of tea need not come from outlandish claims. I have witnessed more than a few people get drawn into a game of who has trees that are older or who has the most venerable tea master or most authentic farmer connection. These are competitions of the ego, and competition over ego is a confusion of what tea is. With all of the story telling aside, there is a reason that for centuries humans have been drawn to tea. Let that sink in for a moment. For centuries upon centuries, humans just like you and me, have communed with tea. Been drawn to tea, renewed by tea. Hot cups on crisp winter mornings, steam unfurling off of their brew. Breathing deeply and drinking into themselves the feeling of tea that touched my life. That is mysticism. That is the spiritual. That is when numbers and stories are chaff. Tea is beyond the grasp of words.
Community of tea lovers, I know you all feel the same joy from drinking tea. Truth be told, we probably all spend a bit too much time pontificating about these plants. My rallying cry to keep us strong is this: Be careful and watch out for each other. Be vigilant. Trust your mouth; trust your body. If you see a glamorous story or a number that looks too fantastic to make sense, and the other townsfolk seem to take issue with it, just keep this in mind; snake oil can’t be sold without a tall tale. Be sure to do your homework, and ask the salesman for a sample. Only then will you find out for yourself if it cures what ails you.
After roaming for a month in Yunnan for the Autumn harvest, and more than a month back in the PRD, it is time for what has somehow become a tradition on this blog. This Puer State of the Union has evolved partly because I have given up on reviewing teas and partly because it seems like the best place to compile my disjointed seasonal observations about Puer tea. I’ve been busting my hump working on a new project (more details soon) hence the delay for the 2015 Autumn Puer breakdown.
This autumn I went slightly later than last year, helping me to avoid a bit of the rain and mud, but avoiding rain in Autumn Yunnan is a fool’s errand. Having some mud worthy shoes is a prerequisite. Though, this year I had much better luck than in previous years, where I’ve been out and out stuck. The gods of four-wheel drive smiled upon my journey and granted a seasonal pardon.
After pressing a lot of what I intended to press this year in the Spring, I only had a few objectives this fall. First, I wanted to finally put together the cake that has been baking in my mind’s oven for the last three years, the 2015 Pin. Second, I wanted to press a lot of ripe Puer material I have been saving over the past two years. Third, and most importantly, I wanted to experiment with some different traditional pressing and processing techniques that I’ve been interested in for a while.
While we are waiting for the ripe teas to calm down from the pressing – for those of you, who don’t know what I am referring to -freshly pressed ripe Puer tea tends to retain a lot of excess water from the steaming process. When brewed, the soup appears visually cloudy and it also takes at least a couple of months before the fragrance and character become clearer. Freshly pressed ripe Puer can still be good, but it improves dramatically in the first several years after pressing. So, while I wait for the ripe teas to calm, on to the third point – the traditional processing.
Bamboo and Raw Puer Tea
The first process I worked with was bamboo processing, which has been a mainstay of Puer tea processing for a lot longer than any of us have been around. As with most processes, it can be done the right way (time+money) and the wrong way (cutting corners), and it took me several batches of duds before finding the right partner to work with. The basic premise is that you use a specific type of sweet bamboo, stuff it full of dry raw Puer maocha, cap it with a leaf and roast the bamboo. The result is that the tea becomes steamed with the bamboo’s juices, similar to prior to pressing a cake. The tea absorbs the fragrance and flavor of the bamboo and is then pressed into a tight shape inside the bamboo and then dried. For more in depth details and pictures of the processing, check out this companion article which describes bamboo Puer processing from start to finish.
Suffice it to say that bamboo Puer abides by the same rules as other teas, which is that material and process greatly impact the final product. I decided to make two different productions, one of Huangpian and one of medium quality Puer tea. In the future I might try to make a higher quality production, however I’d first like to observe how the tea feels after a year or two. My first impressions have been nothing but positive, in the end only time will tell.
Ripe Puer Stuffed Mandarin Oranges from Xinhui
The second process is a Cantonese specialty, incorporating tea from Yunnan; Ganpu (Mandarin orange stuffed with ripe Puer tea). An area South of where I live called Xinhui is the most famous area for the production of the Mandarin rinds used in the production of Ganpu and Chenpi (the aged rind). Think of Xinhui as the Burgundy of fruit rinds. To answer the inevitable question with famous things in China, Yes, people make fake Xinhui Mandarin rinds. This is another topic that deserves its own dedicated article and I will write one with additional pictures when time allows. The basics are this – pick the fruit, cut a cap, take out the fruit and discard it. Stuff full of ripe Puer (or raw! Maybe next year…) and then bake or dry the skin and tea in order to remove excess moisture. (This varies by producer and can include extra processing steps) Then, wrap the Mandarin orange stuffed with tea in plastic to lock in the fragrances and let it age or drink whenever. The way to drink it is to break apart pieces of the Mandarin rind and brew them along with the Puer. The result is lovely fragrant tea with a huge citrus component, like Earl Grey’s uncle, King Grey. (Earls. Pffft.) The chenpi (aged Mandarin skin), has great value in Chinese traditional medicine as a remedy for scratchy throats amongst other things. I also pressed some aged chenpi with ripe Puer, but alas, I have to let those rest too. It might surprise many of you that the cost by weight of aged chenpi can be much, much greater than the cost of good Puer tea.
Autumn Puer Tea from 2015
As for the Autumn teas in Yunnan this year, I have to say that I had a very inconsistent experience. Certain areas seemed to be lacking something in their Autumn tea, while others had excellent productions. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what the reasons were (weather? processing?) but on the whole the tea this year seemed less consistent to me than last year. That being said, these feelings are all quite subjective and I would not be shocked if other folks had a totally different experience. I still made a few teas like the Pin and the ones mentioned above, but overall I was not as struck by the teas this year as I was Spring of 2015. I ended up using a lot of material I had from Spring, rather than purchasing more tea.
So, that is the state of the Puer nation as I experienced it. Wishing a happy impending tofurkey day to my fellow Americans and happy autumn to everyone else.
I often see new tea drinkers show up to online forums and ask, “What should I buy from ____?”, seemingly not taking into account that the most important factor in the answer to this question is who will be providing the answer. I am as guilty of this as anybody. With all matter of purchases I rely on online reviews and research to figure out what’s what. The challenge for tea drinkers is that the online tea review landscape is a bit difficult to navigate due to an abundance of conflicting information and opinions. Finding a useful tea review can be a monumental task, especially when you consider the varying preferences of tea reviewers.
On a recent visit to America I met with a couple of different groups of friends, all of whom have very different culinary tastes. A few of them are what you might call meat and potatoes type eaters, where as others prefer to try the new Ethiopian restaurant down the street. If you asked the meat and potatoes group where to eat, the answer will invariably involve a restaurant where the greenest item on the menu is the parsley garnish, trailed in second place by the mint chocolate chip ice cream. This isn’t uncommon in Midwestern townships that consist of one church, three bars, and one supper club.
For the uninitiated, supper clubs are a relic of the past that still exist in abundance in Midwestern America. A typical menu consists of steak, poultry, and seafood, all served with freshly baked rolls and a salad bar (iceberg lettuce, three types of potato salad). Supper clubs usually consider the olive in your happy-hour drink to be green enough to count as vegetable serving. They might also offer steamed carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower, as a side-dish. However, this never gets ordered because french fries are a more important part of a balanced diet. In the past I made the mistake of asking the meat and potatoes friends to recommend the best dinner haunts. Now, this is not to say that I don’t enjoy a good bi-annual supper club trip, but I do prefer vegetables and variety in my eating experiences.
There in lies the most oft overlooked point when asking for advice; considering the preferences of the person behind the recommendation is as important as considering the recommendation itself.
Quick Case Study from Reddit’s /r/scotch
For the (second time) uninitiated, /r/scotch is a lovely online community on Reddit where users enthusiastically review their whiskys for the world to see. Other users like me mostly lurk and browse reviews. In a recent thread, titled “What is the worst Scotch you ever tasted” there were over 300 comments in a single day from users declaring their hatred for various malts. The curious (or predictable) thing about the thread was that the comment section reads like this:
“Oh man, I hate _______.”
“You hated _____? It’s my favorite daily drinker!”
Now, keep in mind, the prompt was the worst you ever tasted, but despite the strong language there are people on both sides of the preference aisle. Users who are (mostly) experienced whisky drinkers both decrying and praising the exact same bottles. I had to jump in and defend Tobermory 10, which I think is a perfectly fine malt in its price range, although a little on the stank side of the flavor spectrum. The point is, several people would place that whisky in dreaded worst ever column, where as I think it is a solid whisky.
One man’s worst ever, another man’s treasure.
How to Seek the Right Advice
The variance in opinions might be daunting, but all is not lost when looking through online tea reviews. There are a few key points that can improve your chances of finding helpful information.
Seek out reviewers who have a similar palate. If you can find a review that you agree with from an online user or a blog it can act as a bellwether for compatibility
Seek out reviews from people with a similar level of experience. Reading reviews from someone with decades of tea drinking experience when you are brand new to tea might not be as helpful as finding a reviewer who is also newer to tea
Take reviews with a grain of salt. One person might love a tea that you dislike, or vice versa (See: Tobermory 10)
In order to limit a reviews effect on your own thoughts, attempt some blind taste tests and gauge your own thoughts more accurately
If possible, try teas before reading reviews rather that after. To the point above, the best way to find your own preferences is through unbiased tea drinking. You might be surprised which teas are most compatible with your taste
Seek out reliable sources. Easier said than done, as the internet is full of boisterous voices who claim expertise with very little knowledge. (Not a problem unique to tea, but particularly prevalent in the Puer world) The best way to avoid being fooled is to rely on your own preferences. Nobody knows what you enjoy better than you
The last point deserves repeating: Follow your own body. If a tea makes you feel good and the price is right, nobody’s review ought to be able to take that way. On the flip side of the coin, if everyone is praising a tea and you aren’t feeling it, don’t follow the crowd. Reviews can be a great help when searching out all sorts of products online, but remember that judging for yourself should be the final word.
A big shift has been set into motion, I am moving to South China! This will not be my first time dwelling in the Pearl River Delta (referred to as PRD from here on out), but it has been several years since I last lived in Guangdong province. I have to admit that I am really looking forward to the change, particularly the increased dim sum intake. The reasons for the move are more complex than can be accounted for in a quick blog post, but a large consideration in the decision was having a reliable long term solution for my Puer storage.
If you are unfamiliar and popped open that PRD wiki link above, you will notice that several major cities with long Puer storage histories such as Hong Kong and Guangzhou are amongst the list. The PRD is one of the world’s most populous chunks of land, with some estimates as high as 120 million people living amongst the rapidly developing sprawl. A bit of further scouting reveals the key draws for Puer storage; the region has an average relative humidity in the 70% range and average high temperatures around of 26° C (~80° F). After many years of drinking aged Puer tea from several regions, the PRD has produced some of my favorites. I hope to achieve the same outcome for many of my teas. After observation from tests of some of my productions over the last several years, I decided the PRD is the place to be. As a note, I will continue to keep some of my teas spread in other regions such as Southern Yunnan, Fujian, and America, which brings me to my next point…
Dry Puer Storage & Tradeoffs
As a preemptive clarification, before anyone runs around yelling, “Hey Everybody! Twodog says dry storage is shit! If you aren’t storing Puer in South China then your tea is dead!” – I also thoroughly enjoy dry stored Puer tea. I personally have a lot of tea that was stored in Kunming and enjoy the hell out of it. Much of my America stored Pu is in relatively dry conditions (though I take measures to control the humidity around my teas) and those Puer teas are all progressing beautifully. I thought this point was worth dwelling upon, as I personally do not see a point in righteous storage dogma. Puer storage is a means to different outcomes, and I enjoy many of them.
What is Perfect Puer Storage? Just Shut Up and Tell Me!
As with anything in life, there is no perfect. Chances are you have had plenty of friends in your life with widely varied personalities that encompass both the good and the bad of the personality spectrum. There is that wild friend who is a blast at parties and social events but a tad unreliable. Then, you’ve got that friend who isn’t great in group settings, but you love the deep late night talks that you share discussing literature. Every friend has pluses and minuses, and the pluses win out; that is why you are friends. Different Puer teas have different personalities, and storage is but one of many factors that influence the overall personality of any given tea.
When choosing Puer teas or Puer storage, we are all engaging in a weighing of pros and cons. Is this storage too wet? Too dry? Will these teas age quickly enough? Or too quickly? For those of you who are unfamiliar with the common trade offs between wet storage and dry storage, here is a handy chart:
With pros and cons on both sides of the spectrum, you have to choose your friends wisely. Higher humidity requires close watch for mold. Dry conditions will generally yield teas that age slowly and have a potential for a sour character. If your storage leans dry, add water trays or soaked pieces of terracotta. Or get saucy and play around with crock storage. If your climate is particularly humid, store your tea on a higher level rather than a basement, and observe the potential need for airflow or reduction of humidity. For me, this means I will be changing from the frantically adding humidity to my Beijing storage side of the spectrum to keeping a watchful “mold eye” in the PRD.
Why the Pearl River Delta is Decidedly the Best
There is one topic which requires no argument, as the PRD is the clear winner; food. (also air quality, but let’s talk food instead) Cantonese food is better than Beijing roast duck seven times a week and twice on Sunday. When you factor in the Puer and dim sum pairing being a match made in heaven, it is a done deal. To be amiable and fair, Beijing has plenty of good food, but the PRD is just better.
On that non-tea related note, I’ll leave you with some Delta blues from Muddy Waters. (I know it’s not the same delta, but i love this song)
This year, the rains came early to Yunnan and it had a strong effect on the Puer tea in every region. I had to work harder this year than in previous years in terms of tea tasting. Teas from some areas, and farmers that I have worked with in previous years, seemed to be lacking. After two months in Yunnan, I could still keep pressing on further to sample and find better teas. Perhaps there is always a better tea? At least my stomach was thankful we were taking a break from fresh tea.
In many areas, the tea budded and was picked later than in 2014, particularly the old arbor Puer trees. For reference, spring Puer tea is ready to be plucked at different times depending on the age of the trees, amongst other factors. As a general rule, older trees bud much later than smaller bushes. We even heard of some old arbor trees in Laobanzhang that still hadn’t been picked by mid-April. At the absolute earliest, small bushes are ready to be plucked by late February. For old arbor trees, the earliest I have ever seen or heard of spring tea being ready is mid-March. Example, this year our spring old arbor Yiwu tea was plucked on April 5th. Anything else listed as spring that was picked pre-March is either not spring, not old arbor, or both. Just a fact we thought might be worth clearing up…*cough*…
We have already pressed some of our spring teas, and some of the ripe teas are still being pressed this week. We look forward to the second Spring harvest this year; there might be some really excellent teas, but it is totally weather dependent. I’ll be going through samples in late May to see what is out there.
Fluctuating Puer Tea Prices
The prices in the Spring of 2015 were unpredictable. Generally speaking, areas with lesser fame had a slight reduction in their old arbor Puer prices. Areas with major fame, such as Laobanzhang, maintained stable prices. Producers with high quality tea sold out early, and those with lesser quality tea still have plenty of stock as of the writing of this article.
As a trend, this is good news for the consumer. It indicates that high quality tea will drive the market. In past years when the Puer market was booming, all of the tea was swallowed up by speculation. Good and bad, old arbor and young tree. When the thirst for Puer tea is so strong that even low quality tea from young trees is purchased with fervor, it does a disservice to the market. Quality is disregarded in favor of quantity and the tea that hits the market is both low quality and overpriced. This year the trend reversed slightly, with quality being a driving factor. Hopefully this trend will continue as it forces producers to focus on making the best tea they can, rather than sheer volume. As I have mentioned in the past, I believe the long-term bubbles in the Puer market will collapse for low-quality, overproduced material, whereas high-quality tea will always hold (most of) its value. If you are new to Puer tea, think of it as a real estate market. When a real estate bubble bursts, downtown Manhattan still has a market, but far flung suburbs might see a drastic price drop. Regardless of the market, there will always be a wealthy group of people who want to live on 5th Ave and drink old arbor Yiwu.
As always there are exceptions to the rule, with some regions rising in price in spring 2015 rather than stabilizing or declining. Most notably Xigui’s prices rose from the previous spring. I spent a week in the area and visiting Xigui early in the spring. I personally think the price hike is justified. All prices equal, I would prefer Xigui over Bingdao. And considering the major price gap between the two, it does not seem odd that Xigui prices would increase. The increased market demand for limited, high quality material will always drive two things: higher prices and a deluge of fake tea. So, if you want to start buying fresh Xigui now, proceed with caution.
What to Buy and What to Avoid
As usual, my recommendation for consumers looking to purchase Spring tea is to avoid the hype and famous names. There is plenty of quality tea to be had in any given price range and not much reason to chase villages with overly inflated prices. If this sounds like generic advice, it is. It’s less generic when you consider that I practice what I preach. As it happens, I really enjoy Xigui tea, but I didn’t buy any this Spring, not even for my personal drinking. I did purchase some to drink in the previous years for my own collection. Long time followers of my blog will know I have had a penchant for Guafengzhai for quite some time. These last two years, their village has been so woefully full of fake tea and the prices so high, I didn’t purchase old arbor tea from them either.
This year, I will also be making a move towards intentionally not labeling specific village names and misleading tree ages. I want to re-focus on the tea, providing broad guidelines like “this tea has strong bitterness and is from Menghai area” rather than “Laoman’e village pure ancient tree!” Labels are so blatantly misused that they have become meaningless. Every website seems to have ancient tree tea from villages that ostensibly only have a precious few hundred kilograms of gushu in a season. Not to mention the conspicuous ages of the trees – did they measure the age of each tree? And…how? There seem to be a lot more 300 year old trees in the market than I’ve seen with my own eyes in the tea mountains. Rather than continue with the name dropping and inflated age hype, I think it is better to focus on the tea itself. If you avoid the hype, your wallet and mouth with thank you.
With that being said, the final word is to follow your own tastes and your own budget. Buy what you like and can afford. And most of all, enjoy drinking the new 2015 Spring tea.
Recently a Puerh article from Vice garnered a few shares in online tea circles, leading to e-mails in my inbox asking about the validity of many of the claims in the article. After a cursory glance at the post, I noticed at least a half-dozen factual errors, along with several misrepresentations of the situation of Puerh in Yunnan. Not that I would expect a first time Yunnan visitor or Vice’s munchies section to be factual authorities on Puerh tea, as it is an admittedly dense topic to gloss over in a short travel log. Unfortunately, the article got a few facts wrong and Vice is a lot more widely read than my piddly little blog. Hence this post, which will try to clear up some of these Puerh misunderstandings from the Vice article quote by quote.
“Shops that sell pu’er dot the city, but vend the same stuff that’s sold in any grocery store around the country.”
The only Puerh that typically makes it to grocery stores with any regularity in China is Colourful Yunnan, which is basically Puer Lipton. Kunming has two sizable tea markets, Jinshi and Kangle, both of which have far more Puerh tea variety than any grocery store or even specialty tea shop. Other cities like Simao or Menghai are also full of tea shops. Perhaps the author ran into some low quality shops. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a grocery store with fresh spring raw maocha [loose Puerh tea] or 30 varieties of raw Puerh, both of which are commonly found in most Kunming shops.
“Yunnan lacks airports, so traveling from one town to another requires spending twenty-odd hours on a sleeper bus.”
This adds flavor to the story, but conveniently ignores that there are airports in Xishuangbanna (Jinghong), Simao, Kunming, Lincang, Baoshan, Dali, Lijiang,… I am getting tired of typing city names. Suffice it to say there are plenty of airports. And if you take a twenty hour sleeper bus, it is probably because you are trying to save $5 instead of arrive at your destination. Either that or there was a miscommunication when buying your ticket, as express buses are extremely common. I get it, the whole “Yunnan is poor and look at the difficult route I painstakingly traveled” narrative falls apart if you can take an 8 hour bus, but still; you can get to Lincang or BanNa from Kunming in less than ten hours, even with a flat tire factored in. Rent a car and 7 hours might cut it. Or you could fly.
“No teas is served…I ask if I could have a cup of tea. The cook laughs as he turns and saunters back into the kitchen.”
I’ve never been to a restaurant or truck stop in Yunnan that didn’t have tea. Granted, I have not been to every truck stop across the province. And when I ‘ve had tea, it was never excellent quality Puerh tea. However, it’s free and standard with any purchased meal at a restaurant. Also, why would anyone expect or search for good tea at a truck stop or restaurant?
“Tea trees grow along Yunnan’s Lancang River, and only the leaves picked from there can be eventually called pu’er.”
This is an oddball definition, even allowing for the nuance and disagreement around the subject. This definition would exclude several major tea producing areas which are not along the river, such as many of the tea mountains throughout Xishuangbanna, Yiwu, and Yibang. This is a more accurate Puerh definition, for the interested.
“The leaves are then sent to a city called, well, Pu’Er, where dozens of manufacturers produce their own blends according to recipes passed down for generations. The leaves are fermented for at least three months and up to several years, ending up as either sheng (raw) tea or shou (ripe) tea.”
Again, this ignores a gigantic portion of the Puerh producing world; Xishuangbanna and Yiwu come to mind. Most of the more notable factories and productions from throughout history are not from Puer city. Puer city was actually a recent name change and a plot to gather more tea tourists, most of the best Puerh tea is nowhere near Puer city. I am also not sure what three months refers to – but there is not really a time limit involved in any case. Some Guangdong clan purists will demand a certain amount of age for raw tea before it is deemed truly Puerh.
“Because tea is kept as something special here,” one says dismissively between hits. “It’s enjoyed slowly, with family or close friends. It’s not something that’s just part of a meal.”
This adds some magical mystique to the narrative but it is not grounded in truth. People have, share, and sell tea everywhere in Yunnan. It’s ubiquitous at meals or tea tables with both friends and strangers alike. I am curious if the author visited any tea mountains on the journey. Tea plantations should have had tea everywhere in March. Any tea farmer would happily brew samples for a traveler in an effort to sell some tea or just to be polite and have a chat. Even during off season, any restaurant or shop will gladly serve tea, even to sworn enemies. Never underestimate the power of pleasantries to take precedent over a feud.
“That’s when it dawns on me. The people along the Lancang River see how much work goes into making pu’er. They’re part of the process. They spend years cultivating the tea. For them, it’s not an afterthought during mealtime. Pu’er tea bulbs are more like Murano glass vases than the loose leaves you might have in your pantry.”
Again, pretty story, just totally false. Tea farmers will (and gladly do) sell their tea to whoever wants to purchase it. This is how they earn their living. After all, staring at your glass vases and never selling them is a pretty bad business model. It’s not Fabergé eggs, it is tea. Any farmer can spare a few kilograms for casual drinking, even if it is lower grade Huangpian.
“I try to take in the aroma of the land, but all I can smell is exhaust.”
What better tried and true way to end an article on China than the smell of exhaust fumes? Because China = pollution, amirite!? The air in the tea mountains is some of the freshest, most fragrant air I’ve ever encountered. However, that is tough to fit in with the 20 hours bus ride and poverty theme, so I understand the editorial choice.
Helping to Spread Correct Puerh Tea Information
Articles like this are obviously more story telling than dissemination of Puerh tea information, so, why do i care? Puerh is a topic with plenty of strong opinions, so usually I don’t nitpick (openly, anyway). I only take issue when the information mixed in with the story is blatantly false. Obviously a first time Yunnan tea tourist who hops on a bus from Kunming and doesn’t have any connections is not going to stumble upon old arbor Yiwu reserves. I’ve been here for ten years and need to knife fight for what little old arbor Yiwu I can get. But, finding Puer tea in general should not be difficult with the right approach.
The author’s trip in Yunnan is the equivalent of me going to California and taking a Greyhound bus from San Diego thinking, “I heard Napa Valley has some good wines!” Then visiting gas stations and truck stops along the route. Finding no wine and concluding, “Man, the wine here really sucks! I asked some guys smoking outside of the gas station about Napa wine and they told me that they only drink wine with close friends. Guess I am f&*%^$d! Also, LA has smog.”
In any case, an article with this lack of research and cursory understanding will probably pass muster with the casual Vice crowd, but it results in the spread of misinformation to potential Puerh tea drinkers and e-mails from confused readers in my inbox. So, next time Vice or any other magazine wants to run one of these pieces, please just shoot me an e-mail and I can guest edit/fact-check the piece. You can preach whatever narrative you want, but at least clean up the “only trees from near the Lancang river are Puerh” bits so that tea drinkers don’t get the wrong idea.
Puer tea and its authenticity are in a constant state of negotiation. Visit any tea forum or crowded tea table and debates echo throughout. Opinions like, “That is not Puer tea,” and “This is Puer tea,” are declared with such supreme confidence that you’d think the participants were discussing the blueness of the sky or warmth of the sun. Yet, despite the loud voices and self assured declarations, only one fact about Puer tea remains clear; nothing is clear. Author Jinghong Zhang bears witness to this tussle for authentic truth in her book Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic.
Before I delve into Zhang’s study on Puer, which should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in the subject of Puer tea, I must first come clean about some of my personal bias. After attempting to read certain texts about Puer in the past(which shall remain nameless, so I don’t begin torching bridges), I could rarely read past the second chapter before my gag reflexes kicked in. Some books were ego driven expressions of tea mastery that were more masturbatory autobiography than Puer book. Others were harrowing, overblown tales of adventure and discovery of uncharted worlds that would make Marco Polo blush. And in some texts, nearly every photo features an elderly villager in traditional garb, with the information skewed towards selling the idea of fabled “1,000 year old trees” as a giant advertisement, rather than serving as a tool for learning.
Zhang manages to escape these common trappings by utilizing her perspective as an mindful observer. She carries no banner and pledges allegiance to none. She is just another tea drinker wandering the jianghu.
Puer Tea and the Wild West
What is jianghu you ask? Great, glad you did. Jianghu is a complex concept which can briefly be described as a place “located between utopia and reality” where one can “achieve romantic dreams, but chaos and risks still remain.” Popular in early Chinese martial arts fiction, jianghu referred to a world where Chinese knight-errants would go beyond the reach of their government and compete in kungfu competitions with others in the jianghu. The matching of kungfu skills was “a simple and perfect resolution for all kinds of problems: good or evil, right or wrong.” For my Western readers, the closest concept that relates to jianghu in Western culture is the American Wild West. Just replace the kungfu with gunslinging at sundown and it fits well enough. A lawless place, where dreams and happiness can be realized, but where there are risks and danger in a loosely bound world which is chaotic and evolving. It is a field of actors, the good, the bad, and the ugly, vying for dominance. As Zhang puts it, “The route to discovering authentic Puer tea is often full of risk and competition.” And that, is where we enter the Puer tea jianghu.
Now, keep in mind, the above quotes are laid out around Page 26. Usually by this point in reading a Puer book I am grabbing the nearest trash bin so I can vomit. Not with Zhang. She begins at the outset by setting up the scene in the theater; describing the players but not giving a monologue herself. One key component in the jianghu is that, “the essence of society is based on the presence of various groups or clans whose disciplines are in debate and cannot be tolerated by one another,” and each group has its “own code of conduct … [and] own language and wisdom.” Then she lists the clans, with which we Puer drinkers are all familiar. The ripe Puer clan. The raw Puer clan. The dry storage clan. The humid/traditional storage clan. The Yiwu flavor clan. The Menghai flavor clan. The aged tea clan. The gushu [old arbor] clan. The young tea clan. We can surmise the entirety of the Puer jianghu by noting of the clans, “Each declares itself the most authentic and does not tolerate the other.” With this sentence, I knew Zhang’s tome would set itself apart from the pack. She wasn’t carrying a clan banner, just reporting on the skirmish like a journalist above the battlefield.
Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic is a wealth of valuable information, both historical and anecdotal. Details of Zhang’s own visits in various areas of Yunnan. Varied perspectives from the different clans in Yunnan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and elsewhere. And a tale about a large “in real life” tea tasting with members of a Chinese online tea forum that had me laughing out loud as I compared it to my own comical interactions on Western tea forums (hint: same shit, different pile). Zhang bravely decides not to take stances, but rather offers a myriad of vantage points for the reader to come to their own conclusions about a range of topics, whether it be old arbor Puer tea or the identity of Puer tea on the whole.
Jinghong Zhang has restored some of my faith in the possibilities of Puer literature. That it need not be fierce kungfu battles and egotistical posturing. That there is indeed hope for the negotiation of authenticity beyond the “all of my tea is from organic fair trade 1,000 year old trees in the most remote villages, all hand processed by elderly folks missing teeth” style of marketing. That the misinformation and lack of accurate representation is not hopeless. That there is a discussion to be had and gray area to be traversed. And even at the end of that discussion, perhaps the actors in the Puer Wild West can end with a handshake and a shot of Four Roses, instead of a gunfight at sundown.