Tea Stories and the Danger of Tea Table Talk

Tea and Poker

Strong Personalities, Big Tea Stories

Yunnan attracts a lot of strong personalities in the Spring. Self proclaimed tea masters and tea experts. Rich bosses seeking to purchase the best tea, or at least something to pass off as the best in hopes of gaining face amongst their rich pals. Old school puer drinkers and adventurer types who are quick to decry anything as inauthentic or not up to their impossibly high standards. In the last month and a half I have witnessed three intense verbals altercations around the tea tray, one of which was teetering on the cliff of fisticuffs. Take a two big fish and put them in the same small pond and there will be a ruckus. Or in this case two grown men boasting in a way that would make Muhammad Ali blush.

Laobanzhang Puerh

Tea tasting in Laobanzhang, 2014 Spring.

“When I came to Yunnan in XXXX year, nobody had ever heard of XXXX mountain. I paved the road to that village with my own two hands.”

“I used to be the police commissioner of XXXX and all the people in XXXX village give me the best tea. They all call me Old Uncle XXXX.”

My warehouse has XXXX tons of [insert famous region]‘s puer tea. I had to sell all of my none old arbor tea because I didn’t have room for anymore old arbor puer.”

Of the above three quotes, two are real and one is fake. It doesn’t matter which is which. The quotes simply illustrate the mindsets of some of the people who descend on Yunnan each year when the new growth arrives. Which archetype am i? After listening to the unabashed bragging of these ass-hats, I probably fit into the annoyed foreigner archetype.

Numbers Don’t Add Up

The events that inspired this post were all happenstance. I kept running into one loud mouth tea god after another, until something very funny happened. The claims of 3 separate people that I encountered exceeded the yearly production of a mountain. “Aha!”, I thought to myself. “One of these braggarts is not telling the truth!” Not that I ever had a bet placed on the truthiness of their bragging, but now I had proof at least one of their mouths had written a check that the puer gods wouldn’t cash.

Naka mountain has a very limited amount of gushu [old arbor] trees. I do not have an exact number, but the average of several people I consulted was about 2 tons of Spring gushu puer tea. (Some guessed as little a few hundred kilograms)

Banpen Puer

Fresh leaves in Banpen, 2014 Spring.

Amongst the three boasting tea bosses, their total purchase amount of Naka Spring old arbor tea? Five tons. The stories were as follows:

“I know some of the Lahu people there and they set me up with two tons of gushu.”

“I have been purchasing from Naka since 2004 and they sell to me every year. I get the best two tons they have.”

“I buy [insert ridiculously unbelievable purchase figures from several other mountains here] and also one ton of Naka gushu.”

No worries guys, only two and a half times what the trees can bear!

The saddest part of this tale is not that these fellows are filthy liars. Nor is it that one, two, or all three of them are coming here and purchasing fake or mixed tea by the ton. The saddest part of this story is that these are only three random people who i encountered. There are surely another 100 tea bosses out there buying up fake Naka, both wittingly and unwittingly. The fact that I happened to bump into three such personalities, all laying claim to the same territory, it a window into the greater problem of the current puer market. But, that is a topic for another day.

Morals of the Tea Story

As far as I can see, there are two big takeaways from the above anecdote.

1) For every “famous” tea mountain, there is a very large demand for the old arbor tea and a very limited supply. This results in a lot of fake tea. If a village becomes popular there is an influx of low quality tea, both fresh leaves and processed, which is then sold as the genuine article. Consumers are the loser in this battle. If a boss coming to the village in Spring and leaves with fake tea, what chance does the average tea drinker have to get anything real?

2) The 3 huge egos in my story  each have their own wholesale stores and tea houses. They will be disseminating their false information and false teas to hundreds of people in China. Their customers will assume that Master so and so is telling  the truth, and the vicious cycle of misinformation will continue.

Which leads to the moral of the story; Don’t believe everything you hear at the tea table, or on tea blogs, or any outside information on tea. Be a tea Buddhist. Question everything you hear and discover the truth on your own. Discard labels. Ignore origins. Close your ears and eyes to the marketing and the noise. Listen to your mouth. Listen to your body. Listen to your own gut. Research and be open.

Come to think of it, you shouldn’t even believe this post. After all, it is just a tea story.

Notes from Yunnan Spring 2014

Puerh Gushu

Spring 2014 in Yunnan, Awards and Honorable Mentions

Last year I made a couple of lists of funny and interesting things I encountered during the Spring of 2013. After traveling around Yunnan for a couple of weeks this spring,  I thought it might be time to list some funny notes before returning to tea related content. In no particular order;

The Best Moonshine

Medicine Filled Booze

Medicine Filled Zikao Jiu

Steeped for one year in a plastic bottle, with half the bottle weight being medicine, this corn liquor was excellent. The color was reddish after coaxing out the medicinal properties of all manner of unidentifiable barks and roots, along with whatever plastic leeched into the mix. (Note to self: See a doctor) Aside from packing a wallop from the alcohol, they claimed this liquor to be good for soothing aches and pains. But, what double shot of 80 proof alcohol isn’t going to make you feel less achy?

Moonshine Tea

Beer in the background, also good for aches and pains

I am waiting to return to this village in Bulang next week to pick up more tea, at which point a fresh batch of his homemade booze will be ready for the drinking.

The Most Bizarre Moonshine

Wasp Liquor

Wasps and medicinal roots. Supposedly good for lower back pain

As we I traveled further out into the nether regions of villages near Myanmar, I had lunch in a village that had another home brewed medicine mix, but this time with one important ingredient the previous liquor lacked. Wasps. I wonder if Mickey’s malt liquor would sue this guy for branding infringement? This stuff was more of the “oh fuck I am going to go blind” level alcohol, I am guessing 60%. The perfect pairing for fried hedgehog with chili peppers (below on the right). To any of my customers, don’t say I never do anything for you. Your tea often comes at the expense of my liver and gastrointestinal tract. Such is the situation in Yunnan, that finding far off gushu is becoming increasingly difficult.

fried hedgehog

Sonic’s lesser known third cousin, Stumbles the hedgehog (1991-2014)

The Most Profound Quote

Chingrish

I…um, what?

Gives to the new times sincerely, intellectual aristocrat. That is way too deep for me. I think I need more moonshine before that is going to make any sense to me.

Let’s end on a more comprehensible tea note, how about a picture from Laoman’e?

Laoman'e Gushu

Laoman’e Spring growth

2010 EOT Manmai

Essence of Tea

Manmai Puer Tea

Warning: placeholder review ahead. I have been scuttling around Yunnan the past few weeks and will be on the road for the next  month. Having recently drank a lot of Manmai tea, I thought this post would do the trick of updating my blog and acting as a comparison to some of the tea I have had around Menghai this week.

EOT Puerh

Fragments of a sample

This sample was passed along to me. Fragments from a cake I have never laid eyes upon.

Judging teas in fragments gets a little bit tricky. Where was this tea? How was in stored? Is it representative of the whole cake or production?

The EOT Soup

The EOT Soup

The first traits of this tea that struck me were it’s color and it’s scent. Both the light yellowish color of the leaf and the raw green smell of the rinse suggest this tea is less than 3 years old, or generally green.

After delving further into the session, the soup continued on with a yellow color. There was some huigan [sweet aftertaste], but the other characteristics were not typical of my impression of a three year old Manmai. I had a 5 year old Manmai in Manmai that was in the opposite direction of this cake.

I still have yet to get around to trying other teas from Essence of Tea, other than samples passed my way by friends and puer lovers. Hopefully I will get a shot at some others.

Essence of Tea Green

The spent leaf

Puer Scents and a 2011 Laoman’E Gushu

Laoman'e Puer

Laoman’e Puer & Young Teas with Floral Scents

Young teas have a tenuous grip on their high pitched floral scents. With an (almost) three year old Laoman’e raw puer tea, you can feel the lighter floral character slipping from the tea’s fingers, to be lost forever as the Laoman’e spirals out into the low tones of bitterness and other mysterious developments that the region is famed for. The floral aspects of the tea are the first thing to be shed when aging sets in, but still many people search out puer teas with heavy fragrance. If the goal is to buy raw puer tea with the intent of aging, this sort of methodology is folly. In 10 years, most of those fragrances will be gone. It is the same logic of why one ought to marry a best friend instead of the beauty pageant winner. Surface beauty is fleeting, but substance lasts.

Laoman'e Puerh

Dry piece of a Laoman’e puer cake

This 2011 Laoman’e gushu [old arbor] still has a loose hold on the flowers of youth. The initial steeps are roses dipped in a satisfying bitter tar.

Several cups pass and the roses become blacker and blacker, until the eventual penetrating kuwei [pleasant bitterness] begins to dominate the character of the tea and the roses are nowhere to be found. They are lost in the thick and engrossing body of the tea.

Laomane Puer

Laoman’e gold soup

The core of the this tea is like an opaque black stone. Orbiting around the bitter gravity are flecks of cream and sweetness.

An intoxicating tea to drink young, for bitter devotees such as yours truly.

For cultists of the floral, perhaps puer is not the right refuge. Oolong teas, fresh green teas, and scented floral teas all hold better claims to the flower throne. I often hear casual tea drinkers in China gripe about the lack of xiangwei [fragrance] in raw puer teas when compared to other teas they drink. This is like complaining about the lack of incense in a temple. Sure, the fragrance of incense in a temple is pleasing to the senses, but if you show up to the temple to meditate and all you can manage is a complaint about the lack of perfume, perhaps you’ve come to the wrong place.

Laomane Puerh

Laoman’e spent leaves

Laochapo, the Old Tea Granny

Old Tea Granny

Liubao Tea and the Old Granny

Every region in China has its own nomenclature for the big, thick 4th and 5th leaves on the tea plant. Puer drinkers most commonly refer to it as Huangpian. I am a champion of huangpian. In tea circles it doesn’t get enough respect. Well aged huangpian can be good in their own rite – sturdy and affordable.

Tea Field Guangxi

A tea plantation bordering a forest outside of Liuzhou, Guangxi

On a recent trip to Liubao, Guangxi I encountered a different tea culture. The people of Liubao are staunch defenders of huangpian, which they call “Lao Cha Po” [ 老茶婆 ] literally translated this means “Old Tea Granny”. Laochapo was held in a spot of reverence. When I asked one Liubao-ite about his favorite tea, he immediately grabbed a handful of brittle orange laochapo and tossed it into a pot.

Laochapo Aged

A 15-20 year old Tea Granny

The tea was about 15 to 20 years old, although he said he could not pinpoint an exact date. The flavor was similar to brown buckwheat honey. Grainy and sweet. No arguments about the merits of this tea.

Laochapo Tea

Younger Laochapo leaf

Lao Cha Po

Young Laochapo soup

We also had a 3 year old Laochapo. It’s scent and flavor was reticent of freshly cut pumpkin meat. If you have ever made a jack-o-lantern and smelled the fresh pulp, this younger Laochapo had a similar flavor. The leaves seemed very lightly cooked and they were not rolled, so the leaves were not bruised as they usually are during the rounian [rolling] process of puer making.

Rotted Aged Tea

The inspection of old leaves, brought in for sale by a farmer

During our session, a tea farmer entered his house to bring in a bag of old Laochapo. She had a bag of Laochapo that she claimed was 20 years old which she wanted to sell him. She said she was remodeling her house and found the bag stashed underneath floor boards. We were all greatly anticipating the tea, but after she opened the bag our hopes were dashed. The tea smelled like decaying fall leaves on a forest floor. The leaves were bug bitten and falling apart, revealing their veined structure. The seller smiled politely, even as he rebuked her offer saying something in Cantonese I couldn’t understand. He then looked at me and said, “This tea is filthy – nobody would drink this. Let’s brew it.” Lovely idea! Like when an older sibling takes a bite of the blue plate special liver and onions and snorts, “This is terrible…try a bite!”

Dank tea

The rotted Laochapo

Despite my better judgment, we brewed it up. Sure enough the tea yielded a disgusting pitch black tar. The smell was repugnant. PSA kids, store your tea well, or it will turn into the rotted leaves below. Protip: Do not put it underneath the floorboards for two decades, unattended.

Tea gone bad

Black tar that quickly found the drain

Should you want to try some (none rotten!) Laochapo, you can buy online here.

1980′s Wild Tree Loose Puer

1980 puer

 Aged Puer Tea

Lovely old puer teas have engrossing stories to tell. This aged puer from origintea has the odor of musty books. Wood unfurls out of the the gongbei [shared cup, glass pitcher] after a rinse. The dust covered smells then morph into a deep caramelized sugar, and then vanish. The leaves smell damp after a long sleep. I wait about two minutes after the rinse before I start steeping. I smell the lid of my yixing and there is a sharp smell of wetness that a lot of older teas have inevitably collected in their long lifetime.

Any hint of the sharp smell vanishes within moments. I place the lid back, wait a moment, and smell again, and again the smell has transformed to fragrant wood and earth. Teas like this are captivating. Their constant changes are a sort of theatrical performance. The sharpness makes a brief cameo appearance, takes a bow, and leaves the stage. The wood is a main character, acting in scenes with the earth and the sweetness. All of the acts being performed amidst a backdrop of smoothness and warmth, the setting of the play. This is what good puer tea should be!

Dry 1980's raw puer tea

Dry 1980′s raw puer tea

The early steeps were thin. The tea was just beginning to wake up, and had a direct thinness similar to aged Liubao tea. As the session progressed this thin character began to widen out.

On the fifth steep I smell the leaves and get a smell of browned stew meat. I did not see him in the playbill! Honestly, I questioned whether I should write this note down, since some puer aficionados are going to read stew meat and think I am an idiot, but it was just the first thing that came to mind. The smell of raw beef that you are browning in the pan. When you take it out of the fire and it sits for a moment and has a sickly, meat smell. That was the connection my brain made. A definite first.

Petr Novak Cup

A view of the dark red brown soup, in a cup from Petr Novak

The star of the show is difficult to pick in such an intense drama. The lingering huigan [sweet aftertaste] is one the best assets of the tea. The smooth texture of the tea and warming body feel are enviable. This is a must see show. A Tony award winner (ha!). Enough with the hackneyed  theatrical references, try the tea!

Zisha Puerh Aged

Spent leaves

2007 CYH Laobanzhang

CYH Banzhang

 When to buy Gushu?

The other day some tea drinking friends of mine were having a conversation about how to optimize timing when purchasing gushu [old arbor] teas. Opinions around the tea table differed, as they always do, but the general consensus was that there are two strategies. Either get in early and hope, or buy late resign to forfeiting half of your mortgage payment for puer tea. In the case of Banzhang teas, even news tea carry a hefty pricetag, so maybe neither strategy is optimal.

Since acquiring a ten year old Banzhang cake of any quality is already completely out of reach of most smallfolk, I’d say one ought to buy good tea right away (1 – 3 years old), rather than when it has enough age (8 – 10 years old). There is a tradeoff. Buying young tea can be difficult because how it will age is anybody’s guess. However, this risk is outweighed by the alternative, which is paying far too much for tea that is difficult to know much about. Questions like where was this stored? and Is this really from Spring on that mountain? are easier to answer in the year of production. But, unless the leaves were picked, processed, and pressed by the hands attached to your body, there is always a little mystery.

A dry piece of the Banzhang cake

A dry piece of the Banzhang cake

The 2007 CYH Banzhang is in a transition stage from strong youth to strong maturity. The kuwei [bitterness] flashes in front  of you with a quick gesture, and then quickly turns into sweetness that sits down in the mouth. There are some woody flavors emerging, but it is still in between feeling like a young tea and a middle aged tea. Some sort of tea Freshmen year.

Fledgling soup of Puer Tea Ban Zhang

Fledgling soup

The body is thick. Even 6.5 grams (about 20% less than I normally use) still makes a compelling brew. The depth of flavor and qi [feeling] is admirable. Even though this cake is in the middle ground of its age, still a worthy investment. Thanks again to Origin for the sample.

Spent leaves

Spent leaves

2007 Yang Qing Hao – Qizhong

Yang Qing Hao

Another sample from Origintea, the 2007 Qizhong from Yang Qing Hao.

YQG Qizhong

A dry piece of the YQH puer tea

The Qizhong is a balancing act of soft, smooth entry and thick lingering body.

Most lightweight teas are agile and soft. Their counterpart heavyweights are strong and intense. The Qizhong is riding the line in between the two, with an emphasis of strength.

It is a nimble heavyweight. Both aggressive and graceful at the same time.

Qizhong puer tea

The golden soup of the Qizhong

The Qizhong is durable. Stamina abound, it became clear that the first four rounds were merely a warm up. The leaves kept giving late into the bout.

The retail price around $270 for a 400g cake, this is a good value for this quality of aged gushu puer. Another fine tea from Origin.

Puerh Tea and Yixing pots

Spent tea from Origin

2005 Chen Guang He Tang Wild Menghai

Chen Guang He Tang

Teas from the Origin

After a recent tea exchange with the generous proprietor of the Taiwan based Origin Tea , I have been whimsically drifting through a variety of aged teas. The slightly more mature teas are a pleasant break from drinking raw 2013 Spring/Fall samples. Nothing against the young and the raw, but fall and winter are a great time for darker teas.

CGHT Puerh

Isn’t this a beautiful tea?

The 2005 Chen Guang He Tang tea was apparently not made by Chen Zhi Tong, but it was purchased by him. Purchasing tea might not sound sexy, but having great taste and picking good tea is a skill unto itself. As Ira Glass once pointed out, killer taste is how every great artist begins their journey.

This tea is supposedly wild tea from the Menghai region, an expansive area that I expansively love. The tea has likely been stored in Taiwan for most of its life (never checked this fact). The taste is similar to Taiwan storage, and the color of the soup is on it’s way to a mature brown. The tea holds a tempered edge of sweetness.

On the way to aged soup

On the way to aged soup

The smells on the lid of the gaiwan are richer than any run of the mill menghai blend. Malty and thick with a smell of caramel and light cigar wrappers.

The soup continues to be smooth and sweet in the mouth. There is depth that most menghai cakes touch the edge of, but unfortunately most cakes rarely breech the boundary into depth and complexity. In the middle of the session, this tea dips into that trench. What awelcome companion for this cool afternoon, I should hope I try this tea again in the future. Many thanks to Origintea for the sample.

The spent leaves

The spent leaves

2012 Xiaguan Tea Emperor

Tea Pet

5 Blades.

One of my all-time favorite Onion articles is “Fuck Everything, We’re doing 5 Blades.” It seems directly related to tea companies  naming their teas with ever loftier names like the Tea King of this or that region.

Tea King? Fuck you, Tea Emperor. I imagine a scene with a coked out Tea CEO yelling angrily at a boardroom full of underlings, “Oh, no, what will people say?! Grow the fuck up. When you’re on top, people talk. That’s the price you pay for being on top. Which [Xiaguan] is, always has been, and forever shall be… Tea Emperor? Tea God.”

If anyone from Xiaguan reads this, and the boardroom meetings are anything like my fantasy, please send video.

Xiaguan Tea Emperor

Some Dry Emperor

The Tea Emperor has an atypical smell for Xiaguan. None of the smoke or the burly lumberjack manliness. It smells soft and sweet.

8.8 grams of tea, how lucky. Heavily fragmented, lots of crumbs pouring out on every steep, the 8.8 grams is probably down to 7 now. The fragments are a product of the dust I chose to steep, the cake is just typical small varietal leaves and some chop.

Cloudy Puerh

Cloudy Soup

The first rinse is very cloudy. Subsequent steeps follow suit and taper off.

Early steeps taste a bit like a sweet egg cream cake on entry. Lots of astringency in this young cake. Soup is gold colored.

Thick on the finish with a subtle huigan [sweet aftertaste] that is mostly overshadowed by the astringency of the puer tea.

Prices online seem to vary, roughly about $30-$50 per cake, which seems fine to me. There is a nice finish to the cake that a lot of teas which cost more lack. I have no idea how this tea will age though. The flavor of the cake is somewhat foreign to me. What I labeled as egg cream cake is a sickly kind of white sweetness. I don’t know what that is or how it will age. Would be fun to try in 5 years, if only for the sake of research.

Chop Puer

Chopped up and green