meng song

State of the Puer Union – Spring 2016

Reflections on Spring Puer in Yunnan

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.

Naka tea
Lone tea bud, Naka Mountain, Yunnan 2016

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.

Puerh tea leaves
Hand and Tea Leaves, 2015

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.

Tea Caterpillar
Caterpillar in a Tea Tree, Mengku, Yunnan, 2016

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 Fluctuations

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.

Tea Stone Press
Pressing Stones, Menghai, Yunnan, 2016

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.

Wasp Moonshine
Mud Wasp Hooch, Mengsong, Yunnan, 2016

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.

 

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Picking Puer Tea from Old Arbor Trees

When is Old Arbor Puer Tea Picked?

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.

Old Arbor Puer Tea Picking
Old arbor Puer tea in Lincang on the cusp of being pickable – March 26th, 2016

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.

Puer Tea Buds on the Tree
Emerging buds from a Puer tree in Lincang, March 26th 2016

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.

Ice covered tea
Ice covering the landscape in Nannuo mountain during the winter

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 buds
Autumn buds emerging on October 1st 2015

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!

 

 

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Autumn Puer Tea

Reflections on Autumn Tea, Yunnan 2015

Musings from the Autumn Tea Season in Yunnan

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.

Examining fresh growth on a Puer tree, Yunnan Province, 2015
Examining fresh growth on a Puer tree, Yunnan Province, 2015

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.

Bamboo Tea How to Make
The roasting process of bamboo Puer tea, Yunnan Province, 2015

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.

Xinhui Mandarins
Xinhui Mandarins in the orchards, Guangdong Province, 2015

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.

The near finished results, Ganpu - Mandarin oranges stuffed with ripe Puer. Guangdong Province, 2015
The near finished results, Ganpu – Mandarin oranges stuffed with ripe Puer. Guangdong Province, 2015

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.

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Puer Storage Yunnan Dog

The Pearl River Delta and Puer Storage Thoughts

South China Puer Storage

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.

Dim Sum Puer
Excellent Dim Sum & Puer Tea, Chicago 2015

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.

Traditional Puer Storage
Aged Puer leaves in an Yixing teapot, Spring 2015

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:

Puer Storage Tradeoffs

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)

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Taste Tea Blog

Taste is in the Mouth of the Beholder

Differences in Taste and Cultural Reference Points

In China, it is common to stumble upon pizzas that force you to question whether a higher power exists and if there is a point in carrying on living. Shrimp, chunks of corn, bits of seasoned ground beef, all with sweet mayonnaise drizzled over the top of the lifeless processed cheese and wonderbread crust. It’s as if the chef was using pizza as a vehicle for a cruel joke. Its only purpose is to taunt honest people who wanted a delicious pie.

Or at least, that is my perspective.

Chinese Pizza
Just look at that…delicious…pizza

I grew up on different styles of pizza. When I was a kid, I gobbled down Little Caesar’s craptacular pizzas while taking breaks from playing NBA Jam and Killer Instinct. In my teenage years, it was higher quality pizzas in Chicago and New York styles. Later on, more of the Italian-style pizzas crept into my repertoire. But, like anything, pizza and pizza preferences are learned. The reason shrimp and sweet mayonnaise pizza makes me borderline violent is because it is “wrong”. But, what is wrong anyway? Local Pizza Huts are full of eager diners, patiently waiting for their corn and squid covered abominations. Such is the mystery of culinary preferences that vary amongst humankind.

 The Flavors of Rightness and Wrongness

Many Puer tea drinkers will rise up in arms over the inherent “rightness” or “wrongness” of flavors and characteristics. “This tea has smoke on it! They burned it! WRONG!” is one common battle cry. “This tea is bitter! Nobody would want to drink this!” is another oft hurled insult. However, as a man who receives Puer related correspondence from all over the world, I can safely say that some people want bitterness. Or want smoke. Or want sweetness, thickness, thinness, sharpness, or smoothness. That is to say, some people want shrimp and sweet mayonnaise while others want mozzarella and fresh basil.

Pizza Hut China
Merry Christmas! Hug for Love. Thanks, Pizza Hut.

These judgments, whether for Puer or pizza, stem from the same cultural and flavor backgrounds that we all learn. If your mother served you bitter tasting medicine when you were a child, of course the bitter flavors will conjure up cerebral connections of sickness and medicine. If you have been told that smoke is the result of imperfect processing, the smoke is a signal of low quality, whereas a seasoned Scotch whisky drinker might associate smoke with peat and a fine bottle of Laphroaig. Referring back to my personal pizza dilemma, for someone who has been eating American- and Italian-style pizzas, toppings such as shrimp, corn, and sweet mayo don’t make a hell of a lot of sense. But, what is inherently wrong with bitterness, smoke, shrimp, corn, and sweet mayo?

eating wasps
Sweet, nourishing wasps and minnows

Similar trials and tribulations happen all the time when I am traveling to tea mountains in China. My hosts gleefully tell me, “We knocked down a fresh wasps nest!” Which means I will be dining on wasps. Or the wide variety of marmots, bug larvae, and organ meat that farmers happily serve to me when on the road in small tea villages. Tea farmers will often describe with delight how these fried bamboo worms are prepared just how his mother used to make. I try to keep an open mind and remind myself that taste is in the mouth of the beholder. Though sometimes that is a test of my willpower; especially when two friends begin arguing about whether they had properly cooked out the venom from the wasps. Not reassuring fellas. Pass the minnows!

Viewing Puer tea flavors through a wider and more open lens has allowed me enough distance to reconsider my own perspective of what is good and bad. In the future, I will kindly nod when I pass by a gleeful family munching on shrimp and corn pizza – or someone happily drinking a Puer that I dislike. After all, the most important factor with food and drink is whether it can bring a smile to your face.

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Fake Puerh Dilemma

Fake Puerh Tea: 3 Ways to Avoid Common Scams

Real or Fake? The Puerh Tea Buyers Dilemma

There is a lot of discussion of authenticity in the Puerh tea community. Newcomers to Puerh tea hear the word “fake” bantered around and become frightened before even owning a Puerh tea cake. “Is my tea real or fake?!” they wonder, afraid of dipping a toe into the water. This article will help shed some light on what real and fake mean in the context of Puerh tea and how to ensure that you are happy with your tea regardless of its authenticity.

Real Puerh Brands and Brand Name Puerh Teas

The Situation: Large Puerh tea brands have factories that produce thousands upon thousands of metric tons of tea. Companies like Dayi or Xiaguan have billboards in airports and panels of the sides of buses. Not to mention very costly commercials on television. This immense marketing budget is part of their business model, which is brand based and depends on large volume with big mark ups. Due to their popularity and mass-market advertising, many smaller producers fake their products in an attempt to earn money from the same big mark-up without having to spend millions of dollars on advertising campaigns. The result is a market flooded with fake brand name teas.

Xiaguan ad
An advertisement for Xiaguan at a major metropolitan airport. What is your tea money going towards?

How to Avoid the Fake Puerh: If you want to avoid faked brand name tea, avoid large productions and famous companies. Nobody will take the time to make a fake version of a lesser known tea. There are plenty of quality teas in the market that are from smaller brands and productions. If you ignore the hype, you won’t end up with a fake branded tea!

Dayi ad
Bus ads for Dayi don’t come cheap!

Real Old Arbor Puerh versus Plantation Puerh

The Situation: Only a very small percentage of the Puerh teas produced each year come from gushu [old arbor] trees. The price difference between gushu tea and tea from smaller bushes is very large, so many producers unscrupulously mark their small bush teas as gushu in order to command a much higher price. Other fakes include heavily mixed material. True gushu carries a big price tag and is always from a small production.

old arbor tea limb
Old arbor teas can never support massive productions

How to Avoid Fakes: The large factories rarely (see: almost never) produce any purely gushu teas due to the nature of their business. (i.e. it is impossible to make 50 ton productions of gushu as there simply is not that much material) Use your best judgment and buy the teas that you enjoy for the price you can afford. If you are overly concerned about being duped, sticking within a comfortable budget will reduce the heartache if a tea does not meet expectations. Rather than judge the tea on whether it is old arbor or plantation, focus on whether the tea is high quality and fits your budget. This problem is perhaps the most difficult for tea drinkers to solve, but it involves finding a trusted producer with smaller productions. I also encourage people to hone their own taste buds and try to study with knowledgeable Puerh drinkers who can help guide them in learning to differentiate between old arbor and plantation. Unfortunately, this skill is very difficult to pass on via a blog. Personal experience is the fastest road to understanding.

Real Aged Puerh Teas versus Fake Aged Puerh Teas

The Situation: Many older teas have no dates stamped on their wrappers. Even wrappers with stamps can be faked. Since aged teas often command a higher price, many sellers will take younger teas and mislabel them in an attempt to obtain a higher price.

aged Puerh tea
How old is this tea? Or more importantly, is the tea good?

How to Avoid Fakes: First, do your homework. Check the market value of a tea, the wrapper, and the leaf, then see if the price makes sense. Teas with a too-good-to-be-true price tag often are! Second, remember that age is just a number. If you want to avoid a lot of trouble, we recommend focusing on the quality of the tea rather than the age. Trust your own taste and stick within your budget. After all, if you really enjoy a tea, a misrepresentation of age becomes less important. Who wouldn’t rather have a spectacular tea from 2008 than a terrible tea from 1998? With older teas, the exact date of production is often near impossible to determine, as aged teas can change hands several times over the course of ten or twenty years. When in doubt, trust what is in the cup, instead of fancy stories.

So, What Should I Do to Avoid Fake Puerh?

For those who are scared senseless about the real or perceived authenticity of teas, the best solution is to abandon an attachment to what is or is not real and to focus on the quality of the tea in the cup in front of you. For most casual tea drinkers, they will save a lot of pain if they find the best quality tea that fits their budget instead of chasing after minimal or expensive productions like Bingdao old arbor or 88 Qingbings. For those who are set on chasing the rare teas of the world, there is an inherent danger. For the adventurers, the best is solution is to arm yourself with knowledge and jump into the Puerh fray.

And one last word of wisdom, as a person who has had teas that range in the tens of thousands of dollars per cake range, the most expensive tea is not always the best tea. Market forces determine price. And the market is not focused on your taste buds. Trust what makes you happy and you won’t find yourself in a bind.

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Autumn Puerh Tea Twodog

Autumn 2014, Yunnan

Pictures and Travel Notes from the Fall of 2014 in Yunnan

After  a month spent traversing the muddy roads and trails, and then a brief personal trip, I have returned to a stable internet connection and the comforts of my own bed. My accommodations in the tea mountains of Yunnan were generally comfortable. Though there were a few nights spent in a room directly over a pigsty with eight young piglets who decided darkness was their favorite time to squeal. And there were the many nights spent bug eyed and wired from fresh young Puer tea until daybreak. Now, it is back to city life. City life, and drinking aged Puer tea until my stomach forgives me for the fresh tea binge.

Before I settle in to my warm bed and brew up some smooth, aged tea, I thought I would post a few interesting photographs from the Fall and some impressions about the autumn Puer of 2014.

tea flower
Tea flower bug from Xigui

tea flower tea fruit
Some tea flowers and tea fruit [cha hua & cha guo] from Xigui area. The signs of autumn on the tea mountains
Many of you Puer veterans will recognize the small fruit on the left of the above photograph. It is chaguo [tea fruit] and it sneaks its way into tea cakes often. The tea flowers don’t find their way into cakes as often, but sometimes they sneak in. Some locals will dry them and brew them to drink. These pictures were taken in and around Xigui.

Tea Mountain Path
In Lincang a few friends and I went to a village without a road. This was both the beginning and end of the path.
Lincang Tea Mountain
Half way up the mountain. The view across the river.

Outside of Lincang, the hike up to a small village without a road took about two hours. I was pretty impressed with two of the guys with us, who managed to smoke several cigarettes along the hike. I kept thinking, “Don’t these guys need oxygen? I’m sweating my balls off here!” We were all covered in sweat by the time we reached the village. Luckily, we encountered a tea farmer who offered us giant cucumbers from her basket. Nothing could have been better at that moment.  I won’t soon forget those magical cucumbers. For all of our trouble we only left with enough fresh leaf to make one kilogram of maocha. We split it amongst ourselves. After a few tea tastings, my bag is already empty. Damnit.

Wild olives
Olive Trees near Bingdao

These fresh wild olives are some of my favorite things to pick for a hike. Some of you might remember people near Menghai mixing these olives with moonshine. They are as sour as any lemon on entry, but they leave a wake of sweetness in your mouth. I am told they are also very healthy, though I don’t have the nutrition facts.

tea tree lichen
Lichen on some old trees

I was able to buy the rest of the 2007 Hekai material to make more Repave cakes. The good news is that I got enough to satisfy all of the people who were e-mailing me saying, “WHAT THE HELL DID YOU DO WITH ALL THE REPAVE”. The bad news is that had I arrived in Hekai a week earlier, I could have bought much more. A week before my arrival a Taiwanese guy bought the majority of the material. Can’t win them all. Tenet 3…Tenet 3.

Overall, I’d say the Puer market is still in a strange place. The prices in some areas for autumn plantation tea were dumbfounding to me. Especially when I was able to find some slightly older teas for fair prices. I pressed a few old arbor teas that I had been resting  Spring, and pressed some Xigui area tea from Autumn that really caught my attention. And also a (very) small amount of true old arbor Xigui. I will be interested to see what happens with the prices of Puer in Spring – but until then I will resting myself before the onslaught of fresh tea.

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Last Thoughts Puerh

How to Buy Puer Tea: The Three Tenets

Tenet One: Walk Before you Can Run. Then Sprint.

How to buy Puer tea might not seem like a topic that needs instruction. Click the pay button and you are done, right?

A lot of new Puer drinkers make a common mistake, which is getting too much tea before they really understand much about Puer tea and their own personal preferences. Your ability to judge other people’s character is like your ability to judge Puer tea. We all begin as novices and improve over time.

The ability of most Puer beginners to judge character is the equivalent of a 12 year old’s ability to judge people. Remember that time you thought you were in love with Susie Johnson in 7th grade? Your puppy love in full swing, when she walked into the room you heard Close to You as the room turned rose colored and began to spin. You were certain that you were meant for each other and destined to get married! Soul mates. You’d move to an island together. Start a family. Build some sort of tree house with a coconut phone and monkey butlers. How’d that work out? In hindsight it is probably better that you (or they) called off the teenage wedding.

2003 Gold Dayi
Gold Dayi from 2003. A tea that is so oft faked and so expensive that it is barely attainable

As time goes on we all improve our ability to discern who is the best fit for us. The same development happens after drinking pot after pot of Puer tea. You date around with some people/samples and start to recognize which traits are meaningful for you and which can be left by the wayside. When you mature into your 20’s or 30’s you begin to realize what you want in a relationship… or what you desire in a pot of tea.

This is the first tenet of buying Puer tea; Walk before you can run. Take a few dates to the movies. Get in a couple of cake-term relationships. Heck, buy a tong [stack of 7 cakes] and move in together, only to realize you have made a horrible mistake and break up with that tong after it cheats on you with your roommate Jeff. Well, hopefully that last part doesn’t happen.

After you finish this dating period, you are ready to move on. You can walk. You understand your own preferences. And now that you are comfortable judging what you like, start sprinting. On to tenet number two.

Tenet Two: Understand the Economics of Puer

A couple of years ago Planet Money recorded a story titled “Why Coke Cost a Nickel for 70 Years“. The story begins “all prices change, that is basic economics…”, but most price changes are gradual. In the case of Coke, there were several decades where Coca-cola prices never shifted. One nickel for a bottle. Even during my lifetime, the price of Coke has remained relatively stable. Coke is a reproducible product with seemingly no limit in terms of scale of production. Factories all over the world crank out as much Coke as the clamoring masses will consume, the more the better.

Gushu
The trunk of a mighty old arbor tea tree (Laoman’e, Spring 2014)

The seemingly infinite supply of Coke is in stark contrast to gushu [old arbor] Puer tea and aged Puer tea. Old arbor Puer trees need a hundred years or more to become mature and develop deep root structures. Aged Puer has a supply that dwindles as the years pass by. For example, If an initial 100 ton production of Puer tea sells half of its stock each year for the first ten years, by the tenth year there will be scarcely enough tea left to distribute to retail, not to mention the value will usually will have risen far beyond its initial market price. When we start discussing even smaller productions of 100 kilograms, purchasing almost has to occur when the production is first released, lest the opportunity to buy be lost and gone forever.

Now, which teas legitimately have a limited supply and which do not? This is a rich topic for a separate article, but there are two major categories of teas which will not be around in abundance; gushu teas and aged teas.

For example, most of the white2tea productions from 2014 were under 20 kilograms. Some of the teas are already gone. Aged teas, such as some of the smaller production teas sold on our website two years ago have tripled in price or become sold out altogether.

Tenet two can be summed up in one sentence; The better the material or the older the tea, the faster the buyer should take action. This brings us to the third tenet.

Tenet Three: Hit it Hard

Last year an article written by Marshaln called “Hit it Hard with a Hammer” hit the nail on the head. (har har) Marshaln laments the fact that he had not purchased some of the teas he loved back in 2006, and then goes on to describe how he learned his lesson and picked up 50 tuos [nest shaped tea] of a bargain tea that he stumbled upon. This exchange in the comments sums it up nicely:

Marshaln_Hammercomment

The last sentence of the reply is the key. “This is something you learn only after drinking tea for awhile.”

The only real problem I have with Marshaln’s article is that a hammer seems like an inadequate weapon. Puer drinkers need to bring out the artillery when they find a tea that speaks to them.

Fu Hai 7576
Fuhai 7576

There are many examples of this phenomenon, but as an anecdotal case study, let’s look at this 2003 Fuhai 7576 Ripe Puer tea. The Fuhai 7576 sold on the White2tea site between 2012-2013 for $37 a cake. Since then, an innumerable amount of e-mails have flooded into my inbox asking for this tea, but alas, it is gone. The current market price for this tea is over $70 (in China, on Taobao from a 3 crown vendor – whatever that even means anymore) and that is before we mention that the market has since been doused with a hefty amount of fakes of the Fuhai ripes from that era, both red and yellow mark variety.

When the disappointed (and sometimes angry) e-mails get replied to, I try to use measured courtesy and sympathy; but what I will write in the future is You should have tenet 3’d!. Teas like the Fuhai 7576, which was in its 10th year of age at that point, will not be around forever. Quality teas are continuously being consumed by thirsty drinkers and hoarded by wise collectors. Should you happen upon a tea like this, find its traits to your liking, and have the financial capacity, buy it in bulk. One cake is not bulk. Hell, even a tong is not bulk. If you drink a lot of Puer, how long will a tong last?

Put another way, if you surveyed a group of veteran Puer drinkers and asked, “Given what you now know about the price of gushu Laobanzhang, if we had a time machine and could go back to 2009 to buy some quality Laobanzhang, how much would you buy?” or “Given what you know now about the 88 Qingbing price, how much would you buy in the year 2001?” The answer would not be a cake. And the answer would not be a tong. The answer would probably involve the words second and mortgage.

When you finish the cake that you loved, you can’t go grab another one off the shelf like a Coca-cola. If you manage to find the cake, the price tag will be very disappointing, and that is if the shelf isn’t empty.

Let’s end with a sage quote that concisely sums up how to purchase Puer tea:

“A cake is a sample.” –  Ouch, moderator from the Badger and Blade forum

And to go a step further, a tong is a cake. Hopefully these words won’t fall on deaf ears and new puer drinkers can learn from the venerable wisdom of mistakes made in the past.

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Youle Puerh Tea

2004 Jinuoshan Youle

My draft bin is full of articles half written. Reviews of teas and notes on things that get lost in the shuffle of day to day life. I took these photos, edited them, and then never bothered to write the accompanying article. Luckily, my little leather bound book has sparse notes on this tea. Rather than toss away some perfectly good images, I thought why not transcribe my notes here; musings on a session since forgotten.

2004 Jinnuoshan Youle
Pre-steeping

Dry tea has no smell. Tippy. Furry. Tightly pressed.

Youle Puerh
A close up of chunk of dry puer

Rinse is sweet and clean. The first cup soft, sweet, fruity, and smooth.

Second steep, light and smooth in the mouth.

Youle Puer Tea
Copper soup in the cup

Late in the session the tea is calming and has strong grape-like tannins. Plenty of body and subtle bitterness.

12 steeps.

Puerh Tea blog
Spent Youle puer leaves

These notes were dated November 24th, 2013. I must be drinking too much tea, since I can not even recall this session. Thank goodness for cameras and notebooks.

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Puerh Storage

Not all Puer Storage is Created Equal. Just as it Should Be.

Puer Storage Questions

Everything in puer tea comes in varying degrees. There is a range of bitterness. A range of quality in processing. Huge differences in quality of material, from very bad to transcendent, with one million variations in between. Puer tea storage is no exception.

When I recently steeped my way through a glut of 10-20 year old dry stored teas, I kept recalling Jakub and his pained Luke Skywalker “Dry Storage” meme. Some of the teas did indeed have “Darth Vader is my real father” level of poor quality storage, while others were dry stored and excellent. So, where does that leave us in the overall storage debate?

D Duckz
I certainly don’t feel this way about dry stored teas, but Mr.Skywalker does.

The online comments on the subject often deal in absolutes that make it difficult to get to the heart of the issue. Comments about how terrible dry storage is or how humid storage will turn your tea into a moldy abomination are ubiquitous on tea forums. Depending on which coterie you belong to you may have gotten involved in some heated discussions on the matter.

Rather than the “DRY GOOD! WET BAD!” arguments, the more nuanced conversation that ought to be taking place is how to improve the storage which you yourself have available.

Humid Storage Star Wars Luke Skywalker Yoda
The Star Wars universe has a lack of ideal storage options. Maybe the Ewok homeworld?

Unless you plan to build a personal puer tea warehouse in the climate that you deem to be perfect storage, you are probably going to use the home that you have. Your family, job, school, and other circumstances are far more likely to dictate where you live than what kind of tea storage you prefer.

Without a doubt there are puer fanatics who go to great lengths to store their tea in the place they most desire, whether it be South China, Taiwan, or Mozambique. But rather than discuss which storage is perfect until we all turn blue in the face, let’s address a question that can help any tea drinker in any location; How can you improve your home tea storage?

Regardless of where you live, the basic puer storage suggestions are:

  • No direct sunlight
  • No heavy aromas
  • Any situation that would cause mold (dripping water) or dry out your cakes (being on top of a heater) will ruin your tea
  • Use common sense

In addition to these puer storage rules, the best advice can be summed up in one sentence:

Take the middle path.

If you live in a dry climate, add a bowl of water to the closet where you store your puer tea. If you live in a very humid climate, make sure their is sufficient air exchange so that dampness doesn’t settle on your cakes. Whatever extreme your storage situation is leaning towards, take measures to bring it back to the middle.

There are high quality teas that have been stored in both dry and humid environments, just as there are teas that have been ruined by their storage on both the wet and dry sides of the fence. If you avoid the extremes, you will also avoid the destructive results that can come out of the bone dry warehouse or the sauna basement.

The changes that occur in any given climate will have different speeds and characteristics, and that is OK! The same ten cakes stored in ten different cities will turn into ten wonderfully unique puer teas, and thank goodness for that; Puer would be so boring if every tea was the same. So, the next time you see tempers flaring like this on a message board about which storage is “the best”, just smile, nod, and follow the middle path. Or rock out on your guitar.

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