Mud Packed Moonshine Still

2018 Spring Puer State of the Union

Reading Between the Tea Leaves

Originally I was going to play hooky on the state of the union for Puer in 2018. I haven’t fully accepted the fact that I am no longer a citizen of the Puer world, able to freely comment on this or that as I please with anonymous internet impunity. I have yet to fully embrace my identity as a dreaded vendor. Every word carries mysterious ulterior motives. If I say the weather was good, am I trying to sell tea? If I say the weather was bad, am i trying to sell tea? Even reporting seemingly objective factual information must have a villainous commercial motive. What do you mean there are no one thousand year old trees in the Laobanzhang I bought?! Well, whatever. Motives and perceptions be damned, here come some anecdotal musings on the 2018 tea year. Read between the lines as you will.

Astonishingly, I am still in Menghai as I write this tonight and will be here through the autumn tea season. Having arrived in mid-March, this is one my longest stints in the mountains. Usually I take a break from season to season, leaving after spring tea before returning for the autumn harvest. However, this summer was full of new teas being pressed and extenuating circumstances that have kept me in the tea mountains for most of the year. It’s been a long haul, but I really love a lot of the 2018 teas, so all in all it has worked out well.

On to the state of the union.

tea leaf bug
Beautiful bug on a tea leaf

Puer Tea Price Considerations

Someone asked me, “Can we expect year over year increases in prices in Puer tea?” In order to venture a guess, please allow me to conveniently sweep aside large scale considerations such as the Chinese economy, tea market prices, tariffs from some fuckwit and other X factors that nobody but the most enlightened diviners can scry. While there is no clear cut answer to such a complex problem, we can assume a few influences will have notable impacts in the years to come.

What to expect in the future

First, labor costs will continue to rise in the foreseeable future. China is a developing economy and the people here need rising wages for the economy at large to make any sort of sense. Several tea producers in Yunnan mentioned they were having increased difficulty finding laborers, both in the most skilled positions such as wok frying, and the less skilled (but also crucial) positions of tea picking or general labor. When I first started buying Puer tea, most of the labor of picking and processing was performed by local villagers. Over the past several years, many villages have sought migrant laborers from neighboring areas such as Myanmar. Increasing unrest and border security have contributed to this labor shortage and it seems to be on track to continue for the time being.

The labor of making Puer tea is difficult in that it both requires skill and it is physically demanding. For example, a person frying tea will have to work late into the night over a very hot wok, continually tossing large amounts of moisture laden leaves. This duty used to be performed by someone within the family, but more and more often I see people hiring outside help to fill the position. It’s no wonder why; if you had a windfall of cash and limited time to court your tea customers, sweating over a scorching iron wok for hours at a time does seem like one of the first jobs you’d take a pass on. The same goes for tea picking, which is also tough labor. Picking tea in the high altitude sun might sound like a romantic thing to do – and it totally is – for exactly 20 minutes. Picking tea for an entire day is tough work. It’s no wonder that year after year the people doing this labor see the costs of tea going up and say, “Hey, I see you’re making money. Pay me or i’m out.” One day this spring I picked tea in Laobanzhang for roughly 3 hours and I was exhausted. The heat is enough to make you build a small shrine to pray to the people who have made your tea possible. Next time you have a cup of tea, pour a little on the curb for the people who did the hard work to make it happen.

Fresh spring maocha

In a few instances villages gathered to make formal pacts on how much they would pay for labor in an attempt to keep costs down. For example, village X decides they will only pay Y amount of money for laborers this spring. The outcomes of that sort of behavior were entirely predictable. In most cases the workers left to go to other villages where the farmers were paying better wages. In other cases, someone in the village broke with the pact and raised the set price out of desperation. This was frowned upon, as they not only broke the deal they had with their fellow villagers, but they also started bidding wars within their village to hire the few remaining workers. All in all this was a good lesson for many villages; even when the tea farmers conspired to keep wages down, it totally backfired and most of the workers figured it out anyhow.

These increased labor costs will be reflected in the 2018 teas you purchase. On the one hand, consumers might bristle at increasingly costly tea. Puer costs rising 20% sucks, when barely any job in the Western world gives a 20% raise out of thin air. However, if you take a different perspective, the people involved in Puer production are (save for the most famous villages) living a modest life and just beginning to experience an uptick in life quality which many in the developed world take for granted. Obviously, higher prices do not do tea sellers/consumers any direct favors, but it’s a great thing that Yunnan’s labor operates in a competitive marketplace where workers can ask for higher wages or decide to do a different job. It may not be a utopian paradise, but China’s tea production and workers’ life situations are still far ahead of many other tea producing countries. The economic growth is also a boon for migrant labor coming from Myanmar or labor from neighboring cities where jobs and decent pay are in short order.

And as a quick side note, if your Puer seller’s prices have not risen year over year for the past several years, that should be a red flag. The costs from every direction have risen, both in terms of labor and market demand for high quality material. The higher prices are a natural movement of the market. If a vendors prices are somehow the same as several years ago, that is a major issue that indicates cutting costs on quality or not paying people a reasonable wage; both of which should be of concern to people buying tea. There simply is not a way to keep costs the steady or reduce costs when labor and demand have both steadily climbed every year in the past decade.

The second factor to consider is that there is increased demand for limited quantities of high quality tea. These trends predictably end the same way; increased amounts of “rare tea” in the market that aren’t accurately labeled or rare. It seems in the last few years, teas from “national forests” or “ancient trees” (where it would often be questionable/illegal to buy tea in most cases) and villages with extremely limited quantities of tea have all surged in quantity. The truth of the matter is that these teas are in such limited quantity that no retail tea customer should assume they could ever purchase such a tea. This trend is also nothing new. Years ago it was Bingdao and Laobanzhang, now it has moved on to Mansong or other such locations. The same mantra that I have always preached rings true. Drink what you like and can afford, and ignore the stories of people who tell you why they have the thing that nobody else does. If you like the tea in your cup and can afford it, you win. If you’ve spent over your budget to buy a story, you lose.

Kettle boiled water during a power outage

How was 2018 Spring for tea and weather?

Last time I answered this in 2017 I caught a bit of flack, so best to keep this short and sweet.

2018, in a vacuum, was better than 2017.The weather was better, the tea was better. That being said, nothing exists in a vacuum. The quality of tea that any particular person procures is directly related to their effort, connections, experience and abilities. As a consumer, it’s not about which vintage, its about whether the tea is good or not. There are amazing teas from 2017 and shit teas from 2018 and vice versa. Again, buy tea that you like that fits your budget – beatdeadhorse.gif.

One way to apply this knowledge would be choosing to purchase the 2018 vintage over a 2017 vintage if you tend to buy single origin teas that have a high level of consistency from a singular vendor. If your favorite vendor makes the same tea from a specific village year in and year out, go with the 2018.

Anecdotal Story about Fake Puer Tea

I went to Laoman’e a couple of weeks ago and there were several factories buying tea at a set price. I happen to be particularly close with several people from Laoman’e, due mostly to reasons of basketball. We went to see what kind of tea their relatives were giving to these factories. One of the relatives had brought in over two metric tons (must re-emphasize – that is over 2,000 kilograms of tea) solely to fill the order of this factory. Fake tea is alive and well, within villages and in the greater market at large. The scariest part is that a two ton order is not large. The biggest factories wouldn’t barely consider making a two ton production.

And for the sake of clarity, this is not a new practice. I spent over a week living in Laoman’e in 2013 and similar practices were already common. If you haven’t taken my previous ten warnings to disregard the labeling of provenance to heart, heed this last one; Labels are mostly meaningless. When even showing up in the village does necessarily mean you can acquire a tea of proper origin, woe to those who buy through proxies and label on good faith. Even showing up to a village does not guarantee accuracy.

If you are concerned with accurate provenance labeling and purchasing single origin teas, one way to avoid this kind of trickery is to purchase tea from areas that are less well known. Instead of buying tea labeled Laoman’e, aim for Ailao mountain. Nobody is going to fake tea from Ailao mountain. This means making a sacrifice on quality in some cases, but it will ensure that you purchase something that meets your goal of being accurately labeled. Another way is to avoid larger factory productions. Large factory productions tend to work with an amount of weight that demands concessions on quality, as with most agricultural products scale and quality often have an inverse relationship.

Best Moonshine of the Year

This year I spent multiple days in the mountains next to a still making my own moonshine. I had a friend with a small plot of peaches that were popping in late April, so I went up with a couple of large containers and commandeered 100 kilograms of fresh peaches. A friend and I cut them up and set them to fermenting. The hotel where I was staying thought it was a bit odd that I had 100 kilos of peaches fermenting next to my bed, but they eventually chalked it up to me being an odd fellow and moved on. We later hauled the boozy peaches up to a still and spent the day drinking tea and moonshine while we waited for the wood fire to hit that critical temperature when the crystal clear spirits began to trickle out. It might not be the best moonshine on earth, but there is an emotional connection to the peach fragrance and thoughts of the hungry fruit flies that hovered in my room, waiting for a chance to swoop down and lick a bit of that peachy goodness.

Peach Shine
The clear spirits of the peach

And if I can declare a tie here, and I can, the plum moonshine that followed was also excellent. The first batch of peach shine got rave reviews, so we headed to a local plum orchard outside of Menghai and wrangled 400 kilos (split between a few people) for fermentation and distillation. The results were a beautiful plum spirit with a deep perfume that will be a joy in a few years.(spoiler: fresh moonshine is harsh as hell) Luckily I’ve got a few liters to set aside for the future. No wasp steeping necessary.

Stay loving, drink good tea and I’ll see you in 2019 – if I can avoid writing an autumn version, which i will try to since it is practically autumn already.

2017 Spring Puer Tea

2017 Spring Puer Tea State of the Union

The State of 2017 Spring Puer Tea

I have to clear the air straight away; 2017 was not a good year for Puer tea. I don’t want to dance around it. It just wasn’t as good as the previous few years. Now, before you panic, that isn’t to say that there was no good tea. There was some very good tea. However, that good tea was in short supply and commanded higher prices, as one when expect when the supply is squeezed. From my vantage point, it took a lot more work in 2017 to wade through the glut of average quality material and get to the goods – and if you’ve been watching my snapchat/instagram, you’ve probably seen a cake worth of maocha going down every day for a couple of months. These days my cakes are being pressed, so I took this free moment to write up my 2017 spring Puer tea reflections.

2017 Puer tea leaf
Freshly picked Puer tea leaf, 2017

Short Supply of Puer and Erratic Weather

Why was the tea generally worse and in short supply? The main reason is erratic weather. cough climatechangeexists cough I’m sorry I am coming down with some sort of…cough whythefuckistheuspresidentleavingtheparisclimateaccords cough pardon me, I am really sorry, it’s just this cold. cough itsnotacold cough

The early spring was extremely dry and cold. This resulted in a lot of very low quality (editor’s opinion) early growth. The tea was short stemmed and lacking necessary water content, causing most leaf to be difficult to process, since it was not the norm. Some people would say those teas are more concentrated. Those people are welcome to buy them. I personally found those teas to be dry and awkward; and processing difficulties resulted in tea being dry and of lower than average quality. In addition to that, through late March the weather was too cold, leading to slower than average spring growth. Then, a small amount of rain and a bump in temperature lead to some later than usual growth, but still much less than previous years.

withering tea leaves
Withering Leaves, Spring 2017

Anecdotal evidence, some farmers I spoke with had a mere 100 kilograms of tea by mid-April, whereas in 2016 they had 280 kilograms. This (and the weather described above) are generalities that may not apply to every mountain, Yunnan is a big place, but this analysis rang true for most places I visited during my nearly three months in and around southern Yunnan.

As a consumer, I’d recommend being a bit more discerning about which teas you buy this year. There was a lot of lower quality tea, and with the squeeze on the supply, a lot of it cost a pretty penny. The easiest way to be safe is to buy my tea. Just kidding. cough notkidding cough

The Usual Tuhao Suspects

The usual shenanigans abound this spring. Herds of tourist SUVs heading up to mountains like Laobanzhang and Nannuo mountain. Lots of tea vendors talking a big game about how they have spring Bingdao old arbor or other nearly unattainable teas. Plenty of arguments over correct processing and chaqi [tea energy]. Plenty of tea merchants breezing through to take pictures and quickly shuffle back home with their bags of maocha in hand.

tea wok
The back of a wood fired tea wok, Spring 2017

Anecdotal observation of the above: In mid-March there was a pair of younger women from Zhejiang province, discussing their trip in Menghai at a dinner table. Regrettably, I was seated next to them and was granted no reprieve from their conversation. They explained how they had been in the Puer business for two years, and mostly dealt in gushu [old arbor] Laobanzhang. I found this kind of amusing, but then they proceeded to tell me they were going to Laobanzhang that day to get their tea. In addition to that, it was the second time they had been to the village in their life. Now, there are a few holes in their story, even in summary form; Laobanzhang gushu wasn’t even picked until early/mid-April and the material is difficult to obtain, even for seasoned veterans. They then went on to tell me how Menghai was too low class because it lacked a Gucci store. I quietly began inhaling my rice at record speed and recused myself from the table as fast as I could. Other topics of note, before I finished my devouring my food, included how Menghai really needed a Gucci store and how the local people were not stylish enough.

Encounters with people like this are etched in my brain forever. Who are these people? Who are their customers? They own brick and mortar stores in China. Do you ever see those posts on tea forums where people ask “Where should I buy some tea on my trip to China?” I always want to type “Nowhere! Turn back now! You’re fucked!” What if a tourist wanders into these viper nests? Good luck, kids.

Puer maocha
Maocha from Spring 2017

Continued Economic Development and Better Life Quality

On a brighter note, several villages I’ve been going to for years are continuing to develop. Dirt roads are getting paved in cement. The government is giving free bricks to people with wooden houses. The general quality of life continues to improve for people in rural Yunnan. Which brings me to my blatant plug of the spring:

2017 U 2 CAN HELP, check for details

This year white2tea made a tea cake to benefit the non-profit organization Education in Sight. They focus on bringing eyecare to children in rural Yunnan, and for each cake white2tea sells we will donate one eye exam, a pair of glasses, and eye education to a child in need via Education in Sight. Our goal is to sell 100 cakes and sponsor 100 kids. We’d appreciate anybody who helps us spread the word. Even if you aren’t into buying the cake, you can donate to EIS and help the cause of kids in rural Yunnan! cough thanksforyoursupport cough

Chinese Government Infrastructure in rural Yunnan
The government providing free bricks and roads in Yunnan, Spring 2017

Moonshine of the Year 2017

Lastly, it wouldn’t be a Puer state of the union without a best moonshine of the spring award. I was originally going to award it to a four year moonshine steeped in raw olives, but I can’t find the damn picture and I’ve had a long day, so the award goes to this corn moonshine that I drank at 11:07 AM, unceremoniously, out of paper cups at a tea farmers house. Sweet, clean, and with just a hint of that Dixie goodness. (I took pics on my snapchat, but those are gone now. So here is the barrel of the next batch)

Yunnan corn moonshine
A fermenting barrel of corn for future moonshine, Spring 2017

The 2017 teas are being pressed now, and we will release them as they trickle in. We rushed the 2017 U 2 CAN HELP cake because we wanted to make sure it got some proper spotlight before the rest of the teas drop.

Yunnan Corn

State of the Puer Union – Fall 2016

Reflections on 2016 Autumn Puer Tea

The last leaves have been plucked and another autumn has come to a close. This fall lead to some further exploration of teas that have typically taken a back seat to my focus on raw Puer; namely white tea and some experimental blending of white tea and black tea together. This is also the year I’ve pressed and piled the most shou I’ve ever done. (a real lesson in patience) Despite those explorations, the bulk of my time was still spent drinking raw Puer and traveling around to various tea areas.

tea leaf red stem purple
Beautiful tea leaves with reddish stems, Yunnan, 2016

Fairly Stable Weather

Most of late September saw fairly even keel weather and quality conditions for tea growth and production. Scattered rains were nothing beyond the norm and there were plenty of sunny days. Only one or two teas that I had commissioned ended up with a cloudier than average soup, due to a bit of excess moisture during processing. In general, the teas produced this fall met or exceeded my expectations. Should be plenty of good tea coming out in the coming months. Oh yeah, and there was also plenty of mud.

muddy yunnan
Much mud to be had. Yunnan, 2016

New Blending Techniques

This fall was the birth of a new pressing that blends both white and black tea (baicha and hongcha) together into a single cake. It’s an idea that I’ve been toying with for a while and the blend finally felt right, so i commissioned the production of the teas, blended them, and waited for the pressing below. My favorite part of the blend was giving it to some Chinese friends (who are in the tea industry) and watching them turn up their noses at the idea before drinking the odd ball blend, only to immediately back peddle after taking the first sip. As is my usual m.o., the blend of teas is made from exclusively large leaf varietal that is typically destined for raw Puer production. All parts of the blend were sun dried and processed with the coming years in mind, so I’m really looking forward to how the blend ages.

Hot Brandy Tea Cake
The 2016 Hot Brandy, blended black tea and white tea from white2tea , Yunnan, 2016

Side note, the tea was gifted its name by Max Falkowitz who was visiting Yunnan for fall tea. When I brewed a cup for him, he immediately reacted with, “Smells like hot brandy!” I couldn’t pass up such a delightful name, especially given Wisconsinites propensity for drinking brandy. That, and when drinking it the name “Hot Brandy” just felt right. It took all of my restraint to not use a still from “What About Us” for the wrapper art.

New Roads and Infrastructure

Several villages that used to have pothole filled dirt roads received cement from the government to finish roads and in some cases even build houses and schools. Some villagers in Lancang area that I spoke to had to provide their own labor, but the local government provided the cement and most of the the equipment. This is a boon for the local people as it decreases their travel time and improves accessibility, as well as protects their roads from being washed out during rain storms. The villagers organized crews to build the roads and used the materials provided with great success. It’s a generalization, but it seems that Lancang’s government is better organized for supporting infrastructure projects than most. These changes also benefit yours truly, as it shaves hours off of driving times when visiting far flung villages.

A newly constructed cement road
A newly constructed cement road in Lancang, Yunnan, 2016

It’s also encouraging to see villages getting quality of life improvements that will hopefully improve their local economies in the long term. This sort of investment is vital for the future of Yunnan. The downside is that there is a still a long way to go and it is a slow process.

Favorite Scene of the Season

This totem has stuck in my mind. There’s something about its presence in the forest that made it one of my favorite scenes from 2016 autumn. The structure was erected by Lahu people near a well spring where the villagers gather water. They explained that they see it as both an offering and protector. It shows that they are thankful for the water from the spring and that they hope the totem helps the water flow forever.

lahu totem
A totem from the lahu people, Yunnan, 2016

Thanks for reading and hope you enjoy the new fall teas as they trickle in over the next couple of weeks. If you’ve had a rough couple of days, take solace in a glass of tea and raise a toast, cause i am right there with you. Here’s to water, here’s to tea, and here’s to humanity. Flow on.

tea questions

What am I Doing Wrong with my Tea?

Am I strange?

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.

tea questions
Is it strange to drink tea this way?

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.

tea pour
It’s important to trick people into thinking you drink whisky in the daylight

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.

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.


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!



Separating the Tea from the Chaff

Separating the Tea from the Chaff

Advice to the New Tea Prospectors

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.

puer tea in a teacup
Puer tea in a crackled teacup

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.

When I hear the snake oil salespeople on their soapboxes, telling the unbelievable tales of their magical wares, I get disheartened. “And you yell to yourself and you throw down yer hat, Sayin’, ‘Christ do I gotta be like that?’ Ain’t there no one here that knows where I’m at? Ain’t there no one here that knows how I feel? Good God Almighty! That stuff ain’t real!” But, their sales pitch is beyond my control and snake oil will be sold. That’s the way of the West.

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.

T-shirt and Puer Tree
T-Shirt and Tea Tree, 2015

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.

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.

Tea Reviews and How to Find the Best

Scouring the Web for the Best Tea Reviews

What do You Want for Dinner?

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.

Tea Flowers
Tea flowers from Autumn, Yunnan

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.

Whisky and Tea
A post tea session whisky pic. I don’t think anybody listed Springbank 10 as a worst ever

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.

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)